The Casket Girls' Phaedra and Elsa Greene weren't answering their phones.
Bandmate Ryan Graveface had just dropped off some new songs for the sisters to work on for their 2013 sophomore LP, True Love Kills the Fairy Tale, and he wanted to know what they thought. Failing to catch them by phone, he swung by their apartment. But when he arrived, he found Elsa in tears, reciting poetry, and Phaedra staring blankly ahead, writing her sister's words down. It looked like an acid trip gone wrong.
"The next day they dropped off a CD and said, 'We don't even know what's on this. You can throw it in the garbage if you want.' I sat down and listened all the way through and cried. I was like, 'Holy shit! They actually wrote a record like that!' I booked studio time and had them re-record every note just as it was on the demo," Graveface says. "They really didn't remember any of it. Had to learn the songs as if someone else had written them entirely. Very bizarre."
The Greenes developed their strange songwriting approach through an interest in dreams. "We spend a lot of time doing dreamwork and connecting to our dreams and let go of our barriers that might divide us from our unconscious and not let our brains get in the way and filter what we're feeling. It can get a little emotional," Elsa Greene says, explaining that she and Phaedra both keep dream journals, from which many of their lyrics are drawn.
Graveface — when he sleeps — does the same. In fact, he's been using dreams as writing fodder all his life. "When I was super young, I wanted to enter a young composer contest. I thought it would be cool to write it in my dream. And I came in second place! I've been trying to connect with that stuff for 15 years. I was also making my own absinthe at the time of the recording, so I was pretty blitzed out."
The Casket Girls is one of three acts, along with The Stargazer Lillies and Dreamend, performing at Snug Harbor on Feb. 15 for the Graveface Roadshow, a mini traveling showcase of bands on Graveface's record label.
The Graveface Roadshow is also a mini showcase of what it takes to run a label these days. Graveface is the man behind both Graveface Records — a label that's home to the likes of Appleseed Cast, Black Moth Super Rainbow and Whirr — and Graveface Records & Curiosities in Savannah, Ga., where he sells "vinyl, bitters, cocktail supplies, toys, games, taxidermy, effects pedals and more," according to the shop's website.
He recently added Noisy Ghost, an in-house PR team, to his growing cluster of businesses. Oh, and he also performs in a number of the bands on his label, including BMSR, Casket Girls and Dreamend. You may wonder how he has the time to sleep.
"I'm getting a little better," he says. "I'm getting, like, five hours a night. I'm doing yoga."
Even with all that on his plate, Graveface has energy to spare, helping new artists write material and cut their teeth at performing.
"We had never really thought about performing until we met Ryan," says Elsa Greene. She and her sister met Graveface when he stumbled upon them playing autoharp and singing under a tree in one of Savannah's many squares. He approached the sisters about making music together.
"When we first started, we thought he presented the idea like a recording project," Greene says. When it became apparent that Graveface wanted to incorporate live performances into the group's oeuvre, the Greene sisters resisted; they were uncomfortable getting onstage. The girls decided they needed a "magical security blanket," and began donning matching blonde wigs and bug-eyed sunglasses for performances.
"It's fun to get dressed up and make up these little dances. It was a tangible way to make us feel at ease in front of all these people. I was literally shaking the first time we played, and it's gotten a lot easier. Somehow, the sunglasses really do make a big difference!" Greene says.
The look works for the pair, who pen lilting, almost whimsical melodies about chemical hazes and love gone sour like a couple of fucked-up Shangri-las, buttressing their songs with Graveface's grinding, multi-dimensional psych-rock synths.
When he's not writing or recording or touring or doing any of the other things that keep his business afloat, Graveface is plotting a new venture. A spirits enthusiast who claims he can't get drunk (Greene corroborates this), he's toying with the idea of opening a speakeasy in Savannah. Where does he find the energy?
"My father was the type of dude who would stop the car on a road trip and get out to check out a random abandoned building and say, 'I'm gonna turn that into a Dairy Queen.' He always had big plans. I thought he was crazy, but I totally have that bug," Graveface says.
But having the bug doesn't change the fact that balancing his responsibilities as bandmate, label owner and shopkeeper is difficult.
"It's actually really, really horrifying," he says. "It's so hard, financially, to juggle. The way that the industry is set up is basically so people like me will fail. Not in a conspiracy way. You put a lot of money into a record and hire PR people and put money into marketing and college radio. And you don't see a penny until about six months after a record comes out. I still have to find a way to pay people in the meantime. It feels like some mafia shit. I'm always trying to appease people. 'I can give you a couple of SeaWorld tokens today, since I can't pay you yet.'"
Maybe the constant, low hum of panic over keeping it all together lights the fire under Graveface's ass. Maybe he just needs something to fill all those sleepless nights when he's not dreaming up new songs. Whether conscious or not, it seems, Graveface and the Greene sisters are always creating.