The Weird World of Ryan Graveface
Ryan Graveface says it all started with a dream. It always starts with dreams, with him. Not the ambitious aspiration kind, or the hope-for-the-future MLK sort, but literal R.E.M.-sleep dreams. He specifically remembers the dream in his mid-teens that prompted him to consider music as a primary pursuit instead of the basketball that had been his focus to that point.
“It was lavishly ridiculous,” he says of the dream. “A stupid asshole with long hair and, like, shitty leather pants playing in front of far too many people, playing music that’s horrifically bad – that’s what I was doing in the dream. So it was kind of an embarrassing dream, but I woke up with this weird itch. I wasn’t interested in music at all. Like, I had even been given a guitar when I was 12 or 13 by my grandmother – I scoffed at her for giving it to me. So it kind of came out of nowhere. I started a band when I was 17, and now for some reason, my entire life is music.”
Graveface is one of those people who is brimming with ideas – and he puts as many as possible into action. “Maybe I have a severe nervous disorder, but I’m constantly shaking, and I can’t sit still, and like, I rip skin off my thumbs and my legs,” he tells me at one point. “Generally speaking, I’m a disgusting human being.”
Perhaps, but his ongoing list of ventures – which continues to grow – is impressive. He’s currently playing in no less than four musical projects: The Casket Girls (see story in this issue), Dreamend (his ever-changing personal outlet), The Marshmallow Ghosts (what he calls his Halloween band, not to be confused with Marshmallow Coast) and Black Moth Super Rainbow, for whom he plays guitar for live shows. He runs Graveface Records, an independent , largely mail-order label known for its eclectic roster and artistic packaging. And he owns and operates two retail stores in Savannah selling records and weird shit, the second of which just opened the first of this year.
“Yeah, it’s kind of a bizarre existence, quite honestly. But,” he’s quick to point out, “it works.”
Originally from Toledo, Graveface (a pseudonym, in case you were wondering – it sounds cooler than Ryan Manon) logged time in Michigan and Spain before landing in Chicago by his early twenties. It was there that he first set Graveface Records (the label) into motion. At first it was “an outlet to put out my own dumb music,” but around seven years ago he began taking it seriously as a business and releasing other artists’ music.
“I guess I had an epiphany, like, ‘This is just offensive, the way I’ve been doing things.’ Even for my own music. If you put so much time, effort, money, heart, soul, whatever it is, into your songwriting, the least that you can do for yourself is to put that same amount of passion into promoting, releasing, distributing, packaging, marketing, everything. It hit me. But it wasn’t until 2007 that I was really able to focus on it, because financially, a label is a nightmare. So it took a while to be able to figure out how to run a label properly without working three jobs simultaneously that ultimately do as much damage to the releases themselves.”
Nowadays, he says, “every project pretty much recoups, but just the way distribution deals are set up, whether it be physical or digital, the trickle of money is so slow, even if you recoup on each release you’re like two or three releases past that release that you’re recouping on. It just kind of sucks,” he laughs. “But it’s fine, you know, I can’t complain. I love it, obviously. I’m doing it. And doing it with as much passion as one human can. I really like releasing records, and I appreciate that I somehow have developed a very small fanbase of people that believe that what I’ve held up as good is good, so they buy everything. I’ve started a record club, [which] has been a very positive thing in my life, because it just made it seem more real that anyone gives a shit about what I’m doing. Which in turn makes me care even more. It’s like having a child or something.”
While Graveface offers CDs and digital downloads, it’s clear from the creative care put into packaging and presentation that its main focus is vinyl – LPs, 10”, 7”, all with colored/designed records, with beautiful covers and inserts, most of them numbered limited editions. In short, he does a little more than simply put out a record.
“Well, sales have obviously dropped so much in the past seven or eight years. A lot of people are like, ‘You should let the music speak for itself,’ but that’s kind of an asinine comment, because how many great records have come and gone where the music does speak for itself but it doesn’t sell because there’s not an angle or a hook to get people into buying it? So I feel like making a pop-up book record, or an animated picture disc record, or just simple colored vinyl that is visually striking, that these things could only help. And it’s all just about being creative rather than spending more money. A lot of labels don’t do that shit, because they’re like, ‘Well, it’s an extra three cents per unit…’ Give me a fucking break, man! If you can’t spend a couple cents extra to try and get more people to care about your artists, then perhaps you have more to worry about than your bottom line.”
After a summer flood destroyed much of his stock in a Chicago warehouse in 2010, Ryan moved his operation to Savannah, a place where he’d neither previously lived nor knew a soul.
“When I was a kid, we would occasionally take vacations to the low country – Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach, or whatever. I had these really brief little exposures, I guess, to this part of the country, and it definitely always intrigued me,” he explains. “I don’t think I ever came to Savannah during any of those family vacations, I guess it was just a little too far south, so that’s why Savannah was very random. It sounded very, very weird, and it’s weird for the reasons that the tourism industry tries to exploit, but it’s also weird in ways that no one ever talks about here. From racial tension to just complete and utter lawlessness to the fact that it’s one of the most breathtaking places… but the parts that are so breathtaking are completely unexplored by the locals, they don’t even know these things exist. It’s just strange. The people here are so fucking weird.”
But he is quick to add that “Savannah’s been super, super supportive of me. Chicago did not give a fuck while I lived there! And I’m sure someone would disagree with that, but… there was no local support in Chicago at all. Until the horrific flood – then every single Chicago outlet came out of the woodwork to help me try to raise money. But this was maybe two months before I moved to Savannah, of course. I mean, I was stoked that they were so supportive, but like, where the fuck were you for the past ten years? Savannah has been really embracing of everything that I do, and it has proven to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
In the fall of 2011, Ryan opened Graveface Records & Curiosities in Savannah’s quirky and thriving Starland District, just south of downtown. The shop carries new and used vinyl, as well as toys, bizarre items and, um, dead animals.
“My main interest is in taxidermy and any weird artifacts, so that’s kind of where I put most of my time and energy and, actually, money into procuring. Bones and skulls and anything pertaining to death. I have an ESP and witchcraft section for books.” Obviously his chosen alias fits! “But obviously I run a record label, so it kinda makes sense to have a record store as well! It’s more like the oddities and curiosities surround you in the entirety of the store.”
Graveface Records & Curiosities #2 soft-opened on January 1st, but is having a grand opening/Spook Show Soiree on Friday, Feb. 1st, with a DJ, live bands (including Dreamend and The Marshmallow Ghosts), ghost stories and other fun stuff.
“The new store is different from the first store in that it’s really, really clean and really selective. So everything in there is very intentional, and it’s maybe only 15% of what’s in the main store,” Graveface says. There are plans to add limited-edition Graveface T-shirts at the new location (you know those’ll look good) and a Casket Girls-curated clothing section (because you always want to look your best in an open coffin).
Contrasting with the new location, Graveface confesses that “the main store is chaos. Absolute chaos. There’s shit everywhere. Shit that I’ve collected from all my travels. It borders that line of ‘too much.’ But it’s not quite there. I would say 99% is for sale. Occasionally someone will bring something up to the counter that I completely forgot… When I first opened, I lived in the back of the store, so it was my house, and it was super awful and awkward, so there’s personal stuff that I still discover. Like, someone found my wallet once! But not my current wallet – my wallet from 1998 or so. It had all my shit from that year in it. They were like, ‘I think I found someone’s wallet,’ and brought it up to the counter, and it’s like, my high school ID, and my very first credit card, ha ha ha! What the fuck – why is that in the store? So, things like that are not for sale.
“It’s all very obsessive and it’s definitely not healthy, probably, ‘cause there’s almost no filter,” the 31-year-old says of his burgeoning undertakings. “Like, opening the second store was probably completely unnecessary, but I did it anyway. I don’t have any filter, I just do every single thing that comes in my mind. And some ideas are better than others.”
“Well, at the very least,” I tell him, “you’ll never have regrets for not doing something you wanted to.”
“That is true!” he agrees.