Photos by ELENA VILAIN
BY JOSH PELTA-HELLER Beach Slang’s James Alex has promised that the acclaimed Philly rockers are hard at work on a second LP, a following up their debut record released last Fall. No doubt this news will offer some relief to legions of fans of Beach Slang, especially in light of the breakup rumors that circulated earlier this month following a show in Utah that Alex suggested might be their last. He’s since walked that back, conceding to fans in a statement that he was “gigantically sorry” for the comments: “if you’re still in, we are.” To hear him tell it though, one thing Alex won’t apologize for is his true colors as a lifetime rocker, though it would seem no one’s asking him to. Having garnered a legendary status and cult following with his first band Weston in the ‘90s, Alex is now crafting full-bore punk rock anthems with mass appeal. Like a punk Benjamin Button, the veteran rocker seems to be just now hitting his stride, and shows no signs of slowing down even as he just turned 40.
PHAWKER: Congrats on your first LP, it’s gotten rave reviews almost everywhere — Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, NPR — that’s gotta be a great feeling.
JAMES ALEX: Yeah it’s pretty crazy, right, you know? You start off, you’re just like a little dreamer kid with this rock ‘n roll sorta thing in your head. I don’t know, man, sorta being respected on that level sort of really meant something. It’s like, we’re gonna make these things for ourselves, and hopefully they connect. But I don’t know, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it didn’t feel good for people that have sort of a cultural aesthetic that I really wildly respect, to think that the record’s alright, you know?
PHAWKER: I was struck by the disparity in the feel between the acoustic NPR Tiny Desk Concert that you did vs. the feel of the same songs on the record. In terms of your compositions, do you work in the acoustic mindset when you’re writing, or more with a vision of the full sound of the band?
JAMES ALEX: I would answer it this way man — I definitely think of it in terms of full band. But what I do is, I challenge myself with, ‘can it hold up if it’s just me and my acoustic guitar?’ So, everything I write is in that world. I just did this radio interview, and somebody referred to that as “The Campfire Test.” I never heard that term before, but that’s exactly what it is. Because to me, if it can’t hold up that way, then all I’m trying to do is sprinkle some cherries on the thing to try to mean something. But if it can hold up in that simplest form, then there’s some moxie to it, you know? Then the building it up and just making it loud is just kinda fun. But I need it to be able to exist in that form first.
PHAWKER: You’re 40 years old. You have a song on this record about being the quote-unquote “old guy at the club.” Still, a lot of the music you write is big loud punk anthems. How do you feel on stage, or reconcile being a punk rocker in a brand new punk band at this point in your life?
JAMES ALEX: Well I think, look, you know, I think a really big reason you get into rock ‘n roll — or I did, specifically, is sort of a permission to exist, and something of an arrested state of development, right? It’s like, I connect with that sort of youthful feel, you know? And I think I’m just, so unapologetic about it, that I think it doesn’t seem odd to people that I’m that way, you know what I mean? Remember that movie Angus, if you sort of just hold true to yourself for long enough, your culture will shift to sort of accept you, you know? I’m not sure what it is, but I sort of bare my heart without apology. And that may not connect with some — and that’s cool, so find the thing that connects with you. But I think my sort of approach, and that sort of like unabashed optimism — or whatever we may wanna call it — the people that that does connect with, it’s fuckin’ right, right? I suppose that’s all it is, man. If you do something and you truly mean it — I’m not trying to market myself to be 20 to fit in, right? I’m being who I am, honestly and genuinely, and I feel like that sort of honesty or that genuineness just sort of overrides the fact that I’m older. Like people just recognize that and they’re like, ‘fuck yeah man, I can get behind that trait!,’ you know what I mean?
PHAWKER: Thinking about a lot of older bands — Pearl Jam comes to mind, they’ve been doing this for 25 years, and they’re almost 50 now, and still up there doing their thing and playing three-plus-hour shows every night, and they sell out and have a huge following. But if they got into this now, at this age, even if the music was as good, they probably wouldn’t be as big as they got having gotten into it at age 25 or whatever. In other words, traditionally people see more success as rockstars at younger ages, but you’re sort of disproving that paradigm.
JAMES ALEX: Yeah, thanks man! Look, I was as surprised as I suppose anyone else would be, right? Maybe I’m just too naive to think there’s an expiration date on things. So yeah, I see that point, and I’ve absolutely recognized it, but maybe that’s the flag I fly man, that there’s people in my generation that really have a voice that deserves to be heard man, I’m just one little chirp of that. There’s a lot of amazing people I came up with, that maybe this knocks a little bit of the fear out of them to like, start printing a ‘Zine again start putting a band together again. Like, you deserve to be heard.
PHAWKER: We’re in an age now where we’ve all seen Mick Jagger in his 70’s, wearing 50-year-old music out on stage. Other genres — punk and rap, for example — are a little younger, but we’re all sort of watching those genres as they get up there in age at this point. How do you feel punk will wear as it approaches the same age as early rock ‘n roll is now?
JAMES ALEX: Well, I think it’ll wear well. I think even now, you sorta see it evolving, right? You see like, older punks are maybe going more toward the more acoustic punk, where it’s still has that grit and that energy and sort of urgency to it all, but it’s just maybe delivered a little differently. But the spirit, all the right stuff about it’s still there, right? Even if as a generation it gets older, and that generation starts to move ahead and maybe tweaks it and evolves it a little bit, there’s still always gonna be that 14-year-old kid coming up that feels displaced and, you know, has this angst that need to go somewhere, who’s gonna pick up an electric guitar and just have that fervor, just like it was in ‘77. To me it is this cyclical thing that, right, may now start seeing the need to evolve a little bit, as like, some of the elders sort of get up there, but it’s always gonna be pumped full of that really fresh, necessary blood, you know? It never goes away, man, you know, that sort of misfit-youth element — which is why I got into punk, and a lot of my friends did — man, that just gonna be here for the ages. You know, I mean that’s the big thing for me, right, like I’ll be at my age, doin’ it — looking forward, looking back, sort of looking at my life and coming up in punk rock — and I see that kid picking up and the guitar and man, it’s like I see myself coming up in that! And like, I’m so super-charged by that kid, it’s almost like getting to relive Christmas morning all over again when I see that kid doing it.
PHAWKER: Pitchfork said one thing on their review that struck me, the quote was “…the right song can unshackle you from self-doubt and pity to get you out of the house and be a part of the world.” Do you think that articulates some of the sentiment you had as you wrote the first Beach Slang LP, and do you really think music can incite or catalyze that sort of self-actualization?
JAMES ALEX: Well you know man, I was told that it would, right? I can’t plan for it, what I can do is, sorta give that gentle nudge. You know man, I’m out here doing it, and I’m saying it’s okay. Unabashed, unembarrassed, unapologetic. And that’s been a side-effect I’ve seen: people will come up to me at shows like ‘I’ve started a band,’ or ‘I’ve started writing again,’ or ‘I’ve started painting again’ — whatever the thing might be — ‘because of what you’re doing.’ Now can I plan for that? You know, no way, right? It’s like I’d have to be wildly full of myself to think I could be even a small spark in that. But as a thing that is sort of happening, I can’t think of something more rewarding, right? You know, the over-sort of-arching theme to this, it’s almost like me trying to almost fuckin’ rewrite being a wallflower, right, it’s like, you know, this is your life and it’s happening. You know, it’s like, be in it. As far as we know, we get one crack at the “being alive” thing. It’s like, don’t be 80, you know, huffing on your last breath, having this conversation with yourself: “I wish I would have blank,” you know? I suppose those are the bullets I’m putting in my rifle, and I’m shooting out that sorta thing, like don’t have that conversation with yourself, when that time comes. Hopefully I’m by example sort of showing I’m gonna have a fairly sort of regretless life when [laughs] the air [starts to come] outta my lungs, you know? So yeah man, I think that that’s really accurate in the way that I could hope for it to be accurate, you know, I think that’s a really beautiful sentiment. I hope that we’re pulling it off on some level.
PHAWKER: That said, on the NPR Tiny Desk Concert at least, you almost seemed a little nervous. I’m curious about that bands that inspired you to be able to get up there and to overcome insecurities.
JAMES ALEX: Sure, yeah, fair enough man. Well you know, it’s a lotta the bands that probably come through in the music, you know? The ‘Mats, obviously. And I’ve seen a ton of interviews with [Paul] Westerberg just basically like the reason they weren’t in videos is because they were shy, they didn’t know how to be in front of a camera, they didn’t wanna do that part — all that stuff, but yet, you were The Replacements! Jawbreaker, The Magnetic Fields — Stephin Merritt’s a wildly reclusive person, and you know I’ve seen The Magnetic Fields three or four times now and they’ve been some of the most beautiful shows I’ve ever seen. You know it’s somewhere in that world. Like The Smiths, or course — that might be the real crown jewel, where you could be sort of wildly shy and introverted and socially awkward, and then just channel that into like, well, being The Smiths! The Cure, you know, The Pixies, stuff like that, where like they felt like these little gangs of outcasts that found each other, and all of the sudden could almost become — not almost, could become — heroic. I suppose that short list is probably pretty telling.
PHAWKER: There’s a lot of piss and vinegar in Philly’s punk scene at the moment — bands like Girlpool, Modern Baseball, Cayetana — who are kind of emerging and in a way a bit of a new sound for Philly. Who are your favorite Philly rockers right now?
JAMES ALEX: Well, I’ll tell you this, I’ve made it a little thing of mine not to really name favorites, ‘cause I don’t want to let anybody down, and I don’t wanna flake on anybody, and later be like ‘oh I forgot x,’ you know? But I will say this man, the scene as a whole has been an incredible catalyst for Beach Slang. All of the bands you mentioned — and pretty much everyone I know [in Philly] who’s making music — is putting out such solid stuff. I think what we’ve done — or are doing — for each other, is pushing each other to do work that’s better than we would’ve done without each other being around. It’s like, nobody wants to be the weak link in the chain, right, so you hear your friends’ records — like these aren’t like you’re hearing, like, a Bowie record, you’re hearing your friends make these records that are blowing you out — and you’re just like, in a real healthy way, it makes you wanna push yourself harder. So, I will say that that’s happening, and to me, we have this incredibly supportive, wildly talented sorta thing happening right now, and I dunno man, I think it’s just pushing us all to do better work than we would do without each other. So, I will comment on that. But yeah, I’m sorry man, but the bands you named would certainly be on that list, were I to offer one. [laughs]
PHAWKER: Completely understand that. Let me ask this then — a lot of music scenes tend to draw from a particular social climate. Do you think there’s something specific to Philly fosters a punk or indie rock scene right now?
JAMES ALEX: Yeah man, look I’ve always thought this — I came up playing a ton in Philadelphia, even back in my Weston days, right? The thing that’s there now is what was there then. I think it’s being spotlighted a bit more now. Philadelphia just has this like — I’ve described it as like a romantic grit. Like it’s sort of blue-collar, no smoke-and-mirrors, plug-in, turn-up, play-rock-’n-roll sort of attitude. For a band like Beach Slang, that’s the climate we need to be around. Just that culture of basement shows, or like DIY spaces, and like, you know, screen-printing, and really doing it for yourself, because you believe in the ethics of that, right? That thing really prevails in Philadelphia, and just being around that I think has really like shoved itself into us. I sort of write from this placed where I sort of always have one foot in the gutter and one foot in the stars, you know? It’s like, Philadelphia has that, it has this gritty almost dangerous sort of element to it, but then it has this cultured, beautiful, romantic sort of side to the city too. Somewhere in the middle of that mash, Beach Slang happens.