It has been an interesting year in the life of Beach Slang. The Philadelphia-based quartet was riding high on the back of a pair of turbo-charged Rock & Roll records (2015’s The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us and 2016’s A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings) when things imploded onstage during a live show in October 2016. By the end of last year, only frontman James Alex and bassist Ed McNulty remained.
Beach Slang’s first post-lineup-shift effort, the recently released four-song EP We Were Babies & We Were Dirtbags (Quiet Slang), is a serious tonal reconfiguring when compared to the previous releases, moving from the punky, guitar- and heart-swelling bombast of anthems like “Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas” and “Future Mixtape for the Art Kids” to a more modest, stripped-down approach.
To the point, Quiet Slang opens with piano- and strings-driven versions of the aforementioned songs and closes with fairly straightforward takes on a pair of already-stripped-down classics — The Replacements’ “Androgynous” and Big Star’s “Thirteen.”
Yet one thing remains the same: Alex’s yearning voice is a centerpiece no matter the instruments involved or the volume with which they are delivered. As We Were Babies & We Were Dirtbags’ cover songs suggest, Alex’s impassioned vocal rattle is like Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg crossed with Big Star’s Alex Chilton.
The band — which added guitarist Aurore Ounjian and onetime Afghan Whigs drummer Cully Symington at the beginning of this year — is clearly in a transitional phase.
Will they return to the Hüsker-Dü-by-way-of-Jawbreaker thrust of their earlier work, or will the Quiet Slang approach win out? CityBeat recently connected with Alex to find out how he sees things going, as well as his feelings on social media, finding his voice and the cult resurgence of the cassette.
CityBeat: You’re calling this the “Drunk or Lust Tour.” Does it have to be one or the other?
James Alex: It rarely is, right? But, look, most nights my heart limps more than my liver. I’m working on fixing that.
CB: What can we expect in terms of a set-list this time out?
JA: We’re playing stuff off everything, but hardly adhering to a set-list. Enough stuff in life is figured out and thought through — Rock & Roll deserves better.
CB: I noticed you were soliciting song suggestions for the tour on Facebook. As someone who came of musical age before the proliferation of social media — or even the internet — what are your thoughts about the impact of Twitter and Facebook and all the rest on what you do as a band?
JA: I suppose it depends on how you approach being a band or a singer or whatever. I mean, for Beach Slang, (social media is) pretty tailor-made in one pivotal way — it smashes distance between band and listener. I dig that.
CB: You’ve played everything from tiny rooms to large festivals in the last couple years. Do you approach them differently?
JA: No, not a bit. There’s an importance to shooting straight. Whether I play the big time or busk in the gutter, it’s going to be relentless and tender, drunk and desperate — with everything I’ve got.
CB: As its title would suggest, the Quiet Slang EP is a stylistic departure from the last two LPs. Why were you interested in going in a more stripped-back direction?
JA: Mostly because (1) Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields), (2) my throat hurts and (3) I’m trying to soften the world a bit.
CB: What can we expect of the next album? How has your songwriting process changed over the course of Beach Slang’s existence?
JA: I suppose I’m still figuring that out. I am steering towards a pretty decent shift, or maybe it’s clumsy evolving. What I’m sure of is two things: I want to write honestly about whatever is digging into me, and I don’t want to Xerox anything I’ve done before. What that means exactly, I’m not sure. Forethought has never really suited me.
CB: You’ve not been shy about name-checking your influences. Do you see what you do in Beach Slang as a continuation of those influences, or do you consciously try to find your own voice — do you say to yourself, “This sounds too much like so and so” — beyond what those influences have given you?
JA: Voice-finding is always the aim. All those bands I adore, I see that stuff as a loose blueprint or something. I mean, look, The Replacements already exist and do that thing far better than anyone trying to knock it off so why try to, right? More so, why would you want to? Inspiration and theft are very different things. I hardly have either figured out.
CB: You’re releasing Quiet Slang on cassette, a format that seems to be enjoying a mini-resurgence. In this age of streaming and digital music, you seem to have a keen interest in having what you do be represented in the physical world. Why?
JA: Riffling through record store bins is how I fell in love with music. It’s still dumbly romantic to me. There is something necessary and human to holding a record or a tape — a tactile piece of art that’s built to stick around and remind you. Too much stuff is built to be tossed away, to exist temporarily. Art deserves permanence.
CB: There is a strong, often anthemic, emotional thrust to Beach Slang’s music. Where does that come from?
JA: A really busted childhood and too many friends who never thought they were enough. This is me shaking us and saying we were, are and will always be. I hope we listen.
Beach Slang plays Thursday at Southgate House Revival. Tickets/more info: southgatehouse.com.