Old-soul music

Budapest One is a brand-new band making some venerable -- and tremendous -- rock and roll

An old soul exudes a wisdom and clarity it couldn't possibly have come by in a single lifetime. An old soul, a rare individual to stumble upon, isn't one who speaks impulsively; his words surface carefully, from an amalgam of other times and worlds. There's a peace, a thoughtfulness about old souls that transcends the brash and impatient daily grind. At times they may come off as anachronistic, out of sync with those around them. Most old souls are likely looking for a final release, for peace, for the ultimate truth. You might expect to find them at the peak of a Tibetan mountain, or traveling the paths of historic pilgrimages. Or in the pulpit.

Not, by any stretch, in the grasp of rock and roll--naive, fickle, and solipsistic as that particular art form can often be.

Yet Keith Killoren--the frontman-singer-songwriter for Denton's Budapest One, a young man and a very old soul--nearly forsook his own flamboyant rock leanings to attend the seminary. Odd, from a guy who says of his earlier stage days: "I wore a priest collar. I cut myself up with beer bottles." Then he drives his point home: "I was frustrated. I saw it as a lifetime of curtsies in the depths of my theatrical purgatory. It was me serving my penance."

So Killoren did the next best thing to seminary and got a degree in philosophy and religion, and imagery from the Book of Revelations to Beowulf to T.S. Eliot to Greek mythology rolls off his tongue--and pervades his song lyrics--as though he's studied these texts for decades, or as though this Yber-discourse has surged though his veins since his birth. He's no religious fanatic. Far from it--he's a self-described secular humanist. And he's only 24. (Try asking any other 24-year-old rock boy what his life theory is: Uh...)

As far as the rock interview subject goes, Killoren's as close to a wizened sage as it gets. He's lost in--no, challenged by--the rules and structures that make up rock music; yet instead of prompting him to back down, his philosophical adventures catapult him and his songs beyond the great unwashed. For Killoren, no concept is too superficial for analysis, no matter too trivial for an extended-allegory treatment. Yet the nine cuts on Budapest One's self-titled demo tape prove, start to finish, that this guy can out-rock a mountain.

"I have a twofold theory here about songwriting, about how songwriters get in trouble," Killoren says while scarfing down a sirloin steak at the Denton Waffle House. ("Don't stop eating meat," he warns. "Musicians, especially drummers, shouldn't give up meat. They lose all their passion.") He's wearing an old letterman's sweater from the music school at the University of Texas in Austin (not his alma mater) over an equally vintage polyester button-down with a collar so big it threatens to drop down onto his plate. Killoren is all about the past.

"One, there's the ghost of Buddy Holly," he begins, winding up. "That's for one-hit wonders. I'll tell you about that later. So really the first is the narrators. Jimmie Rodgers hopped trains. He was a narrator--a documenter of this--and you can vicariously jump into [a scene] and then write the song." He pauses. "Now, some people have to be the song--mostly the whiner songs: 'Boy, I'm gonna have to get another girlfriend and break my own heart, so I can write another song.' That's no good. Those are the bands that have one quality album, then the sophomore slump. I try to be a completely vicarious songwriter. I observe, I write about it. Therefore, the well is never dry, 'cause all you have to do is go to another well. Just don't take from your own well."

Killoren's scattered wells run the gamut from the suicide of an old lamplighter to prom-night jitters to the martyrdom of an alcoholic. Nothing is sacred, yet everything is treated with reverence, a process he honed over five years with his indie band 3 Liter Hit in Wisconsin (where he grew up), as well as his days in the theory-laden classrooms of the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. A year and a half ago, he abandoned 3 Liter Hit out on the tundra and moved to Denton, not long after he decided seminary wasn't his calling. An Arkansas girl named Amanda, whom he had met while touring with the band, was his calling, and she had pinpointed the University of North Texas for undergrad school.

"I love the whole Milwaukee thing," Killoren says. "But there's a Prairie Home Companion-ism, that Lutheran conservatism, about the area. Up north, I'd walk down the street in my red pants, looking like Jackie Wilson. And the people are like, 'Nice fuckin' pants!' Whereas in Texas, even the good ol' boys don't give me any shit. I guess they're used to rodeo clowns."

He spent his first Denton phase hanging around with former members of Brutal Juice, Dooms U.K. frontman John Freeman, and Will Johnson of Centro-matic. Instead of mourning the loss of his old band, he says, he wanted to find out whether he could make music on his own. The first six months after moving to Texas, he would just sit in his room and play for himself, listening to Lawrence Welk and Jimmie Rodgers--"just trying to acclimate myself to being a Texan," he insists. "Of course, you have to listen to Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb to acclimate yourself correctly. Now I think I've done it. And musically, I'm now my own man."

This acclimation/self-actualization has, in time, led Killoren down two merging paths. One: a highly developed sonic sensibility that culls as much from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht as it does from the Jam and Elvis Costello (though with a gritty-crooner vocal style that evokes the early, snarling bellow of Joe Jackson). And two: the founding of his own band, Budapest One, last spring. Right now the lineup consists of Killoren on guitar and vocals, bassist William Pollard (of Cornhole and, in the interest of full disclosure, the author's ex-husband) and, until they find a full-time replacement, drummer Steve Barnett of Baboon.

"It's a here's-my-songs-you-play-them deal," Killoren says. "It's a little less democratic than a normal band is. So it took a while to find people. Most people wanna jam. They get together and write a hodgepodge song. But with us, I'm like, here's a language, and they get to choose the dialect, though I've gotten to the point where William has become very necessary. I'd be lost without him."

Killoren and Pollard, with contributions by free-agent keysman Lee Tomboulin and guitarist Ted Wood and a few others, recorded the demo last July with Dave Willingham acting as engineer. The first track, 90 seconds of velvet and bile, is titled "Comfortable," and the sound is a fair warning of things to come. The initial bars are a dark, Antonio Carlos Jobim-style tease. Then come the words--"It will never be as comfortable, as when you were alone / It will never be as comfortable, as when you could go home"--and the song rips into a bloody collision of guitar and vocal roars; yet the song never strays from its glorious hook. Finally, it concludes: "I could pray every day that the decisions made will put you up in family way!"

The tape's fourth track, "Sir David: Hope of Woman," is a perfect example of Killoren's narrator-literary leanings. The song borrows part of its title from an obscure play called Murder: Hope of Woman, though it's about a substitute teacher Killoren once had--a hairy middle-aged misfit who still lives with his mother and obsesses about women and guns. Comparisons to Beowulf's Grendel--at least John Gardner's version, told from Grendel's perspective--pervade the whole: "He dreams of the end / He dreams of going home to his mother again." The chorus kicks in and drags us back to the best of 1978-era British new wave--punchy guitars and staccato toms over just-buried caustic lyrics. It's an exercise in catharsis, even if not directly Killoren's.

Religion and family and romance all get the same jarring and satisfying treatment: scatological, ambivalent, poetic. Then there's the case of the hapless lamplighter, circa 1910. "The Last Lamplighter" is another short burst of a song (this one with a cheerful, sing-along flavor) in which the poor non-union worker lights his last lamp, and in the face of the "electric revolution," kills himself. But not without Killoren's references to Greek tragedy and Thomas Edison: "So when you yearn for the golden years, remember this," Killoren sings. "Freedom cannot exist in shadows / So watch where you were laid to rest / What an awful mess, to keep yourself anachronistic." It's as though Killoren is writing a cautionary tale for himself.

This demo tape, available at Budapest One shows, will be followed soon by the band's contribution to three compilation EPs to be released by Chris Lewellyn's local indie label Clandestine Project Recordings (see Street Beat, page 86). The band will record nine new songs for the project in the next few weeks, again with Dave Willingham, and the EPs will likely be available early this spring.

Right now, Killoren has the lyric sheets to these new tunes hanging, clothesline-style, in the music room of his house. Tacked under each white, scribbled-on page is a piece of old sheet music--Rudy Vallee, or a 1920s Tin Pan Alley tune--all original and sepia-toned with age. He's hoping the wisdom and character of the old music will rub off on the new music--a spiritual transfer of integrity and color. In the corner sits his Rickenbocker six-string, one he claims he bought new off the wall less than a decade ago, though the once-white guitar looks at least 40 years old. It's faded to yellow and worn and cracked, as though it has passed through the hands of several hard-playing generations. The old-soul thing comes to mind again. One young man playing, thinking, and composing music with the weight of several lifetimes touching everything he does.

With that aura, it's no surprise that Will Johnson, one of Killoren's roommates, has asked Killoren to preside as minister over Johnson's upcoming wedding ceremony. For the event, Killoren had to go through with some kind of ordination. "It's from the Universal Life Church, over the Internet," he says. "I do feel like a little bit of a charlatan about it, but I'm trying to be utilitarian about the whole thing, for the greater good of the marriage. It would be an absent ceremony if they had some minister who knew nothing about them. So I'm acting as a ship captain, marrying somebody I know. It's an honor."

A new home, new band, new onslaught of songs, and new religious license. He's accomplished plenty in just over a year. Does he have any interest in a major-label deal?

"No, because they don't have any interest in me," he says. "I don't think I would have ever started a band if I hadn't lived an hour away from Minneapolis. When I was youthful, I would walk down the streets, I would go to the record store that Paul Westerberg gave Pete Jesperson his demo in, and go into the Garage Door and see Bob Mould's guitar from HYsker DY. And I'd think: 'You can do it without eye makeup. You can do it without teasing your hair. You can practice in this basement.' Suddenly it was tangible. Suddenly I realized there was a homeopathic medicine for music: shows, word of mouth, indie labels, DIY."

And while Killoren's earlier "narrator" songwriter theory doesn't necessarily break new rock ground, the second part of that theory is all Keith, all philosopher. He begins talking about one-hit wonders again, mentions the Turtles, begins singing some of their songs, talks about how much he actually likes "Elenore" and "Happy Together."

But "the rest of their music--horrible," he says. "Whoa. Terrible."
So what happened to them?
"The ghost of Buddy Holly," he insists in grave tones, picking up the thread he set down earlier. "He comes down, sits on your shoulder, and whispers you a little tune. The guy in the Turtles claims he wrote 'Elenore' in 20 minutes in a hotel room because his manager was saying, 'We need a hit!' [The band said,] 'All right, I'll give you a fucking hit.' Buddy Holly is Elijah. Elijah is our mediator between heaven and earth. He went up in a chariot of fire. He never died. And at every [Passover] seder, the Jewish family sets an extra plate for Elijah, and if there's a knock on your door, and it's a disheveled bum wearing tattered clothes, you treat him like Elijah. He feasts at your table.

"Well, Buddy Holly went up in a chariot of fire. Did they ever really find his body? It was all charred to bits. Maybe that chariot came by. So a songwriter setting himself down in a hotel room, or setting himself down in a panic-stricken moment, is setting the feast for Elijah--is setting a seat for Buddy Holly to come down and give him a song."

Killoren laughs. "He hasn't come to me yet."

Budapest One performs January 30 at Rick's Place in Denton.

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