Start a conversation with James Alex and you’ll quickly catch his enthusiasm. His passion for music is undeniable, and can be fully felt on The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, the debut full-length of his band Beach Slang. The album is receiving rave reviews, and deservedly so. Its 10 tracks are an invigorating blend of raw emotion and insightful words, punctuated with soaring riffs and bittersweet lulls. Alex’s hand is in every facet of the band, from the vocals to the lyrics to the album artwork. This is his baby, and he is damn proud of it. Speaking by phone ahead of a tour date at the Rickshaw Stop on Nov. 12, Alex discussed the palpable excitement of his album’s release [now out on Polyvinyl], his literary influences, and how he finds advocates for his music in the world at large.
Your debut full-length is out tomorrow. You and your band mates, having come from numerous other bands, have had the chance to celebrate a number of different album releases in your respective careers. Does this one feel any different?
It does. It absolutely does. I think it’s pretty fair to say we’re all pretty wildly proud of this thing — not just this record but this band. There’s something pretty peculiar and special to it. There’s something a bit different in it for all of us. We’re getting something from this in a way that we’ve never gotten from a band before. It sort of fell together in a really nice way and… I feel like I’m stammering here trying to describe it. I’m trying to nurse my language because I’m not talking turkey on other things that we’ve done — I’m proud of everything we’ve done — but there’s just something about this one. I don’t know if it’s how things are coming together, the time in our lives, whatever it might be, or maybe it’s just the chemistry between us as human beings. Whatever the thing is, it’s just like yeah man, something definitely feels a little left of center on this one in a really perfect way.
You chose to let NPR stream The Things We Do to Find People Like Us for a week prior to its release. Was there any concern about putting your music out there technically for free or does the publicity of being on a platform like NPR outweigh the risk?
I think it does, right? I think secondary to that, the mindset here is that if we’re making a thing that connects and people really believe in it, it will have its place. People still want to have a tactile thing, to hold a record or a CD or a tape. I’m not really worried about it. People who want to invest deeply enough, they’re going to stay on board after the free stream.
Not to get too insider, but I’ve always been curious: is that process something where NPR reaches out to Polyvinyl and says hey, we’re excited about this, can we stream it?
I did an NPR Tiny Desk concert a few months back, and they had reached out to us for that, so the relationship just kind of started there. That’s sort of the M.O. for Beach Slang; everything’s super organic like that. I don’t want to have to force my way into a party and then wonder if I was invited. Someone reached out to us, and then when we got there we knew it wasn’t through some smarmy, music industry kind of way. We got there because they actually really dug the thing we were doing. So the Tiny Desk Thing started that relationship, and for that someone just wrote us an email and asked if we’d be interested. It took me about a fraction of a millisecond to say yes. Then when the record came out, they wanted to have a role in that and we were more than happy to partner back up.
In interviews you've talked about naming your band Beach Slang as a challenge to have a kick ass band with the word “beach” in its name. Did you have to convince your band mates to get on board with the idea?
I did it in a very soft way. The origin of the name is that I used to skate and this girl would make fun of the way I talked: “rad” and “totally” and all that stuff. She called it beach slang, as if it were a language. So it was on this sort of loose, broad stroke list we had up in our rehearsal space. Then when I read that interview with that band saying something to the effect of “you couldn’t be taken seriously if you had ‘beach’in your name,” the very next rehearsal I came in and said this is the name, and I told them why and everybody was like, “oh yeah? fuck it, that’s our name.” We needed that grain to cut against, and I think that gave it that perfect little bit of ammunition.
We always ask bands from U.K. what it’s like to play in America, so to turn the tables, what’s it like for a band from Philadelphia to tour Europe? How do the fans, venues, and atmosphere compare?
It’s wild over there. There’s a real hunger over there for live music. The culture really supports touring bands. To put it straight, I eat better over there than I do at home. We always had a place to stay, really, really delicious food — I guess it’s that thing where if you’re from there, you’re sort of intrigued by people from over there, and vice versa here. We have that natural intrigue and that sort of thing, but it’s pretty incredible. Our hair was definitely blown back when we went over there and saw the response. We still live in that little bubble of not really being sure what we mean to the world, and then we went over there and we had a really sweet little wakeup call like, OK this band is starting to start trickle around the globe a little bit and that felt so, so sweet. We go back in January for a month. I can’t wait to get back over there.
You’ve said that you do all the artwork for Beach Slang’s album covers and publicity materials. When you made the move to Polyvinyl, a bigger label, was there any pushback on you wanting to be responsible for the aspect of the band?
No, none at all. That was really one of the earliest talking points I remember having with them. Honestly, they really brought it to me. They said, “We love everything you’re doing with this. We don’t want to change a thing.” I was like, “Fantastic.” Visually and sonically we made the record in the same way: same studio, recorded with our same friends, I did all the art. Literally nothing changed except now we’re on a bigger label which is going to have this distribution and publicity and all these cool little things that come along with making a label jump, but behind the scenes, in our little world, everything was done exactly the same. They promised to be hands-off, and they’ve absolutely delivered on that. I can’t say enough sweet things about that record label. I could sit here and bore you with it. You just hear horror stories all the time when you’re thinking about making a jump to a bigger label: it’s going to be a disaster and you’re going to regret it and so on and so forth. But we did this and literally things could not be better.
Does your hold on the aesthetic translate over to merchandise as well? Do you do all of that?
Oh yeah, without a doubt. Everything that comes out of Beach Slang visually, I’ve touched. I do it. I don’t want to farm any work out to anyone. How things look is as important to me as how things sound in this. It’s all part of the work. I don’t really see a separation of it. Whether it’s visual work, or the records, or the writings I’ll do on social media, I’m pretty meticulous about making sure everything matters. I’m proud of all those things. I just want to make sure it stays in place. You start letting go of those things and it’s like what are you doing? If it’s the thing you care the most about, you should care enough. I probably do care to annoying degrees to people but I think at the end of the day, everybody’s pretty stoked on how things are landing. It’s getting easier and easier.
I know you’re playing the Rickshaw Stop this time around, but once this album comes out, I think you’ll be headed to the Fillmore before too long and you can have a chance to give your input on the posters they give out at the end of the show.
I hope you’re a predictor of the future man, because that would be a real dream come true. Rock and roll is a real holy thing for me, and I’m wrapped up in the whole ride, and something like the Fillmore – it’s sort of one of those things where you try not even let your head go there. I’m going to just choose to believe that you know what you’re talking about and I’m just going to hold on hope for that.
One of the things that really sets your music apart from your contemporaries is the quality of your lyrics. What are the origins of a line like “The gutter’s too tough, the stars are too safe” from “Bad Art & Weird Ideas”?
Thanks for that. I wanted to be a writer before I picked up a guitar. Words are a big gigantic thing to me, and they mean a whole lot. It’s the part of it I think I enjoy the most, the part I really pour myself into the hardest. I would say I have as many literary influences as I do musical influences. To me, that line in particular was very Oscar Wildeish. That’s precisely where that line in particular came from. As we’re talking about general brushstrokes here, I wanted to be a writer before I found the guitar, but then I become an adolescent and I have all this angst in me and hitting a loud guitar felt really incredible. I hear Jawbreaker, and that sort of cracks my head open. It’s like here’s this really literary poetic writer and it’s inside all of this really loud, raw guitar stuff. You know when have that moment — an epiphany or whatever it might be — where everything just snaps into place in your head and everything just makes sense? That’s the band that made it all make sense for me. I can be literary, and be poetic, but still be angsty and raw and have this urgency to it. So I owe them more than I can say.
I recently watched All Things Must Pass, a documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records. One of the key points made in the film is how vital Tower’s employees were as advocates for new bands. In a world where music is overwhelming consumed digitally, how do you find those advocates to get your music out into the world?
The thing we have going is that we sort of have a foot in both worlds. There’s all the kids who came up in the digital age, but also have peers who came up with records, tactile items, who still want to go to record shops and still do that thing. The people who are listening to Beach Slang at this stage are those types of people. If you’re 20 or 40, they’re still the people who believe in that magic of going to a record shop and flipping through records and buying zines and sort of connecting through being there. They go to shows instead of experiencing it through Youtube videos. Those are the great advocates, because they are the sorts that aren’t susceptible to trends or the thing of the moment; they’re investing themselves into something they see as having staying power for them. We’ve had the good fortune of connecting with people for whom music really matters. Those are the great advocates these days, at least the way I’m seeing it.