If our year-end lists of songs and albums were any indication, it was a great year for emerging artists. From the un-fightable, infectious pop of Haim, the ragged garage rock of Mikal Cronin, the punishing punch of a Savages track to Majical Cloudz’s reflective slow-churners, we were in for a treat in 2013 with breakout acts.
Along the way, we made plenty of discoveries in our weekly Best of What’s Next profiles, which are featured first at PASTE.COM. We’ve included our 20 favorite finds and their complete profiles (or reviews in a few cases) below for you to discover yourself. And if you’re taking a peek at this during the work day and just want to see the darn list already, we’ve got you covered—head on over to page 12 in the gallery below.
20. Shakey Graves
By Hilary Saunders
I first met Alejandro Rose-Garcia in a forest. The Lone Bellow had just played a killer set at The Woods Stage on the last day of Pickathon Indie Roots Music Festival, a relatively small gathering outside Portland, Ore. By that point, late afternoon on the third and final day of the festival, everyone knew the name Shakey Graves.
Even though he wasn’t playing until that night, the man-known-as-Shakey-Graves was already dressed in his now-recognized stage garb: slim-fitting slacks rolled at the ankles and a tight white tank. He spent a good half an hour chatting backstage about Bruce Springsteen, his hometown of Austin and how to keep track of all the people he meets. Engaging and friendly, his sharp sense of humor brightened conversations, even as he happily responded to catcalls (of which there were plenty at Pickathon) and shouts like “Yo, Shakey!”
“I think it’s rad,” he declares during a phone call a few weeks after the festival. “It makes me more comfortable than people calling me my own name if they don’t know me. It sounds intuitive, because you do know me as Shakey. Not like, ‘Hey, Alejandro!’ Then I’m like, ‘Oh shit, is my mom here? What, am I in trouble?’”
Personal experiences aside, Rose-Garcia tells me during our interview that he’s starting to look at his burgeoning career, “like B.C. and A.D.” Before the festival, he admits, “I was sort of feeling lost, like ‘where do I go from here? How do I move forward? What’s the next step for me? What kind of music am I going to play? Where do I even want to be?’”
“After Pickathon,” he begins, throwing in an “A.P.” to keep up the metaphor, he realized, “I can’t really be afraid. And if I’m not bringing it, then that’s about the only thing. There’s ways to make people pay attention to you, and not manipulative ways. Don’t cheat it and don’t be scared.”
As Shakey Graves, Rose-Garcia plays a gnarly composite of blues and folk as a one-man-band of epic sonic proportions. The sound emitted from his hollow body guitar, mildly distorted amp and suitcase drum belie the young singer’s lean frame. He fingerpicks while keeping time with a double-pedal kick drum, hitting a snare fitted into his suitcase drum and a tambourine fashioned to its side. And when he sings, Rose-Garcia unleashes an unearthly howl. Gritty groans and sexy moans carry his stories of both accepting and trying to overcome personal challenges masked with old-timey Western imagery.
However, this sound is a huge evolution from his first full-length album, Roll the Bones, which was self-released in 2011 and landed him a spot as the official busker of the Railroad Revival Tour with Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Mumford & Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show. Much more mellow than his current live performances, Roll the Bones highlights Rose-Garcia more as a lo-fi singer-songwriter, playing acoustic guitars and occasionally taming his growl to a whisper.
When I call him post-fest, Rose-Garcia is taking a break from recording his next album. He has a house to himself in Austin and has converted it into a personal studio with a 1979 Tascam 8-track reel-to-reel recorder. He’s been inviting friends over to jam and excitedly tells me, “I’ve been sitting on the floor for the past three days drinking wine and playing music.”
There’s a Hammond pipe organ from the ‘80s and a lap steel, some violins and of course, the now-famous suitcase drum. “This is music house!” he exclaims. “Music house is going down!”
Although still early in the process, Rose-Garcia divulges, “The next album will be bigger,” emphasizing the latter half of the word, “than my live show. He continues, “I’m trying to do that to encourage myself to come up with new ways to play music live. Hopefully these songs will either have to make me go to looping more or have minimal accompaniment or something like that.”
The still untitled LP will be released at some point in 2014, with an EP or live compilation possibly dropping before that. In between bouts of recording, though, Rose-Garcia has upcoming gigs at Austin City Limits and tours scheduled with Shovels & Rope and fellow Pickathon performers like JD McPherson and The Devil Makes Three.
“See that’s a great thing that happened at Pickathon. They approached me backstage and introduced themselves. They were like, ‘Hey what’s up? We’re Devil Makes Three!’ And I was like, ‘Excuse me?! You’re what?’”
This is what Rose-Garcia means when he explains his excitement to get back to being a fan of music. He geeks out over opening for Robert Plant earlier this year and raves about sharing a stage with Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré (exuding, “He’s like the Hendrix of the Sahara!”) during a jam at the Edmonton Folk Festival. Rediscovering the pure enjoyment of music has helped focus his own aspirations and plot his next goals.
“It’s this coming back to my roots thing, which was been awesome. After Pickathon and everything, I’m like, there is no time. You might fall off the mountain or a bear might eat you. All of the songs I’m intending to make aren’t going to get made if I don’t start making them.”
19. Bars of Gold
By Jeff Milo
Meet your new favorite blue-collar rockers: Bars of Gold—a sweat-and-blood people’s band from the Detroit area that includes five dudes at (or just past) 30, who’ve got wives and day jobs and kids and maybe a couple other side bands. Their demeanor embodies the definition of down-to-earth, but on stage, they’re a beastly blur. And with their new album Wheels, they’re rolling up a freighter of fuzzed-up noise-rock with amp-frying guitars and mutations of jazzy, Bossa nova rhythms.
Drummer Brandon Moss puts it mildly: “There’s always a million things going on.” His seven-year-old son, Olly, joins the band in a restaurant booth. We’re on the second story of Ferndale, Mich.’s Woodward Avenue Brewery, looking down on a large stage of a local street fair where an old-timey jazz band blasts from massive PA speakers.
We’re here to talk about the band’s sophomore long-player, which is out next week on Bellyache Records. Unsurprisingly, the members reflect their easy-going resolve as they consider the future.
“I have a lot of confidence, [because] I really just trust these guys and myself,” says Moss, who, with singer Marc Paffi, trampled the post-hardcore circuits of the early ‘00s in Bear Vs. Shark. “If we just dropped everything, all the responsibilities that we have and singularly just went for it, ya’ know, that typical paradigm of a band-just-going-for-it…we’d succeed. But there’s a lot to give up …and, here—” he scruffs the small cranium of Olly, sparking static electricity on his frayed blonde hair. “Here’s one reason.”
“I mean,” Paffi leans in, stroking his grizzly beard, “if you’re looking for the next freakin’ Mumford & Sons then you’re definitely gonna have to look past our band. We’re not on that route. We are not going to go towards things the easiest way. We’re gonna do what we wanna do, when we wanna do it and that’s how we’re always gonna be until we’re done.”
Not to play them up as badasses who are all too sure of themselves. Not this band. These guys are all wearing faded thrift attire, some flannel collars under half-kempt facial fuzz, sleepily eying the coffee cups before them inside this bar where they could have easily ordered beer. They are also, mind you, holding off on any four-letter words in front of Olly (“Freakin’” is as crass as they get.)
“Blue Lightning” may be their best yet for evocatively capturing the stresses of the post-millennial everyman: a jittery groove busily clatters under detached guitars swooping low then soaring high over honeyed harmonies—all of this while Paffi reels his somewhat abstract, somewhat visionary, altogether poignant lyrics: “If there’s color on your collar, gotta be demons in your basement…”
“You can’t write a song about having to get up and go to work unless…you have to get up and go to work,” says Paffi. “Otherwise,” Iulianelli adds, “What’s is your life if it’s just being out on the road? You just wind up writing about ‘the road,’” like one of their admitted influences, Bob Seger (in “Turn The Page.”)
But a normal person, (whoever that may be, says Paffi,) doesn’t relate to the road song anymore. Normal people relate to their kids or to their newspaper subscriptions or to their own “demons.” And this is a band that’s going to explore those ideas while still living life on the way there. That brings “a lot of yins and yangs” says Paffi. They’re trying to be both “a successful band” and “successful people.” Read: not Fortune 500-successful, but successful at being people.
“I don’t like this band,” Paffi says, eyeballing each member surrounding him at the table, with bassist Nick Jones shouldered cozily at his side, “I love this band. I’ve been growing together with these fellas and we’re taking a different route.”
They have “grown” together on this different route because BoG actually started without Paffi, back in 2006, as a strictly instrumental band called Wildcatting. Paffi was a big fan, but Moss yielded him from an attempt to “sing over Wildcatting songs.” “[With Bars of Gold,] we only figure out about 75 percent of what’s gonna happen on stage,” says guitarist Scotty Iulianelli. “That other 25 percent of chaos, that’s what I love about this band.” With Wildcatting, those songs were actually 75 percent chaos/25 percent planned, to contrast.
Wildcatting, Moss says, was “just us wanting to be in a band and be as pragmatic as possible but also have fun.” That part hasn’t changed.
But how do you make a record when you’re so busy being people? Bars of Gold decided to treat it like many folks looking for an escape, and the guys sort-of went camping. They escaped their jobs and the city (for four inspiring days) and hunkered down with renowned engineer Chris Koltay of Detroit’s High Bias Studios. They biked out for groceries and cooked their own meals. (Actually, Koltay, who has worked with Deerhunter and Akron/Family, often cooked for them, providing cuisines equally as enriching as his sonic suggestions. He even solidified the “camping” aesthetic by having them sleep in bunk beds).
But back to those lyrics. Audette actually beats Paste to the punch and asks Paffi a question we’d intended to pose later: Do you worry the meaning of your lyrics might get lost when it has to sail over loud, aggressive music?
Paffi says he does his best to enunciate, but Moss soon jumps in: “Funny you say ‘aggressive,’ I say: ‘excited!’ I feel like I’m stoked, excited, exuberant.” Heavy music can be celebratory. Rock music that’s “25 percent chaos” can also be 100 percent “exuberant.”