Over the course of a dozen releases of original music spanning three decades or so, Washington, DC-based songwriter Kowtow Popof has been labeled as both “unbearable sap” (Washington City Paper, 1997) and “underground icon” (babysue/lmnop, 2013). Kowtow prefers “underground sap” (or perhaps “unbearable icon?”). His career has been mostly an experiment in multi-track recording, influenced by the music he’s become a fan of along the way. If Cat Stevens jammed with Wire, and Elvis Costello twiddled mixing-board knobs while Gary Numan looked askance at the whole thing (and perhaps Harry Nilsson heckled from the audience), then you might get an idea of what a Kowtow record sounds like.
Of course, none of that would seem particularly disparate from Kowtow’s perspective. Each record has been an effort to produce the album in his head while juggling multiple influences. In the early days, you got the electronic folk that culminated in 1993’s Songs from the Pointless Forest, a clash of seventies singer/songwriter with eighties punk/new wave and the third installment of a trilogy including Kowtow’s 1987 debut, Stringing Along the Dreamline and 1989 follow-up Splinters & Threads. 1996’s Coaster channeled Americana and tales of broken romance (this is where the unbearable sap label comes in) while taking some cues from more surreal sources (Kowtow’s signature tune “I Am Thinking of My Darling” took its title from Vincent McHugh’s 1943 “happy zombie” novel). End of Greatness (2006) and Exalted Headband (2009) were vocal and instrumental sides of the same coin, treating the end of love and the ends of the universe as part of the same cosmic fabric.
Kowtow’s last proper studio recording is Tastes Like Armageddon, on Wampus Multimedia, a modern-sounding record that manages to be equally accessible and mysterious. Kowtow led up to the release of TLA (on 12/12/12) with a year-long T-Shirt Countdown on Bandcamp and Facebook, marking each day with a photo of a t-shirt from his vast collection.
From “Ataraxis (I Brake for Squirrels),” a call for kindness in the face of extremism, to “Alectryon at the Door,” a spooky meditation that sounds like a sleeper hit, to “Lookin’ 4 Rock,” a boiling rave-up that resurrects Popof’s rant style, Armageddon delivers steely resolve, a snapshot of an artist transcending doubts.
Kowtow’s Christmas album, 13 Daze of Xmas, was released as a download on December 12, 2017. Compiled from his annual singing xmas card (2003 – 2015), it’s a rock ‘n’ roll sleigh ride filled with nostalgia, dipsomania, reindeer trading, and other merry-making monkey business.
Kowtow’s latest release is 2018’s Summer Agents, a 4-song instrumental EP available on Bandcamp. The EP features the title track and its remix by All India Radio’s Martin Kennedy. The EP also includes the songs “Tiny Manster” and “Deviled Eggs”.
Kowtow interrupts his album-making with occasional live performances with longtime collaborator Rob Santos accompanying on electric guitar, usually at Evening Star in Alexandria, VA. He appeared frequently at DC-area venues Iota (r.i.p.) and Vermilion (back when they had music), and once opened for Peter Himmelman at the old Birchmere. He also managed to perform at the funky Arlington nightspot Galaxy Hut a few times when they weren’t looking. He collaborated with the electronic rock band Hitchcock Blonde on their 2006 debut Soul Button, and has covered songs for tributes to Jonathan Richman, Lou Reed and Bill Nelson. His fantasy is that some day Los Straitjackets will cover one of his songs.
Summer Agents EP (2018)
13 Daze of Xmas (2017)
Tastes Like Armageddon (2012)
Exalted Headband (2009)
End of Greatness (2006)
Soul Button w/ Hitchcock Blonde (2006)
Kowtow Drops the Pop Off EP (2003)
Eat My Dust (1999)
Songs From the Pointless Forest (1993)
Splinters & Threads (1989)
Stringing Along the Dreamline (1987)
“Satellite of Love,” After Hours: a Tribute to Lou Reed (2003)
“Lonely Financial Zone,” If I Were a Richman: a Tribute to Jonathan Richman (2001)
“Burning Light,” Confessions of Young Moderns: a Tribute to Bill Nelson (2000)
“Aeroplane Wings,” Multiplex: Our Secret Studios: a Fan Tribute to Bill Nelson (1999)