Being in a band, much like being in a long-term romantic relationship, provides ample opportunity to be surprised by the people you’re partnered with. For example, when Jessa Graves, the main creative force behind frayed-edge post-punk Portland trio J. Graves, was in a local studio working on the 2020 EP Deathbed, she found out that her drummer, Aaron MacDonald, had recently taught himself to speed read.
“The walls of the studio were covered in these paperback sci-fi novels,” Graves remembers, still sounding impressed. “Aaron grabbed a book, thumbed through it, and said, ‘Oh, that was pretty good.’”
The next book MacDonald grabbed and whizzed through helped set the course for the band’s next creative phase. “It was a choose your own adventure book,” says Graves. “After he finished, I looked at him and was like, ‘What if we did a choose your own adventure record? That’d be funny, wouldn’t it?’”
That offhand remark became the core concept behind the release of J. Graves’ new album, Fortress of Fun. The seven-song collection is being released Friday, Sept. 30, in all the traditional ways—vinyl, CD and streaming—but the group also filmed a series of videos for each song on the record that play out an elaborate storyline involving enchanted chainmail and an oceanside adventure. Where the tale goes depends on which link visitors to J. Graves’ website click on.
The more fantastical elements of these videos came via another bandmate revelation. During the pandemic, the trio took a group vacation to the coast that dovetailed with Halloween weekend. Naturally, that included bringing along costumes, which is how Graves and MacDonald learned that the third member of their triad, bassist Kelly Clifton, not only had her own chainmail, but also a broadsword and a huge horse bow.
“She said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m into archery,’” Graves says. “I’m like, ‘Kelly, what?!’ She has this amazing ability to nonchalantly mention something that blows our mind. We were like, ‘How could you casually say that and not understand that it’s the furthest thing from casual?’”
By the following year, the trio was back at the beach, spending two days slipping on the chainmail and wielding medieval weapons when they weren’t miming performances of their songs while ankle deep in the sand.
Lying just below the surface of the buoyant dance punk and the playful videos is a rich vein of anger. Graves wrote the material for Fortress of Fun as she was still reeling from the slow dissolution of a romantic relationship—and, while recording the album, she was processing the end of another.
The jolt of these songs came a little later for Graves as she realized who she was truly pissed off at. “When I started these songs, I thought I was saying them to someone,” she admits, “but, by the end, they’re actually reflected back at me. It’s like I’m accepting this and now I’m angry about it and now I don’t know what the hell is going on inside of me.”
In addition to regular visits to a therapist, Graves has found solace in the support of her bandmates. From the start of their creative partnership, the three have become fast, close friends, thanks to their shared passion for music of all stripes and very compatible senses of humor.
“I can’t count the number of inside jokes we have,” Graves says. “We have something like a twin language. For instance, when we leave a place together or separately, we say ‘Sade’ because Kelly loves Sade and, in a group text, she wrote something to the effect of, ‘Let me know when you get home safe,’ and her phone autocorrected safe to Sade.”
Over the years, the three musicians have only gotten more tightly intertwined in each other’s lives. Graves and Clifton now share a home, and the five-year-plan is for the trio to buy some land together and create a kind of J. Graves commune.
First, the band has to get to work promoting Fortress of Fun. “I think we as humans crave experience,” Graves says. “So here is something that you can experience.”