Luis Soler bought his first guitar for $30. It was a pawn shop find, “the worst possible guitar,” he says while nursing a pint of beer at Champion Brewing Company on Halloween eve. “Metallica,” “Slayer” and other metal band names were scratched into the guitar’s paint, says Soler, prompting throaty laughter from his Little Graves bandmates Geoff Otis (drums) and Les Whittaker (bass).
That it was a shitty guitar didn’t matter much to the teenage Soler; it wasn’t about getting good at guitar anyway. It was the 1990s, and while all of his buddies were into emulating their heroes and shredding scales and arpeggios up and down the necks of their guitars, Soler was just about making noise.
After years of playing in various bands, the guitarist for local noise-punk act Little Graves doesn’t listen to much guitar music, So, what does he listen to? “Mostly just field recordings of birds,” Otis quips.
Soler laughs and admits that Otis isn’t wrong. If Soler is spontaneously moved by the sound of a bird chirping, he’ll record it and incorporate it into a Little Graves song. Noise punk…with nature samples? Just bear with us for a moment.
Soler, Otis and Whittaker came to be Little Graves through a combination of answering Craigslist ads and chance meetings at Live Arts parties. All three gravitated toward “weird” music as teens, punk and proto-punk, metal and experimental composers, and became interested in exploring this blend of influences together.
They write songs “by committing,” says Otis—committing to a particular riff and turning it over and over, inside out and upside-down to see what they can get out of it. Usually what results is a structured song that vibrates with the spontaneous, organic chaos of the field recordings. Because Little Graves doesn’t have a vocalist delivering a lyrical message, the samples can help clue the audience in to what the band is going for.
Everyone takes the emotional, sonic journey together, but each person has his own individual experience of that journey, says Soler.
“We’re not interested in being analyzed or emotionally manipulative,” says Otis. “We want you to add your own feeling to these songs; all music should be personal in this really specific way in that the audience should be challenged to add their own meaning to it.”
“It doesn’t have to be anything, it just has to make you feel something,” Whittaker adds to slow nods of agreement from Otis and Soler as they take contemplative sips of their beers.
Another thing Little Graves isn’t particularly interested in is recording its music. “There are so many ingredients in live music that are so tied to when exactly you’re doing it that the payoff is so unique every time you play that song,” Otis says. “…when you get to play it for other people, it’s this sort of indescribable reward.”
For all of their philosophizing, the members of Little Graves have no grand illusions about the purpose of their band. “The thing is, we’re…three…dads,” says Otis, prompting giggles from Soler and Whittaker. They have jobs and families and aren’t living the rock-star lifestyle (not that they never entertained the idea). They’d rather hang out with their kids in the yard than ride all over the country in a van or record a bunch of CDs that will collect dust in a box in the closet. Local live shows, though, those they can get behind.
“When I look at a poster of a show I’ve played, I always feel good about that,” Otis says.
“I like watching people just go off at our shows,” says Whittaker.
At this point the trio wonders out loud: When did it become good show etiquette for audiences to just stand there? To stand still and not move around to the music.
“Bands want you to dance at shows. Every band,” says Otis.
“We’re not asking you to cha-cha,” Whittaker says. Just move—and be moved.
Playing music is typically more competitive when you’re younger, and not necessarily for the better, says Soler. It’s too much about having the right gear, about recording and selling albums and getting on bills at the right venues; too much about getting into a better, bigger band and hitting certain milestones of perceived success. “But now I’m doing it for me,” he says.
Plus, Soler wants his kids to know that a person isn’t defined by her job, or by his home life, but by a constellation of things connected to form one interesting, rich life.
Too often, “I think people just hang it up,” Otis says of musicians who feel they haven’t reached a certain measure of success by the time they’re in their 30s. If they’re playing shows at Charlottesville’s Magnolia House or The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative instead of, say, Sentrum Scene in Norway or Vorst Nationaal in Belgium, many may ask, “What’s the fucking point?”
“The point,” says Otis before taking another sip of beer, “is that it’s fun.”