By Sarah Richardson
For this month’s edition of HashtagWV, we got to discuss with prolific local saxophonist Birch Graves his most recent musical endeavors, and get the inside scoop on what draws him to his passion: playing and listening to music.
Who are you?
I’m Birch Graves, and I grew up playing and learning music in the area. I started playing saxophone at 9 years old at Union Elementary School. What I had actually wanted to play was trombone, but I didn’t know what it was called. I then played in a tiny band program at Greenville Jr. High School with maybe seven other people, and it was taught by Mrs. Kristi Lovett. I then transferred to Greenbrier East High School to be a part of the fantastic band program led by Jeff Bryant. He has done more for me musically than anyone else, other than my parents.
When I went to college I studied music and fell in with a bunch of like-minded freshmen, and we started a ska band in 1992 called Otis Reem. We really chanced into the timing of playing ska when it had become popular in the US, and had several DIY tours and many adventures. After college we continued to tour, and I kept playing music.
In 2000, I moved back to WV and have been in several bands including Steel Pterodactyl, Vern’s Pot O’ Chili, and the WV Jazz Orchestra. I continued playing saxophone in small jazz groups, but I also play guitar and flute and dabble in piano.
Upon returning to West Virginia, I started teaching in Union where I went to school, at Mountain View. Then I went to the Greenbrier Episcopal School for 14 years where I taught music, band, social studies, and language arts. For the last five years I have been the assistant band director and guitar teacher at Eastern Greenbrier Middle School. It’s great to be able to teach music all day, and I get to work closely with Brian Carr, who is a great educator, musician, and friend, and it’s just a lot of fun.
What would you say draws you to music?
That’s a deep question. For me, several things resonate deeply with me with music. One is quite literal: I am very sensitive to the resonance of sound and I love the sounds of the world. As far as the organization of sound into music, I love listening to all kinds of music and connecting with other people over it and geeking out about it. I love when something happens while we’re performing live, and everybody feels it. It’s a shared experience around music, and I’ve experienced it both while playing and also being in the audience. There can just be a moment when everyone is just swept away, it’s a shared experience. I deeply love it.
Currently I play in an original group called Lawless Brown, which is made up of dear friends and great musicians where we can really be ourselves together and write music together. Neal Jones is a brilliant song writer.
I’m in the WV Jazz Orchestra, which is an honor to play with some of the best jazz cats in the area. I even got to play with Ellis Marsalis in this group! And then there’s a local hip-hop group called Stereophonic. It’s a creative force of mainly three young rappers/singers/producers/multi-instrumentalists who use other musicians to help “flesh out” their sound. It’s so fun to lend my saxophone to what they’re doing.
The Dark Matters, however, is where I’ve recently been pouring much of my time and focus. It began during that strange, liminal time of pandemic quarantine when I was figuring out how to effectively teach kids online, and the world was still reeling from the murder of George Floyd, and no one knew what the future would hold. What I needed was to listen to something with a groove to keep me moving, but that also had depth and soul to it. So I was listening to a lot of 60s soul out of Memphis, and also a station based on The Monophonics, where I was turned on to the Black Pumas, Budos Band, and Silk Sonic, new bands that channel a lot of that old sound. After that I started dreaming of a band that would get people together to dance and sweat and share the air again, and I wanted to create that here. Meaningful songs that make me want to dance. Songs with heft and groove.
What does The Dark Matters play?
I think of it like a DJ digging through crates of records and picking songs, but instead it’s us playing live with a 10-piece band. Almost all of our songs are covers. We are lucky to have two amazing arrangers who can listen to a song and write it out for our instrumentation, and then we can really see what this group of musicians can bring to each song. We don’t try to sound exactly like the original, but we bring the spirit of it in.
Part of it for me is also educational for me as a musician; I have deep respect for these songs and what they’ve brought into the world, and they just do something for me. These songs are so meaningful, so to be able to play Rolling on the River after Tina Turner’s passing, or Lean on Me after the pandemic lockdown, is really fulfilling.
One thing we try to do is to keep with that late 60s sound- we’re not getting into that keyboard synth sound, but more organ, guitar, that funky sound. More organic. I love synthesized music, don’t get me wrong, but one thing that I realized about 60’s soul is that it is a common ground, a place of crossroads and new beginnings. I realize that my love of jazz and afrobeat and chill electronica and hip hop and reggae all owe major dues to soul music. There’s just so much I want to learn there.
Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Play. Play with people. That’s it. I teach music all day, but the main way to learn is directly and personally. It teaches you that you have to keep at it. It’s a slow road before you might get to sounding how you want to sound. You have to sound bad before you can sound good. Chasing what you hear in your head takes grit.
As for their name, The Dark Matters not only originates from Birch’s interest in astronomy and dark matter, but it’s a play on words, underscoring the importance of darkness, silence, and emptiness. As said by Ursula K. LeGuin in her book The Farthest Shore:
Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky
The Dark Matters are a full-on soul band: horns, organ, voices. Heavy riffs from the guitar, a driving bassline, drums that make you leave your seat for the sweat of the dance floor. We are students of the music we all need; digging deep into the record crates to find the melodies that mean something, the grooves that bring us together. Although this sound is rooted in late ’60s Memphis, it is part of a movement of bands that continue to use real instruments to make meaningful music. Check them out online at www.thedarkmatters304.com, and catch them live on July 7 in Marlinton, Pocahontas County, for the Heritage Days Festival from 7-9 p.m., and September 1 from 5 to 7 p.m. at First Fridays in Marlinton.