As frontman of the incongruously named Seattle neo-folk trio King Dude, T.J. Cowgill crafts bleak ballads exploring the grand dichotomy of good and evil. His compelling imagery and narrative is informed by experience as a self-described Luciferian and acolyte of the occult. King Dude transposes much of black metal’s aesthetic qualities to a music that is informed as much by prominent neo-folk acts like Death in June or Sol Invictus as by the drama of early American blues. We caught up with Cowgill shortly before his current tour with Los Angeles chanteuse Chelsea Wolfe to discuss embedding messages in songs like alchemist poetry, transcending darkness and the alternate history of a Luciferian 1950’s that Cowgill will explore on his forthcoming album, Fear.
King Dude performs Saturday, Jan. 26th with Chelsea Wolfe at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
Have you deliberately shifted from black metal to the more accessible music of King Dude to expand the audience for your message?
I can’t say it’s that cold or calculated. I see how our band benefits from bringing our message to a base that has no experience with it, but it’s a coincidence. It’s not like I need to change the world. I feel like it will change itself and I’m glad to be part of that process. I’ve gotten in line with my true nature and my role in this big thing. I know what I believe in and I can talk about my message all day long, from a point of view that’s not of hatred or conversion. It’s what I’ve come to know as spirituality. It feels very natural.
Listening to Burning Daylight, your last full-length, I feel like a lot of listeners will be captivated by just the narrative and imagery, without actually absorbing the message.
They should. That’s good art. Thank you for saying that. Every song has at least two levels of entertainment value. You listen to the lyrics and accept them at face value, you have one song. You read between the lines and understand esoterism and occultism, you might have another. I don’t hide the fact that I hide things in my songs. I intentionally make one song for two audiences. That is the nature of esoterism and alchemical texts that go back hundreds of years. They used to write alchemy poems that people like Elias Ashmole would compile into books like Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum. Poets layered true knowledge in their poems about alchemy because they had to. If the Catholic Church knew the true meaning of their poems they would be murdered. So, what modern people interested in esoterism do is extract knowledge from these poems.
How do you characterize the difference between writing Burning Daylight and your next album, Fear?
I’ve learned more about songwriting. I’m obsessed with people who are really good at writing songs. I’ve tried to extract what they’re doing, much to the chagrin of my wife who has to listen to me listen to the White Album over and over again. When Fear comes out, that’s going to be the one. I play it for people and I break into tears. All the things you like about Burning Daylight are focused in on so much more.
It feels like it’s not even under my control. It feels like a lot of automatic writing, which is basically when someone else writes for you, or possessive writing. When I write lyrics I can write three pages in ten minutes and it doesn’t feel like me. This has never happened to me before in my life and I’ve been making music my whole life. Technically, the guy I am should not be outputting these songs.
Why do you think it’s taken this long to transcend the songwriting process?
I think it’s been serving the song. I’ve been very selfless in trying to understand what the song is trying to do and not have my ego play into it. It’s even in how we present ourselves to the crowd; we all wear the same black outfit, I’m not in the center of the stage. We obviously care a great deal about aesthetics, but it’s important to remove myself from the process.
With Burning Daylight, I studied old blues stuff like Alan Lomax’s field recordings. They don’t care about the fact that they’re being recorded. In all of the early Appalachian blues and folk music, there are songs that everyone sang and I want everyone to sing my songs, if they care to.
It seems like a theme of Burning Daylight, as much of a blues cliché as it sounds, is this sense of selling your soul at the crossroads.
I do love that mythology. That influence is there, you’re not wrong in that assumption. That influence has been there for two records really. “Lucifer’s the Light of the World” on Love is a response to Son House’s “John the Revelator.”
Satanism hit in the 60’s with Anton LaVey, the Manson murders, and it was the end of the 50’s. Wholesomeness went away. On Fear, I wanted to create an aesthetic based on what it would look like if Luciferianism hit in the 50’s. Luciferianism to me is advanced Satanism. It’s Satanism that’s not on the attack; where you’re down to accept people for what they are. To see a bigger picture and possess hatred is necessary, but you must go through that in order to become Luciferian. With Luciferianism, you can have a semblance of good in your life, or positivity, love and things of that nature, which I don’t find in Satanism. Satanism is very selfish. Luciferianism is almost like a broader understanding of Satanism and both Christianity. So, on Fear, I’m trying to create a Luciferian 50’s and see what that would look like.
That reminds me of something Michael Gira said when I interviewed him earlier this year. Swans is often described in terms of bleak, overwhelming negativity, but Gira says it comes from a place of beauty and references ascending a ladder up to enlightenment.
I believe I know what he’s talking about and “ladder” is an interesting term to use. In Kaballah, which is Jewish mysticism, you have to actually transcend a level of darkness in the 10-step process of life. You can stop there and be a negative person but I speculate that he’s transcended that. He now understands the upper echelons but understands the darkness too. There is no element of life you can shy from to understand it.
Does surpassing darkness make one a better artist?
To see the feeling from both sides is crucial to a song-writer or poet or anything. That’s why so many writers delve so deep into alcoholism and misery, but that’s only one part of it. You can’t just pull a Bukowski everyday and be a louse. Bukowski never transcended. It’s sad because who knows what he might have written if he rose above it. That’s what becoming enlightened really is.