Life of the funeral
Former Bone Grueler Johnny Von Graves steers The Nerve into uncharted waters
“Want to throw knives?” replied the striking figure that calls himself Johnny Von Graves, Esquire-Oh-Yeah when I asked what the wooden, guillotine-shaped contraption set up in the middle of his sparse backyard was used for. “My friends and I practice throwing knives at it.”
And those aren’t the only sharp objects The Nerve frontman can wield with confidence. He has competed in fencing contests and his former Chico band, Bone Gruel, confronted uncomfortable Chico audiences with sordid rock shows complete with nuns in garter belts whipping each other, a giant alien and a guitarist dressed as Jesus Christ.
One Chico rock critic claimed Bone Gruel as “god-fucking awful” in the CN&R in 1994. The press clippings of this review and more are saved in a large scrapbook Von Graves keeps, among the countless fliers and full-color posters. Bone Gruel went through several incarnations playing Chico venues such as the Blue Room, The Lava Lounge and Juanita’s before finally disbanding in 2004. When the band broke up Von Graves felt a temporary lack of motivation, describing how he felt: “Totally burned out and frustrated,” he said. “It was like a dream that never came true.”
Von Graves’ long, golden hair hangs straight down his back, and he wears all black except for a pirate flag symbol designed as smoke on his T-shirt. He looks as though a cane and top hat would appear quite naturally on him. Rumor has it that he often dresses as a pirate, and I did spot some very swashbuckling boots at rest by the back door.
Von Graves rises eagerly to show me his collection—old model ships, a ship’s bell, skulls and a wedding picture of Von Graves with his bride, Lady Sakina, adorn his mantel. The wedding was designed pirate style—Lady Sakina in a satin and pearl gown with a bodice, and Von Graves dressed in a 1972 Three Musketeers costume. He opens a wooden chest to show me his authentic pirate flags. His knowledge of former sea captains is replete with history of customs and points of interest.
Most of the rooms in the Von Graves house are dedicated to their individual interests. There is the dance studio, sewing and swords room, and the living room, which is where his newest band, The Nerve, practices. Von Graves started the project in 2005, with him playing keyboards and samples accompanied by his long-time friend and “percussive artist,” PLay (yes, spelled just like that).
“We came up with our own genre, ‘funeral rock,’ music you could carry a casket to,” Von Graves said.
He wouldn’t want to play at an actual funeral though.
“What I’m doing has a slight sense of humor to it,” he explained. “If I did [play a funeral] I wouldn’t put lyrics to it.”
A fan of rockabilly and surf as well as gothic themes, Von Graves decided to switch from bass to keyboards, where he could control the sound of the band with one instrument.
And although he prefers to be the master of his own ship, he acknowledges that any of his previous aspirations to tour outside of Chico are quelled by his full-time career managing two restaurants, and the recent purchase of a house. He describes his attachment to living in Chico as from a story from The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem of the adventures of Ulysses.
“You know how some people say that you always come back to Chico? Sometimes I think there is something that keeps you here,” he said.
In one story of the Odyssey, the men come upon a Land of the Lotus and become intoxicated by eating the flowers, the effect of which makes them lose all desire to return to their land of origin.
“They all forget where they were going and what they were doing,” he said. “I think Chico is a Land of the Lotus and people just forget.”