Ian Graham has some bum knees. The frontman of earnest Michigan punks Cheap Girls just underwent his sixth— SIXTH—knee surgery and he's about to hop back on a tour. Not even missing a beat, he's ready to go tear up a national jaunt with his three-piece and Andrew Jackson Jihad. Oh, and Cheap Girls is about to drop their best album yet, Famous Graves. RIYL Smoking Popes and failed relationships. This thing is spectacular.
We got Ian on the phone while he was nursing that knee in the Cheap Girls home base of Lansing, Michigan to chat about the new record and his serious addiction to Diet Coke, among other things.
Noisey: So I'm catching you back in Lansing. What are you doing to bide your time pre-tour?
Ian Graham: I just had my sixth knee surgery. Just sandwich a quick surgery between tours. My knees are just shitty, man. It was one problem then it's always another. I'm just falling apart. I think this one went pretty well. I didn't play sports or anything It's just a weird fluke that I have these shitty knees.
Have you lived in Lansing your whole life?
Basically. I went to college for a bit but the band became too much. It's just a really affordable place to live. I've been here most of my 28 years.
You guys never had that itch to move to New York or LA or something when things started cooking for the band?
The thing about that, there's a lot of luxuries living in Lansing. It might not be the best city on paper but we always have basements to practice in and when you're starting out as a band and you have zero money, that's a beautiful thing. You don't have to rent practice space or anything. It's just smart for us and we can go venture off and play anywhere and always come back here.
The new album, Famous Graves, is wonderful. It's a perfect warm weather, spring album.
It's weird you're not the first person to tell me that. We recorded it during the shittiest, most brutal winter of recent memory. It's funny how that works.
Did you record in Michigan?
We did a little in Grand Rapids and then the rest in Chicago. Prime spots for winter this year! It was a shitload of ice and snow, some serious -20 degree days. It was the opposite of a warm weather environment.
Did the intense weather ever weigh you down, like, there's a two-foot snow drift outside my door I am not going to record.
Well, one good thing that happened is I don't think I had an entire cigarette the entire time we were recording. I would go out for a second then have to run back inside. I appreciate a harsh winter but this one was shittier than usual.
Are you content with finished product?
Absolutely. We're not meticulous about getting all the drums right and shit like that. However, we were meticulous in making sure we liked it. It paid off this time. It can go both ways. You can get in over your head when you spend a whole lot of time on something, but we were on the lucky side where we are so happy with our record. I couldn't be more happy, man. I like our other records fine. We still play songs off of them. That's the thing about starting a band in your twenties as opposed to your teens. You're not embarrassed by your songs. When you're a teenager, you're embarrassed by all your records. So, this one, I really think it's day and night just by how much time we spent with it.
You've toured with the Hold Steady and Against Me! and Laura Jane Grace recorded a past album, do you ever think, "Why aren't we reaching that level of success those bands are seeing?"
Not really. We haven't been a band as long as they have. The Hold Steady, I was a gigantic fan before we were even a band. They're in their own world for me. I guess I never thought of it in those terms. It's just amazing we're playing shows with them. We're just lucky to be in a position to play shows with them.
The album title, Famous Graves, is quite literal right? You guys often visit graves of the famous dead?
Well the title came from a friend. It was just a phrase he said. We wanted something that would stand forever and we wouldn't feel dumb about. It ended up taking on a lyrical side and became this thing that has some layers to it. There's a lot of thought that can be applied there. Whether it be the act of going to graves or getting a little poetic and think about what can go into it.
But you guys actually go seek out famous graves while on tour?
It's not like a thing we plan tours around. If we're near one, we'll go. We saw Sylvia Plath. We went to the Cobain house which was more eerie than celebratory. We went to the Rick James statue in Buffalo, NY. That was cool. If it's in walking distance, we'll go.
When going to these places, have you ever felt something or gotten inspired?
Not necessarily inspiration. I guess I've felt something. I approach it in more of a pop culture way. I like seeing what people leave there like cigarette butts and empty bottles. It's just more of a pop culture fascination.
I read that you're a huge Wilco fan. How does your fandom playing into your own songwriting?
There's not a ton available about their songwriting process. I think if anything, it translates to us taking more time in the studio and getting lost little bit in the recording. Doing more layering. there's so much shit going on in their records. Everyone has that songwriter they love and Jeff Tweedy is definitely up there for me.
Did you see Tweedy's recent run on Parks and Recreation?
I need to! I heard he was pretty bad. It's like when an athlete is trying to act in a commercial and it's like a NASCAR guy selling motor oil. They're not good at it.
He seems to be having fun which is nice to see because he kind of has this aura of being a dick from seeing I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.
He might not be the nicest guy but I like him in that film! He's a loud personality. I have fucking watched that movie obsessively for the past ten years man. I'd say it's my favorite music documentary after The Last Waltz.
There's so much inner band drama in that movie, is that something you ever worry about within your own band?
I've lived with both of these guys forever and one of them happens to be my brother. I've been playing music with him since I was eight. The band is a release from issues with friends and family. We're all on the same page. We're so different from some band who just has to hire someone to play bass and they don't know him. We have a core thing. Fortunately, there's not a lot of bickering.
Back to Tweedy acting and musicians stepping outside of music, do you ever think about taking your writing to another avenue like a novel or something?
I just try to keep writing all the time. I should do more of it! I should be better at just diving into writing for the sake of writing to see what happens. I don't have any real aspirations as far as that goes. I read a ton of books! A novel though, that seems insane. I don't think I could do that. There's just so much detail. I don't think i have the focus. Short stories would be more in my lane I think.
When you're writing your lyrics, are they mostly autobiographical?
I'd say that's always an underlying thing. I'm writing about things I know. I don't think I could just start from scratch. The details are things I've lived. It's not like a collection of journal entries.
Lastly, I hear you have a serious affinity for Diet Coke. How many of them are we talking a day?
I'd say 10 to 15. Always in the can. I need it carbonated and chilled. I spend way too much money on that shit.
Does that ever get you in trouble on the road? You get the 64 oz. from a Shell station and then have to pee every ten minutes?
I have definitely frustrated everyone with that! The more trouble is we like, stay in hotel chains now that I know have Coke products, I can’t do Pepsi. It's mostly I need the caffeine. I know it's fucking terrible for me. But at the same time I've definitely found things in my life that are worse for me than Diet Coke.
Cheap Girls are hitting the road next month with Andrew Jackson Jihad. Catch them on tour.
Luke McCormick is also trying to break your heart on Twitter - @LUKEmccorm