Shakey Graves talks change, trying new sounds and his trip to Safe House
As the legend goes, Shakey Graves – born Alejandro Rose-Garcia – discovered his stage name as he and his friends gave each other playful campfire monikers inspired by an acid-tripping, whiskey-swinging stranger ambling and rambling about spooky wagons. Seemingly random but, in the end, seemingly befitting – a name about unexpected moves and shifts for a musician who's made some big moves and shifts of his own.
Making his name earlier in the decade with his raw, sparse and unvarnished Americana roots music – accompanied by only himself and his signature modified suitcase that also plays the part of kick drum and tambourine stand – Shakey Graves eventually grew his solo busker act out with a three-piece touring band before making his largest leap just last year, detouring away from his twang-tinged acoustic roots into big, soaringly dreamy, occasionally poppy, psychedelic-hewed rock with his 2018 album, "Can't Wake Up." It was a hard turn for the musician – a turn that's now brings him to the Riverside Theater on Sunday for a double-bill alongside Dr. Dog.
Before that stop, however, OnMilwaukee got a chance to talk with Shakey Graves about the value of making changes, balancing new and old, "Mr. F*ck Robots" and having fun at Safe House.
OnMilwaukee: I hope your iPhone's OK. I saw on Twitter that you may have broke it?
Shakey Graves: Oh, it's fine. I cracked its screen – which is pretty rare for me actually. Out of all of the phones I've had, I think that's the first time I've had to do that.
That's a millennial badge of honor.
Yeah. I've got no shame in having a phone case. I know myself too well.
Did you really give yourself the Apple ID of "Mr. F*ck Robots"?
I did, yeah. (Laughs) When you first sign into an Apple thing, back in the day, I thought I was not gonna give the Apple corporation my name. I was being kind of snide, so I went with "Mr. F*ck Robots." And I hadn't changed it ever since. It's haunted me for years, really.
You played a show recently where you performed some songs in the works. Does this mean a new album or something soon?
Yeah, I'm always working on a new album, I guess. The date and time of that, to be decided. But I try to keep things a little bit more fluid in the sense that it's more entertaining for me. If I just try to play the same show every night, I go crazy, so we always have to change it up somewhat. I have no idea what you're going to see.
You think you'll stay on the same direction you went in with this latest album? You obviously expanded your sound out so much on "Can't Wake Up"; do you want to keep going in that direction?
No. Yes. I think to the outside world it seems more like a finite thing, but recording is one of my personal favorite things to do. The main point of it is not to just capture what you sound like live or anything like that; it's to try to make a song that I haven't made before.
I just kind of felt like, especially with that last one, I needed to make sure that people understood that that's something that I plan and will to do. If I had worried what I sounded like and maybe tried to make something a little more roots-driven as I have many times in the past, I think it would've done more damage and typecast me more than opened any new doors.
That's interesting, because I just saw a tweet talking about Chance the Rapper's new album and talking about how he's static, which is why critics were harder on "The Big Day" because they like following a personality or a storyline. It sounds like you're trying to avoid that same path.
In his case, I think that was probably a difficult choice. "Acid Rap" was something he made in his house, according to the narrative. He made that entirely just because he wanted to, and it was only on SoundCloud, I think, for a while. That was entirely independent, and his "sound" was based on something that might have been just how he felt that year. I mean, this is his debut release, I guess, technically? So I can only imagine the pressure of outside influences and him being so gigantic. If he had really gone off in a different direction – and maybe he wants to go off in some other direction – it probably would've been just as scrutinized.
It's always that tricky balance between trying something new but not alienating all the people who've liked what you've done so far.
Right. People always want something new until you do it. And then in retrospect, they're usually like, "You know, that was just such a great decision." Great. (Laughs)
It's kind of my job to follow my own heart. And I'm aware of there being an audience and a fan base and stuff like that, but something I feel like I've focused on as much as anything is making sure people don't get attached to something that's just a small sliver of my world. Some people might be disappointed that I don't play my suitcase drum for 90 minutes, but they don't know that they don't want to hear that for 90 minutes. That gets old quicker than watching me on YouTube does. And for me, that's such a boring chore. Not that I don't love doing a solo show or anything like that, but it's hard to find dynamics and there's a lot of things I can't do.
The reason I like there to be peaks and valleys is that I couldn't find shows more boring when every song sounds the same, or when you go to see somebody and everything's to a click all the time. At the very same time, I want about 30 percent of that in my life. It'd be really cool to sound giant and astoundingly clean. But I also just need a little more dirt in my food, I guess.
You had prepared fans for that change in sound. You tweeted out, "Sell your suspenders." Being open about it was interesting.
Yeah – and in the same way, it makes me much more comfortable about returning to doing stuff that's more acoustically driven or whatever. I don't feel like I'm being manipulated by my own preceding work in any way. For the most part, I feel entirely free about whatever it is I truly follow.
The thing I want to bring to my shows and my records and my life in public is just having a lot of my personality in it. It seems harder to just put out records on a schedule these days, just because there's so much saturation. Unless you're Beyoncé or Chance the Rapper, a release kind of means a lot less than it used to when you'd have to go down to the store. So it's like what does get people into the movie theater? What am I bringing to the table that would make you want to spend 90 minutes with me? That's the question that I ask myself and try to stay vigilant about.
Accepting change and new things in life is something you've written about a lot in your music. "Tomorrow" is a song about being reluctant to change; "Tin Man" is talking to a younger person about taking their shots rather than holding back. Why does this theme really stick with you?
I sort of think that the most important thing in life is education. And I don't mean standardized education.
I never went to school for music, and in many ways, I feel very uneducated and sometimes I get down on myself pretty hard about maybe not being able to read music or comparisons. At the end of the day, me choosing to do that record in that big way taught me how to create sounds I'd never made before. I learned how to produce stuff in a way I'd never done. I became a better drummer and a better editor. For me, that was basically teaching myself a new lifelong skill. I opened a door to a whole new house. So by putting myself in an uncomfortable situation, I was able to figure out more.
And every time I do that, in any walk of life, it never feels good at first. Each time is like, "Oh, is this the right decision? Oh god!" If I ever just locked up and hadn't taken a step forward, even if it was the wrong decision, you'll never get around to something right. It's something I struggle with and probably will continue to.
Have you been to Milwaukee before? And if so, do you have any memories or fond times being in the city, places you were?
Yeah, I had a great time playing at Summerfest years ago. The last time I was there, I ended up going to the spy bar. Is that what it's called?
Yes! Somebody recommended that I go there, and I know it's kind of corny, but I had way, way too much fun at that silly bar. I remember how there's that first little room and if you don't know the password, you have to figure out how to find some little latch in there or whatever. We had a great time doing that – but our drummer was trying to meet up with us for a drink, and he was not into this concept at all. We were all excited to see him try to solve the thing, so we went over to where there was a little closed circuit TV and someone watching it. And he just refused to play ball. He was just like, "Open the door! I don't know the password; just open the door! Do it; just open the door!" The guy caved and opened the door for him, and me and my guitar player were like, "Come on, man!" Very fun.
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