By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious
Alex Giannascoli has a hard time relinquishing control.
The musician better known as Alex G has built a devoted fanbase by becoming an auteur of the unexpected, even in the quieter moments: unusual chord progressions; experiments with pitch and tone that take the occasional left turn; opening his latest dreamy, confessional album with dark ambient sounds you’re more likely to hear on a thrash record.
The bedroom producer has self recorded, self produced, and self released the majority of his six albums to date, epitomizing the democratizing power of the Internet – anyone, anywhere can have a career in music. All it takes is a laptop, a lot of talent, and even more desire.
Of course, it helps to have an obsessive’s attention to detail when it comes to putting it all together. While Giannascoli has certainly grown into his abilities as a songwriter and musician, he has always been fastidious about the work he puts into each production. Even now, working with Domino Records, the twenty-two year old finds it hard to loosen his grip on the process and quality control.
“It felt a little weird,” Giannascoli relays over the phone, a hint of surprise in his voice. It’s a Friday evening in early March, and the prodigiously talented musician is at his home in the trendy Fishtown neighborhood in Northern Philadelphia. “I know that I’m in good hands with Domino, and I probably get on their nerves a lot because I’m so reluctant to do stuff.”
It’s in these moments of candor that you remember that the former Temple University English major is as young as he is. In an indie scene dominated by precocious talents like Mac DeMarco, Frankie Cosmos, and Sunflower Bean, being a prolific early-twenty-something musician can somehow seem like the new normal – though by any other standard, it is most definitely not.
While Giannascoli’s authorial voice is more measured and controlled, his speaking voice crackles and pops with the genuine enthusiasm you’d expect from a kid making a living from his art. Though Giannascoli has been on the indie media’s radar for a couple of years, it’s refreshing to see that this hasn’t diminished his appreciation for the opportunities he’s been carving out for himself.
Alex G plays DC’s Rock & Roll Hotel this Wednesday, Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg on April 13, and Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom April 15. All dates are with Porches and Your Friend. Beach Music is out now on Domino Records.
Beach Music is the first album where your writing and recording process has been drawn out over an extended period of time. Do you feel like that affected your writing at all?
I think being on the road hasn’t affected my process that much. Being on the road has an effect in that it has spaced out my periods of being able to write because you can’t write while you’re on the road. So, it will be a couple of weeks at home and I’ll write a lot, then I’m back on tour and not doing much. But it sort of equates to the same amount of time that it would be if I was just working and recording.
Before I went on tour, I would go to work and then come home and record, or I’d be too tired. It sort of evens out. I still get about the same amount done. I guess when I’m not on tour, I dedicate most of my time to recording, so I can go on these extreme tangents and my process gets a little bit stretched. There’s not as much there to pull me out.
I guess you can tell on Beach Music that I get hooked on one idea, and I get to go deeper and deeper to the point that it becomes almost a parody of a certain genre, like with “In Love”. I can’t think of others right now, but I guess it has created a lot of diversity with the songs.
It also takes me a little longer to get in a rhythm because I’ll be on tour for so long, and it takes me a couple of weeks where I can get in this flow where things come easily to me and I can record them. The first couple of ideas are really shitty, and I can’t really flesh them out until I get my bearings.
You recorded this album at home. Do you still record at home, generally? Do you think you’ll ever want to go into a professional studio to make your music, or do you need the intimacy and close quarters?
I’m still recording at home in Philly and in my neighborhood. I have my guitar and keyboard at home, but I’ll go somewhere else to do drums and bass, but it’s all in the vicinity and I record it all myself. I don’t know; I’m sure I’ll make the move to better quality production at some point, but right now I just really feel like it’s important to have the control over everything. [Whistles and laughs].
I work on these recordings so much that I don’t want to call them demos and do them again. I put so much into them, that I don’t think I could record them again in the studio and make them better than I do. What would be optimal would be to live in the studio or next to a studio, and get in the studio as soon as the idea hit me, before I forgot it.
Do you still live with roommates? You’ve mentioned adopting this semi-whispered singing style out of necessity, to not wake the people you lived with.
Yeah, I live with three people. My roommates all get it. Kyle plays drums in a band. Mike plays bass in a band called Blue Smiley, as well as in a burlesque production – it’s really cool. My other roommate Amelia doesn’t play music, but I met her through going to shows. They’re all pretty great.
What keeps you in Philadelphia? Why stick to Philly instead of making the move to a different music city, like New York, or LA, or Austin?
I’m not sure. [Laughs] It’s more like I just haven’t been presented with a reason to move to New York. There’s nothing keeping me here beyond my friends and family, but if I had a legitimate reason to move, I would. By the same reasoning, there’s nothing drawing me away. It’s not like I’m resigned to Philly or something. I just do what’s most convenient, and right now, there’s no reason for me to leave.
What’s on the agenda for this tour? Are you guys going to perform at SXSW again?
This tour we’re going to do most of the US, I think. We’re headed down to South By, then go West to California and do most of the major cities, as well as Seattle. Then we’re heading up to Canada for shows in Vancouver, and maybe Toronto. I think we’ll be on the road for something like 45 days. We’re just doing a big loop around North America.
That’s a really long time to be on the road. How do you cope with being away from home for so long? What do you do – personally and mentally – to stay sane?
Yeah, we actually did one other tour that was about this long when we were getting started, with Gardens & Villa. They were really good guys, and that was one of our first opening slots. I guess that was about 45 days also.
I think it takes a lot of self-awareness, because the biggest issue that comes up is that inevitably everyone gets really pissy, or some shit. People get uncomfortable after a long time, and you start fighting with each other, or getting on each other’s nerves. The most important thing is to remain aware of how you’re acting, and give the people around you the benefit of the doubt.
If they’re in a bad mood and say something stupid to you, remember that they’re probably cranky. So far, the best advice is to try and take nothing personally and be as cheerful as possible.
We have a van, and we usually just split up the drives – one person will drive from one city to the next, and rotate like that. It’s so cool to see the country, even through the window of the car. It’s so great to see it all.
Is there anywhere you’ve been to before that you’re looking forward to visiting again?
I’m looking forward to driving through the Southwest; I really like the scenery. The desert and the mountains are so crazy looking. It’s like Mars, or something.
How has the transition to working with Domino Records been for you? You self-recorded and self-mixed your first six albums. How did turning your music over to someone else feel?
[Pauses] It felt a little weird. I know that I’m in good hands with Domino, and I probably get on their nerves a lot because I’m so reluctant to do stuff. I grew up playing music at a lot of punk shows, and shit like that, so I always feel a little weird about advertising myself. I’m sure that they get kind of annoyed with me with how reluctant I am to do a lot of things. [Laughs] Other than that, it’s good – I feel like I’m in good hands, and they understand and respect my music, and let me do what I want with it. That’s the most important thing.
How did this collaboration come about? I read somewhere that one of their A&R people heard your last album, DSU, and approached you.
I’m not sure how they first heard of DSU but they liked it, and a really cool lady named Susan [Busch, head of Domino A&R] came out to some of our shows, and they offered us a contract. That was that, pretty much.
How did you end up working with Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Jacob Portrait on Beach Music? Had you decided to bring him on as mixer for the album before going on tour together last year?
It was actually before the tour; it was when DSU came out. He got in touch with my manager at the time, and said he was interested in working with me. That was long before Beach Music was being conceived of. Once I finished recording the album, I remembered that he had offered, so I just went with that. I don’t really know anything about anything, in terms of people that you should go to, so it was convenient for me. [Laughs] He turned out to be a really great guy, and did right with the album, I think, so I was pretty happy with it.
I went to the UMO show last week, and they were really great live. Their new keyboard player did a great piano-driven intro to “So Good At Being In Trouble” that reminded me of the piano coda at the end of “Layla” by Derek & The Dominos. It was amazing.
[Excited] They’re so good, right? They’re like old-school, too, which is awesome. They have all these solos, and all this awesome theatrical shit I love. And Quincy [McCrary] – the new keyboard guy – is so fucking good. I love them.
Do you find that you have any time to listen to music these days?
I definitely have time to, but I’ve always been kind of a snob when it comes to music. I get really hooked on certain stuff and then I can’t listen to anything else.
I’ve been listening to Grimes’ most recent album a ton, Art Angels. That shit is fucking amazing. When I first heard it, I didn’t like the way it sounded; her voice is kind of shrill. But then I listened to it more and realized it’s genius. It’s so fucking cool. Most of the stuff I end up loving is stuff I don’t understand at first, and once I get it, I’m psyched about it. It grows on you, and that’s the best kind of album.
The video for “Kill v. Maim” is outrageous. It’s like a hipster reboot of “Blade”.
It was so good! So good.
Let’s talk about the cover art for Beach Music. What exactly is that image, and what drew you to it?
The one that looks like a human is the Hindu God, Lord Rama, and the monkey is part of this story – a monkey named Hanuman. It was a painting that my sister had done. I don’t really know much about Hinduism, beyond the basic knowledge. She is more educated on it, and you’d have to ask her. For DSU, too, I just left it [the cover art] up to her. I respect her opinion a lot, and she’s a really great artist. She painted that cover. I guess I don’t have much to say about it, because it’s more of her statement than mine.
You’re so protective with your music but you feel comfortable turning over the visual presentation.
I think my sister is the only person I have complete faith in. She’s always been my conduit to the art world. She’s been my entry point, and I always have complete trust in whatever she does. Even if she was to show me something that I thought was complete bullshit before she showed me, her beliefs would change my opinion – if she thought it was good, I’d begin to think it was good. I couldn’t help but change my point of view. It’s funny – I’m kind of dependent on her in that way.
Speaking of having that sort of perspective change, who are your favorite authors – of books and songs and other media? Did you discover anyone while studying English at Temple that just blew your mind?
There’s a lot of literature at Temple that’s pretty widely accepted by people at the literature world that I would never have heard of. John Updike’s Rabbit, Run – that was fucking awesome. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was really cool as well. We had to read Proust, and a bunch of shit like that. It was nice to have a teacher talk you through them, because some of these books are a little dense. That was the best thing I got out of school, I guess – gaining the skills to take away so much more from reading a book than I was able to do before.
I recently read this book, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. That was so cool; it might be one of my favorite books. Actually, it’s hard to say – every time I read a book, it becomes my favorite book. [Laughs] I guess I just love to read. I read that right before I read The Grapes of Wrath, which is kind of interesting because they’re both set in the same part of America, and they’re both pretty “American” novels, except one is so dark. Blood Meridian is so hellish, and while The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t really have a light at the end of the tunnel, there’s a loving relationship between the characters at its core that makes you feel good. They’re similar, but so different at the same time.
What else? I saw the movie “Coraline”, based on Neil Gaiman’s book. I don’t remember the book so well, but the movie was fucking awesome. It was the coolest movie. The music in that movie was so great.
Yeah, the whole concept of sewing buttons onto your eyes scared the shit out of me. I was freaked out.
I know! So good. You know what else was great? That new movie “The Witch”. You’ve gotta see that movie. It’s the coolest scary movie I’ve seen in the longest time. You can’t go into it expecting a bunch of pop-ups and typical horror movie shit. It has different intentions, I think.
I love horror moves that subvert the genre. That reminds me of “The Cabin in the Woods”. I consider that a comedy, almost.
You’re going to love “The Witch”, then. And yeah, “The Cabin in the Woods” is almost a more tasteful “Scary Movie”. It has a similar intention: Look at all these tropes we’re going to send up and subvert. And I love how it keeps on going further and further; the end is like a big “fuck you.” It’s so cool. Robb Zombie does a lot of that in his work as well, and his movies just get darker. When you think it’s at its climax, it just get ten times more intense. It’s so wild. I love art that does that.