(Sandy) Alex G: Making Music with the World Looking over His Shoulder Interview | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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(Sandy) Alex G

Making Music with the World Looking over His Shoulder

Jul 05, 2017 (Sandy) Alex G Photography by Tonje Thilesen Bookmark and Share

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If there is a cult of personality around (Sandy) Alex G in certain corners of youth culture, Alex Giannascoli either hasn’t noticed or is just adept at deflecting the notion.

After all, he says, if he could have it his way he would disappear from the conversation entirely, leaving his music to do the talking. The anonymity that evaporated between his start as a prolific bedroom recording artist uploading heaps of songs to Bandcamp and now, with his second album on indie stalwart Domino, hasn’t erased the autonomy and independence self-recording allows. His new record, Rocket, was recorded by Giannascoli on his laptop without label interference. The artistic freedom allows him to follow whatever train of thought strikes him in the moment, from the unexpected country and bluegrass influences on the first half of the record, to the blitzing industrial noise of “Brick.”

We caught up with Giannascoli by phone to talk about his changing relationship with music as he gets older, how it feels to make music when he knows a wider audience than his friends and early Internet followers are listening, and whether he and Frank Ocean still keep in touch.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Ed McMenamin (Under the Radar) :You guys are touring the new record, how does it feel to play the new songs live?

Alex Giannascoli: It feels good now. We were all pretty nervous, I think, before the first show because we were trying to incorporate a keyboard into the set, which we’ve never done before. But the first show went pretty smoothly, and so were feeling pretty good now. I think it helps a lot having a sound guy too, because there’s no gamble when you get there.

Where did the country influences on the album come from, what spurred those ideas?

The country influences I guess…I don’t know, just because we had been listening to a lot of country radio on tour, so it was starting to sound better and better to me, it grew on me. I guess it just came out. When I write stuff I don’t think about it too hard, I just sort of spontaneously follow my train of thought, instead of thinking about it real hard, if you know what I mean. So it’s hard to answer that other than it just sounded good as I was making the song.

Are you still listening to a lot of country radio on the road?

Yeah, but John brought the Bluetooth speaker, so he’s been listing to podcasts and stuff too. We heard this one about fungus yesterday that was pretty cool. But I forget most of it, so I guess it’s not that interesting to talk about.

What did you like about country radio?

I guess that it’s cool that it’s pretty unpretentious, and kind of consistent all over the country. There’s nothing remarkable that I like about it. But once it grows on you, then you can find it pretty much anywhere in the country if you turn on the radio. So that’s kind of comforting or something.

If you like how country radio is not pretentious is that something you think about when you’re making music? What are the self-criticisms that you give yourself?

I definitely worry about that, like if you’re asking if I worry about being too pretentious, I definitely do worry about it. But it’s kind of inevitable that I am being pretentious, just because that’s the nature of writing music. So I guess I just want to write something and be pretentious and not get caught.

If you’re being honest or vulnerable in your music can that prevent being pretentious?

Right, but it’s tricky getting older and writing songs that I guess are vulnerable, because I also don’t want to be vulnerable as I’m getting older. I think when I was younger it was easier to write like that because I didn’t really think too hard about it. But now that I’m getting older, I’m like I don’t want to sound vulnerable and be 24-years-old, or something, you know. Because I’m not. Now I’m perfectly capable, you know. I’m in a position where I can fix whatever situation I’m in, or whatever. I don’t know what I’m talking about really, I just know that I’m just trying to sound honest without sounding annoying, or something. I guess that’s my goal.

On Rocket, are you mostly writing autobiographically, or do you write from fictitious character viewpoints?

I guess it’s both. I think I have to draw from my own experience for the sake of being honest. If I want to write something that sounds good I think I have to just be honest. And if I want to be honest I have to draw from my own experience. But then I do think half the time it’s made up, too, just to put a mask over all those things, so it’s not like I’m just writing a diary or something. I take an exchange and work it so it’s its own story. But I have to draw from my own experience if I want to know that I’m being honest.

Is that because you want people to be able to project their own feelings or experiences into a song?

Definitely, yeah so that people can project onto it, and also just to make it more interesting because my experiences aren’t that interesting. But I know how certain experiences make me feel, and then I’ll just try to embellish it or warp it in a way that’s easy for people to relate to.

On the first song you repeat “Now I know everything.” Is that a sarcastic response to fame, or am I missing the point?

I guess, I don’t know, I think there’s no definite…there was no definite meaning in my head. It was just you take it for what it is. The person singing it sounds real fucked up, and the lyrics are about eating poison or whatever, and then you say “Now I know everything,” and I guess it’s just whatever strikes a chord with the person listening. I’ve heard it both ways from people. Some people are like “Oh, yeah, I hear that and I hear that the person sounds fucked up, and they’re stupid and they don’t know everything, but they think they do. And that makes sense.” Or some people are like “You sacrifice a lot to learn a lot, and that makes sense too.” I think my goal was to make a real sketch for that one. There’s no definite meaning or anything.

I saw you play live two years ago, you were one of the opening bands, but it was clear the crowd was there to see you play. People knew your lyrics, they were shouting along. Now that you’re on Domino and have wider exposure, are your shows still like that, or are they diluted by a wider fan base, or is it even better?

I think it changes everywhere. Like, sometimes it’s amazing and it happens in the most random cities we’ll have the most amazing show where everyone is singing and jumping around and stuff. And then other times people just sit and stare. Now we’re on this headlining tour, so for the most part people are coming to see us and they’re always receptive, even if they don’t show it while we’re playing. But the way they act during the show, it changes every time.

You have always self-recorded your albums. Do you still have the freedom to do things the way you want, or has Domino pressured you to go a big-name producer or studio?

Domino is really cool in that they let me do what I want as far as the music, but when I first signed with them, they put out the record Beach Music, which came before this most recent one. When I first signed with them, I was obligated to go get it mixed by a professional mixer instead of mix it myself, which is what I normally did. So I wasn’t looking forward to that because I thought I would be kind of at the mercy of someone who didn’t know what I was going for. But I ended up mixing it with this guy named Jacob Portrait who really listened to everything I had to say. [He] was really respectful and genuinely just wanted to do right by me I think, as well as making it mixed really professionally and stuff but also was really hearing me out and making sure I felt good about it too. That’s the only real requirement with me, other than doing interviews and stuff, but I don’t mind.

With wider fame do you start to see a divide between an “Alex G” persona and who Alex really is? Or is it not the level of fame where you feel like you have a public persona?

I don’t think it about myself, but I’m sure I know there’s kids who like my music and stuff and they probably think I’m smart and have my shit together, and I know that I don’t [laughs]. So I guess that’s a persona, but other than that I try and just stay out of it as much as possible. So in the hopes that I never have that separation because…I’m just hoping there’s not an “Alex G” that exists in people’s minds other than when they think about the music. Which probably is impossible, I guess it’s inevitable that people are going to think about the person making the music, too. And if I could have my way, I wouldn’t be there, it would just be people talking about the music.

Is it weird when you notice fans that are influenced by you or the way your dress?

I haven’t noticed it really but if that is the case that’s really flattering. I guess I notice that kids will come up to me and hand me their demo and go “this was inspired by your music” or something. Because, you know, I record stuff myself so people get inspired by that, I guess. And that’s extremely flattering. But I guess as far as people dressing like me, I haven’t noticed that. That would be really flattering, but I dress like a dumbass so it would be a shame if someone tried to dress like me, they would look stupid as shit.

Do you have close friends or family members that you can go to be away from any sort of echo chamber?

The guys in my band, we all treat each other pretty normally and stuff. We’ve known each other for a while so there’s none of that weirdness if someone thinks they can get something out of me. Is that what you mean? Like if I’m meeting a new person and they’re treating me differently because of my status as a musician?

Yeah, but you’re constantly meeting people that you don’t know what to make of.

It’s probably a good thing to have…like…I do have my guard up when I’m meeting new people. But the people I don’t have my guard up around are my band and my girlfriend.

When you were first making music, putting it up on Bandcamp, did you have any specific ambitions?

There were no specific ambitions. I just put it up to show to my friends and stuff, and get booked on local shows. But most of it was to show to my friends and make something that hopefully people would stumble upon and think “oh, this is cool.” I think there was that fantasy ambition when I put it up, like hopefully some record label will see this and sign me right away. But obviously that wasn’t in the forefront of my brain, because that’s such a farfetched ambition.

Right, if it happens it’s great, but it’s not why I’m doing it?

Yeah exactly, I didn’t consider it a real possibility. But I think for everyone making music it’s always a day dream like “oh, what if I get to make money doing this, that would be awesome.”

Now that you do make a living doing it, has it changed your relationship with music and why you’re doing it?

Yeah, I guess so. I try to not let it change the way I think about it. But I guess I’m also trying to embrace that too. I’m sure it has. But my relationship with music has consistently changed since I started making it, so it’s hard to say if it’s because of my music career or if it’s because of me changing as a person. But me changing as a person is a result of my career, too, obviously. So, yeah, it has changed. But there’s just so many factors that go into why my relationship with music changes.

What’s next? Further down the road, what do you want to happen?

We’ll do this tour, then I think we’ll have some time off and then tour again. Hopefully I can find some time to make another record. I don’t know. I don’t think about it that much, but I want to make another record I guess. I don’t think about it that much, I guess. I just said the same thing twice, but yeah I don’t think about it that much.

I’ve never been good at looking far down the road either, I get it.

Yeah, right, cool.

That’s always my least favorite question during a job interview. But some people are good planners, like those kids in grade school that knew they wanted to be a doctor when they grew up, and I was like “I don’t how you know that.”

Yeah, it probably takes a lot of discipline to be like that, which I don’t have I guess. To be able to make your life choices based on a goal five years down the road.

Have you had any contact with Frank Ocean since you worked with him?

Here and there, like we’re not…we don’t keep in touch super closely or anything. But he’s nice and will text me here and there, a little bit.

Did working with him influence your work?

It influenced me making my own record, I think because I saw how he was collaborating with people, and I thought the way he was doing it was really cool, the way he would just let people play over a track and then not really give them much direction and pick and choose the little pieces of the track that were the best and fit the song most and he would arrange it. And I did that on a couple songs on the new record, like with Sam and John who are in the car now, and I had my brother play a little bit and my girlfriend Molly. She played the violin on a bunch of songs. So the collaboration was pretty inspiring, I guess.

Is that a younger or older brother than played on it?

He’s older.

Was he a musical influence on you, passing down burned CDs and stuff back in the day?

Yeah, he never gave me CDs, my sister gave me a lot of CDs growing up. He had all of the instruments. He bought a guitar; my parents got him a piano and stuff. He was really musically talented, so I was just picking up the stuff he put down.

What kinds of stuff did you sister pass along to you?

I guess it’s the college rock stuff from the late ‘90s, like Modest Mouse, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire, I guess they’re later, and Wilco. All that kind of stuff that was like that underground big stuff.

That era of indie is a thing of the past, and you don’t sound like any of those bands, but you pull a lot of influence from indie rock from the ‘90s and all over the place. Where do you see yourself in the musical landscape, are you a part of a wider group, kind of how you roped a lot of those bands together?

No, I think I’m too ego-centric to think about it like that. To me I’m doing my thing, this is my thing and I don’t think about it attached to other stuff. But you could ask someone else and I’m sure they would be able to group me with a bunch of other people who are making music now, or in the past or whatever. And I’m sure it would make perfect sense. But to me I’m so, you know, I think a lot of musicians are ego-centric. So I’m just thinking of myself in my own bubble, as far as the music I’m making.

Is there music you’ve been lumped in with that makes you go “ew”?

Yeah, well, it’s funny because I feel that way about everything kind of, because I’m pretty insecure about the whole thing, already. Putting my music out there and having it be judged by a whole bunch of people, I’m kind of insecure about all of that, not in an unhealthy way. I mean, I’m fine with it, but it does affect me a lot. But any critical stuff where it’s like “some of this sounds like this, and this sounds like this,” I’m super like “fuck that.” Even if it makes sense, I still can’t react in a non-negative way towards that. Even though I appreciate it all and shit, but I’m still like “oh, fuck no.” Like, don’t compare me to other shit. But it makes sense, but that’s my gut.

Knowing that lots of people are going to hear the music you make now, and that it will be judged and written about, how much does that get into your head when you make a new record?

It’s in there, but I make an active effort to not acknowledge it. I try to not do…I don’t know. I think my main goal, like I said, is to follow my train of thought spontaneously and not let other stuff enter in, but I know that it will enter in. I’m not a robot or something. But I make an effort to avoid it.

I wanted to ask about “Brick,” it’s very different from the rest of the record, where did it come from?

Just kind of the same way I came up with, with the way you asked about the country music stuff. Like, I think I was just playing around on the guitar, playing around with different tunings, and I started playing a riff like that, and then just keep packing on stuff that sounded right. And that was that. I didn’t think super hard about it.

You were initially known for a prolific output of records. That’s slowed in the last few years. You are not putting out a handful of albums every year. Is that deliberate, have you felt strained by touring, or are you more self-editing now, or how would you describe it?

I think it’s what you said, self-editing. When I was younger, I could just churn stuff out because I didn’t really critique myself as much as I do now. And I think that just comes with aging and stuff. But I’m sure that I’m going to keep slowing down because I’m still trying to write just as much as I always did, but I think I just shut my ideas down way quicker now than I used to.

Now that you release less music, do get sick of playing the songs live?

I don’t really get sick of playing stuff live. I don’t think we’ve been touring long enough for that. That probably happens to bands that have been out five years or something. I guess we’ve been touring for three years. But I don’t really get sick of stuff yet. We practice it so much that it loses its effect…the effect it has on me when I’m recording is way different than what makes me get into it when we’re playing it live. I record it and I try to capture a feeling or something but then when it’s live were all just trying to…be in sync with each other and make people feel something. And it’s more like a dance, you know, playing stuff live. It’s more like a dance than a competition.

Do you enjoy writing and recording more or playing live more?

I guess writing, because that’s what I started. That’s what I got into it for, that’s what I like to do is write. And playing live and stuff is fun, but I think the real joy for me comes from putting stuff together.

Catch (Sandy) Alex G on tour this week:

July 05 Boston, MA - The Sinclair
July 06 Brooklyn, NY - Music Hall of Williamsburg
July 07 New York, NY - Bowery Ballroom
July 08 Philadelphia, PA - Union Transfer




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