Quin Galavis Turns Darkness Into His Magnum Opus
Obfuscating the narrative between fiction and lived experience on My Life in Steel and Concrete
A passing storm has tamed Austin's triple-digit heat on this hot August night at the Museum of Human Achievement. Even so, when the doors close and the lights go down inside the Eastside DIY venue, the temperature of the repurposed warehouse quickly becomes stultifying. As Quin Galavis begins a three-part multimedia presentation of his new double album, My Life in Steel and Concrete, the sensation of drowning in hot, stale air only adds to the weight of his emotional broadsides.
After a dramatic start in which actress Cassie Fitzgerald portrays a post-apocalyptic refugee arguing with the author's disembodied narrator, Galavis takes the stage alone to perform an acoustic reading of "Can't Erase." Accompanied by only an atmospheric backing track, his sparse rendition peels away the ornateness of the album version. Like most of his expertly crafted songs, this one translates across arrangements.
While Steel and Concrete arrives as his most elaborate and arresting work to date, Galavis, 32, has been performing in Austin since age 16. He began in teen punk combo Quin & the Eskimos and graduated into post-punk outfits the Dead Space and now Nazi Gold. He credits longtime friend, frequent bandmate, and Austin native Garrett Hadden – who recently debarked for Seattle – for getting him from the bedroom to the stage.
"He helped me understand how to be punk," laughs Galavis.
It's good to see him smile. Galavis has a grin that invites easy connection, and he's unflinchingly candid as he describes how his darker moments of anxiety, depression, and self-resentment informed the new double LP. At 21, he retreated from the scene for an extended period of homebound drunken solitude.
"I got real fat and real drunk, and I just sat in my room for two-and-a-half, three years," he reveals. "I'd go out sometimes. I wouldn't go out to shows, but I'd go to parties and I was a piece of shit.
"No better than a bro."
In the midst of his withdrawal, Galavis began recording a series of solo albums at home. You can hear skeletal outlines on these albums of what would grow to epic scale on Steel and Concrete.
"Turn the darkness into some sort of creativity," he nods.
Galavis turned a corner in 2008 when he started running sound at Beerland. He formed the Dead Space with Hadden on guitar and Jenny Arthur on drums, then launched Nazi Gold in 2010 with Flesh Lights bassist Jeremy Steen and percussion guru Thor Harris, Steen's former high school art teacher. The following year, Galavis recorded Should Have Known You with Orville Neeley, garnering praise for its twang-tinged, lo-fi folk overtones.
Then the personal struggles became more pitched.
"My girlfriend since high school got pregnant," he says. "We had my son. Things got even darker, even in a worse headspace. It sucked, because those are times you think that you should be really happy, but it's the opposite for some people. At least it was for me."
A day before the Dead Space were leaving to tour their acclaimed 2014 12XU debut, Faker, Galavis abruptly left the band. He sold his guitars, drank more, and as before, chronicled his descent in music. He began performing "weird art shows," channeling the fraught introspections of forebears like Leonard Cohen and Skip Spence.
These shows caught the eye of Richard Lynn, proprietor of veteran Austin imprint Super Secret Records. With Lynn's backing, Galavis set out to record a genuine concept album in the vein of his adolescent touchstone, Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile. Cut with Ghetto Ghouls drummer Ian Rundell, the 20 songs on Steel and Concrete feature 16 musicians in various permutations covering styles ranging from industrial assault to spaghetti Western and plaintive folk. There's even a cover of the sacred harp traditional "Idumea."
Thor Harris plays drums and vibraphone on several tracks.
"Quin seems to be a pretty happy guy," replies the Swans drummer – after a long pause – when asked what distinguishes Galavis as a songwriter and performer. "I think he really truly is most of the time. But he writes about some pretty dark stuff. And he's like a huge mountain of a man with a sweet voice.
"He's a really dynamic human being. He's super sensitive and he cares about people, but he's also a big, burly dude who could be construed as a tough guy. You wouldn't want to cross him."
Cellist Graham Low, who plays bass for A Giant Dog and served as Galavis' key collaborator in shaping the sound of Steel and Concrete, is more succinct: "He really does encompass the way he feels about something and is able to express it in an abstract way that people will still get."
As the album unfolds, it's difficult to discern where Galavis ends and his characters begin. Obfuscating the narrative between fiction and lived experience was a deliberate and necessary choice on his part.
"The whole story is so deep and dark that these characters have to be there," he says. "Because if it was just about me, I'd go crazy. So there is some sense that I have to separate these people from myself."
In this respect, the making of the album became a crucible in which Galavis came to terms with his self-loathing. He recorded much of the album drunk, with only his steadfast work ethic to keep things on track.
"Like an actor, I was going to go into this role to fix myself and hope that I came out the other side," he says.
After the album was finished, Galavis continued his spiral. Yet as the project receded, his state of mind improved. He stopped drinking. He started working out and lost 45 pounds. He reconnected with his partner and son.
His next album, with Knife in the Water's Aaron Blount producing, is already tracked. Galavis promises it will be nothing like Steel and Concrete. Worry not about its narrative concluding with a bow-tied, happily-ever-after moment.
"It wasn't that I was going to finish this record and be happy," he says. "Because that's not true. I just learned that I don't give a shit about being happy. I could care less about ever being happy. I care about not being afraid and not making my fear affect other people."
Quin Galavis performs Friday, Sept. 9, at Barracuda.