MusicMusic Features

Writer Devan T. Penegar Turns the Page as Musician Coyote 87

Call of the wild

Devan Penegar looks directly into the camera with his hand on his head
Devan T. Penegar, aka Coyote 87. (Courtesy of Devan T. Penegar)

Devan T. Penegar encountered the coyote when he was taking out the trash. He had been writing an essay for his forthcoming book, Bloodlust: A Memoir of Essays on Music, Movies and Madness, and was struggling with a bout of writer’s block.

“I was very much in my head — and there’s a fucking coyote 10 feet away from me,” Penegar recalls. “It shook me out of my head and brought me into the present moment. I thought it was one of the most beautiful animals I’ve seen.” 

When he went back into his house, Penegar didn’t break his writer’s block. Instead, he turned to making music, writing three new songs on his Korg synthesizer. Penegar’s pulsing cinematic music, alternately soothing and sinister, forms the basis of his debut album, Based, a double LP that dropped on June 5, and a follow-up to his Bitch EP.

Tellingly, these labyrinthine themes, laced with disembodied narratives and podcast recitatives, cannot be found under Penegar’s name. Rather, they’re released under a musical nom de plume inspired by his wildlife encounter and subsequent epiphany: Coyote 87.

“I consider Coyote 87 a persona rooted in nostalgia while still trying to move forward,” Penegar offers. “I choose using the coyote in place of my face on album covers because they give me a sense of awe.” 

He’s even painted coyote silhouettes on the front door of his house in Mount Holly. 

The resilient animal, dismissed by many as an interloper, represents a rebranding and a turning of the page for Penegar, who made a shattering impact as a writer with the online publication of his essay “I Dream of Goats” in 2015. The essay is a harrowing but ultimately hopeful documentation of trauma, weaving idyllic childhood memories with a harrowing account of Penegar’s own sexual assault at the tender age of 15, and his subsequent struggle with PTSD.

Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and prescribed Adderall at age 14, Penegar was also seeing a psychiatrist. When that psychiatrist died, Penegar started seeing another one.

As described in “I Dream of Goats,” Penegar’s new psychiatrist drugged him and exposed him to a snuff film featuring a woman being sodomized with a power drill. Penegar recounts being rendered immobile by the drug, after which he remembers being raped. 

“Someone can be so convincing, and you think it’s someone you can trust,” Penegar’s says. “That will fuck with your world view.” 

For 11 years Penegar struggled with the memory, attempting suicide multiple times and turning to drugs and alcohol to blot out flashbacks of the trauma.

“I would overdo LSD [use], and I would drink constantly,” he says. “Flashbacks … affected me the most out of all. I didn’t know I had PTSD until I got older. I guess I associated PTSD with war.”

It wasn’t until he was 26 years old that Penegar finally told his parents and his close friend Camille Dalke-Rogers about his ordeal. He was surprised to discover an upwelling of support, and regretted waiting so long to confide in his parents.

He and Dalke-Rogers collaborated on an as-yet-unreleased  documentary called Frayed Fabric, which provides sexual assault survivors a platform to share their stories. Penegar found further support from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), joining the organization’s Speakers Bureau to talk publicly about his experiences.

Penegar recently left the organization, he says, because he has too many mood swings to continue being a public speaker for RAINN. He prefers communicating and inspiring through his music and writing. Penegar still gets flashbacks, he says, but now he deals with them better.

“They’re not as bad as they used to be, but I’ll still lose time,” he says. Most important, Penegar has been sober for over a year now. He believes he would not have been able to craft the hypnotic and captivating sounds found on Based if he hadn’t made that change in his life. 

“[Sobriety] led to me getting laser-focused on creating music,” Penegar says.

Film music

For Penegar, music making is inextricably entwined with writing and his love for movies. It’s impossible for him to say which came first. Born in Charlotte, he grew up in Stanley, and in 9th grade he started writing essays on Kurt Cobain and other musical topics. Short stories inspired by films like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction soon followed.

Around that time, Penegar took up the drums. He also started playing guitar in middle school, and grew obsessed with movies. At one point, Penegar says, he was watching two movies per day. For a long time, music remained mostly a hobby. Then Penegar saw the 2012 crime movie A Place Beyond the Pines and was transfixed by the film’s score, done by Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton.

“I thought, how is [Patton] getting all these sounds,” Penegar says. “Then it dawned on me — with a synthesizer, you can get a world of sounds.”

Another early inspiration was Hans Zimmer, soundtrack composer for Blade Runner 2049; and director Ridley Scott’s Hannibal.

“If you want to score movies and you don’t like Hans Zimmer, something’s wrong with you,” Penegar says.

Penegar did not act on these inspirations for a few more years, however. After the publication of “I Dream of Goats,” his creative energy was diverted to the production of Frayed Fabric. Shooting went well on the project, but post-production turned problematic. Penegar and Dalke-Rogers finished a two-and-a-half-hour cut of the film, but Penegar felt there were pacing issues with that version. 

The documentary also has to meet certain technical standards for Netflix, Hulu or any other streaming service to even look at it. Tallying the costs of color correction, captioning and more, Penegar needs to raise $14,000 to move forward on the project. For now, the film remains on a hard drive and unseen.

“It became mentally unhealthy to work on it,” Penegar says. “One day I’ll return to it, but it feels odd to work on it when I know I don’t have the money to finish it.” 

That realization was a turning point; for a long time Penegar was convinced that he wanted to be a filmmaker, but making Frayed Fabric convinced him that he actually wanted to create soundtracks. He sees Based as a step toward scoring films.

Insomnia and the dominatrix

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, Penegar unloaded his middle school drum set and bought his first synthesizer, the first in a string of Korgs. Drawing further inspiration from Daniel Lopatin, who under the name Oneohtrix Point Never composed and performed the score for the Safdie Brothers’ films Good Time and Uncut Gems, Penegar spent many insomnia-stricken nights recording tracks for Based. Over the course of several months, he crafted his layered synth-based songs, supporting himself with a warehouse job.

Once the tracks were near completion, Penegar drew on interviews and podcasts for vocals.

“I like editing,” he says. “I’m a copy-and-paste artist.” 

For an example of his workflow, Penegar cites the cantering, cat-paw padding “Don’t Settle, Gallop Ahead” and the swinging, schizoid “True to Myself,” which suggests the sound of reality ripping at the seams. Both songs feature cut-up and recombined interview snippets of Uncut Gems actress Julia Fox. Penegar obtained permission from Fox’s manger to use the samples. 

“There is a fair amount of vocals drawn from podcasts [on the album],” Penegar says. The sprightly ticking time bomb “Grateful and Molting” samples American businesswoman Sophia Amoruso from a 2016 podcast.

“I’m in her class by the way,” Penegar says. “It’s an online business class, literally called ‘Business Class.’” 

If there is any similarity between the female vocalists Penegar uses on the album, it’s that they’re all strong and take no shit, he says.

“All the women that are sampled on the album I view as badass women.”

Not all vocals on Based are sampled. Penegar turned to his friend, artist Talbot Hall, to recite a passage from Bret Harte’s poem “Coyote” for the solemn, hymn-like “An Outcast But Not a Spectator.” Here, Penegar augments his musical armory with nostalgic analog electronic sounds — the spooky churchyard ambience of 1970s Italian horror stalwarts Goblin, and the metronomic canter of veteran Krautrockers Tangerine Dream.

For yet other vocals, Penegar formed an unusual yet simpatico partnership with Camryn Bell, who works as dominatrix under the moniker Princess Camryn. Penegar began as a client of the Phoenix, Arizona-based Bell, but as the pair’s friendship grew, their relationship became more like a partnership.

“Client sounds transactional and would undersell the bond she and I have,” Penegar says. “I assist her with her work, like a virtual assistant, and she collaborates with me on Coyote 87. It’s a relationship that is a positive force in my life.”

That said, there is an undeniably kinky charge in the songs featuring Bell’s sweetly taunting vocals. Bell chose the title for “Lowkey Femdom Banger,” one of three co-writes between her and Penegar. Penegar’s guitar on the tune runs through a synth with a fuzz pedal, giving the sinister come hither a dirty sound. 

On “Mortality Meditation,” a swarming hive of synthesizers, warped and rubbery bass tones and electronic scorpion stings coalesce around Bell’s cool and erotic contemplation of death and oblivion. For the cosmic “Euphoria Awaits,” Bell urges the listener to give in to their urges without shame.

“’Euphoria’ is an opportunity to embrace yourself,” Penegar says. “The goal is to inspire [people] to accept who they are.”

If any one song on Based is an outlier it’s “Nostalgic Moody Flannel Boy,” Penegar’s tongue-in-cheek description of himself.

“I was just mocking myself with that title,” he says. “I always dress like I’m still in the fucking grunge era.” 

Nostalgia is also a theme that runs through much of Based, embodied by many of the faux-analog sounds that crop up throughout the album, and near-constant tape noise and hiss, which Penegar leans into without letting it overstay its welcome.

“Nostalgic Moody Flannel Boy” is also the only piece with a fully sung vocal. Delivered by Penegar in a strangled proto-emo cry, the tune plays like a post-Trump take on the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”

“I’m a bad news motherfucker/ I ain’t your friend/ I am the devil wrapped in human skin … I don’t wanna hear/ Your opinions/ But here I am/ Telling you all of mine/ I’m an All-American/ All-American Devil spreading my opinions across the land…” 

Based can be seen as many things, and one of them is Penegar’s Coyote 87 rebranding, his desire to be seen as a musician and author who is many things, only one of which is a survivor.

Perhaps “I Dream of Goats” will always be part of Penegar’s identity and legacy. A longer, more fleshed-out version of the essay comprises the first two chapters of his book Bloodlust.

“That’s how the book starts, and it spirals out into drug use and different things throughout the years,” he says. 

Music is the other throughline in the book. For Penegar, writing and music are braided together, and just as his ongoing story is a journey, so too is Based.

He points to one of his biggest influences, the daily NPR program Echoes, which features a soundscape of ambient, space, electronica and new-age music.

“[It’s] the perfect driving music,” he says. 

Similarly, he wants Based to feel like the soundtrack to a journey. 

“It’s not that I want everybody to be driving when they listen to my shit. I just want them to feel like it’s taken them someplace.”

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