By Todd Hamm
Special to The Seattle Times
Conduct an Internet search for “King Dude,” and you’ll be directed to everything from heavy metal and outlaw country music to pictures of rap star Kanye West wearing King Dude-affiliated clothing — and, most recently, an upstart record label called Not Just Religious Music (NJRM).
Four weeks ago, NJRM issued “Born in Blood,” the first of a projected series of seven, 7-inch vinyl/digital recordings to be released over the next year and a half.
The mystery man behind all these disparate projects — and the Elvis-meets-“The Big Lebowski” moniker he projects — is Seattle resident T.J. Cowgill.
A self-taught heavy-metal guitarist turned country-folk singer-writer, Cowgill, 34, though once expelled from school, is now an ambitious polymath in a world of specialists, as passionate and focused about design as he is about music. Something of a self-confessed control freak, Cowgill uses the DIY (“do it yourself”) business model — which Seattle rapper Macklemore has found unprecedentedly effective — depending only on himself and a chosen few friends, and picking his markets carefully. It seems to be working.
Taste-making pop-music website Stereogum has called Cowgill’s work “excellently dark and smoky punked-out goth-Americana”; the Village Voice praised his “compelling imagery and narrative.” “Born in Blood” has sold all but a handful of its original pressing of 500.
“He is extremely creative and understands the big picture,” says Steve Severin, owner of the Capitol Hill nightclub Neumos.
Cowgill taught himself to play music on a $30 guitar he bought at a Des Moines swap meet when he was 15. Attracted early on to “black metal” — an extreme form of loud, intense rock music with fast tempos and dark, sometimes demonic lyrics, Cowgill helmed the bands Teen Cthulhu and Book of Black Earth before deciding one night on a whim to explore his singer-songwriter side.
“I had this roommate,” he said, “and we were writing these songs in like half an hour to see what they sound like, as an experiment. And I heard some of the recordings, and I was like, ‘Whoa, I should probably take this a little more seriously; it sounds great.’ It was [in my] late 20s when I actually [thought], ‘Maybe I’ll try a band that isn’t loud and screaming heavy metal or punk or anything like that.’”
What resulted is the most accomplished music of his career. At candlelit shows, Cowgill and his band — rhythm guitarist Jason Sachs and percussionist Joey D’Auria — weave black metal’s death tropes and theological contemplation into imaginative old-timey story lines, with Cowgill growling alternately like Leonard Cohen or what one might imagine as a Transylvanian cowboy. He is an intense presence on stage as well as in conversation, with piercing eyes that punctuate his confident demeanor.
Cowgill’s eclectic tastes will be reflected by the NJRM catalog, which he says will include releases from lo-fi Baltimore drone outfit Dreadlords and a promising one-man electronic-rock project from France called Jessica 93.
King Dude’s design skills developed in tandem with his music. Kicked out of Highline High School during his senior year for issues related to truancy, Cowgill took a cue from his older brother — artist/video game designer Richard Cowgill, who currently creates smartphone and tablet games for his own Dallas/Fort Worth-based Sunside Games — and enrolled in the graphic-design program at the Highline District’s SeaTac Occupational Skills Center, where he earned a high-school diploma. His formal education ended there.
Over the past few years, Cowgill has been able to turn both his passions into something palpable and successful. Earlier this month, at New York’s CMJ Music Marathon, an important industry showcase, he was named one of the “Top 10 Artists To See.” He’s also set to tour Europe for the fourth time as King Dude this fall and is working on his second musical collaboration with rising indie star Chelsea Wolfe.
Cowgill’s other projects have also taken off. Founded in 2007, his Actual Pain clothing and accessory line — which features occult-inspired designs, gothic typefaces and tongue-in-cheek tag lines like “Long Live Death” on black and white hats, shirts, tights, socks, jewelry and pocket knives — has built enough business to move into a roomy work loft in the busy Capitol Hill business district and support two employees (including his wife and business partner, Emily Denton). Though he keeps many of his more famous clientele confidential, his gear has been publicly flaunted by megastar West and championed by underground favorites such as Wolfe and Seattle rapper Nacho Picasso.
Cowgill handles the creative side of his clothing company the same way he handles his records — mainly by himself.
“I’m a bit of a control freak,” he says. “I like to know that everything is happening the way it needs to happen.”
He designs his own websites, records a majority of his own music in his clothing warehouse studio and refuses to pay for advertising of any kind. He banks exclusively on word-of-mouth promotion and prefers to sell his clothes directly to customers through the company’s website. The handful of stores he’s agreed to sell to have had to undergo an intensive weeding-out process, which includes sending in location, photos of the store and a list of other brands carried.
So far, Cowgill says 14 stores have made the cut, including Capitol Hill skate shop Alive & Well, along with shops in Los Angeles; Boston; Vancouver, B.C.; Europe; and Asia.
Cowgill affirms that he will be equally choosy about stores for Not Just Religious Music records, estimating there will be only a half-dozen nationwide. As with his clothes, however, he will continue direct sales online.
Of his store selection process, he says “It’s not so elitist that we like, decide whether they’re cool or not, but we just like to work with professionals who actually care about the art that they make, and having a store is an art form in and of itself.”
Cowgill’s work ethic was probably instilled by necessity. Having moved out on his own by the time he was 16 — his mother moved to Salem, Ore., for work when he was still in high school — he did odd jobs into his 20s to support his growing artistic habits.
“I’ve done everything,” he says. “I’ve driven a forklift, I’ve worked in bars. Whatever would pay the most and be the least amount of work.”
During that quest to work very little, he poured drinks at Neumos, where he met Severin, who was impressed.
“So many want success,” wrote Severin in an email, “or whatever their version of success is right now — generally $$$. However, it doesn’t really work that way. You cut corners and you’ll generally lose, as it’s clear to everybody else looking at your product or service that it’s missing something … He’s not in it for the [money], that’s for sure. That’s how you win.”