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Local Feature: Bryson Cone

Local Feature: Bryson Cone

Bryson Cone rides the line between dream and nightmare, flourishing in the subconscious space that’s just beyond comfortable and not yet scary. Originally a mixed media visual artist, he’s managed to transpose his aesthetic sensibilities into a brand of music that you could call something like synth-heavy goth pop, or indie-inflected emo jazz. Beyond simple genre distinction, he’s a voice that’s been echoing around the Portland scene for some time, and his debut album, Magnetism, is one of those projects that’s been anticipated by those in the know for the last several years. I caught up with Bryson to talk about his process, the new album, and the aesthetic quality of cones. Check it out below:

Eleven Magazine: Let’s go back a little bit. Have you been in Portland for a while?

Bryson Cone: I’ve been in Portland since 2009. I was in art school for years and years. I came up here to finish an art degree for University of Oregon—at the Made In Oregon building—and then I went to PNCA and got a Masters in Fine Art. I wasn’t doing music. I was here, but I wasn’t doing music for a long time. After that I started a band called Fog Father, and I was in that for a while. Now I’m doing this.

11: Where did you come from originally?

BC: I grew up all over the Pacific Northwest. I used to move every year when I was little. I was in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, but I went to high school in eastern Oregon, in a really small town called Fossil. That was a horrifyingly isolated area. Not my favorite place that I’ve ever been.

11: And you studied visual art in school?

BC: I was doing visual art, sound art, mixed media stuff.

11: Is music something you were always interested in? Did you grow up playing music?

BC: My grandma was a piano teacher. I lived with her when I was little, so I started playing piano when I was in Kindergarden, when I was like 6. As I got older, I still stayed with her a lot, so I had music lessons for a long time growing up. It was one of those things where I had to finish learning how to play something before I could go hang out with friends, but I appreciate that a lot now.

11: So keys/synth: would you say that’s your main instrument?

BC: Synth is my main instrument in some bands. I played synth and sang in Fog Father, that’s all I did. All the bands I was in growing up before that I played guitar. I’ve also played drums on an album. I just went on tour with Gary Wilson, I play bass for him. I try to make synth the focus in this project because I think we live in a world where the guitar has been worshipped, and has got a lot of attention for a long time, so I’m more interested in just making sounds.

Photo by: Eirinn Gragson

11: Does that kinda go back to the visual art? It seems like the synth is maybe one of the most visual instruments… does that make sense?

BC: It does. If you think about the oscillators, the waveforms—it breaks them down into visual terms to identify how the sounds are constructed. It’s more of a scientists game, which I like.

11: Are you pretty scientific with your settings, or do you just twist the knobs until it sounds good?

BC: I don’t know if I would say that I’m calculated, because I like to make sounds and listen and change them until I get to a point where it’s interesting. I don’t say, “I want to make a violin sound” and then do it. I sample stuff and slow it down and use that. I’m more of a collage guy than a proper musician.

11: I do want to talk about your process some more in a little while, but let’s go back for a minute to 2017 when you released your first single, “Desire.”

BC: Yeah, the 2017 was the home version. The one on the album, I did drums in the studio and mixed it properly. The demo version I put out because when you start a project and you wanna play shows, you have to have something out. So I put that demo out.

11: And Magnetism is your debut album as Bryson Cone. Is that your real name?

BC: No, it’s not my real name. I can tell you about my pseudonym though. When I was in grad school, I made a lot of art about cones, as a way to escape the seriousness of actually making  art and being an artist. Gallery art requires so much methodology and explanation, and I needed to have a little side hustle where I just made things that made absolutely no sense. It just feels good to get it out of your system. I don’t wanna explain why I’m making every single fucking thing I make, so I just made these things for fun. I chose cones as a shape, and made everything about cones. It was just an arbitrary shape, like a Marcel Duchamp sorta thing. The found object is like, he feels no pleasure or pain about it, he can use it to make art ‘cause he’ll never get sick of it. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s purely aesthetic. So I did that with cones, but then it became comedy. Everything was about cones, and then before I knew it, people started giving me cones. I have a cone ice-cream scooper. I have a cone guitar that someone made and sent to me. I have cone paintings that people have given me. I have a huge collection of cones, and I realized that I accidentally made a signature for myself, so I embraced it.

11: Were you working on putting the record together from that 2017 point until now?

BC: No. “Desire” was the first song that I made, and then “Color Of Love” was after that. On the record, I’d say 80 percent of the songs are from back then, and some of the songs are newer. But I’ve spent the whole time writing. I actually have almost three albums of material. This album documents an emotional snapshot of my life, so I kept it really collected. I did re-record all of these songs, I wasn’t happy with how they sounded originally, so it’s taken a while to get it done, but this album has been done for almost a year.

11: Do you find it easier to work on new stuff, as opposed to going back and editing or finishing things you’ve already started?

BC: Sometimes it’s more interesting to work on new things. I like making new stuff. New stuff is the stuff that I wanna listen to, and that I like the best—that I’m most excited about. But I’m really trying to make a habit of completing things, because that’s the best feeling ever when you do it. And it’s exactly how you want it. “Desire” now sounds exactly how I want it to, so I’m really excited about that. 

11: Do you typically write the music before you do lyrics?

BC: I usually write the music first. Sometimes I’ll have a phrase or something in my head. If I’m really lucky, I won’t spend any time at all writing lyrics before I finish the music. That’s the best feeling, to spend your attention in a divided way. The song “Basiphobia” was going to be instrumental. It was written that way, so it has way more decoration on it than it would have if I had just thought of that as a song I was gonna sing on. I wouldn’t have added the tiny moments, the stops and synth overdubs and stuff. I’m really happy that I took that route. It was gonna be instrumental, but then when I added vocals it was way more sound than usual.

11: What inspired you to add vocals to that song?

BC: It’s an homage to Bas Jan Ader, the artist who made himself famous by making videos of himself falling—falling off of bikes and out of trees and stuff. It’s kind of a catharsis. “Basiphobia” means the fear of falling, and some of the lyrics in the song are text from some of his paintings. It’s a little homage to him. 

11: Magnetism—the title of the record—what does that mean to you?

BC: It’s about things being drawn together or not drawn together. Polarity. A lot of the record is about a failed marriage, addiction and manic depression. Manic depression is a polar disorder, addiction is a lot about impulse control and being drawn to things. To me it’s kinda coded, but the name is part of the storytelling of the record.

11: No, it’s a good metaphor.

BC: I also like that it sounds kinda freaky. It’s a word that’s ugly in a cool way (laughs). It reminds me of old sci-fi movies. I like that.

11: Your album cover and a lot of your press photos do have an element of that old school Sci-Fi, that kinda freakiness to them. Do you do the visual direction for all that?

BC: I mean, it’s kinda evolved over some time. A lot of the photos—I work with Eirinn a lot. Her and I both make a lot of art with glam elements and wigs. So do the other members of the band—Bambi is in Reptaliens. We all share a love for Sci-Fi and a love for costuming. When you dress up like someone else, you can be whoever you want. There’s an interesting aspect of identity in that.

11: I did also wanna talk about the “Destination Nightmare” video, speaking of costuming and identities. That was your brainchild? Did you go in with that concept?

BC: Yeah, I went in with that concept. I wanted it to be like an old ‘70s punk movie. There’s this movie Jubilee that Adam Ant is in, it’s really, really, really DIY—late 70’s punk. It’s an aesthetic that I really like, so I wanted the “Destination Nightmare” video to look like that. [I wanted it] to be about a punk couple that fell asleep watching the weirdest shit ever on TV and had a nightmare. The spaghetti and garlic bread thing got thrown in there for fun, cause I’m obsessed with garlic bread, but I knew I wanted to have a bed flying around in front of a green screen. I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time. There’s this really old school movie called Dream of a Rarebit Fiend. It was one of the first films ever made, and in it this person has a dream that their bed flies out of their room and it’s flying and they’re hanging on for dear life. At first that was the concept, and we tried to shoot video with a drone in the middle of the night, but we lost control of the drone and had to run for our lives. So we kinda killed the idea with the drone after that, and then it turned out that TV fuzz looked really cool too.

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11: Speaking of touring, you’ve got your release show at Rontoms, on the 9th of February. That’s with Vexxations, which Thomas plays with?

BC: Yeah, that’s Thomas’ band. He’s an inspiration to a lot of us in our circle, very talented.

11: What are your plans for the tour after that show?

Photo by: Eirinn Gragson

BC: After that show we’re going on tour. It’s the album release party here. The album comes out on the 21st of February, but we’re doing the release party earlier. The day after Rontoms, we play Oakland. The day after that we’re in Phoenix joining Part Time and Gary Wilson, and we’re on tour with them for like two and a half weeks. We get back at the end of February.

11: Have you toured with this group before?

BC: Yeah, we’ve toured four-ish times, but it’s all been West Coast tours that have been pretty short and DIY. This is the first one that’s been booked with a larger operation. I’m really excited. Part Time is really amazing.

11: And you mentioned when you got here that you just picked up the tour van?

BC: Yeah. When I was on tour playing for Gary Wilson—we were also with Part Time, that’s how I met them. But we were touring together and we got in a really bad wreck. We got hit by a diesel truck, like an 18-wheeler, and that was in my van. We got rear-ended on a bridge over a river and it crushed the van to the extreme, so I had to get a new van.

11: Damn! Was everyone ok? Were the instruments ok?

BC: Everyone was ok. The instruments were what saved our lives. Crushing all the instruments was the padding before it got to the people. The back of the van where all the gear was packed, it was hard to even pull a jacket out of the back because of how smashed it all was. But everyone’s alive, so that’s what matters.

11: Are there plans for a physical release of this album?

BC: Yeah, they’ll be at the release show. We’re gonna have CDs and LPs.

11: How do you typically listen to music?

BC: There’s four major ways that I listen to music, and I think they’re divided pretty evenly. I listen to records when I’m at my house, that’s usually when I’m by myself. When I have friends over we’ll usually play disco stuff or whatever on the computer, because we’re all music nerds so we wanna hear music and talk about it, so we just search for stuff. I also listen to music in the van, or in my car, so I’ll stream stuff that way, but my car speakers are all blown out. I have this old black Cadillac. When I got it, I was super excited that I could blast White Zombie really loud in my Cadillac, so now it sounds kinda sad. The other way is at work. I work at CDBaby, so I listen to music on a computer there all the time. That’s on all kinds of streaming platforms, because we work with all those platforms. I guess a lot of it’s streaming now, but I make time for records.

11: You said you were just working on a new video. Can you say what song that’s for?

BC: It’s for “Mirage”. I actually was trying to shoot it for a different song, but then “Mirage” just worked better. It’s an unintended single (laughs). I’m open to things, and I think it works really well. There’s a Gary Wilson cameo. We were on tour with him and he let us shoot video of him on the beach. It was a really special trip. Eirinn did all the videography for it. It’ll be cool, I’m excited about it. There’s a lot of really campy effects in it.

11: Any timeline on that? Are you still shooting, or is it in the editing phase?

BC: We’re done shooting. The only thing I have to do is add some wind and beach sounds. That’s probably what I’ll do after this!