Gone all summer

By Rich Tupica

Cheap Girls leads the pack of a new breed of Lansing rockers getting national attention

Last month, Ian Graham was preparing for an 18-hour drive to Florida with his band, Cheap Girls. The trip would serve as the first leg of the trio’s three-month national tour, which is now zigzagging its way through the Midwest on its way to Los Angeles. But just hours before the momentous journey’s start, Graham was decidedly relaxed. Which was puzzling, because he hadn’t started getting ready.

“I haven’t even packed yet,” said Graham, 28, the band’s lead vocalist and bassist. “It’ll be fine. I’m just excited to be (on the road).”

Graham’s laidback approach to highway life is hardly a surprise. Since 2009, the road has been the band’s second residence. After gigging locally in a few high school bands, Graham formed Cheap Girls in 2007 along with his brother Ben Graham (drummer) and long-time friend Adam Aymor (guitarist). They’ve released a handful of 7-inch singles, four LPs — including this year’s “Famous Graves,” its most sonically ambitious disc to date —and scored press from Rolling Stone and Spin Magazine.

Graham has lost count of how many American tours the Girls have embarked on (“maybe a couple dozen”), and keeping track of its international roster may also start to get difficult — three trips through Europe and a tour of Australia last fall have kept them busy. Cheap Girls leads a robust Lansing music scene that has seen a surge in local bands also making a play for national stardom (see sidebars).

Graham took some time out from not packing to talk about the Lansing rock scene, how a knee surgery can help in songwriting and why you may catch a random Adam Sandler reference in his music.

How do you like traveling?
I hate driving. I drove to Battle Creek the other day and it was terrible. I used to find some weird peacefulness from riding in the van for long periods, but I get exhausted from long trips. Four hours seems like a breeze, but we have this first 18-hour drive tonight before we’re in Florida for the first show of the tour. I’m very grateful for touring, but there are definitely periods where we could use a break. I don’t like touring for 12 weeks straight. I like it broken up.

Were you impressed with the national coverage the band has received?
My parents think it’s great. I think it definitely helps get a wider audience. It’s like getting a City Pulse cover.

Was there a specific point when you realized Cheap Girls was becoming a real job?
It was when our second record, “My Roaring 20’s,” came out in late 2009. It was the beginning of 2010 when we really started doing more tours. That was when we had to start letting our jobs know that we’d be gone for three or four weeks. We went to England before we even hit the West Coast.

How does the band do on the West Coast? We do really well. The first time we went there was the end of 2009, and people were there to a surprising degree. We’ve been pretty fortunate on the West Coast, but it could also be that we don’t play there as much. There are a lot of states you have to go through, like Ohio, so we play there all of the fucking time.

Where do you stay when you’re on the road?
We do mostly hotels now but it depends if we have friends in the area, people who we’re going to hang out with anyway. We’ll stay at cheaper hotels, but not the really low-budget ones. I kind of like those cheap ones. I think it’s because I’ve read enough shitty novels that really romanticize them, but Ben and Adam just won’t have any part of it.

How do you feel about how your music is classified?
We get the pop punk thing more than I think we deserve. People tend to throw that label on anything that’s poppy and loud. I’ve always preferred power pop, but pop punk is the easy thing to go to.

What influenced “Famous Graves”?
I think a lot of knee surgeries — I’ve had six. But it’s hard to say. The songs (were) written over a year and a half, so it’s (not) really all that focused.

I hear you’re a big film fan. Does that ever influence your music?
It actually does. I predominantly watch shitty, 90-minute comedies. I have borrowed lines from movies in a few songs. They aren’t these poetic lines, either. It’s more of a funny nod to the comedies we watch. All of the sudden there (will be) a “Happy Gilmore” quote out of nowhere. Adam is great at movie quoting.

You’ve said “Famous Graves” had some extra production work in comparison to previous albums?
Like a shitload. The first record was recorded in four 17-hour days in a cabin. The second record was done over a couple weeks on and off. The third one, “Giant Orange,” we had about three weeks of studio time. On “Famous Graves,” we spent 30 full days in the studio. It’s common, especially with rock bands, to just double things to make things full. This doesn’t have as many repeated sounds. There’s different instrumentation. There are more dynamics.

Describe a typical day in the tour van.
It’s pretty mellow. We listen to a lot of music, but we also listen to a lot of stand-up comedy and podcasts because they pass time differently.

What bands are you into?
I’m listening to the new Reigning Sound record. I’m also listening to a lot of our friends’ new records. Against Me! and the Hold Steady both have brilliant new albums.

You’ve been in the Lansing area your entire life.
Does the city reflect in Cheap Girls’ music? Absolutely, but it’s hard to pinpoint. When you spend all of your time in one place it just seeps into the music.

Do you enjoy traveling with other bands?
Yeah. We’ve never been with any bands that are just unbearable. That’s how we’ve made some of our best friends. The guys from Andrew Jackson Jihad are some of our best friends. Their singer, Sean Bonnette, lives in Lansing now and is a part of the stand-up comedy circuit here. But you become friends with the sound guy, your tour manager. It’s really fun when there are like 22 people on a tour and everyone gets along.

What’s your take on the Lansing music scene?
Unfortunately, I haven’t been to as many local shows lately. I don’t go to bars as commonly because I’m at bars a lot on the road. I hang out with my roommates for the most part. I’ve lived with Adam since (about) two months after we started the band.

Ben and his wife recently had a baby. How’s that been?
It’s not slowing us down. A lot of the bands we tour with have kids. I think we’re getting to that age where it’s not really uncommon. I’m glad. I definitely don’t like the idea of the band taking over real life.

Do you think real life will ever break up Cheap Girls?
It would take something pretty catastrophic. I just don’t see how it would break up. I could see it slowing down but I don’t see it collapsing. I think there will be periods where it’s not as active.

What’s some touring advice you’d give to a new local band?
Don’t expect too much in the beginning. Be willing to take as much bad news as good news. Be able to live on very meager means. And it may not work. It’s a high-risk thing, but you might be happily surprised. There will be some shit situations.

[Cheap Girls is on tour through the end of August and is booked for Midwest Fest in Mt. Pleasant Sept. 25.

For full tour info, go to cheapgirls.net.