When Alejandro Rose-Garcia was in Nashville last month to open for the Avett Brothers, he swung by his new business manager’s office to sign some paperwork. Rose-Garcia, who performs as Shakey Graves, emerged from the office as the new president and chief executive of his own touring company, Immortal Fun.
“There was a time not that long ago where if you’d told me I’d have a business manager, let alone be the president of an entity, I’d have said that’s crazy person talk,” said Rose-Garcia, 27, a native of Austin.
Indeed, until recently, Shakey Graves has largely been a do-it-yourself affair, and a successful one. Earlier this year he sold out over a dozen headline shows, including one at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, and he has become a regular on the festival circuit, playing high-profile events like the Hangout Music Festival, Newport Folk Festival and Pickathon. His 2011 debut album, “Roll the Bones,” was distributed primarily on Bandcamp, a digital retailer that specializes in independent artists.
On Tuesday his music will get its first real national push when his sophomore album, “And the War Came” is released by Dualtone Records, the Nashville label of Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen that also sold more than a couple million copies of the Lumineers’ 2012 debut album.
The set’s lead single, “Dearly Departed (featuring Esmé Patterson),” has already been streamed on Spotify more than 2 million times. For Rose-Garcia, the early Spotify returns seem worlds away from the lonely happy hour gigs he played just four years ago in Austin at the Hole In The Wall. At the time, Rose-Garcia was best known for playing a recurring character known as the Swede on the NBC series Friday Night Lights, and for bit parts in a handful of Robert Rodriguez films. As the one-man band Shakey Graves, Rose-Garcia initially fused harrowing blues and plaintive folk in a style similar to that of Chris Whitley or Jeff Buckley. For better or worse, Rose-Garcia’s homemade percussive instrument, a vintage Samonsite suitcase struck with a kick drum pedal, became his calling card, especially as he began touring.
“At its worst, it’s gimmicky,” he said. “At best, it’s useful and utilitarian. It gets sort of that sparse, big sound across, and when the sound guy has it dialed in just right, you don’t need much else. It’s also super awesome to be able to fly on airlines with it.”
Performing as a one-man band made it easier for him to take low-paying gigs, but it was also a creative choice. “Working with other people when you’re still working out your sound can get frustrating,” Rose-Garcia said. “I’d play with other guys and want to scream, ‘That’s not how this sounds!’ But I didn’t really feel comfortable saying anything like that aloud until I felt a little more like the boss of my own music. I feel more much comfortable being a bandleader now.”
For the last year or so, he has played that role on and off, working onstage with Austin drummer Chris Boosahda and a rotating cast of musicians who might add a bass, fiddle or cello. Rose-Garcia was inspired by Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads film in which the bandleader, David Byrne, starts out alone and then gradually introduces musicians as the set progresses.
The effect is more peaks and valleys, which Rose-Garcia said was also the concept driving “And the War Came,” which jumps between mournful, largely solo ballads and heavier and more aggressive multi-instrument fare.
“On a great radio playlist or a mixtape, there might be a song maybe people didn’t see coming, and then you enjoy a song more because of the song that came before it,” he said, who co-produced the album in his Austin home with Boosahda. “My favorite thing is yanking people around in intuitive ways that maybe they didn’t even realize they liked or wanted. So for the album, I wanted the peaks to be bigger than they’d been previously, and I wanted the low parts to sound warm and familiar.”
Because he has built his fan base largely on the road, playing for festivalgoers, Rose-Garcia said he considers “And the War Came” more of an introduction than a sophomore album. He hopes that with Dualtone’s push for radio and retail, he will be playing for a lot of new faces. Even so, Rose-Garcia suspects that certain fans of his live shows will be taken aback by the range and volume of the new album.
“It’s going to be a point of contention,” he said. “Bring it on. I want to spark conversation and questions like, how dare you make an album that people enjoy? Or, how dare you go back on how I perceive you as a musician?”
“I understand that,” he continued. “I’ve felt like that about plenty of artists.”
No matter how the album is received, he says he is ready for at least two years of nonstop touring, both in the United States and abroad.
“I have no real plan except to do the work, which is both exciting and pretty harrowing,” he said. “But I am the president of Immortal Fun. And that’s the thing: No matter what, I’m definitely having fun, and that’s going to be nearly impossible for anyone to take away.”