Shakey Graves: Weird Voices

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The week before its Oct. 7 release, And The War Came, his Dualtone Records debut, had already reached No. 12 on the Americana Music Association radio airplay chart; Spotify listeners had streamed “Dearly Departed” 2 million times. (2011’s Roll The Bones is still a Bandcamp favorite, with more than 1 million streams and nearly 50,000 downloads.)

On Oct. 14, Shakey Graves made his national-TV debut on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show. For Rose-Garcia, that sure beats playing the “scummy musician dude” (the Swede) in Friday Night Lights, which he did for four episodes, or the Robert Rodriguez films or other acting gigs he had before turning his attention to music. And bowling.

“Bowling alleys,” he says solemnly, “are very constant.” Sources of consistency are, of course, vital for touring musicians.

See what’s going on here? Even a conversation about something as seemingly straightforward as bowling turns into a contemplation of what matters in life – as well as the notion of turning the aisle of a tour bus into a 10-pin lane.

He responds to that suggestion with a laugh, adding, “That’s what I need. It’s gonna be on my list of demands. One of my tour buses will have to be a bowling alley.”

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Considering the speed of his trajectory, tour buses, plural, are not inconceivable. His friends and mentors in Shovels & Rope, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, went from van to RV to bus in two years. As their opening act on three tours (and now labelmate), he’s spent a good deal of time hanging with them and Plott hound Townes Van Zandt – named, coincidentally, for the artist Rose-Garcia claims as his biggest influence.

He’s a believer in coincidence, by the way, and manifest destiny, and says the formative musical experiences he had in L.A. and later, New York, seemed preordained.

“Both L.A. and New York mirrored each other in the sense that I showed up without any credit to my name and would somehow miraculously get entered into a scene, and then I would observe what it would take to really succeed in that,” he explains. “And then usually, by the time I left, I was doing good.”

He cracked New York after Friday Night Lights, which he’d landed after returning to Austin when L.A. failed to produce acting gigs. The Shakey Graves name was born at Austin’s Old Settler’s Music Festival, in 2005, after a bizarre character traipsing drunkenly through the campgrounds warned him and his friends to watch out for “spooky wagons.” Sounding like a campfire cowboy name straight out of Blazing Saddles, it inspired them to create their own.

He chose to use his professionally in part because of Jeff Buckley, who’d booked a coffee-house tour under fake names after the weight of his early fame became overwhelming.

“Right after Grace came out, he was propelled instantaneously to playing gigantic shows and he missed the anonymous nature of his songwriter [phase],” Rose-Garcia explains. “If he walked into a room and was, like, Jeff Buckley, that meant something all of the sudden.”

Buckley, however, also carried the burden of being Tim Buckley’s son. But Rose-Garcia admires the idea of letting his music speak for itself, untethered to the identity of its creator – which helps explain why he’s wearing a cow’s head on the cover of Roll The Bones.

“It doesn’t matter who it is or what it’s called; you can name it anything as long as it sounds good,” he contends. It also frees him to craft work he considers reflective of his lifestyle and tastes.

“There’s a tongue-in-cheek nature to my music,” he says, “or I want there to be, because I don’t think there’s any reason to be so serious in life. Or even in music. And there is a cruel sense of humor to everything. But I’d like to evolve, always.”

The cruel humor lurking behind many of And The War Came’s songs is the fact that, after working so hard to establish himself through constant touring, he wanted to fall in love, and did – not realizing that the traveling minstrel life makes relationships much harder to build or sustain. His ended badly. But it certainly inspired his art.

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“I really do feel like there’s something that’s a little more spiritual to the whole thing, however you perceive that,” he says. “There’s something about me that really wants to sing all the time. And some part of my personality and psyche that refuses to not be explained. So If I’m not singing about it, I’m writing about it, or if I’m not writing about it, I’m drawing about it, and if I’m not drawing about it, I’m having to chew someone’s ear off about it. There’s something that demands to be created.”

Onstage, he sometimes does seem possessed; during that Basement showcase, he occasionally looked scarily like a Shining-era Jack Nicholson. In an interview with the publication Columbus Alive, he explained how playing the suitcase drum helps him get to that place where the music just comes: “When my entire body is occupied, it makes it easier to go into a trance where my brain isn’t able to focus or nitpick as I’m playing, as opposed to being precious about how I phrase a certain thing or play a lick on the guitar … multitasking allows me to get right down to the feel of the song.”

Getting down to the feel also explains his approach to singing, which he’s done since childhood.

“Eventually you realize there’s really no wrong way to sing, as long as you just do it and mean it,” he notes. “There’s so many weird voices in the world.”

Some are even weirder than they seem. And every time Shakey Graves unleashes his, more humans roll under his spell.

This article appears in our November/December 2014 issue. Subscribe here

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