Alex G Is Learning How to Be Famous (Without Really Trying)
Two days of reflection with the 22-year-old songwriter in advance of his Domino debut, 'Beach Music'
Leaning over a pool table in a nondescript house on a dusty block on the border of his native Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, eyeing all available angles, Alex Giannascoli doesn’t project a particularly remarkable image. He’s slightly built, draped loosely in a faded blue t-shirt emblazoned with a toothlessly grinning skull on a breast pocket. His greasy black hair’s a little overgrown in the back, the result of a set-it-and-forget-it sort of short haircut that’s gone untouched just a little too long.
He lines up his cue, taking aim at a polished green six ball on a far corner of the table and gives a rough thwack. But he’s miscalculated a bit. Both cue ball and six rebound off of a rail and into a far corner of a table, where the seven, another solid, is nestled up against the corner pocket. The six slows to a crawl, but then tap: It hits the seven, and he’s sunk it. Sort of by accident. He’s not a virtuoso, but he knows just enough to get the job done.
The 22-year-old songwriter, with his shrugging demeanor and bootcut jeans, pretty much fits the image of the archetypal college dropout. That’s appropriate for Alex G, as he’s modestly known, both because he is that literally, after leaving Temple University permanently last year to tour, and because we’re engaged in a Sunday afternoon activity befitting a slower world, sitting around playing pool for hours while friends hanging around pack bowls and clean up stray beer cans — the fratty remnants of a wiffle ball tournament from the night before. I bump into a particularly precarious pile of cans and Alex’s mustachioed occasional drummer Scotty Leitch, who lost his wallet and keys in the night’s blur (and whose house and pool table we’re currently occupying), dryly offers me a warning: “Don’t knock over the art display.”
And yet, domestic and mundane as this July scene — with its endearing trash, pungent smoke, and beat-up couches — may be, there’s a certain nervy electricity around the afternoon’s proceedings. Tonight at Philly’s First Unitarian Church, they’ll be playing new songs for a hometown crowd for the first time in nearly a year, this time drawn from a release that’ll undoubtedly reach ears worldwide.
Alex has spent the last seven years or so unceremoniously uploading works of tossed-off guitar-pop brilliance to his Bandcamp page, each a little more polished and a little more developed than the last. Beginning with Easy and Race, meek collections he recorded entirely by himself as a 16-year-old, through Trick, one of the two gnarled albums he released in 2013, you can hear him slowly figuring out how to use his modest recording gear — usually just a single microphone in whatever room he’s living in at the time — and slowly scrubbing off the sonic barnacles. Underneath the veils and the gauze were pained tales of young love, triple sixes and drug deals, iced-up ballads of boredom and suburban malaise. “I don’t want to be a dark dude, but it’s something that I can express — that I like to express,” he says. “And I guess that’s how [the darkness] comes out.”
Last year, an LP called DSU — released on tiny Brooklyn label Orchid Tapes — cemented his sound, a brilliantly stoned version of ’90s indie-rock structures. It’s a disorienting mix that’s won over a slew of fans on the Internet, and then even hallowed label Domino Records, current home of modern-day icons like Animal Collective and Arctic Monkeys. He inked a deal earlier this year and will release his latest LP, Beach Music, only his second to get a proper release, with them on October 9. “It’s really weird,” he says of his new label home, cognizant of how far he’s come since he was just sending his songs straight to the Internet. “I always feel like I’m doing something wrong. They were just asking me if it was OK with advertising for the album. ‘Are you OK with Facebook advertising? YouTube advertising?’ I mean, yeah, sure. It’s weird.”
It’s only been a year since the release of DSU, but it’s been a busy one, having to tour hard and confront this newly commercial world. As his most acclaimed release to date, that record launched him into higher demand as a live act than ever before. He spent most of the immediate aftermath period on the road both on longer headlining stints, selling out small-capacity venues for the first time, and taking extended treks opening for kindred guitar-toting weirdos in Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Speedy Ortiz.
After transitioning from full-time studenthood and a menial job in construction, he’s moved up in the world. “My job is to play shows for people that like my s**t now,” he says with a grin, awkwardly fumbling toward an explanation. “Before it was just my thing that I did. Now it’s still my thing that I do because it’s my only thing.” He’s unable to form his thoughts into statements of intent he’s happy with, and he’ll consequently ask me to refrain from quoting him directly as much as I can. He’s just another kid, but one who’s writing better songs than pretty much anyone else his age. He’s not playing stadiums by any means, but it’s been a relatively meteoric rise for Giannascoli, who previous to 2014 had played most of his shows in houses and basements in Philadelphia and New Jersey — including, on numerous occasions, in the living room of the very house we’re presently standing in.
You know how it goes if you’ve ever been there, the room fills with cigarette smoke, kids pile onto a staircase and swing their legs under the banister, bottles of whiskey are passed among friends, while residents take the opportunity to hawk shots of Georgi for a couple bucks a pop. Things get sweaty, messy, and drunk, and then there’s Alex at the front of the room, singing his way through drugged-up nostalgia ballads like “Change,” or “Forever,” which in the hands of the local youths screaming along turn into pure gospel, reducing me to blubbers and tears. Then, he and his band offer the stammering punchline: a poorly rehearsed, haphazard cover of Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life.” He’ll let you have your feelings, but his worldview is too hidden, too complicated to let you just wallow.
But that was Halloween 2013, and Alex can’t do that now. He tells me that the last time they played in Scotty’s house, in March, between marathon tours, their appearance had to be kept hush-hush. Kids would’ve been lined up and down Scotty’s otherwise sleepy block; his neighbors would’ve been pissed. So they played to just friends, in secret. “That’s the best kind of show, when you’re with a bunch of people who you know,” he says. “If I don’t think about it, I don’t miss it. But I don’t not miss it.”
That’s been the struggle for Alex as he continues this strange rise, learning to not think about the way things have changed, which he’s gone on record as not liking all that much. We’re gathered at Scotty’s house ostensibly to gather up a drum kit for the night’s show. Alex and his current band, which also includes longtime guitarist Sam Acchione and bassist John Heywood, will play their first show at the Church, a local DIY institution and a space probably 15 times the size of Leitch’s living room.
Giannascoli’s excited to be playing on the same stage where he saw some formative shows as a kid — including, most notably and most curiously, the totemic keyboard-prog of Sunset Rubdown. But either way, the show is representative of something for Alex, undoubtedly the biggest sold-out hometown gig he’s played thus far.
We make a pair of stops along the way, to pick up Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker, the teenaged duo of recent Philly transplants who’ve come to fame as Girlpool, who are also playing tonight’s show. They chatter with Sam and Alex, who they’ve become friends with after playing a handful of shows together at this year’s SXSW. Tividad will later fondly recall sloppily covering Sheryl Crow with the Alex G band in the wee hours of a Texas morning, a funny thought, given the outright seriousness of both bands’ material, and that most of the players would’ve been toddlers at the peak of Crow’s fame.
We make it to the church and Alex takes a chance to slink away from the others to chat about the new record. Like all of his albums, he explains, Beach Music is just the strongest batch of songs culled from a period of home recording. He tracked guitar at the apartment he was living at before all of the touring, as well as at his parents’ place in the nearby suburb of Havertown; he recorded keyboards over at his girlfriend Molly’s place, and drums at Scotty’s. He’ll record when he can, where he can, like it’s nothing special. But it is.
From those same simple origins come his most florid collection of songs yet. Though he’s had friends like the similarly placid songwriter Emily Yacina contribute small parts to his work before, Beach Music is his first release bolstered by outside help. The record was mixed and mastered by Jake Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and, as a result, Alex’s hollow and desperate guitar lines are given a weight to match his heady tales of familial love and romantic pain. “I always thought, ‘Oh yeah, I do the best s**t that can be done with my materials,’ but [it turns out] that’s not true,” he says, laughing.
Part of Alex’s appeal has always been in the deftness with which he conjured quality recordings out of limited means. Even when amateurish keyboard sounds threaten to undercut the delicacy of a track, he comes in with beautiful barbs about teenage years spent “sick from being underfed.” These are songs that are brilliant both because they feel achievable, the sort of simply aching balladry you might think you’re capable of with some practice, but then a lyric or two — like the desperate portrayal of infatuation on “In Love” — or a fluttering guitar riff will come along to prove you wrong. Beach Music is, in that sense, probably the most deceptive of all of his releases, a home-recorded album that sounds like it could’ve been cut to analog tape, and a collection of simple, bleary lyricism that somehow manages to feel both intimately familiar and idiosyncratic.
He says it’s important to note that the early songs, with their teenage fatalism (he recorded every album prior to DSU before he turned 20) and the surrealist songwriting, aren’t exactly from his own perspective. But after seeing him reach into his curdled falsetto on Beach Music’s “Station” before a crowd of adoring Philadelphians, it’s hard not to think that there’s some part of himself in it. “I’ve got money and I’ve got fame, the only thing I need is someone to blame,” he screams, defeatedly. He pauses between songs, calls his band “incredible” and says their work is “noble,” then violently tosses himself into Leitch’s drumset. Everyone in the crowd loses it. He’s famous. He’s bruised. Show’s over.
A week later, in August, he’s wandering through the hodgepodge of overpriced ephemera at the sprawling Brooklyn Flea, an environment that almost makes more sense than seeing Alex in his hometown. He’s entered the echelon of acts that are recognizable enough to draw fans that might otherwise see themselves as above such an artisanal affair. Sipping a hot coffee in the 90-degree heat (he says it cools you down, sure), he reflects on the hectic end to his previous show.
The winking self-aggrandizement and self-destruction have become something of a staple of his otherwise staid live persona, something that, when taken with that lyric from “Station,” I suspect might be a result of a discomfort with being out of the basement, of having unfamiliar eyes on him at all times. The sort of thing that causes kids to yell, “It’s him!” as he walks down the street, as a gangly boy in a Black Flag shirt did — awkwardly, repeatedly — before the Philly show. “I just understand [the reaction] now a little more,” he says. “When I was a younger person, if I met someone that I was listening to pretty devoutly, I’d be at a loss for words. But I guess I don’t want to confront it.”
Back in 2013 he released a song called “People” that outlines aspirations of some sort, a rare moment where he allowed himself to take stock of what he wanted out of all this prolificacy and home tinkering. “I wanna be anything on TV,” he sings, maybe just a hair less ironically than you might expect. “I wanna be famous.”
It seems borderline prophetic now. Though he’s yet to make the jump to late-night television, with the weight of Domino (and those YouTube ads) behind him it’s easy to imagine that being a possibility. Everything’s coming together even if, when he wrote the song, he was conflicted about what he could reasonably achieve. “I was like, ‘Dude, I think I’m making good s**t, or else I wouldn’t be making it. I bet other people are going to like this s**t.'”
They did and they do. “But then I’m like, ‘Don’t think about it, don’t get your hopes up because…’” He trails off, suddenly coming to a realization. “It’s just my reality now.”