Beach Slang: The Eternal Optimist
It’s been a big year for Beach Slang. After releasing the compilation album Broken Thrills earlier this year, the Philly four-piece are have finally put out their highly anticipated debut full-length, The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, and they’ve firmly established themselves as one of punk rocks must-watch acts. We caught up with frontman James Alex to chat about the creative process behind their debut, along with the band’s history, and what it means to pick yourself back up when things go bad.
How have you been lately? What have you been up to?
I’ve been great. We leave for tour in a couple of days, so we’re in that last minute hustle. Y’know, making sure all the merch is ready, that we’ve got all our songs tightened up… We’re playing a festival in Florida, and we’re going to do a Jawbreaker cover set there, so we’re making sure that all those covers are as good as they deserve to be for a band that means so much to me. All of that loose-end stuff.
You recently sent us a top 5 list with songs that influenced your songwriting, and it wasn’t a surprise to see both Jawbreaker and the Replacements on there. They’re both obviously huge influences on the band, and I was wondering just what exactly they mean to you personally.
To me, rock’n’roll is holy. I’m a real student of the game, I love it. Everyone I listed – it’s always been like when you put on a record, and you don’t know to what degree, but your life is going to be at least a little different afterwards. All of those bands had that level of impact on me. In one shape or form they gave me what I think to be the little components of how I approach songwriting at this point. With the Replacements it’s that sense of urgency, or the super profound thing the first time I heard Dear You by Jawbreaker – well, I guess “Chesterfield King” is the first song I heard by them. But it was like; I wanted to be a writer before I ever played a guitar. I heard Jawbreaker and thought, “Wow, you can be really literary lyrically and just be raw and loud with your guitars”. And that might be the single thing that really cracked my head open. I don’t have to be a punk or a novelist or a poet; Blake [Schwarzenbach] showed me that you could really exist right in the middle of all those. All of those records changed me for the better and really informed how I was going to write. With Joy Division, I wasn’t trying to be a prodigy on the guitar, I was just trying to find the three notes that are going to resonate with somebody. Just all those ways that those records informed me are just little things like that.
Congrats on making it onto SPIN’s 50 Best Rock Bands list as well. How does that feel?
That felt pretty right on. It was just one of those weird moments where a friend just randomly told me, and it kind of blew my hair back. I immediately wrote to the label, our publicist and our manager like, “Does anyone know about this?” and no one did. That’s when it felt even better, because it wasn’t solicited. It was just a thing that happened. And that’s an important thing to Beach Slang. I want things to be organic; I don’t want to feel like I’ve shown up to a party that I had to pay to get into. It was a really nice, cool surprise. Those little unexpected things that happen are usually the most rewarding.
You guys are a fairly new band on the scene. If we could just turn the clock back a bit, could you tell me how Beach Slang originally came together?
It was sort of born out of being acquaintances in the Philly DIY scene – just seeing each other and being aware of one another. Our drummer ended up playing rock’n’roll cupid. He was the guy who knew everyone separately. One day he just phoned me up and was like, “Hey man, I know you’ve been writing these songs that really deserve to be heard. I know this guy who plays bass, why don’t we just get into a room together and see what happens?” And it was really as simple as that. I remember we played the first song and looked at each other, not knowing what we were getting into at the time, but something felt special about it. We’d all been in enough bands to know that feeling, and that feeling sort of happened where it was like, okay, there’s really something to this. So we’ve just kept pushing forward since then.
You guys have really blown up over the past year. Is the sudden burst of success and notoriety overwhelming in any way, or is it humbling?
It’s a good bit of both. We established that our thing is that humility is always going to be the captain of the ship. We never want to start buying into any sort of buzz or hype or whatever you want to call it. When artists start doing that, I feel like almost immediately your blade starts to get duller. The works starts to get more boring. It feels great, but we’re all taking that in stride. Right now, we’re just having a really great time. But the thing is, are people going to care about this thing for a month, or are they going to care about it for a few years? We have no idea. So we’re just enjoying it while it’s happening, holding on tight, trying to not have it stop anytime soon. We’re just sort of living in our own little Beach Slang world, trying not to look outward too much and keep our eyes on the task. But yeah, it does feel overwhelming in a great way and it feels humbling in the way that it should.
“You really become very bulletproof when you can see that you can mess up and it doesn’t ruin your life. That’s a very basic principal, but I think people forget about that.”
I’ve been listening to your debut album all week, and it’s amazing. How does it feel now that it’s finally done?
I feel a good sense of relief. You know how it is when you make a thing – we recorded it in June – and as a band should feel after making a thing, we’re excited about it. We wanted all our friends to hear it, but we’ve had to sit on it and wait and wait and wait, until it becomes this thing inside of you that begins to bubble over. It was a nice release, like, “Ah, it’s a real thing and not just our secret anymore”. We get to see, fly or fall, whether people are going to care about it. But that feels really, really good. There’s certainly that, “Hey, we’ve waited to share this thing with you and now I can finally say you’re allowed to listen to it!” It’s weird that you make a thing and you have to wait on it, but I’m glad it’s out in the world now. Today I got a lot of really sweet letters. When you’re making something you can’t sit there telling yourself that you’re doing work that’s going to be anything to anybody until someone tells you that, right? If you get just one of those letters you’re on top of the world, so to have a day where you get really sweet notes from people has been incredibly encouraging. It makes me think I didn’t quit my job in vain, you know?
What was the creative process for it like? You’re a band comprised of members in their 40s, 30s and 20s, so do the individual approaches vary much?
It’s pretty cool the way that we have it set up. I’ve got a little room in my place and I write pretty detailed demos. I really have it worked out, like the harmonies will be there, the guitars beats will be there – everything is really considered. Then I’ll send the demos around to the guys, they’ll get really familiar with them and then we’ll get in a room and just play them. I’d say that 90 percent of the work is done before I take it to them; I really just sweat them out at home. By the time we get into a room we knock out songs as a band very quickly, because they’re pretty much done at that point. I know sometimes, like, I’ve been in bands where egos get involved when the process is just sitting in one person’s corner but that doesn’t exist here. The guys are just like, “No, we get it. James writes the songs, and awesome – we get to play them”. We have this really sweet dynamic built internally. There’s no egos, no confusions of roles. I write songs, we play them as a band and then we travel around the country or the world together and get to laugh and have beers together. Rock’n’roll is a real simple thing; we’re not trying to complicate it.
Listening to your stuff, I always pick up on this recurring theme that even though it’s tough now, things will get better. Is that unbridled optimism the band’s, or even just your general philosophy?
Yeah, I mean, it’s certainly mine. I just refuse to let the world knock that out of me. It’s always been – if I could speak in broad paint strokes here – there’s an importance to remember getting knocked down and all that stuff, but don’t live there. Live in the part that you got back up from it. Here I am, I’m still alive; we’re all still alive. It’s kind of that deal that nothing has stopped us yet, so why would you subscribe to the notion that something’s going to? I’m a real wild-eyed optimist. It’s not to say I’ve never been sad or anything, we’re all human beings, but I’ve never had anything substantial come out of that. Optimism has been a really sweet path to sort of try to tread. Being happy is an active pursuit, it’s not just handed to you. I’d much rather chase being happy than not. That’s just my approach. There’s enough junk in the world already, somebody’s got to counter it.
I definitely get that. There’s a real obvious take of “I know it’s super bad now, but you’re alive and that’s enough to get through all of this”.
For sure, man. I remember I saw this interview with John Lennon once where he said, “As long as we’re alive we have hope”. And, I don’t know, that’s always sort of hung around in my head.
A lot of your songs also celebrate making mistakes and fucking up, but in a really sincere “I’m just doing my best” kind of way, not it in a glorified “I’ll do what I want!” way. Could you tell me a little about that?
I remember when people were warning me that I was going to get made fun of for being so heart-on-your-sleeve, because there’s nothing ironic about the way I’m writing it; it’s super sincere and honest, and people are going to hear it and think it’s not. And I was like: I don’t think we give people enough credit when it comes to seeing through whether or not someone is faking it. So yeah, that’s the thing. I came up with a lot of pressure to be perfect, and when I see that in people it really cracks my heart a bit because I remember how much damage that did to me as a kid. I’m sort of sounding that alarm, that it’s alright to fuck up, you know? You see a little kid spill a drink or something and they get worked up, like their parents are going to scream at them, and I just can’t subscribe to that notion of the world. You really become very bulletproof when you can see that you can mess up and it doesn’t ruin your life. That’s a very basic principal, but I think people forget about that. Wherever you’re at in life, you’re the little kid who spills his juice or you’re in high school and bomb on your SATs or you’re an adult who gets fired – all that is that moment of misstep. You’re going to wake up tomorrow and be able to totally fix that. There’s an importance in knowing that. I remember that moment it sort of locked into my head. I walk around almost fearless, because I know there’s no one thing that’s going to happen to me that’s going to destroy or take away everything I’ve built or everything I do. There’s power in that, there’s a really humble power.
It’s a very Zen state of mind.
For sure, man. And I get that there are things that don’t necessarily come easily for people, but for those who have fallen into that place – I suppose that’s why we read books or listen to music, like we’re trying to get a sense of someone else’s perspective in the world – and maybe that’s the thing that helps us, right? Like Blake’s lyrics or Charles Bukowski’s book, those perspectives helped me sculpt how I think about things these days. In some small way, I’m hoping that I help someone connect those dots too. It goes back to that thing, that rock’n’roll is a pretty simple thing – so is life. That’s how I see it. We as humans tend to complicate it as to not get bored, to fill our time. But you can fill your time playing in a band or painting or doing something far better than just creating these ghosts of failure that you don’t need to subscribe to.
The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us is out now through Cooking Vinyl Australia.