Catching up with frontman James Alex from the fringes of Heartbreak City
Beach Slang is a rock ‘n’ roll band from Philadelphia. When they hit the stage, or go into the studio, they put the pedal to the metal and never let up.
At a time when many bands are riding a comfortable mid-tempo groove, James Alex and his Beach Slang cohorts grab you by the shoulders and scream in your face at top volume, pulling you along for a ride that’s guaranteed to break the needle off of your emotional speedometer.
Their new album, Deadbeat Bang Of Heartbreak City, is their first in four years, but Alex hasn’t been taking any time off. “I write every day,” he says. “Songwriting is mostly a labor of patience. I read a thing where Brian Wilson said, ‘I’m not a genius. I’m just a really hard working guy.’ That always stuck with me – that humble bulldog thing, you know? You keep tearing away, because there’s no other way you know to do it. It’s the whole Bukowski, ‘So you want to be a writer?’, bit. It doesn’t come easily, but it’s not meant to. It’s your gut asking if you’ve got what it takes. When it shows up, if you’re lucky enough that it does, it’s real-deal magic.”
There’s magic on every track of Heartbreak City. With the help of former Replacement bass player Tommy Stinson and drummer Cully Symington (Afghan Whigs, Okkervil River, Conor Oberst), Alex delivers another scathing teen manifesto. He added cello, piano, horns and layers of guitar to the mix, to create another larger than life opus. The Supersonic punk of “Bam Rang Rang,” the screaming rock of “Stiff” and the relentless tempo of “Let It Ride,” set you up for the intensity of “Bar No One,” a primal ballad that comes as a shock after all the volume and energy that comes before it. Alex is just as intense in his interviews. Once you ask a question, you have to hold onto your seat as he dives headlong into his replies.
How does this project differ from Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings?
The first two Beach Slang albums, The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us and A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings were part of a singular narrative, a shared sketchbook. Once those were written, that book was finished. It was time to move somewhere new, some other place that felt honest. So, I stopped for bit, looked around and waited. And waited. Still, nothing. So, I took a better look at all the stuff I came up on – punk, classic rock, new wave, folk, bubblegum, all of it – trying to find something that scratched my bones a bit, you know? Then, one day, it showed up. I knew what I wanted to write – a real mushy love letter to rock & roll, drenched in sleaze and tenderness.
Did you, Tommy Stinson and Cully Symington play together before this recording?
Nah, we just went for it. Rock’n’roll deserves a good heap of devil-may-care. In fact, the three of us never made it into the same room together. I tracked with Cully while Tommy was on tour. When he got back, I went to his studio and we cut the bass. In between all that, I just kept piling on guitars and keeping my fingers crossed. It’s a wild thing when your heroes become your friends. We tracked the bass at his studio, just him and I. Tommy fucking Stinson and me, standing two feet from each other, bashing out these songs I wrote. It felt like my posters came to life and were patting me on the back.
We never played together live. I tracked with Cully for the first three days and then he split. I tracked with Tommy for two days near the end of the recording. The rest of it was me trying to stitch it all together with guitars, pianos, horns, cellos, pedal steel and throats. I like being alone. It helps me think. Well, most times. When you smack into a wall, there’s no one to help put the wreck back together, but you trust your gut, you dust off your chin and you figure it out. It can thump you a bit, but that thump jets you forward and I dig that direction.
What’s a live show like for you? Will it differ from recording? Will Stinson and Symington be playing gigs with you?
I was asked to describe the vibe of a Beach Slang show and I wrote: ‘Sweaty rooms, drunk sing-alongs, sweet hearts, loud guitars, charged hugs, late nights, worn-out lips, mystery bruises, bloody fingers, permanent smiles and belonging.’ I hope that still holds up. They have to differ from the recording. That’s the whole point of lurching away from your stereo and into a venue – the idea that, somewhere between brilliance and disaster, some dumb magic might happen. And, nah, they won’t be in my touring band, but that’s not to say they won’t ever show up and shake a room with me.
Are you “stuck” in the teenage years or is the dawning of adulthood you sing about in the songs a metaphor for the changes we face throughout life?
All I know is I’m stuck. I’m not really sure where that is. I still dream like I’m 16, still run like I’m 75 and still sleep like a baby. The rest is just the rest. I read an interview with Charles Thompson/ Black Francis/ Frank Black and he said, ‘I think up a line, then I work myself up into a frenzy, pretending I’m performing. I wait for the eargasm, that’s how I know it’s got what I want.’ I think that’s pretty close to how I chase it. I wait for things to find me and then work, fast and raw, to knock it out of my head and into a recorder. Once I have the main thing down, I work on the fancier bits and see what comes out the other side. Some make it. Most don’t. I always keep writing and chucking, writing and chucking, waiting for that weirdo moment where you tell yourself you’ve got something. One day, it showed up. So, I went into the studio. Two weeks to record, a few days to mix and I had an album. I like that pace. It keeps the urgency from getting scraped off. Some things need to weep and howl. Rock’n’roll is blue collar stuff. I try to feel it more than think it.
Does Philadelphia have any influence on your music?
Yes, gigantically. The city is this wild mash-up of fighter and lover, culture and terror, danger and salvation, grit and romance. It is soft. It is tough. All that good tension bleeds into my writing. When I get really lucky, it overwhelms it.