Originally published in Synthesis Weekly: September 2014
Photos by Vince Latham
After playing in and writing songs for local Chico band The Shimmies for the last decade, Sean Galloway has branched out on his own to develop a solo project entitled Ave Grave. In August he released his first full length album, a seamless blend of haunting melodies and memorable lyrics, and immediately afterwards, Galloway embarked on a northwest tour with bay area-based musician Angelica Tavella (aka Nyx). Fresh off a tour and his album release, he’s coming back to town to play at 1078 Gallery with Chris Keene and Robin Bacior on September 19. Galloway recently sat down with Synthesis to discuss his recent album release, Twin Peaks, and Twitter.
When you first started your solo stuff, you went by Birdy Fielder. Why the name change to Ave Grave?
It was a bad name [laughs]. It only existed because when I jumped off of Myspace onto Facebook, I didn’t want people to be able to find me. So that name (Birdy Fielder) was just a combination of a book I really liked called Birdy, and Jimmy [Galloway] used to write stories under the pen name Haughton Fielder.
What made you settle on Ave Grave?
It’s the name of one of my favorite songs by probably my favorite band called Thee More Shallows. I just liked it a lot.
I remember when you seemed to be getting tired of playing as Birdy Fielder, there was a brief time when you referred to yourself as Beardy Feelings. I have to say, I’m sad that name didn’t stick.
[laughs] Well, yeah.
Why a solo project? What prompted you to make this a separate thing when you write songs for The Shimmies?
I just had a lot of quieter songs, or stuff I wanted to be quieter. Not that The Shimmies are a full rock band, but I had a few songs written that wouldn’t quite fit with them. A guy put out a tape for me a few years ago, just lo fi stuff, and it prompted me to want to record my own stuff.
So, when you listen to the album now as a finished product, do you hear things you’d still like to change?
I already want to start working on another one. I listened to the album a few times through after it was mixed, and thought “OK, the song order works.” This album took me about a year and a half to do, and everything is how I want it to be. And I have a few songs already written that are for the next album.
When you write music, does it come in bursts or is it a thing that’s just happening in your brain all the time?
It’s a combination. I mean yeah, it definitely comes in bursts. But I’ll go through really creative periods where I’ll write a lot of songs. It used to happen a lot more. It definitely comes and goes. I usually always have some on the back burner that I’m thinking about all the time. But sometimes I go through periods where I don’t want to write songs at all. I just want to watch Twin Peaks [laughs].
How personal are the lyrics you write?
Well, I don’t usually write them to be explicitly obvious. I mean yes, they are about personal experiences, but hopefully when people hear them they don’t think “wow, what an embarrassing thing to say about yourself.” [laughs] Or maybe they do, I don’t know. It’s personal stuff. I’ve known bands that write lyrics that are stories from another perspective, like this is what I imagine this person’s life to be, but that’s generally not what I do. It’s personal stuff but I try not to be too Dear Diary about it.
At your album release show at Cafe Coda, you were joined on stage for some songs by Stephen, Jimmy, and Jack (the rest of The Shimmies), as well as Adrian Hammons. When you’re writing a song to play as Ave Grave, do you imagine it with what your brothers or Jack might add to the mix, or was that just how those songs evolved?
Well with The Shimmies, after writing a song, I used to have all the parts arranged in my head and I’d just say ‘OK let’s all everybody do this.’ But for years now, I’ll only write the bones of a song and they’re just all amazing musicians who do amazing things. For this album, I wrote the first couple of songs completing the production as I went, and I really liked the way they came out. So I tried to make the rest use some similar instruments and I found sounds that I just really liked. But as far as what they did, Stephen wrote that cool guitar part on “I Am On Your Side.” He came over and I’d said, “this song still needs one more thing,” and he just came in and did it, and then it was finished. He’s really good, and always has been, and listening to all the parts of a song. For me, songs are just something happening to me, I hear the melody and it all blends together, but Stephen has always been really good at hearing all the little parts of the production, and now I’ve learned from him and by making my own stuff to do that.
If you had to make a pie chart of the things you consumed while you were making the album, whether it be from pop culture, or other music, or people you were seeing, etc, what would it look like?
Well I started making this with my friend Dave Bolt, who makes downbeat electronic stuff, and he’s the one who got me into Twin Peaks. And then I became obsessed with it. I was just telling Angie (Nyx) last night, that I think I’m kind of like Rain Man in a way, because I have to have certain things a particular way. Like I have to watch Twin Peaks every day and I have to listen to the same four albums for months on end.
So what would be in that pie chart, besides Twin Peaks?
I listened to a lot of ambient music. I actually released an ambient EP right before this album, which nobody bought [laughs]. but I listened to a lot of Stars of the Lid, Brian Eno, and a lot of classical music. Dustin O’Halloran, and Adam something-or-other from Stars Of The Lid. Just a lot of that stuff. William Basinski. Eric Satie. Ambient stuff. Good stuff.
What is “good” ambient music?
Well it’s weird that you can just draw the line like that, but there’s so much bad ambient music out there… but still, I don’t know that I could explain to someone why Stars of the Lid is so good.
I don’t think I have the patience to appreciate ambient music. I think it’s music for musicians. It just frustrates me. Like get to the song part, you know?
There isn’t one! [laughs]. There’s actually a Marx Brothers bit where I think it’s Harpo that’s playing the piano, and Groucho comes up and says, ‘when you get to a song, play it!’ [laughs]. And I really don’t even know that many musicians who like this stuff, besides me, Dave [Bolt] and Stephen. I mean, Adrian [Hammons] hates William Basinski.
Maybe your next instrument to master should be the Theramin.
I love Theramin! During the album release show I had this really breathy synth patch, and I sat down and started playing it and thought, maybe I’ll just do this for 40 minutes [laughs].
So I guess I just consumed a lot of ambient stuff, and watched a lot of Twin Peaks. There’s a lot of music that’s not ambient that I really, really like, and take a lot of influence from. But when I’m trying to write music, I can’t listen to it, because then I’ll sit down to write and think, oh sweet, I just wrote a Wilco song. So I have to avoid it. And I know nobody’s writing in a vacuum, but still.
So ambient music is like a palate cleanser for your brain?
Yeah, I guess, it’s just so far away from what I was doing on this album. But when I made the ambient EP, I didn’t listen to ambient music. I just want to listen to something that’s far away from what I’m trying to do, but that I also enjoy.
Anything else that you were consuming?
Twitter. My Twitter peoples. They don’t know I exist, but yeah. my boys. I follow “very cool. and nice” (@dogboner), Jon Hendren (@fart), and Mary Charlene (@IAmEnidColeslaw). There are tons of really funny Twitter people that just blow my mind and make me laugh really hard.
There you have it! Come to 1078 Gallery on Sept 19th to see Ave Grave with Chris Keene and Robin Bacior.