Quiet Slang - James Alex of Beach Slang on His New Stripped Down Persona

Volume Turned Down, Heart Turned Up

Sep 13, 2018 Photography by Charlie Lowe Web Exclusive
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Through a relentless touring schedule, two flat-out pop-punk LPs, and a generous offering of EPs and mixtapes, Beach Slang and their leader, singer/songwriter James Alex, have become the smiling face of the brighter side of U.S. barroom punk rock. The last couple of years have seen several lineup changes, a multitude of wild, drunken U.S. and European shows and, slowly, a shift for Alex into a slightly different personathat of Quiet Slang, whose debut album, featuring stripped down versions of Beach Slang Songs, Everything Matters But No One Is Listening, is out now on Polyvinyl.

We catch up with Alex at home one morning in Philadelphia just prior to the very first Quiet Slang U.S. tour. "There's hardly time to rest at this point between nerves and prepping so I've been up for hours," he says. Alex is boundlessly energetic, inspireda human firecracker whose warmth just floods down the phone line. It's zero wonder people have been making deep personal connections with his work and that tattoos of his couplets fill inches of skin in the corners of Instagram. His conversation is punctuated with exclamations of enthusiasm and camaraderieyet when the subject turns to literature he's eloquent and thoughtfuleven more so when we discuss profoundly serious matters of mental health and wellbeing.

Quiet Slang, says Alex, stemmed from a love of the work of Stephen Merritt and Magnetic Fields. "I sort of had this idea tucked away for quite a while," he explains. "A very long time ago a bassist in a band I played in turned me on to Magnetic Fields and the first time I heard Stephen Merritt I was just really knocked out. It was so weird and so beautiful and at the end of the day just really well written. Very smart, lyrically, these pop songsbut just delivered with instrumentation that was very foreign to a punk rock kid who was playing along to Ramones records. And I was like, 'How do you do that?' Just quietly, over time I've been trying to figure it out, you know, and get to a place where I could make a record in that spirit."

The moment arrived for Alex following his appearance on NPR's venerable Tiny Desk Concerts series of acoustic shows. "When I did the NPR Tiny Desk thing, which at that point was the most vulnerable thing I've ever done, I mean, my knees were knocking at that thingI was quite nervous. The response from it gave me this gentle nudge like it would be okay if I did something that wasn't just loud and drunk and reckless. I was given permission by people who were connecting with Beach Slang. It gave me a confidence and a green light that I suppose I hadn't had before. This weirdo daydream of this Magnetic Fields/Stephen Merritt kind of thing...I felt like, 'You can do this, go.' And so we did it. I sorta stumbled over it a little bit and then found it."

Fittingly the creative process for this very different Slang record bled into the recording process too. Dave Downham, Alex's longtime engineer, brought in art school friends Keith Goose on piano and cellist Dan Delaney. "They were all music majors, all properly trained and agreed to bash away at it with this guy who doesn't know how to read musicthat being meand we just hit it off famously," Alex enthuses. "Keith and Dan enjoyed loosening their collar a little bit and conversely I really enjoyed learningpizzicato, allesandrothese really technical phrases. I sort of went to music school. We learned things from each other. I think they grabbed a lot of my spirit and I grabbed a lot of their intellect.... It challenged me. I'm incredibly grateful. If I'm lucky enough to make more of these types of records in the future they'll be the folks I call. We came in as strangers and we were hugging when it was over. We really got along."

For a record that sounds so rich and textured it all came together over remarkably few sessions. "It was probably done over the course of six/seven months but within that we only had three or four recording sessions. Maybe four to six hours each session," remembers Alex. "The first time we got into a room, they're just tuning up and I'm sitting there like really, sincerely asking myself how did I get here? It was unreal. I think when we first tried to reframe these songs from loud to quiet there was some stumbling but some things came really naturally like 'Bad Art'first take we were nailing it."

This kind of method came to typify the recording. "After that first session we knocked off the nerves and getting to know each other, learning each other as peopleafter that it just kinda became automatic," says Alex. "I would hum things or say things and Keith or Dan would play the line and it would just immediately be exactly [what I intended]...they just zapped it out of my noggin. It was about as smooth as it could be for three people who just met. It was one of the most rewarding things I'd ever done. It was quite special."

Alex frames it in terms of literature, stating: "It's pretty well documented that the thing I always wanted to be was a writer. So here was a way to reframe these little two-minute pocket novels that I try to do my best to write. Here's a way to do it differently and have the words really carry the weight of these songs."

It's been no secret that Alex's ambitions have always been of the literary kindhis main influence? The divisive Charles Bukowski, who Alex calls "my favorite writer" explaining further, "It's that broken dreamer, romance in the struggle, the gutter and the stars kinda stuff. I really like that. It's raw, and it's coarse and it's vulgar and it's drunk and it's all these outsider things. But if you take a little bit of time and invest in it there's such beauty and optimism and encouragement. It's kept me well for a really long time."

His praise continues, "When I try to write lyrics or even, and it may sound dumb, but even social media posts, I think of, 'What is that...the Bukowski line? That one line that makes it more than just a decent slab of writing. What is that one that gives you that moment?' Of all the things he's done that's the thing I hold onto and try to replicate in my work at least through my voicing."

Yet there are more unusual sources of inspiration for Alex too. "The first person who turned me on to words was Oscar Wildeprobably the first writer I really got knocked out by," he says. "His weird ways of turning phrases, stuff like that. But to be completely honest I fall mostly to poetry[Portland poet and visual artist] Anise Mojgani, I really love. I read less these days because of how much I'm trying to write and I don't want to inadvertently rip anyone off too much."

Happily, this former punk rock kid maintains his passion for the written word. When asked about a novel of his own, Alex replies, "I'd love to do it. It's really a goal of mine. Maybe I could even start to plant a flag after this next record. We're about to make a big leap with Beach Slang. It's that third record momentso I've really tried to pour myself into this thing. Between that and Quiet Slang I've had no time to try to write. It would be a wonderful shift of gear after this record to just go into a place where I just work on words."

So how about that all-important third Beach Slang record? "It's pretty much written," Alex confirms. "I haven't fully home-demoed it but I've got it. If I went to an open mic just me and an acoustic guitar I could play the record. I haven't worked on the guitar overdubs or the harmonies or that good stuff yet but I've got the bones built and that's the hardest part. I'm really jazzed. Right after the Quiet Slang tour it's pretty much straight into the studio."

The Slang have carved their name through unending touring and a barrage of releases over the last couple of years, so how the hell does Alex maintain this burgeoning career and life as a family man? "That's the toughie," he admits. "My wife Rachel, she walks it like she talks it, she supports this thing all the way and that's not just lip service. You know how much I'm gone, I'm gone a lot. There's nothing but love and support and encouragement. I'm luckythat part's luck. With my kids I do the best I can to be all the time present when I'm home. If I worked a normal, whatever that is, day job I would be gone from them every day all year long every year of my life until it was over. So here if I'm gone six months a year on tour, the six months I'm home I'm with them from when they wake up until they go to bed. And that's cool. I get to be that. It's all they know. They know their dad is going away and coming back but also that dad is there all day and we just play all day until I pass out from exhaustion at night. Not many dads get to do that.... Technology helps. I Skype or FaceTime them every day. It's always difficult but technology keeps us a little closer than if it were to be just a payphone call or a mailed letter. We get by."

As we're veering away from the fun side of rock 'n' roll and further into reality it seems time to switch to an even more sobering and serious subject. We discuss the importance, specifically in light of this year's passing of Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchison, of continuing the conversation about mental health in music. How crucial is that? Alex feels that "it's everything." He elucidates further, almost at a loss for words for the first time in our conversation, "What's a word beyond important? I've come up in a way...it's so many friends. It's me personally. I don't talk about that that much because I care so much about the people that surround me. But it goes without saying how important it is. I'm in it, man. I'm in it all the time and taking care of my friends and being there for people I love and being there for people that I haven't been lucky enough to meet in person but that surround Slang and write to me."

Alex considers the ramifications of the question and his particular viewpoint on mental health that allows him something more of an insight than the usual. "I see it on a level that maybe a disconnected suburbanite might notthey just kinda go on with their life and say, 'Well can't you just cheer up?' I see it every day in doing this. I don't even know if I have the words. It means a whole lot for me to stay in this thing and not only write things that help encourage folks to hang on and hang in but to encourage them to talk about it and open up this dialogue.

"Coming up I remember it was achingly taboo," he continues. "My mom even still will close it down if I'm talking about it or it's brought to her about me. There's still this fear. I love my mom dearly but there's still this feeling of embarrassment or failure on her part. To see how far it's come in that waythat folks and kids can talk about this thing and it's not this shunning, scarlet letter you now wear. A hell of a lot of us feel these things and now we get to talk about it. Even if we still feel alone we get to feel alone together. There's something necessary in that."

www.beachslang.com

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Mark
September 13th 2018
2:22pm

Good musician and songwriter.