[Interview] A Question Of Scale: Keeping Rock And Roll Communal With James Alex Of Beach Slang
Main Image Credit: Dominic Meason / Beach Slang at 2000trees Festival
James Alex of Beach Slang is an easy man to interview, such is his enthusiasm and love for the music he makes. He views Beach Slang as a movement and takes pride in spearheading it with fellow co-founder and band bassist Ed McNulty, his answers to questions spiral off into passionate thoughts on the importance of rock and roll. His aloof stage persona is also very much just his day-to-day persona; Alex carries himself as a man truly content with his place in the world and happy to be occupying it. He has every reason to be happy today, Beach Slang set to headline the Axiom Stage on the first day of 2000trees. It’s his first time at the festival, and he warms to it immediately, telling me so as we take a seat to chat.
BM: Beach Slang seem like a band particularly well catered to this sort of festival. I have to say, I'm surprised it took you guys so long to get over here.
BS: I am too now that I'm here. All of my friends over here tell me that this is their favorite UK festival, so we're super excited to be here. We've only been around for a couple of hours but everyone here has been incredibly nice. This bodes well for our stay.
How have you been spending your day since arriving at 2000trees?
Today, we've been in the van mostly. It's been a lot of traveling, we’ve been touring all week. As soon as press commitments are done we're going to go see Dave Hause [and the Mermaid], The Wonder Years, The Front Bottoms, some friends from back home. The Wonder Years are from Philadelphia like us, and The Front Bottoms (check out our recent interview with them here) are just across the river in New Jersey, so it's like we're away from home, but not very far.
Last week you guys played Hyde Park (150,000 capacity) for British Summer Time and played a tiny venue just before that in Brighton at Sticky Mike's Frog Bar (150 capacity). That’s quite the contrast in terms of scale.
Yeah, Green Day invited us over to do the Hype Park gig, and we'd been off tour for three weeks at that point, so I didn't want the first show we played to be at Hype Park, you know? Sticky Mike's was meant to be a knock-off-the-dust show, and we love Brighton, so booked that show with the idea of loosening up. It was really intimate, right in your face, very passionate and loud, and it ended up setting the tone for the entire tour.
How important do you think it is to do a warm up show like that prior to a big gig?
I think it's important to play smaller shows all of the time. That's a part of our ethos. Whenever we tour around the US and play big rooms, kids will come up to us and ask about after shows. Even if it's just me and my acoustic guitar it'll be fun, so we always try and do that. That's the small-show scene that I was born out of; it gave me a sense of community and belonging when I was younger, kept me around. It's important for me to stay with that mentality. The thing with Beach Slang is that there is no distance between band and listener. We're all just here trying to make a moment, so I always want to make sure those moments happen. I like the ping-ponging as well. It's really fun to play big stages - those are those rock and roll dreams you had as a kid right? With the tennis racket in front of the mirror? It's also cool too, to be intimate, and sweaty, and look out at people who connect with your band, at eye level. There's something special in that, to me. I never want to let that go. Even if all of my wildest teenage dreams come true, and we become this big band, we're still going to play Sticky Mike's, you know? We're still going to do that kind of stuff, because that stuff is necessary, and it deserves to happen.
How do things change in terms of preparation and setlist between those big venue shows? Anyone who's seen you play a small venue will recognize your shows as very spontaneous, very fast and loose, so do you feel limited in that regard at a festival?
There's a little more responsibility that has to be taken, for sure. Things are very time managed, so we need to be responsible. But Beach Slang is not a responsible band. The 30-second cover songs, the bits in-between songs, and inviting people up on stage to play something - that's how I love a rock and roll show to be. There should be an element of unpredictability to them. At festivals, while we still try to have that, there are limits. We still want to make sure that we deliver what people came to see, but I suppose that we do lose a little bit of the spontaneity and looseness that we have at a smaller show. I'm trying to protect that though, it's just that it's impossible to fit a ninety-minute show into a forty-five-minute show. Some of it has to end up on the cutting room floor. Tonight though we have time to incorporate the best of both worlds. I want to do this thing right. They've entrusted us with a slot that matters; I want to make sure we don't disappoint. My understanding of this festival is that it was started by people who just really loved going to shows, but saw festival ticket prices, thought fuck that, and so decided to start their own. I love that, it's why we signed with the record labels we signed with, they were just guys who used to put on their own shows, and who printed their own zines, and then they decided to start a record label.
You guys have a knack for bringing people together in that way at a show. Is there a certain way you go about trying to create that atmosphere?
I think that's it's just a result of the things you put into the world - the things I write and the way I am as a person. I was raised by a single mom, and she has a heart the size of the moon, and that bore itself into me. When you talk the way I do and write the way I do, and act the way I do, I suppose that you attract like-minded people. I think that what we do, just by virtue of being ourselves, is we bring people together that are tender and gentle, poetic and soft. Optimistic dreamers. I wish that I could have designed that because I would have just strategized it, but I think that people connect with who they're meant to connect with. If we connect with those head-in-the-clouds type of people then we've done what we set out to do. At the end of the day, what it's really about is a human connection. I want the band to walk away, and I want the people who've watched us to walk away and to have felt something. Whether they laughed, or released energy, or cried - they've felt something. They didn't just show up at a generic rock concert.
Your songs, lyrically poetic, are very wistful and nostalgic, all while harking back to the nineties stylistically. Does playing music in that vein nurture that human connection you mentioned?
For sure, for sure. You get enough misfits together, and all of a sudden we're not misfits, we're not loners, we're not outsiders. I think that's what Beach Slang's done well. It's the same way I feel about records or books I connected with as a kid - "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" is the one I'm citing in my head right now. Initially, I felt that I was alone, having this singular experience that nobody else could understand, and then all of a sudden I got hip to the punk-rock scene in my city and was then around people writing or singing about their experiences. Those experiences sounded a lot like mine. There was so much power in the feeling of no longer being alone that everything then felt conquerable. I suppose that what I want to do is put that out be it through whisper or shout - it's all conquerable. What grows out of that thereafter is this cyclical thing. I suppose that I'm trying to help people, but what ends up happening is that people throw that right back to me. We're all just trying to keep each other perched up in a really healthy way. If this is it, right now, and Beach Slang gains no more fans, then this will have been the greatest thing. I don't care about money or fame. What I care about is the community, and we have this little punk-rock/hippie commune right now called Beach Slang that seems to be helping people. I love that.
I think that, in a way, you've also nailed down the spirit of 2000trees there. How important then are these smaller independent festivals in keeping that feeling alive?
Wildly man. Here's the thing with Beach Slang. We're a blue collar band, proudly, so we're going to play wherever. If you want us to play the biggest festival in the world, we're going to take it into the dive bar. If you want us to play the smallest festival in the world, we're going to play just as hard. It's important to stay with small and intimate festivals like this one because this isn't just fashion-festivalising. This [2000trees] is a place for people who really give a damn about music. People who come to these shows, they care for the long haul, they don't care for who was hip that year. There's an importance to that. I hope we connect to those people, and I hope we continue to because that's who I am. There's an importance of longevity in investment, and investment in rock and roll.
And festivals such as 2000trees invest in rock and roll?
They do. There's enough fly-be, flavor of the week stuff out there; it's time for rock and roll to reclaim a flag in the ground. Drum machines and auto-tuning worked for a while, maybe it's time for humanity and recklessness to matter again too. Yeah, these festivals encourage people to write poetry and bash it up against a loud guitar - there's something profound in that. It gets lost in perfected music being made my machinery. I really went off on a tangent there. Anyway, people are coming to this thing to have an experience, to feel that sense of community, not because it’s something to fill up an Instagram feed with. They feel it.
Nurturing a sense of community is what Beach Slang hold dearest, and a sense of community is certainly what they inspire - in line with the intentions of 2000trees itself. A Beach Slang gig never feels like just another rock and roll show, more a gathering of like-minded individuals convening at a certain place, at a certain time, to have a good time to a good soundtrack. The band’s headline set on Friday night transpires as such, Alex and co. taking the stage to crowd chants of “Beach Slang! Beach Slang!” before powering through a set full of choice picks from their last two records. Taking breaks between songs to indulge in the skits and bits that help set their shows apart, there’s an emphasis on fun. One such bit features Alex running through a long list of crowd heckles in relation to his many lookalikes (Harry Potter, Michael J. Fox, Marc Bolan), to cheers from the crowd. Another involves bassist Aurore Ounjian playing a series of noticeable riffs to stoke the crowd, following a dynamic cover of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” Packing plenty into their hour-long slot, as intended, Beach Slang are on good form; happy to be at the festival, happy to have their songs sung back at them, and happy to be playing music at all. They’re a band who make people happy, and they’re particularly good at doing so.
Long live the movement.