Rare is the visionary who can carry a personal aesthetic across multiple platforms as seamlessly as Ryan Graveface: guitar player for the perverse and genre-bending psychedelic pop of Black Moth Super Rainbow, longtime member of the Marshmallow Ghosts and Dreamend, enabler to dozens of acts whose releases bear the cartoonish skull logo of his Graveface Records imprint, and owner of the Graveface Records & Curiosities shop in Savannah. Born Ryan Manon, although he prefers the moniker "Ryan Graveface" for the sake of privacy, the man's otherworldly, psychedelic fingerprints are all over every one of his endeavors, unmistakably connecting each one together.
This winter, while driving south along back roads weaving through dense forests of live oaks and Spanish moss near Beaufort, S.C.'s sea islands and low country swamps, I took a detour into downtown Savannah to find the Graveface record store. Whenever I'm traveling, finding record shops is priority one. Not since the mid-aughts has Savannah boasted a record store worth seeking out, at least not until Graveface opened its doors in October 2011.
I entered the store shortly after it had opened on a Wednesday morning, and found it to be the perfect embodiment of every musical aesthetic that's come to define Graveface's playfully spooky image. Long bins of new and used records, 7-inches, some CDs, obscure DVDs, and handfuls of cassette tapes were arranged amid stockpiles of the label's releases. Taxidermy animals, toys, skulls of humans and various beasts, a Ronald McDonald head, and an orange skull mask from the cover of BMSR's Cobra Juicy album cluttered the shelves. Elsewhere, bottles of bitters, cocktail supplies, effects pedals, and a poster advertising Tarot readings by appointment all gave rise to a supernatural ambiance — the place felt more like the Hong Kong trinket shop in Gremlins, where Mr. Peltzer first saw the Mogwai, than any record store I'd ever been.
"The store feels that way because it's me," Graveface says. "I'm into cocktail making, dead things, vinyl — it's all done with my voice and personality behind it. I'm not putting a bunch of weird taxidermied animals in a shop because I think people might like it. I do it because it's what I love. Same goes for the bands I choose to work with; they have to resonate with me."
In the store that day, the sounds of two lost and lovelorn women harmonizing over lyrics ("There's nothing that you can do, your heart is free to be untrue") filled the air. Each lingering note channeled the spirit of the Cocteau Twins' ethereal "Heaven or Las Vegas," Bananarama's "Cruel Summer," and the Shangri-Las' "Out in the Streets" — all slowed to a humid Southern traipse. I had to ask: "What are you listening to?"
"It's the Casket Girls' new record," the woman behind the counter replied. "The guy who owns the store is releasing it, and he plays in the band, too."
It was the kind of record store experience that doesn't happen much these days, and it could only have happened there. Or so it seemed.
On Valentine's Day, Graveface is launching a 30-plus city tour from Atlanta to the West Coast and back, dubbed the Graveface Roadshow, featuring performances by the Stargazer Lilies, Dreamend, Dott, and the Casket Girls.
Released Feb. 11, the Casket Girls' sophomore album, True Love Kills the Fairy Tale, is a phantasmal affair, filled with a cleaner, more realized musical atmosphere than the group's 2012 debut, Sleepwalking.
Songs such as "Same Side," "Stone and Rock," and "The Chase" find sisters Phaedra and Elsa Greene stepping beyond the lo-fi trappings of their debut to embrace an anthemic merger of simple but inventive arrangements that come to a head with the glorious "Ashes and Embers," featuring its dark and dreamlike rhythms.
With the album arriving just days before the Graveface Roadshow kicks off, the Casket Girls have become the stars of the lineup. Like Graveface, Phaedra and Elsa keep any images of their faces obscured in the band's press photos. "It's sort of an aesthetic thing, but it started because we were terrified of performing," Elsa says. "We were nervous and scared, so it became like a weird security blanket that allows us to feel free and unintimidated during our performances."
Not long after he'd moved to Savannah from Chicago in 2010, Graveface stumbled upon the Montgomery, Ga., transplants in the middle of a city park one day, singing and playing autoharp. "There's a certain city square here [Chippewa Square], like a mini park with a bordering wall, and it's perfect for people to just chill out and play music," he says. "Sometimes I'll walk through there and see an old-timey string band, weird sermons, snake handlers, and there's a dude that I always see walking around with a tiny piglet riding on his shoulder. That's where I found them singing."
Elsa recalls that day, adding that they weren't there to perform, but just to hang out and sing. "We do this thing where we make up songs, like a game," she says. "Sometimes one of us will say two different words that you have to incorporate into the song. We were just doing that. We've been interested in writing in all different forms, one of which is poetry, and sometimes we'll write something in our notebooks. Sometimes something really cool comes out of that — something unfiltered — and sometimes it turns out to be awesome."
This kind of chance writing still plays a fundamental role in giving direction to the song beds that Graveface composes for the group. After receiving the basic instrumental song from him, Phaedra and Elsa plug in microphones and sing stream-of-consciousness style upon first listen. From there fine-tuning happens, and songs take shape. "We start from a totally subconscious space and pull from our notebook," Elsa says. "Concepts reveal themselves, and paint a bigger picture of the things we're thinking about, and life in general."
True Love Kills the Fairy Tale, as Elsa explains, taps into the dichotomy of taking on a realist's perspective on life, or choosing to live in a fantasy world. "If you're a truth seeker, and you're attempting to have a greater understanding of things, I would prefer for the fairy tale to be killed and understand something as it really is," she says. "But ultimately, whatever you believe to be true is true to you, so the concept kind of implodes on itself."
As a result, True Love Kills the Fairy Tale is both expansive and mysterious — an affecting, sentimental album filled with introspection and ethereal charm in a way that the Casket Girls haven't managed before. Each song adds potency to the depth and charisma of the group's identity, but it's all cut from the same intangible fabric that binds all things Graveface together.