Pianist Cameron Graves is no stranger to musical storytelling. As a founding member of the West Coast Get Down, better known as the band on Kamasi Washington’s breakout record, The Epic, Graves helped bring Washington’s dream-inspired musical saga to life. Now, with his debut album Planetary Prince, he gets to tell his own story exactly the way he hears it. Fusing many different musical and non-musical themes, Graves’ album, the first of two, is a formidable first record to say the least.
We were fortunate enough to chat with Cameron at the Piano Bar, the bar in Hollywood where he and the other members of the WCGD have been playing regularly for nearly ten years. We talked about Planetary Prince, growing up playing jazz in L.A. and the current state of popular music, among other things.
Revive: Can you tell me about your musical influences and your inspirations? There’s a lot of stuff happening on Planetary Prince. The intro to “Adam and Eve” is very impressionistic, and the first tune is very rhythmically driven. Where do those ideas come from?
Cameron Graves: Well, I grew up playing classical music. As a pianist there’s kind of two ways to go. There’s church and then there’s classical music. I went the classical music route. My dad got me into it, me and my brother Taylor Graves. Got us into it when we were 3 or 4 years old, got us into Yamaha music, the whole thing. Obviously that was one of the biggest influences, you know: constant classical recitals, practicing, all kinds of different pieces. We learned all the J.S. Bach stuff, Chopin, Schubert, Rachmaninoff. So I did that stuff all the way until I was about 15, then I got into jazz.
I went to Hamilton high school and got into jazz. The whole Coltrane quartet. Me and Kamasi for sure were dead into that. That’s how I got those influences. I grew up listening to jazz because of my dad. He’s big into jazz and R&B, he’s an R&B singer. Top 40’s stuff from the 60’s and 70’s, a lot of funk stuff, my dad introduced me to a lot when I was young. A lot of jazz stuff: Coltrane, Art Tatum, Joe Sample from the Jazz Crusaders, Weather Report. By the time I turned 15 and I started actually learning jazz theory and practicing it, adding it to my piano practice and really getting into it, I already had the sound in my head. It was cool linking up with people like Kamasi.
It was a lot of different influences. Obviously the hip-hop influence is just from growing up hearing it, and obviously I have a love for hip hop, you know I love hip-hop. Me and my brother and a lot of our friends were very much influenced by artists like Timbaland, in like ’95, ’96, ’97, like the Supa Dupa Fly album, Missy Elliot stuff like that. Also a lot of J Dilla and Slum Village. Definitely J Dilla. Top producer in terms of creativity and music.
R: Yeah, you can hear the diverse influences in your compositions.
R: You just mentioned how you met Kamasi and started playing with him at an early age. What was that like, building that chemistry, building that relationship over such a long time? That’s a rare thing. You rarely hear about bands coming up with that much history.
CG: You know, those are fluke things in life, man. I happened to go to Hamilton that year, starting 9th grade, coming from an alternative school out in the valley; I’m born and raised, grew up in the valley.
Fletcher Sheridan is a very prominent session singer in Los Angeles. Him and his sister Taylor Sheridan. His mom, Sue Sheridan, was friends with my dad; they were long time writing partners. My dad is a musician and a songwriter and stuff like that. Sue mentioned that we should check out Hamilton High school, her son was going there, to the big music academy. We checked it out, and I got in. I went to the orientations and it was cool, it was one of those things where there was a lot of stuff going on that day.
Hamilton used to have a Jazz band program. They had all the programs. They had the gospel music choir, they had the chamber orchestra, they had musical theatre for the young actors and actresses. Then they had the jazz band. Jazz band was probably the biggest because of the fact that it was live instrumental music, but then it was jazz so it wasn’t as strict as the classical lessons. You know, they had classical piano. Hamilton had a huge music academy, especially when I went there, which was ’94,’95. I started in ’94.
That’s when I met Kamasi. It was in the C band at Hamilton High School. Dan Taguchi was the teacher and he was actually first chair tenor saxophone and I was piano. Piano is right next to the first chair tenor saxophone. It’s funny: Piano is right here, guitar, tenor sax, and then it used to be drums and bass in the back, and then trumpets, trombones and then the rest of the saxes.
It was cool. Right from day 1 of jazz band class, which was like 2nd period, but I can’t even remember now (laughs). Right from there I met Kamasi. He was really into a lot of Coltrane stuff and so was I, and we would always play off of “Impressions,” or “Giant Steps.” We were learning “Giant Steps” together. So, eventually that happened more and more; we started really hanging out. Robert Miller was part of that, I’m sure you’ve seen Robert Miller with The Epic band, he’s part of The Epic band. Started hanging out, listening to a lot of Coltrane and started trying to play a lot of that stuff, like A Love Supreme.
By the time I got to 10th grade, Kamasi got me to go over to this school called Locke High School, which is down there in Watts. He was like, “Cameron, you’ve got to come to this school, man. There’s a teacher you’ve got to meet named Reggie Andrews.” He’s a very important band leader/teacher down there, and he’s got this program called multi-school jazz band, where he finds students, really good musician students from a lot of different schools: L.A. High School, Jefferson High, Hamilton High. There’s a bunch of different high schools where he would go and find the musicians that really had the passion and really want to do it. He would get them into this multi-school jazz band where we’d meet up at Locke High School every – I forget, it was like every Thursday – and play and learn charts together. I got there in 10th grade, when I was about 16, and that’s when I met Ronald Bruner, Stephen Bruner who is, you know, Thundercat. I met Ryan Porter, the trombone player, Ben Adamson who actually does sound for us, but he’s a trumpet player, a very good trumpet player.
I met a lot of people, man. Everybody, we all went to multi-school jazz band. Terrace Martin was in that band, too. Isaac Smith, who’s a genius trombone player. We all met in multi-school jazz band, when I was about 16. That was about 16 or 17 years ago. From then, that’s when we started playing with each other, hanging out with each other, writing and then doing it like that, and it just kept going. When I was about 18 we got a club called Doboy’s Dozens where every Friday night there was a guy named Brandon Bollen, who was a poet, this was when poetry was going on big. We would go and play every Friday night at Doboy’s; me, Kamasi, Ronald and Stephen, and that’s how we started Young Jazz Giants, from there, the four of us. It just kept growing from there.
R: In an earlier interview we did with Kamasi, he said that The Epic came out of a series of recording sessions that you all did together, which included not only his material, but tunes by everybody in the band. Is this material from that period?
CG: Ok, so, we had been playing here (The Piano Bar in Los Angeles) for about 6 years, this started in 2007 or something like that, and it morphed into the West Coast Get Down. It was super prominent, man. Wednesday and Friday nights it was packed. What we would do is, everybody would just write random charts, random tunes that they would have and then we’d bring them here. Then we’d read them and then learn them and the really good ones we’d keep them and we’d play them all the time. I started doing that, Kamasi started doing that, Miles was doing that, Miles Mosley, the bass player, Ryan Porter. So, after about a couple years of that, we all had about a good 8 or 9 tunes each that were the good ones that everybody was loving, so Miles had the idea to pool our money together and try to get a studio so that we could all go in and record all of those songs that we’d been playing here that were getting so much attention. It was packing out the house now.
So, that’s what we did, we pooled our money together and we got this studio called King Size Lounge Studio or something like that, out there in Eagle Rock. Miles helped us out a lot with the organization of it, like to map out whose record we were doing on what days and how many songs we were doing. Miles did a lot for that. We went in there and did it. We even recorded stuff that’s not even on any of our records. We did one tune where we did one song for 45 minutes and we just kind of morphed it into it different songs.
Anyway, after those sessions I took a listen to my stuff. I wasn’t really liking the quality of the sound of my stuff.
R: Was it all captured live?
CG: It was all captured live, yeah, but you know, different studios, different mics have different results. Different pianos. Sometimes some pianos have a boxy type of sound, and then some pianos have a really deep, rich sound. I’m really into the deep rich sounding pianos.
Everybody’s album did get recorded. Miles has his record coming out where he did most of the stuff at KSO. Ryan has a TV show called Dreamsville coming out where he did most of the stuff at KSO studios, and then all of Kamasi’s stuff that you hear on The Epic was all done at KSO studios.
R: Ok, so that happened, but you made the decision to rerecord?
CG: Yeah, I decided to rerecord. My dad has a friend that has a really great home studio. It has a really great piano. We went in to this home studio, and I just booked my own ensemble that I wanted to use on that. Obviously Kamasi, because he’s a brother, and then Ryan Porter, who’s another brother. Then, Philip Dizack is a trumpet player that we know from here, he lives in New York now. He’s an amazing, amazing trumpet player. He’s on there. Obviously Hadrien Feraud is another brother from Paris. He’s an alien on bass (laughs), so obviously him, and then Ronald Bruner.
R: Is it Hadrien on the whole thing?
CG: On most of it, except for two songs. “End of Corporatism” and “Isle of Love” is Thundercat. Yeah, just put that ensemble together and did it where – I don’t like to edit and for jazz music, I like to just go in there and see it. I knew that the guys had been playing these tunes forever. For like 5 or 6 years we’ve been playing these tunes. Most of my tunes get a lot of notoriety here because I like to write those like, jazz/metal type songs, I’m really into death metal too, so I infused it with that.
It was cool, we did like one take jakes, man, all the way down. We did like 10 songs in one day.
R: There are only four on this record, so is there another one coming out?
CG: Yeah, there’s a volume 2 that’s coming out. It was fun, and we all had fun. Then we came to the piano bar later on that night. We did the whole the session, recorded all 10 songs. I just went through them, man. One, or two takes at the most. Then we just came and played at the piano bar that same night.
R: The Epic has gotten so much attention, and as you mentioned, the WCGD has a big following here. What kind of effect is that having on the LA scene, and what would like to see more of in the LA music scene?
CG: I think it’s having a big effect on the LA music scene. In the last 5 years, you can tell that people, bar crowds, all the bar crawls around the city – LA, Hollywood, Santa Monica area, the beach area – people are looking for live music. People aren’t really trying to go to the club anymore. I mean, yes, that’s still popular, but I think that people feel that you get more out of live music. You get more of an experience, a feeling. Plus, it’s something that you’re never going to see again; what musicians do on stage, especially the kind of stuff that we do, especially like jazz music. You’re never going to hear that again. That’s the one time you’re ever going to hear that, at that moment. Most of the time it’s something new, something your ears haven’t really heard: a new line, a new phrase, a new groove. All of that adds to the experience for regular patrons and people that come to see music. You can’t get that at a dance club. At a dance club the music is kind of background, I mean you can dance to it, but it’s background and you’re just getting drunk, man. It’s mostly about getting drunk (laughs).
I think that’s having a big influence on the LA music scene because it’s waking it up, it’s waking up that sleeping giant. There’re a lot of musicians here. There’s thousands of singers. You just don’t even know, man. There are singers that are so good. Musicians, too. We haven’t heard a lot about them because the scene is always about the dance clubs. The whole thing with Thundercat and Kamasi’s stuff, it’s waking up the awareness in LA and around the whole country, to that experience. That experience of coming and listening to something that you’re never going to hear again, and it’s something new and fresh.
R: It’s really great that there are so many of you working together because you can take your vision to different places. For example, Kamasi has been traveling all over the place.
CG: We’re trying to take it out from the underground now. Not really take it mainstream, but make it more popular.
R: Would you like to change the popular music scene with the kind of music that you guys are making?
CG: Absolutely. Absolutely. Basically, I personally would like it to be like it was in the 1700’s with classical musicians. A lot of the classical musicians were the celebrities back in the day because they were virtuosos. People would go and see them do something on their instrument that nobody could do. It was like out of this world. Nowadays, especially a lot with the hip-hop culture today, not the original hip-hop culture but the mainstream hip-hop culture, and the pop r&b and the pop, it’s making it so that regular, mediocre people are being turned into artists and celebrities. You can pay to make that happen. That has nothing to do with the talent. Not that some of them aren’t good. Like, Ariana Grande is really good at singing, so I give it to Ariana Grande. Lady Gaga is a really good musician. You wouldn’t really know it until you start digging into her stuff. She’s actually a really great songwriter and piano player. But, you know, a lot of them, I won’t name names, but they’re mediocre, they don’t have any talent, but they’re celebrities. That’s what we have to do, me and Kamasi and Stephen, and when Ronald Bruner comes on the scene, and Miles. That’s what we’re trying to do.
It’s time to shift the paradigm of what we believe to be celebrity. Make it come back to the ones that actually have crazy talent, where we can really inspire people and amaze people with whatever it is that we do. Similar to sports. Sports still has that. The celebrity in sports is not the dude that’s not making any points. The dude that’s the celebrity in sports, you know, Russel Westbrook, Stephen Curry, all these guys are extremely talented, gifted basketball players or football players or whatever, so we’ve got to do the same for music.
R: I wanted to ask about the book that inspired the titles of these compositions. I read a little bit about that.
CG: The book! (laughs) The special book, man. That was a book my cousin introduced me to.
R: What’s it called?
CG: It’s called the Book of Urantia. There’s already a small foundation for that that provides that book online you can just go online and look at it, but that book is amazing. It’s basically a huge, 2,000 page book that was written by – other consciousness. There was a guy back in the 50’s, a psychologist, that was also a medium, and supposedly he was able to talk to some really high level spirits, and they told him information all about the universe and pretty much everything.
As I’m talking about it right now it sounds, like, “Aw man, what is that? This is bullshit.” No. If you read the book, it talks about everything you could imagine, like deities, like God and his relationship to everything. It breaks down the trinity, it talks about the 7 sons; it calls them seven sons, it doesn’t even call them angels. It breaks it all down, all the way down to, you know the bible talks about the 24 elders. The Book of Urantia breaks that all the way down, so you know exactly who they are. Then the planetary princes of all the different planets, of all the different, it calls them universes, it doesn’t call them solar systems or galaxies. It’s crazy. Then it goes into Jesus, too. Every single year of his life. Jesus when he was 7 years old, when he was 8 years old.
So, when you read this book, you’re trying to be skeptical. You’re like, “what is this, man?” But it makes so much sense, and the way that it writes it out, it writes it out completely. It’s hard to refute it. It’s hard to sit there and go, “Well, I don’t understand that, they have to explain that more.” No, man (laughs). You almost have to read it a couple of times to believe it.
That book just really influenced me. It really opened my mind to everything about the universe, everything about this world, about spirituality. I wanted to tell that story through the music, so I gave the tunes titles from that book, to kind of link it, it’s kind of like a story that links with that book. Especially Adam & Eve, which is a very important story in the Book of Urantia. We know about that story from the bible, but wait until you read the story in the Book of Urantia (laughs). It’s not a completely different story, but it’s a more realistic version of how it all really went down.
That’s why I chose the name Planetary Prince, because the planetary prince is a prominent spiritual consciousness of a lot of different planets in a lot of different solar systems in the universe. That’s how far it goes.
That’s the book that did it to me, that opened up my mind. I was at my cousin’s house, my cousin Adam Licsko, who’s an amazing fine artist. He had it sitting in his bookshelf. I was like, “What is this, man? Is this a thesaurus?” He was like, man “you’ve got to check that out. It tells about how stuff really goes down.” It really opened my mind.
Planetary Prince drops June 10th, and, for readers in the Los Angeles area, the CD release show is Thursday, May 26th at the E-Spot lounge in Studio City. You can catch Cameron and a rotating cast of members of the West Coast Get Down playing weekly at the Piano Bar in Hollywood.