For 8-year-old TJ Cowgill, Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction was a mindfuck. As much as he was drawn to the danger and aggression of the music, the message of the notoriously bleak record made him want to keep his distance.
"I think I was drawn to the bad elements of music," says Cowgill, "but I was also afraid of it. I never wanted to play it. The video for 'Welcome to the Jungle' made a pretty big impression on me, because I thought maybe I wanted to be in a band, but then in the video Axl Rose starts off as a nice country boy who gets off this bus, and by the end of the video ends up looking like some heroin prostitute woman. It's very foreboding."
The gloomy folk dirges of Cowgill's alter ego, King Dude, are the aesthetic opposite of the hair spray and spandex of Guns N' Roses, but have no less menace. After his parents divorced, Cowgill moved from Eastern Washington to the Seattle area about the time Hollywood pop metal dominated the airwaves. He recalls a childhood spent getting in trouble for drawing pictures of surfing werewolves and being the "weird kid who loved Halloween a little too much." Like many musicians born in the '70s, it wasn't until Nirvana broke through and killed hair metal that he even considered using a guitar as a conduit for his dark impulses.
"At that point, I'd pretty much forgotten about videos—I was focused on comic books by then," says Cowgill. "I saw Nirvana on TV with my brother, and he was like, 'Hey, this band is from Seattle,' and I remember wondering how that could be. I thought you had to drive to L.A. on a bus and become a heroin woman to be in a band. He was like, 'No, you idiot, you can be from anywhere and be in a band.'"
At age 16, Cowgill moved out on his own and got a job at West Seattle's Easy Street Records. After bouncing around the hardcore scene for most of the '90s, he formed the cult-favorite black metal-lite act Book of Black Earth. Its combination of brutal tones and sinister harmonies afforded the outfit modest success in the metal realm also populated by the likes of Mastodon and High on Fire, but it wasn't until Cowgill took his macabre sensibilities to the bedroom that his King Dude persona came to life.
Like many bedroom projects, the tone of early King Dude records is spare and haunting. By his own admission, Cowgill accounts for the generous heaps of reverb and vocal overdubs on 2010's My Beloved Ghost and the following year's Love as a way to mask bad takes and coarse talent. The end product is captivating nonetheless, fusing touchstones from disparate genres like outlaw country and funeral doom into a singular whole that's curiously appealing to fans of both.
Cowgill's sound has since evolved, with elements of surf rock, blues and balladry having been added to the mix since a backing band joined him in 2012. Fans of Seattle's Murder City Devils will feel right at home on 2014's Fear—King Dude's first decidedly hi-fi record, which features a healthy dose of queasy church organs and a vocal appearance from the legendary horror-punk group's frontman, Spencer Moody. A pair of two-song EPs with Chelsea Wolfe, the L.A.-based goth-folk yin to Cowgill's yang, finds the King Dude brand being carefully steered even further into the expanding realm of stripped-down roots music for metalheads who need a break from the blast beats every now and then.
When questioned whether he's consciously towing the line between homage and pastiche in his latest work, the forthcoming Sex, Cowgill cites his move away from the deafening volumes of metal as the reason for broadening his sonic horizons.
"It's not as conscious of a decision," says Cowgill. "When you're working with instruments like guitars and you're not overdriving them into distorted metal regions, they end up sounding like classic rock 'n' roll. The changes in feeling tend to come through in the tones of things."
SEE IT: King Dude plays the Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., on Monday, Oct. 31. 9 pm. $13 advance, $15 day of show. All ages.