Shakey Graves says he’d taken psychedelics plenty before so he’s not sure why that one time in Los Angeles in 2010 was different. But that mushroom trip launched him into another songwriting plane.
The child actor — “Spy Kids,” “Friday Night Lights” — who grew up in Austin as Alejandro Rose-Garcia says up until then, he thought writing songs involved picking up a guitar, thinking a lot about lyrics, and then pulling together a few chords to churn out one of those “I love the girl, but she does not love me” songs.
“There wasn’t a lot of room for interpretation,” he says. “It felt very human and very teenage.”
But after he went on a three-day rant in LA that ended with police admitting him for observation at a mental hospital, everything changed. “It’s a long story, but some crazy shit happened. It kind of opened the door that in some ways I guess has never really shut,” he says one afternoon as he and the band are loading their bus for a tour that brings them to The NorVa on July 27.
“It was basically seeing through the veil,” he adds, on a roll now. “It’s one of those things that when it happened the message to me was no one is going to believe you anyway. No one is going to believe you’ve seen something, now you know there’s mysteries in the universe. congratulations, you get a medal and now you get to learn how to fly and shoot laser beams out of your eyes.”
“It gave me a sort of faith, I suppose, a faith in spooky bullshit,” he adds. “I’m not sure how else to describe it.”
“Why does this all matter in the first place? Is our whole life being afraid of being a dead person? Is that what we’re all doing? Constantly not dying? Is that it? No. There’s something more beautiful that all of this. There’s this miraculous mystery that at my best I try to speak about eloquently.”
He became Shakey Graves not long after that. It was partly a grin. But it’s also dark in a way. “Grim, but also playful,” he says.
He moved back in with his mother in Austin and started playing everywhere he could around town. He says he took lessons early so he wouldn’t hurt himself playing guitar, but he’s largely self-taught. He’ll go up to someone else and say listen to this bizarre thing I found. That’s a diminished chord, is the snarky reply. His songs are filled with odd time changes and chord progressions.
“The way I play is just an extension of my body,” he adds. “I learned how to fingerpick from “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. If you want to learn how to fingerpick get that down and you’re good. “
He says keeping his mind out of it worked best. “In a lot of ways, my body knows what I’m doing much better than I do,” Rose-Garcia explains. “If I keep myself out of it, I usually play better.”
That takes him back to the Los Angeles bender. “There’s a good analogy to the experience we were talking about,” he explains. “I had a Peter Pan moment. I lost my shadow for a long time. I finally stitched it back onto my body. It’s me and the intuitive side of me now. They have communication. That’s a pleasant thing in a lot of performance. Dance. Singing. Most physical arts. You let the spirit flow. “
“Music as an experience can be very cheap and recreational, nothing wrong with that,” Rose-Garcia adds. “But it can also be an intensely profound experience. I try and tow that line. To keep it like a really profound joke.”
His time in Austin was a sort of apprenticeship. He wrote hundreds of songs. He learned how to play for three hours, blasting through songs and figuring out what stuck with listeners. He went through a series of versions of his one-man band, eventually settling on guitar, vocals and keeping rhythm on a foot pedal and a suitcase.
He thought he had something. Then he went to an open mic in New York and got his ass kicked. “It really put me in my place,” he says.
Over time, he created a live show that remains his signature. Eventually, he added Chris Boosahda, his drummer and producer. He became huge on the festival circuit.
His 2011 debut, “Roll the Bones,” was a one-man affair. With “And the War Came” in 2014, he expanded with a full band. For that disc, he worked with Esme Patterson, who had just left the Colorado band, Paper Bird. They created arguably his biggest hit, “Dearly Departed.”
“I was branching into something bigger,” he says. “There’s a lot of human emotion and personal stuff that goes down with sharing the songwriting process. It was way more challenging than I assume. Shit’s weird. You have a life. I have a life. It was unfair to drag you around to play in my show,” he says, talking partly to himself and Patterson, it seems. “There was a lot of reality that I discovered. How delicate a songwriting collaboration can really be.”
For this tour, he’s playing with a band of four, including his old LA buddy, Patrick O’Connor, on guitar. They would play awful music and say, man, one day we’ll be in a band back in the day. Now, they are. “We’ve had more than one moment sticking our heads out of the tour bus at 5 in the morning screaming, ‘I can’t believe it,” Rose-Garcia says.
Adding a bass player completed the group. “The band has never sounded better. We really started being a band this year,” he adds. “We’ve all kind of fallen into the pocket finally.”
He says the live show is inspired by The Talking Heads movie, “Stop Making Sense.” “It’s really kind of genius, starting stripped-down and by the end it’s an entire production,” he notes. So at times during the night it’s a one-man band, it’s a duo, a power trio, and a four-person electric or acoustic group. They don’t always start slow, though. “The set list is malleable. Every night is an ordeal. Some nights we’re all hungry so we kick it off with all four,” he says. “Some nights I will go out and play.”
The plan is to go on hiatus next year and perhaps collaborate on a new album. It’s another writing challenge. “It’s still one of those things. I’m not sure how people write together,” he says. “I don’t know the routine. I don’t know how other bands do that. This is the closest I’ve ever gotten to writing as a group. I guess the contact is me. It’s my project. Lyrically and musically I have the final veto. But my goal is to stay out of my fellow musicians’ ways, start with what they hear.”
That sounds about right. Graves may be a singular player, a guy who doesn’t just jump over the boundaries, but never sees them. So collaborating with a band seems like it will be no different than collaborating with psychedelic mushrooms or Boosahda and Patterson.
“We have a ton of unfinished material with great potential,” he adds. “We play these licks over and over again. The baby wants to be born.”