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It's Loud And Wild, But I Swear It Feels Soft: Beach Slang's James Alex Talks Quiet Slang

Thursday, 17 May 2018 Written by Laura Johnson

When we think of Beach Slang, we think of screaming our lungs out with our best friends, t-shirts soaked with sweat and beer, as a man in a crushed velvet jacket leads a dive bar chorus. We certainly do not envision being brought to the brink of tears by the gentle melodies of the same songs after they have been recast with a hauntingly beautiful orchestral backdrop. But that’s the alchemy at the heart of James Alex’s Quiet Slang experiment.

“It’s loud and wild, but I swear it feels soft,” he sang back in 2015 on Too Late To Die Young, a highlight from Beach Slang’s debut ‘The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us’. From the get go, Alex was wrangling with the dichotomy at the heart of the band: ragged guitars and raucous singalongs underpinning heartfelt, sentimental lyrics. 

Quiet Slang is his chance to tip the balance towards the softer end of the spectrum, and one that he’s been waiting to take for a while. A long-time fan of Stephin Merritt and his avant-pop collective the Magnetic Fields, Alex sat on these ambitions for almost a decade. He wanted to make his own version of ‘The Wayward Bus’, he just had to figure out how.

“This is a thing that goes pretty far back for me,” he says, calling from the road during Beach Slang’s recent tour opening for emo giants Dashboard Confessional. “I remember when I first got turned on to the Magnetic Fields, I was like ‘how did you do that? I want to make a record like this someday.’ It was incredibly interesting to me. I read this interview with Stephin Merritt that said there’s only two types of music that matter: avante garde and pop.

“They were some weird mash up of that to me and I couldn’t figure it out. I knew I always wanted to do it, but I was still at a point where I was trying to learn how to put punk-rock chords together, let alone take on cellos, and pianos, and stuff. So I just let it simmer for a while and maybe I sort of grew into having enough bravado to not only attempt it musically, but avail my vulnerability so much. I’ve always been kind of a guarded person. If felt right to just maybe take a crack at it.”

Alex’s bravado took physical form last year, when he put out the first release under the Quiet Slang moniker, the 'We Were Babies & We Were Dirtbags' EP. A further LP of reworked Beach Slang songs called ‘Everything Matters But No One Is Listening’ is out this week, drawing from across the band’s catalogue. He has ditched breakneck rock ‘n’ roll in order to create something more, as he puts it, “tender”, backed by a raft of orchestral instruments.

But despite the new rich accompaniment, Alex has managed to retain the lo-fi character of the tracks. He didn’t want to paper over the imperfections and smooth out the rough edges entirely. His gravelly vocals take centre stage and the songs have a live, acoustic quality. “What I didn’t want to end up doing was sounding schmaltzy and that’s a fine little tightrope to walk,” he admits.

Walking that tightrope meant Alex and long-time collaborator Dave Downham injecting a level of punk abandon into a process carried out by musicians used to meticulous preparation and execution. “I think a lot of the approach was approaching it like a Beach Slang record,” Alex says. “We didn’t labour over takes. The cellist [Dan Delaney] specifically would just want to be incredibly precise and perfect and our retort back to him would be ‘it’s rock ‘n’ roll’.

“We kept that mentality even though we had this more dignified instrumentation. We kept the spirit of making a rock and roll record, even in mastering. We wanted to schmaltz guard it. We weren’t trying to make a Celine Dion record, right? So we were very aware that we wanted to keep it in the world of indie and punk rock.”

It took more than a few off the cuff words of encouragement to get the relationship between Alex and the classically trained musicians to work, though. “It was clumsy at first, for sure,” he says. “Because I spoke in an entirely different language. So we were figuring out the linguistics of one another. They were speaking ‘legato’ and all those things, and I was like ‘can we make it just sort of sound like ‘chomp chomp’ here’, you know?

“They were really kind to me, too. Little parts that I would hack away at home on a keyboard or something, they were very un-judgemental at my ability in that realm. Towards the end I was trying to show off some of this classical language I’d learned and they were talking a little more rock ‘n’ roll. We definitely entered that thing as colleagues and left as friends, and we look forward to working together again. That’s definitely how we left it.”

Alex is currently writing the third Beach Slang album, and is incorporating a few of the tricks he learned from his new friends, but he also retains the desire to put out a record of original Quiet Slang material. If anyone cares enough to hear one, that is. “That remains my concern as somebody who writes songs,” he says. “When it’s ‘we’ve had enough!’, ‘hang it up!’. I’m hoping that it’s there. I’m hoping I can do as much with this as I can.

“It’s absolutely something I know I want to do. In terms of full scale release, I guess I’d have to see do people care enough to want another one. Will I make it and put things up? Sure, because I love the process. I love that approach, I love that instrumentation and all that good stuff.”

Beach Slang have always been an emotional band and Alex has always managed to write one liners that land like a punch to the gut. Delivered with distorted guitars and reckless abandon, lines like Warpaint’s “you’re not as broken as you are brave” hit that much harder.  But with Quiet Slang he now has a foot planted firmly on either side of the loud/quiet divide, and is able to balance the two.

He has harnessed the raw emotion of his songs, while pushing his love of the hectic aside. For now. It remains to be seen whether Quiet Slang will capture the imagination as Beach Slang have, but how would Alex like his songs remembered?

“It’s strange because it’s almost depending on the day,” he says. “I was asked a question very recently, it was ‘what song would I want to be remembered for?’ Just one song. In that I was very precise in saying Warpaint, the Quiet Slang version. What I wanted to be before a rock ‘n’ roller was a writer, so words are just weighted to me.

"I think Quiet Slang frames [them] in a way that satisfies me as that kid who always wanted to be a writer. So maybe it’s that? But the loud, raucous, reckless, devil may care thing that I love so much about rock ‘n’ roll, I want that to be there too. I don’t know, it’s sort of an arm wrestling match. I suppose...I’m tug of war-ing in my head. I don’t know.”

On Dirty Cigarettes, the second track on Beach Slang’s debut EP, Alex sang: “I get in trouble when things get quiet.” But here we are, not a cloud on the horizon.

'​Everything Matters But No One Is Listening' is due out on May 18 through Big Scary Monsters.

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