“Fall in love with the failure. Write a thousand bad songs before you get to a good one. Go on a bunch of miserable tours. That’s the stuff that forces you to ask, ‘How bad do you want this? How hard are you willing to work for it?'”
James Alex, founder and vocalist of Beach Slang, is reflecting on what it means to carve out a career playing punk rock. Five years into Beach Slang’s story, Alex speaks from a position of authority as the band take stock after a busy few years.
After a whirlwind period encapsulating two albums of fizzing four-chord punk and shows around the world, Beach Slang can be forgiven for pausing for a breather. With a US run supporting veteran emos Dashboard Confessional in its final stages, James Alex’s power-punk outfit have more than earned the chance to put their feet up.
While his bandmates take a step back, however, Alex is throwing himself into promoting Quiet Slang, reimagining the best of the band’s songs in stark arrangements of piano and cello.
Quiet Slang is a project James has had in the back of his mind for a long time, but a random jam of ‘Bad Art and Weirdo Ideas’ on the singer’s piano made him realise he could pursue a new sound while remaining faithful to the spirit of Beach Slang’s music. The challenge then was to craft a whole album that matched his vision.
Stripped of drums, bass and electric guitars, ‘Everything Matters but No One Is Listening’ puts Alex’s cigarette-soaked vocals at the forefront, with melodies uttered in a softer tone than Beach Slang’s all-out assault. Delicate piano and considered cello take the instrumental lead, but if this sounds decidedly un-Beach Slang, the songs feel totally natural. It would have been tempting to merely peel the band back to an acoustic guitar for this project, as many acts do, but Alex is never one to take the easy path.
“No, I wanted it to be more thoughtful. I didn’t want it to be as simple as ‘I can pick up a different guitar’. I wanted it to be more than that. The cello, piano thing I’ve always thought there’s a haunting melancholy to it that I’ve always connected with. It was always going to be piano and cello; acoustic guitar never factored into it for me. I’m glad it’s coming across natural, I didn’t want to dive into schmaltz, or try to jam a square through a circle.”
The album was recorded with the help of Beach Slang producer Dave Downam who brought in musicians to provide the piano and cello parts that decorate James Alex’s four-chord vignettes. After some initial stumbles in the studio, things began to fall together.
“It was a little cumbersome at first because I’m communicating in rock and roll language and they’re using classically trained language. But then we were able to find that sort of common ground, and they’d interpret my language and vice versa. I think arrangements were just a lot of trial and error.”
Admittedly, when you switch from arranging fast-paced punk to sombre orchestration, there are bound to be things that get lost in translation, but connection and communication have long been Beach Slang’s forte.
Now that the ten tracks that make up the Quiet Slang are ready for release, thoughts are already turning to taking the project out on the road, something Alex didn’t necessarily expect to be the case. Given the raucous, communal nature of Beach Slang shows, a Quiet Slang tour poses a very different proposition.
“It’s going to be different for sure. We’ve done one show; we debuted it live at SXSW. It was in a church, and everybody sat, and we sort of played these quiet songs and I was terrified! Because my guitar is my safety blanket, and noise is my kind of armour, right? I can kind of hide behind that. So the vulnerability, it was kind of palpable right? So yeah, that to me as a performer was the scariest thing.”
Getting through that first show unscathed has given James the confidence he needs to drive forward and take this new sound out across the US this summer, safe in the knowledge that it can connect just as strongly as Beach Slang does.
“That show was incredibly special to me. If the tour feels even remotely close to what that night felt like, I’m pretty excited to do this more often. Obviously, it’s a tamer kind of vibe, but it becomes very song-focused. Beach Slang is obviously song-focused but also performance-focused too, like this sloppy little hurricane. Whereas, Quiet Slang is this sort of minimal thing, stripped away. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.”
This feeling of vulnerability isn’t just limited to the performances but is inherent in the ethos of Quiet Slang, from studio to stage. The title ‘Everything Matters but No One Is Listening’ reflects the feeling that in amongst the wild head-rush of Beach Slang’s communion, Alex’s words can be overpowered by the performance.
“I love the idea of the lyrics being able to step out a little bit and be framed with a little more weight. With Beach Slang I love the walls of guitars, but there’s something nice about my little adolescent daydream about wanting to be a novelist. It’s kind of cool that I can allow the words to be weighted a little differently, and they’re allowed to take that sort of advance a little bit more on the Quiet Slang stuff.”
That shift in emphasis does imbibe Quiet Slang with a touch more sorrow than the bottle rocket exhilaration of the original compositions, but the songs still retain a certain youthful optimism. They celebrate those magical teenage nights and, in amongst the swirling chaos, the potential to embrace those feelings again.
Where ‘Everything Matters’ breathes new life into old songs, Alex is always thinking one step ahead, and has Beach Slang’s third LP coming together already in his mind’s eye. The songs are written, and studio time lined up for the next ‘loud Beach Slang record’.
“It’s a nice little non-stop ping pong match now between quiet and loud. I’m incredibly excited about it; I cannot wait to make this record.”
Alex optimistically hints at a January 2019 release and is even teasing a heavy power-pop influence on the band’s third album, which is sure to up the ante.
While heavy touring can often take it out of a songwriter and wear off on their material, Beach Slang’s recent travels have had anything but that effect on Alex as he penned lyrics.
“I’ve been lovingly accused of writing love letters to rock and roll, and that’s a lot of what this record is right now. All the turbulence that Beach Slang has had over the past year or two, you get through that and then you sort of land in this place where you feel sort of more together and stronger than you ever have before. And it does something to you in a very healthy way.”
Even crackling over a phone line across the Atlantic James Alex’s unbounded enthusiasm for the world he inhabits is contagious. It’s this aura that permeates Beach Slang’s recorded music and infects their live shows, with the band able to win over fickle festival crowds and enrapture their hardcore fans.
“I’m loving being on the road, loving hitting this guitar through that amplifier. That is the whole reason I got turned onto rock and roll when I was fourteen. All of that stuff feels like it’s so present in me again. And I missed it.”
“For a while there it was just sort of the chaos of what was going on” Alex reflects. “It was like I was forced to be caught up in the theatrics of being a rock band, and I’m not interested in that. I just want to be in a rock and roll band. I want to just play shows and sing songs and do all that kind of stuff, and I feel like I’m in that mode now.”
With ideas for Beach Slang flowing over and plans to revisit the Quiet Slang project further down the line, Alex is cautiously confident that his music has found its place amongst the noise.
“It’s the honesty and the realness with which this is being said; it resonates with people. The ‘we’ is much greater than any one ‘I’. That’s what important, we all feel, band and listener, that we’re part of something that’s bigger than any one person, any one record, any one thing.”
Quiet or loud, Beach Slang matter, and there are plenty of people listening.
Taken from the June issue of Upset, out now. Quiet Slang’s album ‘Everything Matters But No One Is Listening’ is out now.