“There’s This Honesty in Being Young”: A Conversation With Beach Slang’s James Alex


There are few debuts that can inspire such quick and passionate devotion in punk circles as Beach Slang’s did last year — after only two EPs. Their sound is reminiscent of everything from The Replacements to your favorite John Hughes film; the songs conjure up memories from that DIY house show broken up by the cops to the fleeting crush you had on the literary punk reading a book in between sets. Beach Slang’s debut album, The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us (out 10/30 on Polyvinyl) is unabashedly heartfelt — I can’t think of a single band who could yell out “We are young and alive” with the sincerity that lead singer James Alex Snyder does — and finds a way to make punk-ish staples (feeling young and being drunk; singing loudly with your best friends about feeling young and being drunk) feel both new and old. The record looks forward to the future while bringing up nostalgia for teen basement shows you never attended in the first place.

Beach Slang — singer/guitarist Snyder, drummer JP Flexner, and bassist Ed McNulty — are here to reassure, to relate, and to build a community where everyone at a show becomes friends by the end of the first song. They’re the type of earnest kids who come out to play shows in ties and prep school jackets because it makes them feel like Clark Kent coming out of a phone booth. The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us emphasizes this community as the band manages to accurately convey feelings of not only youthful out-of-step insecurity but also the opposite: the optimistic hopefulness that tends to die out as you get older — unless you’re playing music that actively keeps it alive.

This week is a busy one for Beach Slang: Aside from the album’s release, the band will play at Little Ybor’s Pre-Fest and Gainesville’s The Fest, perhaps the drunkest and punkest weekend of the year, with multiple sets including full band, acoustic, smaller intimate hotel shows, as a Jawbreaker cover band (!) at a pool party, and a reunion set for James Alex’s other band Weston. In anticipation of the hectic week, Flavorwire talked to Alex about touring, teen movies, and how to grow up without getting jaded.

Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken? cover, courtesy of Beach Slang

Flavorwire: Your songs always channel feelings of youthfulness and the idea that you don’t have to grow up, no matter how old you are. How do you not get jaded?

James Alex: Some of the allure of rock ‘n’ roll, punk rock, and all that stuff is that we were allowed to exist in a state of arrested development — a sort of eternal teenager-dom. That’s appealing to me. The anti-jaded thing is a sub-category of that, because you can still feel young and be, ‘Oh, I’ve seen it all before.’

I think my view of the world is that I’m just a silver-lining, glass-half-full kind of guy. I’ve always seen happiness as an active pursuit. It’s not just going to fall on you and you’re just going to be a happy person. You make this decision to be happy. Part of that is what keeps me kicking. The other part is I’ve been lucky enough or stubborn enough to stick with the things I really love. When you do the things you really love, I don’t think jadedness has room to wiggle itself into it.

There’s so much energy and relentless positivity in your live show. It reminds me of super-positive basement shows in high school.

I think that we think of every show we play as a basement show. That’s our mentality. We all came up through that scene. Those have always been my favorite shows. Those rooms always felt to me like everyone was there for all the right reasons, because this is the thing they really love. I just want to be surrounded by that — whether it’s inside of myself, whether it’s the guys I travel in a band with or the people who come to shows. So we’re trying to put that vibe out there, and it seems to be coming back to us tenfold, which has been making Beach Slang shows a really fun time.

Is there a huge difference between the Beach Slang crowds now and the Weston crowds earlier?

There are similarities and differences. I think back when the Weston thing was happening, you were very easily judged in terms of selling out and that kind of nonsense. I think now, whatever you want to call it — punk rock, indie rock, all those good things — it’s evolved and it’s broadened out a little bit so you’re not so chastised for having people want to listen to your records. Before I think people wanted to keep you — and I guess this still exists in some way— keep you as their little secret, and then when you’ve expanded beyond that, it felt like there was a bit of a backlash.

I don’t feel that as much now from people. It’s Weston people who come around, who still come to Beach Slang shows. It’s really brotherly or even parental where they’re just really proud of me. It feels very warm and sweet. Then there are people who don’t have any real knowledge of the Weston thing who are just super-positive and excited. The scene seems sweeter too now than it was back then.

How’s touring going?

It’s going great. We’re really not going to stop. We definitely made the decision that if we’re going to do this, let’s take the safety nets away. Let’s erase the Plan B. You know, we’ve all had jobs, right? And none of them have been as fun as playing guitar and travelling around the country, so we want to see how far this thing can go. What we don’t want to do is, in a year or two or five or 20, we look back and we’re like, ‘If only we worked harder….’ We are going to work tirelessly. until people don’t want to listen to records or come to shows anymore, of course. We don’t want to wear out the welcome, but until that happens we want to know we gave it everything we had.

Courtesy of Beach Slang’s Tumblr: http://beachslangwashere.tumblr.com/

You used to work as a graphic designer; tell me about the art on Beach Slang’s social media — especially Tumblr and Facebook — and images you pair with your lyrics.

I’m always in the visual world. Much like with the covers of our records, whenever a photograph jumped out at me and I really felt something electric from it, I would just take it. I’d keep this little folder on my desktop and there’s this amazing stockpile of imagery that really speaks to me, that really resonates. I had that sitting around and then, of course, I’d been writing lyrics for songs and such, and then my friend Sarah — she’s a social media director — was like, ‘The way you write things, they deserve to be somewhere. Are you familiar with Tumblr?’ She took me in her embrace and gave me the “social media for dummies” course. I felt like I had the aesthetic and I knew how I wanted to write it and represent it, but she helped me understand how to go about doing it.

So you have the band’s record but then maybe you go see a band and it’s like when I did Tiny Desk where you hear the songs in a totally different way and they resonate with you in a different way because of how they’re delivered. I felt like the social media, specifically with the Tumblr, we strip away all the noise and it’s just like, “Here are the words.” Just bare bones. Let’s see what they mean to someone. Sometimes the written word is more powerful than the sung word. Maybe this is the thing somebody reads and they really need it, but they don’t want the noise. They just want the line that cuts into them in a sweet way. To me, it’s just delivering these songs in different ways. We have the loud bombast of the band, then there’s the quiet bombast of me with my acoustic guitar, and then there’s the totally stripped down words — see if they sock you in the heart. And if they don’t, that’s cool. Read something that does. But if this is what you’re looking for, it is offered up, no-frills, from paper to you, and I like that idea.

The images juxtaposed with the lyrics are immediately Tumblr-friendly, even to those who aren’t aware of the band. And it also has a nostalgic feeling, which I feel like the entirety of Beach Slang’s aesthetic does. Are you actively trying to channel nostalgia?

I think so. For me, I think it’s as important to look back as it is to look forward. I always of it as ‘Remember the past but don’t get stuck there because life’s happening, and make sure you’re a part of that.’ There’s an importance to me in where you came from. Even this mixtape we’re about to put out, it’s going to be this ongoing series of songs and bands that saved my life. That taught me how to be a songwriter, taught me things are going to be OK. Whatever the lesson is — there are an infinite number of them — there’s an importance to remembering where things come from.

When I think back to when I was coming up in punk rock and all my friends and all the dumb stories that I have because of this beautiful thing I chose to do, I don’t want to keep that in a buried time capsule. It’s important for me to keep it being this living, breathing thing. I feel like I have one eye that looks back and one eye that looks forward. I dig that. I don’t know another way to do it. So, yeah, it’s definitely nostalgic on purpose.


Is nostalgia what triggered the Weston reunion at Fest this year?

Yeah, I think so. When Weston ended, we asked ourselves one question when determining whether or not to continue: ‘Do we want to continue to be a band or do we want to continue to be friends?’ We opted to be friends, because it was a pressure-cooker and a mess at that point. Those guys are more brothers to me than they are friends, and that feeling is mutual among all of us. We miss each other. We missed doing this thing. We were kids when that started. We talk all the time and every once in awhile, that very particular itch of wanting to play with one another really comes raging back. Fortunately for us, there’s a really easy fix, which is let’s grab our instruments and play a show or a few. It’s really as simple as that. We never overthink them.

When you started out, were you more interested in music, or being a novelist, or another form of writing?

In a perfect world I would just write poetry, and just publish books and enough people would buy them that I could have a small apartment and keep the lights on. Since I could write, as a little kid, I wrote poems. Probably really terrible ones, but something about that inherently is just in the fibers of me. That was my thing. I really romanticized the idea of writing novels, but I don’t think I have the mental discipline for it. I’m too scattershot in my head. There’d be no continuity to it. But that was always the cool thing about poetry: I could write this thing that I’m feeling, and when that thought’s complete, those feelings are completed. I can move on to writing the next thing that I feel. You didn’t feel trapped in one sort of story or plotline.

If I could have been a poet, that’s probably what I would have been. But hey, no complaints, right? That being a difficult thing to accomplish led me to rock ‘n’ roll. That’s where Jawbreaker was the real eye-opener, or maybe heart-opener for me. I was like, ‘Well this guy’s a poet, but he’s putting it up against these really loud, aggressive guitars.’ That was the real blow-my-mind-open moment as a writer where I was like ‘you can write in a very literary way and still have all that moxie to it’ — and that led to us doing a Jawbreaker cover at Fest. It all ties together.

James Alex © Jessica Flynn https://www.facebook.com/jflynnphoto

What about screenplays? Every time I listen to Beach Slang, I think ‘This would be such a killer soundtrack for a teen movie.

What I really do when I sit down is I try to think I’m scoring a John Hughes film. That’s what’s in my head as I’m trying to write. So screenwriting, I think, would work out great. I would love that angle. I think you’re pretty on the money there. That’s exactly what I think of: I’m sitting down and I’m writing songs, in particular, [for] John Hughes movies. Coming-of-age films, I’m assuming, would be my forte to write for.

What is it about John Hughes that you love so much? The whole youthfulness of his movies?

I think so. It felt to me those movies were written for the kids who watched them, not the parents that were going to buy the movie tickets. They felt honest. Even as an [off]-shoot of the John Hughes stuff — Fast Times at Ridgemont High or something — there’s just this honesty in being young, at least in my head. Maybe I have a romantic version of remembering things, but I always felt like those were written for the people who were in those moments of their life. You watch them [now] and they all still ring pretty true — even just that way he really cared about soundtracks, it all felt really considered. He really cared about the work that he did. I know it’s easy to look at that stuff and think, ‘God, they’re just these teen films,’ but I’ve always felt they’re a little heavier than that. They’re just delivered with a really good sense of humor. They’re smart, they’re honest, they’re bratty; they’re all the things they deserve to be.

That’s also true of Beach Slang’s music. It’s smart, but not condescending toward teens and youthfulness. You capture it even though you’re no longer 17. It doesn’t feel like you’re trying to pander to us.

Right on. Absolutely not. I would feel more embarrassed of myself than anyone would feel for me if I tried to do that. I never want things to come off pretentious. Even if I’m getting tied up in writing a heavy lyric or something like that, I want to make sure I’ll play a show and I’ll wear a pink ruffled shirt. I never wanted to get so serious that it’s not allowed to laugh at itself.

Photo © Alex Schelldorf / http://alexschelldorf.com/

Some of my favorite bands are The Smiths, The Cure and stuff like that, but I’m like, ‘You can’t tell me you’re sad all the time!’ When you listen to something really aggressive, I know you’re not mad all the time. Or you’re not happy all the time. We’re humans and we have this wildly multi-faceted existence. It’s important to me to reflect that. I never want to get marketed into this one thing where I have to become this caricature of what the marketing department made me. And [while] those artists were prone to it, they were catalysts for that existence. If you write sad stuff all the time, you’re going to get categorized that way, but it feels trapping after a little while. If I write a heavy lyric, I want to make sure I balance that somewhere else where it’s humor involved. I don’t want to get stuck in one gear.

It also works because your lyrics emphasize ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ or ‘me.’ It’s always one community.

That’s definitely not by accident that it comes out of me that way. That’s always important to me because I’ve always loved that the sum is greater than the parts. It’s like … all I am is just this one guy, alone, but then if we go to a show and you’re there and there’s that energy and people you’ve never met before — you’re hugging and singing along and all these things. ‘We’ is a really beautiful word. You’ll continue to see that on every record I ever write.