Concert preview: James Alex navigates turbulence, keeps smiling with Beach Slang
In a 2015 interview, Beach Slang singer and guitarist James Alex said a little bit of turbulence can help "keep the razor sharp," preventing things around the band from becoming safe, sterile and, ultimately, lifeless.
"If things get too right or too perfect, or if it gets too big or the show is like, 'Wow, we were really a professional band tonight,' then I need something to push back against," said Alex, who visits Rumba Café for a concert on Monday, Oct. 24. "There needs to be resistance to shove against, and, yeah, sometimes when life starts to feel like a hot knife through butter - this is almost pathetic to admit - but I'm almost looking for something to hiccup.
"Foot in the gutter, foot in the stars; I kind of like that existence."
Recently, both of Beach Slang's feet have seemingly trailed in the muck. The band nearly called it quits following a tumultuous April show in Salt Lake City. ("When that happened, [Beach Slang] was over in my head," Alex said.) The July departure of drummer JP Flexner and the subsequent removal of guitarist Ruben Gallego, who left the band in October amid past allegations of sexual assault, only deepened the questions surrounding the Philadelphia-based crew.
"Beach Slang, I've always said if we were a bar the flashing neon sign out front would say, 'All are welcome.' That needs to be protected here," Alex said of the decision to part ways with Gallego. "You come to a Beach Slang show or you hang out with us, the last thing you should be worried about is your safety on any level. I need to make sure that's protected. And that's what we did."
According to Alex, who is performing solo on this current tour, the near-disastrous events in Salt Lake City, where he closed the show by saying, "We were Beach Slang," ended up reaffirming his dedication to the project and have helped steel him to navigate the subsequent turmoil.
"As I was leaving the venue to walk back to the hotel room [after the show], a girl ran a couple hundred yards down the alley to where I was standing and gave me a hug and said, 'You can't leave. We need you,'" Alex said. "You know when someone dies in the movies and their soul is fluttering away and the paramedic hits them with a heart defibrillator and the soul just goes swooping back into their body? That was how it felt. Immediately I was like, 'James, what are you doing? This thing is bigger than the moment you're in.'"
This communal, never-say-die spirit runs throughout the Beach Slang catalog - "You might be cracked but I won't let you break," Alex sings at the onset ofA Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings, from 2016 - with the singer, now in his 40s, giving voice and comfort to the disaffected youth with whom he still closely identifies.
"I had a really sweet conversation with someone last night after the show, and he kept saying, 'I don't want to sound weird, but I feel not so alone when I listen to your music,'" said Alex, who copped to being afflicted with "Peter Pan-ism." "And it was like, 'You're never going to sound weird talking to me about that.' I was a shy, introverted wallflower of a kid coming up … and rock 'n' roll was the place I didn't feel so alone. When I first walked into a punk show, it was a whole room of kids who looked and felt like me, and all of a sudden you realize you're not alone. That message has been very, very important to keep in my lyrics, and I don't see that going away anytime soon."
Regardless, there have been subtle shifts in the frontman's output. While the word "alive" remains firmly embedded in the band's lexicon - it's easily the most-repeated term on a pair of 2014 EPs, as well as on the group's 2015 full-length debutThe Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us- there are moments onA Loud Bash centered on the opposite end of the lifeline. Witness "Art Damage," a cathartic, guitar-driven anthem that could almost pass for a living will. "When I die, bury me in the clothes of my youth," Alex sings.
"I really did get smacked with that realization I'm not going to live forever," Alex said. "I have a son who's a year-and-a-half … and one of the first things I said to him was, 'So, you're my replacement on Earth.' It gave me some weird sense of my impermanence, which is sort of a joyful way to have that realization."
Even in confronting his own mortality, the frontman gradually circles back to this engrained sense of joy, describing his youthful, upbeat demeanor and fondness for surging, spirited rock songs as a byproduct of long ago making the active decision to be happy.
"Happiness is not handed to you. You make a decision to do it, and I think that's what I've done," he said. "Or maybe I'm just naïve enough to believe life can be that way and you can be attached to those feelings forever. I mean, it's proven true so far. Let's see how much longer I can hold onto it."
8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24
2507 Summit St.,
ALSO PLAYING: Bleached, Hunny