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The Drainage | November 19, 2017

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Interview: Beach Slang’s James Alex Talks Transitions, New Beginnings, and Having a Son

Interview: Beach Slang’s James Alex Talks Transitions, New Beginnings, and Having a Son
John Flynn

“What we did do at that point, which I think was crucial, was we had a very simple conversation with ourselves that went like ‘do we want to be a band or do we want to be friends?’ We know it was at that crossroad.”

During Sound On Sound Festival, I had the privilege to sit down with Beach Slang’s James Alex. The punk rock band, formed in Philadelphia by James Flexner, consists of James Alex on vocals and guitar and Ed McNulty on bass.

As I sat down I told James Alex that we wouldn’t be using a microphone, just my Iphone. “Oh please, that’s how it should be” he says in an amiable manner, which set the pace for the loosely conducted and incredibly informative interview.

During the interview I focused heavily on the singer’s history with his first band, Weston, which formed in 1992 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “The Weston thing is kinda weird man. I just really dug the band so I was just going to all of their shows and was kind of singing along and doing that thing you do as a fan. Then their guitar player was going to split and they were like ‘hey man our guitar player is gonna split you know all of the songs do you want to join the band’ and I was like ‘yeah sure let’s do that.’ “

Alex notes that the scene was incredibly hands-on during that time. “It was a lot of DIY stuff: Hall shows, basement shows, house shows; stuff like that was primarily the deal at that point,” says Alex. “We were outside of any major cities, so we were in that position of like build a scene for yourself. So we were doing a lot of that stuff. We sort of walked into it and then we started to I guess get a bit more serious. Then we started touring non-stop and doing the thing of playing clubs and going to different countries and stuff. But we were certainly born from the DIY scene.”

The transition to playing small house shows to huge clubs was no walk in the park for the band. “It was weirdo” says the singer and guitarist:

“Because for us, we used to that sort of loose scene. People that were invested in the scene because they lived it and they loved it, and then getting tossed into that world where it’s a little more, you know watching the bottom line and not being ethically sound towards bands. That was a really weird adjustment period for us and sort of a weird wake up call. But, if you’re going to grow on any level at some point you sort of dance with the devil a little bit. We tried to minimize that dancing, and we faired pretty well I think because even when the band was getting good enough to where we drew a couple hundred people to the show we where still just trying to do it in halls and smaller shows and as long as we could sustain that we were happy.”

To Alex, gaining notoriety comes at a cost, you dance with the devil as they say. Alex describes the process:

“I would say I, or we, didn’t really get jaded as much as confused. But it was all part of the stumble, and maybe we made some bad decisions and our vision got clouded. You know we will always say the best we ever were was when it was all in a much more controlled state, we were doing shows with our friends and for our friends. That was when we were really kind of firing on all cylinders, I think once it started to spider-web out stuff got a little diluted and confused.”

He says, “We were really burned out, we had been touring 8 or 9 months a year for I don’t know how long.” He made sure to note that the band did end on relatively good terms, noting:

“What we did do at that point, which I think was crucial, was we had a very simple conversation with ourselves that went like ‘do we want to be a band or do we want to be friends?’ We know it was at that crossroad.”

At that stage, they had to pick between remaining a band and risking losing valuable friendships or ending it for good. “We were gonna start nit picking and falling out and just didn’t want to be that rock n roll cliche” he says. Alex continued:

“So, immediately we were like ‘we wanna be friends.’ The best thing that’s happened with that is not only have we played reunion shows and we still kind of get to be a band every once in a while, but we have remained friends. Those guys come out to Beach Slang shows, we hang out quite a bit, I’m really glad that happened. It wasn’t this insincere ‘well let’s soften the blow.’ it was something that we actually meant and I’m glad it panned out the way it did.”

James Alex tries to draw influence internally, “I try not to dive to deep into contemporary stuff,” he notes, “for fear that i might rip it off and I don’t want do that right.”

He talked about all the music that he liked, “stuff that I grew up with, whether it be like the Replacements or Jaw Breaker, Hoosker Du, that kind of stuff. That stuff sort of seeped into me before I knew to block it. But with that said you know were touring all the time so i’m hearing bands that are really kind of turning me on. I’m definitely getting more into shoe gaze and some new wave stuff and brit pop from back in the day. Some contemporary stuff, you know, I’ve been listening to this band called see through dresses, escape life, hannah race car, that are absolute contemporaries and are really knocking me out right now.”

James Alex designs all of Beach Slang’s merchandise and album art. An important part of his artistic mission, he notes “It’s definitely quite a work load but I made my living as a graphic designer before I did this full time. With bands, especially with something you love so dearly, especially a visual representation of your art, you outsource it and it never quite comes back the way you want it. The way the records look is all part of the narrative of what it ‘beach slang’ and that’s important to me. So even though I sleep relatively little it’s worth it to me. A very considered decision for sure.”

And James Alex doesn’t get much sleep with all of his projects, “How much sleep do you usually get?” I ask, expecting him to say four or five hours a night. “Ehh, probably three hours” he retorts. “That’s a work horse mentality!” I tell him, shocked at how little sleep he gets. “Ha, yeah we’ll see how long we can keep it up man. Inevitably we’ll be talking again in the future and it’ll be the decline and i’ll be haggard and destroyed. But yeah, right now it feels right and I know how to temper myself. Sometimes I’ll hit a wall and it’ll feel like everything kind off whomps in at the same time and get blocked. And that’s when I’ll be like I need to go walk away and go hit a tennis ball, and just do something other than creating something out of nothing.”

I even got the chance to ask Alex about the origins of the band’s name. “You know we were making a list, as bands do, and I was thinking [of my childhood]. I used to skateboard with this girl and she used to make fun of the way I talked and you know I used rad and totally and stoked a lot. She called it a language and named it Beach Slang. It was just part of a list at that point and I read this piece in a magazine that said if you have beach in your band’s name you can’t possibly be taken seriously and I was like fuck that” He said. “But they’re good-ass bands!” I exclaim. “That’s what I’m saying!” he agrees:

“So I was like we’re gonna have Beach in our name and we’re gonna make it matter. It gave it that drive, sort of a gentle punk. I kind of needed something to grind against and when that came out I was like yeah [this is it].”

When I asked Alex about the potential for future collaborations he said that he’d “love to,” adding that “For me, I’m sort of like a dive all the way into art type of person. I’m working on writing books, doing music, I’m gonna go do a solo record when I’m home. I’m gonna go home and do a quiet slang record. Just me my acoustic guitar, a cellist, and a pianist. That’s the first sort of outside of Beach Slang collaboration. I’m open to a ton of that. A writer friend talked to me about maybe doing some spoken word stuff, he’s a really great writer and I’d love to accompany him. I think that’s it I wouldn’t say I have anyone super specific in mind at this point, but the idea of doing that is really appealing to me.”

“Do you think you have too many projects to juggle?” I ask.

“I would say people around me would absolutely say yes, but I don’t think that I do. I get really restless if I sit still. My head is bouncing off the walls. Getting a little sleep is a good thing but if I sit too long I just feel like a bum.” Says Alex.

Finally, I asked the lead singer of Beach Slang about what it was like to have a son pop into his life amid all of the craziness that comes along with being a touring musician. “That kid’s the center of my whole life you know” he says about his son, “Unfortunately he’s getting to know me more on a digital screen, talking on my iPhone. We do have November and December off, I plan on not putting him down at all” he adds.

“He just turned a year and a half so he’s starting to recognize when I’m not around. So that’s getting tough, I imagine that will continue to get a little tougher. We’ll have to see, he’ll call the shots. When hie’s older if he’s like ‘hey dad man can we hang out more?’ You know I had a pretty crumby absentee father so I’m not putting any of that on him. When he’s old enough to want to be around me these projects will come to a real slow-down. I just want to do right by him, you know. it’s great man, in the thing that I’m doing now he pushes me to be better than I was before. Not only am I trying to be someone I’m trying to do something for him. When I gasp out my last breathes and he’s digging through my old junk I just want him to be like ‘my old man was okay, he did a thing’ you know, yeah that inspires me in a way that I don’t know I ever felt before.”

All in all, James Alex was one of the most amiable guys I had ever gotten the chance to interview, despite the fact that his equipment was stolen, his set had a tremendous amount of energy carried by his fervent stage presence.