Once the frontman for hardcore and black metal bands Teen Cthulhu and Book of Black Earth, TJ Cowgill started writing raw, stripped-down folk songs under the name King Dude (borrowed from metal hero King Diamond) in 2005. The project started just for kicks one drunken night. Even his stage name came on a whim. “My roommate and I were bored, so I picked up an acoustic guitar and started writing these songs as a joke, and he recorded them on his computer,” Cowgill recalls. “At the end of the night he had to name it something just so he could find it later on his computer, and I said, ‘Call it King Dude.’”
The next day, Cowgill listened back to what they had recorded, expecting a good laugh from some awful music. Instead, he heard a batch of dark, brooding demos that cross-pollinated the earthiness of his favorite country artists with the spine-tingling acoustics of martial folk.
“I realized this has potential and I started taking it more seriously,” Cowgill says. In my metal bands I was used to growling, and when I listened back to one of my takes I went, ‘Holy shit, that’s my real voice.’”
Six years later, King Dude has released three full-length acoustic-based neo-folk albums, including 2011′s critically acclaimed Love, a record of slow, simple jangly acoustic songs. This year sees the release of King Dude’s most expansive release, Burning Daylight, which combines Cowgill’s love for Johnny Cash and Death in June with elements of rockabilly, goth, folk, and even doo-wop.
“It’s a lot darker than Love was, Cowgill says.” I wanted to write a record about murder and desperation at a time in early American history.”
On a rainy Seattle afternoon, Cowgill took some time away from designing shirts for his clothing company Actual Pain, and talked about his new album, his upbringing, Satanism and the current neo-folk scene.
On how Burning Daylight seeped into his life:
A lot of the characters in the songs have a death wish, and when I was getting in those head spaces I started taking some of that home with me. I was getting in trouble with cops and getting in random fistfights – stuff that’s not in my nature at all. But the weight of the songs sent me to a place that’s much darker.
On his ugliest confrontations with an audience:
The last time I played Portland, I said to a bunch of drunken assholes, “Hey, can you please be quiet.” They were like, “Fuck you.” So I put down my guitar and threatened to beat the shit out of them. They all took off before I could get to them, but it ruined the whole show. Then in New York, there was a noisy crowd again, so I waited until the show was over and then I hit one guy and choked his buddy. Clearly, there’s something about this music that was making me really angry, but I feel better now that I’m done with the record.
On his bizarre religious upbringing:
My dad was Christian, and my mom was a Pagan-style witch. They were divorced, and when I was at my dad’s house in a small town in Eastern Oregon I’d have to go to this born-again-Christian church three times a week where everybody spoke in tongues. That’s pretty freaky for a seven-year-old. My mom was really into power crystals and meditation and my dad and stepmom tried to convince me that my mother was practicing Satanism. The people at their church tried really hard to get me to say Jesus was my savior and his blood washed over me, but I just couldn’t do that. It just felt wrong. I felt more at home with my mom.
I used to consider myself a philosophical Satanist. I believed in survival of the strong. I didn’t literally practice magic, but the law of nature was very intriguing. But it carries such a stigma. The thing is, Western religions believe you’re born with original sin and you’re attempting to cleanse yourself of it by abstaining from everything in the physical world. And Eastern philosophy requires you to meditate on all the darkness to understand it. Either way, it’s an understanding of sin and corruption and evil. I think you can understand it without abstaining or diving too deeply into it. There’s gotta be a middle road. That’s something I practice, and if it’s considered sinful to the church or not Satanic enough by Satanists, I don’t really care either way.
On confronting death in King Dude:
It’s important for people to think about death all the time, and come to terms with it like they do in Eastern cultures. We’re all going to die. You can choose to ignore that and wait for it to happen, but if you do that, when it does come, you’re not mentally or physically prepared for it. If you can condition yourself to get ready to die, that leads to living a more fulfilling life. It’s not like I walk around with a death wish, but if you’re not as afraid of dying, it makes you not afraid to live – to quit that job you hate, ask a girl out or tell your parents to fuck off – whatever it is you have to do. Fear of death and fear of authority are the two greatest threats to our wellbeing.
On his cult hit “Lucifer is the Light of the World”:
Lucifer has traditional been hailed as a villain by Catholics and Christians, but that wasn’t until Dante’s Inferno was written. The word Lucifer itself means “the light bringer” or “bearer of wisdom” and that’s been corrupted by Western religion. “Lucifer is the Light of the World” is a response to the Son House song “John The Revelator,” and it’s written in the same style. But “John the Revelator” comes from a very Christian point of view and “Lucifer is the Light of the World” is inspired by the French Cathars’ version of the story. They practiced a type of Christianity known as Medieval Dualism, in which they believed in a good God and an evil God. The evil God created man and woman and everything in the world. The good God created the evil God and gave us the Garden of Eden, but denied us wisdom and knowledge. So Lucifer, the true God of light took up the body of a serpent to sneak into our world to tell us to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. So it completely flips the Biblical story on its head. The good god is jealous and petty, and doesn’t want man to be knowledgeable. And the serpent isn’t evil. It’s a prettier way to look at the story, I think.
On apocalyptic folk:
I don’t love a lot of new stuff. Owen are really good and I like Cult of Youth. But I still like the older stuff better, like Death in June, Current 93 and Of the Wand & the Moon. Some of those bands have used controversial imagery and lyrics, but the sketchiness of it is part of the appeal. It’s in my personality to be obsessed with gloomy and dark music. It doesn’t make me depressed at all, it cheers me up. But to me, King Dude is all about love and light so we have less in common [with other neo-folk artists] than it seems.
On his Actual Pain clothing Line:
I did T-shirt designs for bands and for myself in 2006. I was doing some freelance work for this other small streetwear company. I didn’t even know you could sell shirts that weren’t band shirts for money. Once I realized I could, and my designs started doing pretty well I started my own company. I’ve been doing it for a couple years now with my wife and it keeps us from having to have regular jobs and allows me to play music, which often isn’t very profitable.