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Musician, skater, doughnut fan: Aaron Graves was Columbia scene’s best friend

Aaron Graves poses for a portrait in Columbia, SC on September 6, 2016. Graves recently passed away after a battle with cancer.
Aaron Graves poses for a portrait in Columbia, SC on September 6, 2016. Graves recently passed away after a battle with cancer.

Editor’s note: David Travis Bland, a reporter for The State, grew up in the same Northeast Columbia neighborhood as Daniel “Aaron” Graves, Jr. They became friends and were part of Columbia’s music scene. Graves, 33, died Wednesday after a battle with cancer.

Aaron Graves could do a 540 flip. He could ollie over the benches outside Summit Parkway Middle School. These were the first stories I heard about the dude who lived not far away from me in Northeast Columbia. When I was 13, Aaron’s rumored skateboard skills propelled him to the mythical status that only the most talented and coolest older kids ever rose to in my young-teenage-boy mind. Though I had yet to see him, I wanted to be like Aaron.

Aaron rolled away on a celestial skateboard and off this plane of existence Wednesday, his body finally succumbing to cancer. But that fact doesn’t mean I’ll quit trying to find him in my reflection.

Aaron was known in Columbia as a musician, record label founder and skateboarder. If you went to any of the festivals or events in Columbia that featured music, you were likely privileged to hear Aaron’s songwriting.

At the time he was shredding Northeast Columbia, around 1999 and the early 2000s, I thought striving to be like Aaron meant reaching his level on the skateboard. Over the next decade and a half, he became an idol for just about everything a school aged fellow and young man is wont to do.

I wanted to play an instrument. Aaron was said to be the best drummer around. I wanted to start a band. Aaron’s pop punk band was the raddest, I heard. A burned CD with the group’s name, Bat Channel, scrawled in permanent marker is still safety tucked away on my shelf with other collectibles of Columbia’s past. When it came time for me — a rat voiced, tuneless would-be punk rocker — to show my friends and a handful of strangers what I and an equally talentless bunch had musically frankensteined together, I decided we would wow our audience by stealing a number from Aaron’s next band.

Those Lavender Whales
Aaron Graves plays guitar and sings with his band, Those Lavender Whales, at the New Brookland Tavern in West Columbia on May 10, 2014. Sean Rayford

At 16, I made my first trek in my own car through downtown Columbia with a couple friends. We crossed the river into West Columbia heading to State Street — what we thought of as the Music Row of the area. It had two venues, and one was a smoothie cafe known as the Lettuce Lounge. There I witnessed Aaron and his band — the instrumental, keytar-led No Way Jose! — thrash out a rendition of Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed be thy Name.” My emotions were a mix of mosh pit enthusiasm and jealousy. I had to slay like Aaron’s band.

I straight up stole the idea of a “Hallowed be thy Name” instrumental for my first ever show with a band. Our version definitely lacked something that Aaron’s band had, mainly an ability to play our instrumentals properly.

When it came time for college, I visited a school in Nashville and one of my first thoughts was: Aaron studied record engineering in Music City. In the following years, I asked Aaron for advice on recording. I asked to borrow his gear. I asked him to play drums and record with me. He was too nice a person to say ‘no’ even if he wanted to.

No Way Jose! and his solo-project-turned-band, Those Lavender Whales, cemented Aaron as a distinct songwriter in South Carolina and the Southeast. Sharing his musical gifts, Aaron cast a permanent rainbow over Columbia’s music scene.

Lead singer of Those Lavender Whales, Aaron Graves, passed away on June 5, 2019 after a battling cancer. This music video features the band's song "Growth Question."

Two of Those Lavender Whale’s albums, Tomahawk of Praise and Aaron’s final release My Bones are Singing, could warm the soul of the coldest witch. Even when dealing with despair in his songs, Aaron made music like a child plays on the playground. The sound of his spirit never wavered.

Aaron also helped amplify other musicians’ work. He helped found Fork & Spoon Records which released albums by locally celebrated and nationally praised artists including Chaz Bear of Toro Y Moi and Coma Cinema. He inspired musicians that took Columbia’s indie scene to massive festivals and renown musical halls for people to sway, dance and be free of troubles. I know one drummer, a good friend, who has played in front of those audiences and he’ll tell you that his love for music and his instrument began with Aaron.

Praise of Aaron’s talents, musical and human, is already spilling out from social media pages as people in Columbia and elsewhere remember him fondly. If you don’t know Aaron, you will learn one thing from every one of those tributes: Aaron was the kindest person.

If Aaron was any kinder he would have burst into a ray of sunshine like the beams in the sky pictures he was known for taking. If he was any sweeter you could roll him in sprinkles and make him into a doughnut, the pastry he most appreciated. You could sip love out of Aaron like one of the heart themed mugs he collected.

Aaron was Columbia’s best friend. He’ll remain so as long as people find his music.

Those Lavender Whales with Aaron in a tree
Aaron Graves, top, climbs a tree during a band photo shoot with wife Jessica Bornick, left, Pat Wall, and Chris Gardner, of Those Lavender Whales in Cayce, SC on Nov 6, 2017. Sean Rayford

Though he had enough love for an entire city, one of those friends was definitely his best — his wife Jessica. The best band Aaron ever had was his family. I don’t know if a more iconic duo has ever existed in Columbia than Aaron and Jessica. Potlucks at their house were some of Columbia’s best parties and will continue to be. They made their band into a trio with their daughter’s birth about 10 years ago. Recently, they decided to bring in another member with the birth of their son.

This isn’t a metaphor. Aaron and Jessica literally had a band. She was the drummer for Those Lavender Whales. In an existence where partner disputes can disrupt so much of the work, Aaron and Jessica’s playing, no matter a missed note here or there, was perfectly in tune.

As adult life set in for us both, I looked to Aaron as an ideal husband and father. With more responsibilities, we were around each other less. But even with that distance between us, Aaron showed me the way for when I marry and have a child: How he always took a gentle touch with his family, how he was the cool dad without the ponytail or arrogance of knowing it, and how his love for Jessica never faded even after countless potlucks.

At one of those potlucks, I admitted to Aaron he was a hero of mine growing up. When I heard he could do a 540 flip and ollie over the benches at school, he became a hero, I said. He was shy about it, laughed, covered his face and then offered me a doughnut from the kitchen.

Aaron and Jessica.JPG
A photo booth in October 2012 captured the quirky-creative side of Aaron Graves, his wife, Jessica, and their daughter Provided by Those Lavender Whales

Aaron lived his music, those tunes filled with innocence, hope and a firm belief that if a person surrounds themselves with people they love, love will grow. You could mine Aaron’s lyrics for enough inspiration and goodwill to fill the Congaree. I remember a time when his music hit me like rushing water, sweeping me up and letting me float like a good song does.

Those Lavender Whales were playing in West Columbia. I walked into the space and a wave of guitars and drums hit me. Harmonies cascaded through the instrumentation. But the crash of music couldn’t overwhelm Aaron’s acoustic strumming and soft voice.

After the show, I asked Jessica and Aaron what the song was. They said it was called “Mountain.”

I went home and listened to the song.

“Do you think that we can / conquer this mountain on our own?” Aaron sings. “Not without a good plan / and some friends for us to count on / And let’s just think about / the things that we can do / to make things better.”

The last words he sings — “So much joy we can find / through the pain that we must endure / Just pour over my mind / empty out what I think I know / Then feel up my insides / with the goodness you overflow.”

I walked in Aaron’s shadow up the mountain we all travel. On the way up he gave me and everyone he knew a hug that we’ll always feel.

A service for Aaron will be held Monday, June 10th at St. Martin’s In-the-Fields Episcopal Church at 5220 Clemson Avenue in Columbia. You can donate to help support Jessica and Aaron’s family through GoFundMe.

Aaron Graves in his home.JPG
Aaron Graves watches his wife, Jessica, and daughter, Elvie, 4, cook dinner in the kitchen. Graves and his wife are local musicians (Those Lavender Whales). Jeff Blake jblake@thestate.com

David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.

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