Beach Slang's James Alex
Photo by Charlie Lowe
Beach Slang's James Alex On The Albums That Made Him
"Do you remember NENA?" James Alex, lead singer of Philly anthem-punks Beach Slang, asks over the phone. "She said the only reason she got into rock and roll was to meet Mick Jagger. And I was like, 'That's what I never want to lose touch of.'"
The ultimate fan, Alex has stayed true to his (and NENA's) original intention as a musician, taking unapologetic influence from punk pioneers the Replacements, among other early alternative greats. The Rhode Island native sings in a gravel-voiced pitch, much like his idol Paul Westerberg, and builds melodic, earnest tracks around thick, fuzzed-out guitar chords. Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson even shows up on Beach Slang's forthcoming first album in three years, The Deadbeat Bang Of Heartbreak City, dropping on Jan. 10 via Bridge Nine Records.
And that's hardly the first time Alex has followed in his favorites' footsteps: Earlier last year, Alex paid tribute to Hüsker Dü dignitary Bob Mould and Westerberg on a two-track covers EP, performing a heady rendition of "AAA" and "I Hate Alternative Rock." He even secured help from another hero — Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robby Takac — who acted as the EP's producer.
So, in the lead up to Beach Slang's latest LP, it only made sense to ask Alex to go in-depth about the albums that made him, from Pleased To Meet Me to Ziggy Stardust to recent tourmates Goo Goo Dolls' Superstar Car Wash and beyond.
AC/DC - Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976) & Back In Black (1980)
When I was a little kid, my birth father used to live at this campground area and they had this cover band come up and play these AC/DC songs. And I go and they're selling some things afterward at a little flea market, and I see this AC/DC pin. I'm like, "This band. These songs." I eventually get my hands on Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Back In Black. I think the best way I can describe when I first held Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap… They have the sort of blackouts over the eyes and stuff on the cover. You remember William in the “Almost Famous” scene when his sister leaves home and leaves those records for him? I felt like I had that moment where it was like, "What is this?" It was cool to hear those songs, but to see the art and all that stuff, it really crashed into me in a really great way.
I was such a straight-laced kid because I was raised just by my mom. I always wanted to be good and get good grades and do right by her so she could be proud of how good she was doing as my mom. But I'm still like becoming this little raging human being who's got this energy and all these things. Those records gave me where I could have this outlet of being this rock and roller with still being a goody-two-shoes. I suppose we all want a little bit of edge, but I wanted to do it from the safety of not really being in harm's way.
Angus Young was absolutely my first rock hero. Even as far as my stage outfit now. That getup is not an accident. It's my mushy little nod to him.
Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady (1979)
I have a bunch of family in Rhode Island. I've got a couple of uncles up there that really, they turned me on to punk rock. And I remember it was Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady record. I heard that and I was like... I didn't know what I was feeling but I just knew like this is something special. I was too young to understand that I had angst and rebellion and these energies that, whatever it might be, school or little league weren't completely handling. And these records turned up and it was me jumping around with a tennis racket in a room screaming along gave me a thing that I wasn't finding anywhere else.
I always had this affinity for really good hooky melodies. Two-and-a-half minute songs, right? When I heard the Buzzcocks, when I got turned on by my uncles Shaun and Gary with that stuff, it was like, "Oh wow. So you can have all this energy and devil-may-care-ness, but you don't have to check melody." You know what I mean? It was like these things can co-exist.
The Who – Tommy (1969)
I went to go see a high school production of Tommy by The Who and at that point, I'm thinking any band like that, it's otherworldly. Then I saw kids who were maybe my age, maybe a couple of years older playing these songs that Pete Townshend wrote. These like really incredible songs. And I was like, "Wait, I can do this? These kids look like me." And I think that gave me the, "Okay. I have this thing in me that's happening and crunching, but here's the evidence that I can do this."
I go out, I get this knockoff Fender guitar. I don't even remember the brand name. And I got this little one speaker with the Gorilla amp. Just sounded horrible. And I jump around in my room windmilling like Townshend and just thinking, "Man, I'm on to something here." And I was awful. You know when a kid can't even hold a chord but you just hit it and it makes noise and you think you're the thing, you know? It was like that.
David Bowie – The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders from Mars (1973)
I could run off and marry a voice, it'd be Bowie. If somebody came up to me and they'd never heard music before and asked me, what does rock and roll sound like? That's the record I'd play.
I can relate to the smell of that record. The vinyl, opening that up. It places me in such a poignant moment in my life. I don't want get to engineer-y here, but just even the production and the sounds on that thing and the vocal layering Bowie does, or the lack thereof… I still can't completely wrap my head around it.
When I was first getting knocked into that stuff, I was like, "What is this?" I'd never heard records that felt that special and thoughtful and avant-garde yet completely sing along-able. I was just like, "How is he doing this?" All these years later, I suppose, I'm still asking myself those questions, like a lot of musicians are. That record is dangerously important to me.
Pixies – Surfer Rosa (1988)
The Pixies have always been huge for me. When I was learning how to play guitar and learning how to write songs, I was doing the Ramones thing. And then the Pixies came in and you have these weirdo sounds and time signatures and guitar things and you have screaming and whispering… I was like, "Oh, okay. Here's this whole other way to put words to music." I think I needed that crack. I know “Where Is My Mind?” is obviously the mega-hit, but when I heard that “Broken Face” song, I was just like, "This is so weird." I just adored it straight away.
I just have everything they have [released] now. That new record they just put out, I just think it's brilliant. I went to go see Charles Thompson once playing solo. I think he was going by “Frank Black” and I was just at this little brewery and I'm right up on stage because I'm like, "I'm about to see a f**king hero of mine." All of a sudden I feel this tap on my shoulder and I turned around and just be like, "Oh man, I'm so sorry." It's him getting to stage and I'm like, "I'll never wash this shoulder again."
The Replacements – Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash (1981) & Pleased To Meet Me (1987)
I was playing in a band and the guitarist was the hugest Replacements fan. That's how I got turned on. He was like, "You're going to love this. You have to hear this." He gave me a copy of Sorry Ma.... I listened to that and I was, and I suppose it really couples nicely with what you just said. I was like, "This has all the snot of punk, but it's something more than that." You just saw right away, Paul Westerberg was just this phenomenal writer. I was like, "Where is this band going to go?"
When I'm asked about what my favorite Replacements record is… Look, I love everything of course, but I always cite Pleased To Meet Me. I just think it just clobbers and there's something relatable to me because that was the first one where Paul did all the guitar stuff. I don't know, the ability to be able to do that… Not only are you writing these songs, but you're writing all of these hooks or these shreds or are these little dingers or little mess ups or whatever they might be. But it's just like, "Man, you're not just writing a couple of chords and putting some words over it” kind of thing. It just knocked me out that somebody could do all that. And I think I began to want to chase that idea where your singular vision couldn't get smeared. Could I ever pull something like that off? Look, the short answer to that is probably not, right? But there's some fun in trying to do it.
Goo Goo Dolls – Superstar Car Wash (1993)
I'll tuck Superstar Car Wash into bed with me at night. Paul [Westerberg] wrote a single for that [“We Are The Normal”]. I was like, "How is this Replacements thing that I'm finding out about, there's more greatness that's directly related?" And then I heard Johnny [Rzeznik] and Robby [Takac]'s songs and I was like, "What the f**k is this?" I was really knocked back. And then I went back and I got that Hold Me Up record and I was just shattered by it. That's actually how I got turned onto the Plimsouls because I heard the [Goo Goo Dolls’] cover of “Million Miles Away.”
I always refer to it as the Dolls' Holy Trinity, right? It's Hold Me Up, Superstar Car Wash and Boy Named Goo. Those records absolutely sculpted me. Every time I sit down and I'm trying to write a hooky guitar ding or anything like that, it's like I'm thinking of those records. Even as it calmed down, the stuff on Jed, they're just this raucous f**king Buffalo punk rock band. They sort of cleaned it up in the best way you want to clean something up because then they just became these, quite literally, these perfect rock and roll pop songs.
I fanboy-ed out to Robby when he produced our EP [last year’s MPLS]. It's like, I'm talking to Robby from the Goos. I felt intimidated in a loving way. I was just like, "You've made records that have meant so much to me."
He invited us to come to a show that the Goo Goo Dolls were playing and we went there and we met the crew and the band, everything. And he's like, "Man, I want to find John. Let me find John." And I go up and I meet him and I'm, now I'm extra intimidated, right? Because I'm like, "This is the cat." But then we do it and he's the sweetest guy. We're hugging and I remember and I had a Sorry Ma T-shirt on and he did a little knowing point and smirk and looked at me dead in the eyes. We just connected for a second in a way that I was... It was really cool.