Death Metal, Dylan and LSD: A Q&A with Shakey Graves

Shakey Graves performs at the Americana Music Association Showcase at Gatsby's during SXSW on March 14, 2014, in Austin, TX. (Erika Goldring Photo)
Shakey Graves performs at the Americana Music Association Showcase at Gatsby’s during SXSW on March 14, 2014, in Austin, TX. (Erika Goldring Photo)

Although Alejandro Rose-Garcia, the Austin-based musician behind the moniker Shakey Graves, was awarded Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2015 Americana Music Awards in September, the truth is that he’s been plugging away at music for some time now. He started gaining traction in 2011 playing at local bars in Texas as a one-man-band, complete with a kick drum handcrafted out of an old Samsonite suitcase. His evocative voice and tales about love, loss, and the unknown were part folk, part blues, all Shakey – steeped in the sounds of the past but demanding that the audience be very much present.

“I’ve been playing live for a long time. I started with an acoustic guitar and then started doing the one-man-band thing,” he says. “And then waited until I really had music that I thought deserved a band.”

That music is the output on his sophomore album and Dualtone Records debut, And The War Came. If his first album, 2011’s self-released Roll the Bones, toyed with the idea of roaming free and what it means to pursue your dream, then And The War Came explores what happens when you actually start to succeed. The new territory warranted a new approach, and he’s added members to his touring band to break sonic ground.

Now, a Shakey Graves live show could be a number of things. On any given night, Rose-Garcia is just as likely to employ his self-proclaimed “jump-around mode” or smash his guitar as he is to play a finger-picked solo, interspersing heartbreaking lines like “I could never say / Baby, tomorrow, I’ma be your man,” with self-deprecating narration about what “little shithead me” was thinking when he wrote those lyrics at the age of 16.

“Most people aren’t used to the full-band show or maybe that’s all that some people have seen,” he says. “And then other people have seen me do the like intimate one-man shows, which I still love doing. Sometimes I fret a little bit that people are like, ‘This is not what I signed up for,’ which I think is totally valid. And then, other times I’m like, ‘Well that’s not what I signed up for.’”

Before taking the stage at the Hot August Music Festival in August, Rose-Garcia discussed tackling a folk festival with death metal amps, playing Van Halen on Bob Dylan’s Stratocaster, and finding inspiration at the Lincoln Memorial during an LSD trip.

You’re a very charismatic performer. How does your background in acting play into your live show?

When I was little, I did tons of stage stuff or theater training and all of that is very important as far as being comfortable with expanding on concepts. I mean maybe it’s worse – I overthink stuff on stage because the theater stuff taught me how to keep my body moving while my brain is thinking about different things, you know, so I can be going through the motions and then also be concerned about like my amplifier or thinking about how I’m gonna switch between one thing or the other. I guess there’s no part of my acting background that isn’t present on stage. I think that that’s fair to say.

What’s the difference between festival playing, theater playing? Which do you like better?

Right now we have the opportunity to play everything. One of our favorite shows that we’ve played was in Boise, Idaho and it was at a Shriner’s Lodge. It felt like a middle school gymnasium. We showed up and they had a bunch of kind of like hokey stage props and stuff like fake plants with Christmas lights in them and like old armchairs. Everything was like desert themed because I guess the Shriners are very desert-themed. So they had like murals of Cairo everywhere. And we’re like, “Can we use all of your stuff? Can we play with all this stuff?” And they’re like, “We don’t care. Go ahead.”

Sit in the armchairs.

We did! We drug armchairs out onto stage and then we put all these silly fake plants everywhere. They had these red curtains and [we] started with the curtains closed and then the suitcase that I play in front of the curtain. So I started solo and then went into it and then it was like eee-eee-eee-eee-eee and opened up to this really weird living room.

Look what we have!

Yeah, and we put like a bottle of wine and a couple glasses out. And then when there’s parts in the show where my band doesn’t play and they just sat in these armchairs on stage and drank tequila and watched the show. And it was someone’s birthday and we brought them on stage and gave them their own bottle of wine. That was just us, you know, enjoying our environment. And now it’s like, you know, if we have some big, huge, touring thing where we get to bring our own set, it might be based on that. We might bring our own armchairs and our own weird curtain.

 

I think the way you structure your set is part of what draws people to your music and your live shows. Now you go from a one-man-band to a full band and back again in the same set. And when you’re mixing it up, there’s an excitement in that for the crowd. It becomes, where is this song going? What’s going to happen next? Is that something you developed over time or was it a technique you first developed when you were playing in bars, in order to keep people’s attention?

Usually the way that it works kind of just from observing my own life is like figuring out how to get people’s attention and then having to figure out what you do with it once you have people’s attention. My first show, for a little while it was like a really quick kind of smash-and-grab operation where if I had 30 minutes, you know, if I was like the first of three – an opener’s opener – I could come in there and in 30 minutes I could just like boom blast through something. And then I started getting longer slots. And I have a ton of music, you know, but I didn’t really consider that so I just kind of doubled that set and it became kind of exhausting on retrospect because you know there’s only so many variations that I usually do with the suitcase.

I played in Toronto and I was opening for Shovels & Rope and I read just an honest review where someone was like, “Spellbound,” you know, “for the first three songs and then by the end I was just wishing for it to stop.” And I was like, “Alright,” like, “Oh, good note,” you know. And so that, you know, that just encouraged me to not be afraid of playing quieter for parts of the set and so now it’s like I know exactly what to do with an hour and how to find peaks and valleys and then now I’m adding the band in.

How do you make the setlist?

It’s different every time. We played the Philly Folk Festival last night. And again, we’re flying around so we don’t have our amplifiers or anything. We have backline – they bring amps for us but sometimes they don’t have what we ask for. So at the Philly Folk Festival, we ended up playing out of two big Marshall stacks, which I’ve never done before, which is like a huge death metal amp. And the Philly Folk Festival is definitely not that vibe. We were playing right before Arlo Guthrie and we eee-eee-eee wheeled these huge death metal amps out on stage and you know, it was the same deal. You could hear some people like, “Yeah!” And then it was like you could also just hear frowning. I could hear people grimacing. It was great. I also got my first, “You suck!” last night.

Really?

I couldn’t hear it but it was like that and then at the exact same volume and distance – it’s all dark, I couldn’t see anything – and it was like, I think, “You suck,” and then right next to it was like, “Word of Mouth,” which is a song of mine. So it was like song request right next to someone not enjoying this at all. And it’s like you know, yeah you can’t play to the one person that thinks you suck or play against them. And you also can’t play for the one person that is gonna love you no matter what you do, you know. So I like walking that line and I hope I don’t go too far off into my own ass. But you know, I’ll never figure this out if I don’t try stuff out. And those amps are hilarious and it was fun as all get out to play out of a big metal amp at a folk fest. And then talking to the festival director and him being like, “Yeah, well they didn’t boo you!” I was like, “They do that?”

Well how was Newport [Folk Festival]? It was the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan going electric. Wasn’t his guitar there?

I played Bob Dylan’s guitar…Let’s go through it. OK, so James Taylor just showed up in a boat and it was like, “Can James Taylor play?”

He just sailed in?

Of course James Taylor would show up in his boat. And like wearing aqua socks and shorts and went up and played a 30-minute set just ’cause, you know – just ’cause you’re James Taylor.

And then I ended up on a yacht, which again, you know, I don’t know what classifies a yacht but it was a yacht. It was a really nice boat. I ended up on a really nice boat where the only people on the boat were me and my two band members and then Dinosaur Jr. and then we’re like, we’re waiting for two more people to take this little boat ride to go play an after show in town with Deertick, and then the two people were Frances McDormand and Joel Coen. And it’s like, “Hi, I’m Frances and this is my husband, Joel. Say hi, Joel.” And he’s like, “Hi.” And it was like Joel? Joel Coen? And then we’re like, “Well, hi.” And then Frances and J Mascis are having this weird con – if I could have gotten really close and been like, “What are you guys talking about?” Frances McDormand talks to J Mascis. J Mascis doesn’t talk to anybody.

And then this production crew’s like, “Do you wanna go”- I was like, “Wow, and you have Bob’s Stratocaster in there?” And they’re like, “Yeah, do you wanna go play it? Do you wanna go touch it?” And I was like, “Of course I wanna go touch it. Are you serious?”  And me and my drummer went in and of course everything, because it’s also in an abandoned military fort. [They had a] gorgeous setup and then Bob Dylan’s Stratocaster that he went electric on, which was sold for $965,000 to the owner of the Indianapolis Colts and he loaned it to the festival for the weekend. [I] played one of my songs through it and then my drummer, who’s, he’s a wonderful musician, plays all sorts of things, he went up and played Van Halen on it. He’s like, “I’m playing Van Halen on Bob Dylan’s guitar. He’s gonna kill me.” I was like, “He might like that, you know, you never know.” It was great. And then of course like my guitar player who would have died to do that – the whole time, we were like, “Where is he,” and he was just like in a port-a-potty somewhere like [whistles]. Afterwards we were like, “Where were you?” He was like, “Oh, I was pooping. What happened?” And we’re like, “Dude terrible time to poop, man. Should not have done that.” He’ll never live it down, too. Any time I bring it up, he’s like, “No!”

I want to switch gears and talk a bit about the narrative arc behind the latest album, which you’ve been touring behind. You’ve said in other interviews that the message behind the album is “be careful what you wish for.” When I saw your show at 9:30 Club earlier this year, you told a story about the origins of the album title, And the War Came, and going to the Lincoln Memorial. What was the full version of that story?

The first big tour I did as a headliner – it was a couple years ago or something and I was out with a friend of mine’s band called Wild Child. And I’ve always referred to the last show on a tour or the leg of a tour as a boss battle. You know, it’s like a video game term…there’s always a boss at the end of a level. At the end of the game you beat Bowser or whatever. And the boss battle of this tour was Washington, D.C. That was where our last show was. And it was at this place called The Hamilton.

And it’s usually coincidentally the last show will be in a strange setting. And The Hamilton’s a very weird – it looks like a really fancy strip club kind of. Like it’s like kind of velvet ropey and we went in there kind of, we’d been playing like little rat holes and stuff and I was like, “What? What is going on?” And so we had this crazy, crazy show – pretty reasonable show but just a really good night in general. And went up on the roof and looked at the White House and you know it’s like D.C. – it’s very shocking. And the next day, I had had this plan. Someone had given me – one of the dudes in the other band had given me two hits of LSD and so I was like, “Let’s do LSD in Washington D.C. and go to the Smithsonian.” And that’s a lot harder than it seems because there’s nowhere to park in D.C. and if you park, there’s nowhere to stay parked all day long if you’re on LSD because you don’t wanna go driving. Something’s gonna go wrong. We talked to the guy who runs The Hamilton – he’s like, “You know, honestly, you can just come back tomorrow. I’m gonna be here all day and you can park it in the loading dock downstairs,” directly like mainstay. So we stay out at another friend of ours, you know, like out in the ‘burbs, drive in the next day. We wake up a lot later than we want, we’re like, “Eh, should we do this?” “Sure.” And so we drop acid and go into the Smithsonian and end up working through it chronologically, which is kind of how it’s designed, you know. And the effect of it was not lost on me whatsoever. It was one of the craziest days. ‘Cause you start in like primordial ooze and rock formation of the universe and then you go through, you know, rocks and minerals, and then you get into blah and animals and history. And it was hilarious.

It was like going into the rock and mineral area where there’s, I mean, there’s some of the most insane, you know, natural minerals and stuff. Like they just look like, you know, props from some sort of sci-fi movie. They look absurd. And then there’s just like super bored kids being like, “This is so boring!” Mean little grumpy, chubby boys like, “I hate science,” and you’re just like, “You won’t hate…look, this is crazy!” Oh we’re gonna have to kill and eat this kid. This is ridiculous. And then same thing – you try and go in the room that has like diamonds in it, like cut diamonds, like jewelry. There’s like eight display cases with jewelry in it and the room is so packed full of confused people that are like, “Jewelry?!” And you’re like, “Jewelry?! There’s like six rooms behind me that is full of way cooler looking stuff,” you know. And you’re like, “Everyone’s priorities are so weird!” And like you know, weird Swedish people with crazy camera set-ups on their chest. And we just had one of those days that was so, trying to maintain like, I don’t know if anyone can tell what’s happening to me right now but I’m going kind of crazy. And then like we stayed there until the museum closed. They pooped us out on the lawn…or, it’s not called the lawn, is it?

The National Mall?

The Mall, yeah. And so we’re strolling along that and it’s like, again, just the power of D.C. was like really, you know, the history and the momentous human achievement that is, you know, building a monument; what actually is what a monument is. Whereas you’re like this is kind of a huge, boring building, and then you’re like, oh this is a monument. This is a testament to a person in theory, you know. And this big, dramatic storm rolled in, you know, just like always, and you’re like, “Am I making this up,” you know? This is super crazy.

And it was like right as we got to Lincoln’s Memorial and so super cinematic like ran up the stairs as it started to like pour rain and you know, sought shelter in this magnificent building. And I went and like took a knee and read both of his speeches out loud to myself and blew my own mind. Was just like, “Oh my god,” and the second inaugural speech blew my mind. I still think it’s an absolutely tremendous speech. And there is a statement in it where he’s talking about the inevitability of the Civil War and how both sides prayed to the same God and it’s just this tremendous understanding of human stuff. And one of the, you know how it’s like, it’s split up not by sentences but kind of how he said it? So there’s, one of the statements is just, “And the war came,” and it’s like two bullet points on either end. I just found profound significance in my own, you know, and it’s the second inaugural. I just thought it was really coincidental. It was kind of hokey brain stuff.

I’ve always wanted this and to fear, you know, yeah, I wanna play bigger stages and I wanna get better at what I do and I wanna grow into a name and I wanna be responsible for this sort of thing and I wanna be a good person. I wanna go big…and go home! Yeah, I wanna do both. And then opportunity bangs on your door and you’re like, “Go away! I’m sleeping,” and it’s like, “No, I guess I’m not,” you know, “I guess I’m not gonna sleep for a while.” And all of the sudden you find yourself in the middle of something and that’s where I am.

So what do you foresee for the next tour? What’s bigger?

The way I go bigger is just the next musical step that I take, and it’s about focus. I have to focus a lot. I haven’t had time to focus. This sort of all just happened: the second album and then learning how to play it and then rah and then just playing it all the time. And this, the next one is like thinking about it, designing it, putting out something that I cannot wait for people to hear and then designing a show that’s so malleable and professional that it’s just, hopefully it’ll be undeniable. It’ll be something that can change forms no matter what the venue is. If it’s a Philly Folk Festival, I won’t have to play out of a, you know, Marshall stack because I’ll have a whole acoustic set designed to be available.

And the armchairs, right?

And the armchairs, yeah.