It takes a lot of guts to add theatrics to your set when you’re the opening act. Thus, when the four members of Those Lavender Whales don their signature seaweed-green Davy Jones beards, it’s near impossible not to gain immediate respect for them, despite the fact that they haven’t even picked up their instruments. And when they do start playing, they might seem to merely be an odd little crew from Columbia with false beards jamming through folk jingles. But behind the faux facial hair, transcendent electric guitar waves, relaxing acoustic strums, happy-go-lucky drum tempos and pleasantly bright lyrics is a group that even in the darkest of times epitomizes love, support and purpose, redefining what it means to be a “family band.”
They play quirky, infectiously catchy tunes that blend the idiosyncratic folk tailoring of Neutral Milk Hotel with the buoyant rhythms and delivery of They Might Be Giants, and bring back memories of watching Saturday morning programming in your Superman pajamas. They have a camaraderie that seems to grow with every stomp, bounce and slight head bang. And with every song, it becomes more apparent that they were meant to do this. To hear and see them perform is bizarre, but even more so, it is fascinating.
The band’s leader, 29-year-old Aaron Graves, has an admirably bright and humble view on life and music. “I just don’t like being bummed out,” he says as he watches a light rain veil his view of Main Street. Graves, a Columbia native, has always maintained a goal of bringing local talent together to simply have fun and make creative, raw music under one roof. Inspired by the ‘90s indie rock collective Elephant 6, which included indie titans Neutral Milk Hotel and of Montreal, Graves formed Fork and Spoon Records with friends Jordan Blackmon and Those Lavender Whales (TLW) bassist Chris Gardner.
Fork and Spoon fulfills Graves’ aspirations of being a familial outlet through which Columbia artists, including his own band, can experiment musically with a sense of complete creative liberty. “I’ve always thought that Columbia was special and that the people and the community of Columbia were really special. Particularly the musical community,” Graves says.
He has impeccable modesty, stating that he doesn’t think he did anything special other than believe in the community and care about it. The channel for ingenuity and unity amongst Columbia musicians that Graves has helped build has made him a local icon. He is giving all he has to his hometown with each note that’s played on a Fork and Spoon recording. So when tragedy fell upon Graves and his family, the city responded in full force.
This past March, after visiting a doctor due to trouble with his vision, Graves was informed that he had a tumor spread throughout his brain. “The doctors looked scared,” Graves recalls with a hint of astonishment, even seven months after his diagnosis. “The only way I can describe what went through my mind was just complete shock.” Accompanied by his wife, TLW drummer Jessica Bornick, Graves underwent radiation treatment in July at Duke University. During the six weeks of treatment, the two stayed at Caring House, a home for cancer patients in Durham, N.C. “We were the youngest people there,” Graves remembers, “but it was inspiring to see these older people go through much worse stuff and still keep a positive attitude. They would say things like ‘you just gotta take it as it comes, you’ll get through it.’”
Fortunately, the treatment was successful, and the tumor has decreased greatly in size. Graves is progressively regaining his health; according to his blog, he can once again “kick flip on a skateboard.” However, when asked if there will be a time when the tumor is no longer an issue, Graves pauses and seems to stare the thought down for a moment. “It’s likely going to be an issue forever; there’s always a chance of it coming back,” he says over the bellowing, prayerful organ of Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” playing on a nearby sound system in a tragic, yet poetic, harmonization.
The response to Graves’ diagnosis from the community has been nothing less than remarkable. “There have just been too many things to name,” he says. “It’s really flattering that so many people have helped us out so much and helped us out for so long. I can’t believe that stuff is still going on.”
Local businesses continue to have fundraisers and benefits for Graves and his family, including Five Points restaurant El Burrito, which offers a full meal menu item called “Aaron’s Lunchbox” every Wednesday. The profits are donated to the Graves family. Papa Jazz Record Shoppe has an “Aaron Bin,” made up of material by Columbia musicians working with the store, who have been kind enough to donate all of the proceeds from the bin towards Graves’ treatment.
Earlier this year, Fork and Spoon put together a compilation album entitled “Tidings From Our Light Purple Gam,” which includes various Fork and Spoon artists as well as an original song from Columbia native and high school friend of Graves, Toro y Moi, and a cover of The Kinks’ “Did You See His Name?” by of Montreal. However, the standout track on the album is an original song by Those Lavender Whales, aptly entitled “I’m So Proud (Of My Friends).”
Conundrum Music Hall and New Brookland Tavern have both held benefit concerts for Graves and his family; renowned dream-pop artist Washed Out headlined a benefit for the christening of Music Farm Columbia on September 16. All of the proceeds went to the brilliantly-named tumorschmumor.com, a donation website for Graves. The band opened for Washed Out that night, along with South Carolina native Keith Mead. As the beards were donned and Graves walked onstage wearing a “Columbia, SC” T-shirt, the enthusiasm of the packed crowd perfectly illustrated his support system and impact.
What ultimately makes Those Lavender Whales such a special group is that, to them, making music is not intended to be a means to a paycheck but a means to unity. In Columbia, Graves has turned what in many cities is nothing more than a music scene into a family. Concern for who sells the most records, tickets or T-shirts has never entered the picture. It has always been about community and the idea that creative people can feel comfortable doing whatever they want with those who have the same drive. Graves has united some of the city’s most creative minds; when something threatening came barging in trying to ruin everything, people have risen up to help this one man who has worked to make things better. He’s not stopping either; the band is still playing, Graves is still writing material and he’s hoping for a new TLW album to drop sometime next summer. As Graves said himself, “It goes to show that if you put a lot of energy into a place and the people of a place, then they’ll put it back into you.”
If you would like to help Aaron Graves, his wife Jessica and their daughter Elvie through these difficult times, donations can be made to tumorschumor.com, by purchasing an “Aaron’s Lunchbox” meal from El Burrito or by downloading the “Tidings From Our Light Purple Gam” album from Amazon or forkandspoonrecords.net.