Each day this week, Noisey is announcing and discussing one of the five artists we believe defined 2015. The fourth Artist of the Year is Beach Slang. Follow along here all week and in the weeks ahead for more end-of-year discussion.
Right after Beach Slang formed last year and recorded their first four songs, the band’s frontman James Alex and his wife Rachel picked up and left Philadelphia, moving 3,000 miles away to Los Angeles, with seemingly no plans to return.
The songs would become an EP, Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken?, released as a seven-inch by independent punk label Dead Broke Rekerds, with only 650 copies printed. Alex’s expectations for them weren’t just low, they were non-existent, as he made abundantly clear to the label’s owner Mike Bruno, a friend of the band who saw potential in them and asked to release the tracks. “We talked to Mike and explained to him that I was moving, because we didn’t want him to lose money on it,” remembers Alex. “At that point, we were thinking, ‘We’re never going to play shows to support this thing.’”
The next year would prove Alex very, very wrong. Not only would Beach Slang play those songs in front of people, the band would become rock’s fastest rising stars.
It’s hard to blame Alex for his apprehension. Throughout the 90s, he played in the pop punk act Weston, a band that grinded away for years, touring to support multiple albums, but never really striking it big, and garnering only a modest fanbase. Additionally, while Philadelphia’s current punk scene is a hotbed of talented indie bands, no one from the City of Brotherly Love really expects to get rich and famous playing music. But to his surprise, Beach Slang’s EP, and the subsequent EP, Cheap Thrills On A Dead End Street, released just five months later, struck immediate chords with critics and built the band a dedicated fanbase almost overnight. There was something intangibly special about Beach Slang, like Alex had unleashed some inner, quiet strength he’d been holding onto in the years since moving on from Weston. Whatever it was, it caught on fast, almost faster than they could handle.
“I never saw myself getting a second shot at this,” Alex admits about a career in music. “But here it is, it’s happening. I’m an optimist to a fault, and it was kind of a no-brainer. It became so apparent that there was something to this, and it was like, ‘Yeah, I gotta throw the dice on this.’ So, a couple of months after the seven-inch came out, I moved back home.”
On the strength of just eight songs, the band inked a deal to be booked by the Agency Group, toured the US and Europe with bands like Cursive, Knapsack, and Modern Baseball, played nearly every major punk festival in North America, and were heavily courted by a slew of record labels. Their live shows had the energy of a band that had been around for a decade, with packed rooms screaming along to their songs like they were old classics. There were already fans getting their lyrics tattooed on their bodies. Beach Slang had become a movement and had yet to even record an album.
With this overwhelming momentum headed into 2015, Beach Slang kicked off the year by signing with indie stalwart Polyvinyl Records, and generated a massive level of excitement around their first full-length, The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, an album whose pre-sales topped any release in the history of the label, which boasts acts like Japandroids, of Montreal, and American Football. The anticipation and buzz around the band set expectations almost impossibly high. But amazingly, upon its release the day before Halloween, The Things We Do… found instant success and became one of the most—if not the most—critically beloved rock record of 2015. Pitchfork granted it an 8.0, SPIN and Stereogum both made it their album of the week, and others like Rolling Stone, NPR, Paste, The AV Club, and of course, we at Noisey happily piled onto the praise heap. Right before Grantland felt the cold, cruel axe of ESPN, they dedicated their final music feature to the band, calling them “2015’s best, most sincere rock band.” Beach Slang truly became the unlikely artists of the year.
Beach Slang had been previously likened to Jawbreaker, the Replacements, and early Goo Goo Dolls, but on their first full-length, the band reached territory that usually takes two or three albums to achieve. The loud guitars, huge choruses, and buzzing atmosphere that drove those initial comparisons were still there, but so was a tendency to experiment, and more often than not, they hit the mark.
While musically, The Things We Do… combined all the right elements of tried-and-true rock methods with their own fierce but fragile style, the band’s lyrics have become the real focal point among fans. To say Alex wears his heart on his sleeve with his words is a gross understatement. Most of them are so ridiculously saccharine that were they coming out of anyone else’s mouth, they’d be laughably cheesy. But Alex—whose penchant for red jeans, argyle sweaters, and button-covered navy blazers, combined with his clumsy, boyish mannerisms, give him the look and presence of a punk schoolboy—delivers lines like “good love is not safe” and “I’m always that kid, always out of place” with such blindingly naïve sincerity that it comes off as nothing but charming. Alex moves seamlessly between self-deprecation (“I’m a nowhere bum, I’m dumb, I don’t mind”), nostalgia (“I feel most alive when I’m listening to every record that hits harder than the pain”), and optimism (all of “Young and Alive”).
It’s hard to say what it is exactly that resonates among fans. Ask ten different people and you might get ten different answers. An older fan might embrace the band’s sense of nostalgia. A younger one might point to their indomitable youthful spirit. They’re modern but classic, innovative but timeless. Beach Slang is whatever you want them to be.
Though Beach Slang’s success in 2015 may seem insular, its implications spread much deeper. The band is a testament to what can be done with nothing but a few chords in a garage—living proof that rock and roll is still alive and that any band has a shot at it. Write a song, play it loud, conquer the world. The music industry is fickle, but the meteoric rise of a band like Beach Slang in just over a year shows a power that transcends the reach of publicists, booking agents, managers, and music writers—it’s the power of a good, honest song. And at 41, James Alex himself, with his heartfelt positivity so relentless that it borders on caricature, is a hard-strumming reminder that it’s never too late to chase rock dreams—to strap on a guitar and leap recklessly across the stage with it. Beach Slang is not just a band you can listen to, they’re a band you can be.
This is not lost on the members. Polyvinyl label manager Seth Hubbard says that part of what makes the band so special is that they’re so wide-eyed and genuine about their success. “They’re just over the moon about every little thing that happens,” he says. “And it feels so sincere and genuine and not just some put-on. To the core, that’s the way they operate… it’s really endearing and it makes you want to work just that much harder for them.”
“We still come to a show very sincerely and honestly thinking to ourselves, ‘Is anyone going to show up?’” Alex says. “A very common thing we get from our managers and booking agent is, ‘You guys really don’t have any sense of what’s happening to you, do you?’ And the truth is that we really don’t.”
While 2015 has been—to quote the title of one of their songs—like riding a wild haze for Beach Slang’s members—JP Flexner, Ed McNulty, and Ruben Gallego, for Alex in particular, it has been a monumental year. He and his wife Rachel recently had their first child, Oliver. “I’m hungrier these days for reasons bigger than myself,” Alex says. “I feel the weight of responsibility. That’s somebody I’m going to love inherently more than myself, and I get to see the world innocently again. The wind blows or something, and he freaks out because he doesn’t understand the concept of wind.”
For Beach Slang, this is only the beginning. Alex divulges that he’s already written half of the songs for their follow-up record, they’re going to Europe three times next year, and have plans for a damn-near world tour in support of The Things We Do to Find People Like Us. Not too shabby for a band that tried to sabotage the release of its own EP just to save the guy releasing it a few bucks.
“I’m not naive to the fact that it’s happening,” Alex maintains. “I just don’t want it to go away anytime soon.”