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BJ Kocen (Photo by Scott Elmquist)
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Old Lake cover art (Image courtesy BJ Kocen)
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Searching for Signal cover art (Image courtesy BJ Kocen)
To saddle BJ Kocen with a single, exacting title would be reductive. Though he and his wife, Jennifer Glave, run the Glavé Kocen Gallery, he’s not just a curator or businessman. And despite Kocen wielding a guitar at venues across Central Virginia since the ’90s, he’s not just one of those singer-songwriter types.
Kocen, however, is set to issue a sprawling double album, split between some pared-down acoustic ruminating and a clutch of full-band rave-ups. He calls “Searching for Signal / Old Lake” his magnum opus. Maybe it is. But it’s also another endeavor that’s enabled Kocen to marshal a deep well of Virginia talent.
Before his creative life was musically focused, acting and comedy held the guitarist in thrall. “I got over doing the things you have to do to get to the things you want to do,” Kocen says about treading down the path toward being an actor. “One of the main ones was auditioning. I hated going into a room of 10 men — they all look like you. In auditions, some dude would try to trash-talk you and get you off your game, just like on a basketball court. ‘You gonna wear your glasses in there?’ ”
He encountered a similarly competitive spirit while working the Songwriter Showdown at Ashland Coffee & Tea. Instead of exuding a nefarious pressure, though, the field of talent inspired Kocen to double down on his craft amid a rotating cast of musicians.
Jim Wark was one of those players. And on Kocen’s double-disc effort, he contributes both acoustic and electric guitar, a foil to the bandleader’s six-string rhythm keeping.
“BJ wears a lot of hats in this city,” Wark says, noting that both he and Kocen might be as suited to playing on a track that recalls the Ramones as one tied to a Steve Earle vibe. “But a lot of people are going to be surprised by some of the new directions he’s taken on this album. I’ve been playing with him for 10 years and I was surprised.”
Watching all those performers at the Ashland outpost was bound to leave an impression. “I got some good information on being a better performer myself,” says Kocen, who both emceed and performed in the showcase at various times. “The biggest thing in that was having to be somewhere each week. It was a job — show up and be ready no matter what was going on in my life and just engage.”
That perspective and his consistency seem to have enabled the gallerist to corral about 20 players for his pending double album, a lineup the bandleader aims to recreate for an Aug. 11 album-release show at The Broadberry. Jeff Bunn, who contributes bass to Kocen’s work, might best be known for adding some low end to Funkadelic’s 1979 “Uncle Jam Wants You,” as well as a few other George Clinton-related projects.
His bass isn’t the only miraculous scrap of music on the two-disc set, a follow-up and extension of the breezy acoustic pop on Kocen’s 2010 “The Breaks.”
Pedal steel and rounded-off keyboard notes might crop up alongside any of Kocen’s shuffling rock compositions. And on “Poppa Don,” horns punctuate remembrances and accompany descriptions of a patriarch’s earlier days, leading to an almost three-minute instrumental passage to close out the track. Kocen says it’s a theme song for his father.
Broadly, there’s a lyrical fondness for what’s slipped into the past emanating from the double disc. And it doesn’t always necessitate musical ornamentation. The “Old Lake” sequence, Kocen says, was written as a love letter to his wife. The 10 songs almost petition for a lakefront view and quietude, as most roll by with the singer and an acoustic guitar as the main focus. His penchant for humor, though, finds inclusion in the form of “Hot Poop,” a cover of Andy Fairweather Low’s tongue-in-cheek track from the ’70s.
It’s that sort of duality — Kocen’s enmeshing low and coffeehouse culture — that tie his seemingly disparate work together. “I did one side the Brian Wilson way … and the second side is absolutely as far away from lab work as you can get,” he says, contrasting the sleek production of the double album’s first half to the subdued closing portion, produced by Avers’ Adrian Olsen. “It’s about how the take goes, instead of, ‘Let’s massage this [in post-production].’ ”
The work’s complexity might only be hinted at in its construction and division. But Kocen talks a lot about dualism. And on “Two of Me,” he plaintively describes what most folks wrestle with silently: an unending struggle between one’s own nature and what’s desired or hoped for.
His songs don’t freely offer specific truths. But sketching out a person racked by irreconcilable sides on a few tracks that land somewhere between Tom Petty and Townes Van Zandt might wrap the deliberations in enough finery to pass off as pop, instead of existential dread. “I think the struggle that we’re facing is this polarization; it’s this side or this side. ... Try to find the good in both, whatever it is,” he figures, before almost summoning a distinct “Rashomon” reference. “As my dad would say, ‘There are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth.’ That’s really what I’m trying to say with this record.”
BJ Kocen plans to release his double album “Searching for Signal/Old Lake” at The Broadberry on Aug. 11 at 8 p.m. $15. 353-1888 or thebroadberry.com.