An Interview With Bryson the Alien

Will Hagle speaks to the Ohio-born emcee about how being a father affected the creation of his new album KUMA, going through a break-up while watching Wayne's World, the influence of video games and...
By    December 5, 2023

Image via Bryson the Alien

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Will Hagle is entertaining the conspiracy that YouTube commenters might be 100% bots.

Bryson the Alien is pulling Impossible Nuggets out of the oven when I call to talk about his new album KUMA: ten-tracks of lo-fi hip-hop he’d describe as weird and I’d describe as the perfect soundtrack for a rainy day in the Pacific Northwest. I can’t see him, but I imagine he’s wearing a hat that says “Wayne’s World” on it, as he does in most press photos and on the cover of KUMA. He wears the hat, he tells me in our interview, so that people instantly know what type of time he’s on. What that means is indescribable in words, but instantly, universally, palpable.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, Bryson’s music education came from raiding his older brother’s CD collection and playing Playstation games like Tekken. Fellow Midwesterners like The Cool Kids taught him the flashy maximalism of that era’s mainstream wasn’t the only way to make music. You can strip hip-hop back down to its essentials, and create something truer to your strangest self. In the mundanity of the mid-size city on the Michigan border, Bryson also learned from video games that the best soundtracks are accentuated with the calculated chaos of punchy sound effects. KUMA, like his other albums, flows from one track to the next with the seamlessness of advancing to the next level, letting listeners lock in and lose themselves for the duration.

When it came time to legitimize his pursuit of music as a career, Bryson moved not to Chicago like Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks, nor New York or LA like so many others. He went to Portland, where the people are as weird as the sounds he creates. In the years since he’s been in the predominantly white city where rock-oriented music prevails, the hip-hop scene has grown far beyond Damian Lillard mixtapes. Bryson has been at the center of it, performing at every venue around town and working with an eclectic crew of local artists, like Just Alfa and Tezmanian of his own Sumalienz imprint.

Portland allowed Bryson to grow into himself, but the music took off when Covid lockdowns forced him to retreat, like the rest of the world, into the internet. After recording Juenethia in 2019, an eight-song album named after his mother, Bryson sent the project out to blogs and labels. This led to the formation of Unexplained Aerial Phenomenon, his collaborative group with L.A.-based psych-rock band Pioneer 11. They put out Casual Abductions in 2022 on POW Recordings, an underground masterclass with a roster of features including Open Mike Eagle, Fat Tony, Fatboi Sharif, and Lil B. Swedish label PNKSLM also responded favorably to the album, and has continued to work with Bryson on various releases.

KUMA is the first of two albums coming out at the end of 2023. It seems unusual to drop two different-sounding albums within a month of each other, but Bryson explains how it’s all calculated. Not in any specific business sense, but again in a way that’s true to himself and the people and things he cares about.

It was recorded over a year ago during an exciting yet nervous period of uncertainty prior to the birth of his daughter. Bryson used beats purchased from a producer named Ghowste found by chance via YouTube autoplay, had it mixed by underground hip-hop legend Jake Bowman and perfected it through his own video game-inspired production touches. The result is a singular distillation of Bryson’s weirdness, something both dense and subdued, befitting of a rainy day. Ghowste’s beats are like a video game backing track, and Bryson’s voice is like Kuma from Tekken fighting a soft but purposeful battle, demonstrating his strength through lyrical strikes and combos.

Bryson can do it all, including, apparently, eating Impossible Nuggets while waiting to respond to my long-winded questions.

I listened to your newest album yesterday, when it was raining in LA. That completely changed my whole perception of it. Especially the song “Birdie,” which made me want to move to Portland. What was your mindset like going into making this album in comparison to other projects? It’s more lo-fi and subdued than some of your other stuff, and it has a tone that works well in the rain.

Bryson the Alien: For this particular album, what made it interesting more than the other ones was, I was expecting to be a father at the time. My girl was pregnant. I recorded this album last May. My daughter was born in June. So I kind of put this task upon myself to finish the album before she was born.

Going into this particular album, I had that fatherly sort of outlook on things. I felt like that helped shape where my head was at. I feel like I was growing up more. So I kind of just tried to take a more refined approach to things.

This album is definitely more lo-fi than the things I put out in the past. I feel like the most comparable album to this is probably my debut album, hail mary. That has a few lo-fi cuts on there.

I just knew I was about to become a father. I knew I just wanted to get this project recorded and then I sent it off to Jake to mix and whatnot. But yeah, that was the main thing, just knowing I was about to be a father. At that time, I had this irrational fear, like, “I’ll never have time to make music for a long time. I’m gonna be a dad, I’m gonna be so busy.” So I was like, let me just make one more album for the time being and then I’ll just chill. But you know how it goes. She came, and I’m as busy as I’ve ever been.

You’ve mentioned how The Cool Kids were a major influence to you. I don’t think I would have immediately thought of that while listening to your music, but once I heard that I couldn’t unhear it. What was your relationship like to the Cool Kids as a fan, and then what has it been like going from a fan to working with Chuck Inglish?

Bryson the Alien: I have an older brother. He’s nine years older than me. Growing up, I would always raid his CD stash and raid his closet and his clothes and stuff. I was the pesky little brother that was just always in his stuff.

It was right around maybe high school, late junior high. He had The Bake Sale CD. It was burned on some Memorex burnt CD. I remember he played it in the car. He was taking me to school or something. And I was just like, “Man, what the hell is this?” So, he played that. And then I just kind of dived in after that. Looked them up on the internet and found the music got the rest of the mixtapes and stuff out at the time.

It just was really inspiring. It made me see, like, “Man, I could probably do something like this, because these guys are talking about the stuff I like and they’re wearing the clothes I like to wear and they’re kind of atypical from the mainstream sort of thing.” They stood out, just being themselves. I kind of saw myself in them, you know?

They did it all themselves, too, with simplistic beats that weren’t the flashy beats of the time. It almost felt like anyone could do it, even though not everyone could obviously.

Bryson the Alien: Exactly. They have that friend-next-door sort of vibe. You almost felt like you knew them, in a way. That was really cool for me at the time. I didn’t really know I would be a music maker like this, but I was definitely inspired and I definitely thought it was really cool, how they came into the game like they did.

So I was always a fan since then. Then eventually, when I started making music, and I’ve seen Chuck has beat sales and different things like that, I just kind of tapped in and emailed him and just got deep and collected stuff over time. So we’re not like super duper close or nothing but we have that kind of business relationship in a way.

It’s just been a pleasure. I feel like I’ve gotten a few beats that Michael Rocks passed on. Definitely some of the stuff I’ve had and worked on, I could definitely tell, like, these are probably scrapped from their sessions. So I’m kind of honored to give a go at it.

You talk about weird music and on the album you mention DOOM and Madlib and other “weird” artists. You’re more of an underground rapper, but I feel like a lot of your lyrics, if they had different production, could almost be more mainstream like Lil Wayne or Curren$y. So I was wondering if you listen to more mainstream hip-hop too?

Bryson the Alien: When I first came into this around 2015 when I moved here, I feel like for at least a strong three or four years, I didn’t really listen to too much else. Because I was really immersed in what I was doing. But after I got to a certain point, right around 2019, maybe even during the pandemic, I felt more comfortable in my artistry. I felt like I developed the sound that I wanted. I liked how my discography was coming together. So I definitely started to just tap in more into what was going on around me and listen to more stuff and just put my ear to things. But for the first few years, I didn’t really listen to a lot of the mainstream stuff that was going on. But now I’m more engaged with it. Just because I want to know what people are listening to and make sure my stuff sounds on par, sonically and mix-wise. So a lot of time I listen to it just for reference, just to make sure I’m not so far less or something.

I know a lot of people from the 90s underground hip-hop scene will talk about how their music was almost more appreciated in Europe than it was in the US even though all the artists were American. You’ve worked with the Swedish label PNKSLM and some other artists from over there. Do you find that’s still true today?

Bryson the Alien: I definitely feel like it still is, in a way, still true. I definitely feel like overseas there’s less bias, as far as the artists they gravitate towards. All the follower counts, and all the metrics don’t matter as much to someone over there.

I guess the only thing is, I haven’t quite been over there like that. So I haven’t seen it for myself. But as far as just the streaming and where people are listening to my stuff, it’s definitely all over the world. I know just based off of just the music, I don’t have a gold plaque or platinum plaque or I’m not on Def Jam and nothing like that. So I don’t have certain accolades that would draw people in. I really just kind of have anything in the music.

How did you start working with PNKSLM?

Bryson the Alien: It was just one of those things where when I put out my album Juenethia—the one named after my mom—in December 2019… I felt really confident about that particular project. So I used it as a demo and I sent it out to a few different labels. POW Records was one of those places, which eventually led to the UAP thing with Pioneer 11. I kind of knew those dudes before, but me sending that to Jeff is kind of how me and Jeff connected. And then PNKSLM was also one of the people that messaged me back, because they liked it.

Then the pandemic happened right after that. So it just really was a lot of emailing and getting to know those guys just through Gmail, and a few little Zoom calls and things like that. Just kind of building that sort of rapport. Then they had a label compilation sort of thing during the pandemic, and I contributed three songs to it. Those went over well, and then it just turned into “Man… We should just make a whole album.” So then we reworked the three songs that was on the compilation, and then we just made more music, and then just made an album out of it.

On KUMA, every beat is by a producer called Ghowste. How did you end up working with him?

Bryson the Alien: Yeah, I haven’t met him in person. What happened was, I was just on YouTube. I was just listening to something. I don’t know exactly what it was. But one of his beats popped up on the autoplay. I had autoplay on, or suggestions, or whatever it was. And one of his beats came on. I can’t remember the first one I heard. But it just really captivated me. So I was like, “Who is this dude?” So I just went to his page and I just started clicking through beats and listening. I was like, “Damn, man, you got some good stuff.” Then I was like, “Well, let me just make a playlist. Let me just dig through here and make a playlist of beats that I like.” So then I made a playlist and then I just started listening to the playlist. I was like, “Damn, this could be an album maybe.” So then I just emailed him. I asked him if the beats that I wanted are available. He said, “Yeah,” and we just cut a deal on me purchasing the beats that I use for the album. That was pretty much that, as far as his involvement with it.

And then in the liner notes it says transition skits and other SFX by Bryson the Alien. Can you talk about that process? How much do you actually do yourself in terms of production and adding things?

Bryson the Alien: For this album, after I recorded the songs I sent it to Jake Bowman to mix. It’s funny too because I recorded it in May of last year, and I got the album this year in May. So it was almost exactly a year when I got the album back. Then once I got the album back, I started listening to it. I was digging it. But then I was like, I can put a little bit of sauce on it.

I made a cassette lo-fi chain master I threw all the songs through. I did that, then I started to add little transitions. I took little pieces from certain video games or certain shows and things and I just distorted them and made them almost unrecognizable and funky. I just put certain things at the end of songs and things like that.

I just tried to make a fluid listening experience, adding all these random little things. I hope people never figure out what I use. I just wanted to add a fluid listening experience. And then at the very last part of the album, where Alfa is talking, I produced that last little outro. I took a Dreamcast game. I won’t say which one. But I took some video game soundtrack stuff, and just distorted it and flipped it and made a canvas for him to talk on.

As of recently, since about 2020 or so, I’ve been taking more of a producer, mixer masterer sort of role. Just making sure the album sounds cohesive to me. I’m not just gonna take the songs Jake gave me and just upload them. I want to make it a cohesive listenable fluid experience. I just want people to hit play and not feel compelled to stop it or skip it. So that’s what all that is about, just to keep you from hitting stop or skip.

Now I want to ask about video games because you say “Press Play” on a lot of your songs. I don’t know what that means, but I like it. And you said you use video game sounds in your music. Do you have any formative video games for your life? Especially any of the best video games in terms of music?

Bryson the Alien: Yeah, definitely. This album was named KUMA, and Kuma is a character on Tekken. Kuma is like a big old bear. So the album was definitely named after that character in a way. And also I had looked up randomly, the word “Kuma,” and in some countries, it means “to say” or “to speak” or like “a word” or something like that. Then also, my last name is Fisher. And a bear likes fish. So it’s kind of like, Papa Bear, or Fisher. It’s a play on a lot of different things.

But as far as video games, I definitely feel like Tekken is one of the most influential video games in my life. And I love the music too. I feel like the soundtracks are amazing.

It really started, my first system, whatever Christmas that was, 96 or 97, I had got the PlayStation. Then my brother got the Nintendo 64 for Christmas. So that day, I got both those systems at the same time. It just rocked my world. Because on PlayStation, I had this game called Soul Edge, which was like pre Soul Calibur. It’s like a sword fighting game. My brother, he had Starfox 64 on Nintendo 64. So those are some of the first games I remember playing on those systems. It inspired me. I also love Streets of Rage, which is an old Sega scroll beat ’em up game. They put out two or three. They also put out a part four on Nintendo Switch or DS or whatever it’s called nowadays, That was also very inspiring. A very crucial game in my life, and I also love the music, too.

Since you were working on KUMA over a year ago, since then you’ve become a father and had a kid for the past year. I know you said it didn’t slow you down. But how has fatherhood changed your life, and then also your music?

Bryson the Alien: As far as my life, I feel like I was already taking things seriously. But now I just have another reason to go hard. It definitely put that fire in my back.

As far as music, it’s making me want to create more things to go along with the music. Like, I know how to make cassettes now. I have a cassette deck now. So I’ve been pressing cassettes and figuring out how to make a J Card and make all the things that go into tape, like the artwork and format and all that stuff.

And just making me put more business behind the music instead of just making music and uploading it. But also making the physical merchandise to go along with it. It’s making me really consider that.

As far as the music, too, I have in the back of my mind that one day she’s probably going to hear this stuff I make. So I just want to really make sure I’m saying something when I go on record. Not that I’ve gotta do the miracle spiritual stuff. But just make sure like, “Will my daughter be proud of this?” Like, she’s going to listen to this. I want her to be proud of this stuff. So it just makes me take a little bit more time to choose my words more carefully.

Since you’re releasing these two albums about a month apart, do you have any thoughts on the strategy of putting music out at the right time or waiting in between releases or just putting out as much as you can?

Bryson the Alien: You know, with me, it’s kind of interesting. Because from my perspective, all of my releases happened at the perfect time. KUMA, the album came out October 11. And that’s also Alfa’s birthday. I knew I wanted to put it out on his birthday, especially because he talks on it at the end. So I knew that I wanted to put it out that day.

As far as Norman, the day it comes out will mark exactly four years since the Juenethia project came out in 2019. December 12 is exactly four years apart. And it took me four years to make the first one. So now it’s four years later.

So to me, it’s kind of perfect. But I know it’s very atypical to put out things this close by, but I also look at it, like, that’s how I’m going to make merch and make tapes. I feel like I’ll be pushing this music for life. So I don’t see it stopping. I want to put out some shirts and things like that. So I’ll continue to put coals in the fire as far as getting it out to people.

I have to ask about the Wayne’s World hat.

Bryson the Alien: Yeah, dude. Damn. Well, pretty much when I moved here in 2015, I was dating this girl at the time. I knew her from back in Toledo. She eventually moved in with me for a little bit. When I first got here, we lived together. We eventually broke up.

The funny thing about it is the day we broke up, we were just watching Wayne’s World. We were watching the movie, and I was tripping acid. I knew something wasn’t right. It just felt a bit weird. I was on acid, and I was like, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” She just like, wouldn’t say nothing. I eventually coaxed it out of her. It was pretty much just her saying, like, she don’t want to be together anymore type thing. So it’s just interesting. It was weird.

As Wayne’s World is playing in the background?

Bryson the Alien: Yeah, we’re watching the movie. It’s on the projector screen. We’re just sitting there, in my studio apartment. We’re just watching it. And then that happened. Then it was like, “Well, I’m just gonna chill here, and finish watching the movie.” Then whatever happens happens.

Like a week or two after we broke up, and she moved out, I was walking down the street. In Portland, they have these things called free boxes where people just put out stuff they don’t want anymore. People can just grab it if they see something they like in there. I was on my way home, and in the free box there was a brand new Wayne’s World hat.

It was so random that I was like, “Yo, this is so crazy.” So it’s not like I wear it to remember her, but it just reminds me of where I was at.

That was right before I put out my debut album a few months later. It was just a very interesting coincidence. I started wearing it all the time. Then it just became a part of me, in a way. But that’s how it started. So I pretty much just found the hat and then I just wear it ever since.
Since then, I’ve replaced it hella times, you know, lost a few hats, things like that. So it just kind of became a thing.

I just also know, like, here in Portland, this is a predominantly white place. It’s definitely very rock influenced. So it’s just kind of perfect. People see me, see the hat. And they already know what type of time I’m on. So it was like, I could say less, you know what I mean? I could just walk into a room. And people know what type of time I’m on. So it was kind of cool in that aspect, too. You know where where I’m at.

Do you believe in signs from the universe or do you just take coincidences and roll with them?

Bryson the Alien: The funny thing about things like that, there’s always a layer of skepticism. From my experience, the way this all panned out, it definitely could be said that this was also some meant-to-be sort of shit. But I also know that I put in the work, too. I didn’t just, like, wake up and things started happening. Like, I sent hella emails. I recorded. I wrote. So when I’ve seen the Wayne’s World hat or when I ran into a certain musician, or a certain person, I just think it was more so I do look at it like it’s a confirmation for me to keep going on the path I’m going on.

I really like “Rituals / Brotherhood” on KUMA. I don’t know if you like Tyler, The Creator and Odd Future, but I got a little bit of that.

Bryson the Alien: Yeah, definitely. Especially that earlier [stuff]. Pretty much all the way up to Tyler’s Wolf album, I was very tapped into what he was doing and inspired by him. Especially his production choices and how he delivered his vocals on certain songs. Even how they made their clothes and things like that. It definitely was inspiring.

I love that song. It’s interesting, too, because I joined a fraternity in college. Those songs were named that, too. Those beats were named those already. So the beat was already called “Brotherhood.” So I was like, “Man, let me just do me on these beats.” They’re already named this. I felt like I fit the bill, in a way. The type of production palette that I like to jump on. I just kind of used that as inspiration.

It’s almost like a time capsule to me. In my mind, I bring people back to when I was a pledge. When I was a freshman. Especially on the second half of “Brotherhood,” I’m at a party, saying I’m playing beer pong. I’m talking to girls. I thought it was cool that that song allowed me to paint that picture of that for me.

You mentioned at the end of “Angels?”, the last song, is Just Alfa talking. I don’t remember exactly what he says. Is there any story or meaning behind it?

Bryson the Alien: Part of it, like I was saying, I wanted to put the album out on his birthday. That clip of him talking, it wasn’t even from or for this album. It was something we did a while ago. It was something for one of his beat tapes but we never used it. It was just cool to me because it was just a very normal sort of thing. It was just him talking about not quite anything but everything at the same time. He’s saying like, “today looks like yesterday, so today is tomorrow,” just very abstract. And I just thought it was a cool way to end an album.

That reminded me of Madlib or Sun Ra, like “Shadows of Tomorrow.”

Bryson the Alien: The exact same thing, I just wanted to end the album on an abstract note. It was cool to give him that. Let him end the album just talking like that. We were just sauced up, so it was nice. It was cool. I just thought it was something different.

Speaking of sauce, I hope your nuggets aren’t getting cold.

Bryson the Alien: Oh, I’ve been eating them.

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