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by Ziggy Merritt
I have single-handedly altered the course of history. That’s what my insecure ego wants me to write and something I’ll return to later in this feature. Here’s a long-winded explanation: In my time with THAT MAG I’ve been able to interview some of my hometown heroes in the indie music scene.
Recently I had the chance to talk once again with James Alex, otherwise known as the public face and persona behind indie punk outfit Beach Slang and its acoustic offshoot, Quiet Slang before their tour stop at Underground Arts on July 14. We had previously chatted way back in 2015, not long before the release of his debut LP, The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us.
Three years, two albums, and a smattering of EPs later, Alex continues to make music that resonates with embittered teenagers, social outcasts, and consummate loners. He doles out extra helpings of angst with music that deserves nothing less than to be played loud and fast. But even with a now international audience attuned to his brand of distorted noise pop, Alex continues to make music with his friends in mind. “Music for us,” he writes.
On Alex’s latest tour, the loud and fast adjectives have been ejected. With his side project, Quiet Slang, the thrash and hazy feedback and distortion are sliced away. The emotional heft is channeled instead through the lens of stripped-down chamber pop, inspired by one part Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields fame and one part NPR.
“Stephin Merritt offered the spark and Tiny Desk offered the allowance,” wrote Alex on the inspiration behind the Quiet Slang project. In 2015, he made a solo, acoustic appearance on NPR’s popular Tiny Desk Concert series. Watching that same performance now, you have a grounded sense of what can be expected from his first proper Quiet Slang album, Everything Matters But No One is Listening.
“Inspiration and permission are fear-wreckers,” Alex continued. “After I had them, I lunged forward. I mean, I wasn’t nearly sure I could pull it off, but that wasn’t a concern. I’m a big chaser of unfamiliar things. It’s important to dream bigger, you know?”
He added, “Being allowed to fail is a gift. And I have that in spades. Look, none of this is particularly overthought. I just want to make records that feel honest to what I want to make, regardless of whether they‘re sensible or unpredictable or even accepted. I’m just not built with fake-it wiring. It has to rattle me. It has to scratch at me. When that feeling comes, I make songs and offer them to my friends. Whatever happens after that is whatever happens.”
Whether you attach punk or chamber beforehand, those same offerings bleed the blood of pop through and through. For Alex, this is intentional and perhaps the only rational way to make a record.
“The only thing I know how to write are pop songs,” Alex wrote, responding to how he has come to define pop and more specifically the self-described “chamber pop for outsiders” descriptor he labeled his Quiet Slang debut.
“They’re buried in distortion and knee-jerking, but they’re unapologetically pop. As a kid, I was clubbed with way too many Beatles and Beach Boys records for it not to stick. So, that part of the description is the easy part. The chamber part, that’s the lavish bits. This is trickier,” He explains, then continues, “For me, rock & roll is guitars, drums, and swagger — plug in, turn up and go, no rules and devil-may-care. Searing the more well-dressed instruments into the thing takes real nerve. It takes cellos with guts, pianos with brass knuckles. It’s like lining the gutter with flowers. And I dig that. The ‘for outsiders’ bit is for me and all my friends who’ve only ever felt worthless and forgotten. We aren’t. We never were. And these songs are for us.”
Following this, I wanted to take it back to the song (“Filthy Luck”) that originally made me more fan than a purely objective reviewer. Adapted from the brash and breathtaking original, it still packs the same dynamic punch now with the accompaniment of lush strings acting as the Greek chorus for Alex’s unfiltered delivery.
“It was the first song I wrote for Beach Slang so I knew I wanted to have it on the quiet record,” wrote Alex. “Reworking it started as a joke. For no interesting reason, maybe self-entertaining, I sat at the piano and banged those first three chords in this exaggerated Beethoven kind of way. I stopped right after and was like, ‘F*#k, that actually sounds pretty alright.’ Accidental composing or something, you know?” He explained. “After that, I knew a rewrite could work. I plucked out the keeper guitar parts I’d written for the loud versions, cut them on piano and cello, and then built the fuller arrangements on top of those with Keith (piano) and Dan (cello). I read this thing about the recording of ‘Astral Weeks’ and wanted to chase that idea — maybe not as purely improvisational as those sessions, but at least a half-thought-out and half-in-the-moment approach. And that helped crack the whole idea of this open.”
As with the seminal Van Morrison album that Alex references here, his LP-length debut as Quiet Slang required more thought and feeling for what may be reductive to boil down to a covers album. After all, with No One is Listening, Alex is covering himself not someone else. There’s so much more at stake to get right not even accounting for keeping the integrity of the original tracks alive and well. With much of his attention focused on the all-too-ambiguous goal of “getting it right” this made me naturally curious for what the future held for both Quiet Slang and Beach Slang.
“I hope to have the chance to make more Quiet Slang recordings. Like, really hope,” wrote Alex when questioned about the future of both projects. “I‘ve been so messed up on, ‘Will anyone even care about this?’ that I haven’t really looked too far forward,” He admits.
“But then this tour happens and starts to show me that maybe some people care a whole lot. It’s humbling and melting. I mean, this whole process pushed me along as a writer, forced me to think in really left-field ways. I needed that. And, yes, the idea is to definitely include original, non-Beach Slang songs. Rewrites were the right first step, but I think I’m ready to test my luck a bit more. Right now, the plan is to get home from the Quiet Slang tour and pretty much go right into pre-production for the new Beach Slang record. I have it all home-demoed and am chomping to start making it. Once I sack that thing properly, I’m guessing I’ll be itching for cellos again.”
Alex appears to remain optimistic that the future of his loud and quiet sides will continue to be productive. It’s encouraging news for those wondering when, or if, Alex would resume work on new Beach Slang material. It’s also a boon for people, such as myself, that appreciate the output from both projects.
Very near the start of this feature I mentioned a little something about how I changed the course of human history. Now, while I’m not vain enough to believe that I actually changed the course of history for a well-known indie band, I at least like to entertain the fantasy. It began by asking whether or not two halves, Beach Slang and Quiet Slang, would ever merge into a single, unified project.
“It’s interesting you mention this,” wrote Alex. “Charlie and I were talking about this same idea the other night in Minneapolis — a split 7″ of Slangs. I think there’s something to it. Even more so now that someone outside of my head thought to think it.”
When I first read this, I had this purely smug, self-satisfied reaction that perhaps I had acted as a catalyst for some future creative endeavor. That remains to be determined.
Returning the focus to James, I was curious enough to follow up on the threads of our previous interview some three years ago. Back then we discussed some of his graphic design work for the cover art on his albums and his interest in vintage photography, some shared via Beach Slang’s own Tumblr page. Had his own design aesthetic continued to, in some way, influence the direction of the band?
“In this tiny, weirdo bubble called Beach Slang, music and design are all-the-way stuck with each other,” Alex wrote in reply. “They were born into that way and are both stronger because of the other’s influence. It’s difficult, I suppose, to clearly define how the relationship works, but maybe it’s as simple as when you see something that rattles you, that makes your heart notice, you feel compelled to make something in return, like writing a love letter and really meaning it. Influence and inspiration don’t deserve to go unrequited.”
Like the interlinked nature of music and design, Alex has never strayed far from his roots here in Philadelphia. The War on Drugs, Japanese Breakfast, and even his own band have all garnered more than a fair share of exposure along with a bevy of others in just three short years. Those three years have been tumultuous, chaotic, even downright fucking frightening, but our own burgeoning and evolving music scene have scarcely wavered in its fervor and intensity. James has a way of putting that all into perspective.
“I think the thing I dig the most is the blue-collar-ness of it,” wrote Alex. “It’s a wrecking ground. It isn’t pretty or perfect and doesn’t want to be. It has dirt under its nails and bruises on its cheeks. It means it — every bit of it. And that’s all rock & roll has ever asked of us. If it’s changed, I haven’t noticed. But I look down a whole lot.”
Watch the latest music video for Beach Slang‘s “Dirty Cigarettes” below and follow the links to find more out about Beach Slang / Quiet Slang.