by Niklas Göransson
Thomas Jefferson Cowgill is an American musician, mostly known for his work with dark folk music project King Dude – he speaks of benefits in mind-expansion and the majesty of earthquakes, while averting his gaze from the dawn of Immortals.
This is an excerpt from the full article, which is approximately twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #3.
I heard KING DUDE for the first time shortly before commencing this article. Their music has been recommended to me personally a number of times, and several readers have suggested an interview. However, formative years spent in a black metal-reality leaves one frightfully narrow-minded when it comes to band names. Perhaps it’s from being subjected to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey in my youth, but I tend to subconsciously dismiss anyone using the word ‘dude’ as an insufferable imbecile. I once bore witnesses to an American black metal artist in full corpse paint repeatedly saying ‘dude’ and was linguistically traumatised to the point where I was unable to listen to his band for a number of years.
– I started KING DUDE as a bedroom project, the kind of thing I didn’t ever imagine sharing with anyone. However, some people eventually heard it and encouraged me to put it online, which I did without really thinking about the name, how stupid it was or how others would react to it. In a way, I wasn’t particularly concerned what anyone else thought since it was really only meant for me – and to be honest, I didn’t really expect anyone to like it.
This was in the days of MySpace – before Facebook and Bandcamp had music pages – so TJ set up a profile and then sent a message to Kim Larsen from Danish neofolk project OF THE WAND AND THE MOON.
– He was a huge inspiration to me at the time. Surprisingly – not only did he respond but also liked it and asked if I wanted to do a split seven-inch with his side-project, SOLANACEAE. Of course, I said yes but now it was too late; I’d already sent the music with the band name KING DUDE attached to it. There was no going back.
Fortunately, TJ is a pragmatic man – he claims to have uncovered plenty of positive side-effects to being stuck with such a terrible moniker.
– For example, I can tell other bands how shitty their names are because in some respects, I’m an expert. Also, it’s rather innocuous and so has the ability to slip past the radar of some people who are ‘too cool’ – I like that. It shouldn’t really matter what a band is called anyway, the music must be able to transform the words to mean whatever I want them to. And in a way, I think I’ve achieved that.
Can the magic of music be captured in recording?
– I’d say yes, because it can invoke emotions from the listener. That said, I think a lot of modern production techniques are pretty ridiculous. To be honest, I consider the entire studio industry one huge waste of time, money and effort. Listen to Alan Lomax’s recordings and you’ll hear sounds just as brilliant coming only through one microphone and a tape deck.
Alan Lomax was – among a plethora of other things – a folklorist, oral historian and ethnomusicologist. He’s mostly remembered for his field recordings and audio archiving of various folk music traditions.
– I particularly like referencing his prison recordings when discussing what makes a good recorded song and what doesn’t. One track I really love was one he recorded of “Barbara Allen”, a standard British folk-tune sung by what’s most likely a black prisoner. It’s a great example of the exchanges happening in music between white and black cultures back then. I also love how the tape just ends suddenly – it feels like a perfect recording to me, flaws and all.
I don’t recall ever coming across these sentiments before. Off the top of my head, I can name a handful of previous interviewees who would likely require intravenous Valium administration, should they be exposed to this reasoning.
– I do the best I can with what I have and within reason. A lot of my albums start off as demos and then I just end up fleshing them out all the way. Also, I always try to record one hundred percent for free on my own whenever possible. I think I paid Shawn Fleming one of my old Gretsch guitars for the work he did playing on and engineering some of “Songs of Flesh & Blood – In the Key of Light” (2015). But this isn’t about being cheap, it’s about how I don’t think anyone besides musicians, engineers, and audiophiles could possibly hear the difference in the recording.
TJ asks what the point would be in trying to appease these people, when he really doesn’t care what representatives from any of the aforementioned categories think.
– Should I do something differently because some guy who went to music school tells me to? I certainly don’t want to sell records to other musicians, I’d prefer if the common person bought them. I’m not looking to impress engineers with my music either. These people operate much in the same way as anyone who goes to college for art does; they have ‘the right way’ of doing things because they paid someone with a degree to tell them how to do it. Then they decide that there’s only one right way to record music, which is a total joke.
He says that to add insult to injury, bands are then told that albums which haven’t been conceived in a proper studio won’t be taken seriously or come out to full potential.
– Audiophiles are just plain crazy people. Have you ever studied the ears of one of these self-proclaimed sonic connoisseurs? They are most certainly large and oddly shaped. I challenge you to look closely at the ears of an audiophile the next time you meet one and tell me that I’m wrong.
Having thought myself detecting hints of David Tibet’s vocal eccentricities at places – especially “The Girls” – I’m curious if TJ is in any capacity influenced by British neofolk legends CURRENT 93.
– I do love CURRENT 93 and David Tibet but that song in particular was more inspired by the lunacy of “The White Album”-era BEATLES than anything else. “The Girls” is supposed to be this sort of insane character-driven song, where three different vocalists are trading off verses until a fourth singer comes in and does the chorus. That song in particular reminds me of Genesis P-Orridge’s’ singing style, and I was probably inspired by her early psychic tv stuff. I was also trying to conjure a bit of David Bowie for the chorus. I think most of my influences for singing are going to be pretty obvious to your readers.
Besides a great variety of voice applications, samples are an integral part of KING DUDE’s repertoire.
– While I like the idea of found sound, I’m pretty particular about where I look for them. I prefer using my own field work and although a few samples on the last album came from other sources, I’ve recorded most of the rest on everything else. I’d love to record an earthquake, but they are so rare here in Seattle.
The last major one was in 2001, when the Ash Wednesday earthquake hit at 10:54am on February 28. It scored 6.8 on the Richter scale, which qualifies as severe.
– The sound was incredible. I worked at some office and everyone ran out of the building because it was old and made of brick. Everyone completely panicked, it was total chaos and I loved it. I’ll never forget the sound it made or seeing the concrete warp and telephone poles sway back and forth. It was an awesome experience.
Suffice to say, such a reaction requires a somewhat unconventional mindset. I have a fair idea where that emanates from.
– Psychedelics – mainly LSD – played a huge role in my childhood and what I believe to have been an expansion of my consciousness. I started taking LSD around fifteen and shortly afterwards, my best friend and I began selling it to fellow high school students. The first instruments we bought came from money made distributing acid, mescaline and other drugs.
At sixteen years of age, TJ was taking massive doses of LSD for days on end, or as often as he could.
– I was practising things like ‘casting no reflection’ without any knowledge of esoteric or magick connections to such behaviour. The drug feels like it unlocks something in the psyche, as I’m sure you’ve heard of or read about before. I find it far more powerful than mushrooms or cacti, also so much more foreign in a way. Psychedelics can be a great way to dissociate the mind from one’s everyday mundane interpretation of reality – that’s healthy for anyone to do. I’d recommend acid to those who have yet to try, but also urge caution; it has a dark side, one that I’ve seen plenty slip into.
Is this something you still engage in?
– No. I always say that I’ve done my body weight in LSD, so I don’t feel like I need to do any more. I prefer meditation to substances these days and really enjoy isolation tanks – can’t recommend them enough to anyone seeking enlightenment. I’ve had far more powerful experiences in the tank without any assistance from drugs.
Also known as a sensory deprivation chamber, it’s essentially a lightless and soundproof water tank. The epsom salts in the water enable body floatation and since it’s the same temperature as human skin, lying still feels as if one is suspended in air. Once figuring out how to relax, the complete lack of sensory input renders a feeling of hovering in dark nothingness. From there it can go in a number of directions.
– If you’re able to commune with some higher power while totally sober in a coffin-sized tank full of salt water in the complete and utter silence of a black void, it will always be a more profound experience.
I was a bit surprised to discover that KING DUDE have a song about Google’s chief futurist Ray Kurzweil. The American computer scientist has embarked on a quest to cheat death through technology, and is a strong advocate of a futuristic life-extension movement known as transhumanism. Judging from his lyrics, TJ has little interest in immortality.
– I want to die at the right time when I’m an old man and have finished everything I set out to do here. The problem with what Kurzweil wants, and in a sense why I wrote that song, is that he doesn’t take into consideration that dying is essentially a good thing. Death is a gift, like the flip-side of birth – one final great voyage in the human experience. Even if you don’t believe in an eternal afterlife, you should still be able to see how crucial it is that you stand aside for the youth and allow the cycle to continue. There are so many problems with life-extension, it’s really hard to choose which one to start with.
– Well, whenever science takes us on some dark passage towards what appears to be uncharted territory, I like referring to mythology. Doing so with transhumanism as a premise, we find that what Kurzweil is attempting to bring into reality has already been thoroughly envisioned – just look at the Greek pantheon.
In Ancient Hellas, the Immortals are said to have lived as gods among men.
– Who wants them back? Not me. You don’t get benevolence from making immortals out of mortals; you get spite, vile pettiness, vanity with no end, and the ultimate chasm between classes. So to me, because of his irrefutable childish fear of death, that’s essentially what he’s careening us towards. I say read the Iliad if you wanna know what Kurzweil’s future looks like.
He’s obviously given these things significant thought, so I wonder what his views are on mind digitalisation, and whether the soul really can be converted into ones and zeros.
– It’s almost impossible to say. I don’t believe the soul is seated in the mind – I think those aspects of our humanity are quite different; in fact, as separate from one another as mind and body. The same way you wouldn’t want your vessel detached from your mind, wandering around some giant auditorium with countless other automatons, I don’t think you’d want your self downloaded to some virtual world where you end up a disembodied consciousness.
TJ says he doesn’t know what it would really entail, and the difference it would make to someone who’s dying seems trivial.
– I guess this speaks to our obsession with legacy and how we choose to live on in this world after we pass on to the next. Most people would just have children in order to continue on with their legacies. But the soul doesn’t pass on to our children, just as it wouldn’t pass on to a computer copy of our minds. All of it just seems like a very human waste of time to me.
This is an excerpt from the full article, which is approximately twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #3.