by: Stephan Masnyj
To fully understand the appeal of Beach Slang involves suspending belief. Their music embodies a sense of youth and restlessness that can allow fans to believe they can accomplish their wildest dreams. It’s a quality that remains successful due to the fact that lead singer/ songwriter James Alex is actually living his wildest dreams of being a bonafide rockstar. Throughout our conversation his passion is undeniable; he casually talks about life without music being akin to feeling himself “withering away,” and tosses of lingo like “For sure” and “Dude” as much as a guy twenty years younger than him. Our conversation centered around the intangibles that make their music so alluring, their explosive live show, and what the future holds for the group. Read our edited conversation below.
SM: How is the new tour going? I know you just added two members to the band, I'm curious to know if it took a long time to get used to the new dynamic between everyone.
J: It's been going great; that's the short answer. We've known both of them before playing together so we knew the human chemistry was already good which is the most important component. We just came back from a five week headline tour in Europe with them so it's all ironed out and put together. So this is working out great. We just finished a show in Denver and it was killer. It's been perfect.
SM: You guys are coming into SXSW for only a short time since the band is on tour. Last year you played eight showcases and were running around all week. Does it feel different coming in the second time around where you feel like you've been in this space before and are maybe a bit more comfortable with the proceedings? Or do you guys still feel like underdogs?
J: I think that feeling [of being an underdog] will just permeate indefinitely. That's the stuff that keeps your claws sharp; to never buy into anything that's happening. We're here for 3 days and are doing six shows, so it feels like enough frenzy to still have some excitement to it. I think we're really comfortable in that underdog role though; to feel like we always need to prove [ourselves]. Last time was our first time there and it was wildly fun so I'm expecting good things this time.
SM: Your live shows are pretty visceral; I feel like your music operates in this unique space where anyone who listens to it feels like they can conquer the world. In the recording process is there a concerted effort to tap into that feeling? Do you find that intangible to be the most important part of rock music?
J: For sure. The first time we ever made a record, the only guiding light I gave to the engineer was, "We basically just want to make a live record with better microphones." Like when we record, to me it's the way a rock and roll record should be; it's all four of us in a room feeding off each other and doing our thing. There's an importance to that. Not only does it couple with the way I write well, but to your point it's that feeling that you want to get across. I feel like if it was glossed over or over produced too much the soul would be sucked out. Our music is inherently raw, and it's important for us to keep it that way.
SM: You guys have put out a brand new EP of covers this year, and I feel like the songs you picked also have that raw quality in their original form. Is there any particular way you choose those songs? Is there a common theme between them?
J: Nothing really thematically. When we first started putting things out and getting reviewed, the thing I saw the most was [comparisons to] The Replacements and Jawbreaker. And I think I just wanted to sort of round out the narrative of me as a songwriter more and the records I dig. I suppose I didn't want to get painted into too tight of a corner. Those comparisons are absolutely stunning; they're mind blowing to even be mentioned in the same breath. But even with that I didn't want to get painted in that corner, so I think its a way of evolving maybe how we're seen and the influences that we draw from. And look man, the bigger thing for me is that I'm just a fan of rock and roll music right? I just want to shout out some records that really turned me on when I was coming up. For people who've never heard them before it's a way of showing them in hopes that maybe it'll hit them in the say way they hit me. But I just sort of keep running notes of what songs I'd like to cover. This last list had 30 and I just picked the five that seemed to hang well together.
SM: Many people have mentioned that your music has common threads with The Replacements and all of these visceral rock bands. Building off the idea of refusing to be painted in a corner, is there a desire to branch out into different territory?
J: Sure man. It's important to me to not have the band to become a xerox copy of themselves you know? What I want to do is write really honest, balanced albums one at a time. I don't ever want to fake this thing. When I see The Replacements and how their songwriting evolved over time, it never sort of lost that fire and that's the beauty of their work. I definitely don't want to make the same record forever. I'm excited to see where this whole thing can go. i'm knocking around a couple of pretty cavalier ideas right now. I'm excited to see if they work out.
SM: I can see how that sort of outlook makes sense. I feel like a lot of making music is trying to convey a feeling and then finding the suitable arrangement for that feeling.
J: For sure that's just it. I read this interview with Black Francis (Lead songwriter of the Pixies) about his songwriting process and he just kinda starts in his room bashing away at his guitar and screaming things out until he feels something or until the hairs on his arms stand up. It's really about that feeling. Music to me starts very primal; it's just this unloading of junk that wraps itself in this thing that's almost like magic. It first feels a certain way, then it becomes more intellectual with sitting down and writing lyrics or chords. If you get the right feeling in place it almost doesn’t matter if I'm scatting over the top of it right? You're still going to feel something.
SM: You took a large break between your previous musical ventures and Beach Slang. You went to art school in Philadelphia in the meantime as well. Was there ever any period of time where you missed being a musician? What made you come back?
J: I missed it everyday. I was writing and stockpiling things the whole time. For a long time I was chasing — you know how when you're a painter and you can see a painting in your head and then you execute it? I didn't know how to execute [my music]. I could hear it in my head but couldn't find it. Whether it was a chord structure or melody I just couldn't see how to properly put it down. And then I did but it took years to get there. And I remember writing the songs that would become EP 1, and I played them for a couple of friends and they said, 'We're not going to let you not have these be a record.' It sort of validated this arduous process of probably a lot of failures. I've got a lot of demos at home that I'm glad I never let anyone hear. I refer to those as the trash period; there was an importance to that process of falling on my face and writing a bunch of not very good stuff because it was getting me to where I was hoping to go. I don't know what else I'm really wired to do. I went to art school and was a graphic designer because I was like, 'If I cant keep the lights on playing guitar, what can I do where I won’t want to jump off the top of a very large building?' Art made good sense. But I really just kinda wanted to be back making music.
SM: I always find this interesting balance with artists wanting to make something emotionally honest and resonant but also at a certain point other people such as friends can validate the process.
J: It really does. It sort of saved my soul. When I wasn't doing music I could feel a little part of myself withering away with each day; like there was this hole inside of me. And I knew what was missing, I just didn't know if I would have the good fortune to get back into it. And then you get a couple of friends who give you a little nudge and it's like 'Wow.' Two and a half years later and here we are, on this tour, putting out our second record and it feels like a wild daydream scenario. I don't take it for granted at all. I think thats sort of thing informs Beach Slang a lot; we play our guts out. We only have one speed and that's all the way. For me personally, I sort of preach this thing of where I know what it's like to lose this thing that means so much to you, and
I just don't want to let it slip again. At least until we did everything we could for it. If it fizzles or it gets taken away from us, we can look at ourselves and say 'We did everything we could.'
SM: Your songs tap into this teenage angst feeling and your songs frequently talk about being young. Do you think you could've written these songs when you were younger? Or could it only be achieved through retrospect?
J: Without a doubt man. It absolutely required reflection. Coming up I was just so clumsy; I grew up really introverted. I don’t know if I had the courage to be completely honest; to dive that deep into my feelings and air them out publicly. I was certainly writing poems and being completely emo and dramatic in my personal life, but I would never have the courage in that age to sort of put it out into the world. That's sort of the last great defense we have [our emotions]. Once you let someone into that it's like 'A-ha.' I suppose at my age now, writing about that time in my life and coming up and all of those things I was working through, I can kinda take punches and be more comfortable in my skin at this age and not get completely knocked out by them. At that time I didn’t have the bravado to do it. Reflection and nostalgia are absolutely essential components.
SM: Your fans have known to be just as important to the story of Beach Slang as yourselves; they've know to be devoutly loyal. In the beginning was that a huge validation as to what you were doing is significant? It seemed like out of nowhere people starting getting tattoos of your lyrics.
J: It was really validating. Coming up I would always see a Jawbreaker tattoo or a Smiths lyric and think 'Oh of course.' And that to me almost felt like the Mt. Everest in a band; that someone would permanently put your work on them. Look man, I wanted to be a writer long before I thought about music. So words are my thing, they're gigantically important. When that sort of happened I started to like — you sort of float around through life you know and wonder what your purpose is. That first tattoo happened and I remember thinking, 'That's the reason I'm here.' and everything just sort of smashed together in this really beautifully validating way. And I just felt.... good (laughs). And it never stops feeling incredible. Every time I see a tattoo it feels like the first time. I know that sounds wildly cliche but that's the feeling.
SM: I guess something like that can sort of make all of those years in between worth it right? Like you've sort of reached a platitude.
J: Well that’s just it. If all of this went away tomorrow and the mark I left behind was a small army of people with these words I wrote, when my lungs run out of air I'm going to have a smile on my face. That’s a pretty pinnacle moment. Everything else at this point feels like cherries on top.
SM: The last few year has been a bit of a rollercoaster; Ruben and Flexner left the band, and late last year you guys had your van broken into and your equipment stolen. You guys contemplated ending the band a few times because you wanted to keep it a special thing. What made you reconsider in these moments?
J: The thing that sort of helped me through that was people who connect with this band, writing me directly. The first hug I got from a girl after the worst of it happened; she just ran down the street and gave me a hug and said, 'Please don’t leave we need you.' And I was like 'Wow.' You get punched in life and have the scrapes and the bruises and all of that, but when you really sit with a clear head it's not really all that bad. When you look at the grand scope of your life right? What that did was sort of shake me back into looking at the band with a more focused eye, thinking, 'Come on man don't let these little things shake you.' And I don't say 'Little things' lightly, because some of the things that happened were a real drag and real tough. But when I'm looking at my life in a much bigger way, they aren't things that should sink the ship. After the Ruben thing happened, on that US tour I went solo. I didn’t want to cancel; I sort of felt like we all needed each other. I remember the first night on the tour in DC I remember thinking I'm either too dumb or too in love with this to quit. I think that really sort of summed this up. This is such an extension of me at this point where I wouldn’t even know what direction to look in if this went away. Just like the friends who sort of nudged me into making this a big thing, it was my new friends now who were talking to me about continuing.
SM: What does the future for Beach Slang? Any solidified plans for the rest of the year?
J: We're pretty set. We're out until Mid-April with Minus the Bear. And then we hang out in California for four days and then we pick up with Jimmy Eat World and do five weeks with them. So we're really out on tour until May 20th. We get home then and lay low in June. I think I'm going to work on writing then. In July we were invited to Hyde Park to play with Green Day, they invited us over to play. We'll be there for a few weeks and do some festivals in the US in the back half of July. We'll probably go back to Europe in August to do some festivals. I'm putting out a quiet record; it's just me a cellist and a pianist. I sort of rearranged Beach Slang songs. With the band I really tackle it like The Replacements, but I really like The Magnetic Fields equally as much as I like The 'Mats, so this is sort of running my Beach Slang songs through a Magnetic Fields lens. That'll come out in late summer. I think I'll do a two week tour for that. And then Beach Slang is doing a Fall headline tour through the US. Like a five-six week massive, proper full tour. That’ll probably be the last tour supporting Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings. Then the plan is LP3 is very early 2018.