by: Thomas D. Mooney
The first time really any of us were exposed to Alejandro Rose-Garcia–more commonly known to the masses under the moniker Shakey Graves–was roughly a year ago when the folks from Live & Breathing came to Lubbock to record some sessions at The Ranching Heritage Center (There was also a full week of shows at The Blue Light of many of the recorded bands playing).
In that barn during that January recording, was the first time I can say I truly heard Shakey Graves come alive. I’d heard from a friend about this singer-songwriter from Austin who called himself Shakey Graves, but I can’t honestly say I had listened to any of his material. I think it’s safe to say that’s really the case for most people at those sessions and who later showed up that night at The Blue Light.
There was maybe 15 people who saw Rose-Garcia that morning play about five songs a couple of times each. We were, of course, supposed to be as quiet as possible during the recording and filming, but I don’t think anyone could have made a noise even if they really tried to. All eyes, ears, thoughts, and attention were solely locked on the cowboy hat and hoodie wearing guitar picker from Austin. It was much the same in front of a sold out Blue Light later that night.
There’s something in those guitar tones, that whiskey soaked, raspy yet smooth voice, and suitcase kick drum that makes you gravitate and take notice. Especially that suitcase kick drum. Often when you see someone pull something like that out, you roll your eyes and hope it’s not some kind of novelty or cheap parlor trick to get attention. With Shakey Graves, it’s just not the case. It’s an instrumental and vital aspect in what’s happening on the stage.
You don’t just hear these songs, you feel them. There’s a desperation in Rose-Garcia’s voice that makes you hang on to each word. You collect them and they sink in to in ways you don’t feel often. It’s Hank Williams. It’s Bon Iver. It’s Jack White. It’s Jeff Buckley. It’s Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. You’re just not often exposed to people who can hold a room with a few guitar strums or a few lines from a song.
Rose-Garcia is in great place to be in. He’s built this mesmerizing and distinct persona through his songs, yet he’s still not quite established for anyone to genuinely write him off as a certain commodity. Sure, there are folks who already want him to always be one thing, but you’re really going to always have those people no matter what you do (We speak about this below as well).
He reminds me of Bon Iver after releasing For Emma, Forever Ago. For those not familiar, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) recorded For Emma as an acoustic, bare bones project that ultimately become a highly regarded album. But he didn’t follow-up the record with carbon copy For Emma 2.0. Bon Iver, Bon Iver was quite the opposite. It was expansive, lush, and towered over For Emma in many ways sonically. But through that, what stayed true was Vernon’s ability to create and write songs in which people related to and felt something.
Rose-Garcia when it comes down to it, is from the same cloth. Now it’s not a matter if Rose-Garcia follows Vernon’s steps and makes a complex, dense sophomore album. Whatever he ends up creating and releasing will be his Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Or rather Shakey Graves, Shakey Graves)–not sonically, but in the same vein.
Rose-Garcia owes himself that. He’s obligated (or cursed, whichever fits) to write songs that move people. The best part of all this though, is he too knows it.
We caught up with Rose-Garcia last week to talk about all things Shakey Graves. He’ll be playing this Wednesday at The Blue Light with support from Whiskey Shivers and Old Man Markley. For tickets, visit Outhouse Tickets here.
Watch/Listen to “Daisy Chains” below.
New Slang: You recently put out this new song called “Dearly Departed.” It’s not really like a lot of your previous songs. You think it’s a step in a new direction?
Alejandro Rose-Garcia: I’m not sure. All the material I’ve released so far has either been something I’ve recorded in my house or just live performances. I’m not sure if anyone has even seen–including myself–what my music is going to end up looking like in its’ final state. Or if that final state is ever going to happen. “Dearly Departed” is just an example of the songs that will come out. The final version of that might not be like the version that you saw.
NS: Like you said, a lot of your material has been recorded by yourself in your home. Roll the Bones for example. Those songs don’t sound the same as they do live today. Does part of you kind of wish you’d have waited to record those songs later?
ARG: Maybe part of me, but I really like that album so much that it’s hard for me to go back and nit-pick them. I really don’t think I’d even think about it if people didn’t bring it up. I mean, people are automatically attached to that version of “Dearly Departed” and it being a duet. I don’t know how frequently that’ll even happen. I just hope everyone stays flexible with the directions that my music is taking. For instance, when I’m coming through Lubbock, I’ll be coming with a drummer and another guitar player. That might happen for a while or it may not. My sound will change depending on who’s out with my on the road.
NS: You do have this distinct sound that you’ve created. Are you ever bothered or worried that people putting you into this certain box and expecting everything from you to sound a certain way?
ARG: Yeah, sometimes it frustrates me–or worries me I guess is more accurate. I don’t want to alienate anybody. But at the same time, I’m not too worried about it. I guess I think as long as I’m making music that I feel like I’m enjoying or would want to listen to, I know there’s at least another person out there who will as well. It’s usually split down the bill. People will come up and be blunt and be like “Roll the Bones sounds like shit. I like these live versions better.” Some will say they like both. Others, the album is their world or something. I’ve gotten all sides of it so it’s kind of hard to sulk about how people are feeling about the way I sound. I’ll always do the one-man band thing. Maybe not as much, but some of the songs, they’ll just sound better like that and that’s how they should be played.
NS: A large part of the Shakey Graves sound is those guitar tones you’ve been able to find and use appropriately. How long do you feel it took you to find that sound you were really comfortable using?
ARG: I still think I’m trying to figure it out honestly. It started coming a more conscious thing I’d say two years ago. Really, it came down to equipment and playing enough shows to make a little money to get the amps I needed and lucky enough to get a guitar sponsorship from this company. That changed the whole game because now I have good weapons.
NS: You mentioned having a drummer and guitarist on this tour. How much of it is a collaboration? I guess how much do you let them do their own thing on songs?
ARG: Most of the stuff we’re working on as a group is untrodden territory and songs I’ve not been able to get off the ground just by myself. My friend who’s playing drums, we’ve worked really close together to make sure they stay close to design because you can just rock your way through anything if you have a drummer. You can just smash through every song on earth. But, we’re just trying to find what feels right. I feel like if I do have anything that’s sort of a trademark thing, it’s that my music sounds different more or less every time I play it.
NS: Yeah. I think if you just see and listen to what you can find on YouTube, you can see the subtle variations on songs and that you’re fine with those. I think it’s a cool aspect.
ARG: Yeah. I hope people see that as something that’s intentional and not just lazy–it is a little bit of both [laughs]–but I’ve always felt it adds more than subtracts.
NS: As far as a new record coming out, I’ve heard it’s tentatively titled Family and Genus. Where are you in that process?
ARG: Yeah, it’s still that. I’ve been recording off and on for two years, if not more. I’ve been blessed to have this touring schedule pick up and have had a lot of really good opportunities out on the road. But, that takes a huge chunk of energy out of the urge to record. I was talking with someone about this last night. You know, for a while when I was recording a lot of music, I felt like it really came from a surplus of nothing going on in my life [laughs]. I had plenty of time to sit around in my house and I had more thoughts than I could use. I would play maybe three shows a month or something like that. So all that other music that I wanted to play, it just got funneled into recording and writing. And now there are times where I’m playing six shows a week for a month at a time. This has definitely been a much longer, much different process. A whole different thing.
NS: Are you working with a producer or bringing in people to play with you?
ARG: Yeah. It’s kind of been a more collaborative effort. Playing with people, it’s alway fun. It’s always more fun than playing by yourself. I want to experience that and try and design songs to a certain degree so I can play them live the way I recorded them. I’m also not very interested in making a one-man band album either. Although it would be cool to jam it in your car. It’s not my intention to reintroduce people to what I’ve been doing.
NS: Has there been anything specifically that you’ve been really excited about recording for this?
ARG: It’s really been two things. It kind of goes to both sides of the spectrum. I ended up buying this old cheesy ’70s pipe organ. It really makes hokey beats. It’s a real rudimentary sound. Writing songs that have this little bit of an electronic angle to a certain degree. And then re-doing songs that are really country sounding songs that I’ve written on that. Then trying to figure out if it’s even possible to play stuff like that live. So on one side of it, it’s almost like electronic music, but it’s like organic electronic music. Then on the other side it’s doing these really strummy country songs. And then there’s just some good old-fashioned Shakey Graves finger-picking stuff. It’s still trying to figure things out. It’s been a lot of fun to just jump out and not believing in my thing too much.
NS: Has there been a song specifically in your catalog that you’ve been apprehensive to play in front of a crowd–or anyone in general?
ARG: Yeah. I never play “Business Lunch.” Not having a band, it always has sounded bad to me, but last night in San Francisco, we actually played it. We had put it together during soundcheck and just through it out on the table and it worked.
NS: If you were going to play a live show in which you played another record by someone else in which you were going to play it all the way though, which record would you choose to interpret?
ARG: Let’s see. That’s a good question. I guess I’d go with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars by David Bowie.
NS: Why’s that?
ARG: I’ve always respected the way that whole album flows. I guess there’s 10 or 11 songs on it and it really follows a great story arc. First song, “Five Years,” it’s a wonderful first song. I’ve always enjoyed listening to that album all the way through. A lot of people specifically know it just for the song “Ziggy Stardust,” but that’s really probably my least favorite song on the album.
NS: Yeah. I’ve always been a real big fan of “Five Years.”
ARG: Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. I’ve never heard anybody cover “Five Years.” It’s a kickass song. The production on that album, the drums, it seems like it’d be a wonderful album to play.
NS: I was reading an interview with you in which you were talking about Jeff Buckley and his rise to being a prominent artist with his debut record Grace. And how he couldn’t play small shows any more. No trying to compare you with Buckley, but you’ve gotten a lot more famous and become a real “buzzed” about artist this past year. Have you noticed the changes in shows you’re playing now? Obviously you’re playing more, but have you noticed maybe a change in audience?
ARG: Oh god, of course. The polarity has kind of switched full spectrum. It used to be that I didn’t play anywhere out in the United States, but just Austin. Maybe a few other places. But now it’s like I barely get to play my hometown at all. It used to be playing out for a crowd who wasn’t aware of who I was. Maybe a few people knew. Then I started getting these opening spots opening for bands like Shovels & Rope and The Devil Makes Three, some people might know me, but I’m really introducing myself to a new crowd. I’m always super comfortable with those shows. The pressure’s really low. It’s always easier to make an impression on somebody than to sustain an ideal.
NS: Yeah, I can see that.
ARG: Like the tour I’m on right now, it’s a headlining deal so the places I go, if they get sold out–which thankfully we have–but they’re some serious hardcore fans. If there’s not a green room or a place I can go relax after the show, it gets really, really intense. I can handle it for a few shows, but a month of it straight can be wild and draining.