Despite his predilection for darkness, doom and the deadly, everything Ryan Graveface touches is turning into sunflowers these days. The masked one's record label is a global success, his Savannah record and curiosity shop, while not exactly swimming in money, is holding its own. And the Casket Girls, just one of several musical projects, is getting attention (the good kind) from just about everywhere.
A gauzy, neo-psychedlic, sepia-toned blend of Graveface’s own electronic music beds and mostly-unison singing from Savannah sisters Phaedra and Elsa Greene, the Casket Girls is a fascinating sort of dreampop; it’s both otherworldly and catchy. What it sounds like is early Roxy Music interpreted by the Bananarama gals. Some of the harmonies sound like chemically-altered Beach Boys.
Graveface and the Greenes were in Austin last week, for several Graveface Records showcases at SXSW. In fact, they’ve been on the road for a month (along with several other bands, as the Graveface Roadshow) and will return just in time for March 22’s second annual Graveface Fest, at Dollhouse Productions.
Their just-out sophomore album is called True Love Kills the Fairy Tale, and it’s both disturbing and delightful. The vocal melodies and lyrics, written by the Greenes over Graveface’s soundscapes, are intoxicating and surreal.
“I’ve never worked with anyone, ever, who can turn the dumbest-sounding songs into pop songs with choice words and awesome vocals,” marvels Graveface. “It’s been pretty inspiring, actually, and has helped my songwriting in the other projects that I’m in.
“Especially in terms of collaborating, period. Instead of thinking that I should be the primary focus, or I know all or see all, now I realize I don’t know squat. And I’m really listening to people a lot more.”
Graveface is the sole member of Dreamend, a string-based instrumental project. He’s also part of the Marshmallow Ghosts and the experimental Black Moth Super Rainbow. He is a keyboard and guitar player whose approach to music-making originates —like everything else he does—from a rather unusual place.
“All the interviewers ask ‘Do you really write songs in a dream state? Because that sounds like bullshit,’” he says with a laugh. “But I’ve been doing that since I was a kid.”
As a death-obsessed teen called Ryan Manon in Toledo, Ohio, Graveface became immersed in astral projection, a form of deep meditation that, proponents say, allows a person to travel, think (and compose) outside the body.
“It all stems from being able to meditate and going from there,” he explains. “And then controlling your dreams. And turning those dreams into reality.
“I entered a young composers’ contest, and I thought it would be interesting to force myself to write my contribution in dream entirely. So I would just meditate in lucid dream, and then I would force myself to wake up so I could jot it down. I didn’t know how to write music, so I would just hum into a little TalkBoy sitting by my bed.”
He doesn’t sleep much, but when he does, he makes sure he gets something out of it. “I think I’m just so bored with life, and I always have been,” Graveface confesses. “I’ve been very restless. I was always trying to find ‘something else.’ For a lot of people, that’s how they find God, or drugs, or crime or gangs, or whatever it is.”
Drugs, he says, have never entered into it. He’s not that sort of person.
Today, the process is more or less the same. “A lot of my stuff now I just have in my iPhone by my bed,” he explains. “I use the voice recorder for whatever melody is floating about at night. And figure that out on the keyboard later.”
Dreamend, in fact, began as a direct musical manifestation of the process. However, he stresses, “it was supposed to be rooted in nightmares, more than anything positive or hopeful.”
A longtime obsession with girl groups like the Shangri-Las (known for the melodramatic “Leader of the Pack”) led him to initiate the Casket Girls. Things were cemented when he “discovered” the Greene sisters sitting in a downtown square “playing autoharp and singing bizarre songs.” He approached them—slowly—about trying something new. “We mostly thought he was just hitting on us,” Elsa says.
From there came the full-length Sleepwalking, followed by an EP and a cassette single exclusive for Record Store Day.
The group’s somnambulistic debut lead directly to True Love Kills the Fairy Tale, which Graveface says he considers the “first” Casket Girls album.
Elsa and Phaedra allegedly wrote all the lyrics in one evening, in a dream state.
“The three of us are super invested in our dream states,” explains Graveface. “And we write from kind of a different place. We keep dream journals and exchange those. It’s really weird. Because I was a stupid goth kid in high school, it almost feels like that, except fully realized. Being interested in metaphysical things, and anything macabre. But there’s actually a purpose, and you’ve found a couple people that see things the same way.”
Their words are stream-of-subconsciousness, surrealistic at times, blunt and clear-headed the next.
Writing from the dream state, he says, “basically just hit harder than expected for them. Deeper and more emotional, and more in tune than normal. Even more removed.
“That’s when you know you’ve kind of struck gold with the dream state; you have nothing to do with it, yet you’re doing all of it. That’s what’s exciting to me about it. Memory has nothing to do with it. It’s almost callous on one hand, but way more spiritual on another.”
So anyway, Graveface Fest II starts at 4 p.m. and ends up somewhere around 2 in the morning. Along with Dreamend and Casket Girls, Graveface Records’ shoegazing Stargazer Lilies are performing.
Three of Savannah’s best are here: Kylesa, Cusses (currently mixing elpee #2) and Blackrune. There’s hard-rocking Crazy Bag Lady and folkie mumbledust, from opposite ends of the Savannah musical spectrum, with Philadelphia’s rockers Creepoid.
Let’s run ‘em down: Kylesa, Cusses, the Casket Girls, Stargazer Lilies, Blackrune, Crazy Bag Lady, Dreamend, Creepoid, mumbledust.
How can you say no to a lineup like that? I’ll see you there (Dollhouse is at 980 Industry Drive; just go west on Louisville Road until you think you might be lost).
Tickets are $15 advance at graveface.com, or at the store. They’ll be $20 on the 22nd.