Budokan Boys—composer Jeff T Byrd and fiction writer Michael Jeffrey Lee—are a mercurial American duo currently based in Berlin. Iterations of the ever-evolving project have included a psychotic vaudeville phase (2018’s That’s How You Become A Clown), a wry and mischievous prankster phase (2019’s DAD IS BAD), and a mystical grief and trauma phase, as heard on 2020’s horrific and heartfelt So Broken Up About You Dying. They are now busy writing their next opus, a space opera. Their fierce and darkly-comic live shows combine off-kilter electronics, sad/weird stories from unstable narrators, blaring saxophones and squealing slide guitar.
Can you tell us about your background? Michael, you are a vocalist but also a writer and teacher, Jeff, you have done various sound-related work. How did you two meet and how did the music project come about?
Jeff grew up in Texas and Washington State and has been writing and recording music since he was young. Michael grew up in California, developed as a fiction writer first and came to music later. We met on the curb outside a concert in New Orleans. Fast forward two years—Michael and Jeff are now close friends. Michael’s apartment now serves as an underground concert venue and rehearsal space for a revolving collective of New Orleans musicians. Budokan Boys was born on Michael’s living room floor.
You apparently formed in New Orleans in 2014 to play a single show.
We can’t remember why we were obligated to play that show. It’s possible that we were asked to fill-in for some other act—it wasn’t anything too glamorous. At any rate, we only had a week to prepare. Jeff brought his collection of broken synthesizers and a huge tangle of cables to Michael’s room, where we improvised noisily for six nights straight. During these sessions, we realized that we shared a deep musical sympathy, a similarly whacked-out sense of humor, and a desire to push beyond our comfort zones as performers.
Obviously, this wasn’t the end of the Budokan Boys, as you went on to release three albums, recorded in various places, across continents and various experiences. All of them personal palimpsests – how do you reminisce and what importance does each of them have in your lives?
Palimpsest is a great way of describing our work. The albums are definitely responses to the places we found ourselves in, the people we met in those places and the stories they told, as well as the stuff we were thinking about at the time. For example, “The Hermit” was inspired by a story Jeff’s brother told us in New Mexico, about a hermit that lived in a cave, built a fire every night, and met a grim fate–the lyrics are almost a word-for-word transcription of the story he told. “Old Man Jones” from the first album was inspired by another ghastly tale told to Michael in New Orleans. In addition to what’s directly in front of us, we also try to pay attention to the larger world and respond to more universal struggles, however obliquely we might comment on them. It’s our natural inclination to be slightly cryptic and mysterious in our work, but in real life we try to be really open.
Do you consider music as something personal, as something intimate?
Not all music, but ours, yes, to a degree. When performing, we try to pull people into our upside-down world, but not in a way that necessarily inspires empathetic identification with us. The work is intended to provoke and disturb, but we’re also really heartened when people feel an emotional connection with it, or feel like dancing to it.
Michael, it’s interesting how you work with your voice, it sometimes transforms into something almost goblin-like. Can you talk about your work with voice and its semantics?
I’ve experimented with my voice in other bands, but never transformed it to the degree that I do in Budokan Boys. Once the lyrics take shape (and they often do in response to the sounds Jeff has created), I search for the most interesting way to put them across. The voices are a way for me to put pressure on the words, either to amplify certain aspects already present in them or to expose hidden meanings—the goal is always to open up new avenues for interpretation, make the experience richer, stranger. They’re also a way to not take myself too seriously. It’s probably close to character acting.
The music also morphs and transforms, it doesn’t stick to one genre, it is experimental and adventurous, but also catchy and pop alike. It is as if you were constantly oscillating between approachability and the avant-garde.
Maybe we treat musical styles and genres in the same way we play with voice and character, as something fluid, always changing, fair game for transformation / manipulation / deconstruction. We like to challenge ourselves musically and try lots of new things—we’re also somewhat distrustful of categorization. Together, we have a wide range of musical influences, many of which would be considered “pop.” Perhaps the “catchy” elements of our songs are like bait in a trap. We don’t see avant-garde as necessarily excluding approachability or pleasure.
Your latest album, So Broken Up About You Dying, is about personal loss, you describe it as a “death record”. Is it also a cathartic record? How did you approach coming to terms with loss via music?
It was cathartic. We knew that what we were making was bizarre and a little crazy, and ran the risk of being bewildering, but we thought that anyone who had ever experienced something similar—i.e. everyone, in the end—might feel comforted and excited by it. In terms of approaching grief via music, we were already old hands at this work—most of our songs are about loss on some level.
Do you see yourself as following some kind of musical tradition? Are you inspired by any particular music / art?
Jeff is especially influenced by film and audio-visual storytelling. He grew up on synthpop, early industrial music and the noisier, more irreverent side of the avant-garde. He’s most inspired by outsider artists who find highly individual ways of expressing themselves. Michael feels a strong connection to the folk and blues tradition as well as recent experimental music—also to modernist and contemporary literature.
What are you planning for the next couple of months?
We’re working on a new set of songs, a bit more cosmic than usual. Also scraping the pandemic rust off and getting the BB LIVE EXPERIENCE ready for fall.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova