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Shakey Graves on Hanging Up His Cowboy Hat With New Album 'Can't Wake Up'
He’s not ditching the acoustic guitar and that suitcase kick-drum entirely, but he’s the first to say it’s time for something new.
Even if the new stuff doesn’t need it and the van gets fuller by the minute, Alejandro Rose-Garcia, aka Shakey Graves, will still tour with that damned empty suitcase.
Since 2011, an acoustic guitar and a hollow piece of luggage outfitted with a kick-pedal pilfered from a drum kit have served as the bedrock of the Austin native’s sound. He sang of "city boys in country clothes" on Roll the Bones, his full-length debut, and kept time on the suitcase while he did so; his fluency in Americana-inflected rock went from proficient to expert on its follow-up, 2014’s And the War Came, with "Dearly Departed," the album’s lead single and his most radio-friendly effort to date, making a beeline for the audio pleasure center of any twang devotee.
His strength as a performer bloomed from this ability to make more with less, but this posed a unique problem, even if it’s a good one to have: The old idea of Shakey Graves -- of him stepping to the stage in an undershirt peeled fresh from a three-pack and a thrifted Stetson with his guitar slung over his shoulder and the suitcase at his feet -- is a relic that stuck, more of a character sketch than a representation of what Rose-Garcia can do and where he wants his music to go. The suitcase will come on tour because the old songs are still in the set list, but the house that Shakey built is is rejecting it as a musical cornerstone.
"If, for some reason, you’ve been obsessive about all the music I’ve made, this won’t be a confusing leap off a bridge for you," he tells Billboard about Can't Wake Up, his third album out May 4.
"For everybody that’s just discovered me wearing a cowboy hat from six years ago, it may be a bit of a bummer. That’s fine. Some part of me feels compelled to poke the bear about why people have such issues with growth or change because everything is changing so obviously around us. I don’t feel comfortable or necessarily real being like, a starving fake busker. I detest busking and I always did -- I had a busking license once. I’d never want to take that out of someone’s hands if that’s what inspires them when they see me play a suitcase or whatever, but this record was much more what I wanted to hear, much more the kind of music I listen to."
This materialized as a major stylistic shift -- less "Dearly Departed," more "Dearly departed Disney characters listening to Pet Sounds at a corner dive in the afterlife, as rendered by Salvador Dalí."
In 2016, Rose-Garcia found himself at a breaking point: He’d been touring behind And the War Came for years and was eager to explore new directions, but his aggressive touring schedule kept him away from Austin -- and creative progress, as he does the vast majority of his writing at home. "I decided to stop the touring machine because I was kind of being driven crazy by it," he says. "I am not a very panic attack-y person at all, and I had a really close mental breakdown where I was being asked about a festival two years from then into the summer, and I was like, 'Fuck you! No! I’m not down to plan two years into my future!'"
With a renewed focus and an open schedule, he got back to work, and the space between him and the obligation of an immediate deadline or set list gave him plenty of room to shrug off the constraints of expectation and play, in more ways than one. With Can’t Wake Up, Rose-Garcia switches from honky tonk troubadour to the "inescapable, grandiose cheese" of the pop structure he picked up from the Disney and Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtracks he learned by heart as a kid. Harps ("Foot of Your Bed"), wood block trots ("Tin Man") and choruses straight out of the fun house ("My Neighbor") take the place of the suitcase thwacks that peppered albums prior.
It’s hardly cartoonish, thanks to the depth of the lyrical content and a smattering of riffs the Pixies would approve of ("Mansion Door") and surf-rock detours ("Climb on the Cross"). He even built a diorama that would eventually wind up on the cover of Can’t Wake Up, a dark scene in murky violets and neon fuchsia shadows that evoke a known street that transforms within the hour -- in daylight, it’s familiar; at night, it’s foreign, the destination of a wrong turn taken.
On may 4th my new Album ‘Can’t Wake Up’ will roam the earth. For the cover I created a four foot deep diorama in my living room using hand painted plexiglass plates and train set lights. I wanted to create a dreamscape set on a budget. Huge thanks to my dear friend @joshverduzco for helping conceive and photograph this piece. I can’t wait for y’all to hear what’s coming next.
"Overall, I was oversaturated with music," he says, detailing how he worked out of this fatigue with Can’t Wake Up. "I feel like the outside world thinks that musicians just live and breathe and roll around in music all day long. I know some of ‘em do, but a lot of this record was me being so much more comfortable with not propagating some stupid myth about me being this guy who just drags his guitar around and can’t stop playing music!" He laughs.
"I love making music, and I’m not that guy. I don’t wistfully sit by the Mississippi River and pull tunes out of the earth, you know what I mean? It’s not like that hasn’t happened in my life; I have a deep connection to the music I make… I make music to try and express the experience of being alive for hopefully 80-100 years: how is there so much beauty and grief at the same time? What’s the point of all of this? That’s why I make stuff. That’s why I built a diorama for the record: I’d rather do that than take a picture of my face."
Growth, aesthetic shifts and crafts aside, the spine of a Shakey Graves song is very much the same; fans who love the Western amble of "Built to Roam" off Roll the Bones will recognize similar strains in "Dining Alone," and "Big Bad Wolf" is a lyrical powder keg of the same stripe as "The Perfect Parts" on And the War Came. Playing these sister songs every night is a challenge he’s looking forward to. The suitcase can stay, because it still has potential in the connections Rose-Garcia is still unspooling between the music of his past and that of his present.
"There’s a lot of through lines," he says of these connections. "Initial concepts of the record were me considering opening with that song because it would sound familiar, and then disassembling it… This is just the beginning to a certain degree. I’m excited to disassemble these over time, see what’s happening."