James Alex is making an unusual transition for a punk rocker.
The frontman of acclaimed Philly indie-punk outfit Beach Slang has launched a solo project – appropriately named Quiet Slang – in which he trades the fuzzed-out guitars for an elegiac piano, the driving bass for a cello, and the drums, well, there are no drums. Alex's voice fills out the space.
Quiet Slang is the singer-songwriter’s attempt to “shred the last bit of armor” and “lunge into absolute vulnerability.” Last October, the break-off project released a four-song EP, “We Were Babies & We Were Dirtbags,” featuring a mix of Beach Slang songs and covers re-done in Quiet Slang’s minimalist, orchestral sound. It’s “chamber pop for outsiders,” Alex says, and the sound is both haunting and nostalgic.
Alex, now in his 40s, is no stranger to changing musical outfits. His first noteworthy band was the punk group Weston, which recorded albums through the 90s and gained something of a cult following. Formed in 2013, Beach Slang is a relatively young for a band for their stature. After a quick breakthrough – 2015’s “The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us,” a blistering 10-song album – the band quickly started making lists as one of the city’s most notable rock groups.
Philly Weekly caught up with Alex ahead of his July 14 show at Underground Arts (8:00 pm, $16-18). Here he opens up about collaborating with Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, the Philly DIY scene and the intimate trajectory of his songwriting over the decades.
To local fans who know your work with Beach Slang, your NPR Tiny Desk performance sort of helped launched this solo project called Quiet Slang. Besides the supportive response, did you always have an interest in a more stripped-down, minimalist project as a kind of release or a yin-yang balance to the driving rock-and-roll?
Always. I got turned on to Stephin Merritt in the late 90s and it shook something really loose. Minimal, avant, weirdo pop with cello and piano—I just went head-over-heels. That was that little dreamer moment of, “I really want to make a record in this kind of way.” It just took me a good bit to figure out how to pull it off. I didn’t. But I got closer than I thought I might.
Incorporating strings and experimenting with chamber sounds is often a milestone for rock outfits as they mature. But with Quiet Slang, you’ve entirely dropped the fuzz and fury of the full band. Are you tempted to blend the two Slangs into a hybrid sound, or would that be sacrilege?
I’m leaning towards sacrilege. Maybe they’ll flirt with each other if some new song accidentally demands it, but, yeah, separate but equal, you know?
On the origin of the name Beach Slang, you reportedly read a magazine interview with some musicians who said that no band with the word “beach” in their name could possibly be taken seriously. (Beach Boys, Beach House? Were they half-joking?) Regardless, you took it as a challenge. So what is the angle now behind Quiet Slang, besides the obvious gestures towards a more minimalist project? What kind of “challenge” is this project to you?
I wanted to shred the last bit of armor I was keeping, to lunge into absolute vulnerability. Sometimes you need to chop things down to patch them back up. I don’t know. I’m just trying to figure myself out, to leak a little light. I’ve been a mess-up my whole life. It’s a habit I’m trying to kick.
Long before you formed Beach Slang in 2013, you got your start in an emo outfit called Weston. What happened between the two? How do you describe your songwriting trajectory from those days up to Quiet Slang?
I played in a couple project kind of things, but, mostly, everything was just a songwriting exercise. I was really begging to be decent at it. It’s my favorite part of this whole trip—the idea of making something out of nothing. I dig that all the way. It’s been a slow, patient burn. But that’s what it should be. To me, that’s rock & roll asking you how badly you want it. I’m not sure if I’m a believer, survivor or a dope, but I’m still here and the songs aren’t half bad.
“Philadelphia is just this blue-collar powerhouse, DIY-to-the-guts and that’s the goods. If nothing is happening, make it happen. There’s something so necessary in that.”
Beach Slang has always strongly identified as a Philadelphia band, and I can assume the same goes for Quiet. What are the most striking differences about the Philly music scene since when you started out and today?
The most striking thing is how similar it is to when I was coming up—kids throwing basement shows, xeroxing zines, starting bedroom labels. Philadelphia is just this blue-collar powerhouse, DIY-to-the-guts and that’s the goods. If nothing is happening, make it happen. There’s something so necessary in that.
What do musicians need more of in Philly? How could the city better support its artists? (Besides free money.)
I think Philadelphia does alright. I mean, nothing owes anyone anything. My advice: write something that matters, make something that knocks them out and fucking hustle—if you don’t do any of that, there’s nothing no one or no thing can do to save you.
You’ve been residing in Easton now with your wife and kids for some time. Does living in the ‘burbs bum you out? Do you miss being in town?
I wouldn’t say I’m bummed out, but, yeah, sometimes I feel like I’ve slipped into weirdo skin or something. I miss the grit and the chaos and the dives. Mostly, my friends. But, my kids have a yard and my neighbors aren’t banged out by guitars. The strange balance of life.