"Now I know everything," Alex Giannascoli sings on "Poison Root," the first track on his new album as (Sandy) Alex G, Rocket. He mutters it 13 times in total. The track clatters and flickers around him: dogs barking, banjo arpeggios, a violin bouncing about in staccato. Melodies spring up, the beginnings of phrases that never find conclusions. Almost everything misses a quarter-beat. The only things that stay in time are the simple, strummed chords of Giannascoli's acoustic guitar and a piano's bass note, crashing in when the song begins to swell up, drowning out his all-consuming mantra. He keeps repeating the line—"Now I know everything / Now I know everything"—but it remains a barely audible murmur in the major-key chaos until, suddenly, everything cuts.
Rocket, Giannascoli's seventh studio album, is kaleidoscopic. It fractures and fragments, new ideas appearing in the periphery, its focus shifting, constantly offering new colors and shapes. It's the sound of (Sandy) Alex G knowing everything 13 times in a row and then, suddenly, knowing nothing at all.
"The older I'm getting, the more I'm getting a writer's block or something," he tells me over dim sum at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan's Chinatown, playing with some wooden chopsticks as chili oil bleeds across his plate. "It's harder to come up with an idea that I feel is truly original." He doubts himself as he goes. "Or something like that. You know what I mean? Just because the older I get, the more I see through my own pretension. It's going to probably to take me longer and longer the older I get[...] You just get older and wiser and see your own bullshit."
At 24 years old, now preparing to release his seventh studio album and his second for legendary British indie Domino—the label that launched Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand—Giannascoli's encounter with artistic futility, the thought that everything worth doing has been done, makes sense. He's been so prolific in the seven years since the release of his home-recorded debut RACE that he's been branded a prodigy. In 2014, around the release of his cult breakthrough DSU, The Fader dubbed him "the internet's secret best songwriter." A year later, Grantland called the amount of music that he released on Bandcamp "ungodly." It's not that everyone else has written the good songs already—Giannascoli has written a lifetime's worth himself.
His solution to this problem on Rocket is to veer off into uncharted sonic territory. He's toyed with other genres on previous albums, incorporating brief experiments into records of guitar-led indie rock. But here, he's more than curious—he's restless. Lounge music swings, stabs of harsh noise, and R&B interludes come through, one after another, occasionally lingering for a moment, elsewhere forming the basis for a track. And when the album settles, the guitars themselves are different—country inflections rather than 10-Watt bedroom electrics.
It's the result of persistence, mostly. "It's just got to hit at the right time," he tells me, taking a first swig from a bottle of beer. "I'm sure I've played the chords to "Proud" so many times and have been, like, 'fuck this' and left. Then one day I woke up and played it and all of a sudden it just sounds great. It's tricky. It's a lot of chance. You just got to be hungover and something works really well. Or you've got to be totally clean and wake up and feel amazing and play something that works. It's all about your perception. It's not about the objective quality of the music."
He insists that he doesn't cull an idea if it doesn't fit at first, even when the doubt lingers. "Right when I finish a song and listen to it back and I like it, then I'm, like, psyched. Then I think I'm the coolest person on earth. 'This is like the best music ever made!' And then the next day I'm like 'that's trash' and I'll keep it anyways. I think right when I finish I listen back and it's the best feeling. I don't know. I convince myself and I see through myself the next day."
"I think I'm just concerned with not doing anything so I do it. It's like going to work. It's work but I like it. That's what I'm saying, you know? I feel like it's my identity at this point. If I don't do it, I feel lost."
"I just don't really think about it. There's one part of me that's like why not just stay hungry the whole time and another part of me where maybe put out another record or two and maybe work outside and not think about the whole music machine. The whole social machine is really frustrating. The politics of friendship. There's that and then there's, why not keep hustling the whole time? You only get one."
Music is a compulsion for Giannascoli. A brilliant kid growing up in Havertown, Pennsylvania, he mostly coasted through school with top grades without having to dedicate his life to his studies. He worked on music instead, begging his parents for piano lessons in the third grade, moving into GarageBand compositions when they bought him a Mac at age 13, and moving towards a more recognizable 90s indie style as he grew through high school. His older siblings, Rachel and David, would pass music down to him—first the indie canon, then more niche local acts. Giannascoli still hangs on Rachel's word today. "My sister could show me the worst band and I would just like it," he tells me. "If she says it's good, then I think it's good."
2010's RACE was an indie rock record with jagged compositional edges hidden beneath its lo-fi production; 2011's WINNER and the following year's RULES laid down what seemed like a blueprint, calling back to Pacific Northwest indie rock. It played out in a comfortably closed environment: a public endorsement came from Elvis Depressedly's Mat Cothran, local blogs picked up on the kid with the relentless release schedule and unkempt hair, but Giannascoli remained a cult, local songwriter. He was still a sophomore at Temple University when he released TRICK in 2012, an album that tampered with the format, skewing occasionally into gentle funk sounds and experimental electronics.
The breakout came on 2014's DSU, a record that flickered between Joyce references, gentle pianos, muffled noise, video game funk bass, and a wider vocal range from the singer ("Icehead"'s pitched-up electro-falsetto, for example, is beautiful and absurd). That's when the accolades came in and the "prodigy" went quietly national. Even Rivers Cuomo praised the then-21-year-old in the Rolling Stone, telling the magazine that "Harvey," a DSU cut, was "really nice and intriguing[…] something you could listen to over and over again." It was a little condescending, but he might have been onto something when he said of Giannascoli, "perhaps when he matures a little more he'll learn the old Abbey Road trick and stick a bunch of the fragments together and call it a master work." Beach Music, his 2015 Domino debut, was darker, more pensive, stranger, and more engrossing. In parts, the synths were harsher, the mix was muggier, his either bitter or sardonic. On "Salt," he sang, "I'm happy / Eyeing and tapping / A wrecking ball of fear / I'm lying," indecisive and torn. He even changed the closing lyric from "I want to die" to "I want to fry" so as not to upset his mother. "In Love" was a barroom jazz pastiche, his voice an almost insincere, drunken apology: "I know what I am / Uncertain at best."
The latter half of that could be the implied line that follows "Poison Root"'s all-knowing maxim: knowing everything, knowing uncertainty. Sonically, Rocket picks up on moments in this history, takes a lighter to them, and waits for them to explode. The disparate sonic experiments of the instrumental "Horse" are a mess of pianos and synths and hastily strummed guitars, chopped into pieces and hurled into one another like a TRICK cut played in four locations at once—a wild exaggeration of Cuomo's Abbey Road theory. "Brick" is essentially a hardcore song that wouldn't sound out of place on a B L A C K I E record, Giannascoli grunting indecipherably over an industrial beat, sharp feedback jutting in. The soft verses of "County" call back to Giannascoli's falsetto past before borrowing a bassline and beat from Steely Dan for an instrumental break. "Witch," with its sinister, meandering bass, is the most familiar of all, laced with howling violins that were absent in the past, but every bit insistent and sinister as anything on Beach Music.
The country sounds are less familiar, though. Giannascoli has "always liked" country music—he's cited Lucinda Williams as an inspiration for the folk inflections on previous records—but touring constantly after Beach Music's release, he found that the only consistent station in every state was Top 40 country radio: Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise." Giannascoli won't go looking for those records in Philadelphia, and there's nothing comparable on Rocket—no long tan legs, no ice-cold beer—but parts of the sensibility clicked. Country music, he says, is "unpretentious" and Top 40 country radio is "addicting." It's a natural shift: "It just makes more sense to me now that kind of music. When I was younger, the music that made sense to me the most was Modest Mouse."
These country moments make up Rocket's foundations. "Proud," the jaunty track that kicks in after "Poison Root" cuts out, builds around a Western box piano line and simple acoustic chords. Giannascoli sounds paternal, borrowing phrasing from old movies and singing, "I'm so proud of you / And everything that you do / Doesn't matter what they say / They ain't worth a dollar in change. In fact, he muses explicitly on parenthood, first on "Proud"—"If I sing / I don't wanna be the one to leave by baby out without no bottle to drink"—and then on "Powerful Man," a track that errs towards the American Primitivist guitar of Robbie Basho and Jack Rose. "I ain't ever raised a baby," he sings there, "but I bet I'd do a good job if I did."
Giannascoli says that some of this is character work. He tries to obscure his presence—"I like to think that I mask everything enough that no one is going to make too many assumptions about me," he says—but he doesn't want to disappear completely. "It's not like, 'Alright, I'm going to sit down and write a song today from the perspective of this person.'" He cites "Powerful Man" as a track that started out in his voice and ended up elsewhere. "It kind of devolved into this child-like perspective, stuck with that, and then fleshed out[…] It's all me or people I know. It's something I really can sit inside of."
Occasionally, however, the mask slips completely. On "Bobby," a spare, devastating track about depression and mutual dependence, the perspective isn't childlike or hypothetical. Emily Yacina sings harmonies behind Giannascoli throughout, a perfect mirror for the lyrical half-sentences. They begin an anecdote together but can't see it through: "Do you forget when we first met? / You grabbed my hand / I tore your dress." The story just just gives in: "I felt things I cannot express." Its fiddles and slow guitars should sound laconic, but instead there's an heavy urgency to every note, the sound of serious toil, two people desperately struggling to form coherent thoughts in the middle of despair. When the chords begin to liven up towards the end, when the guitars signal a resolution, nothing is restored. There's just more doubt, more fear. "I know what you're doing / I know what you're doing / I know you / I know you / I know you, I tell you what…" It's closest that Giannascoli—any indie songwriter—has come to writing a perfect song.
In person, Giannascoli is honest and squeamish about his own honesty. He thinks about every question for a few seconds before answering, ripping into a pork bun or sipping his beer while he thinks. Then he says things like, "I guess I'm trying to be honest and that's something I guess that gives me a little angst."
"I'm just thinking about how you have to get older and fake it a lot," he says. "It's like I'm putting on a show, being pretentious, pulling shit out of my ass all the time, trying to keep people interested in the hopes of trying to make enough money to feed myself and someone else. I'm sure that's a theme in most people's lives. I'm just getting to the age where it's like, what's more important in the end? Some ideal? Or, 'Fuck it I got paid.'"
Suddenly, Giannascoli is a utilitarian. He says this all with a shrug, never breaking eye contact. He's not resentful, he's just trying to see the other side of his reality: "When I'm trying to write a song and I'm like 'Oh I'm mad about this and then I got to sit and do my taxes for fucking two hours. Paying everyone their checks. It doesn't add up, this glamorized vision or version of a tortured songwriter. Some dude just trying to pay the bills."
He looks around the room and checks himself, again. "I don't know what exactly I'm trying to say."
"Maybe it seems that way for a music person because typically I should be tripping acid and talking about space or something like that. I wouldn't consider myself more responsible than somebody else. Everyone thinks about this shit. But I'm still a flake. I'm trying to sing about some nature or aspect of my life."
Early last year, shortly before a show in London, Giannascoli received an email from Frank Ocean's manager, asking if he'd be interested in working on the follow-up to Channel Orange. This was when Ocean was still a recluse, teasing music and then retreating. Giannascoli met with him in London the next day and laid down some guitar tracks almost immediately. After that, he recorded contributions to what would become Endless and Blond, flying to Los Angeles from Philadelphia every couple of months. You can hear Giannascoli's guitar on Endless's "Slide on Me," "Rushes," and Wither; on Blond, he's present on "Self-Control" and "White Ferrari."
"It was cool," he says now. "It was more like he had me just sit with his tracks and riff on them and come up with chord progressions and stuff. I shouldn't take much credit for it as far as finished product. It was all him. I just don't want people to think it's just me a Frank working on a song. He had me record a guitar and it's all his vision."
Giannascoli's process on Rocket wasn't dissimilar. There are guest contributions from a handful of friends, something that Giannascoli has historically been extremely sparing with, preferring complete control. Ocean's role as orchestrator and inspiration—"He said 'do your thing' and he picked out what he liked," as Giannascoli puts it—opened up new possibilities.
But there's more to it than process. In the middle of Rocket, immediately after the industrial brutality of "Brick," is "Sportstar." It bears all of Ocean's hallmarks: simple, descending piano chords; a gentle, pulsating bass drum beat; swirls of guitars in single-note distortion. Giannascoli's voice is auto-pitched up a couple octaves again. The verses call back to Ocean's Blond opener "Nikes," the non-verbal warbles only noticeable as voice not guitar on close inspection, just as they are on Ocean's "Pyramids."
The characters are knotted together. In the verses, Giannascoli's protagonist is in thrall to someone else, accepting abuse: "Sportstar, If you want me, I'll call / If you want me to fall / I'll fall[…] Let me tie your Nikes." Eventually, it's explicit: "If you want to hurt me / Hurt me." But in the chorus, the song exhales and relaxes and a less distorted voice emerges, defiant and abrupt. The voice repeats the line: "I play how I wanna play / I say what I wanna say." On record, it sounds like the voice of the sportstar himself, echoing around the protagonist's head before he offers himself up. On "Sportstar," again, he's cut into two pieces: the "coolest person on earth" one moment, a transparent kid the next; certain of himself and then suddenly fearful. There's no resolution to "Sportstar," just an aphorism about death: "I don't wanna live long / Just strong."
And that's just fine. With Rocket, Giannascoli has found a series of routes through the fear that everything has been done; the map he's drawn out has hundreds of roads, winding away in different directions; each of those paths leads somewhere new, somewhere he's yet to fully sketch out. The joy of following Giannascoli around this strange territory isn't found in the hope that he'll realize himself when he gets there or that he'll reconcile his disparate, conflicting personas—it's in the freedom he's found to veer off-course at all. We spend hours scrolling through our Facebook feeds, wondering why everyone else is a mile ahead of us in life; maybe that road isn't worth walking down at all. "I guess the hope is that people will like me or something," he tells me. "I feel like when I did it as a kid it was to be super personal and people would hear it and be, like, 'That's cool.'" He checks back on himself one last time; there's no need to figure that out just yet. "I don't know. Why the fuck would I do that?"
Alex Robert Ross is also named Alex. Follow him on Twitter.
Correction: This article originally stated that "Harvey" was on the album TRICK_. It was_ on DSU. And on "Salt," Giannascoli sings "I want to fry," not "I want to fly."