Blood, humility, punk-rock and fatherhood: Inside Beach Slang’s ‘Noisy Heaven’
My brother called me from Boston at 1:30 a.m. the other night, barely able to contain his excitement with a story of rock-n-roll badassery unlike any other.
He had just left a concert where the band was forced to start late because they couldn’t find the drugs they needed for the show. After the singer pleaded with the crowd, a hero in the back of Great Scott, the Allston, MA venue, rose to the occasion and saved the show by crowdsurfing his personal stash to the stage.
When the open roll of TUMS reached the thankful bassist, the singer announced that this interaction had officially fucked up the band’s chapter in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
Arguably, anti-rock star occurrences like these are exactly why it deserves its own chapter.
The band was Beach Slang, the most exciting new act of 2015. Despite its debut full-length album, The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, which came out in October to near-universal acclaim, the Philadelphia-based band is still headlining four-band billings at small clubs. The members tour with no road crew and run the merchandise table themselves, and from time to time, they need a little help from the crowd because they suffer from stomach aches, too.
Rolling Stone Magazine and Pitchfork both praised The Things We Do, which signifies a rare agreement across the corporatized and hipster sectors of the review world. Vice’s music site Noisey recently called Beach Slang one of its artists of the year.
“The thing we decided when we started on this whole thing would be humility would guide the ship,” said James Alex, singer, guitarist and songwriter for Beach Slang. “We haven’t lost focus of that. We won’t.”
Alex was dressed in a baggy black sweatshirt that read “Born A Bad Seed” when we spoke in a drafty side stairwell at Portland’s Analog Theater on Nov. 11. It may sound like a treatment reserved for journalists, but Alex treats everyone as if he has known them for years and often greets complete strangers with a hug. He is a soft-spoken individual who talks with his relaxed “beach slang” style that differs from his singing voice.
He admits that he adopted his gritty singing style after he read about how, when The Beatles recorded “Helter Skelter,” Paul McCartney screamed outside for 30 minutes to make his voice more gruff. Using a guitar capo also affects the timbre of his bellows.
“If I place the capo higher, my voice just starts to naturally gravel up because I’m straining it,” Alex said. “My doctor probably hates me, but I love how it sounds.”
James Alex is a youthful 41-year-old father of a seven-month-old baby boy named Oliver. When Oliver was two weeks old, James had to leave his wife and son for a European tour. At the time, James said Oliver was not yet able to comprehend that he was his father. Leaving Oliver at six months old was more difficult. “I handed him over and he started to cry and reach for me, and that was tough,” Alex said.
It may be hard to imagine leaving a wife and child at home to pursue a career in rock ‘n’ roll, but this is not Alex’s first critically acclaimed band. In 1992, Alex (then known as James Alex Snyder) was invited to join the pop-punk band Weston as the second guitarist and co-vocalist. After releasing The Massed Albert Sounds, Weston’s major label debut, the band broke up. Beach Slang is another promising shot at a career in music, yet having a newborn is not a responsibility Alex takes lightly.
“I’m hungry to give him a good life,” Alex said. “I came up a little rough and tumble, and I don’t want him to have to do that. I have this sensibility now – the world is bigger than me now, and that’s really sweet and cool.”
Beach Slang’s heart-on-the-sleeve songs focus on the curative power of music. As has been said dozens of times by other critics, the songs border on being unlistenably corny (“I feel most alive when I’m listening / To every record that hits harder than the pain,” Alex croons in “Ride The Wild Haze”), but Beach Slang makes them sound like a definitive rock ‘n’ roll manifesto for the people, by the people. This is why Beach Slang’s small-but-loyal following has been singing along to most of the words since its second show as a band.
No band is quite as genuine as Beach Slang. When the members say thank you (which they do quite often), they mean it. During soundcheck before the Portland show, Beach Slang immediately came off as uniquely grateful; after bass guitarist Ed McNulty checked his bass and microphone, he thanked the sound booth operator. Alex followed suit and took time during the show to introduce the sound operator to the audience.
For every performance, Alex wears a signature blue cardigan sweater, looking a bit like Angus Young with red corduroy pants. For as often as he wears the sweater, it would seem like he travels with a closet full of them. That’s not the case.
“Unfortunately, I have one. Yeah. To the band’s dismay. It doesn’t clean well,” he said.
Alex began the show by saying “We’re here to punch you in the heart” before ripping into “Filthy Luck” from the 2014 EP Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken?
Drummer J.P. Flexner sings along to almost every word as he navigates between ride cymbal and floor tom leads. Flexner and Alex have developed a great, unspoken chemistry as Flexner is seemingly able to sense when Alex is about to point for a cymbal crash. At this show, a few of the unchoreographed crashes matched up so well, Alex had to compliment Flexner’s timing.
“We feel like we’re playing to a roomful of friends when we’re onstage,” Alex said after a spontaneous bout of air punches and cymbal attacks, which evoked Pete Townshend and Keith Moon in their prime.
Guitarist Ruben Gallego maintains a quiet stage presence until he sees the chance to pounce with a joke between songs. Throughout the show, he repeatedly played the “Bad To The Bone” guitar riff, which Alex eventually freestyle sang to. On the other end, McNulty rarely stands still, bouncing around the stage with inexhaustible energy, practically punching power chords out of his bass.
Every time Beach Slang plays a song, it feels like they are uncovering a masterpiece for the first time. It’s a raucous experience. Alex said: “When I write songs, that feels like a baptism. When I play, that’s like an exorcism.”
After blasting through the intro of the band’s rowdiest song, “Ride the Wild Haze,” Alex turned around and noticed the giant mirror looming behind Flexner’s drum kit. He stopped everything to made a quick joke about how the “super trippy” mirror threw him off. A quick count-off led into a second take, which felt more anxious, powerful and reminiscent of the rock ‘n’ roll exorcism he teased.
After a few songs, Alex overcame his initial rush of nervous energy and served up more banter with Gallego and McNulty. After “Get Lost,” he joked about wanting to re-record the ending “Ooh-wooh-oohs” with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He and McNulty agreed, then Gallego insisted Axl Rose would be the best to duet with before providing an impression of how it might sound, much to McNulty’s chagrin.
To decompress after this exchange, Alex announced that a new video for “Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas” had premiered that day. Then a fan interrupted: “That’s an awesome song. You should play it.”
“You can’t fight with the kid,” McNulty said with a grin on his face.
Alex invited the fan to tour with the band, offering the last seat in the van: “Why don’t you just come out and drop that every night? That would be beautiful.”
Fans have given Alex a series of pinback buttons to attach to his cardigan, and as he mentioned the Big Star button he had recently received, a woman in the front row handed him a new button for his collection. In disbelief, all he could do was thank the woman with a long hug. Soon after, Alex made a hand gesture to signify that his heart was exploding with love. Gallego wasn’t looking, so Alex repeated the gesture a second time, looking like an excited kid showing off a new trick.
For a punk outfit, Beach Slang is one of the most sincere live bands currently performing, possibly rivaling the Hold Steady for the most positive demeanor. Alex writes songs that remind listeners that “we are not alone, we are not mistakes.” He commonly sings about “kids like us” and “we,” as if simply by listening, the connection is immediately established with the like-minded misfit kids already occupying his “Noisy Heaven.” After seeing Beach Slang live, the album title The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us makes perfect sense.
“I think the Beach Slang thing, by and large, is sort of about remembering that you got knocked down, but really celebrating that you got back up,” Alex said. “I don’t want to dwell in the junk. There’s light. I want to be there.”
When I asked Alex what his ultimate goal of Beach Slang is, he leaned in and said, “I just want to make honest work. Whenever this thing does sort of lose air and go away, I want to be able to look back at it and be like, we really put our hearts out there. I want to be proud of the thing.
“A secondary sort of great thing would be if that paid the bills. I’ve done other things to make a living, and none of them are as fun as playing guitar, but I want to do that with integrity and honesty. I’m not willing to give that away to just make money.”
In the song “Too Late To Die Young,” a disillusioned ballad about the soft side of punk-rock, Alex sings, “I ain’t ever felt loved.” I asked if touring has changed his mind about this, and he replied, “It’s hard not to feel alright doing this thing.”
Underneath the strings of his white Epiphone guitar is a thin splattered layer of dried blood. As Alex decrees in “Throwaways,” the first track of The Things We Do, “There’s a time to bleed and a time just to fucking run.”
Beach Slang has found its time to bleed. With some good fortune, perhaps fans will be able to crowd-surf bandages to the stage when the bleeding gets out of hand.
Follow Craig Wright on Twitter @wgwcraig
Listen to Beach Slang’s “Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas” below.