Americana, folk, whatever you want to call it, it has a lot of contenders and pretenders. When I say that, I mean that the genre is so highly concentrated that it’s easy to differentiate who is blatantly ripping someone off and who is creating purely original music.
Ever since the latter half of the 2000s, Austin’s Alejandro Rose-Garcia has been putting a fantastic spin on the style under the name Shakey Graves. He’s been known as a one-man act for the majority of his career but recently picked up a backing band. This new chapter will be unveiled when Rose-Garcia and his cohorts play two shows in Cambridge next week.
Ahead of those appearances, we had a chat about him being an actor before a musician, the inspiration of a certain one-man band, and the holiday named in his honor.
Before Shakey Graves started, you acted in the TV series Friday Night Lights and the Spy Kids film franchise. Did you start a love for acting and music at the same time or did one come after the other?
I was acting before I played music, for sure. I did plays and stuff, and I grew up with my parents being involved in theater. My mom was a director and she’s a playwright, and my dad was a set and light designer, so I was around the theater a lot when I was a little kid. I love film and digital media a ton and music was kind of a more personal thing that I did. I started doing it when I was around 13; I actually went to LA to try and land some bigger roles, and I ended up writing most of the music that ended up taking me away from there. You never know where you’re really going sometimes.
When you started playing music under the Shakey Graves name, you were doing the one-man band thing with a kick drum, a guitar, and some loop pedals. What made you want to go that route? Was it out of necessity? Or did another musician inspire you to take this approach?
It was always just me. I used to make music while not really considering what it would be like if it was played live—that wasn’t the point at first. When that came around, I wasn’t able to find the bands that I wanted. Anytime I played with people, there wasn’t any more of a reason for them to listen to me than what they wanted, so it ended up becoming a different project of some sort. When it came to my own tunes, I hadn’t really considered the one-man band thing until I came across a guy named Bob Log III. He’s this crazy one-man band guy who wears a motorcycle helmet with a microphone in it [Ed. note: Dig put Bob Log on our cover in like 2006, fwiw].
I went to go see him play in Austin as part of this tour called the Bluebilly Hillgrass Tour. It was three one-man band acts in a row; it was him, Scott H. Biram, and this guy Paul James. All three of them had totally different approaches to the same thing. One of them used a kick pedal, the other one used a foot trigger, and the other one had a briefcase on the ground and mic’d it up. I really took note that percussion was extremely key and I sort of wagered that I could probably pull it off.
One day I was playing a show and the band that opened up was full on with just having an acoustic guitar. The audience was riled up and ready to go, so I asked the band if I could use their kick drum and the first time out of the gate I just winged it. People started dancing, and when I play like that I try to change stuff up because you can overuse the drum but it’s a really handy tool. It fills a space that I can’t fill by myself and a guitar.
Every Feb 9 since 2012, your hometown of Austin has celebrated Shakey Graves Day, with you putting all of your music up for sale on Bandcamp where people can pay what they want. Did the creation of this holiday come out of nowhere? Do you find yourself coming up with different ways of celebrating it each year?
Yeah. The first one was sort of a freak thing that the city of Austin did. It was a big honor for me to go into city hall and be recognized; it was a long time ago too. Now I use it as an opportunity to give back, so to speak. It’s kind of like a homework assignment where I force myself to release something every year, so it’s a nice way to clean house and go through tons of recordings that either didn’t get used, an idea that I started and didn’t finish, or something that I deemed wasn’t necessary for an album cut. It’s another opportunity for me to release stuff into the world. Usually it’s been unreleased B-side material and older songs, but this year I put out some unreleased new stuff so I kind of switched up the format a little bit. I also put out the first episode of a minidocumentary thing that I’m working on that has a song in it and a music video for it. Just new things.
This current tour you’re on is called For the Record, which has you performing stripped-down versions of your songs in different arrangements. What made you come up with the idea for this? Is it for the need to experiment? A need to push an artistic envelope of yours? Something that you’ve been wanting to do for a while?
It’s a little bit of each. On one hand, it’s called For the Record because we are working on stuff for a record. What I didn’t tell people initially is that we’re recording all the shows, and kind of in a bombastic way I ended up tracking down a two-inch tape 24-track MCI tape machine. It’s a big thing from the ’70s that I’ve always wanted, and I’ve been dragging it into the venues to record onto tape.
I didn’t want to do a tour that was going to be all new material; I didn’t think it would be a good idea. There are people who would still go, but I don’t want to do that anyway. To balance it out, there are a bunch of songs I’ve recorded, but I’m playing them with a full band rather than by myself. There are songs that people have requested at shows that I hadn’t even thought about and I would miss a whole verse from like 10 years ago, so this has become an opportunity to do those correctly but in a different way. It’s also retrospective in a way and at the same time it’s recording real audio for the next release that’s coming out. People are going to actually become a part of the next record in a way.
Speaking of that release, do you know when we can expect it to come out?
It’s kind of up in the air right now. I’ve been bouncing around the idea of just releasing stuff as it’s done throughout the year, kind of breaking the album cycle a little bit. Nothing is really tethered anymore, it doesn’t entirely matter whether I compile everything later and have a big release, or put out one song at a time. I’m curious, so I’m just gonna mess with it as the year goes on. I might do a song at a time, I might put out a bundle of three, or I might put out the whole album at once. Hopefully it’s released at some point this year.
SHAKEY GRAVES AT THE SINCLAIR, CAMBRIDGE. MON 2.24 & TUE 2.25. MORE INFO AND TICKETS AT BOWERYPRESENTS.COM.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.