Meeting Alex G

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I went to see Alex G for the first time. Having released my favourite record of 2014 – and one of my favourites ever – the only expectation I had cemented in my head was that I would enjoy it, regardless of any stage charisma, or lack thereof. I went in with a blank slate. As I walked into the venue, I noticed he was standing at the merch table, clad in a black sweater, tapered jeans and an orange hat. He wasn’t surrounded by anyone else, and the vacant look behind his eyes, barely visible by his long, dark and oily hair, made it clear that he was withdrawn from the irrationality of being a rising musician. He seemed like an outsider in a community of outsiders.   

Alex Giannascoli has been quietly releasing music on Bandcamp since 2011 under the moniker Alex G. With an impressive six-album output by the age of 22, he has been garnering a loyal and intensely devoted following at a steady pace, but it was 2012’s Trick that really pushed him to the forefront. Throughout his eleven Bandcamp releases, including the critically acclaimed DSU, he has spun a web of different characters through his lo-fi, homespun indie, where he manipulates his voice to fittingly express the distinctive – and at times disturbing – narratives in his songs. Hailing from the suburban limbo that is Haverton, Pennsylvania – only 20 minutes from Philadelphia – Alex G grew up always having an affinity for music. At the early age of 13, he was given an Apple computer by his parents, where he began to produce amateur techno under the name Rubberthump. He collaborated with his older sister, who has had a significant involvement in his musical shaping  from influencing his taste in music to designing his album covers. Fast forward a few years – and Elliott Smith albums – later, and he formed a high school band called The Skin Cells that “ended up being punk” by accident.  

The music scene in Philly has always been budding and active – he’s been going to shows since he was a teenager. “When I was growing up, there were some bands that I idolized who played in Philly all the time. There was this one band called Rasputin’s Secret Police who were great. I think bands like that made me wanna get deeper into the music. That's the most memorable part of it – being a kid and going out to see bands at all these house shows, we'd go out almost every day.” I think about whether the youthful, creative atmosphere around the city is what directly opened the opportunities to perform. “The scene around Philadelphia is pretty cool. Really open and not intimidating, I guess.” But despite of all his musical output, he never thought it would be a viable career, so he enrolled to study English at Temple University, and that’s when things really changed – although he’s quick to clarify that his time there was more of a responsibility than a lifestyle. “I don’t know how much university affected my work just because I never really invested much into it. It was just like my job, y’know?” And since gaining the traction to support himself, he has since dropped out of Temple to do music full time, telling me that he’ll “save college for another life” with his speech drowsy, unemotive and slow.

On stage, Alex G exudes a dull glow. He powered through most of his set – featuring a mixed set list spanning over his entire catalogue – without much talk in between. He does make it a point to thank the crowd for clapping after every single song, and he delivers this gratitude in an almost childlike manner, which is a stark contrast to his piercing screams during what would be a falsetto sound bite in ‘Icehead’. Having previously said he does this to “make people feel uncomfortable”, he’s quick to reiterate that there’s no humour in it and that he takes his songs very seriously. In spite of the fact that he has a very specific desire to only write and record alone, he’s been touring with a full live band and bringing the songs to full circle. In essence, he’s a singer-songwriter, and I wonder if Alex G, the live project, is something he’d want to expand on if he had the opportunity to. “I’m hoping that in the future the live shows can keep evolving because the recordings are obviously a lot different. It would be nice if the live show could evolve into a more accurate representation of the recording, but at the same time this set up is really convenient and really fun.” Since the band are ultimately just playing songs he wrote, I ask him if his live band has space to interpret his songs in their own way. “Touring leaves a lot of room for interpretation by the band, which is something that’s cool. I’m sure I’ll give it a shot in the future – making the live show more fleshed out or something – but at the moment I think we have a good thing going on.”

The music feels deeply personal, and that’s an aspect that is heightened by a secluded writing and recording process. A lot of the time, he’s been described as a bedroom artist – whatever that means – but that’s not the case. He’s adamant that he just records to make the sounds as high-quality as possible with what he has available – which usually consists of a guitar, MacBook and a stand-less microphone he rests on a book. “It’s riveting to be able to record the whole album with crumby equipment,” he tells me, with newfound energy in his voice. There’s a certain romance to his method, and the act of recording off-kilter creates more of a challenge, but promotes a territory of relaxation, concentration and, ironically, balance. All of the knobs, glass windows and commands can be fucking daunting. “I think I'm going to keep doing this recording thing until it doesn't feel right anymore. It will be inevitable that eventually I will be uninspired by my traditional setup.” And that’s a step he’s willing to take in his own time, despite the pressures to record in a different environment in the wake of the success of DSU. Alone, he’s able to craft cinematic scenes through all of the white noise. He goes on to mention that he has a tendency of being passive around other people involved in his music, usually saying ‘yeah, that’s fine’ regarding a production decision and later regretting it. Alex works better when he can just talk to himself and that’s not something that needs changing, or at least not at the moment. “The reason I like it is because I can have total control of the whole thing. Maybe I'll try learning something new, like techniques with better equipment so I can still have that control, but with studio quality sounds or something. I'm willing to try but right now I don't plan on it.” 

Last June saw Alex G’s first professional release in the form of DSU via Orchid Tapes, indie label founded by Warren Hildebrand (aka Foxes in Fiction) and his partner, Brian Vu. They have always been a label that has had a community feel to them – bands have an interest in what the other bands are up to and they often share the same bills and very publicly sing each other’s praises. On Orchid Tapes, you have bands like Elvis Depressedly who have carved out a similar withdrawn pop sound, to Ricky Eat Acid’s heavy-hearted electronic music, to the grander soundscapes of Foxes in Fiction. And somehow, it all seems to come under one bracket. Unsurprisingly, Alex wasn’t aware of this, as he continued to spin in his own web, telling me that he doesn’t really listen to much music at all. “I wasn't actually sure before I was on Orchid Tapes what it actually embodied – I like them and they're my friends, so I guess, in that way, I was familiar with it. I wasn't really familiar with the music, though. I don't listen to much music." 

The first time I heard DSU in full, I had just moved into my new apartment and was living there alone for a week before my roommate joined me. Although I was in a physical state of loneliness, this wasn’t exactly a time of miserable isolation – I relished in the mental space it provided and also enjoyed the fact no one could be angry at me for playing an album on repeat over and over. The songs, in their heavy prime, felt like faster days and longer nights – they created a buoyant tension that twirled wistfully from my headphones, but it was the kind of sound that felt like you’re being noticed. The lyrical content mostly touches on the discomfort of growing up through post-adolescent, transitory themes. He explores this through hyperbolic ambiguity that leaves you scratched beneath the surface, examining the usual topics of bummed out friends, family, heartbreak and confusion, but presented in different ways each time. Trick’s ‘Change’ is upfront and unfussy, reflecting on how relationships with friends naturally disintegrate after leaving high school: I didn't mind being your crutch / We loved you then / It's not the same / I don't like how things change”. But even though songs like ‘Change’ and ‘Harvey’ follow a simple format, his talent still lends itself to a wide space for interpretation.

Alex tells me that there is no specific influence or theme to DSU and that, despite being called ‘Dream State University’, school had no role in shaping the album. “I kinda just named it that because it was funny. I guess it would just be funny for people to think that I was like ‘oh, this is all partying’ I guess. It wasn’t, it was just tongue in cheek, y’know? I don’t think the album is really influenced by anything at all, to be honest.” DSU feels like the coming of age moment for his previous material; whilst the latter half of Trick felt like it was his most calculated release to date, it was still sporadic in nature and felt impatient, rushed and indecisive. Some of the nuances in his records come from his affinity for layering discordant chords or jangles, which at times sound messy, but this subtlety is where his beauty lies. His idiosyncratic sketches feel like a journey that makes you feel like you’re in purgatory; like you’re falling from the sky into a pit of nothing and it feels inexplicably daunting and ethereal at the same time. The best way to listen to Alex G is in private.

His music mirrors his weird, gritty acceptance of life and its occasional bleakness, and while sometimes this personal touch on his music isn’t welcoming and even hard to take, it ignites a state of askew self-reflection that most artists seek but never find. Even after our conversations, I still struggle to understand who Alex G is. Though elusive and vague, that’s where his charm lies – he’s an enigma in a way that defies the standard definition. Usually with enigmas you pine to know more, but for once, I’m content with what I have. 

 Words by Rachel Grace Almeida