Behind the Music

Photo by Parker Stewart
Ryan Graveface’s weird and wonderful world. Written by Wade Livingston

Ryan Graveface, his dark hair pulled back in something approaching a ponytail, peers through eyeglasses and sifts through a box of records, his fingers moving quickly. There’s a small patch of white in one side of his thin beard. A red-and-gray flannel hugs his slight frame, and he wears black pants—one of his seven identical pairs. He removes an Ella Fitzgerald record from the box. Next, Springsteen, then a more obscure choice: the Bengali Bauls, an Indian street band that made the album in the late 1960s in Woodstock, New York.

“I might be buying all your records,” he says to his host, a local artist and collector, who grins and tells Ryan to have at it. The artist is moving out of his studio—an East 38th Street Victorian with paint-splattered walls— and the records, hundreds of them, must go, along with a mishmash of other stuff cluttering the place. On this January day, Ryan has been given first crack.

Ryan has a reputation for shopping large. Earlier that morning, he drove to a gated community on Hilton Head Island, where he was the first person invited to pick through an inherited collection of 2,500 records. He bought most of the lot and loaded it into his Ford hatchback.

Ryan, inside the Graveface Annex. located next door to Graveface Records & Curiosities. Photo by Parker Stewart

Some of those albums will fill a wood container inside Ryan’s Starland District store, Graveface Records & Curiosities. Every Saturday morning, he restocks it with dozens of records—many priced as low as $3—that he’s culled from flea markets, private collections and friends’ stashes across the Southeast and beyond. The container holds the weekend “drop,” attracting serious collectors and vinyl newbies alike who form a line on the sidewalk before the shop opens. The event has become, almost to Ryan’s dismay, popular.

“I’ve kinda created a monster,” he says with a chuckle. The drops debuted two years ago, and Ryan preps them weeks, sometimes months, in advance. “It’s a serious obligation,” he says. Just one of many.

In addition to his store, Ryan founded and runs two record companies: indie label Graveface Records and Terror Vision, which specializes in old horror-movie soundtracks. Together, the labels have released upwards of 150 albums. Ryan also plays in four acts—Dreamend, his solo project, plus The Casket Girls, The Marshmallow Ghosts and Monster Move, a recording project based in Great Britain, where he recently went to work on an album with the group. He writes songs, produces music, sings and plays several instruments, including guitar and a Casiotone synthesizer. He operates Noisy Ghost, Graveface Records’ publicity arm. (He grants interviews, but only on the condition that his face is partially obscured in photographs.)

T-shirts and album covers are screen-printed at Ryan’s warehouse, located in Savannah’s Southside area. Photo by Parker Stewart

“For me, what I do and what I create has nothing to do with this,” he says, swirling his hands in front of his face. He doesn’t want his persona to overshadow the artists he works with—their art, and his own, should speak for itself. “It’s like The Wizard of Oz,” says Ryan, who conceals his face during live performances. “I’m behind the curtain, and that’s where I should be.” That’s why, more than a decade ago, he changed his last name to Graveface. “The word came to me in a dream,” he says. “I knew it wasn’t a band name—it was bigger. But there’s literally no meaning to it, and I like it that way.” Graveface the person now melds with Graveface the brand, and in this age of social media, there’s virtually no digital trace of his given name, which makes him happy.

It’s the work, the art, that brings Ryan pleasure, and Graveface Records & Curiosities is the distillation of his being. The shop bulges with some 25,000 records, including releases from his own label, which often ride the turntable behind the cash register. Graveface is also home to cassette tapes, arcade games, cocktail bitters and hot sauce, as well as taxidermy squirrels mounted on little wooden stands adorned with colorful phrases that make kids giggle and grandparents blush. (The squirrels have been surprise bestsellers— who knew?)

Inside Graveface Records & Curiosities. Photo by Parker Stewart

Maintaining the store’s stock means Ryan is always on the hunt—it’s hard detective work, but the sleuthing takes him on adventures. Sometimes it’s to the studio on East 38th Street or the home on Hilton Head Island, and other times it’s at a private collection in Florida, where he recently went digging through carnival paraphernalia. His discoveries often end up in the Graveface Annex, the space next door to his shop. That’s where Ryan keeps his personal collection— masks, clown stuff and VHS copies of movies like Hellraiser III, among other things. The Annex doubles as his office, and on occasion, he opens it to the public. The spot is like Ryan: curious and authentic.

His work is a manifestation of his persona—it’s his life as much as his livelihood. He’s not antisocial—far from it—but he doesn’t like to waste time. “I just always feel like I should be doing more,” he says. He’d rather price records late into the night than grab a beer at The Wormhole, but anyone is welcome to help him, and hang out.

Ryan prides himself on being “niche,” and that’s what he wants his legacy to be. At 36 years old, he’s confident that he’s doing what he was put on this planet to do. “I get to wake up and do exactly what I want,” Ryan says. “And people might think it’s ridiculous, but I don’t care.” He punctuates the sentiment with a smile and a shrug.


Born Ryan Manon in Toledo, Ohio, he’s the son of an engineer and a paralegal. As a kid, he had two newspaper routes that led to a lawnmowing circuit. He and his family didn’t sit around the turntable listening to music, but they traveled often, frequently stopping at roadside attractions along the way to feed Ryan’s curiosity.

The Manons later moved to Michigan, where Ryan managed a Pizza Hut in high school, surprised his boss entrusted the place to a “goth kid.” He never wanted a car, just an amplifier. His parents didn’t give him a curfew because he worked all the time and saved his money. He got to live in the basement—his request—where he could do his own thing.

Sometimes he skipped school and went to Ann Arbor to hunt for records. He was into alternative music: Stone Temple Pilots, Built to Spill, Smashing Pumpkins. The first vinyl he bought was Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy, which he picked up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland when he was 13. He cringed as the music he loved became mainstream and popularized the grunge style—long hair, flannel, Vans shoes. Everyone was doing it. Even then, Ryan knew that “alternative” shouldn’t equate to popular.

In 2000, Ryan founded Graveface Records in Temperance, Michigan, and then moved to Chicago, where his headquarters were nearly wiped out by a flood. He lost most of his belongings—none of them were insured. Seeking a fresh start, he came to Savannah in 2010 and brought the label with him.

It’s like the Wizard of Oz. I’m behind the curtain, and that’s where I should be. 

He didn’t know anyone here, which was part of the appeal. And yet on his first day in town, two strangers recognized Ryan from the label, and oddly enough, the city began to feel like home. Savannah had been on his short list, along with New Orleans and Charleston. He’d even considered Wilson, North Carolina, drawn by the late Vollis Simpson’s Whirligig Park, a collection of giant wind-powered sculptures. But ultimately, he was looking for a place where he could afford to live in a big “creepy” Victorian house.

He found one on East Park Street, moved in and named it “the witch hat house.” The rent was cheaper than his cramped place in Chicago, there were holes in the floor and he was fascinated to find that it was haunted. In October 2017, for their annual Halloween release, The Marshmallow Ghosts dedicated a 7-inch record to the story behind the place and Ryan’s experiences in it.

Ryan Graveface. Photo by Parker Stewart

Called The Witch Hat House, the record is a ghost story, a chronicle of a guy moving to a new city and dealing with demons (his own and his home’s) as he tries to start over. Yes, it shows Ryan’s interest in the paranormal, but it’s also evidence of the personal touch—the artwork, the custom packaging, the unique concepts—he brings to the label. On any given Graveface release, Ryan controls almost every facet of production, from hand-pouring the wax to promoting the record (much of the production takes place at his warehouse in Savannah’s Southside). The Witch Hat House is his interpretation of art in today’s world. On the back of its album cover, he writes: “In 2017, we find ourselves in the Stranger Things culture. The most popular art is simply what you recognize immediately, regardless of the talent or creativity within.”

Ryan thrives on ideas—and the fear of a wasted, unrealized one might be what ultimately drives him. It’s a mindset he attributes, in part, to his father. He recalls the day his dad told him to hurry and get his shoes on so they could chase a hot air balloon in their car. They drove from Ohio into Michigan and finally caught up with the balloon as it landed. There, they found about 20 more balloons—they had stumbled upon a festival.

It was a moment when his dad had a random idea and followed through with it, an experience that would ultimately inspire Ryan to do the same.


Back at the artist’s studio on East 38th Street, Ryan is in the backyard, digging through a heap of letters from vintage industrial signs. He’s attempting to spell out GRAVEFACE, but comes up a few consonants short. He steps inside and finds what was once a large-game trophy. It’s a member of the gazelle family, he thinks, and its horns are broken. “This is the coolest thing ever,” he says, inspecting the piece and quickly adding it to his stockpile.

In addition to thousands of records, the store is also home to vintage arcade games and taxidermy. Photo by Parker Stewart

A few minutes later, the artist tallies everything up: $700 for a load of records, cassettes and old photographs, plus two Shriners fezzes, a deer head, the gazelle head, what looks like half a doll’s head and, among other things, a $1 postcard Ryan will keep for himself. It’s printed with a black-and-white picture of a ghost, the kind that looks like it was cut from a bedsheet. He thinks it might mean something to him someday.

“Here,” the artist says, pulling the postcard from the stack of items. “Put that somewhere special.” Ryan leaves. And heads to his shop.

 

Ryan Graveface’s solo project, Dreamend, goes on tour in March, beginning with a show on March 7 at Graveface Records & Curiosities. Stream a customized playlist featuring his bands, and others in the music issue, here.

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