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Upending Expectations

Shakey Graves returns with darker, deeper take on his suitcase blues.


Alejandro Rose-Garcia - GREG GIANNUKOS
  • Greg Giannukos
  • Alejandro Rose-Garcia

On his new album, Can't Wake Up, Alejandro Rose-Garcia happily upends expectations of his Shakey Graves project. Toying with mood, form, perspective and cinematic intimacy, he discards the groove he adopted circa 2015, when Shakey Graves' sound revolved around an acoustic guitar and an old suitcase, outfitted one-man-band style with a kick pedal. As Rose-Garcia said last winter when he announced Can't Wake Up, "Next album. New sound. Sell your suspenders."

It's not an overblown interpretation. Instead of stomp-folk and country blues, songs like "Aibohphobia" sound as psychedelic on record as they do on paper. "Kids These Days" skewers the "young dumb chosen one" that might just be Rose-Garcia himself. "Dining Alone" twists lounge pop into a Fantasia-inspired slice of schizophrenia, while "My Neighbor" scurries from one unexplored sonic rabbit hole to another. "Climb on the Cross" features the devastating line, "I never listened to my teacher/ Trusted every word my preacher would say/ Always thought the crosshair was simply the sun on my face," along with a chorus that still perplexes me months after first hearing it: "If nothing dies tomorrow/ Why remember yesterday?"

"To a certain degree, music is mood," Rose-Garcia says. "It's the umami of life. A lot of memory is tied to music. Sometimes a song instantly transports you somewhere whether you want it to or not." As an experienced songwriter with two full-lengths—2011's Roll the Bones and 2014's And the War Came—and multiple EPs under his belt, he's still not sure whether that's a nature or nurture thing. Reflecting his fascination with the spiritual, sometimes cosmic forces at work around us, he adds, "Certain music, notes and auditory experiences are designed to help open a star gate," with only a hint of a smirk.

Defining Can't Wake Up's thesis statement as an exploration of dreams, fantasies and madness, Rose-Garcia says its most straightforward analogy is a battle against "feeling trapped in a repetitive loop you can't get out of or feel helpless to adjust." Referencing his time touring endlessly on the strength of hit single "Dearly Departed" from And the War Came—he performed on Conan O'Brien, David Letterman and Seth Meyers in the space of one season and played more sold-out shows in 2015 than he can remember—he says, "Everybody goes through it: 'Is this all life has to offer? Am I doing anything? Do I need to be doing anything?' Those endless questions have no one answer. They're the equation of life. In the searching is the purpose."

Rose-Garcia hand-built a ramshackle diorama for Can't Wake Up's cover—suffused purple and pink light silhouettes teetering city buildings, with a lone searcher at the middle of it. And he and his backing band adeptly capture that vibe on stage in joyous, sometimes bewildering, ways. (Billboard called it "Disney characters listening to Pet Sounds at a corner dive in the afterlife, as rendered by Salvador Dalí.") Rose-Garcia says he took a deliberate approach to building the current stage show, using stage lights, props and set pieces to eliminate any feeling of new material haphazardly stuffed into or tacked onto his old set. "We do a lot with light and mood to present the songs in an interesting way, which took a bit of pre-production work," he says. "Once we started experimenting at the beginning of this tour, we were like, 'This will probably work!' A couple months in, it's beginning to hit its stride; we're feeling a little more elastic and able to pivot more as a band."

That band approach is crucial to Rose-Garcia, who insists that Shakey Graves is not just about him. Instead, he prefers acting as a sort of disembodied narrator taking listeners on a surrealist journey. "I usually don't write candidly about my own life," he says. "I lean away from musicians who do that. At the same time, I don't think you have to make fun of everything. The new Father John Misty record drives me crazy—his tongue is blasted all the way through his cheek at this point. I'm like, 'I get it, dog!'"

Somewhere in the middle lies Shakey Graves' sweet spot, Rose-Garcia says. "I don't want to not put myself in the songs, but I also don't feel like I need to use it as some confessional therapy. I can masturbate for myself—music is meant to be shared. Too much of me clogs that purpose. I want to make it an emptier thing that you can pour yourself into."

Laughing, he says he and his band embraced the cinematic nature of Can't Wake Up by coming up with a name for its main character. "We refer to all these songs as the life and times of Garth Nazarth, who's had lots of ups and downs and ultimately dies in the electric chair after selling weed in Mexico," Rose-Garcia laughs. Providing perhaps the best summation of Shakey Graves, he adds, "That's the quick and easy way to summarize what might as well be a disassembled movie."