By Philip Chevalier.
Alex Giannascoli tells me to go fuck myself, but he doesn’t mean it.
“Sorry, someone just cut me off like an asshole,” the singer-songwriter is quick to clarify. “People are such bad drivers… me included!”
When I catch him on the phone the self-effacing twenty-four-year-old is Guitar Center-bound, unfettered by the assholes that seem to dominate the highways around Philadelphia. The purpose of this trip is to replace his keyboard. Well, it wasn’t his keyboard – it was his older brother’s, and he borrowed it without asking, so maybe keep that part on the low, OK?
Riding shotgun is Sam Acchione, who has been the guitarist in Giannascoli’s band since their high school days. It’s not exactly clear what function Acchione is serving on the expedition, though, since Giannascoli ‘s responsibilities seem to extend from driving to interpreting the GPS to, somehow, answering my questions.
“Did you hear that last part?” Giannascoli asks me early in our conversation. “‘Cause I got this navigation going on my phone and I don’t want it to interrupt me.”
No part of this – the trip, its purpose, Giannascoli’s do-everything-yourself approach to it, nor the fact that he had a friend come along – is surprising. The keyboard-“borrowing”, bedroom DIY ethic at root here is pretty much the first thing you notice about an Alex G album. As “Poison Root”, the opener on his latest installment, Rocket, dissolves into lo-fi chaos, giving way to the gratifyingly familiar honky-tonk jangle at the onset of “Proud”, you start asking, “Who is this dude?”
When you learn that he made this album – his second to be released by indie heavyweight Domino Records – on his laptop, using Garage Band, you start to ask, “No, really, who is this dude?
He articulates what might be something close to a personal mantra on the record’s “Sportstar,” a potential anthem for the chill-as-fuck teenage son of the robot Yoshimi defeated, singing, “I play how I wanna play, I sing how I wanna sing.” Those are his actual answers to questions when the inquiry is designed to get him to divulge how he does what he does to make the music that he makes.
For various reasons, it’s important to him that many things remain mysterious. Chief among these is what’s happening in his own mind while he’s making music – mystery seems to be necessary for the preservation of whatever that is. This makes interviews a dicey proposition, one would think, on his end.
For a long time, he really lucked out. He never had to promote his albums very much– at least the first handful he recorded in his bedroom near Temple University and put out on Bandcamp. People just kind of listened, and those people told others they should listen, too. Not too much time passed before a handful of music critics caught on. Then there was the collaboration with Frank Ocean for a track off of Blonde. Almost a year later, Sandy (Alex G) is on his second album for Domino. Things are good.
One of the overlooked but more impressive aspects of his story is that he accomplished pretty much everything he’s done while operating behind the name “Alex G”, which has done him zero favors as a Google search term. To this day, he shares the space above the fold with another musician, a female, also named Alex G – no relation.
I tell him it’s unclear at first which one of the Alex Gs he was.
His response is nothing if not true to form: “To be honest, I really like the mystery there.”
(Sandy) Alex G plays DC’s Rock & Roll Hotel tonight, Chicago’s Bottom Lounge on June 28, Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg on July 6, and the Bowery Ballroom on July 7. Rocket is out now on Domino Records.
A lot of people make music in college and put in on the internet and no one cares, but your story is different. Was it really an “if you build it, they will come” scenario? Or is that the simplified version?
Well, I was making stuff since I was in high school and passing out CDs to friends. Me and Sam – Sam’s still in the band now, he plays guitar – and Sam’s brother had a band when we were younger, and we’d play out a lot. So, there was already a built-in group of people from around the city who would check my stuff out because we played a lot of shows and stuff.
That’s kind of how it started, but I didn’t really count on it being anything more than, like, a silly thing or something I could do to pass time or try to impress my friends. Without really any major expectations, I was just kind of making the stuff and putting it online for my friends. I guess it caught on. People liked it and shared it, which is I guess just the nature of the internet – shit gets shared so easily.
Was there ever a time when you thought, “Maybe I’ll just make music as a hobby,” before an audience came along and liked it? Did you think you’d end up having to do something different?
I actually never thought music was going to be a career for me. I always loved music, and I always wanted to do it, but I was in college at the same time, and I went to college [in the first place] because I figured I’d need a career at the end of it. And I studied English because it’s generic and I could apply it to a bunch of things I guess.
But even though I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, I figured music was definitely not an option for a source of income, but it turns out I got really, really lucky.
When you were writing the songs, was your imagined audience big or small? Were you thinking, “My friends might dig this,” or was it more like, “Anyone who hears this should like it”?
I definitely thought about it like I wanted everybody to hear it, and I definitely deluded myself into thinking I had a bigger audience than I did. I was kind of glamorizing myself in my own head, thinking people were out there listening to it. being like “Wow, this is great,” even though there were only probably a handful of people out there actually listening when I first started.
Looking back, do you think that’s an important delusion to entertain?
I do. I think, in terms of motivation, the delusion that you’re doing something that’s really cool, even though it’s probably not, is important. At least that was the case for me. Especially when I was younger, I was making really shitty recordings, and I thought they were the best things ever, so that’s really what kept me doing it so frequently.
Did the Frank Ocean collab open any doors for you?
I think so. Nothing concrete, but I’m sure we’ve had some better opportunities for shows and stuff because of that. I guess it’s possible that some people have heard of the music now who hadn’t heard of it before. But nothing happened where it was like “this happened because of your collaboration with Frank Ocean” or whatever. That said, it couldn’t have hurt.
What do you say to people for whom Rocket is their intro to your music? How important is it to you that they go back and hear the earlier stuff, too?
I think those people should just stick to Rocket, and then maybe listen to a couple songs from Beach Music, but don’t listen to any of the older shit ’cause it sucks.
I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding. But I think I’m definitely pleasing the people like you who are just getting into it more than the people who are already really attached to my older stuff, who might be expecting me to just do more stuff like that. They get kind of disappointed by albums like that, but that’s cool.
What are the tracks from Rocket that you think Alex G loyalists will most respond to?
I don’t know actually. That’s really just impossible for me to answer because I don’t really know what people liked most about any of my albums. I make an album and I think it’s perfect, and I assume that people will understand where I’m coming from, but inevitably people don’t, so it’s hard for me to say.
The stuff on this album that I think people into my old music would really vibe with, they don’t all the time. So, I just don’t know. If I’m making it, though, for me it’s good in every way – that’s how I feel about my shit as I’m making it. Afterwards, I don’t always feel that way obviously, but you know what I’m saying.
You have a couple songs on there, like “Proud” and “Bobby”, which feel more straightforwardly “pretty” than the singles from your previous albums. Did you write those feeling like you were about to reach a wider audience?
You know, with “Bobby” especially, I felt like I was gonna kind of troll people a little bit, because people don’t like country music that much. So it started off pretty much as a tongue-in-cheek thing, and then it turned out… pretty good. [Laughs] But I really wasn’t trying to make some kind of massively accessible song, but I guess it turned out that way.
The violin is a really nice touch.
Yeah, she’s crazy good.
You seem willing to give your forbearers a lot of credit for things you’re doing. You’ve said you accept the Elliott Smith comparisons because you stole his DIY production style, and you also said you ripped off Isaac Brock’s approach to lyrics. But your music doesn’t feel overly re-hashed. What do you think you’re adding that’s new?
I really try not to think about it because I feel like I probably wouldn’t want to know the answer to that question. Thinking about stuff like that gives me writer’s block. Like, if I’m trying to do something and I think about who might have already done it better, it psyches me out.
It seems like avoiding certain thoughts is important to your process.
I just try to always feel like I’m doing something “special.” [Laughs]
Some musicians use social media to make name for themselves beyond their music and to actively cultivating an image. You don’t seem to have really tried in those ways at all.
I don’t like that stuff too much. I have a lot of anxiety about what I write on the internet to begin with, so I’ve never really tried to have a presence beyond just posting my music. I think now I’m sort of obligated to have more of a presence, ’cause that’s how you’re supposed to sell more records. But I try to avoid it, because it doesn’t make me feel good, you know? It’s stressful. And you’re not fooling anybody when you’re just out there advertising and stuff like that. It’s such a transparent thing, which isn’t bad, but sometimes it just rubs me the wrong way when it seems like people are trying to sell me stuff.
I also feel very hypocritical when I say that, because I’m obviously out there trying to sell my stuff all the time. But with that being said, being sold to still kind of rubs me the wrong way.
This is your second record under Domino, but your eighth record total. What’s your least favorite part of being attached to a mainstream label? Are there parts you love?
There’s not much that I really dislike about it. Well… let me think.
They put out, like, advertisements and stuff, which makes sense since they’re trying to sell a lot of records. And, hey, that’s cool for me, too, ya know? But it does make me very uncomfortable, because like I said I don’t like feeling like a salesman. I guess that’s the only thing, though. I appreciate the label.
I feel like I’m a little fickle about it – sometimes I care, but sometimes I don’t care. Like, right now I’m fine with all the ad stuff, but sometimes when I think about it I get kind of overwhelmed, and like I’m not being “pure” or something. Who knows what that means, though.
That’s another thing I try not to think about, I guess, like my position on the label. ‘Cause I’m on it, so, fuck it, ya know?
What do you try to think about? What thoughts are conducive to your process?
As far as making music goes, I don’t know. Sometimes I get on a big creative kick, and other times I just can’t make it happen and I don’t really know why. But I guess when it happens I don’t think about much. [Laughs] I think about what’s for dinner. [Laughs harder]
Nah, I’m sure I think about other shit. I’m just too dumb to think about what I think about.