Saturday October 13th Columbia will host the Jam Room Music Festival, a free all-day concert headlined by the likes of The Hold Steady and Justin Townes Earle. As a local music fan I’m more excited about the opportunity for great Columbia bands such as Say Brother, Can’t Kids, and Those Lavender Whales to get in front of a new crowd who might not have experienced their music before.
Those Lavender Whales
There’s an innocence in the music of Those Lavender Whales that’s almost childlike in its wide-eyed acceptance of life. Primary Whale Aaron Graves’s daughter is two years old, but he’s not sure that her arrival had anything to do with his band’s sound.
“Something as life-changing as having a kid will no doubt change your perspective on things but I don’t really think it has affected my views on music or my approach to it very much,” He says. “The big thing is that now I just have to schedule everything. Before I had a kid it was so much easier to work on a song as soon as it came to my head. Now, between work schedules and actually making sure we get family time, I’ll think of something and it could be days or a week before I actually get to sit down and try something out.” He does admit that his music could be seen as influenced by the younger generation, though.
“As for a perspective or approach, I still try to approach things with a kind of newness to it without any preconceptions about a situation, which I guess is childlike.”
Tomahawk of Praise is the band’s latest album, released early in 2012, and it delivers on the lo-fi promise of Graves’ earlier more solo work with a bustling batch of melodic tunes that can be nonsensical and obtuse but are invariably entertaining in an almost accidental way.
“Coming at a melody accidentally is usually pretty close to how it happens,” Graves says. “I grew up playing drums and it’s still the only instrument I feel really comfortable playing. Vocal melodies are usually stumbled upon, but the rest of the arrangements are plunked out and experimented with note by note because I’ll have an idea and have to figure out how to make it work.” Now that Those Lavender Whales is a touring and performing band instead of just a home recording project, however, Graves has more talent than his own to draw from.
“It’s great playing music with Chris Gardner (guitarist for TLW) because he studied music in college and knows lots of theory and can always explain the songs to me after they are made up in a way that makes it sound way more complicated and intricate than saying ‘It just happened that way’.”
The new music has been well received in the blogosphere and beyond, something that baffles Graves even as it pleases him.
“It’s such a big deal for anyone to even be spending time listening to my songs, and if there’s some kind of money exchange, well that’s just ridiculous,” Graves says. “Music is such a funny thing because I don’t know if you ever really plan on anyone liking it. The point is to make something you are proud of and to try new things. I think if you accomplish that the thought of, ‘Whoa what if people like this?’ always jumps in your mind, but it doesn’t really matter because you should be proud of what you make regardless of the outcome.”
Graves is getting used to the unexpected when it comes to his music getting out there to the general public, however.
“I think the weirdest part is the random folks that find it on the internet and get excited about it,” He says. “I feel like all the Tomahawk songs are pretty personal, so if my friends like it, it’s exciting but I also think it’s got a lot to do with the fact that they know me personally and know the way I approach things and know what I’m going through, so it’s easier for them to connect to it. For a random person to find these songs and connect to them is a pretty incredible and wild idea.”
Graves is not just a musician, songwriter, and bandleader, he is also a record label owner along with fellow Whales member Chris Gardner and current Toro Y Moi member Jordan Blackmon, of the locally based Fork & Spoon Records. Begun when the trio were all in No Way Jose! together, the label now sports a roster of eight bands and has been especially prolific lately, with seven releases in the last two years. For Graves, the bandleading and the label honcho duties are two separate entities.
“Chris, Jordan, and I all play music and I think we all try really hard to make sure we don’t assume that Fork & Spoon necessarily represents what we create,” He says. “It’s weird for sure, but we try to keep it all equal and separated. I think being a part of the label actually made me more sensitive to putting out the Whales record. I would always call Jordan & Chris or send them emails and say, ‘We don’t really have to put this out just because it’s me. I’ll pay for it. It’s OK. I won’t be offended.’ or ‘We really don’t have to do this on vinyl. I mean, I want to, but it’s so expensive, I understand if we don’t, really.’ But they were always really encouraging and really excited about this record, so they made me feel okay about Fork & Spoon releasing it.” Graves needn’t have worried, as Tomahawk of Praise stands up nicely beside the rest of the label’s catalog, which also includes early work from Chaz Bundick of Toro Y Moi.
“I’m just super excited for when Jordan is ready to put out some Pussy Wizard stuff,” he says, referring to an as-yet unrecorded project of Blackmon’s.
The Jam Room Festival is probably the biggest audience yet for Those Lavender Whales, a fact that’s not lost on Graves, who is a big fan of his hometown scene.
“It’s really great being a part of everything that’s growing in and from Columbia,” He says. “I lived in Nashville for a while and moved back a little over a year and a half ago and we came back with kind of a fresh start. I still knew a lot of people, but there were a bunch of folks I’d never met and Whales hadn’t really been doing much, but we were just welcomed back into the community with giant, warm arms. We’ve been able to meet so many new people and see so much of the art community that I hadn’t seen before.” As for those who criticize Columbia for what it isn’t instead of praising the scene and its supporters for what it is, Graves agrees that more is possible but what we have is already pretty darn good.
“Columbia isn’t perfect by any means, but there are some really amazing people here doing amazing things and working really hard to promote this town,” He says. “It’s really great to get to meet everyone and hang out with everyone and help as much as I can during that process.”
Here’s a clip I shot a while back at the Columbia Museum of Art featuring the live version of the band (including Graves’ significant other Jessica Bornick on drums and Free Times music editor Patrick Wall on steel guitar):