Philadelphia three-piece, Beach Slang has seen a ton of success lately. If someone hasn’t told you to check out their first two EPs yet, consider this a recommendation. You can catch them at Pygmalion Music Festival in Champaign-Urbana on Friday night at the Channing Murray Foundation.
We talked to frontman James Alex about writing, the band’s recent success, and John Hughes movies. Beach Slang’s first full-length album and first release on Champaign-based label Polyvinyl, is due out this October.
Ghost Track: How was Riot Fest?
James Alex: Ah man, incredible – what a mind blower. We did two of the three, Denver and Chicago, and we did a week run with Tommy Stinson from The Replacements so I’m jazzed up all week, time of my life, and then Chicago Riot Fest is the last show of that run. How are things gonna top this run with Stinson, and then it was just dream show? It was super incredible, the people there were amazing.
We played Chicago a couple times in small places and we felt like, “Hey, we go a little something in Chicago,” but man we never saw that coming. It was great.
Ghost Track: I was checking out your touring schedule, and you guys are super busy. How does that happen off two EPs?
James Alex: I don’t know man. We really chalked this up to dumb luck and rock ‘n’ roll magic. It’s just like, right place at the right time. It makes zero logical sense. How we got to where we got to while on two EPs? I don’t know. We got a really great, super-respected booking agent before we even played a show. Weirdo stuff like that happened.
But like I said, we don’t chalk it up to anything but just luck. There’s a billion bands doing amazing work; were we just standing in the right place at the right time? Maybe. Now we’re just going to hold on tight and just ride it as long as we can, you know?
Ghost Track: Your lyrics are pretty universal and have this dark sort to teenage vibe that throws a lot of people back to high school summers without being cliché or sappy. How do you pull that off?
James Alex: Ah, jeez. I guess I’ve wrote a lot of bad stuff that never made the surface, and maybe I’ve learned to write decently, or maybe I’ve found the right influences, or whatever sort of weirdo chemistry came together.
Rock ‘n’ roll and art is such a weird thing that I never feel I brought anything to the table, I just feel like I got lucky in the same way I feel about the band. I feel like the songs I write, I’m just a guy who picks up his acoustic guitar every day and hits the thing until something sorta falls out of me that makes me stop and think, “Wait, there’s something to that.”
I read this interview with Brian Wilson once, and that guy’s been called a genius more times than whatever. He’s like, ‘I’m not a genius, I’m just a hardworking guy,’ and I just feel like anyone who picks up a guitar as much as I do and hits the thing as much as I do, sooner or later something OK is going to kind of fall out. It’s just that. And I’m surrounding myself with influences that really speak to me, and trying to emulate that and sort of do my weirdo version of that, and I’m having a little bit of luck.
Ghost Track: Who are a few of these influences?
James Alex: If I’m going to boil it down to “who are my three major influences in writing,” it’d be Westerburg, Bukowski, and John Hughes. I always try to write songs like I’m scoring the soundtrack to a John Hughes film. I try to voice it like maybe that broken dreamer, grit-thing like Bukowski would write, now I’ve got those to pieces, then I think, “How would Westerburg put a guitar to this?”
I’m sure I’m falling well short of those brilliant people, but that’s at least what I’m aiming for.
Ghost Track: Who else are you listening too right now? Best album of 2015 so far?
James Alex: I’ll tell you the truth about my life, I think I sort of live in the past. I stay glued to records I kind of came up on. Let me knock it close to home; my friends’ band from Omaha, they’re called See Through Dresses, and they do this really beautiful shoegaze-Smiths, but they do it so well.
That’s a contemporary band I find myself listening to a ton. And the fact that they’re the sweetest people in the world only helps.
Ghost Track: You guys recently signed to Polyvinyl, that’s got to be pretty cool, right?
James Alex: It’s incredible. I remember when we first sort of started this thing and you’re just sort of blue-sky dreaming; you’re the kid with posters hung up on the wall, and I remember us talking about Polyvinyl, but like, total dream. We never really bought into it too much because you don’t want to disappoint yourself, you know?
And one day I just got an email from those guys, and I remember kind of flipping out. We moved it to talking on the phone and it was just super organic. Those guys came up kind of the same way I did: starting a zine, throwing shows, just get it from the ground up. I knew these guys would get how I approached being in a band, and what’s important to me as a musician.
I don’t really care much about money but I really care about the things I make, and I want to be able to make those things in way I’m proud of at the end of the day, and those guys have just been like, ”Take the reins and go make the thing,” really, really true to their word, bunch of sweethearts.
Ghost Track: What are your thoughts on all these articles about the Philly scene as someone who’s experienced it?
James Alex: Yeah man, I’ve seen a good bunch of them for sure. It’s just like one of those take it with a grain of salt sort of things. You know, Philadelphia’s had a great scene for as long as I can remember. The dials are getting turned up on it a bit, but you don’t want to buy into that sort of thing too much, because once the press sort of leaves town and decides, “This is city is now the great rock ‘n’ roll town,” we’re still here. I still want that razor to feel just as sharp when all the hype leaves town.
It’s cool to be a part of it, but I also want to tread very lightly on it being a thing.
Ghost Track: So go to Philly?
James Alex: Exactly.