As figurehead of bleak Seattle trio King Dude, T.J. Cowgill crafts brooding neo- folk music that is informed as much by early blues and Americana as it is by English luminaries of the genre such as Death In June or Sol Invictus. As operator of Seattle clothing line Actual Pain, Cowgill emblazons drab-colored clothing with symbols of the occult. To each of these endeavors, Cowgill brings a studied knowledge of esoterism, his experience as a self-described Luciferian and the perspective of a seasoned black metal musician. At the end of a five date stint with Psychic TV, we cornered Cowgill in Oakland to discuss the current proliferation of all things morbid and dark in music, Gnostic Christian sects, King Dude’s next album, resenting politicized punks and Seattle’s guilt of grunge.
Occultism and generally dark subject matter like you explore in your music have reached an unprecedented popularity in music and culture right now. As someone who is deeply interested in the occult and esoterism, do you fear the trivializing or diluting of these subjects?
No. It’s going to happen whether it’s me or not and it’s better if it’s me. It’s better if I’m your first introduction to it. [Aleister] Crowley was the same way. I’d rather your first introduction to esoterism be through me, someone who can back up the things I’m talking about, rather than someone whose just putting an upside down cross on a record and saying “Devil worship!” I wish ten years ago I had the knowledge I have now. I wish there was an artist then for me who had the reading list too. It’s the nature of esoterism. But no, I’m not worried about people misreading my message. Some people incorrectly think I’m a Satanist. I don’t dislike Satanists. I have many friends who are but none of what I talk about is Satanism. I do not dislike that belief, I think it’s important. A lot of my friends work in the black arts and they perform rituals that are powerful and amazing and they accomplish a great deal in their lives. I don’t know what it equates to in the after world. I won’t tell anyone what happens when we die. I do know how it makes me feel when I practice things of that nature and it’s not right for my nature. That’s the only reason I make the distinction. I don’t want to sell something to people for the sake of shock. I wouldn’t present something that I don’t actually represent. More than anything else I try to represent myself.
I can’t help but wonder whether with your clothing line Actual Pain, which features a variety of occult symbolism that obviously means a great deal to you, does it bother you if consumers are wearing clothes you create as just a fashion statement?
It’s a good thing to wonder. You’re wondering if this guy, who cares so much about this, sees the effect of what he does. I think I know what you’re talking about, like a club kid wearing it. This might seem contradictory, but part of my life is about dismantling an idea. Part of my life is about dismantling the status quo. If we’re talking about music, I’m not going to do it in the same way. Music and fashion is not the same thing. Music lasts forever, fashion lasts a moment. They present two different problems, which might seem like a cop out, but it’s not. Actual Pain has served the world very well and it’s served my life very well in a way that friends and family benefit from. There are messages sugar coated in Actual Pain, it’s not empty. I still try to apply dual layer ideas in it, but we do need to dismantle it. We’ve done a lot of great work in the last five years towards dismantling a type of thought in people’s minds and youth culture where the idea of an upside down cross is impossible. In the world I come from, which is black metal and heavy metal and death metal, it’s not impossible. It’s the most expressive form of revolt in that world. I honestly think we’re at a moment in the collective unconscious where people are ready for that to be dismantled because it’s bullshit.
I can see how you would strive to remove the stigma surrounding these ideas that you find personally enlightening.
Yes, and it’s insane because at the same time, I’m learning so much about Christianity. As I’m dismantling the old structure I’m building a new one. I’m not anti-Christian by any means, but I want to people to not love the cross. The cross is not right. It shouldn’t be the focus of people’s love. They’re missing the point. Catharsists didn’t believe in the cross. They didn’t believe in a crufixion. They didn’t believe Jesus was real. He was a phantasm, he couldn’t have existed because of their beliefs of how flesh equates to evil. They believe in two gods and if he was of the true god of light he could not have been of flesh, so thus he can’t have been crucified. It was a mythology, it never fucking happened. He never walked the earth and he was never crucified, although it makes for a beautiful story.
There were people in the 11th century who said he didn’t exist and I’m fucking crazy for not believing he existed? The Catholic Church led a crusade against those people. They’re not leading a crusade against me now, so I feel like it’s my turn to vilify a group of people, dismantle the Jesus mythology and make room for a new Godhead. According to the Bible, the regular-ass Bible, the new Godhead will take us to the next age and carry us through to an age of enlightenment. Jesus tells his followers to go to the city, find a man with a water pitcher and the man will lead them into the new age. The new age is Aquarius and we’re moving into the new age from Pisces. It needs to happen. I’m only a gear in this big machine; it’s going to happen with or without me.
I would say that the original proponents of what we now call neo-folk music, like Death In June who you seem influenced by, were interested in the occult but they’re also very socio-political.
I love Death In June. I think that Death In June gets a bad wrap because of their fascist appearance. They’ve been doing that since the early 80’s to show that punk was bullshit and that somebody needed to show them their mirror reflection. [Death In June front man] Douglas P. has said that. He wanted to show them what they are. It is the punk-est band on the planet.
What punk bands are left? The Sex Pistols? The Dead Kennedys? Give me a break. Punk is irrelevant. Political punk bands are a joke. You cannot force people to think anything without becoming fascist. Those bands attempt to bend people’s minds towards their will. They use techniques of bullying, dress code, group think – all shit that the Nazis used. To me, it’s despicable and abhorrent. I would never want anything to do with those people. I would never want to bend people’s mental will towards my idea. A lot of those kids have money, too. That’s the thing that drives me nuts. They could be lawyers, if they only just applied themselves. Then they could actually affect change.
Is your music ever inspired by the modern political climate?
It is in the way that I completely reject it. If you were to make a chart, politics are a huge portion of our lives, but the bubble that encircles it is the problem. Morality influences our political ideas. Most of the population’s moralities, the things that actually affect us like gay rights, civil rights, women’s rights, are backed in religious morality, not politics. Trying to affect change in these issues from within politics is ignoring the problem. If you want to change the world, change religion and politics will follow.
It seems like the right wing, for example, is more defined by its social conservatism than anything.
I don’t have any affinity with a political group. I find them all fairly abhorrent, simple- minded and attempting to find a solution without acknowledging the problem. I could talk politics but it would be really negative and I don’t want to do that. I’m very disillusioned when it comes to our government’s politics, but mostly disillusioned with government in general. I don’t believe it works. We live in the most fascist state; I think anybody with open eyes can see it.
I think your billing with Psychic TV is very apt. I’m wondering what kind of discussions you have with them and how this string of shows came about?
Well, Dais [American record label of King Dude] released one of their records. One day I was sitting at home and it occurred to me that I wanted Psychic TV come play Seattle where I live. So, I called someone from Dais and asked to get put in touch with the band. A few phone calls later I was in touch with Eddy who runs the band and plays the drums. I was talking to him a great deal and asked him to come play Seattle. When he asked me to play with them I was floored. It wasn’t my goal. I thought perhaps that Actual Pain might sponsor it. Besides that, I just really wanted them to play since they hadn’t been to Seattle since 2006. I respect that band a great deal. Certain parts of my music wouldn’t exist without them. To me, I see a world opening up to the idea of a person like Genesis [P-orridge, pandrogynous front-person of Psychic TV.] They asked me to play the show in Portland, they asked me to play New York, they asked me to play here — they ask, I do it. None of this is about me. We get up there; we play a half hour and then make room for them. They need to play, everyone shows up for them. If we’re good at all, great, but it’s not our show. I have no ego about it.
I imagine opening for Psychic TV brings some of the bigger crowds that King Dude plays with. How are you grappling with that?
From years of experience playing in bands, I feel fine. Also, in Europe, King Dude does much better. Opening for Psychic TV is comparable to how we consistently do over there.
I initially learned you were touring with Psychic TV when I was on tour in Seattle and saw a flyer for your first gig together. [Ed's Note: Sam Lefebvre plays in Warm Soda]
I can’t wait for you to meet Joey, our drummer. He saw your show at the Comet.
That show went pretty well. There were a lot of people but I couldn’t help but feel that it was a cold crowd.
That’s a Seattle thing. It’s very rigid. They want acceptance from people around them. I’ve railed against it. I feel like I’m an example of being myself in the town. I think it might be the remnants of the shame of grunge, the culture of grunge and how it’s affected the mindset of the younger generation. I see all this potential in the younger generation but they don’t have an ounce of self-respect. They have this attitude of “everything sucks,” but it’s not an attack, it’s more this notion of “we all suck.”
Now that I’ve succeeded outside of Seattle, some people ask me to play who might not have before. It’s weird. I’ve been playing in New York and LA for about six years, but now goth is trendy but I never even played goth! It’s mind-boggling. I just want to take people and shake them. A year or two from now, Fleet Foxes are going to have a Christian Death influence, just wait.
I’ve definitely noticed negative-wave becoming establishment, but I find problems with many new groups’ vague darkness or ambiguity. I’m not so interested in a group that can merely create a mood. That’s just the beginning of honing a style.
Yeah, maybe don’t have lyrics if moodiness is only your goal. I think in our discussion I made it appear that song-writing is much more difficult than it is. Some people have it and some don’t. No matter how much I try and write happy pop songs I can’t. Once I think I have, someone tells me it’s the most depressing thing they’ve ever heard.
I recall another interview where you expressed that as well.
I can’t because it’s not in my blood. Fear is the happiest shit I’ve ever written, but subject matter-wise it’s ten times worse than Burning Daylight. I’ve thought about what scares me more than anything, or what scares others more than anything. I’ll ask people if telephones scare them, or whether a telephone call from the future would scare them. What about reflections or mirrored images — things that are chronic fears. Then, I wrote a pop record about those things. It’s really going to fuck shit up. It’s going to make people enjoy the way it sounds but when they actually listen to the words they’ll find it to be the worst shit, blacker than the blackest black metal record. I’m not blasé about it, I’m very excited. My whole life has been relatively non-important and I finally feel like I did something important.