Here’s the thing about Shakey Graves and Nikki Lane: The two of them are always down for stage shenanigans, and the fact that they’re currently on tour together is a genius and terrible idea all at the same time. When Shakey Graves — a/k/a Alejandro Rose-Garcia — rolled through New York a few months ago in support of his remarkable sophomore effort, And the War Came, a dude crawled out of the crowd to join him onstage at the Bowery Ballroom, picked up a bass, and rocked with the band for a few bars, accidentally stomping on some of the lights in the process. With Lane, she’s as rambunctious as her caterwauling, modern take on old country is on All or Nothin’, the 2014 full-length she’s still touring behind. She was forced to crowdsurf from the stage to the back of the venue in order to work the merch table the other night, and she’s always down to bring the crowd before her to a fever pitch by the end of her set. The grins they each sport when they’re in their element — playing to packed, loud, sloppy rooms full of people clapping off the beat and belly-laughing while they do it — rival that of the Cheshire Cat. Their mischief is just as engaging as their music, and that’s why they’re ideal road buddies, even if it means trouble for the rest of us.
In between their respective soundchecks in Washington, D.C., just two nights before their return to New York City for two shows, at Irving Plaza and Warsaw, Lane and Rose-Garcia picked each other’s brains about everything they love and loathe about music, from the need to pigeonhole an artist into a particular genre to learning how to keep a cool head as your career takes off. Edited for brevity, this is the backstage chat that unfurled between two of independent country’s — or folk, or rock, or what have you — most exciting talents.
Nikki Lane: So, how should we do this? Do we have a prompt, or —
Alejandro Rose-Garcia: Do you have questions for me, Nikki? [Laughs]
NL: Sure! How does it feel to make the touring transition from going onstage by yourself with that suitcase, and then incorporating a whole band and taking the lead and becoming a headliner over the last couple years?
ARG: On the one side, it was really logical. I had a long debate with a buddy who’s in a band called Wild Child. We were in New York on the top floor of a building, coked out of our minds, feeling like rock stars or whatever, and he was like, “You will need a band! You will need a band!” and I was like, “I WILL NEVER NEED A BAND I CAN DO THIS FOREVER!” He’s absolutely right. I don’t think anybody needs a band, per se, but did you ever go out and do your guitar thing on your own?
NL: I avoided it, because the rhythm section is something I didn’t think I could do without. I didn’t understand that I could create my own. I don’t think I could; I don’t have the skills to do a couple things the way you did.
ARG: That’s bullshit. You were saying the other day how you don’t have any rhythm, and that’s impossible.
NL: When there’s a drummer there it just keeps the pace up, y’know? I fall straight into the singer-songwriter kind of songs, and they get sleepier and slower when there isn’t someone there driving them along. I didn’t even want to do stuff as a duo with me and Shelly, and then the other day for one of our shows, we had a drummer get up and just play brushes, and that was such a game-changer for us in terms of how we perform. I just slow down, you know?
ARG: Yeah, I know what you mean.
NL: I avoided it because I was nervous about the term “singer-songwriter,” too — I’ve always had a full band because it kept me from getting called a singer-songwriter, which, as a girl, it’s a hurdle to jump.
ARG: Right. I still have a lot of fears and nightmares about bringing the band out and alienating people to a certain degree. I feel like that’s always going to happen no matter what. If you change your sound at all, people notice. It’s been terrifying trying to get a band together, because I don’t want it to feel auxiliary. I can make a lot of noise on my own, and I get that feedback a lot — “You don’t need that shit!” — but it’s like, what you were saying with that rhythm section, when I’m playing that suitcase, I can’t move around onstage. I can’t jump off of amps. It’s not like I’m going to, but I don’t know — it’s definitely a new pocket I haven’t gotten to dig through yet.
NL: I’m kind of going in the other direction, where I don’t anticipate that I would go out very much. I’d make so much more money [on tour] if I went out by myself! [Laughs]
ARG: From a business standpoint, I don’t think I would’ve been able to make it this far [if I hadn’t]. I don’t dress nearly as cute as you do! My songs are marginally — I keep getting labeled “hobo folk” because I multitask. I don’t even know what the fuck “hobo folk” is. It’s not a genre! Someone must’ve said [it] and then someone else ran with it.
NL: That’s how I get called “outlaw country.” I was running my mouth one afternoon, and then all of a sudden, wham, bam, I’m in trouble with Waylon Jennings’s team because I was like, “I’m the queen of outlaw country!” and they’re pissed…You say something in an interview, somebody puts it in bold, and then you’ve got to be accountable for it all the time, even if you’re just talkin’ shit like we’re doing now. Haters make the world go ’round, am I right?
ARG: I don’t think anyone’s too concerned with being the ones responsible for what we do. I don’t think anyone is intentionally going out to pigeonhole anybody. It’s just a lot easier, when you’re writing an article, to put them together. I was talking to Mike from Shovels and Rope the other day, and we’re both pretty uncomfortable with the term “Americana.” I don’t think either of us knows what that means. I get it, and I guess it’s not the worst thing, but I’ve spent so much of my life trying to stay away from the term “folk music,” too. It’s not like I got anything against folk music, and in a broader sense, folk music can sound a little country or whatever, writing in a tradition that changes with the times. For me, folk music was in the Sixties, and it was a time and a place, so I didn’t really feel like I was —
NL: — participating in it, or that it necessarily follows suit now. I was joking the other day with a magazine that I feel like I write country music, but because there’s country music on the radio and pop-country, I don’t get to keep my own style of music as my genre. You have to push me into Americana.
ARG: I thought you kind of nailed it when you said that.
NL: We make country and rock ‘n’ roll, and [other artists] are all speaking other words you feel like you have to use. That’s what it is, you know?
ARG: What you were saying about starting to headline rooms and stuff like that — it’s still really new. I feel like the people I’ve gotten to go out and open for, they’ve all been mentoring a little bit. I don’t know if they were willing to do that, but it seemed like it. The first three bands that took me out were Old Crow Medicine Show, then Devil Makes Three and then Shovels and Rope. All three of them are totally different ships, working with three different crews, but Old Crow Medicine Show is a serious band of adult people who’ve been grinding at this for so long [laughs]. Between them and the Devil Makes Three, the biggest band you’ve never heard of, and the Shovels and Rope crew, which is essentially family, I got a pretty good gist and understanding that there’s no handout just because you get to go on the road with somebody. It doesn’t mean they’ll be nice to you, but it’s no reason to separate that sort of thing either, you know? It’s a tough gamble. We try to only take out people we’re excited about, because it makes you nervous to follow them as a performer. It makes you up your game.
NL: We were talking about that as the opener. It’s so much fun to compete in a way that’s just, like, we know they’re going to crush it, so we have to be really good! It’s a mutual respect that’s really cool. We went out with Jamestown Revival and made really great friends with them. With you, we’re doing the same thing. It’s just like, damn, you’re good, and we’ve gotta get our shit together! It’s about pulling your weight so that your fans come back to see us, too! [With the music we both make], both of us have a grit and a grunge to us. A lot of the bands we play with come off us Americana bands, and at first I was like, “Are we going to be too rough for them?” Your show has a ton of edge on it. We rile the crowd up to get rowdy for these guys. They bring a lot of growl into the show. I think we’re both putting out extremely original music. There’s no one I can pinpoint that Shakey is trying to be, unlike a lot of the alternative country performers out there. I can pinpoint the dude that a lot of other dudes are referencing. We’re both putting out pretty fuckin’ original music, which is good for a live show. We’re not going to step off the stage and then you guys play a honky-tonk set or play songs from 1952 all night or some shit.
ARG: I don’t think either of us are trying to reinvent the wheel. There’s a weird discrepancy between trying to describe the music you’re playing, and just trying to play it. It’s a bizarre mental struggle. I like the tradition that your music kind of sounds like it comes from; you’re just continuing on in a great way of writing songs that I feel like I’ve already heard, not in a contrived way, but sort of finding those songs that need to be there. “Man Up” is such a good song, and it took me one time to hear before I knew it. It’s the kind of song I’ll get married to on accident. There’s something about the way you put on your show that’s like you’ve always been there.
NL: Thanks! I do have to tell myself to move within a couple songs…
ARG: The one-man-band thing makes it easy to be introverted and go into a trance and wake up afterwards, like, “Oh, maybe I did some stuff!” But the moment you’re trying to lead people onstage and trying to anchor it all, it’s admirable, I gotta say. It’s an interesting thing for me because my musical taste is really A.D.D., to a certain degree. The way that I’ve always perceived the band I might have, Nikki Lane and her crew are one of my dream setups, in the way it comes across and the songs that you guys are putting out. It’s interesting to see that the set my boys and I are putting together leans towards more surf-y. It’s getting louder and more confusing as rock music goes, but it does complement, because there’s a through-line through that. We’re not going to Bob Seger you as much as we’d love to, but you can’t take Texas outta the boy, and I feel like what you do sets a perfect tone for that without pulling any punches.
Shakey Graves and Nikki Lane play Irving Plaza March 26 and Warsaw March 27. Their Irving Plaza engagement has sold out, but tickets for their Brooklyn show at Warsaw are available here.
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