Bon Scott, Sylvia Plath, Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain.
The quartet sounds like they could be the cornerstones of an influences list from any rock ‘n’ roll frontman and lyricist in the last 25 years. And they might well be for Ian Graham of Cheap Girls. But who the AC/DC singer, confessional poet, Joy Divison frontman and Nirvana bandleader are more corporally is a list of gravesites and memorials that the Cheap Girls singer/bassist and his bandmates — brother Ben (drums) and Adam Aymor (guitar) — have visited while on tour.
Call it a morbid curiosity, or as Ian assesses their interest: a fascination with celebrity, considering the rock band’s comparatively non-descript roots in Lansing, Michigan. On the rock trio’s forthcoming fourth album Famous Graves, Ian says he partially explores some of the cyclical mistakes and character flaws that he sees appearing in all people. The headstones of troubled virtuosos who died before their time could be an emblem for that.
On Sunday, Cheap Girls will perform at Slowdown in support of Against Me! and Laura Stevenson & The Cans. Tickets are available here.
Prior to their Omaha performance, Graham spoke on the phone to Hear Nebraska about Famous Graves, which is set to come out internationally on May 13 on Xtra Mile Recordings. He also admits his singing voice improves with a little TLC.
Hear Nebraska: So as I’m plugging “Cheap Girls” into YouTube over and over to prepare for this, it strikes me that in the last four years you guys have done a ton of acoustic sessions. Now part of that seems to be the way music promotion is trending: go to a place and do live one-take acoustic things on the fly. But for you guys, a rock band, is there some irony to how much acoustic stuff you guys do or are asked to do?
Ian Graham: Well, it all starts with just me and an acoustic guitar and that’s how it’s always been. Ninety-nine percent of our stuff is still that way. And out of ability on tour where it’s a lot easier to do acoustic sessions in 15 minutes than unload all the shit and try get a good sound, I think it goes both ways.
There was a point where we had — not sworn them off — but decided that wasn’t the best way to always do it. To be honest, that’s just what everyone wants to do and probably for good reason. That being said, we’ll typically say “yes” to about all of them. I personally enjoy it. I think Adam gets a little sick of it just because of the volume in the band. He wants them loud. But I like it when bands that I like do it. If it’s a band I like and song I like, I’ll probably watch it and it doesn’t matter the configuration of the band.
HN: It seems like your bassline is always such a fixture in the melody of these songs, like it’s very rarely a time-keeping bass. Now that could be because you’re a trio and don’t have much room for superfluous parts, but I’m wondering if the bass guitar’s connection to the melody can be linked to you being the singer and the melody starting with you?
IG: There’s probably something there that if there’s a melody it comes from when I write it on acoustic guitar and the little frills there. I was always a bass player before this band, but since having to sing, I stopped putting a lot of thought into the bass guitar. I’m usually more concerned with the singing. Honestly, it’s just second nature, something that’s an extension of the acoustic guitar and translating that. Not a lot of theory behind it. The goal is to make something solid with Ben and I, so Adam can color it in the way he wants.
HN: When you’re in Omaha, you’re with Against Me! again, who you guys clearly have a connection with whether it’s multiple tours or Laura producing last your record. When it’s time to strike back out on the road — I’m going to lack for an eloquent way to say this — is revisiting old friends nice? Does it make tour better?
IG: I see where you’re going. Toward the beginning I think we’d do it more of nine weeks with the same band in the same year out of necessity. As time goes on, us and Against Me! we’ve all gone through a lot since the last time we’ve done a lot of shows together. They’re in our top few best-friend bands. I think we’ll probably always say “yes” to an Against Me! tour.
The audiences are large enough with them that we don’t have to worry about how new it is. We’ve done a month with them before and we’re doing a month this time and there’s only three or four repeat cities. For example, I’m very excited to play the main room at Slowdown. Against Me! and The Menzingers are the two we’ll probably always say “yes” to. It’s as fun as it seems like it would be every single time.
HN: You’ll have to tell me how you see this forthcoming record, Famous Graves, from your perspective. From mine, you premiered “Knock Me Over” on A.V. Club, a very well-read website, and the narrative surrounding this record because it’s out on the British label Xtra Mile is that it’s your first international release. It seems like it’s being billed as your, let’s say, biggest release to date. Does it feel bigger to you?
IG: Not any more than I thought of the second and third record. Not that this would be like a make or break, but you want a little more traction with each one. From my position you pick up on things differently. It is our first international release, like technically. It will physically be released overseas. The only thing I can say about it is it’s our new record and I’m excited about it.
HN: Now you’re not the sort of band where you can say “Oh here’s the record where they trot out some jazz influences.” It’s much more straightforward than that and the differences are more nuanced. So in looking for differences or developments between Giant Orange and Famous Graves, it seems like small things. Are your vocal melodies maybe more defined, like you don’t follow the chords so closely?
IG: I definitely sing differently. The first record we made was the first time I sang in a band ever. There’s not a lot of intention with that. It’s not necessarily a defined effort to do that. I think any singer would probably say that after a while you get more comfortable. There’s also a comfort there of not having to squeeze so much in.
But I think that’s something that happened with the record before this one and when we got the studio it was like, “Oh this feels more open! And I get notes I want!” But I also don’t technically know how to sing and breathe and all that geeky shit.
HN: I should just Google this for a physiological explanation, but do your vocal chords feel like a muscle? Do they just get better and get stronger?
IG: Yeah, even just practicing lately. I feel like the first couple shows are still warming up. It definitely is like a muscle thing. I downloaded a few months ago a vocal warm up app for my iPhone and it was like, “Oh shit this really does make a difference.” Ooo’s and Ahhh’s for seven minutes before. Shit.
HN: [Laughs.] So you have to do the geeky shit. There’s value in it.
IG: See for me I’m not doing that much singing that’s difficult or strenuous on my voice itself. I don’t have to worry about losing my voice, shouting or tearing up my voice or anything. But it is always nice to feel like you can hit the notes you want to hit. But, yeah, I remember to use it maybe 30 percent of the time. But I’m always very thankful when I remember.
HN: With this record, I started looking around the songs to figure out what the relation of the title might be to that record. “Man in Question” [which contains the lyrics “So I’ll remain the man in question … the one who might have something right for you”] jumped out, like there’s some thinking or ruminating going on in a way about being invisible even if everyone knows who you are. I was thinking that could be about how graves of famous people work. Like even if everyone knows the name on it, you don’t know the person or what they do. How do you see the title coming to bear on this record?
IG: That’s very, that’s a deep connection I had never made. Your questions are difficult. But as far the album title goes, it started as literally something we like to do on tour. Like we’ll go the graves of celebrities or inventors or whoever. But on a lyrical level, it’s more of like a repeated common error kind of thing. Like famous mistakes. Things that are often repeated if even it’s not the best idea. As you get older you kind of realize what has been a bad idea in the past and you can begin to know them as something — sorry a cop just drove by, that always weird me out [laughs] — but whether or not you learn from your mistake is probably 50-50.
That was something where those two words together are based on the activity we were about to do, and then it was mind-wandering thing from there. There’s a surface level to it, but a lot of ways to take it. That’s probably why we did it.
HN: Sure, so there’s not one singular way to take it.
IG: Naming an album is also just really fucking difficult. So once we got that one we were happy. It was almost called Season Four.
HN: ‘Cause it’s the fourth record?
HN: Yeah, that’s not as cool.
IG: No, it’s not.
HN: Well, hold on, let me pick up on a few things. What graves have you seen?
IG: Like Bon Scott in Perth when we went to Australia. We’ve seen … in England there’s a ton of good ones.
HN: [Laughs] Yeah! So many dead people there!
IG: Yeah, like Sylvia Plath and Ian Curtis from Joy Division. It’s not often we go out looking for them. But like we’ve been to the Kurt Cobain house which was just kind of eerie and we didn’t want to be there. I think living where we live where everything is pretty subtle, I think we’re kind of amazed by Hollywood type things moreso than people who live in Los Angeles and New York. I think it’s just a fascination with celebrity.
HN: And then when you talk about the sort of mistakes that people make over and over again, are you thinking about people’s personal character traits or are you thinking about the band at all?
IG: I would say personal things and friends. I don’t really speak for the other guys. People in general, an “us,” and an “everyone.” Not trying to unify things, just in an observational way.
HN: Last one. I hope this isn’t cherry-picking too much, but as I was going back through your discography, and there’s that song “One & Four,” the closing song from Roaring 20’s. There’s a lyric in there that interested me in terms of your relationship to it as a songwriter. The lyric is: “My whole life feels like living in constant confessional / I’m too goddam confessional…”
Is that a conundrum for you as a songwriter, like how much Ian to put on these records and take out on these tours?
IG: I think back then I struggled with it more, that idea of how much you put in songs. And not even that. It’s more of it can be in a social situation as much as it is a guy in a band. No, I think it was just something that was at that moment a problem, I think.
And that’s the thing. There is a temporary side to songs where it’s very current, but then also side where you look back on it and see what you were going through at the moment. So I don’t feel like that at the moment and I’m not sure I ever will. Yeah, I probably felt that way I wrote it.
Chance Solem-Pfeifer is Hear Nebraska’s managing editor. Reach him at email@example.com.