Beach Slang’s James Alex Is Whoever You Think He Is, Man
The frontman talks about dealing with haters, maintaining a stable lineup, and taking a break before a third LP.
Photo by Charlie Lowe
After a screening of Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker in Philadelphia last year, the recently reunited band’s frontman, Blake Schwarzenbach, participated in an audience Q&A. When he mentioned that Jawbreaker was planning a show in Philly and was seeking openers, someone in the crowd shouted out, “Not Beach Slang!” A few laughs and some grumbling gave way to a murmur that eventually died down as Schwarzenbach looked puzzled, but the point was made: People have strong opinions about Beach Slang.
Beach Slang is remarkably divisive for a band that sings about having feelings. But, then again, maybe that’s what rubs some people the wrong way. Frontman and sole original member James Alex’s penchant for the mawkish permeates every aspect of the band’s persona, from their lyrics to their artwork to their social media presence. In his mauve, Salvation Army tuxedo festooned with a collage of various buttons on the lapel, Alex has the onstage look of Ryan Adams headed to prom. His lyrics typically center around romantic imagery of nights spent kissing, drinking, turning amplifiers up, or some combination of the three. The guy can barely announce a new t-shirt design on Facebook without quoting Bukowski. But for every grumbling naysayer turned off by Alex’s overt displays of heart-on-sleeve sentimentality, there is a small army of Slang faithful with Alex’s lyrics inked on their bodies.
The Beach Slang rocket took off in a hurry four years ago but has been perpetually on the verge of exploding spectacularly. They dropped their firestarter debut EP, Cheap Thrills on a Dead End Street, here at Noisey in 2014, and earned more media attention than they anticipated (which was easy since their expectations were set at zero). Beach Slang was officially, and somewhat accidentally, ignited and began churning out new material at a feverish pace. They quickly followed up with a second EP months later, then two full-length LPs within the span of just two years. But this output, combined with a Herculean touring schedule, caused the wheels to fall off, with the band’s lineup becoming a rotating door for members. Internal rifts, onstage meltdowns, and breakup rumors have become part of the Beach Slang lore.
At the advice of his manager, Alex has pumped the brakes on Beach Slang this year to give it some breathing room. The band’s touring schedule is comparatively light over the next few months, and although Alex says he’s written a third Beach Slang LP, he’s deliberately holding it for a 2019 release. Seemingly incapable of resting on idle hands, though, he’s about to release an album through Polyvinyl Records under the name Quiet Slang, Everything Matters But No One Is Listening, featuring gentle lullaby versions of Beach Slang’s rock ragers, reframed with orchestral violins and pianos.
We talked to James Alex about the brief but turbulent career of Beach Slang.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Noisey: This band got so big, so fast. Do you ever worry that it was too much, too soon?
James Alex: Every day, yeah. I talk to Charlie [Lowe, tour manager] every day about it. I guess the repetitive comment I have to her is: Has Beach Slang done what it’s going to do? That’s my fear. It just seemed to be in the right place at the right time. It juggernauted out a bit, and you can’t maintain that sort of velocity. Was it just a moment in time? Or does it have the legs to hold up? I guess all I can do is write the best stuff I can write—I don’t know if that’s gonna mean anything—but just do the best work I can and hopefully hang on, because I love it.
Is that why you were churning out material so quickly, the fear of burning out?
It was. It was fear. It was that “the iron is hot” cliché. And then, I think once business-y people started to get involved, they were kinda like, “You’re putting out too much, too quickly.” And my fear theory was collapsing in their hands. And I still don’t know if I’m doing stuff right or wrong, but I was definitely advised to… “Planned scarcity” is this term that I’ve heard. So, honestly, man, this is the only tour booked for this year, and no record will come out in 2018. So, we didn’t put one out in ’17, we won’t put one out in ’18. The plan is for ’19, but considering we put out two EPs in the same year, and a record in ’15, a record in ’16, to not put anything out in ’17 and ’18 feels wild.
I don’t know how much you follow this kind of stuff, but Beach Slang has become a surprisingly divisive band.
Do you follow that kind of stuff? It seems like one of two things happens: Either people seem to be turned off by your sincerity or they feel like it’s not genuine.
I haven’t followed it because I choose not to follow things. I’m active in social media in the way that I create content, but Charlie fields it all for me. Because I don’t want to be broken down by people who subscribe to those notions. I’ve said in earlier interviews: I’m gonna fly this optimistic flag and if your wiring prevents you from believing that somebody can be that sincere, then that’s cool. That’s your trip. I don’t want to step on that. You’re entitled to not like that I want to be nice. But it’s not gonna change me. So, no, man, I don’t follow it. I’m not affected by it. I’m a real subscriber to: Let people think and believe and do what they want. Your life’s your ride, man. Do it the way you want to do it. But mine’s also mine. So your opinions are only that. So, like, flutter away from me, man.
You’ve got a cohesive theme running across your albums which trickles down to the entire persona of the band, from what you post on social media to what you say in your lyrics. So how much of James Alex is a premeditated part of the overall theme of Beach Slang?
It’s gonna sound like I’m giving you some schlock here but none of it’s premeditated. This whole band was an accident. I had these songs written—what became the first incarnation of Beach Slang—and friends heard them and they were like, “You can’t let these die in your room. They should be a record.” So I recorded it and made the art for it and people responded. So nothing was premeditated because I didn’t expect anything from it. I wasn’t even thinking along those lines. I was doing quite well as a designer, I’d relocated to Southern California. I lived 3,000 miles from the people I made those records with. I was as surprised as anybody that anybody even gave a damn, and that’s the truth.
People latched onto it early and you formed a connection with them. So how much of what you’ve been doing has been informed by what fans have come to expect? Do you say “OK, this is catching on with people, so I should do more of this”?
I mean, I’d be completely lying if I said some of that didn’t leak in. But I think what it did was allow me to amplify this thing that was truly inside of me. Whereas before, I was sort of guarded and muted. It was a vulnerable approach to writing, but I think when I saw people accepting it or connecting with it or it mattering to them, I was like, “Wow, I can say this stuff now, rather fearlessly.” It gave me confidence to utilize the voice that I’d always had and was afraid to use.
How much separation would you say there is between James Alex onstage in the bowtie versus James Alex right now?
I mean, it’s slim, but I’d be lying if I say I didn’t have my sins, I have my vices, I have my fuck-ups. I know it borders on a really curated, Boy Scout, fucking Golden Rule thing online, but I’m never trying to pretend… It’s like, look, Robert Smith’s not fucking sad all the time, Morrissey’s not depressed all the time, Hetfield’s not pissed off all the time, and I’m not in a good mood all the time, I’m not encouraging all the time. But I’m only afforded the opportunity to avail so much of myself to people that don’t know me daily. So for the most part, the things I want to frame are the things I do want to be heard louder—survival, and positivity, and not fucking quitting. So those are the things I shout out the loudest. But I think if you read my lyrics close enough, you see the dark and depressing and melancholy and struggles and crumminess. I’ve talked about that a little bit but I’ve never really opened up. But if I have a moment to speak to somebody—if I have seconds to say something—I’m not gonna say that I get bummed out in traffic. I’m gonna say something like “don’t be afraid to be alive.”
I know you’re a big fan of Jawbreaker and The Replacements. One thing those bands have in common is a tumultuous history that makes them intriguing. It adds to the lore. In your very short time, you’ve had lineup changes and rotating members. When you look back, do you think that’ll be a part of the Beach Slang history?
Sure. I think it already is. I remember after Salt Lake City happened, we were being accused of Replacements cosplay. All bands are on the cusp of breaking up at all times. I’ve heard that quote somewhere, I forget who said it. We’re just maybe a more extreme example of that. I don’t know that we can hold a steady lineup together. I don’t know what it is about it—we tour pretty much nonstop, I don’t know if it’s that. I’ve loved some people I’ve played with, not all, but some. I’m sad that some of those folks are gone. It’ll certainly be a part of the story because at this point I don’t know if you can separate the two. For a year, every interview I did was about Salt Lake and our members. Now it’s sort of an accepted thing that [Beach Slang] is James and whoever.
Is that how you see it?
I think at this point I do because it might be safer, emotionally and professionally, to think of it that way. I can’t expect people that come on tours and give up their life for this dumb fucking dream of mine. I hope that they hang on. I’ve played with Aurore [Ounjian, guitarist] and Cully [Symington, drums] for the last year or so and we’ve played a lot of shows. So I hope they hang around, but I temper that with: They could split tomorrow. I’m trying to reframe it in that maybe this revolving energy is a good thing for the band. Or maybe that’s me trying to cover up for being sad.
So how does this Quiet Slang side fit into that?
I think it’s a dumb aside I’ve had for a long time. The way I’ve described it in the press release was: if Beach Slang is my adoration for Westerberg, Quiet Slang is me head over heels for Stephin Merritt. I love those two worlds equally. We toured so much in one year and people were leaving or had to leave, it felt time for something a little more still. I’ve been talking about it like Beach Slang being like getting drunk on a Saturday night and Quiet Slang is looking for salvation on Sunday morning. Maybe I needed that pause. The two EPs and the two LPs all felt like a collective work to me. It could’ve been one record. So I was like, “How do I push away from that?” So I pushed into a different place because I wanted to see how much room I had to work with in this thing called Beach Slang.
I imagine at this point you’re thinking in the long term. Do you have a plan of what to do with Beach Slang?
LP3 is sort of a defining moment. Rock and roll is the only thing I love doing. I like doing design but I love doing rock and roll. But as much as I love it, man, I don’t want to stay in it past its expiration date. There’s something about bowing out gracefully that makes sense. I don’t mean to be overly ‘Matsy here, but I watched an interview with Westerberg the other day where he said, “We knew we didn’t want to be big, but we knew we didn’t want to quit.” I feel like that’s where I’m at. I don’t want to stay in when people don’t want me. Even if there was a moment—six months of this band that mattered to somebody—I’d want that to be remembered, not when I tried to hang on for three years too long.
Would you ever do something off the wall? A pop record or something?
LP3 is that jump, Dan. I have it just about written, at least its melody and form.
And you’re gonna hold it for two years?
I have to. That’s what I’m being told. But yeah, this sort of is the one where it’s more thoughtful. I think that has to happen. That’s not to say it’s going to dramatically change lyrically, because that’s who I am, but it sounds different, man. And I hope people dig it. But even in its really horribly lo-fi demo version, I’m really proud of it. I’m really excited to put it out.
In what way do you think it’s different?
It’s poppier, I think it’s gonna be cleaned up more. I’m not gonna co-produce. I’m gonna bring in people who have gone to the place where I might blue-sky dream. I’ve been lucky in that a bunch of producers in that world have reached out about working with it. I’m gonna let go a little bit. I just feel like I’m ready to try that.
Do you feel like you’ve hit a wall?
As a writer, no. I think with two EPs, two LPs, that wall has been hit. If I try to do that again, it just feels fucking lazy. I know you can get inside your head sometimes and make this rock opus and nobody gives a damn about it but you. It’s very masturbatory to follow that pursuit, but I suppose that’s all we have. As a writer, a painter, a musician, you chase the thing you feel. If we don’t do that, we’re cheating ourselves and we’re cheating the people who care about it. People have tattoos of this thing, and I don’t want to fuck it up for them, I really don’t.
Is anything you’re doing influenced by the fact that you’re not 22 anymore and don’t have those leisures of youth?
Oh, sure, man. Almost everything. At this point, it’s influenced by time, it’s influenced by my kids, and it’s influenced my love for it, which will never go away. But, right, there’s a certain desperation that comes with this age and this point in my life, to make something of a mark before I split. That’s why I feel like these two years of not putting a record out, if I were 22, I’d be like, “Eh, fuck it, what’s two years?” But here, I’m kinda like, “Come on! I gotta move!”
How old are you now?
I’m in my mid-40s. So I gotta keep moving. But I always come back to this, too: Bukowski really started getting published at 35 and he finally had something worth saying. The stuff I was writing when I was a teenager or early 20s, it was goofy and fun and all that stuff but I don’t know that it was making the artistic thing I want to make as I get older. So I feel like I needed to get to this spot to have something to say. And I feel like now I’m just sort of whispering down the alley and handing the torch to kids who are younger.