"If I'm gonna fly a flag for something, I want it to be optimism," frontman and songwriter James Alex says

By Alex Heigl
December 16, 2015 05:00 PM
Craig Scheihing

With release titles like Cheap Thrills on a Dead End Street and Who Would Ever Want Something So Broken?, Beach Slang seems like kind of a downer band, at least on paper. But on record, the group explodes in a whirlwind of guitars, frontman James Alex’s battered rasp of a voice, and achingly sincere lyrics that detail the kind of wasted (in both senses of the word) nights from which all kind of rock legends – big and small – are built.

Alex has plenty of experience with this: At 41, he’s a little older than most of his indie-rock peers, and has already lived a whole life with another band: Pennsylvania pop-punk act Weston, who despite touring feverishly and building up a devoted fan base, never quite broke large.

But Beach Slang’s full-length debut, The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, is popping up on year-end best-of lists, and Alex and the band are out touring behind the record, his conviction undiminished by years in the van and crashing on people’s floors.

Talking to the voluble Alex is a little like plugging directly into one of his amplifiers: He’s exactly as sincere and positive as his songs, and his mile-a-minute patter moves at roughly the same pace. PEOPLE caught up with him as Beach Slang was in the studio recording a song for a Nirvana tribute to pick his brain about success after Weston and how it feels to build a life on rock and roll.

How long were you playing actively in Weston?
Seven years, I suppose. And that was great! We did the thing like you would do when you’re starting out – you’re a teenager, you’re an early twenty-something. We traveled, played hard, slept on floors, hardly ate, met a ton of people. We really did it. And it was a great way to cut my teeth and prepare me for what’s becoming a lifetime of the same sort of tomfoolery. It was diving in, all the way. I can’t think of a better way to come up.

With that in the rearview, how does your approach to making music with Beach Slang differ? (If it does).
I think that part of it is still the same. That fervor, that hunger. As a writer, it’s very different. I’m a lot more honest and heart-on-my-sleeve. I’ve lived long enough now to have the courage to tear it open and drop my guard. It’s terrifying to be rejected, whatever you’re doing in life, and with music and art, you’re really putting it out there, so I always kind of saved that one little part of me, that if it were rejected, I could always convince myself, “Well, they didn’t get the full story.” With Beach Slang, I was just like, “No, good art deserves to be honest, and I want to make something good.”

Would you chalk some of that up to growing older?
Without a doubt. Your perspective changes. I’ve learned how to put words together, I have different things to write about. I have a life to reflect on. I have a point of view. We all think we have a point of view when we’re 18 or 19, and we do, but I have double that now. I’ve been trying to learn how to write and be better songwriter and lyricist, and you have to tell yourself you’re eventually catching on, right? I’m hoping I’m learning how to do it better than I did at 19.

There’s an element of yearning, a sense of "There’s something out there for us, that we have to go and get," on this record. And that’s frequently sold as a young person’s mindset. But you still have that.
Absolutely, man. I think it’s surrendered relatively easily in life. I think there’s a cultural expectation that you hit a certain age and you think, “Well, this is as good as it gets. I’ve now carved my little place in the world, and this is it.” I’ve never really subscribed to that. There’s an importance to me in pushing, always pushing. I wanna keep thinking that there’s places I’ve never been before, there’s things I’ve never learned before, there’s books I’ve never read before. I don’t ever want to be the type of person that’s like, “Man, when I was 22, man that was my Everest.” That’s just the beginning! Life is this fleeting little weirdo blip, and I just wanna make the thing count while it’s here. I’m here and I’m just as hungry as when I started and you know, the day I wake up and I’m not, is the day I’ll split. I don’t know how to fake it. I don’t know how to phone it in.

This whole yearning, questing mindset can be really quintessentially American, I think.
That has been framed as Americana. Springsteen is a great comparison. The first song on the record, “Throwaways,” is my little punk “Born to Run.” I’ve always identified with that. And my life is pretty cool right now, but I love the idea of “It can always get better.” Because we’re reminded daily that it’s going to get worse. Or that things are terrible. How about flipping how you look at things? And thinking, “It could get better. What if it does get better?” Look, if I’m gonna believe in something – and I’m not a super-political, super-whatever person – but if I’m gonna fly a flag for something, I want it to be optimism. I want it to be hope.

A lot of people are calling Beach Slang a comeback story, or "a second act." At any point in Weston before you guys called it quits, did you ever have doubts? Did your faith ever flag?
I don’t think so, man. We were having too much fun to really be aware of much else. We went into that band with zero expectations. Towards the end when we thought something might happen, we got wrapped up in that and it was exciting, you thought something might happen, but by then, we had so clearly defined what was important about it to us that it was like, “Well, if it happens, great. If not, cool. Let’s go play a show.” And I think that of all the things we did wrong in that band, the one thing we did right was recognize how lucky we were. I feel really hard-pressed to complain.

The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us is available now.