On the new album Sex, ex-metal guitarist TJ Cowgill trades shred for a self-styled goth-punk-folk wonderland conjured with low-budget guitars and a crypt’s worth of ghostly reverb.
King Dude, known to the government as TJ Cowgill, has certainly made a unique space for himself as a musician and songwriter. A founding member and string-strangler in the death metal band Book of Black Earth, Cowgill began a solo career under the King Dude moniker with little in the way of expectations or direction, other than an affinity for the darkest regions of folk music’s past and an interest in the occult. Now on his seventh King Dude album, simply titled Sex, the former purveyor of tremolo-picked metal decimation seems more at home than ever crafting a genre-dodging blend of neo-folk, Goth-rock, and gritty roots music.
As the less-than-subtle title of Sex asserts, Cowgill’s latest work is an exploration of sexuality through the singer/songwriter’s Luciferian gaze. He’s the first to admit this is well-trodden fare. However, the Seattle-bred raconteur executes his missives on the topic with more than enough style and swagger to overcome any potentially trite moments, and there are spots on the exceptionally dynamic Sex that punch harder than anything found on his prior efforts as King Dude. In fact, much of the album finds Cowgill infusing his tried-and-true dark-folk songcraft with a heavy dose of early rock ’n’ roll’s piss and vinegar twined with the unhinged energy of primordial, late-’70s punk-rock—all hemmed with the cinematic, Ennio Morricone-informed twang and swirling sense of sonic drama that’s become one of the King’s calling cards.
Featuring a beloved budget-line electric Gretsch, a broken Martin acoustic, and some esoteric vintage solid-state amps, Sex is an immensely charming record that is as raw as it is thought-provoking and sonically unexpected. We asked Cowgill to detail his unconventional recording process, describe the disparate influences that went into the new album, and explain why he loves dead guitar strings and deliberately trashy sounds.
While the music you make under the King Dude name doesn’t have much in the way of guitar athletics, you have a background in extreme metal with your former band Book of Black Earth. Is it safe to assume you’re a relatively trained/athletic player when you want to be?
I would say that’s a half-truth. I think I’m a better guitar player than I might let on, but I’m not as good a death-metal or black-metal guitarist as most of the guys in that realm. I can’t really run those solos that people do in those styles—those sweeping things that sound like turkeys gobbling. I can keep up for sure, and I know some techniques, but King Dude is really about intuitive playing and a lot less focused on highly proficient, very fast playing. There’s a lot more in the way of dynamics. The quiets are quieter, which makes for more interesting music. If you bend a note with a Bigsby on a Gretsch, you just have to touch it, as opposed to, say, a Floyd Rose on a B.C. Rich, where you really have to jam it up and down. I appreciate the subtlety of this style of guitar playing a lot more.
Coming from the extreme metal world, was it a challenge to develop a sense of restraint when you started writing music as King Dude?
It wasn’t like a hard-stop kind of thing, in which I just swapped metal for neo-folk. They kind of ran alongside each other for a long time. I’ve played acoustic guitar in the same style since I was a kid, and the first song I ever learned on acoustic guitar was the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun,” which I think is pretty indicative of my playing through-and-through. If anything, this is how I naturally play guitar and my death-metal and black-metal stuff is more attempting to emulate things I discovered later in life. Of course, everything is an emulation of something or derivative of something. I’m obviously not some ultra avant-garde Scott Walker type of guy, but when it comes to the transition between the bands, it’s not like I had to shake out what I was doing or what I had already learned. Also, there aren’t a lot of limitations in King Dude, so there might be a song that’s more upbeat or even has elements of my heavy-metal guitar playing in it. There is no limit to what I will do within King Dude, so if one day—and I hope it doesn’t happen—if I need to write a reggae riff for this band and it feels right for the song, I’m going to do it!
Sex is an evolution from past King Dude albums. It has a lot more depth than its predecessors, particularly with the inclusion of some proto-punk tracks like “Swedish Boys” and “Sex Dungeon (USA).” What pushed you in that direction?
The album is something of a pivot. Both of those tracks were inspired by a Swedish punk band from the ’70s called Leather Nun, which I had been listening to a lot at the time. Also, while the sonic influence might not be immediately apparent, I was listening to a lot of ’80s music, like Prince, Madonna, and even George Michael—which of course works extremely well for someone studying the subject of sex and how sexuality works in songs. George Michael’s influence might not come out sonically much on the record, but when you work on a topic that’s been trod so heavily, you have to be careful not to redo what’s been done and it’s good to look at the work of some of the best.
I’d say the biggest difference sonically from the last record is that this is the first King Dude album in which I’ve included bass guitar on almost every track. I started by writing bass lines first, which is something I never, never do. That shaped the sound of these songs.
On King Dude’s seventh album, Sex, TJ Cowgill has zeroed in on his music’s heart of aural darkness. He calls it a “pivot” in his stylistic evolution.
Do have a standard writing process? Do things typically start with guitar riffs?
Yeah, in the past everything has started on an acoustic guitar—my Martin, which I’ve had since [2014’s] Fear. But for this album, I picked up a bass first. I always try to put myself in a different writing territory, and if you’re always picking up the same instrument, you’re typically going to get similar sounding songs. Or at least it feels that way in my mind. So on [2015’s] Songs of Flesh & Blood, I started writing primarily on piano, and to make a change from that, the bass took the focus on Sex. I’d say 7/10s of the album started on a bass guitar.
Starting to write a song on a bass is the weirdest thing to me, and something I hadn’t done prior. I’m sure a lot of people have done it before, but it’s so restrictive with the amount of melody you can apply, at least for me as a player, that it becomes a very straightforward process. The upside I’ve found is if you can get a good bass line, you’re probably going to have a good song—unless you really fuck up in the guitars or something.
The bass guitar on the record is killer, and the tones you copped for the bass make up a huge part of the album’s distinctive sound. What gear did you use?
It’s all the same bass we use live—a $200 Fender Squier Jaguar bass. When I needed a bass to write with, I just went into a Guitar Center and picked up the cheapest but coolest bass I could find. I took the floor model home, and it is, for all intents and purposes, a total piece-of-shit. But I like it a lot.
I recorded in my own studio and also some of it was done at home, so each song is a little different. A lot of it was DI’d or played straight into the board or through a guitar amp. I don’t even own a bass amp. I like bass guitars to have a ton of midrange and be kind of clunky. I like the bass to have more attack and midrange poke so that it doesn’t muddy up my baritone vocals in the mix, because they do share a bit of range.
I love the tone of the surfy guitar stabs on “Sex Dungeon (USA).” What did you use when tracking them?
Those punched-in solos were done through my ’76 Fender Twin, and I was playing my Gretsch Electromatic Pro Jet. I think the key to that part is that it’s a production thing you hear on old punk records, where a solo just comes in way louder than anything else on the track and has a hard stop to it because it’s a punch-in.