Shallow Graves

Chad Stockslager, left, and Keith Killoren make like "Tom Jones with fangs" in Budapest One.
Jordan Jackson

The home shared by Budapest One singer-guitarist Keith Killoren and keyboard player Chad Stockslager leaves little room for interpretation. The living room houses a few shelves dedicated entirely to the Beatles, and Stockslager's bedroom is plastered with music posters, the most prominent of which feature Elvis Costello, the Who and the Stones. Killoren's room is decorated with a couple of old-time advertising posters, one for a Spanish bullfight and the other for the film Gilda. His walk-in closet has been converted into a music shrine, filled with recording equipment, beat-up music instruments, stacks of old 78s and a coat rack with enough dress jackets to outfit an entire '60s prom. You can hear a little bit of all of that on This Town Just Gave You a Dreamer, the band's third album and first to be released nationwide, via Washington, D.C.'s Beatville Records.

"Keith has an affinity for old opera records: great storytelling, very dramatic in the presentation of it," Stockslager says. "I think that comes through in the music, but then you've also got a flavor of...when I first saw these guys play, I picked up on Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, the Clash--it was contemporary as well."

While there isn't much contemporary to be found anywhere in the house, or at least not contemporary by Clear Channel standards, that seems to be the common bond between these housemates, who met as the result of a rooftop serenade of sorts, back when Stockslager was playing with Sons of Sound.

"I was walking in Denton putting up fliers," Killoren says, "and all I'm hearing are these keyboards playing on Fry Street. I heard this total Zombies-esque, Question Mark & the Mysterians-sounding Farfisa organ coming from the sky, and I was like, 'Where the hell is that coming from?' I realized it was [Sons of Sound sound-checking on] the rooftop of Cool Beans. I ran up there and I see [Chad], and we had met a month before at the Curtain Club. He'd said to me that he played keyboards, but I kinda blew him off, 'cause I didn't know he was playing those kinds of keyboards. And then, when we started playing together, it was like a long-lost brotherhood. Right away, the record collections started getting swapped."

"This guy was already writing great tunes long before I met him," Stockslager adds. "Whenever you get in a situation like that, and you can come on and add harmony and stuff like that, it's a real treat."

Compared with Budapest One's previous albums, This Town reflects a real collaboration between the roommates, and not just because it's their first album together. The sharing of creative duties is apparent in the larger focus on piano parts, harmony vocals and a more tight-knit sound on the record.

"Our last album was done in three days, and this time, we did weeks of [recording], and Chad and I were able to prepare all these ideas," Killoren says. "It was a matter of time; we got to prepare, so songs came out more orchestrated."

Budapest One hit the studio with the pAper chAse's John Congleton at the helm, whose most recent production efforts have been with more straight rock bands such as Baboon and 90 Day Men. Asked how such a producer could fit with the different style that Budapest One brings to the Dallas music scene, the guys were all smiles. It has a good answer: "He likes that we sound like Tom Jones with fangs," Killoren says. "He likes the sinister nature of it."

"He was always trying to play that up," Stockslager says. "Keith would do a vocal and he'd be like, 'It wasn't quite sinister enough. Do it again. Show me some claws.' We had recorded all these vocal tracks before we had even gone in with Congleton to do the album, and I think that was essential in getting some of the sounds we wanted. I think we stayed up until five in the morning one night fooling with this four-track, just getting all the songs down. We'd put headphones on his head and say, 'Here's what we fooled around with before, months ago,' and he was completely responsive to it."

Before the two met to hammer out songs, though, Budapest One's seeds were far from sown. Killoren's first group, Three Liter Hit, was a college band in Wisconsin that Keith described as "circus-rock," featuring preachers' gospels scratched on turntables and Killoren "jumping out in the audience and cutting up" in a priest's outfit. He made the move to Denton years ago, and the changes he faced forced him to take a new direction with music.

"I was without my bandmates that helped me write songs. I had to finish songs on my own, so I had to become my own kind of songwriter. I really spent the first three months here terrified of the heat and holed up inside, but I also tried to embrace Texas; I went nuts on Jimmy Rodgers and the like."  

Not long after Killoren moved to Denton, he got an assist from Baboon's Steve Barnett, who helped record the first Budapest One album and gigged with the guys when one of their drummers split for Oklahoma City. Barnett was the first in a distinguished list of local timekeepers who've shown up on Budapest One albums.

"A drummer has to have the sense of song, S.O.S.," Killoren explains, "and Steve had it, and for the next album I had Jason Garner from Deathray Davies play, and he equally had it. And then in this recording we had Earl Harvin. Drummers have been my saving grace in the studio. I've been blessed that each time I've gone to do an album, I've had drummers that I would give my kidneys for."

Stockslager and Killoren point to the missing member of our interview, bassist William Pollard, as a reason for the band sticking around. "[On 'Preacher's Words,'] he came in and laid down an upright bass part," Stockslager says. "He hadn't even heard that song, but he came in and figured it right out. That kind of quickness is vital."

"William's the only person to have stuck by me all this time," Killoren adds, "which shows his tolerance level, obviously. I kinda owe everything to him--if he would've left me, I would've been hard out of luck."

In terms of influences, Killoren had previously told me about rooting through stores' record selections and picking out all the old soul and rock albums that everybody else looked over. In our most recent conversation, when I put the question to him, he picked out Bertolt Brecht as his biggest inspiration when he moved to Texas.

"He was basically the best lyricist of the 20th century," Killoren says. "There's no argument for it. You read his lyrics and they're absolutely dense and evil and sexy at the same time. He embraces sex and death in a gorgeous way, as if you're on a couch and he's your psychologist. I don't know how I came across him, but it was one of those serendipitous moments, when all of a sudden I walked home from Recycled Records with Threepenny Opera in my arm, and that record didn't leave the needle. That's the way with anybody--you latch on to something as if it's your wet nurse, and it becomes a teacher for you for that amount of time."

Killoren took this appreciation for lyrics to heart, and most of the songs on This Town make a star out of the story. The result lends a Sunday-afternoon AM-radio feel to the album, especially on "The Bully Song," in which the narrator sells his soul to kill a lady-thieving bully. The music takes a bow behind Killoren's murderous tale.

"I wanted to write a song that was very Mississippi, all in the Yazoo. I wanted to make a song that sounds 100 years old, because the song is trying to be a vaudeville song. The band could be behind a curtain and there could be one person standing out there, waiting for a cane to pull him off the stage. That's how a couple of the songs were written, as if they were part of a play. Where's the orchestra when someone's singing a song? They're down in the pit."

But when watching Budapest One live, you'd never believe the band could hide beneath the stage. At their first concert I saw, the guys started by ripping right into "Signal for the Assassins," a Latin-tinged, sexually charged declaration of violent love. Killoren didn't wait a second to make his presence known, seducing the crowd as if it were the subject of the song.

"I think I've been offending too many people with my gyrations, shaking around like Tom Jones, but it's tough not to. It's really not premeditated. There's something about a song, especially if I'm singing a song about a woman and what I'm gonna do to her in the bedroom; 'my hands on your ankles will make you divide.' Am I just supposed to stand there still? Not move?"

The crowd didn't think so, cheering Killoren's onstage swagger, and Stockslager wasn't one to argue with the foreplay. "The first time I saw [Budapest One], that's what sold me. If you have a certain fearlessness onstage, it connects. There are people who might not even like the music, but they're going to pay attention and they're going to enjoy at least seeing someone out there giving it their all."  

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