Image via Bryson the Alien
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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.