Gallery owner BJ Kocen tunes in to musical inspiration for a new double album that ranges from acoustic guitar to full-band sounds
August 9, 2016
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.”
Richmond art gallery owner releases double CD passion project
By JO LORD Special correspondent Photo by Scott Elmquist
August 6th, 2016
BJ Kocen is excited. (Of course he is.)
Those who love him best know that “enthusiastic” is his default setting. He’s an exuder of good vibes. Spreader of positivity. Generous smiler. Frequent user of exclamation points. And relentless searcher for the good in life. Even so, his excitement right now is over the top, even for him.
The reason? Kocen, the co-owner of a popular Richmond art gallery and longtime fixture on the city’s music scene, is coming to the end of an all-consuming passion project: a double CD infused with his philosophy on the nature of life. “I feel like our society has become so black and white, there’s no room for middle ground,” he said. “We need to reclaim our compassion. To get there, we have to deal with our personal dualities first. ‘What can I accept?’ ‘What can I change?’ The record talks about all of that and explores duality on a personal scale and a global scale.”
This musical project, without question, is the biggest Kocen has ever undertaken. “The record grew into the most ambitious recording I’ve ever done and I’d put it up against some of the best recordings to come out of Richmond, for sure,” he said. “I really think it has heart and impact. We compromised very little in making it and chased every little bit of it down.”
With the project, Kocen wanted to present two distinct ways of recording as an example of duality working in harmony. The first CD, “Searching for Signal,” consists of 10 songs highly arranged and meticulously produced by Lance Brenner in his home studio in Charlottesville over two years. The second, “Old Lake,” is filled with 10 songs recorded live over three days working with producer Adrian Olsen at Montrose Recording in Richmond.
“Searching for Signal” is summer; “Old Lake” is fall. “Searching for Signal” is Saturday night; “Old Lake” is Sunday morning. “Searching for Signal” is a mix tape spanning musical genres; “Old Lake” has a mellow acoustic through-line.
“Searching for Signal” is an exploratory effort; “Old Lake” was recorded live on the fly.
Of the 20 songs on the two CDs, 16 are originals by Kocen. The remaining four are covers that have meaning for him in one way or another. “Two of Me” explores his own dual nature while imparting a universal message through his favorite kind of lyrics, playful yet heartfelt. He wrote, “Something is Burning” during the idyllic days when he first lived with Jennifer Glave, who later became his wife, in a log cabin in Ashland. With “Poppa Don,” Kocen wanted to capture his father’s spirit and to give his dad a theme song to call his own. “Missouri,” one of Kocen’s covers, was written by good friend Scott Elmquist for Elmquist’s wife, Dana. (It’s Kocen’s hope that Elmquist’s young daughter, Shea, will hear it in a few years and appreciate her father’s gift as a songwriter.)
Many A-list, mostly local, musicians lent their time and talent to the project. Steve Bassett, who co-wrote the ’70s radio hit “Sweet Virginia Breeze” and recently recorded a new album at Alabama’s storied Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, played on three songs. Brad Tucker of The Taters lent instrumental and vocal support on many of the tracks; his band mate Craig Evans stepped in for a song as well. Jeff Bunn, who played bass, is a member of The Funk Mob and a Gold Record recipient. Jim Wark, a popular Richmond musician, contributed acoustic and electric guitar.
Jackie Frost, well-known in the city’s folk music scene, sang backup and played acoustic guitar. Charles Arthur, a multi-instrumentalist who’s recorded with Jason Mraz, Chez Roué and Slaid Cleaves, contributed, as did Roger Carroll, a well-known sax player. So did Rusty Farmer, Matt Wyatt and Kevin Harding of Quatro Na Bossa.
“I’m a fan of BJ’s musicality and energy,” said Bassett, who first started writing music with Kocen this spring after Kocen was inspired by Bassett’s memoir, “Sing Loud.” “He’s made a great record, and I’m sure we’re going to have a ball presenting his music live at the CD release party,” Bassett said.
Evans of The Taters joked, “Of all the albums that BJ has put out, this is the most recent.” He added, “His songwriting on this album really raised the bar on what he’s learned to create.”
Devon Sproule, an international touring singer-songwriter and longtime recording partner of Kocen’s, said, “With this new project, it’s like seeing and hearing a whole new level of ambition. Getting to see someone express themselves and their life and passion so deeply makes me excited ... and jealous!”
About a month ago, Kocen finally held in his hands the finished CDs, complete with art on both covers by Richmond native Steven Walker, a glave kocen gallery artist. It also was around that time that Kocen finally made peace with one of his personal dualities: his double life as an art gallery owner and gigging musician.
“For the longest time, I kept them separate,” he said. “I wanted to be taken seriously as a gallery owner and thought there was a conflict of interest. But now I know that I need to challenge myself to continue to gig and not to retreat back to the living room. Making music isn’t just something I love to do. It’s something I need to do.”
Art Gallery Owner B.J. Kocen Gets Back to His Love of Music in a Big Way
By Karen Newton photo by Scott Elmquist
The new double concept album from B.J. Kocen, “Searching for Signal/Old Lake,” is likely to transport listeners of a certain age to the golden singer and songwriter era of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
With a voice that’s textured and emotive, but also accessible in an Everyman sort of way, Kocen draws you in without resorting to artifice or affectation. There’s a vibe to the songs that just feels right.
Despite the seamless sound of the 20 songs, the first 10 took three years to produce and the second 10 took three days. Kocen says using two completely different styles of recording was intentional, his means of demonstrating that neither is better than the other.
“This project is the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done,” he says from Glave-Kocen Gallery, which he co-owns with his wife, Jennifer. “What I tried to accomplish with the people I played with is crazy big, but I don’t think it’s egotistical.”
One reason for the double album was the huge backlog of material, including songs written during his years helping get Ashland Coffee and Tea off the ground as a listening room. There also were energetic love letters written to Jennifer from the turn of the century up through material as recent as two years ago.
“I’m an excitable writer,” Kocen says. “The faucet doesn’t turn off.” He says he wanted to include the best material, but also the stuff he most enjoyed playing.
A self-taught musician, Kocen refers to his music as soul folk and his guitar playing as the worst thing on the record.
“There were times I rose to the occasion and times I could have done better,” he says, sharing that his friend, musician Paul Curreri, once laughingly called him the best fake guitar player he’d ever seen.
“Searching for Signal” was highly arranged and meticulously produced by Lance Brenner in his home studio in Charlottesville and features only one song not written by Kocen, Curreri’s “Down by the Water.” Several more covers populate “Old Lake.”
Here, too, Kocen draws a link to the ’60s and ’70s, when many songwriters recorded their friends’ songs, though rarely the hits. “It feels right, the passing around of songs,” he says, “that spirit of the music. It’s an opportunity for people to hear my friends’ songs.”
Brenner says he found the songs true to the person he got to know during the arranging and recording process.
“That’s the best compliment I could pay a songwriter,” Brenner says. “Finding out and articulating who you are is everything. Listening to ‘Searching for Signal’ is actually getting to know B.J., and he’s a very interesting guy.”
The second set of songs, “Old Lake,” was recorded live to focus on performance with no overdubs — “OK, there were two, but they were really little ones,” Kocen acknowledges — with Adrian Olsen at Montrose Studios in Richmond.
More than 20 musicians play on the record, including: Steve Bassett, Jeff Bunn of Funkadelic, Craig Evans and Brad Tucker of the Taters, Charles Arthur, Roger Carroll in his last session before moving to Chicago, Jim Wark, Jackie Frost, Jonathan Gibson and members of Quatro Na Bossa.
“It was important to me to pay everyone involved as much as I could offer to compensate for all the times they weren’t paid,” Kocen says. “And because they deserve it.”
Many of the studio musicians will be playing at the CD release show at the Broadberry, which will be followed by a vinyl release party at Plan 9 this fall.
Kocen doesn’t expect to become a household name, but acknowledges, “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m hoping this will blow up.” More realistically, he hopes to simply make people aware of the project and get back in the groove of performing two or three times a month while also booking other acts at the gallery.
“I see myself as a purveyor of the scene, helping other artists get exposure,” he says. “But my ultimate goal is for people to know I’m a singer songwriter.” S
Dig That Gig: B.J. Kocen
April 4th, 2011 by Paul Spicer Photo by Mark Breen
B.J. Kocen is Richmond. At any given moment, he represents an impressive combination of creativity, talent, and gusto. He is a gallery owner, musician, comedian, and advocate for all things RVA. Richmond.com slowed Kocen down just long enough to find out what drives his enthusiasm for multiple gigs in hopes it might rub off on the rest of us.
Name: B.J. Kocen
Title: Director of Glave Kocen Gallery
Job duties: Man...Answer D . . .All of the above. Seriously, everything. I specialize in marketing, cultivation and finding artists that our clients respond to.
Time on this gig: Three years and change
Richmonders know you as many things—musician, actor, gallery owner and community organizer. How do you best define yourself?
Jeez, what's with the hard questions out of the gate? Where are the softballs? This interview is over. Define yourself you jerk. I don't get defined. I'm beyond definition. You can't look me up in a dictionary, I'm not gonna fit in your category, man.
Wait, let's not get off on the wrong foot. I'm sorry, I apologize. It’s me, not you. Let's start again.
Hi, I'm B.J. Kocen and I define myself as gallery owner, singer-songwriter and wanna-be-comedian.
So tell us about your day job, your 9-to-5 gig—why is it so darn great?
Well, for starters my 9-5 is 11-6. So that's one reason why it’s pretty great. Don't hate. Honestly, because I love what I do. I've been in the arts my whole life and Jennifer Glave, my wife and partner, has made my life complete by sharing that passion. We only work with artists we get a long with and our clients really appreciate our sensibilities
And how did you land such a handy-dandy job?
Well, we carved our own destiny. Before the Glave Kocen gallery, we ran The Rentz Gallery for about three years and found an opportunity to buy a space just a block away from the Rentz gallery that my grandfather owned back when it was Pepsi Bottling. We jumped at the chance to break out on our own and to reclaim a piece of my family's history.
What are some of the perks you enjoy that are associated with your gig?
Aww, man—well, we're really about balance in our lives. We work very hard and we take the time off needed to recharge our batteries. I have a major sense of pride in the business and that keeps my spirit filled. Also being able to utilize the space to reach out to Richmond's nonprofit community is very rewarding. Oh yeah, and the discount on art doesn't hurt!
Tell us about a time that you asked yourself—seriously, am I really getting paid for this?
Well, that would have to be when I worked for Kings Dominion as one of those walk-around characters and when it would get to 95 degrees or so. You would walk for 10 minutes and take a 50-minute break. Yeah, that was real tough. I got paid to sit around and look at the cute ice skaters run around in their skimpy outfits because our dressing room was adjacent to theirs. Those were tough times, dark days indeed. That was years ago though, and at the gallery I'd say at the end of every opening night when we blow the roof off of Richmond I feel like that.
The physical place one works can add to the overall experience. Tell us what it’s like working in an art gallery and being surrounded by some of Richmond's best artists.
Sometimes I forget to enjoy it. I usually don't walk around and drink it in until a week or two after the show opens, and it really is amazing. I just commented to Jenn recently as we walked into the gallery, "Can you believe we own this place?" Of course, we love the art we exhibit, so, yeah, it's pretty amazing for us. I also love getting to play all my favorite music and that's just a little treat for me when someone comes in and is perusing the art and humming along. Jenn and I always jostle the volume knob though. I guess sometimes I've got it cranked a bit much.
Let’s talk music—how do you find time to practice and perform while running a gallery?
Well, it's not as hard as you may think, especially once again since the passion is there. I find time every day to play guitar and sing, whether it’s in the morning, noon, or night. I find that I write the best in the morning or early evening. I gig just about as much as I want to, which is about a couple of times a month. I guess in my other life, I'd want to be a touring musician, but I'm quite content with the balance of the gallery life and my music life.
It’s obvious that you’re smack dab in the middle of the art and music scene in our city.
What are some of the ups and downs that come with keeping creativity thriving in Richmond?
Man, it’s just hard to keep the audiences coming out. I've got a pretty loyal following personally, but I think with the advent of so many ways to entertain yourself without leaving your home, going out to see live performances is the exception, where it used to be more of the norm. I think it's getting better as the turnout for the gallery's openings have been tremendous. Keeping the creativity thriving, I guess, comes from within—never getting comfortable, always generating new ideas. It’s easy for a gallery because you put a new show up every month, but we're always innovating new ways to present ourselves and our artists. Musically, I think Ashland Coffee and Tea has got it right. They have started themed weekend and music series such as Trop Rock Weekend, which was a huge success, The Singer Songwriter Showdown that I've hosted for the past 16 months, and now there's even loose talk about a Texas Music weekend.
What advice would you give the average Richmonder looking to escape their cubical in favor of working a gig like yours?
Wow man, I'd say stop looking out the window and get out there, make those daydreams a reality and go get some happy if you're not satisfied with your occupation. You can do it. Jenn and I started with nothing. Will it, pray for it, work towards it, don't just wish you can change your life.
Do you dig this gig enough to recommend it to others, and if so, what would you tell Richmond.com readers about taking on a job like yours?
I would say that running any business that has a retail aspect is no joke. I would recommend it if you are passionate about artwork and you like being around people. Extroverts get their energy from people, introverts have their energy taken away by people, so consider that for sure. Just make sure that whatever you do, it brings you joy. What else are we here for?