If You FEEL Too Much

In a world where irony and passive-aggressive detachment are de rigueur, Beach Slang operates as a necessary operative. This Philadelphia three-piece exudes eyes-wide-open energy and hyper-driven emotion, bashing out modern anthems for tortured souls with titles like “Young & Alive” and “Future Mixtape for the Art Kids” on albums with epic Raymond Carveresque titles like The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us and last month’s A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings. It’s punk rock as rowdy catharsis, emo rock as empowering therapy session, and classic Replacements-style indie rock as the path to fulfillment. Especially for frontman James Alex, who at 42 and clad in his uniform of dark red pants, ruffled shirt, blue blazer, and white guitar is finally living the dream he’s harbored for nearly 30 years.

Folio Weekly: You played with Pennsylvania pop-punk heroes Weston for a few years, then pursued a career in graphic design before starting Beach Slang. Does that circuitous path to success make all of this more special, James?
James Alex: I think so. Stepping out of it for a little while really sharpened my teeth and made me appreciate the thing I had lost sight of. I need music to feel OK. As cool as it was making a living as a designer, it wasn’t rock ’n’ roll. So when I did throw my hat back in this ring, I did it in such a committed, fearless way — hungrier, but also more focused. A throttle-all-the-way-down approach.

We’re going to need that after Hurricane Matthew clobbered us last week.
We were thinking about all our friends in Florida during that. So know that we’re going to bring our brand of drunk, glorious, sweaty shenanigans. We try to make the crumminess of life disappear for an hour and a half while we celebrate our imperfections and stumbles. It’s an all-welcoming, communal charge. And we’ve only played The Fest before, so it feels good to start branching out in the state.

Has the famously high-energy Beach Slang show changed in any marked ways as the band has attained a higher profile?
We’ve been pretty true to the thing we do. We have one gear we operate in — if we’re playing to five people or 5,000, it’s all the way up, sweat it all out, and have nothing left when we’re done. That’s the way we do it. I will say, with the profile growing, it allows for more moments where there’s a pack of people singing along to the songs, which energizes the room in a way.

On the new record, you wrote from the perspective of some of those really steadfast Beach Slang fans who’ve been affected by the music. As a songwriter accustomed to writing from his own viewpoint, what was that like?
It was heavy. In a lot of ways, it was necessary. I didn’t allow myself to get bogged down in my own junk or listen to the hype surrounding Beach Slang. I’ve always said, this is so much bigger than any one person — it’s not about me, it’s not about Beach Slang, it’s about all of us. So to really sink into other people’s viewpoints and narratives felt necessary. I’m being served up this incredible inspiration all the time. It’s literally being handed to me by our fans. So then my job becomes relatively easy: “Here it is — just do right by it.” 

Have the demands of being the frontman of this impassioned, full-throttle band taken a physical toll on you?
It’s been tough. The last few months were the first time I’ve been like, “OK, yeah — I’m not 20 anymore.” We’ve been touring animalistically. We don’t really stop. I have this blind adrenaline that kicks in, but if we go 10 nights a row, my throat hurts. If we sleep for only three hours a night for a week straight, I have to catch up. Because when we get home from tour, I’m not going to cheat my son out of time together. If he gets up at 5:30 a.m., I get up with him. So I am in the beginning phases of trying to figure out some sort of strategy. I know our booker has been trying to talk me into a day off every 10 days, and I’m starting to see the importance of letting my bones and my throat rest. Plus I have a really, really cool wife at home who mans the ship if she starts seeing me fray.

How about the emotional toll of consistently being so open and honest — on record, in interviews, and on stage. Do you ever need a break, or do you thrive on it?
Definitely the latter. I’m wired that way. I came up as such a shy, wallflower person, so to have grown into this ability to tear myself open and not get completely rejected by society but actually find this connection … Man, it feels like, “Wow, what an amazing life this is.” And I just want to nurture that. For me, Beach Slang is not so much a band as a gang of people who really needed to feel like they had a voice, or belonged somewhere, or weren’t complete outcasts. That’s the part I’m embracing. If people hang around and want to hear the thing we do, that’s the dream, right? To do what you love as long as you can do it? I hope it’s a forever thing. There’s nothing else I want to do.