Cheap Girls: The Best of What's Next

Music Features Cheap Girls
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“My only fear is that it sounds like a very dramatic title,” laughs Ian Graham, the lead singer and bassist of Lansing, Mich.’s Cheap Girls. He’s discussing the band’s new LP, Famous Graves—which, yeah, okay, we can see how that might hit you as a little melodramatic. But like anything this rapidly maturing band’s done before, there’s also a sense of flair, some tongue-in-cheek humor, and yeah—there’s darkness tied in. That’s the neat little package Cheap Girls wraps up so nicely, so beautifully on Famous Graves, an album that sees Graham; his brother Ben and guitarist Adam Aymor unleashing some honest-to-goodness, simple pop-rock tunes. But to get there, they had to tear a few things apart first.

As the story goes with many Michigan artists, Cheap Girls was formed by coping with those soul-freezing months between December and April that Polar Vortexed their way to headlines this year. “The big part of it for us was just having a basement in the winter and not having a whole lot of options. You can hang out indoors, play instruments and once you become an adult, you can go to bars and play to the same handful of bars.” But even before they were driving Lansing’s streets, or fighting off the cold in its many bars, Ian and Ben had been planting musical roots for years. Ben was given a drumset for his sixth birthday, shortly after Ian picked up guitar, and a musical brotherhood was formed over Green Day and Gin Blossom covers—which, in all their power chord simplicity—were easy enough for the duo to mimic early on.

“In our teens we started recording songs and being in bands, but nothing too serious,” Ian says. “We started this band right when I turned 21, and they were the first songs I ever wrote—my first record. It was just [guitarist] Adam and I at that time, but we brought Ben along. It’s the dream choice for me, because I’ve played with him forever, and it just so happened that he wanted to do it.”

Cheap Girls’ rise has been steady ever since. Their debut, Find Me a Drink Home, was released in 2007, and My Roaring 20’s and Giant Orange solidified the band as a national force. And although the band has toured Europe and Australia, has made music biz pals with The Hold Steady and Against Me!, Ian marks Cheap Girls’ ascent by their recorded discography.

“The biggest milestone for me is every record. Every record feels like a pretty lucky thing.” While Cheap Girls have kept things decidedly minimal from the start, Famous Graves is branded by its simplicity. With Ian’s hearty croon, Aymor‘s efficient, crunchy attack and a rhythm section fused by literal brotherhood, songs like “Slow Nod” and “Man in Question” make a compelling argument for the punch a trio can pack, especially live. “With this one, I don’t consider us moving backward,” he says. “I think it moves back to a place where you just want to play music…This is where everything all comes back to general rock and pop songs. This is more all-inclusive.”

But as any aspiring minimalist might explain, simplicity isn’t always that simple, and the band saw itself dissecting the songs on Famous Graves more than any other release. And duh, they did this through Michigan’s freezing, record-breaking winter.

“Before, it was like ‘Oh, these are the songs we play at practice. Let’s record them as fast as possible.’ So we decided to spend a lot of time [working on the songs]. We decided not to do overkill kind of shit, but decided to take the time to realize these ideas, and again—going back to where we were, that’s an extension that we did this in the winter. It was a better way to spend November through January. Finding a balance of how to record a lot of stuff and still keep it something fun to play live.”

The darkness, though—that comes from a few different places. Over the years, Ian’s gone through knee surgery after surgery, resulting in the heartbreaking “Knock Me Over.” It’s a song you might mistake for a tale of unreturned love or post-breakup heartbreak. But unlike many songs of similar tunes, this pain is quite literal.

“The song has a lot to do with [my knee surgery],” he says. “Actually, a lot of the record does. I’ve had a lot of knee surgeries. It was written shortly after one of my more recent surgeries, but it was the frustration of being in a lot of pain for a long time.”

But what about that title? Turns out, it came as easy as stripping the band down: “To be honest, there’s a simplicity to it: we like graves,” Ian laughs. “The phrase came out of us doing the activity of visiting famous grave sites. I think there’s a few layers there, but I haven’t quite figured best how to put the words there. Repeated error is a common thing among most people. It seemed like a good fit.” And while we’ll take the explanation, grave visiting isn’t exactly as common as, say, brewery stops or local landmark visiting on tour. What about that? Ian says, again, it’s not as dramatic or life-altering as it sounds. In fact, it’s as basic as Famous Graves itself. “We’ll get to a city, we’ll have four hours before we have to do anything and if there’s someone famous buried there, we’ll go. It’s not even an obsessive thing, it’s a very simple thing.”