Apart from his hollow-body electric guitar and suitcase kick-drum, Shakey Graves — aka Alejandro Rose-Garcia — is not your average one-man band.
While his contemporaries adopt a gutbucket blues style that's rarely convincing, the Austin native's fingerpicking suggests Leo Kottke. His approach veers toward rock and folk, with touches of the distortion and feedback he first discovered while playing through an overdriven Honeytone mini-amp.
"I've always liked loud electric music," says Graves of his hybridized sound. "I guess it's blues, sort of, or it's aggressive folk music. I don't know, I haven't been able to figure it out."
On record, there's a subtle other-worldly quality that drifts in and out of songs, an impressionist lo-fi approach that's more Ariel Pink than Jack White. Lyrics are dark — "I've become a cold case, bruised and black / Laying on a table with my eyes rolled back / A husband for dear Doe, Jane" — the music less so.
And then there's that cow head, the one he wears on the cover of his 2011 debut album, Roll the Bones. The anthropomorphic creature is also reprised in the cover illustration for last year's Lubbock Sessions — a casually dressed cow with a gun in one hand, a guitar in the other.
In the following interview, Graves holds forth on a variety of subjects, including one-man bands, Paper Bird collaborations, and barnyard animals.
I've seen you described as the best one-man band in Austin. Is there a high concentration of one-man bands in Austin?
There's certainly a few. You know, Scott Biram is there ...
Who has a much different style than you.
Yeah, definitely. A lot of the one-man bands in the area have that aggressive blues style. There's another guy named Possessed by Paul James. There's a guy named Eagle Eye Williamson. There's another guy named Chief White Lightning. That's all I can think of right now.
Your artist bio places you in the tradition of musicians like Michael Hurley, who can be both humorous and poignant, sometimes in the same song. Are those qualities important to you?
I've always adored the way Michael Hurley plays with words. You know, he just goes out there on a limb, and I go right out there with him. And I like how people like him and Townes Van Zandt have that sort of tongue-in-cheek humor. That's something I aspire to in my own songwriting, even though it's not calculated. I always try and look at my shit under a microscope and make sure that it's not just, like, this girl and that girl and "I like the woods." You know, there's got to be a better way. [Laughs.]
I also like the anthropomorphic dogs that Hurley paints for his album covers. Which raises the question: What's with the cow heads everywhere?
Oh, the cow head, yeah. I suppose that's a little less intentional than it seems. But you know, it's like the reason that I use Shakey Graves as opposed to just my name; I feel like if you do give people a little bit of blank canvas, then that helps. A lot of people will still listen to the songs and they'll just assume it's a band. And that's kind of the goal, you know, especially with the cow head.
I guess it's easier now to see my face out in the world, but when I started off, I wanted it to be a little bit more ambiguous.
You never wore one live, I take it.
I want to ask about the YouTube video of you dueting with Esmé Patterson from Paper Bird, especially since they're based here in Colorado. Is that also available on record?
Some of those songs will hopefully be on the new record that I'm putting out. Her and I just started writing some music together late last year. We were on tour together, and we've been friends ever since.
So will the next record include other musicians, as well?
Yeah, definitely. There will be some one-man band stuff on there, but it's not gonna be a lot of rehashing. I'm always trying to use albums as a way to move forward into stuff that I'm uncomfortable with, or just to throw stuff out there and see who catches it.
And do you have a title yet?
Yeah, it's gonna be called Family and Genus, which, you know, is the way you identify animals.
And it will have a lot to do with cow heads, I assume?
Uh, hopefully. I mean, somehow the cow head is having an effect on people. So it will be all cow head. I'll just call it Cow Head Nation.