It’s pouring rain on National Doughnut Day, and it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed.
Aaron Graves, 33, leader of the locally beloved indie pop band Those Lavender Whales and a pillar of Columbia’s music scene, died two days earlier, on Wednesday, June 5. His love for doughnuts was well-known — so much so that an adorable cartoon of Graves with a frosted, round and hole-y head appears on the cover of Tidings From Our Light Purple Gam, the compilation album rallied to support him and his family when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2014.
The fried treats — circular, sweet, comforting — were a fitting favorite for Graves, who will be remembered not just for his eloquent and earnest songs, but for helping Columbia musicians and fans embrace the idea of community.
“People gravitated towards him just because he was just so genuine,” says Jessica Bornick, Graves’ wife and the Whales’ drummer. “And you could just tell that he had such a good heart. And when he shook your hand, he always brought his left hand in and shook people’s hands with both of his hands. And that was something that I always thought was so caring.”
Sitting down in a doughnut shop to pay tribute to their late friend, Jordan Blackmon and Chris Gardner, with whom Graves co-founded the local imprint Fork & Spoon Records, bring up another example of his ethos. When playing around the time of the Whales’ 2012 album Tomahawk of Praise, the band would close with the title track. At the sides of the stage were big, plush hands attached to sheets, which friends would roll out.
“It would wrap around the whole crowd, hugging everybody in the venue,” reflects Gardner, who played with Graves. “It was good symbolism.”
Indeed it was. Since our first meeting in 2014, Graves almost always greeted me with a hug, a rare gesture between a musician and a critic tasked with appraising his work.
For more than a decade, Graves and the Whales made music that pushed past the anxieties of life with love and friendship — “Sometimes I just want to go outside / Sometimes I just have to close my eyes / Sometimes I just like to feel the wind blow / Mostly I just want to see my friends grow,” he sings on one particularly impassioned anthem.
Starting in 2010, he and his Fork & Spoon partners helped usher in some of the area’s most remarkable acts — such as The Heist & The Accomplice, whose Chaz Bear would go on to indie stardom with Toro Y Moi. But the community potluck dinners Graves and his friend group regularly hosted are more emblematic of his impact on the community.
“I didn’t feel like I was ever in the cool group in Columbia, for a long time,” offers David Stringer, who runs the Columbia-based Palmetto State music blog SceneSC. “When I got invited to a Potluck early on, I guess, when they first started doing them, I felt like I was going to be out of my element around all these pretentious music people. And then I went, and I was like, ‘Not only are they incredible musicians, but Aaron and this crew are also the nicest people I’ve ever been around.’”
Stringer also recounts how Graves stood up for him when another prominent musician tried to bully him about his work with SceneSC. He was, in seemingly every interaction, as loyal and supportive as his songs would suggest.
“He set the bar. He was the example,” Stringer says. “He was who I looked up to in the music scene. I wanted to be more like him. I wanted to be kinder to people, more loving, more gracious, more accepting.”
When Graves got sick, his community matched his example. Five Points’ since-closed El Burrito quickly rallied a weekly “Aaron’s Lunchbox” special for his benefit, pairing its regular fare with a doughnut and a rotating prize donated by artists both local and national. Bluetile Skateshop screened special T-shirts. Two benefit compilations, Tidings (which included the likes of Toro Y Moi and Of Montreal) and mostly i just want to see my friends grow (which collected 28 covers of the songwriter’s material), were rallied.
“I thought that was the prime example of what he had been cultivating for so long,” Blackmon offers. “It was great to see it happen in return. But I think, now more than ever, everybody needs to prove that that still exists — picking each other up, keeping his memory as well-lit as possible, and also making sure his family receives the same support that they received in 2014.”
Graves did not bend to his illness. He and the Whales rallied an album, 2017’s My Bones Are Singing, testing their trademark optimism against the existential weight of his cancer — “I know that when my body passes on my spirit will perceive these things I’m not yet meant to see,” he sings with soft conviction at the album’s end, “And that all of these things that I’m in love with, one by one, will peel away, and then be taken off of me.”
After treatment, Graves enjoyed two and a half years during which his tumor was no longer an immediate threat. He didn’t waste them, spending time with his family — Bornick and their children, Elvie (9) and Julien (8 months) — and continuing to make music, recording a forthcoming album as Pears for Bears with Lunch Money’s Molly Ledford and enough new Whales songs for an eventual EP.
“There definitely were times where he would feel the weight,” Gardner reflects. “But just having that persevering personality and spirit, that was his thing. It’s always trying to pull yourself and pull other people up, even when those darker times happen, never succumbing to it, always trying to push through and help. He never let go of that fighting spirit.”
Graves’ tumor began to threaten him again about a year and a half ago, eventually leading to his death. As word got out on Thursday, an immense outpouring of loving social media posts followed. A GoFundMe page to support his family has already raised more than $34,000 toward its $50,000 goal. For Bornick, it’s affirmation of Graves’ impact.
“There’s people I don’t really know sending me photos and reaching out to me,” she says. “He just affected so many people.”