As he very bluntly puts it, “shit went south” for Joseph King towards the end of 2012. The Austin transplant, who had fronted and based the alt-psych rock band Canvas in his hometown after founding it in California, moved to New York in 2005 and found his way to another band he would lead almost as soon as he unpacked his stuff. With Deadbeat Darling, King saw the fruits of his labor as an indie artist start to take his music past a local scene. With a tumultuous relationship running its course simultaneously, King saw a bitter end to his year that miraculously left enough room for a total rebirth.
With his acoustic guitar, King sits in the beautiful Shabby Road Studios owned by Roger McEvoy Greenawalt. Joined by the owner and his recent collaborator Kayce Laine (also pursuing her own solo career), he glides through several of his newest tracks off his debut solo EP Wanderlusting, set to be released in March of next year. “When I put together this solo project, I knew it definitely wasn’t going to be straight up rock ‘n’ roll–two guitars, drums, bass,” he firmly states. “I’ve done that all my life, and I’m done with it. I wanted to do this surfier acoustic pop thing with organs and synth.”
For songs coming from two concurrent moments of pain and grief, the music is surprisingly refreshed and hopeful. On “When I Was a Mime,” he takes his pain back further to when a former bandmate’s girlfriend died in a motorcycle accident. “Your Velvet Skin” is, as he says, a “montage of everything that was happening as Deadbeat Darling was coming to an end.” That particular project had begun as King’s solo endeavor post-Austin and Canvas, and while in the UK, band members began to “freak out” and suddenly, King was back to where he had started in New York.
Neither of the tracks compare to the brutal honesty of the surprisingly catchy “The Tiniest Thief,” an ode of sorts and open letter to his ex-girlfriend. He’s coy on who she is exactly, but notes that she sings in a band on Joan Jett’s record label and that her success is something they shared. On the track, he addresses her relapse into addiction that ended their time together. “She had been sort of a junkie in the past. While we were together she started using drugs again. There’s a difference between people who use drugs and people who are truly addicts, and it got really dark,” he says. “We broke up on New Year’s Eve this past year.”
A year later, King is as hopeful as his new sound is. After playing his new and lovely songs, he addressed the past year, his bad break-ups, Austin, and his new direction.
You’ve lived for periods of time in Austin, San Francisco, and New York City. What are those scenes like and how are they different from one another?
I went to Stanford then I moved to San Francisco where I lived in this crazy house with five other guys that had gone there with me. Three of them were into the rave scene so there were turntables upstairs and people spinning house music. We would rehearse in the garage. We played, but there’s not much of a scene there. Maybe I just wasn’t immersed in it, but it felt very peripheral there. So, I moved back to Austin in ’99, 2000, and it was happening. Austin and Dallas – the whole Texas scene at that point. We were packing 800 person clubs every other week. It was super exciting. It’s such an easy place to be a musician, but that’s also why I left. There’s a nickname for Austin — they call it the “velvet coffin” since there are so many people that can go there and be so comfortable that they think that’s what the rest of the world is like, and it’s not. That’s why I moved to New York.
Knowing that was not what you wanted, what did you realize that you actually did want that pushed the move to NYC?
I wanted to get out. I felt like I was teetering on that brink of the [comfortable] direction. I always wanted to live in New York; it’s one of the most fascinating places in the world. I wanted to be in a big city for a minute. It was time for me to get out and go do that, cut ties, and try to do it on my own. My ex-fiancee and I, she had just graduated from culinary school, packed up a U-Haul and drove straight here.
How did you fit into the New York scene at first?
Rockwood is still home to me. Ken, the owner there, is so good to me and treats me like family. I love that place, and I’m so happy for him and that venue. [At first] I really started to play Rockwood and Pete’s Candy Sotre and all those spots. I’m a pretty social did, so I was out and about. Put a band together….it was slow-going at first but once we got the band together things started moving. It all went pretty quickly.
Who has been working on your solo material with you?
It’s the two of us [King and Kayce Laine], and I’m co-producing this album in Garrison, New York in a little studio called Bird Creek Studio with a really old friend of mine, Drew Nix. We both grew up in the Austin area. He moved up to Brooklyn the same time I had about seven, eight years ago. He and I have been up there, the two of us working on the record. He’s actually playing drums, but he won’t be touring with us.
Since this record was made in the woods of upstate New York, how did you get this surf rock, lighter sound as opposed to the much more melancholy sound you would expect from music made in this type of location?
Well, I wrote the songs before I went up to the woods, so that’s a good start! But it’s kind of cool – it’s a big old converted barn up there so the studio is one big room. But yeah, it’s been floating around for some time. It doesn’t feel like a studio; it feels like we’re hanging out on a hammock in the backyard all day.
When exactly did you decide that you wanted to explore the “surf rock sound,” and how long had this idea been floating right for you?
I mean, I’ve always been a huge fan of ’60s rock and that sort of surfy-y vibe. I’m not sure when it started, but I guess I just always have been drawn to those vibes and beats.
You’ve mentioned how rough 2012 had been for you. Did you find that writing lyrics that addressed this fought against the lighter sound of the surf rock?
I think it’s kind of like the juxtaposition makes a point. It was such a dark year, and the tendency is to write really dark music to get it out. For me, [the difference] is the entire point of the EP Wanderlusting.
As a songwriter dealing with these two bad break-ups with both the band and the girlfriend, how do you write about both without coming from a bitter place?
I’m not going to pretend like I’m above being a little pissed off and bitter in both situations. I’m sure if you hear me in a late night rant, I’ll probably be a little less gentlemanly about it. But there are plenty of lyrics, like in “The Tiniest Thief,” where I’m talking about her addiction. I’m not being sweet the whole time. I’m definitely being honest about it, but just trying to do it in a way that is not overtly angry. It’s kind of my way of dealing with it this time. Those two break-ups happening simultaneous was pretty intense. I’m too old to be too self-destructive.
Back to Austin, do you still have strong ties to it? Do you go back and visit the scene often?
Very strong. I go back all the time. I have a circle of hugely important friends down there. I’ve got two siblings and my parents there. I’m always down there. I play down there very frequently. As a matter of fact, when the album comes out at the beginning of March, we’re going to release it here then get on a plane to Texas to do some release shows and in-stores before SXSW. Over the holidays I’m going to play some solo shows. And everyone comes to New York anyway. You can’t help when you live here, especially as an artist, you can’t help but see everyone often.
What was it like playing SXSW for the first time, being an Austin native?
It was amazing. Basically we played SXSW then stayed and looked for a house in Austin. It was very exciting. Since 2000, I’ve played it 12 out of the last 13 years. But this year’s will be special with the band and after Wanderlusting comes out. This is going to be an important one.
Joseph King plays a late show at Mercury Lounge Wednesday night with Hallways and all boy/all girl. Tickets are $12 and doors open at 8:30 p.m.