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Renaissance Man: James Kopta.

Fond Farewell

Remembering local musician and artist James Kopta

By Shawn Stone

This is the story of Frank Budgen, a rockabilly bandleader who also happened to be a scholar of the works of James Joyce. This is the story of Dr. Sadismo, the mastermind behind the grindcore sound of Hail Mary and Exploding Corpse Action. This is the story of a sculptor and artist; a filmmaker who directed and acted in independent videos; an author who published two collections of short stories; and a musician who played free jazz at the Knitting Factory in New York City, and was a well-known part of our local music scene through his work with Brown Cuts Neighbors, the Department of Experimental Services and Burn Unit. This is the story of James Kopta.

The 30-year-old Kopta died on Aug. 9 after an apparent drowning. He is the subject of an ambitious, labor-of-love tribute concert to be held this Sunday evening at Valentine’s. The list of performers is a who’s who of local musicians, including Kopta’s band Brown Cuts Neighbors. In addition to the music, there will be spoken-word presentations, and examples of Kopta’s experimental video work will be shown.

Among his many friends and collaborators, the reality of Kopta’s death is just beginning to sink in. As Jason Martin, his longtime partner in Brown Cuts Neighbors and other assorted music and video projects, says: “I still hear his voice in my head, giving advice.” Martin first met Kopta when they were both students at Niskayuna High School in the late ’80s. Martin was 14 or 15; Kopta was a few years older and, as Martin explains, “played in all of the interesting local rock bands I admired.” The two swapped stories, and discovered they had similar backgrounds. Once they decided to work together in Brown Cuts Neighbors, a band started by Martin and his sister, Martin discovered how productive Kopta was: “Within a year of when I’d met him, we’d released our first 7-inch record.”

Throughout the 1990s, Kopta made his mark on the local scene by playing in multiple musical genres, writing short stories, making videos and creating visual art. As Colleen Cox, who for a time in the mid-’90s managed the gone-but-not-forgotten Loft at 40 Broadway in Albany, and occasionally worked at the Albany Center Galleries in a curatorial capacity, remembers: “He and Brown Cuts Neighbors were very involved in the many events at [the Loft], and he was most definitely an integral part of the experimental music and performance scene in the area.”

Cox worked with Kopta on a number of installations at the Albany Center Galleries, including BookEnds, a group exhibit related to, she says, “the intersection of text and image.” “These installations were very textured, with many media including found objects and video,” Cox explains. “In every capacity I worked with James, I always found him to be open to the expansiveness of expression. . . . He was a really generous person with a very open and gentle spirit.”

“His output on the DIY hardcore/ metal scene wasn’t lengthy, but what he did produce created a solid impact,” says Nick Forte of Albany’s Noise-Squatch records. Forte adds: “Jim’s cultural radar was wide-ranging and unique. Nothing was disqualified from his attention or appreciation, whether it was Czechoslovakian grindcore or an obscure hardcore band from Florida.”

Kopta was always looking forward, working on something new. “Frank Budgen,” one of Kopta’s more recent projects, was a character he conceived in an unproduced screenplay, Bulldog-o-Matic. As Martin describes him, Budgen was a “scary hillbilly who led a band called Boomerang.” In June of 2001, another musician and artist, Troy-based Richard Pell, met Kopta when he was first working with the character.

“A friend of mine had just bought a building on 9th Street [in Troy], which had been more or less abandoned for quite some time,” Pell explains. “Jim had decided to occupy it and make it the home of the character he’d been developing. . . . Jim sculpted the leftover junk in the apartment into a state of meticulous disarray; everything was exactly off-kilter and out of place.”

Kopta then set up a small studio and engaged in an extended series of sessions to record the material he had written in the Frank Budgen persona: bluesy songs with a rockabilly edge. Pell describes the music as powerful and unsettling: “There were hints of Al Green, Leadbelly, Prince, Howlin’ Wolf, Captain Beefheart and a lost Indian Chief, but it didn’t really sound like any of them.”

These versions were intended only as demos, however. Kopta had planned to record these materials with a full band. Martin explains, “He wanted to take this unruly character, and record slick versions of the songs; take the country- rockabilly-blues sound, and give them a Phil Spector-style wall-of-sound treatment, with a horn section and strings.” According to Martin, Kopta’s music was “very private—it was for him. The fact that he was willing to record it, take it to the public, was a big step for that guy.” Still, at least with regard to these sessions, Kopta planned to release the disc as Frank Budgen.

Unfortunately, Kopta wasn’t very organized about his recordings. As Martin says, “He would record something, take the tape out of the machine, and wherever it ended up . . .” Kopta’s friends are now in the process of tracking down these “Budgen sessions” with an eye toward releasing them on disc.

In fact, as Marc Arsenault—a fellow Brown Cuts Neighbors alumnus, and one of the tribute concert’s main organizers—explains, part of the money raised at the memorial show will go toward paying for the release of Kopta’s unreleased material. As per the wishes of his family, a larger percentage of the donations will go to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation (Kopta suffered from Type 1 diabetes).

The concert itself promises to be a special event, a testament to the many local musicians Kopta worked with, influenced, and touched. “So many people wanted to do it,” Arsenault says. “Before we even made any kind of formal plan, people were contacting us.” The diversity of artists on the program is a reflection of Kopta’s own wide-ranging explorations. Arsenault sums this up with no small amount of wonder in his voice: “James played jazz with Cecil Taylor, toured the country with hardcore-type bands, played straight-ahead Delta blues, and, with Brown Cuts Neighbors, Captain Beefheart-style funk. He played piano, guitar, and even drums.” It is clear, from the testimony of his friends and colleagues, that Kopta—as a man, and as an artist—will be sorely missed.

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