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Swamp Thing 

The Graves Brothers Deluxe emerges from the bogs of the South, dripping with strange fictions and mysterious rock

Wednesday, Nov 27 2002
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Growing up in the South's steamy confines, Stoo Odom had a lot of alligator dreams. A pictorial view of one such night vision hangs over the couch in his Potrero Hill home. Perched on top of a bunk bed, a gator hovers menacingly above a couple on the verge of locking lips. Odom deemed the scene so significant that he commissioned the artwork and used it for the cover of the Graves Brothers Deluxe's latest album, Gonna Happen to You.

Odom's reptilian past — long ago he worked as a tour guide leading "unsuspecting Yankees" through swamplands -- shows through not just in his group's cover art, but also in its songs. The Graves Brothers Deluxe has a sound born of the Louisiana humidity — a miasma of woozy, driving rock and surrealistic lounge music. With their new full-length, Odom and his bandmates have delivered the sonic equivalent of a Southern Gothic novel, a murky, mysterious volume that stands out from the trade paperbacks and postmodern plots that usually comprise indie rock's library.

Just off the alligator-adorned den, Odom sits in the front room of his house with the two other Graves Brothers: a South San Francisco postal worker/guitarist/saxophonist called Willy the Mailman and a quiet, Mexican-born drummer named Marco Villalobos. On this late-October afternoon, a leaflet of sheet music dubbed Music for Hangovers (featuring a lineup of bare-bottomed women on the cover) beckons from a giant Hammond organ, and a stand-up bass looms in the corner. With a papier-mâché pig at his side, Odom tells the first chapter of the Graves Brothers Deluxe tale: how the band took its name from a pair of obscure '30s musicians.

"If you look in the first chapter of Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, they claim that rock was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, played by ... the Graves brothers," says the 33-year-old Odom, who split his childhood between Hattiesburg and New Orleans. "I had a lot of trouble as a teenager there substantiating that claim, but I did see a lot of strange figures wandering around downtown and disappearing under bridges with guitars. I talked to one or two of them. After a while, I became convinced that there was no such thing as the Graves brothers and that it was all a myth."

Odom dreamt up the name for the band as an homage to those elusive Mississippi musicians. "The Graves Brothers Deluxe are spirits that followed me out to San Francisco and grabbed ahold of me and haven't let me stop playing this music since," says the soft-spoken Odom, whose genteel speech is a stark contrast to the halting baritone in which he sings.

After college Odom embarked upon a career as a Delta archaeologist, but the demanding hours and low pay ultimately led him to the life of swamp tours. "It's a shame, as the [archaeology] work verges on spiritual for me," Odom says. "Going through someone's 1,000-year-old trash is both perverse and transcendent."

In the early '90s Odom migrated west to Davis, where he gained mild fame playing bass for Thin White Rope. (The outfit was often identified with the "paisley underground," a movement of L.A. acts that put a modern spin on '60s folk and psychedelia.) Following that group's breakup in 1992, Odom and two Rope bandmates reunited a few years later as the Graves Brothers Deluxe.

By late 1999, Odom's previous collaborators had bolted for various reasons, with only a 7-inch to their names. So Odom collected the group's myriad sessions and released them as the first Graves Brothers Deluxe album, Little Love Things — an exercise in jangly guitars and pop vocal melodies with the occasional violin and musical saw part thrown in. Afterward, Odom decided to re-envision the band with Villalobos, whom he met through their day job coordinating video equipment for events.

"Initially the band was a fairly straightforward indie rock outfit," explains Odom, stroking the dark goatee that complements his all-black ensemble. "Then Marco and I got inspired to re-create the band as a junky little acoustic sort of act, but it very quickly morphed into something else."

That something else is difficult to classify, but invites comparisons to everyone from David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti to Tom Waits to the Butthole Surfers. The Graves Brothers Deluxe's sophomore release, Gonna Happen to You, spans the spectrum from hard rock to sweaty, funk-infused jams, with Odom's menacing vocals spinning an eerie mythology that rivals William Faulkner's. Reminiscent of Louisiana's brutal summer thunderstorms, "Electrical" is an ominous, static-filled soundscape with twisted nursery rhyme lyrics like "I see the concrete prints of animals, little electrical animals/ I try to track 'em down, and then they always vanish in the air." "Deadbeat Heart" sounds as if it were recorded by a swing band on acid, while Odom's archaeological past surfaces in such lyrics as "I see my ancestor alive in your dust" (from the growling "Raw Stinking Beauty"). The addition of Willy the Mailman on brooding saxophone — particularly on the noir-ish "Did You Tell Guillaume" — provides a perfect accent to the band's bizarre mix.

Willy joined the band about two years ago, when his old high school classmate Villalobos suggested he audition. At 42 and 39, respectively, Willy and Villalobos are longtime veterans of the San Francisco music scene. "I hired Marco for the first band we got into, and every job I've ever gotten since has been through him," says Willy, clad in a white V-neck T-shirt and a blazer.

Little did they know that the local scene was also familiar to a people far away: Spaniards. The first Graves Brothers Deluxe record was released on a Spanish label called Munster, which also put out a couple of Thin White Rope albums. When the Graves Brothers embarked on a Spanish tour in fall 2001, Odom and company realized that not only did their music have a huge following on the Iberian Peninsula, but also that Spanish fans followed other San Francisco bands with the same puzzling closeness.

"People at our shows were asking us about Bay Area acts seldom mentioned over here, everyone from the Phantom Surfers to Sonya Hunter," Odom says. "The Spanish are very progressive and prehistoric at the same time. They like their garage rock, but they're open to new sounds."

The band even appeared on the television show Radio 3, the Spanish version of Top of the Pops. "That was our big rock star moment," Odom recalls. "It was a live half-hour concert for a bunch of captive 15-year-old girls."

After the tour the group returned to put the finishing touches on Gonna Happen to You. Upon the record's release this month, the Graves Brothers embarked on their current West Coast excursion, one that will eventually usher the spirits of those old Mississippi musicians as far south as Mexico City.

But back in Odom's outlandish music room, the trio readies itself for something far simpler: dinner at a nearby Mayan restaurant and the annual Clarion Alley concert in the Mission. Before departing, Odom explains that his band's strangely enchanting sound draws inspiration from just about everything but music — the weather, natural disasters, alcohol, food, dreams, and, of course, the ever-present influence of the original Graves brothers. So it's anyone's guess which form the Graves Brothers Deluxe will morph into next.

"We have no real control over what our music sounds like," says Odom, adding to the act's ever-expanding air of mystery. "The Graves brothers just want to make a comeback, I guess."

About The Author

Nancy Einhart

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