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Self Made

The Ryan Graveface Story

By Andrew Gatti

There is something to be said about entrepreneurship. It is one of the more elusive American dreams. If it were easy, everyone would do it. It provides fulfillment, autonomy, confidence, and financial independence. You have a passion, and you put in the work to develop it; you decipher a way to monetize it. You commit to it, invest in it, market it, and ultimately scale it. This is the story of Ryan Graveface, an intrinsically interwoven figure in modern-day Savannah.

About a year back, I explored near the east end of the river by Emmet Park when I found my way into the Graveface Museum. It was housed in an old brick riverfront warehouse tucked under one of those iron bridges that extend over Factor’s walk. There were tables set up with boxes of records and CDs lining them, which piqued my interest enough to pull me inside. While exploring the museum, I ended up chatting with what turned out to be owner Ryan Graveface.

Fast forward a bit, in the Starland District for the first time, I saw a familiar name on West 40th street, the Graveface Records store. Inside are rows of vinyl records to peruse, but there’s also an array of 80’s themed goods and some on-brand creepy stuff filling the store. When I interviewed Basically Nancy for Oak’s last issue, his name came up again. They mentioned that Graveface was their record label and that Ryan was co-producing their debut LP with Kevin Rose. I wanted to learn more, so I reached out.

Ryan Graveface was born in Toledo, Ohio. Before moving to Savannah, he lived in Monroe, Michigan, Salamanca, Spain, and Chicago. He is a multi-instrumentalist touring musician who has actively performed and recorded for 21 years. He owns and operates an indie record label, a horror film/music record label, a record and curiosities store, a museum for macabre oddities, a rotating pop-up storefront, and an events space, among other projects.

Graveface the Recording Label is 20 years old as of 2022. It is independent and focuses on breaking undiscovered bands, developing exposure for early-career artists, and building on the continued success of its growing stable of musicians and bands. While in Chicago, it grew from a CDR (unofficial) to a legitimate independent vinyl label. A label is essentially a brand identity that handles the production and distribution of physical recordings by the musicians they sign and their signed musicians’ marketing and copyright protection.

It began when he reached out to Christian Savill, the guitarist of the band Slowdive (which had been broken up for a few years at the time). Savill was starting a new project called Monster Movie, and Ryan shared that he was launching his label officially and asked if they would be interested in his initial release. “For some insane reason, he (Savill) said yes, and to this day, I have no idea why he would say yes like I had no track record and no reason for him to take a chance on me, but that launched the label legitimately.” The result was a 2002 released split EP called Preface with songs by Monster Movie and Dreamend (a Ryan Graveface project). In 2005, Graveface released the CD/LP Lost Picking Flowers in the Woods by Black Moth Super Rainbow (BMSR). In 2007, the Flaming Lips asked BMSR to open for them, and Tobacco (Thomas J. Fec, the frontman of BMSR) asked Ryan to join the group for that tour.

Ryan had contracted a distributor for the Graveface label in Chicago. There was a flood in the distributor’s storage facility, and the label’s entire stock was lost. Despite the contract the two parties signed signifying otherwise due to the lack of insurance on the distributor’s part, there was no recourse for the damages. Ryan entered into a lengthy legal battle where the distributor ultimately filed for bankruptcy. Ryan came away from the lawsuit with nothing to show but legal fees.

In 2010, Ryan moved to Savannah. It was an “incredibly depressing fresh start,” he said with jest. Before moving, his label had already released 61 records, so the priority was to repopulate the catalog’s stock. He asked his fans for fundraising support, as well as reaching out to a few people he knew in the music industry, such as Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips and Mike Watt of the Minutemen, to spread the word to their fanbases to ask for help to restart the label, basically from scratch.

The rebirth happened in a brick and mortar on E. Park and Habersham, a six-bedroom house called “The Witch Hat House.” In addition to the Graveface Label, it became a storefront called the Mary Cogswell Preservation Society, and it was the first iteration of the Graveface Records and Curiosities store. In addition to records, the store sold taxidermy, 80’s toys, and odds & ends. The storefront made more sense in a less residential part of town, so he traded in the E. Park street house for a commercial space in the Starland Neighborhood.

“A couple of years later, the store was doing well, l and the label was growing. When the corner space next door became available, Ryan snagged a lease and moved the label over. In 2014, the label outgrew that space, so he moved it down to the Southside to expand. Concurrently, he launched a new label called Terror Vision which focuses on obscure horror soundtracks and reproduction of blu-rays, VHS, and visual media in addition to audio content.

The corner shop became a concept space that rotates annually. Initially, it was the Graveface Annex, where Ryan showcased his collection of oddities and rented out VHS Horror films. It was a big hit, but he wanted to stick to the annual rotation. Around that time, a record store in Charleston was going out of business, so Ryan took over their lease and opened a satellite location on King’s street for seven months. He packed up the Annex and brought it all to Charleston. The corner lot became the Graveface Basement, where the theme was things you might literally find in a basement, like dollar records or obscure media, “thrift store grade or just weird shit,” as he put it.

The Charleston location took off, but the landlord hiked the rent exorbitantly, and that venture concluded. Encouraged by the success, though, he wanted to see if he could find a spot in downtown Savannah to continue showing his collection of oddities.

Ryan found the warehouse on factor’s walk, packed the Charleston shop up into a Uhaul, and drove it back to Savannah to launch the Graveface Museum. The museum houses harrowing subject matter in thematically curated rooms. There are spaces and objects associated with the macabre, aliens, voodoo, occultism, secret societies, and a room full of pinball and arcade games on the main floor.

The upstairs is dedicated to objects related to serial killers and cults. Ryan has the most extensive collection of original art by John Wayne Gacy on display here. He mentioned he is working on a Gacy documentary, which he expects to release in March. Ryan told me he was in touch with Gacy’s sister semi-regularly the first time we met. I inquired how that relationship began, and he said when he first reached out to her, “she told me to ‘go fuck myself,’ but, over like an 18-year span… I'm like a bad jingle; I get stuck in your head. I don’t disrespect these things, [or the individuals associated] and I grew on her that way.”

“The only reason this exists is because I had too much stuff, and I figured out a way to monetize it in a responsible, semi-educational, and/or thrilling way.” I brought up how often when people monetize hobbies, it can suck the fun out of them, and he responded that the museum just provides for itself and that he hasn’t taken a penny out of it; all the money that is made in the museum pays for acquisitions of further collections, and that he doesn’t intend to use it as an income stream. “I just see the value in acquiring more and more, these things, mainly speaking, there’s [only] one of them, so if a collection comes up, of course, I’m going to buy it.

The museum is anticipating a few large collection bequests, so chances are there will be new exhibits sometime in the near future. Ryan said he has enough in storage already to fill two more museums, and that’s a long-term goal. Down the line, he wants to open a second location, possibly back in Chicago, or more likely in Charleston or St. Augustine due to their proximity.

I asked what was next, and he told me he was really happy with the museum, the shop, and the pop-up space. The Graveface label is doing great, and Terror Vision is expanding rapidly. The annex went through another transformation from the basement to an arcade, and it will soon become a dedicated Terror Vision storefront. The Lodge of Sorrows is Graveface’s Event Space located on the west side of downtown. It’s relatively new, but they’ve already held five events. It’s a space for music, film, and other on-brand types of events. He said he plans to do record fairs or zine-fests, etc. He already has a bunch of events booked for next year.

In addition to literally everything else, Ryan is part of five bands that are at least semi-active; Dreamend, Marshmallow Ghosts, Beachy Head, Monster Movie, and Casket Girls. I asked what his favorite new band/musician to check out is, and his response: “I would go Basically Nancy all the way for favorite new band” (which he acknowledged might be a “trite answer” since he knows I just wrote about them recently.)

All of that doesn’t appear to be enough to satiate his appetite to grow as a professional and a motivated creator. “I always feel like I could be doing more. Like I don’t allow myself to [relax] and try to avoid the simple luxuries and creature comforts that can lead to becoming complacent. I’m healthy as can be, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”

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