When he was a kid, Byron Neal won poetry recitation competitions because he could remember verses verbatim after one reading. It’s a skill that no doubt primed him for a career in rap; he now performs as Lord Byron. His dense lyrics run together at an almost undecipherable pace.
For the last eight months, Neal was creating his second album, We Kill Cowboys, So Death Rides a Horse, with producer and engineer Ben Hixon under their record label, Dolfin. Neal also brought in producers he found through networking or the internet for some of the tracks. He released it last week.
“This is one of the easier albums that I’ve ever written,” Neal says. “I had the most fun. I changed my style a lot and did some things that I didn’t typically do on other records. I think that’s what made it easier; I had a lot more freedom.”
At a recent Sofar Sounds show, Lord Byron was like an animal on the chase, weaving through the crowd with his eyes averted, focused on a singular mission. He says he disassociates from his body while he’s performing, just acting in the moment. It’s obvious on his face that he’s transcended reality and is operating from somewhere else.
He takes the audience on a journey that it's not always prepared for. He’s climbed on audience members seated in Nasher Hall, laid face-down on the floor, perched on speakers like an angry gargoyle and gotten on his knees to sing into a woman’s crotch at a New Years’ Eve performance. (Full disclosure: It was my crotch.)
It was his first time playing Sofar, and neither the reps from the company nor the audience looked especially at ease. Lord Byron came face to face with a woman in the audience, urging her to dance with him. She shook her head, politely declined and took a step back.
It’s a common reaction. First-time viewers often don't know what to do. Should they cheer? Move out of the way? Get in the moment? His whole persona can be intimidating until you get to know Byron Neal offstage: a guy who’s quick to smile, typically soft spoken and looks to be absorbing his surroundings more than anything.
Lord Byron came on the Dallas scene in a big way in 2013. He was only 20 years old and had just released his first mixtape, Dark Arts Vol. 2. He sort of blew up overnight. The buzz from that got him his first show – at Indexfest, no less. Since then, he’s performed some of the most important “underground” and aboveground music shows in Dallas: for Vice Palace, at the Nasher Sculpture Center, and at Club Dada and Off The Record.
The album is full of ambient tracks overlaid with rapping by Neal and his collaborators. Dallas virtuoso pianist Poppy Xander produced one of the tracks, “Kubrick,” and newcomer Jocylene Garcia lent her operatic vocals. In a word, the album is interesting. And not the kind of interesting that connotes that it’s not that good. The album is truly intriguing. It’s different. Dark at times, soulful at times, it evokes classical sounds, and it’s easy to groove to.
“It’s different from anything I’ve ever done – flow wise and the sounds that I use. I’m basically trying to break out of the stereotype that I’m a hippity-hop rapper,” Neal says.
Neal explains where he got the name: “[It] has a duality factor: good and bad. ‘We Kill Cowboys’ refers to us killing our heroes: Prince, Michael Jackson, Bowie, Basquiat, James Brown, etc. Also, ‘We Kill Cowboys’ can refer to the ‘cowboys’ who should be killed: bad police, crooked politicians, etc.,” he says. "'Death Rides a Horse’ refers to me. I'm death, riding a horse, coming to collect whatever it is I'm going after.”
“Whatever” isn’t specific enough. In four years, Lord Byron has released a mixtape and two albums. In 2015, the same year he released Digital Crucifixion, he also put out his first album under his electronic alter-ego, Ghoulfive, called Plastic Sex ... Dance!. 2017 is going to be another double-header year for Neal as he plans to release his second Ghoulfive album this summer.
You might think that an artist’s second genre of music won’t hold up as well as the first, but his electronic persona is just as interesting and complex as his rap persona. At Club Dada, Byron as Ghoulfive sang into two mics, his voice distorted, backed by a five-piece, percussive-heavy band dressed in hazmat suits.
In typical fashion, i.e. a ski mask, Neal paced the stage, then doubled at the waist, hovering over the audience and eventually jumping into the crowd. Whether he’s performing as Lord Byron or Ghoulfive, there's something unexpected in his performances. He pushes the boundaries of what a music show is. In fact, he treats his stage time as more performance art than music.
It's not a stretch, considering Neal has always been interested in making and talking about art. Even as a child, he says, he was constantly drawing and sculpting things. And as a young adult, he took a circuitous route that many artistic types are familiar with.
A native of East Dallas, Neal went to college in Tyler, Tex. He was studying sociology and taking art classes but wasn’t keen on it. Neal left school, eventually finding himself in Colorado, living on campus with some friends who were also producers.
It was there that he produced his first mixtape and released it on the internet. Neal says he didn’t have any musical connections in Dallas at that point, but local music writer and Observer contributor Mikel Galicia found the album on Bandcamp and reached out to Neal.
The media attention snowballed. Neal started getting nods from some of the most well-known local rappers and earned his spot at Indexfest, solidifying his place as one of Dallas’ great rap musicians.
He says his mentality has changed a lot in four years. After so much hype, he felt like he had to live up to his name.
“People would call me cocky all the time. They’d write stories about me but throw jabs in the story – trying to shoot down the fact that I’m confident in myself,” he says. “Everything I said I was going to do four years ago has happened. Now I think people see my vision and see that I’m not some joke – I back up everything that I say.”
At 24, Neal speaks in grandiose terms, which may have earned him the reputation. But why shouldn’t he? He has dreams, and he’s worked hard to accomplish them and prove himself.
“People are starting to connect with me and my vision. [It’s] a lifetime vision to create on a massive scale,” he says. “My vision is taking the long path on purpose, but it will all make sense in the end.”