Quiet Slang

James Alex

When James Alex isn’t playing loud, honest punk rock music in his band Beach Slang, he’s playing quiet, honest punk rock music in his band Quiet Slang. He’s quite literally living out both sides of the lyrics in his song “Future Mixtape For The Art Kids,” where Alex sings, “Play it loud, play it fast/ Play me something that will always last/ Play it soft, play it quiet/ Play me something that might save my life.”

What started as an NPR Tiny Desk performance in which Alex performed stripped down versions of a few Beach Slang songs on an acoustic guitar has transformed into an entity of its own. Quiet Slang features the same songs that fans love from Beach Slang but reimagined to feature hushed vocals and orchestral instruments. It’s essentially Alex covering Alex.

On May 18, 2018, Quiet Slang released its debut album Everything Matters But No One Is Listening — an album heavily inspired by Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. The album is an experiment in dynamics that is proof that the quiet can be just as powerful, if not more powerful, than the loud. With Beach Slang, Alex gave us raucous anthems, but with Quiet Slang, he gives us soft-spoken ballads.

Quiet Slang is currently on tour in support of their new album. On June 14, the band will perform at The Backroom @ Colectivo. Wisconsin Gazette had the chance to speak with Alex on the phone about the album and the process of reimagining his songs.

Wisconsin Gazette: Have you been to Milwaukee before?

James Alex: I’ve been to Milwaukee one time. I think it was three years ago or so. It was great, and I have a couple of really good friends there and they rave about the city.

WiG: Could you tell me a little bit about how Quiet Slang came to be?

JA: It’s all sort of like based out of The Magnetic Fields and loving that band so much. I always wanted to a do a record with cello and piano and I was intimidated by it — real musicians play those instruments and I would think I didn’t have any business doing that. I did that NPR Tiny Desk and people gave me feedback from that and said I should make a record like that. It was the converging of those two things. I was too busy being nervous up until now.

WiG: Growing up as a musician, did you ever perform solo sets or is this a new thing to you?

JA: I’ve pretty much always played in bands, but we might be out on tour and someone will say, “Hey, there’s a house party going on,” and I would bring my guitar and they were some of the funnest performances I’ve ever done. Everyone’s drunk and it’s a fun place. It’s so devil-may-care and I love that environment. I like being around people.

WiG: People often liken the Beach Slang music to the Replacements. You also covered some of their songs on Quiet Slang’s first EP. What sort of influence have they had on you?

JA: They are my favorite band for sure. I can’t beat that off of what I write, but to be fair I think their influence has been more of spirit. I don’t necessarily think our songs sound like them. I think it’s the spirit, the “turn on, plug in and just go,” and you can be sloppy and just really mean it. You can play with blood on your knuckles. You can mean everything you do but you don’t take yourselves too seriously. They’re the quintessential rock-and-roll band, I love everything they do. As a writer, you start with something like Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash (debut album by The Replacements), which is a raucous, punk-rock record, and then you get to Pleased to Meet Me (fifth album by The Replacements) and you see the growth in Paul Westerberg as a songwriter, and I suppose that’s always been very inspiring to me. To tell it straight, after this tour, I’m going in to record the next Beach Slang record, and I think that’s the beginning of the growth for me. I’m sort of maturing irresponsibly, but I love that about the Replacements and Westerberg specifically — you can listen to the last stuff he wrote with them, and its matured but there’s still that snot to it, and I just love that.

WiG: I imagine with Quiet Slang, you get to perform at more intimate venues than with Beach Slang. What has that change been like for you? Does it allow you to connect with fans more?

JA: Yeah for sure, we haven’t started (the tour) yet, so I can’t speak directly. But the thinking was to keep it intimate and have it feel like it’s meant to feel. You’re not supposed to hear it from a distance, you’re supposed to be right there and be a part of the intimacy. I look at the venues and they feel really good and we can all be in this together for the hour that its happening and hopefully take something away. We’re thinking of it as more of an art installation than a show — we’ve been building stage dressings and lighting to sort of make it immersive. There will be film footage accompanying it as well. It’s a very considered decision to have it be very different than a Beach Slang show. If I’m going to replicate that and it’s just quiet, then why do it? I just want it to be different.

WiG: Would you say it’s more theatrical then?

JA: I think that’s more of a distinct way to put it. It’s more of a theater piece. I hope that comes across when we put it out. It starts on Monday, so the nerves are starting to rattle for sure.

WiG: Can you tell me about the film aspect?  

JA: We can’t bring a string quartet (on tour with us), the budget doesn’t allow it, so knowing we weren’t going to have this complete ensemble, and not wanting people to feel cheated, that’s when this idea of the art installation thing came about. I really poured through a bunch of film, trying to think of “What accompanies this really well to make it feel proper?” I found a bunch of vintage ballet film, just like black and grey and really beautiful, and I edited it together and it felt like a bullseye. We’re really pulling it away from what Beach Slang would do, so I hope it really feels like a sweet pairing for people when they walk through the doors and they say, “I never saw that coming, but wow what I great unexpected jab to get hit with.”

WiG: What is your process for reimagining a Beach Slang song?

JA: The record label thought I was going to just play quiet songs. I remember them hearing the first song and they were like, “We need to rethink this.” I think at first, they thought it would be just an acoustic guitar. But that just feels cheap to me. It feels like just another thing to sell. If I’m going to put my name on something, I want it to be thoughtful and I want it to mean something. I sit down with my guitar at the piano and if I can settle it down in that way and sing it and it just feels different to me in a better way than the original way I wrote it, then let me chase this. It’s like knocking it down and building it up with a different tool and seeing if it holds up. It’s moving it in a different way that’s exciting — I get a little buzz with that feeling. I love the Beach Slang recordings of “Future Mixtape for the Art Kids” or “Dirty Cigarettes,” but I’ve always felt they need a different arena or a different framework. I remember thinking for sure I want to do those two on Quiet Slang – now they have a whole different weight.

WiG: Was it difficult to approach certain songs with orchestral arrangements? (For example, the Cello in “Dirty Cigarettes”)

JA: I think it was at first — it was a completely new way of thinking. I tinkered around on the keyboard and stuff at home, trying to figure out some things. I was making these little home demos and it was kind of working, and I sort of tapped in with the recording engineer, and the first time we got in a room and we sort of collaborated, I was like, “Wow this is really going to work.” It was a totally different thing to be in the studio than in the bedroom. I remember this rush of calm fell over me when I was in the room with the real thing. Part of me wanted that. I don’t want to get stuck in a gear — I want to keep challenging myself to not get stale, and I think that this was a cool way to do it. I’ve been working on the next Beach Slang record, so just like learning things while making this record, different chord variations — suspended, diminished and all these little things — will hopefully push me into an interesting writing place for Beach Slang LP three. I feel the word of Quiet Slang in the new Beach Slang record.

WiG: I think it’s interesting that rock and roll, and specifically punk rock can be totally stripped down and still have that same effect — if not more of an effect — on the listener. In a way you can release the same songs that fans are familiar with, and make it feel like a whole new album.

JA: I agree completely. I think good songs hold up in stripped down ways. When you write them, you had to feel that good thing then, or then why did you chase it? I dig that, I’ve been a fan of reworked songs bands will do — specifically live. “We’ve played X song this many ways live, so let’s do it this way.” And a lot of times that just knocks out the original. Bruce Springsteen, a lot of times I hear he would come out with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica and the audience is 60,000 people and it’s this crazy moment with just a guy, a guitar and his harmonica. I dig that stuff a whole lot, and that’s one of my fears in doing this — I was locked up in thinking “Will these things will hold up in this stripped-down way?” So far so good, or at least I’m protecting myself from the naysayers, so I feel grateful and I feel lucky and I just want to do right by (the songs) in front of people. People are plucking down 15 dollars to see this, and I want them to feel good about dropping it on this show and not something else they could’ve used.

WiG:You’ve described Quiet Slang as “chamber pop for outsiders.” Can you explain what that means?

JA: I feel like everything I write is for those folks that have been forgotten or left on the sidelines — not really considered or cared about. Those are the folks I’m trying to look out for, having felt like that my entire life. And then I bought in these chamber players. Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields) said there are only two types of music that matter: Avant Garde and bubble gum. I write pop songs that are loud and messy, they’re rock-and-roll songs that are imperfect. That’s what this is then —  I have these real players playing pop music for folks that I want to be heard.

Quiet Slang performs at The Back Room @ Colectivo (2211 N. Prospect Ave.) on June 14. The show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $13 and can be purchased at the door or at www.pabsttheater.org.




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