It’s not many times that you speak with an artist so honest, down-to-earth, and open about their music, let alone wrap up the interview wondering if you’re living your life right. Do I appreciate it enough? Am I being honest enough? Do I let my heart get in the way enough?
Self-proclaimed life-encourager, James Alex is intensely passionate about his craft, life, and the people in it who will get to experience it. That’s where Beach Slang’s debut LP ‘The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us’ comes in.
The Beach Slang frontman and I got to talking about their long-awaited debut, their nostalgic sound, and why it’s okay to wear your heart on your sleeve.
Sean Carlin: Hey James, thanks for taking the time to talk to Northern Transmissions – How’s it going?
James Alex: Great man. It’s been a wonderfully wild day man.
Sean Carlin: I can imagine it has been pretty busy. Your debut drops in less than a week and started streaming on NPR today, right?
James Alex: It did. Correct, yeah.
Sean Carlin: How has it been received so far?
James Alex: Man so far so… you know, beyond perfect. It’s been really sweet – I dunno man I suppose every band says it’s about people who listen to them but it’s like… I’ve been really overwhelmed by notes and things people have been writing to me today. It’s like sometimes you’re so inside your little head making these things that you never think about what it’s going to mean once they leave you, you know? And it’s been really cool to sort of find out what it’s meaning to people. Yeah man, it’s incredible. I’m not so interested in making money but these things are really incredible little paydays.
Sean Carlin: So it’s felt like the success has come so fast?
James Alex: Yeah, it’s weird man. It’s a real weirdo trip. Yeah it’s absolutely been almost overwhelming at times, right? But it’s been so much damn fun that it’s just like holding on and just trying to have a good time for as short or as long as it lasts. Hopefully it’ll hang around for a while.
Sean Carlin: I don’t want to take too much of your time, but I wanted to sense of – you know, you have your two EPs under your belt and a deal with Polyvinyl, you’re set to release your debut album, can you tell me a bit about the origins and how you got to where you are now?
James Alex: Yeah man, well we just started it was like we grew up in the Philadelphia scene together, we sort of knew each other from a distance right? Our drummer being the one guy who knew everyone so he just acted as a rock-and-roll cupid or whatever. He knew me from other stuff that I was doing, and he phoned me up one day and he was just like, “Look man I know you’re writing new songs and you should let people hear what you’re doing” and I was like, “Sure!” I had sort of been alone enough at that point where I was like better to face it, we got in a room and played the thing and I remember right up to the first song we looked at each other and we’re like, “okay, maybe this isn’t just going to be a recording project”. It felt really, really right, right away. So yeah, we went in and we recorded that first EP and then our friend Mike who runs a small label in Long Island, Dead Broke, was just like, “Man, I’d love to put this out”. And it was just that easy. We recorded some songs and a friend that we really love wanted to put it out so we were just like yeah, that’s really easy. And then that thing kinda caught on a little bit and then Tiny Engines emailed us about putting out the second EP and that did okay, you know? And then Polyvinyl same deal, man just wrote an email about being interested in the band and we just started talking on the phone. Man, they just felt really, really right to me, you know? They came up sort of the same way I did, right? Just making ‘zines and putting on hall shows and doing the whole deal. I just felt like they really, really understood what Beach Slang was about.
Sean Carlin: Yeah, I find it’s almost like a perfect fit.
James Alex: Yeah man, without a doubt and to date, you know? We’ve been working with them, I mean we recorded in June right? It’s really been…it feels effortless working with them. You hear horror stories when you start to make it to labels that are a little bigger, right? Polyvinyl definitely proves that, that doesn’t have to be the case. You can run a really successful record label and be a really sweet, ethical person, you know? It’s been fantastic man, we absolutely made the right decision, for sure.
Sean Carlin: It seems like everyone in music scene, or at least the punk or indie scene, has been waiting for the release of your debut, does it feel like a relief to finally be getting it out there soon?
James Alex: It does man, on two levels. Like I said we recorded in June, so it’s like you make this thing and like every band you’re proud of the thing you just made and it’s like you gotta sit on it for four months or four and half months, whatever it was, and you’re just like sort of bubbling over inside, right? At that point, it’s like fly or fail, you just want to put this thing out and have that relief. And then the second part of relief has sort of been like well now it’s streaming and it’s sort of out there, people don’t hate. There’s some real comfort in that. You never know how things are going to go. Rock and roll has not formula to it right? It’s all just effort and luck. On both levels I just feel a real sense of relief. It struck perfectly on both of those.
Sean Carlin: Can you tell me a little about how you came across the title for the album? It’s definitely one that has a lot of weight to it.
James Alex: Right on man. You try to come up with things that… It’s really a weirdo thing titling a record because it’s like when titling a song, you’re writing to these sort of smaller moments. When you title the record it’s like well now you need to encompass this entire record in one thing. So yeah, there should be weight to that. So I remember I was talking with my friend, Vanessa one day and she sort of dropped some phrasing in that world. We were getting heavy and you know, drinking and doing the philosophical thing that you typically do when you’re feeling good and we sort of started exploring that world and she sort of drops this thing and I’m like “Man, there’s something to that”. And then I was in Montreal when we were on tour and across from the venue we just went into this local pub where it was just like a bunch of seemingly disconnected people and it just had this sense of all of us are sort of in the same place. We all go through life looking for those people and those places where we don’t feel so alone. I took a took a little cocktail napkin and it was really just the sharpening of that conversation Vanessa and I had. That phrase just sort of came out and wrote it down and I remember putting that in my pocket and being like, “that is going to be the name of the LP.” That was in like 2014, like September of 2014 and I just knew I wanted to call the first full length that. It just was right.
Sean Carlin: So what inspirations did you draw on for you LP and how did they affect it sonically?
James Alex: We really think about recording as really well miced live recordings. It’s like we go into a room, we set up, we plug in, we play, right? Of course we add! Obviously there’s overdub, all that kind of stuff. But like at it’s core, it’s just us in a room, just like as if it’s a show, just feeding off of each other, and doing the thing we do, right? So sonically man, it was really sort of built in the same way. We did have the luxury of time a little bit. I try to limit guitar tones to a record to about six or so, because, you know, we’re not trying to be a prog rock band. But we were able to take time on getting those sort of signature tones. We were really like I don’t know if that’s right, let’s tweak this, let’s do that. When we did the first two EPs, we really had to bash those records out in a day. So we sort of had that from a sonic luxury, able to dial those things up, and take our time a little bit more with those things. You know, we’ve only had eight songs up to this point. I write in that world of sort of disenfranchised oddballs. I can’t finish that writing in eight songs you know? I’m still in that place. It’s that whole Bukowski thing. Your life is your life, know it while you have it. It really is all that, and I’m really just a life encourager. Those themes are still bouncing around from the first two EPs. I’m just trying to complete that story before I figure out, well what’s the next thing I write about. The records really are honest reflections of how I’m feeling at the time and I’m still in that headspace you know?
Sean Carlin: Sonically the album’s got a certain sense of nostalgia, most notably on “Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas”, what bands would you say helped you develop your sound?
James Alex: Yeah man, most of the bands that I dig on and certainly inspire me are definitely back in the day. I really dialed up a lot more of like sort of shoegaze and almost new wave stuff I listen to a lot. Like the Replacement stuff, and the Jawbreaker stuff, that’s always going to be inherent to how I write because I just adore those bands to pieces, right? I definitely turned up the dials on the Psychedelic Furs, or like Jesus and Mary Chain or Chapter House, you know? I really went for those kinds of things. I read this interview with Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields once and he said there’s only two times of music that matter – pop and avant-guard. I think specifically with this single it was like, it’s really just a loud, pop song you know. You think like, “Just Like Honey” by Jesus and Mary Chain and it’s like you hear it with the really fuzzed out guitars and wildly reverbed vocals and stuff and then I remember one night I was just like digging on some things, and they did an acoustic version of that and I was like, “Man, that’s the deal right there, because that thing sounded just as beautiful with none of the effects” and it was like man I wanna do something like that where, it felt like a really great sort of litmus test about whether or not a song has real guts to it, you know? If it can hold up in both of those ways, you know? Yeah I definitely popped in the shoegaze and new wave a little bit, just wanted to sort of evolve. I didn’t want to get that like, oh yeah man, he tries to write like the Replacements, I didn’t want to become like a one note guy.
Sean Carlin: Yeah and I read in numerous places your LP is been hailed as one of the most anticipated records of the year. Back when you were young or just starting out as a musician, what was one of your most anticipated records of the year, and how has it influenced you and your sound today?
James Alex: Oh man, I would say I could easily snap into that man. I remember when Dear You was gonna come out and there was all this speculation. It was like they got the big record deal, they got the this and the that. I couldn’t wait to hear that record and when that record came out man I don’t remember when I stopped listening to it, right? And I mean continuously. Like I gnarled that record. I just listened to it inside and out, diagonally, you name it I did it. I remember I really, really could not wait until that record came out. That’s definitely the one that springs to mind first for sure.
Sean Carlin: I wanted to switch gears and talk about how you generally approach a track? Is it more important to lay down a good hook or get your message across lyrically, so to speak?
James Alex: Look man, I’ll sort of dive into it. I read this interview with Charles Thompson – Black Francis and he said what I do is I picked up my guitar and I sort of just scream out sounds until I have, what he called, ‘an eargasm’. And I saw and I was like “ah man, I’m not alone in my approach,” like that’s really what I do. I’ll pick up my guitar and I’m kinda doing this thing and at that point I typically try to find those vowel sounds first because, you know, I came up on…my mom was a big Beatles and Beach Boys head so I’ve been around that kind of pop music my whole life so I suppose like that sort of simple catchy melody stuff is really big to me, and it’s important, right? Because it’s like even if I painstakingly write words that are like, “Wow man I did alright with these words,” it’s like if there’s not a melody or anything there to grab people in, I’m not so sure they’ll ever even get deep enough to care about what I’m saying, you know? So man, I guess I suppose it sounds political in it’s answer but I really try to marry the two. They’re both pretty equally weighted. It’s like once I get that sort of melody stuff down I would say then I’m the most excited in the process because then I get to like… now it’s about writing. I wanted to be a writer before I ever picked up a guitar, so words are just big, gigantic important things for me, man. I love, love, love that part of it. But they’re both equally important in the way that the melody and the hooks, I suppose are the things that get people through the doors to even care about what I’m saying.
Sean Carlin: How has Philly influenced your sound and developed your place in the punk or indie music scene?
James Alex: Well Philly’s great on two levels man. One is there’s like…Look man if I can speak poetically here for a minute there’s just a romantic grit to that city. It’s just blue collar, hard-working, you know, you’ll be in your practice space for hours and hours and hours, sweating it out and nobody sees that as… it’s normal, right? That’s what you do as a hard working city. Secondly, there’s just such a thing happening there, so many of our friends are just putting out amazing records that you don’t have the luxury of like phoning it in right? Because you know man, who wants to be the weak link in the chain? I think we’re doing – as a city, and as a scene – this really beautiful thing where we’re driving each other past where we thought we could go and I think everybody is making better art because of it. Those are the biggies for me now for how Philly is sort of pushing everyone.
Sean Carlin: Just a few more questions to get back to the LP and finish off the interview. You spoke a bit about the title of the record being all encompassing, but what song on the record would you say defines the album as a whole?
James Alex: Wow man, that’s a great question. Well look man, I just did a thing where somebody asked me my favourite song on the record and I was like, “It’s a ten-way tie man, because I mean all of these things with equal weight.” I can say to you the lyrics I think, it’s like on the last song, it’s why it’s sequenced last and the last thing I say on the record is “I blur all this hurt into sound.” I think that’s where I struck a really nice chord lyrically. It would be hard to pick a song, right? Because it’s like they’re all my babies, but I felt like a did a thing with that and I remember when I gave an early advanced copy to someone at a magazine or something and that fellow tweeted super shortly after that and was like “I blur all this hurt into sound. Okay I’m getting a Beach Slang tattoo”. I was like okay, there is something to that line. Yeah I can pick that line, I don’t know that I could pick a song, man. I’m going with that ten-way tie answer because it feels the most honest.
Sean Carlin: Finally, What did you take out of the process of writing and recording this record? What do you hope people take out of the album?
James Alex: Hmmm. Well I mean look, I took out of it that rock and roll is still saving my life. Rock and roll to me is holy, man. It’s been the thing that I’ve had when I’ve had nothing else, when I had no one else. I’m not trying to sound like a little indie-rock film here but that’s all really true to me, man. It’s been very good to me. And to circle back… what people get out of it…this is life, man, it’s happening. Do it all the way, wear your heart on your sleeve, participate man, just be in it. It’s that whole thing. It’s that whole Bukowski thing about “live your life so well that death will tremble to take us.” I dig that, you know? I dig that! I suppose that’s the take-away.
Sean Carlin: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us and best of luck with the release!
James Alex: Thanks so much, man and thank you for your time, it was a real pleasure to talk with you, man