A funny thing happened between the time I spoke on the phone with Beach Slang frontman James Alex and the publishing of this interview.
The band broke up.
After their April 28 Salt Lake City show erupted in thrown guitars and Alex's onstage assertion that the show would be the band’s last, the rumor mill hit full tilt. Thankfully it was only for a fleeting moment (as evidenced by the explanation Alex posted to their Facebook page on April 29, which concluded with “If you’re still in, we are <3”) -- but it seemed the entire Internet had lost its collective mind. And with good reason.
For those fortunate enough to have discovered them, Beach Slang (which aside from Alex include bassist Ed McNulty, drummer JP Flexner and guitarist Ruben Gallego) have become the next great American band. They’re a dizzying tour-de-force of wild-eyed rock & roll romanticism, with Alex’s ragged-and-raw vocals, and sweaty dive-bar anthems that wreak of spitfire honesty, bourbon-soaked regret, youthful innocence and never-say-die redemption.
The Philadelphia-based group's debut full-length album, “The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us,” followed two EPs in 2014 (“Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken” and “Cheap Thrills on a Dead End Street”) and blasted out on touch down like a young, fiery Springsteen fronting a slightly more polished Replacements. Yeah, that’s how f---ing great it is [listen to/buy their records here]. To say their music has connected with audiences would be a massive understatement. Alex has watched the band’s fanbase basically grow in real-time.
Music. Community. Culture.
“When this thing started, I really wanted the build to be organic,” the singer/guitarist explained about the band’s increasing popularity. “I wanted it to be something honest and pure, right? We didn’t have somebody coming in with a marketing plan, some smoke and mirrors idea where it was like, ‘You’re supposed to like this band,’ and it’s kind of forced on people … The word-of-mouth thing is what you hope for, but you can’t make that thing happen. Something about that feels real-er. We’re definitely seeing it. On our last tour, I remember we started the tour and we were like, ‘Cool’ -- there was enough people there to certainly have it feel like a show and have a really cool energy -- but then we started moving around the country, and we were living it in real time. It was weird to see hard work pay off as we were doing the work. It was this wildly rewarding thing.”
And it’s been having some other side effects too. Alex -- a guy that speaks in a multitude of “likes” and an endearing, incredulous modesty at all times (in a lilting East Coast surfer-dude dialect that inspired the band's name) -- was taken aback when fans started sending him photos of their Beach Slang tattoos.
“That was a real wild trip,” he said, laughing. “If somebody gets a Smiths lyric or a Jawbreaker lyric, I’m like, ‘F--- yeah, man!’ I get that. I would get that, right? But it was like, ‘You sure you wanna get something I wrote on your body forever?’ Sort of after the first one happened, it almost gave people permission. It was like, 'OK, I can get a Beach Slang tattoo now; they exist in the world.' So now I see them at this pace that’s kind of unbelievable to me in the sweetest, most humbling way possible.”
But the adulation has also come with a certain sense of obligation.
“I’ve been asked a lot about if I feel pressure as this thing has been growing, as I was writing the [next record],” Alex continued. “I never feel pressure, but the tattoo thing specifically jacked up in me a heightened sense of responsibility. I feel responsible to people that this thing is connecting to, on the level where you’ll etch this into your skin permanently. That’s who I don’t want to let down, you know what I mean? If [the next record] doesn’t sell a ton of copies, and like, the industry’s sort of disappointed -- I never did this for the industry to begin with, right? But I don’t want to let down that person that the record shifted something inside of them and makes them feel a little bit better about something, or gets them through a thing, or whatever it might be. The tattoos have definitely been the launching pad for that.”
While the anxiety of having to satisfy the masses might weigh down even the most seasoned songwriters, Alex translated it into inspiration for LP No. 2. That, coupled with the band’s constant touring, resulted in a work pace -- and a batch of songs -- even he couldn’t quite understand.
“I wrote that thing in a crazy flurry,” he said. “You know, it was weird and challenging because we were touring so much ... While I was writing this thing, not that I didn’t have time to think about the pressure of following up the first record, but it wasn’t quite as direct because of how busy we were. I never really write on the road. I’ve never had the chops to do that, but I had to for this one. I had a couple weeks at home right before we went into the studio, and I swear I stayed up 25 hours a day writing. I just, like, invented time to do this," he laughed. "I super-isolated myself, and I did it. I really wore heavy weights on my shoulders during that time specifically. But man, I’m pretty fiercely proud of this batch of songs. It’s coming out in September, and I’m really jazzed to throw it out there and hope -- hope -- it connects again.”
After the Salt Lake City show blowup, Beach Slang fans have to wonder how long the band can continue at such a frenetic clip. Two EPs, one full-length (with another done and on the way) and relentless touring, knock-down-drag-out shows, writing and recording in two years? How long can Alex & Co. keep it together? When looking back on our interview together -- the frontman seemed to address the SLC blowout before it even happened.
“It’s easy to find people to play an instrument; it’s really difficult to find the right people to play an instrument. We’ve been lucky in that way. That’s definitely not lost on me, about how lucky I am to be surrounded by not only good players but good people. You have that confidence in each other. You can put it all out there, without fear of embarrassment or shame … We’re able to play off of each other because we’re not just bandmates -- we’re friends. We hang out a bunch, so we just sort of know all the little things in each other. There’s no fear of taking a chance or being embarrassed. We just do the thing full-throttle and accept each other for that throttle-ness,” Alex added with a laugh.
Maybe that April 28 show was just the result of an overheated train barreling down the tracks for too long at too fast of a speed. After all, everyone blows up at one time or another. And hey, as James Alex says, it’s the only way to live:
“It’s ‘All the way, all the time.’”