For Those About to Rock, We Worry for You

Is there any space for an honest guitar band in 2020? Beach Slang make their case on their new album, 'The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City.'
January 10, 2020, 11:00am
Beach Slang's James Alex
Beach Slang's James Alex. Photo by author.

Midway through their set Beach Slang’s James Alex wipes his brow and catches his breath. It’s late 2019, but his band is supporting 1990s soft rock superstars Goo Goo Dolls at Toronto’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre, playing in front of a sold-out crowd of 1,300 people. Dressed in a vintage tux—a look equal parts Angus Young and Willy Wonka—Alex accents Beach Slang’s tunes with David Lee Roth high kicks and dramatic back bends. His stage banter is peppered with regionally specific anecdotes and call/response exchanges. Everything Alex does is consciously curated to create a fan-first rock ‘n’ roll show; the band’s set list even includes a fuzzed-out version of Oasis hit “Wonderwall.” While they’re a blast to watch if you’re into licks and shoutable lyrics, it is also clear that Beach Slang are trying really, really, hard.

Despite Alex’s earnest efforts that night the audience at the Queen Elizabeth is largely indifferent, a not uncommon plight for a band opening for a legacy act. While a few fans throw up the horns and shake their hips, many leave mid-song to grab more beer. Alex yells about being wasted to muted applause. The drunk moms behind me heckle Alex about his haircut. As Beach Slang launch into their song “Dirty Cigarettes,” arguably their biggest track, I’m reminded that the group was once, in an unflattering review, called America’s last rock ‘n’ roll band. “Rock is dead” may be the biggest rock cliche of all, but on this night I was truly left thinking it seems more difficult to be a rock ‘n’ roll band than ever.

Earlier this month Billboard released its top charting rock tracks of the past decade. Like many music fans at the cusp of 30, I found myself perplexed by the well-circulated list. It was an embarrassing realization about how disconnected the music I listen to is from the top of the charts. In decades past a band like Beach Slang could have easily fit on commercial radio. They write guitar driven tracks with hooks and melody. The vocals have just enough snarl for a bit of edge without being shouty enough to alienate anyone unacclimatized to punk rock. The lyrics hit on sweeping themes of nostalgia and longing. When the Philly band first emerged in 2013 critics poised the band to break out into mainstream(ish) success. Now the idea of any rock band—or at least the kind I like—seems next to impossible.

During my interview with Alex he seems generally unfazed by my questions about the state of the music industry and the longevity of guitar music. On Friday the group will release The Deadbeat Bang Of Heartbreak City, the band's first album in four years. The record is 11 tracks that expand on Beach Slang’s blend of punk and alt-rock to channel hard-riffing influences from Alex’s youth, such as Cheap Trick.

“Now that there has been some time away I’ve been asking myself what I really wanted to say with the band. I didn’t want to become a boring xerox of what I’d done,” said Alex. “I started asking myself why I still do this. What did I still love about it? And I love rock ‘n’ roll in an embarrassing sort of way. I started thinking about what it meant to me as a kid, and how I could capture that feeling.”

The frontman’s earnest (this word will be used a lot to describe Alex) love for rock ‘n’ roll is part of the band’s origin story. Beach Slang started while Alex was working a stable and well-paying graphic design job. Alex was married, approaching 40, and just had his first child. The frontman never expected the music to go beyond his friends and family, but when the first EP started gaining momentum and the band was offered tours, he was left with a choice: pursue the dream of music or take the safe road at the day job. With the support of his wife he followed his passion.

Over the next three years the band would gain critical praise and a cult fan base on the back of its breakneck creative output. In that time Beach Slang released two EPs and two full-length albums while playing live as much as they could. That pace also took its toll on the group, which suffered from constant infighting. A particularly dramatic “breakup” happened on stage in 2016. Alex said it was the group’s last show and asked the venue to return the audience’s money. Since that time Beach Slang have gone through many lineup changes with Alex remaining the only constant member.

The drama surrounding the band played into Beach Slang’s mythos, but also worried the band’s bookers. At the suggestion of management Beach Slang tried to slow things down, stepping back from their momentum to reassess.

“For almost a year now we’ve been in this moment of planned scarcity. Our booker told us that maybe we should fall back a bit and hopefully we’d be missed,” said Alex. “I was on this work mode where I wasn’t really able to stop.”

During Beach Slang's hiatus Alex got antsy. He tried to figure out next steps and a way to keep an income during the downtime. He ended up performing acoustic shows under the name Quiet Slang while slowly making plans for the next record. He seemed stuck on how to take a step forward. Looking for advice, Alex ended up reaching out to his hero Tommy Stinson, of the legendary 80s punk band The Replacements. Not only did Stinson offer advice, he also offered to play on The Deadbeat Bang Of Heartbreak City. Stinson’s presence on the album seemed like a seal of approval for Alex, who has drawn heavily from The Replacements to create Beach Slang’s sound. From the outside it can also seem like an omen, as while they are now revered as scene legends, during their career The Replacements self-destructed again and again at the slightest hint of mainstream success.

While Beach Slang’s place in a fading rock landscape is yet to be determined, Alex doesn’t seem that concerned about the bigger picture. Instead he just wants to make sure he gives it everything he’s got while he still can.

“Beach Slang was always kind of an accidental band in the first place,” said Alex. “The only real pressure I’ve got now is to my kids. But by doing this I hope I’m showing them how important it is to follow your dreams. That being happy and being fulfilled can be possible. There is always a fear that it won’t work out, but if you do it right it’s an easy trick to turn that fear into moxie.”

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