Interview: Ryan Graveface on the Labor of Labels

Over their 20 year career, Graveface Records has made a name for themselves as true diehards of DIY ethos and passion for creativity. Dedicated to hand packaging, curated signings, and sporadic release schedules, they have been a label that has built a dedicated following and fought for the position they have in the independent music community.

Despite an impressive catalog and two decades behind them, things haven’t been terribly easy for them over the course of their life. Product shortages, the dip in interest in physical media, and even a lawsuit with a closing distribution company have been different hurdles for them to jump, and yet they have been able to persevere and continue on.

Their branding as a safe haven for outsiders and obsessives has landed them expansions into two brick-and-mortar record stores, a thriving lifestyle online shop, an oddities museum, a horror movie and soundtrack imprint of the label known as Terror Vision, and – most recently – a venture into distribution for other smaller labels and artists doing independent releases.

Throughout their struggles, all of the hard work is justified in those special moments at events where magic is tangible. The upcoming Graveface Records 20th Anniversary Festival in Savannah, GA is going to be one of those events. Featuring performances from different label residents of all different time periods.
Over two days, performances from Beachy Head, Chris Crisci of The Appleseed Cast, Night School, Monster Movie, Brothers Griiin, Lovelorn, Kid Dakota, Dreamend, Basically Nancy, The Marshmallow Ghosts, Fawning, Valley Gals, Velvet Gentleman, Shouldies, The Lipschitz, The Holy Ghost Tabernacle Choir, Bummerville, and Bands w/Melody will take place.

Gearing up for the festival on October 15th and 16th, we got to speak with label head, multi-instrumentalist, oddities collector, and mastermind Ryan Graveface about the chores and rewards of creating and maintaining a cult label.

How has the history of Graveface Records been over 20 years?

Basically, I was living in Salamanca, Spain, and was carrying around a 4-track recorder and an acoustic guitar and playing in shitty bars and I made two EPs that I knew no psychopath would ever release because they were terrible, and, simultaneous to that, I watched Fugazi’s Instrument for the first time and the idea was hatched. It was just a means of putting out my own shit, which very quickly changed from that to having almost nothing to do with my own music.

It was about finding like-minded artists and spending very little money on myself. That was a pretty quick transition but it wasn’t until 2007 that I was able to focus on the label. It was kind of like a hobby label from 2002 to 2007 then I quit working my two full-time jobs to work the label full time sink-or-swim style and, fortunately, I haven’t sunk yet. Who knows, though, it could happen tomorrow haha.

Being in various DIY scenes for 20 years and even longer before then, what do you think inspires you about music most?

Music’s weird for me, which is why Graveface has never gotten big and will never get big. I find it difficult to explain my attraction to respective bodies of music which is why the label runs very diverse, which is actually kind of the nail in the coffin for the label. To be fair, I was warned about it when I started the label by a million and one industry friends who told me “you have to pick a genre and focus on it, you absolutely have to” – which I didn’t.

I have always been into the very punk, DIY aesthetic despite me playing music that’s pretty and that you wouldn’t think would be influenced by that kind of thing. But when I was touring, I would be playing in basements, coffee shops, and anything alcohol-free, most of the time with hardcore or punk bands who I assumed would fucking hate every note that we played but, turns out, they have just as diverse tastes as I do which helped me stick to my thing.

I feel like DIY has changed significantly, or rather everything has changed significantly over the past five to seven years. For feeling like an alien my whole life, now, at 41, I feel even more like an alien. It’s not necessarily changing for the better, or maybe I am just aging out, I am truly not sure which. I feel like people’s tastes are less diverse than they’ve ever been, and people’s willingness to learn about a new band has never been smaller with as many opportunities as they have to find new music, which is now infinite through bandcamp and Spotify and whatnot, and I think that is ultimately the saddest thing about right now. A lot of people pretend they want to learn about new music, but if that’s true then why do records from new bands I put out not sell? Or, when we book shows for new up-and-coming bands here in Savannah, why are people not coming out?

And I’ve noticed that over the past five to seven years, I don’t think it’s like a pandemic-related conversation, I just think people are pretty much leveled out as normies. Even punk people like popular punk music, and metal people like popular metal music, and most people tend to not gravitate anywhere outside of their little comfort zones very much anymore and that is very much the difference between when I started Graveface in 2002 and now.

It didn’t used to be difficult to break a new band, in fact, it was pretty easy to sell records because people were so open-minded in that era. That’s why I continue to put out records on Graveface despite the public going more and more normie. In the end, people will elect on a super diverse, long-standing catalogue of mostly awesome material. I tend to base most of my decisions on the Graveface legacy’s other than anything current, and that thought alone is super inspiring.

What do you feel have been some of your favorite releases on the label?

Ah, that’s like asking who your favorite little baby is. I mean, I feel like I can almost answer that question in reverse. Everything is my favorite, and the only things I noticed haven’t aged well are the earlier records that I made. I used to be really into noise stuff so some of that noise stuff I put out I could never listen to now, like Power Pill Fist, Spires That In The Sunset Rise, and a couple others.
It may simply be how things were recorded back then, the coming out of analog and into early digital era just doesn’t sound very good. Even the first three or four Black Moth Super Rainbow albums just sound atrociously bad to me now, which is sad because the songs aren’t bad necessarily, it’s just interesting what music ages well.

I think, honestly, one of the best records I ever put out was Tomán’s Where Wolves Wear Wolf Wear which was the 44th record I put out back in like 2005 or 2006 or something and that’s a now-defunct Belgian band where every note on the record was perfection. It’s basically my perfect musical taste in a record but they don’t focus on any one section for more than 45 seconds. It is constantly changing and morphing into something else, and it is something that I loved when it came out when no one bought it and now, 15 almost 20 years later, I love it even more and still no one buys it haha. We made 500 copies in like 2005 and I think we still have 400 left. That’s probably one of the best Graveface titles that most people will never hear unfortunately.

I always really liked The Lava Children’s stuff that we put out but that’s another thing that people didn’t really gravitate to. Then we have things like Casket Girls and The Appleseed Cast and Xiu Xiu, those things still sound good and sell well. There’s just so much of the catalog, literally 187 titles, and I would say maybe half of them never recouped which I think is a pretty good way to gauge whether or not the general public liked it. Luckily, the majority of the catalog holds up great, just some of the earlier noise and psych stuff even sounds chintzy now and is just stuff that I personally am not into anymore which is pretty good odds for aging 20 years haha.

Other than Tomán, what are three releases from the label you think people should pay more attention to?

I think the TW Walsh Fruitless Research record is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard in my entire life and it sold okay but it definitely didn’t do what we all thought it was going to do for whatever reason.
The Monster Movie Keep The Voices Distant record is astonishingly good and falls right around the time Slowdive reunited and had all the makings of something that people would really like at the time and no one really cares about that record and I’m not really sure why, especially when something like Beachy Head’s record came out a few years later and did really well.
Also, Night School’s record Disappear Here which came out three or four years ago was a really impressive one. They started as a very Shangri-La’s vibe girl group and then morphed into something incredibly mature sounding, I don’t even know how to describe or explain how serene those songs are. Similar thing, they have their fans but it’s a limited base and that’s the record I thought was going to pop for them but it didn’t.

Not to be redundant, but there’s a lot in the catalog that I feel really could have or should have exploded. Like that Des Ark record I put out is fucking gorgeous, like one of the best albums I have ever heard in my entire fucking life, and because she didn’t tour around the release it didn’t do so well.

I think that’s part of a Graveface curse or something. I usually work with artists who don’t tour very much or, who when they do, only do seven to ten dates. That’s really part of the whole process. I think that’s been the main disservice we find because technically that’s how you’re supposed to expand the fanbase through good support slots or, if you’re big enough, a headlining tour.
Like Des Ark at her peak could have probably done a headlining tour but instead did a couple support slots and maybe three or four headlining dates but it was three or four months after release so there just wasn’t much hype around it. I thought that record was gonna do so well for her.

These are records that I truly feel are some of the greatest records ever made that people just largely don’t care about which, hopefully through this article, people are going to check them out and find something they love. There’s just so many that I really want people to see. It’s bizarre to reference an unknown record from fifteen years ago that didn’t do great but it’s incredible.

The sad part is that a lot of bands see the lack of sales and decide to not make records anymore, you know? It’s a tragic thing. It tends to affect artists in a way that makes me feel terrible. If you’re taking it as pessimism, it’s not pessimism it’s just my experience with things as they’ve happened. It’s a lot to internalize, that a band you love may not put out another record because you can’t sell their record. But then you have the other end of the spectrum like Black Moth Super Rainbow where we didn’t expect to sell any records but then we sold tens of thousands of records and he still wasn’t happy. Sales aren’t the sole arbiter of success, you know?

Well then on that note, how do you feel Graveface has been successful?

Well, to be honest, and it may sound stupid, just surviving. Running a label is very difficult and a week doesn’t go by where someone doesn’t ask me for advice on how to start a label and my first thing I say to them is don’t do it and then they laugh and I’m like trust me.

It’s one of those weird industries where people don’t even know what you do to facilitate the manufacturing and distribution of music doesn’t really translate to the general public. Even my mom, for years, just told her friends I was a music producer. As I’ve aged, I have definitely produced records like Casket Girls and Basically Nancy, but I am by no means a record producer. Technically, I run a recording label, but even my mom didn’t know what that fucking meant.

Success to me is being able to continue doing what I’ve always loved. It started selfishly but then immediately pivoted to realizing there is a bevy of artists in the world who don’t get a fair shake and that is who I have always gravitated toward, so much so that I have declined two definite and one maybe massive records that would have bought me a house and changed my life or something, but they weren’t something I was super into.

The business side of me says I’m a moron, but the creative side of me says it was a wise decision, but nevertheless oftentimes you are faced with that decision when running labels. Do you continue to be relatively obscure and stick with the things you love, or is it truthfully a business? If it’s a business, then sometimes you just do shit you’re not interested in, but I will say that in my 20 years I have never put out a single thing I didn’t love. Maybe that’s my biggest disservice, that I don’t view it as a traditional business like 99.9% of the labels out there do.

I think that’s why survival is success to me. I have run it very so my way, equal pay for artists, and all the shit that you obviously should do, but I don’t have a project on the label that I genuinely dislike that I have to pay the bills with. It doesn’t run like that, but I can tell you for sure that most labels out there do because they have to, it floats the rest of their catalog. It’s a unique way of surviving, being true to yourself. I’m not going to say it was a smart decision, because it is hard financially, but I think when I’m older and on my deathbed I will at least look back on it happily that I didn’t cave to that. That’s how I define success.

Throughout the course of the label, you have played in a ton of projects with tons of people from other notable projects, how did you get caught up in so many?

I guess the simplest answer is that growing up I wasn’t raised by people that listened to classic rock and that sort of crap. I was raised just south of Detroit by somebody that listened to nothing but soul music and I became super obsessed with Motown Records – the good stuff not the bad stuff – and I really liked how the more I would read into that label how the singer on this song was the bass player on this song from that band and it was an actual community affair. It was just neat how incestuous in a positive way that was.

I think that was always the idea with Graveface. You have to find people that are down with that. There are a million examples I could give but I just inserted myself into tons of situations with musicians who are amenable to that and that was the intention behind it. It certainly wasn’t a desperate for fame sort of thing or a needing to leave my mark on projects or anything stupid.

I wanted them to play on my shit and they wanted me to play on their shit and I wanted to form new bands with new people and bring in other people to do new things and that’s basically what’s been happening for 20 years. I think Beachy Head is the best example of that going well, because that entirely is that exact concept. It’s all people that I’ve always worked with all together for the first time.

What is your favorite tour memory?

I think all the early Dreamend stuff as a totality. I don’t know that I have one memory but that era was so special. Pre-cell phone era, using MySpace to book a tour and literally not knowing what you were rolling up to every night because you booked it using a website that was brand new. Kind of like fan-based booking is how I used to do it, like if you want me to play your tiny ass town, book me a show and we’ll do it and that’s what we did for thirty days straight and then took two weeks to take a break then did it for thirty more days straight.

95% of those shows were incredible, and the people were amazing, and putting it in the hands of someone who actually likes your music instead of some soulless booking agent who literally just wants their fucking 20% really is the thing that made it wonderful. I don’t think that’s something that could ever be replicated now because the industry has just changed so much and people are just apathetic, I think. I don’t think you could get 60 shows booked by fans that would go well like that, but it was new at the time. MySpace was new and the whole thing was new, and when I started Dreamend was before the shoegaze revival. Like four years after Slowdive fizzled out, and there just wasn’t much shoegaze out there, and so I think it was really fresh sounding to people because there weren’t people doing their riffs on that same genre for years. There’s not one thing that could change to do it again.

We never got a hotel room, we literally slept sitting up in our car just by pulling over to the side of the road. Some of the tour was in winter and we almost froze to death a couple times, but there was no part of it that wasn’t wonderful. And some of those people that I met on those initial Dreamend tours are still buds today. They still come to shows, they’re record club members now, it was clearly a powerful era for a lot of people, myself included.

And even some of the people you toured with in that time are still active, still making music, and even some playing the festival and that’s really cool. Which set are you most excited to see?

I’m such a sucker for Shouldies, which is why we even did an afterparty with them. There’s just something about that sound, it’s not goth and it’s not pop. I don’t know what the fuck it is but I love it. I love watching them play. That’s how I found them is they played a show in the back of my store and I was like “holy shit, what the fuck is this?”

I’m going through the list and trying to find what would be my number one. I’m really interested in what Chris Crisci will do for his solo experimental set. He wanted to do a whole electronic experimental set which I actually think will be cool as shit because he doesn’t really get to just play because people want to hear his bands play songs, but I think that will be very cool.

I think Night School playing Invoke in full will be my most exciting thing. There are two songs on that record specifically, one which Cheyenne sings and one which Lexy sings. The one Cheyenne sings is maybe one of the prettiest melodies I’ve ever heard, and I am very very excited to see how they play it. The instrumentation is a little interesting so I’m very excited to see how they pull that off live. I think that will be my most excited.

And what set are you most excited to play?

I’m playing about eight sets that weekend. I think I am most excited to play in Monster Movie and I am most nervous about Beachy Head, which are two projects with Christian from Slowdive.

With Monster Movie, you have to think that I’ve been listening to that since a year or two before I started the label. I consider Monster Movie as the very first true Graveface Records release. It’s GRAVE007 which was a split between Dreamend and Monster Movie. Everything before that, GRAVE001 to GRAVE006 were all CDrs, and GRAVE007 was the first actual full CD. The day that that first split CD release came out was on October 15th, 2002 and October 15th, 2022, I will be performing with Sean and Christian as Monster Movie.

It’s just kind of a mindfuck to think about. Like Graveface probably wouldn’t exist truly without Monster Movie. When I asked those two guys about that split like 800 years ago, if they had said no, I probably just would have continued to do CDrs occasionally and wouldn’t have ever really became a thing, but the fact that they said yes meant that it was on. I started the LLC, I actually booked real studio time for the first time for the Dreamend side because I didn’t want to just record in my basement, I took it super fucking seriously. And the CD did pretty well, I mean we sold out and that was three or four thousand copies, which, you know, different era and all, CDs were in, I get it, but still, it funded the next several projects that came out on the label so it was a pretty big deal for me.

That being said, Monster Movie on Saturday night is definitely the most special for me. It’s just weird, like what are the odds that it would be twenty years to the day and unintentionally. It was just a happy accident, I didn’t even think about that when we were scheduling everything.

How has it been expanding back into Chicago with the new store?

The greatest thing ever. It’s cool to be back in a place where I had infinite trauma and mindfuckery for a long time, which may sound like I’m being sarcastic, but being able to be here twelve years after I left because of that trauma and being able to open it and say fuck you to my past once and for all has been incredibly powerful. It’s by far the best decision I’ve made in a very long time, us doing this. I feel happier than I’ve ever felt in years, and the people that I’m meeting here are wonderful.

It’s also been long enough that a lot of the shitheads that affected me negatively from my past, I don’t know that they’re even still here. Plus, the odds of me seeing them is super fucking low because it’s a huge fucking city. The new group of people that live in Chicago at this point in time are just great. Really, it’s been a boon to a typically very depressed human being who doesn’t really know his place, so it’s made me feel very good.

A really important facet of Graveface Records is, of course, the obsession with horror, even with the Terror Vision imprint of the label. What was the first horror movie you ever saw?

Well, I started young, so I don’t even know that I really remember truthfully. I can remember being at Adam Bailey’s house when I was probably like five or six and his mom, Karen, didn’t give a fuck about what we watched. We would go to Sights & Sounds and rent two or three VHS tapes of just everything from Faces Of Death to Friday The 13th: Part V. I literally have a picture of me in my Garfield pajamas, eating Oreos in front of Adam Bailey’s TV watching Friday The 13th: Part V at five or six years old.

I’ve loved it since I can remember talking, which is funny because it’s not like I come from people that were interested in anything theatrical, let alone horror. Like, I don’t remember my parents ever even watching a single movie. So, it’s also funny because my life has been music and film, two things that they don’t care about. Well, my dad was a drummer and he liked soul music, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mom show any interest in music in the time she’s been alive.

Horror is very ingrained in my being and I think it’s just being from the era that I grew up in. I was born in 1981 so by 1986 I was deep into it and the availability was there. You had USA Up All Night, which I watched literally every Friday and Saturday when I was growing up which only screened horror or softcore porn and I watched both haha. No one said anything so I just did, in addition to renting shit like Spookies and movies that I now release as Terror Vision, which is maybe the weirdest thing that’s happened to me. Almost everything that I’ve licensed, I can remember watching at a similar age, which is great.

Terror Vision is truly a blessing. Graveface, if you haven’t heard, has always been a struggle, and even the biggest successes I’ve ever had were for bands that though I should have done more. Which has happened repeatedly since I started the label. So when you finally have a release break through and you have gobs of cash to hand to someone, you would think their reaction would be “Thank you! Thank you for doing a good job, I can now make a career out of this!” but I have never had that happen. It has always been “Really? This is it?”

Terror Vision has completely flipped that script because you’re dealing with composers who were paid two to ten thousand dollars in 1986 for a score that they didn’t really give a fuck about, they were just doing their job, then they moved on to accounting or some other actual job. So when I approach the composers and offer them a fair amount of money upfront with 50/50 on the backend, they’re always like “Oh, you’ll never sell any, there’s no chance.” Then I always do, and I’m always able to pay them dramatically more than they’ve ever made from music previously and they are so fucking grateful. I’m not suggesting that people have to be grateful to me or anything, and that’s not what I’m dictating as success or failure, but I tell you what, when you hand someone $35,000 and they say “thank you” instead of “that’s it?” it certainly changes your perspective. Since late 2014 or early 2015 when I started it, Terror Vision has really made me fall in love with records again and the whole process. I kind of did it as a last ditch attempt before shutting down Graveface because I just had such a bad string of shitheads that I was dealing with that I was just over it and Terror Vision really saved the day. This was years ago, obviously, but the fact that I do get some kind of reward or acknowledgement or appreciation has made me able to withstand Graveface and continue running it how it is. It’s lovely, I love it.

With your interest in that kind of horror atmosphere having been for so long, do you think there was anything that really started your affinity for curiosities and the macabre or collecting weird things?

There’s a lot actually. I haven’t really studied it, but my best guess is that when I was a kid in 1990 or something like that, I had a Fangoria subscription and there was a tiny little blurb from Stephen King about Pennywise where he credits John Wayne Gacy for making the character since he didn’t have to put much effort in it, or some quip like that. Now, Stephen King of course denies it but all you have to do is find that Fangoria where he admits to creating that character off of Gacy. That was the first aha moment for me, like this horrifying fucking clown in this TV movie I shouldn’t have been watching, much less with my grandmother, was based off of this guy and now I want to learn everything about this guy. That was the gateway for me, was reading that little tiny thing.

In addition to that, as far as my family goes and my family structure, there’s been an enormous amount of trauma and suicides and awful shit, and the more I dig into the morose in general the easier it is for me to deal with the things that are in my past for some reason. Visiting a serial killer on death row, which I don’t recommend people do but I have done it, I find it to be incredibly rewarding for a barrage of reasons but one of them is that it helps my own internal struggles. That’s a long conversation on why I think that happens for me and I don’t want to bore readers with that, but come to the museum sometime and I’ll happily ramble about why for me it’s been a healthy decision.

It was a unique set of circumstances where I was obsessed with horror from a young age and had already seen some shit that most kids fortunately haven’t had to see. And the combination of those things resulted in a lifetime of horror obsession, and I don’t mean just movies. I mean personalities that are disgusting, and people that are shit, and oddities in general, and anything that’s obtuse and weird. I hate straight lines and I don’t collect taxidermy that’s beautiful, I want it to be broken. The way that I see the universe is fucked, which luckily the universe is a very interesting place. Every 20 years or so, everything shifts around, so now the shit that was getting me beaten up in high school is now getting me interviewed by oddities publications and such. I think it’s interesting.

I don’t love how people now are romanticizing all the true crime stuff. I feel that there has to be a sense of do-good to it or else you’re just a disgusting piece of crap. I would hate for people to think that I’m the one end of that spectrum, but again if you just read into me at all, clearly my intention is not making these people seem like heroes like a lot of people do.

How would you define Graveface in one sentence?

In one sentence or one word, because if it was one word I would say broken haha. Confining a hoarding rambler to one sentence might be the worst thing to happen to me today. I actually don’t know how to answer that because Graveface is no longer what it was, right? It’s too big now, as a concept. It was just a label meant for me and my projects and my friends projects and things that I love and now I don’t know what the fuck it is with the museum and the arcade. Coming into any of my locations or even buying a record from me is like a look inside the mind of a lunatic to a degree, and I am unfortunately that lunatic.

What would you say the moral of the Graveface story is?

I think I’m mostly a failure and that everything I’ve done is a failure, but the one thing that I think is cool about Graveface and the things that I have done is that I just fucking do it. I think that the majority of the population take their time sitting around and thinking about what they would do, like if I had this much money I would do this, or if I had the balls I would do that, or if I had the wherewithal I would have done this back then, but I just have never operated like that.

Every single thing I have ever wanted to do in my life, I just do. I do it very impulsively and very, very badly sometimes. It’s a root of some of my depression, knowing that I could be doing some things better if I was not doing so much, so I’m not suggesting that all of that is positive, but I will say that when I’m on my deathbed, the legacy that is pretty dope is that I just did it. Literally everything.

I put zero thought into opening a store in Chicago, I just rented a U-Haul and did it. I just fucking rented a space. I didn’t even see the space, I just rented it. I didn’t know what stuff to bring, or how much shit to bring, I just did it. And yeah, it’s impulsive, it’s cost me a fortune, is it worth it? I don’t know. I’m happy that I did it, so, yeah, it’s worth it. The majority of people I talk to spend so much time hemming and hawing about what they want to do with their lives and, oftentimes, these are extremely talented people. The direction is clear as fucking daylight, but yet they still don’t do it because they’re scared.

It’s never been a money thing for me, either. I never had money, my family had no money, I have never taken out a loan, there’s no luck. I just worked my fucking ass off. I worked two full-time jobs to afford Graveface for the first five years and then quit because I figured that if I didn’t I would be relegated to hobby status for the rest of my life and that’s not what I wanted so I just fucking did it. To me, that’s not necessarily a moral, but that’s more of a legacy dialogue. That’s what I’ve done that I think is pretty cool. I don’t have any regrets, well I might have some personal regrets of things I’ve said or done, but as a creative I can’t think of one thing I would have done differently or should have done or missed an opportunity. I have always done what I wanted to, sometimes to a selfish degree, but at least it got done.

We would like to thank Ryan for speaking with us so candidly and honestly. We love Graveface Records and are so excited for their 20th Anniversary Festival on October 15th and 16th.

You can see the flyer below and grab single-day and weekend passes, as well as tickets to other events at Graveface’s Lodge of Sorrows venue in Savannah, GA here.

You can check out all the other Graveface things here.

Graveface Records 20th Anniversary Festival

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