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Travis Graves, a.k.a. Mt. Egypt, has friends in high places, which is the only explanation for his fledgling act's phenomenal luck at performing alongside legends of both rock and country. Mt. Egypt, whose first LP, Battening the Hatches, was released this past summer, experienced its inaugural tour (with Mr. Graves playing solo acoustic guitar) opening for one of the hotter art-rock concert tickets of the year, the Flaming Lips. Now, after a brief tour with Record Collection labelmates the Walkmen, Graves, a 25-year-old former professional skateboarder, is playing three dates with the redheaded stranger, Willie Nelson.
"We've been really lucky with tours and stuff," Graves says in what may be the understatement of the young millennium.
Mt. Egypt's label, Record Collection (a Warner Bros. subsidiary), has a certain Kaitlin Crowell in its employment, and while the name may not be familiar, she is Americana musical royalty, the daughter of Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, and granddaughter of recently departed Johnny Cash.
"She knows Willie's manager, and she just worked on it and made it happen, y'know," Graves explains.
Mt. Egypt, manned primarily by Graves but aided by a revolving cast of other musicians, plays roots-rock in the vein of Neil Young and Will Oldham, with finger-picked guitars and tinkling pianos, passionately sung with a voice that belongs to an earlier decade. It's certainly not what you'd expect from a veteran explorer of the concrete jungle.
"Your music is a language," Graves explains. "And how you learn to speak when you're a baby, you listen to people talking; I think the music you listen to is gonna be how you talk. I'm more apt to wake up or fall asleep or drive around listening to Bob Dylan or Will Oldham than Social Distortion."
Battening the Hatches is a lo-fi, organic affair that barely escapes the "emo" indictment. Graves' lyrics, however, are far from the pap of pretty boy poseurs like Dashboard Confessional. In fact, those words, too, belong to a different generation. He sings "And just because you can turn fear into hate/It don't make you a man/Power does not make you holy/Nor does anger make you right," on "Just Because." It's also indicative of Mt. Egypt's aesthetic that Graves covers one of his father's songs, "Say Alright," from a 1975 vinyl single released by his dad's band, All of the Above.
"His version's way better than mine. He sounded like Paul McCartney," Graves says with pride and humility.
Travis Graves began his skateboarding career when he was 16 years old, eventually riding for the Supernaut organization ("the hippy dippy skateboard company," he says). A bad ankle and the demands of the ever more stuntastic skateboarding world led him to retire from the skateboarding industry (although he still skates every day) and focus on his other creative outlet, Mt. Egypt, named after a hill near his father's house north of Raleigh, North Carolina.
Graves' connection with the Flaming Lips' manager Scott Booker led to Mt. Egypt's inaugural tour opening for the alt-rock monsters. "I was really scared," he says. "I'd never played a show of that magnitude. I'd come on before the Lips, go up there with an acoustic guitar and these people are screaming and shouting getting ready for one of the loudest bands in the world."
Lips front man Wayne Coyne became a mentor of sorts for Graves, encouraging him to focus on his stage presence and audience interaction.
"We weren't exactly ripping it up or anything, but people were more and more quiet as each show went on," he says. "You realize you probably won't get shot while you're onstage -- you may get a little too drunk before you go on and you might throw up afterwards, but other than that, you're really gonna be okay."
After his upcoming three dates opening for Willie, including one in Phoenix this week, Mt. Egypt will face the reality of a life rising through obscurity, traveling on an in-store record store tour. Yet the band's support network is scheming for shows with Neil Young and Emmylou Harris next.
"While I can, while those people are still doing it, I'd like to go out with them. 'Cause they're like my heroes, y'know?" Graves says.
For an extreme sports semi-retiree, Graves' life seems fairly sedate. Similar to rock tours, skateboard tours are famously debauched, but Graves seems to have gotten most of that out of his system.
"I've had a lot of it already, the drinking, staying up all night, chasing girls. When you get older, it starts to take its toll on you, y'know," he says. "I'm 25 and I have a girlfriend back in L.A. When I'm on the road, I'm totally responsible for everybody, and responsible for the van, and making sure we make it to the next gig."
The responsibilities, mind you, don't necessarily make every show a healthy experience. While touring with the Flaming Lips, Graves admits, "I would drink whiskey before every show to give me that courage. At two of [the shows], I was really dumb, and when I got off the stage there were people smoking pot, getting in the animal suits getting ready to go dance with the Lips. That's always a bad idea to drink whiskey and smoke pot -- I drank a lot of whiskey to get myself up there -- so I hit this joint, and within a couple of minutes I was spinning out of control and I would just run backstage and sit there. Both times it was by these trees back where the tour bus was, and I was just retching, puking my guts out and rolling around, just feeling insane.
"I was lucky I made it back on the tour bus and didn't get left in the middle of nowhere. It was really some of the most awful vomiting experiences I've ever had -- with all those nerves, your body's just in shock."