Last weekend Beach Slang rocked the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh during the Hopscotch Music Festival. The music was a mix of loud rock and roll and punk with honest lyrics and an energetic sound. The band’s front man, James Alex slung himself and his guitar around the whole show, and some of the crowd followed suit. Despite the band’s aggressive sound and Alex’s wild stage presence, he is a kind-hearted and introspective soul, which Wake Radio learned when we got the opportunity to interview him before the show.
WR: A lot of people call your band punk rock. How would you describe yourselves?
JA: Yeah, you know when we’re asked we’re really just like, “we’re just a rock and roll band.” I think a lot of our ethics and sort of approach to things are born out of punk rock because that’s the seed we kind of came up in. But I don’t know that we’re like a punk rock band. Punk rock ideology, but really I think we’re just kind of rock and roll. If you really boil it down I just try to write power pop songs. I think the thinking is punk rock but I think the band is rock and roll.
WR: What are some of your influences as a musician?
JA: The replacements would certainly be the first, sort of biggest. Jawbreaker would be huge. A lot of that like shoegaze stuff. Like Swervedriver and Catherine Wheel, and Jesus and Mary Chain. Psychedelic Furs would be huge. Yeah, so what it really is is like there’s no reinventing the wheel here. It’s just a great big mashup of all the records I was lucky enough to come up on. I sort of wear those pretty unapologetically, I suppose.
WR: Beach Slang had a music video come out yesterday (September 8). Can you tell me a little about that? Maybe some of the thinking behind the visuals of it?
JA: We’re really excited. So, we worked with this filmmaker from Los Angeles named, Jason Lester who’s just brilliant. So, he did the last video for us for “Punk’s in a Disco Bar” and then right away it was just, of course “if you’re in we’re gonna keep making videos together.” And he came and sort of pitched this idea just about sort of romance and turmoil. I talk a lot in interviews what Beach Slang I think does is celebrate human flaw. We don’t try to curate some idealized version of being alive and being human. We want to show the glory and the triumphs, but the scrapes and the bruises too, and I think we sort of latched onto that and came with that. And then we thought of two films that we drew inspiration from, and it was The Warriors and Mean Streets. So we sort of tried to go in that world. But the whole Slang aesthetic is… when we first started working together I was like, “man: 8 mm film, outsider kids, California” that kind of stuff and he just nailed it. The first video he made, he sent the pitch, I looked at it. I was like “aw, it’s perfect”. He sends it. I was like, “done! No revisions.” He sends the second pitch for “Atom Bomb”, and I send some notes back. Totally nails it, sends the video. It’s like: done! He just gets it that much, and I can’t say enough great things about it.
WR: With the vintage film, it gives both music videos a nostalgic feel, and your album is called “A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings”. Are the videos in any way based on your experiences when you were younger?
JA: Yeah! You know, I suppose I’m just drawn to that because that’s the stuff I sort of came up with. And I just like things that are tactile, and feel as though they were touched by human hands. To me when things get a little too digitized and auto-tuned, it just sort of massages the soul out of things. Just like when you put on a vinyl record and you stick it on and there’s the little pops and the scratches, I suppose it’s the same way for film with me. I just sort of like that… I don’t know, I’ve always been enamored even with home movie. Even when I studied history of photography, I can’t shoot photographs to save my life, but I studied history of photography a lot in art school, and the amature photography movement was one of my favorites because mistakes shoved photography forward. And I like the idea of imperfection making things better, so I suppose maybe that’s why I sort of glommed onto that. A lot of it just resonates with me because that’s what I’m used to seeing.
CO: Beach Slang has done a lot of overseas touring, if you had to pick a favorite city, not necessarily overseas, what would it be?
JA: Jeeze, that really is hard, and I’m not trying to be diplomatic. I could answer it like this though. We just got back from Europe a couple of weeks ago, and it was the first time we played in Norway. And we just played this city called Bodo, and I didn’t know places could exist like that. It was sort of felt like you were at the ends of the Earth. It was just really untouched and unspoiled and just sort of un-messed up by human beings. It was still just this beautiful, beautiful place. And the festival we played there did a thing: If you played you went out on this boat in the middle of what felt like nowhere. And it just was unreal. So for like an hour and a half we were just sort of being escorted around by this Captain whose family is from there. When that place was settled it was like 50 people. Yeah, right now that’s sort of topping my charts. It really knocked me back. It was just a beautiful beautiful place. The geography as well as the people. It was this nice glimpse into how sweet the world can be if you let it.
WR: A lot of punk bands start out playing house shows or shows at small bars. Do you guys still do anything like that?
JA: Oh yeah. We make it a point to do that. Even on tours, I’m always bugging our booker, and he’ll be like, “You can’t announce it”. But yeah, there are certain cities where I know my friends are and they’re gonna have house shows, and I’ll just show up with my guitar and we’ll play and we’ll do it. That’s where we’re from. You know, there’s importance to us to make sure we keep a foot in that world. For sure. That will never stop. Whether this thing gets no bigger or blue sky dreams and becomes a huge band. We’re gonna play your basement because we want to. I love that stuff. Every show is cool, right? But you can’t replace the feeling and the energy of those shows. I love them to pieces, so yeah, we’ll keep doing them for sure.
WR: Do you have any preference over house shows, or venues, or festivals?
JA: Yeah, well we’re in the growing pains of festivals, I think right now. It’s weird to go from, like I said we come from hall shows, or basement shows, or dive bars. That’s kind of our world. We’ll be up there playing, and the people at the show are right there. We’ll be looking in each other’s eyes. And then our tour in Europe this summer was all these huge festivals where there’s a ten foot barrier. We’re learning that world. I like the intimacy of connection in small places. I’m learning how to do that. I like sweaty, dirty venues. Rock and Roll to me deserves to feel a little dangerous and unbridled and scarred. I like that. But, I love the house show thing for me. They’re run on passion. They’re not looking to make money, they aren’t thinking of career, they’re not looking at their budget. They’re just like “I love rock and roll, and I want to do this”. I dig that.
WR: Was there a moment for you and your band when you realized this is what you wanted to do with your life?
JA: “I’ll tell you, we did our first four shows. The first show we did was at a record store in Rhode Island. The second show we did was a house show in Brooklyn. Our first EP was out for a little bit, and we started playing, and people just started singing along. Heavy and loud, every word. And we just, you know, jaws kind of dropped. Looking at each other in a little bit of disbelief it was like, “Maybe there’s something to this.” I think one thing we do well is manage our expectations. We do this because we love it, and anything that happens is a bonus. And that just knocked us back for a bit. So I think we were like “Maybe there’s something to this that we haven’t had in a band before.” And then we just kept playing and we then got offered a tour with Cursive. We were kind of nothing, and it was the anniversary of Ugly Organ (Cursive’s best known album that received a remastered release on it’s anniversary), it was THAT tour. So this huge tour, any band would have liked to go out. They liked our EP and they asked us to go. THAT was the moment. The quitting the day job. We took the safety net out. And it’s like “we’re gonna give this a go”. So the Cursive tour was the defining moment. That show in New York made us think maybe something might happen. The Cursive tour was when we sort of planted that flag, and like, “Ok we’re gonna go for this daydream of ours.”
WR: That’s so cool!
JA: Yeah, it was really incredible. And when we put out our first record we called Tim Kasher up, and we were like, “Hey man, would you fly out to do our record release show? Your band’s a huge reason anything’s happening for us right now.” And, such a sweetheart, flew right out. Just the beautiful person that he is. And played some songs acoustically with us, and played some of the new stuff he had been writing. It felt perfect. You know? Not only did they really help our career, they are just really dear friends. And it’s a weird trip in life when heroes become friends. It’s a real beautiful thing. But yeah, that was the moment for us.
WR: Beach Slang is touring all of the time now, and you have a son. What’s it like touring with a family?
JA: It’s tough. Facetime and Skype help, of course. But today he had to go for a shot, and I’m just not there to hold him and take care of him. He’s seventeen months, so he’s getting a little more aware. When the gents come and pick me up for a tour, he sees them and he cries because he associates them with me leaving. But, you know, he’s a resilient little sweetheart. What I’m told is, it’s sort of a heart cracking moment when I split, but when I’m gone he’s just watching “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and then he’s fine again. I’m gonna hope that that’s the case.
WR: What’s your favorite part of being in a band? Is it touring, or writing, or recording?
JA: Writing. There’s something about: there existence nothing. And we have the little ability to just make something appear. Music to me is like sort of weirdo magic. If you want to make a chair, you go get wood and a hammer, and make a chair. But music isn’t a tangible thing. I think I like the mental sort of challenge of that. And then getting that feeling that I’m sort of bashing away at things. And then you get that feeling of little hairs standing up on your arms, and it’s like there was something to that little melody or something. That’s really cool. All of it’s incredible, right? I love doing this. But that’s that sort of “wow!” moment that I really dig.
WR: Do you have a particular process for writing? Or is it like whatever happens happens?
JA: Yeah, it’s sort of that. I read this interview with Black Francis, from The Pixies, and he said he just sort of bashes away at his guitar, sort of screaming things out until he has what he referred to as an “eargasm”. That moment. And I was like, “it’s sort of like that for me.” I tell myself, if I’m meant to be a writer, it’ll find me. I’ve been lucky enough so far! I think it’s just that. I think if I had some sort of academic process to it, I think: ehhh. It just kind of comes back to: rock and roll feels like weirdo magic to me. I just hope that it’s somewhere there looking to punch its way out of my head. It keeps happening, so fingers crossed trudging into the future.
WR: You said earlier that you started off playing house shows and stuff. You’re living pretty much every punk kid’s dream. Do you have any advice for young musicians?
JA: I would say this because this is something I’ve learned chasing this crazy thing. Is to sort of romanticize the struggle part of it. Songs that I are out in the world, I maybe have 50, 30? But I’ve written thousands, that were terrible! But there was something in that process. It lets you know you want it. It pushes you to make better work. It’s like: don’t get frustrated in that. Don’t want to be a rockstar overnight. There’s something so necessary in that struggle, in that finding your voice, in that sculpting your sound or your art, whatever medium you chase. It’s like: If you sincerely latch to that, you’ll get there. You know, it might take ten weeks, it might take twenty years, right? But when it comes, it’s pretty glorious. And it feels deserved, when you put the work in. So I would say that. Romanticize the struggle! It’s a good necessary, healthy thing to go through.
WR: As far as the new album: How is it different from your older stuff?
JA: I mean, it’s not a wild left turn. But in the same breath, I never want to xerox stuff I’ve written before, so I dove a little further in the stuff I dig: britpop, and new wave, and some of that shoegaze stuff that I love so much. And I think the first three records were so sort of Minneapolis inspired: like The Replacements and that stuff that I love so much, but there’s all this other stuff. Like I really leaned on the Psychedelic Furs on this record. I really leaned on the stuff I was talking about before, like Catherine Wheel and Swerve Driver. And I think it felt like a good evolution. It wasn’t wild. It wasn’t like we make this rock and roll record and now it’s avant garde jazz, and people are like “What the hell are you doing?”. It just feels like a Beach Slang record. But I think it has those nice moments of stretching our little frame. And lyricly, albeit I suppose they land in a similar tone, but the approach was, on the first record, I describe those songs as like two minute novels about me and my friends and the things we’ve done. But this record, we were touring so much for the first record, and I’m meeting people. I’m real honest in my writing, and in doing that I think people feel open in talking to me, so I get all of these stories, and these letters and stuff, and they’re these heavy stories. What I did was, I wrote their narratives. So all of these songs are about people who either talked to me or wrote to me or I’ve had the good fortune of meeting, and sort of talked to me about life. The good, the bad, the ugly of it. And I sort of wrote their stories, seeing myself in them, and that felt right. I preface all of our records with, “For us. All of us.” That’s how I want it to be. There’s no distance between… whether it’s band and listener, or just humanity at large, we need each other. That’s my deal. I want to make sure there’s no separation between me and what we do, and people that listen to this record or come to the show. So, I’m trying to smoosh that gap so it no longer exists. So I think writing their stories felt like a nice way to sound that alarm. So I think it’s that, but I think people are going to put it on and think, “Oh yeah! It’s a Beach Slang record!.” But internally, I recognize this little stretches to make some elbow room for the future because I don’t ever want to get trapped where if we don’t do this exact thing it’s over.
WR: Do you think you grow as a person and as a musician by showing other people’s stories rather than just your own?
JA: Without a doubt. The whole thing is like: as human beings we’re just these evolving little monkeys. I never want to think I’ve gotten to a point where it’s like: “Oh, I’m good. I know enough.” There’s something important about putting yourself in other people’s shoes and sort of understanding people’s struggles and perspectives, and all that good stuff. I just did this interview in the UK and I dropped this one line without thinking, and I’ve now glommed onto it as like this nice little battle cry. But it’s – “ego is the embarrassment of rock and roll”. Where you get this sort of undeserved swagger about yourself because you can play a guitar and sing. It’s stupid to me. (laughs) For the lack of a better word. And that’s not limited to rock and roll. There’s a heavy importance to me to making sure I take the time to not get hung up on myself. That’s just junk. I want to understand the differences in people and and all that kind of cool stuff. If I’m gonna say I’m gonna be there for somebody, I want to understand truly why I’m there for you so I can help. And I get to do that a little bit through music. I guess that’s the little vehicle I get to do it in.
WR: Is that what keeps you grounded? You see a lot of front people’s egos swell up.
JA: Yeah, because that will just never ever happen here. (laughs) It’s the embarrassment of rock and roll. It just really is. I see it, especially now that we’ve started to play bigger shows. I physically cringe when I see it. Maybe it’s my son. Maybe it’s having that. When you learn to love bigger than yourself maybe it helps ground you. I’m not quite sure what it is. I was raised by a single mother who worked two, sometimes three jobs at a time, and she ran on just humility, and hard work, and love. How disappointing would it be if I just became some egotistical, pompous jerk. If absolutely nothing else, even if my moral compass flies off the rails, she deserves better than that. And I want to make sure I do right by her.