Beach Slang Frontman James Alex on Sudden Success, the Philadelphia Music Scene & How to Make Real Art [EXCLUSIVE]
James Alex talks with unfiltered passion when discussing music and that's not the least bit surprising considering he fronts the passionate punk trio Beach Slang. He puts together sentences filled with intelligent cracks and metaphors, leaving just enough room for a strategically placed "f*ck." He peppers his thoughts with "you know what I mean" in order to look for reassurance while he rambles about the unexpected success of his year-old band from Philadelphia. He isn't the confident Mr.-Rock-Star type. He's the guy down the street who took a chance on music, and he's damn glad he did.
The group—which includes Ed McNulty on bass, JT Flexner on drums and Alex on guitar/vocals—released its second EP in September to some anxious fans. Cheap Thrills on a Dead End Street is an extension of the band's first effort, Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken?, in that they both combine rambunctious distortion with lyrics about love, fear and f*cking up. Beach Slang's blend of emotional punk has earned them countless comparisons to The Replacements, which is just fine by Alex. He'll be the first to tell you that he studied Paul Westerberg's lyrics growing up, and there's plenty of evidence to prove that on both EPs.
"Dirty cigarettes and a dirty soul / Tell me I'm enough / I am dying to know what it's like," Alex sings on the second Thrills track "Dirty Cigarettes." The common thread in every Beach Slang song is that it can choke you out just as easily as it can choke you up, which makes for some wild, emotional rides. And much like the Mats before them, it's difficult to simply slap the "punk" label on Beach Slang and be satisfied.
"We're more of a punk band in ideology than sound," Alex explains. "When I sit down to write a song, I really just try to write loud, pop songs that have some sort of affecting, honest thing to them. I don't sit down and go, 'I'm going to write punk songs.' I think like a punk. I enjoy that whole 'be who you are, live what you want to live, just don't hurt anybody' aspect. Just be a good thing in the world, don't judge—all that really great stuff."
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Alex, a lifelong Pennsylvanian, is battling the relentless Northeast winter when he checks in with Music Times. There's restrained joy in his voice, however, because in a few days he'll be out West to kick off a two-month tour with Omaha trio Cursive, and there are plenty of dates scheduled for warmer climate zones.
Weather aside, the Keystone State has been good to Alex. His previous band, Weston, was a notable local punk outfit, churning out half a dozen albums from 1994 to 2009 before calling it quits. But things are taking off much quicker for Beach Slang and Alex agrees that there seems to be two outside factors directly contributing to the band's sudden spike in popularity: location and the Internet.
The City of Brotherly Love is boiling over with talent these days. It's a great place to nurture a band, considering some of the indie sensations that are popping up there (The Districts, Strand of Oaks) and the success being had by others who have put in their time (The War on Drugs).
"It's really amazing," he says about the Philly scene. "There's so much happening there and everything happening is solid. No one's phoning it in, which has been really awesome. It's like that push and pull where we're inspiring each other, we get happy for each other. It's a really cool, cyclical kind of vibe happening there right now. I feel like it's always been there, but for whatever reason now it's just magnified."
Alex also admits that social media has played a big role in getting Beach Slang up and running. Besides its EPs reaching a larger audience, it's the singer's ability to really connect with fans through short posts on Facebook that's truly impressive. When he announced that the band's two EPs would be combined on a limited edition cassette tape (fittingly titled Broken Thrills), Alex's excitement was palpable ("I have wanted to make one of these things since the first day Beach Slang was real. Ian Graham and Business Casual, thank you for making this dumb kid's little daydream happen," he wrote).
Then there's the Beach Slang Tumblr, which is filled with black-and-white photos depicting ordinary scenes of life accompanied by a few lines of Alex's lyrics. It's another form of expression for the singer, and one more piece to the band-fan relationship.
"Every nuance of this band matters. Every social media post I'll write, or every bit of design I'll do, or every Tumblr post—I really, really craft those and work those, because it all matters," he says. "Basically what it is is you're just creating this little world. I just want to invite people into it, and it's really not this one-note symphony. It's got all these cool little facets and aspects to it."
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It's arguable that the third force pushing the band toward a higher level of stardom is Alex himself. His songwriting comes from a place of unencumbered honesty. When he sings on "American Girls and French Kisses" about being in a basement on a Friday night listening to records and screaming his lungs out with some buddies, you can almost picture the frontman basking in a scene like that.
"I hope when I die, I feel this alive," he sings.
It didn't come naturally to Alex, however. The singer admits that his candid approach to songwriting was the result of a period of hiding away.
"The real breakthrough that came out of that was a very simple thing: Real art just takes f*cking guts," he says. "Tear yourself open and just put it out there. I've always had a protective gel...and with [Beach Slang] there was just no pretense. I was just like, 'F*ck it, here it is.' I'm absolutely lathered in these songs."
There are no frills when it comes to creating a tune for the band. Once Alex finishes writing a song, he works out the rest of the details and records a demo at home. Then he calls up McNulty and Flexner, both of whom are seasoned musicians who have played in other respected bands (Nona, Ex-Friends), and they get to work. They hit record, run through each song a few times and call it a day. It's another lesson Alex learned studying at Replacements University.
"I'm not trying to make, at least at this point in my life, any sort of like symphonic concept record," he says. "We're just trying to make rock 'n' roll records with guitars, bass and drums and we just go. Just turn it up and go. And that's working. Beach Slang is that, and I think people are sort of tired of the overthought, digitalized, drum-machined, autotuned, American Idol-ized junk."
The whole process is on display at live shows, where it all comes together for some lucky audience members. Alex pauses for a minute when asked about what he enjoys the most - writing a song or playing a gig. It's not surprising because, in both instances, it's about connecting with the fans whether it be through a universal idea written down or an outburst of emotions coming from three sweaty dudes with instruments, amps and a mic.
"It's like writing the song is the baptism and playing live is like the exorcism," he says. "They're both these really necessary parts of it. First you have to take it in and then you sort of exorcise it back out...I'm going to have to walk the tightrope on that question."
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Alex has finished all 10 demo recordings for the band's debut album and the group has already worked out two songs completely. They'll return to the studio sometime after the Cursive tour ends in March. Fans and curious listeners can expect a completed LP by September. October "at the latest."
If the pattern of success from 2014 continues into this year, Beach Slang could easily be on its way to a headlining tour and roster spots on the festival circuit after releasing the new album (days after talking to MT, Alex and the band sign to Polyvinyl Records, which boasts acts like Deerhoof, American Football and Of Montreal). But if not, what happens? How do you measure the success of a band when you haven't even been able to process how it blew up in the first place?
There's personal success, which Alex feels he's achieved. Letters from fans telling the singer how much a song or a lyric has meant to them makes it all worthwhile. Then there's the professional side of things. When the tour's over, he's back to life as a graphic designer by day and rocker by night. Alex admits it would be nice to earn his keep as a musician because "nothing's ever going to be as much fun as screaming into a microphone and jumping around with my guitar."
"I don't care if I ever make a dollar. Those things are worth everything," he says about the fan encouragement. "Because I was that f*cked up kid. I still am that f*cked up kid. Records have always been the thing that has pulled me out and made things OK."
Whatever happens, the band members will rest easy knowing they made some effective racket and had fun in the process. And if Alex is forced back into a basement on a Friday night, that's fine too because, by the sound of things, he never actually left.