James Kochalka is best known as a comic book artist, with an invitingly cartoony art style suited to kid-friendly fare like Johnny Boo, Dragon Puncher, and Monkey vs. Robot. But he’s also deployed those skills in the very-much-not-kid-friendly superhero sendup SuperF*ckers and American Elf, a daily diary comic that Kochalka maintained for fourteen years. Along the way, he’s won Eisner, Ignatz, and Harvey Awards, and was named the first ever Cartoonist Laureate of the state of Vermont. And yet all along, he’s also maintained a parallel career as a musician, prolifically firing off albums, EPs, and singles under the name James Kochalka Superstar. His music is every bit as deceptively simple and delightfully weird as his comics.
His latest single, debuting today right here at The Arts STL, is a seasonally appropriate jam ready to rock your Halloween party. “The Mummy’s on the Loose” is a stomping garage rocker about, well, a mummy being on the loose and how it’s time to run for your life because “He! Hates! Things that move!” To steal a line from She-Hulk: Attorney at Law scene-stealer Madisynn, the song is fun, then scary, then fun again, then spooky…but in a fun way.
“The Mummy’s on the Loose” is being released as a single, but Kochalka says, “It’s definitely part of a larger project…but whether that ‘larger project’ is an album or a succession of singles we’re not entirely sure yet. I’ve spent the last several years collaborating with various famous musicians and bands around the world. It’s all pretty amazing stuff.” Speaking of collaborators, Kochalka’s crunchy instrumental backing on “Mummy” is supplied by Rough Francis, a Vermont-based punk band made up of the Hackney brothers—Bobby, Julian, and Urian—whose father and uncles comprised the foundational all-Black protopunk band Death. Urian Hackney recorded “Mummy” in his studio at the Burlington, Vt., collaborative arts space The Box and the results were mixed by multi-Grammy-Award-winning producer Peter Katis (The National, Interpol, Frightened Rabbit, among many others). Katis “has been helping us immeasurably by doing our mixes,” Kochalka explains. “He’s totally next-level, what he’s doing is way beyond ‘mixing.’ He totally transformed the sound of ‘The Mummy’s on the Loose’ into the rawest, most raucous rock you could ever hope for.” Give it a listen and you’ll see what he means.
And, of course, as you reach the song’s chorus, you’ll recognize the most distinctive warble in punk rock courtesy of legendary Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra. As the song hits its bridge, Biafra takes over with a spoken-word monologue akin to Vincent Price on “Thriller” that he speak-sings in a malevolent growl that channels his inner Cryptkeeper.
There’s a constant crosspollination between Kochalka’s comics and music sides. Glorkian Warrior exists as both a trio of graphic novels and an album—and one of the songs from that album, “Glork Patrol,” even spawned its own graphic novel series. The song “Banana Fox” similarly led to a set of three graphic novels from Scholastic. “Dragon Puncher,” the opening track on 2009’s Digital Elf, hits stores shelves this month from Top Shelf as Dragon Puncher Punches Back. And Jimmy’s Elbow, the graphic novel that Kochalka is currently serializing on his Patreon, began life as the song “Elbow Ghost.”
Could the Mummy on the loose sometime grace the comics page? Perhaps, but for now you’ll have to settle for the song, and what a blast of a song it is. Give it a spin at the link below and listen as you read on to the rest of our interview with James Kochalka.
The Arts STL: As a kid, did you have any special affinity for mummies? Did you find them especially cool, or scary?
James Kochalka: I was absolutely terrified by anything even remotely scary. I would sometimes lie awake in horror and worrying about suffering a mummy’s curse.
What’s Halloween like at the Kochalka household?
It’s a little boring now that my kids are growing up. Eli is 19 and in his second year of college and Oliver just started high school so I’m not exactly trick-or-treating with them anymore. And my neighborhood doesn’t get a lot of trick or treat traffic…most kids like to hit wealthier streets than mine. But my house is a good house to try because I usually hand out comic books in addition to candy.
When I was a kid myself it was definitely a mixed thing. I liked dressing up and getting candy, but I was absolutely terrified of being attacked by teenagers. Back then your parents didn’t go with you, you were totally on your own. Teenagers terrorizing little kids on Halloween doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore, but it definitely happened when I was little. They would rob of us our candy, or shaving cream us, or try to spray Nair in our hair, or throw eggs at us. It was kind of hell, to tell the truth.
How did you come to team up with Rough Francis on “The Mummy’s on the Loose”?
Well, I’ve known Bobby [Hackney] from Rough Francis from before Rough Francis was even a band. The whole band is just awesome people to be friends with, great guys…loving and full of life, total hometown heroes, and absolutely beloved by everyone in the rock scene here in Burlington, Vt. Most of the collaborations I’ve been working on have been with national or international acts, but if I was going to work with a local band then Rough Francis is 1,000% the band to choose.
And they rock hard. I wanted this song to really rock, in an old-school way.
Including Jello Biafra was an inspired choice. How did he get involved in the recording?
His singing voice is just amazing. It has a vibrating quality unlike anything you usually hear in punk rock, that’s for sure.
I’ve been a big fan since I was in high school, so it’s pretty surreal for me to have him on my song. I bought Plastic Surgery Disasters by his band Dead Kennedys for $5 on a trip to Boston in the ‘80s. I wasn’t yet hip to any kind of music scene and I had no idea what I was buying until I got it home and listened. And it pretty much blew my mind. It hit exactly when I was ready to break the shackles of society and live my own life. I took it to all my friends and said, “Listen to this! What do you think?” My friends were mostly bewildered, but I was really fired up.
So anyhow, fast forward three decades plus…I got his number from a friend and cold-called him. I left a message on his answering machine where I improvised a song on the piano, requesting he join me and Rough Francis for a musical collaboration—a few semi-random chords strung together and blathering lyrics, basically. So he said yes. It helped that he actually knew my music and knew Rough Francis well too.
Both you and the members of Rough Francis are from Vermont, which isn’t a place that leaps to many people’s minds as having a specific “sound” or “scene.” What’s it like being a musician in Vermont?
There might not be a “local sound” but we actually have had an amazingly active music scene. Just in Burlington alone there have been hundreds and hundreds of local bands all doing all sorts of interesting things, really working hard and making amazing music. Everybody is super-supportive and you have a lot of overlap of members between bands. For instance, Tyler Bolles, who plays bass in Rough Francis, actually also plays bass in James Kochalka Superstar now…and also in the band Swale, and probably a bunch of other things too.
Lot of great music has come out of Vermont. Pretty much everyone knows Phish, right? I played shows with Phish on the UVM campus back when we are all young and we’re still friends. Trey Anastasio fairly recently recorded my song “Tree” and released it as a single. Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello began his “gypsy punk” sound here, with a great little band called Flying Fuck. Oh, he used to play guitar in James Kochalka Superstar, too. The Smittens, several members of which also have performed in James Kochalka Supsterstar. Caroline Rose and Lily Seabird are two great up-and-comers starting to make national waves. I can’t possibly list every good band, there are literally hundreds. | Jason Green
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