Ali to his friends, Shakey Graves to the world
By Kevin Curtin, Fri., Sept. 26, 2014
"I choose to weave my life into a narrative that's sitting there in front of me at all times. The way my brain works is to tie everything together. The more people I connect to, the plot becomes faster and more intense."
That perspective – one of no coincidence, only profound circumstance – governs Alejandro Rose-Garcia. "Ali" to his friends and Shakey Graves to the world, the 27-year-old musical pied piper and F-list actor has cast himself in the role of a lifetime, the heartthrob with easy skills and maximum charm. If his sophomore album, And the War Came, which abandons his lone wolf methodology in favor of a label and band, constitutes a major plot twist, it's one the native Austinite wrote himself.
Such interconnectivity begins unfolding on a hot, late-August night on East Sixth. Tonight's rendezvous spot, Hotel Vegas, yields a familiar passerby. The venue hosted a poorly attended Tom Waits hoot night Shakey played some three years ago before word-of-mouth snowballed into a mostly sold-out residency on the west side of this world-famous entertainment strip and a subsequent ticket out of town on tour. Leaping outside, Rose-Garcia becomes engaged in conversation with folksinging schoolteacher Konrad Wert, aka Possessed by Paul James (revisit "Bittersweet Life," Nov. 1, 2013).
"That's so crazy we just saw Konrad," beams Rose-Garcia afterward, explaining that a PBPJ performance at Emo's in 2008 inspired his own one-man band. "I was trying to drink and talk to a friend and Konrad kept pulling me away with tempo changes, finding the songs. It was a realization for me.
"Tonight we had a conversation I've been waiting to have for six years!" he exclaims. "He was asking me about white whales. Konrad wanted to know how he can play the Newport Folk Festival – something I've done. That's one of his white whales. To help educate someone who's educated and influenced me is a beautiful full-circle moment.
"Everything comes full circle."
Later, across the street, the universe reveals another point of matrix.
"Hey J.J.!" shouts Ali.
J.J. Shaw, known to local hip-hop heads as Phranchyze, treads the sidewalk with guitar phenom Gary Clark Jr., both of whom attended Austin High with Rose-Garcia. The three lanky former schoolmates, now all notable music makers, determine it's time to get drunk, so everyone heads to the nearby Brixton.
A product of artsy South Austin, Alejandro Rose-Garcia debuted locally in 1987 to a part-time contractor he describes as a "wizardly white dude" (Rose) and a teacher/playwright mother (Garcia). Early education came from Travis Heights Elementary and Parkside Montessori.
"I've been in the arts my whole life," he confirms. "And the arts aren't a job, they're a hustle."
Rose-Garcia's most constant hustle has been acting. He began at age 5 and had an agent by age 11. There were TV gigs such as a local Southwestern Bell commercial, a dramatized re-creation of a family getting killed by a tornado, and a contestant for one episode on the Discovery Kids' reality program Endurance. He appeared in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over and enjoyed a run on Friday Night Lights as "The Swede."
"You've never seen it?" he chides. "It's actually really good, and I'm blessed to be a memorable character in four episodes. Friday Night Lights was a beautiful Austin accident."
As a braces-faced teen at Austin High, Rose-Garcia became a staple in the school's Red Dragon Players Company, logging copious stage time including titular roles in Nicholas Nickleby and Tanganini. Skills he picked up in theatre – how to sing, how to act, how to command a stage – are easily noted in his musical performances today. Another broad smile crosses his face as he reminisces.
"High school was the most famous I'll ever feel," he pauses. "Well that may be illusory, but everyone went to those plays. They were dope."
On cue, Phranchyze approaches our table. "Hey, Ali's saying people thought his high school plays were cool," I blurt out. "Tell me that shit was dorky!"
"Red Dragons?" says the rapper with disbelief. "Hell no, that was the shit!
"You have to understand," he continues. "At Austin High nothing is dorky. We were real progressive. Nobody gave them shit because they were theatre dudes. It was like, 'They got some weed – I got some weed. That's my boy Ali, what's up?'"
"The first time I ever had any sort of weed," Rose-Garcia recalls, "I split a cookie with a theatre class friend before third period. When lunch hit, I started tripping out, really losing it. So we wandered into the PAC and Gary is practicing for his performance at this Black History Month event the school is having that night."
He points to Clark Jr., still sitting at the table Phranchyze vacated temporarily.
"I roll into this dark theatre and he's playing Jimi Hendrix's 'Little Wing' and it just sucked me in.
"Man, that was a weird high school."
Roll the Bones
Shakey Graves refuses to share his first recording, a "really bad singer-songwriter demo" where he sings about "riding off into the sunset." He cut it while in high school and there's a copy at his mom's house, where he hopes it will remain in the vaults. He's slightly more proud of his teenage work in the Austin-based screamo band Toru Okada.
On the night we meet, a live version of Shakey Graves' "Dearly Departed" posts up as Spotify's most viral song – an equation derived from the number of people who shared it, divided by the number of plays. It's the only track he's allowed on the streaming service and, thus far, he's never put a song on iTunes. That's no oversight.
A young lady at the bar who introduces herself as a publicist approaches us. She recalls when Shakey Graves performances began drawing hordes of locals in mid-2012.
"Who was doing your PR?" she asks.
We both laugh. No one.
He had a plan though, the endgame of which may or may not have been to usurp Bob Schneider as Austin's ultimate hometown attraction ("I set a goal to topple the reigning king"). Objectives were set into motion on his return home in 2010, the name Shakey Graves – inspired by an acid-tripping Old Settler's Fest camper years before – already in place. He played under the moniker after high school while living in New York City, where he wore a beat-up brown fedora and got his ass kicked by the scene.
"I thought having a persona and dope songs would cut it, but I wasn't pulling my weight as an artist," he laments.
He remained Shakey Graves when he moved to Los Angeles, where music provided relief from trying to make it as an actor. He mostly booked day work, landing one line on a soon-canceled ABC sitcom called Complete Savages.
"The casting directors told me I needed three more years," he sighs. "Meanwhile I'm stealing sandwiches from Ralph's and driving around with 80 pictures of myself in my car, thinking, 'This is insane.'"
As an actor, Alejandro Rose-Garcia had been merely a jobber, but as a musician he decided on leading man. It was in L.A. he recorded Roll the Bones in various bedrooms and living rooms.
"I wrote that whole album when I was trying to escape my own life," he admits.
He took those 10 songs back home and released them on the first day of January 2011 to Bandcamp utilizing its name-your-price option. Since then, his recorded bow has frequently topped the site's play chart, ultimately yielding over 45,000 full downloads, with over 15,000 paying – some as much as $100.
"It was an immensely conscious decision to limit my output at the early stage by not putting the record on iTunes or Spotify," he nods. "I considered the way I absorbed music: A band that a friend recommends influences me a thousand times more than a band iTunes recommends. So if they wanted it, they had to spend a minute-and-a-half on Google finding it. That doesn't make it cool, but it makes it feel like something you're personally part of.
"The idea for the first album was anti-marketing. I wanted to figure out how to acquire fans right now, different from the old model where artists were pushed at you. I spent the last three years building a fan base that felt like they discovered me, which they did. That's something no one can ever take away."
And the War Came arrives Oct. 7 on Americana-leaning imprint Dualtone, with whom he signed a one-album deal after being courted by various labels including Universal Music Group.
The 11-song effort, recorded primarily in his South Austin home, maintains Graves' hallmarks of crooked fingerpicking and wordy, enigmatic prose, but bears faint resemblance to its predecessor Roll the Bones or the stripped-down live show of his past. The quiet aspects of his indie folk are increasingly delicate, but the raw parts arrive gutsier than before, all of it tracked with a greater attention to atmosphere. His voice ranges from a cooing falsetto to slack-tongued Southern twang.
When Graves croons "I used to be an only son," he could be detailing his metamorphosis from a busker-like troubadour accompanying himself on a suitcase kick drum to bandleader. His longtime tour companion Chris Boosahda contributed percussion and production, but it's the feather-voiced Esmé Patterson of Denver-based Paper Bird that could be the game-changer. The pair duets on three tracks including playful lead single "Dearly Departed."
"This album is very much me facing the fact that I don't need to play alone," acknowledges its author. "That was never what I wanted."
The one-man-band schtick has done wonders for Shakey Graves, providing a point of entry for the kind of coordination-worshippers who might be equally impressed by unicycle-riding jugglers. In truth, the solitary practice, often dictated by financial practicalities or control-freak issues, was dictated by the music itself. That antique suitcase, outfitted with a tambourine and drumhead, remains an anchor, but his live sets now include a drummer, multi-instrumentalists, and backup vocalist.
Will fans become nostalgic for Shakey Graves, the one-man band?
"I didn't start Shakey Graves to be a one-man band," he explains. "I did it to express myself when I didn't have anyone to play music with me. Playing with other musicians is fucking awesome."
Shakey Graves' mid-Nineties Toyota Corolla has just been stolen. It's three weeks after our initial interview and he's fresh off a plane from gigging out west for a photo shoot with this publication.
"Oh well, everything in the universe was pointing to that car being stolen," he claims. "I'd even gotten some important items out, but I left some talismans in there that are now lost."
In his pocket resides a special rock his mother gave him, and there's an occult symbol designed by Helena Blavatsky tattooed on his arm. Sitting outside under the bright glow of a super moon, we discuss his supernatural worldview.
"I believe in the un-perceivable, and I believe it's very easily perceivable," he explains. "There's a close layer between reality and what runs alongside reality. Maybe it has to do with physical locations, sacred geometry, and ley-lines. You can accidentally do something or say the right word in a certain place and cast a weird spell – the explanations of which could be mathematical or magical."
In 2006, while living in L.A., he survived a shakeup of reality that seems, in hindsight, equally far-fetched and personally relevant. It was there he became compelled to follow instructions from a voice outside himself. Those extra-sensory directions seemed to be leading him on a journey, but the outcome proved treacherous.
"I was caught by the police because I was outside proselytizing to people and put in a mental institution," he reveals. "A lot of Shakey Graves comes from that experience. I still keep one foot in that world."
Now, Shakey Graves ventures on an entirely different path, one dictated by international tour dates and scheduled television appearances.
"My life feels like a dream right now, both in a happy way and in a literal sense," he professes. "It's surreal that I know exactly where I'll be six months from now – performing in Australia. I know where my physical body will be, but I have no idea what the circumstances will be.
"I have no template for what this record coming out means, but the lesson that creating this album has taught me is that I'm responsible for my music. I don't let anything out of the gate I won't defend. I'm comfortable letting people take it out of my hands and run away with it, because I've done all I can.
"I've put love into it and if I act as human as I can and I'm honest in how I approach this, it might go through both good and bad, but it will be a progression.
"And life will continue to unfold."