Two days in Philly with a DIY wunderkind
It’s 4PM, a couple hours before soundcheck, and Alex Giannascoli is sitting in his small North Philadelphia bedroom with an acoustic guitar cradled in his arms. Later that night, his eponymous four-piece, Alex G, will open for Teen Suicide, a Maryland rock band that’s aggressively loved by some, though hardly known to many. Giannascoli, a 21-year-old Temple University junior, is wearing a navy button-down, straight-legged blue jeans and mud-brown boots. His hair—oily, dark and nearly touching his shoulders—perpetually hangs in his eyes. He looks like he might deliver pizza. On the desk is a 16oz can of Narragansett and a Nirvana BIC lighter, and with the exception of his guitar and a single microphone, duct-taped to a desk stand and propped up beside his Macbook, there’s no gear in sight. “This is my studio,” Giannascoli says, picking up the microphone and waving it in the air.
He insists that the simple apartment, shared with three other Temple students, is not an accurate reflection of his personal identity. For the past three or so years, he has been quietly prolific, hiding in plain sight behind the hundred-plus self-recorded rock songs he's uploaded to the internet under a shorthand version of his name. There does seem to be a disconnect between the grungy singer/songwriter and the welcome mats, the bare white walls, the chore checklist scribbled on the fridge in neat, curvy handwriting. But he's definitely a college kid, and there’s a certain transitory, post-adolescent vibe to the space that suits his moody songs, which lyrically, seem to be almost exclusively concerned with the cognitive trauma of growing up. On “Message” for example, a song from Alex G's album RULES that humbly borrows the melody of Bob Dylan and The Band’s “I Shall Be Released,” Giannascoli sings, Every year I’m getting older/ every day I feel the same/ and when I feel like I got no one/ at least I can hear the rain.
Giannascoli spent most of his childhood 20 minutes away, in suburban Havertown, Pennsylvania. School was always a breeze, so he did whatever work he needed to land on the honor roll and focused the rest of his energy on making songs. His parents bought an Apple computer when he was in 6th grade, at which point he started writing electronic songs using GarageBand—primitive constructions that he says sounded “like Aphex Twin if he was stupid.” His varied experiments with writing music collaboratively, like the “goth techno” he made with his cool older sister or the pop-rock that accidentally “ended up being punk” he recorded with his high school band, The Skin Cells, always led Giannascoli to the same conclusion: he works best alone. “When you’re talking to yourself, you make fluid decisions,” he says of the song-making process. “With another person it takes fucking forever.”
On the songs Giannascoli releases as Alex G, he explores topics like mental illness, the solipsistic effects of drugs, the bummed-out lives of degenerate friends, and the singular pain of missing someone who doesn’t miss you back. It’s bleak stuff, but it can be comforting, too. His sonic palette fluctuates; Giannascoli experiments with distorted atmospherics and white noise (or maybe that’s just a fortuitous byproduct of his low-budget setup), country-western rawness with banjos and lazily-strummed acoustics, and even crunchy electronic textures. Mostly, though, he’s inhabiting a classic indie aesthetic: meandering guitar solos, occasional toe-dips into psychedelic waters and, most importantly, melodies that stick. Like Elliott Smith, who seemed to succeed whether he was crafting cinematic music with involved string sections or whispery folk-pop or something else entirely, Alex G has a pliable sound. He often toys with perspective, too, channeling various characters through which to tell his demented short stories (his Bandcamp URL, for example, is named after the 14-year-old female subject of his song, “Sandy”). But most often, like on the song “Big World” from his album Winner, he sings with a narrative voice that could only really be his own, or a thinly-veiled version of it: Somebody told me I shouldn’t go to school/ I should just play guitar and try to break the rules/ I thought I’d do it but I didn’t start/ I couldn’t bring myself to break mommy’s heart. It’s a lyric that scrolls through my brain when he reminds me, on more than one occasion during the reporting of this story, that his mom is going to read it.
About two years ago, Giannascoli’s preternaturally melodic songwriting found its way to the ears of Mat Cothran, the South Carolina songwriter who releases music with his band, Elvis Depressedly, and under the solo alias Coma Cinema. After hearing Alex G’s Race, an album that Giannascoli posted to Bandcamp when he was 17, Cothran shared the record incessantly and, eventually, reached out to him over Facebook to try and set up a show. “From the first couple seconds of the first song, I was really drawn to it,” Cothran says of his initial introduction to Alex G. “It was like the shit I always wanted to be able to make.”
"RT if Alex G is the greatest songwriter you can think of.” —Mat Cothran
Zoom forward a few years, and Giannascoli has found a community of sorts within the context of Orchid Tapes, a label run by Warren Hildebrand, aka Foxes In Fiction, and his partner, Brian Vu. Orchid Tapes champions sadly sweet, slept-on bedroom pop made by reclusive songwriters like Cothran, Teen Suicide frontman Sam Ray (who also sculpts heartbroken electronic music as Ricky Eat Acid and muffled indie-pop as Julia Brown) and LA’s Rachel Levy, aka RL Kelly, with whom Alex G released a split 7-inch last year. Though based in Brooklyn, Orchid Tapes thrives in digital, post-geographic locales of the internet. Like a lot of tiny indie labels, they do their own PR, and their cassette tapes and vinyl records are hand-packaged and shipped from Hildebrand and Vu’s apartment, often with candy or tea or personalized notes. Their tight-knit roster is insistently supportive of its own kind, screaming the words to each other’s songs at shows and tirelessly tweeting mutual praises. The label’s physical releases sell out fast, their semi-annual showcases flood venues with starry-eyed supporters, and they’ve started to occasionally appear on the popular page of Instagram—something is clearly working.
“It was weird,” Giannascoli says about linking up with Cothran and the others. “At first I didn’t take our relationships as seriously because it was so online, but now these guys are really important to me.” Giannascoli in particular receives a lot of cheerleading within the Orchid Tapes universe; Cothran regularly tweets things like “alex g has the greatest live band in music right now and thaaaat's the bottom liiiiiine” and “RT if Alex G is the greatest songwriter you can think of.” Last fall, Rachel Levy told The FADER that Giannascoli is “one of [her] musical heroes.” Of seeing him and his band perform live for the first time, she said, “It was one of the best moments of my life.”
This summer, Orchid Tapes will press Alex G’s first-ever mastered full-length, a 13-song record called DSU. In his room, Giannascoli plays me a few songs off that album, which sound like some of the best he’s ever made—full-bodied and beaming with just enough moments of lo-fi weirdness. He has trouble articulating certain details of his creative process, often second-guessing his responses and fumbling to answer questions. When I ask him about influences, he goes blank. On the internet, there are a few videos of him performing covers of breezy ’90s college-rock, like The Martinis' song “Free” from the Empire Records soundtrack. Here, though, he attests he only “sometimes” listens to Built To Spill, the group he’s most often compared to, and says that lately he’s been getting into “regular shit” like Lucinda Williams. “You know how Hemingway writes?” he asks me, a literary touchstone seemingly easier to conjure than a musical one, his speech drowsy and unemotive. “Well, I try and use his method of giving you this thin tip of the iceberg, and hopefully the listener can pick up that there is something under the surface—they don’t know what it is, but they know it’s really scary.” He stops suddenly, eyes bulging like he’s just blurted out some highly confidential government secret. “...But I’m not at all comparing myself to Hemingway.” Someone shouts “ALEX!” from down the hall and, seconds later, the bedroom door swings open to reveal Alex G’s six-foot-four live drummer: a goofy, outspoken 20-year-old named Dexter Loos. He has bushy brown hair, a shabby Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and the kind of instantly comforting social presence that’s like a magnet for introverted loner types. “It’s six o’clock,” he says. “We gotta go.”
With the exception of a Mad Decent logo cemented in the sidewalk outside PhilaMOCA, you’d never be able to tell the venue was once a place where Christina Aguilera and M.I.A. came to make hit records with Diplo in the mid-’00s, or that it had been a tombstone and mausoleum showroom nearly a century before that. It’s a pretty small space, and the Alex G/ Teen Suicide show is sold out. Inside, photographs of hardcore bands cover the walls, while campy scenes from the 1982 film Liquid Sky pulse on a giant projector screen behind the stage. Several dozen kids are roaming about, college-aged and younger; they’re wearing Descendants and Beat Happening T-shirts and chatting excitedly (“I'm meeting so many internet friends!”) while waiting for the music to start. Even though Giannascoli only has a handful of cassettes for sale, he’s sitting quietly at the merch table, gripping a $2 PBR and dutifully filling out the crossword puzzle in the back of a daily newspaper.
Onstage, the Alex G live band—which tonight includes Loos, longtime friend Sam Accione and Asher Dark, who’s filling in for his usual live bassist John Heywood—sounds warm and resonant. It’s something more like proper rock & roll rather than the uneasy-feeling anti-folk of his DIY recordings, and a richness that the new album, DSU, does a good job of channeling. While playing guitar, Giannascoli does this thing where he sticks his tongue out a little, resting it on his upper lip, either a sign of intense concentration or a silly display of bravado. I think about something he’d said to me on the drive over, about how he didn’t drink a lot at shows because it made him “turn into a total attention whore.” He seems a little buzzed up there now, even though I know he isn’t really—just at ease, intoxicated on vibes. The success of their live show hinges on that looseness; Alex G sounds best when they sound like they aren’t trying at all. “Dexter introduced me to Chief Keef today,” Giannascoli says to the crowd while tuning his guitar between songs, his hair almost completely covering his face. “He’s pretty good.”
At the last minute, they decide to end their set with “Change,” the beguiling closer off 2012’s Trick, a song Giannascoli later tells me he wrote at 18 when the relationships with the friends he’d had since grade school began to disintegrate, as they so often do. To a certain crowd, “Change” is an instant classic, a little song with a big feeling, a bedroom pop standard (RL Kelly covered it on her Life’s a Bummer EP). The song is direct and unfussy, upfront about the sentiment that every other sad song seems to dance around: change is scary and it sucks. When Giannascoli starts singing in his fractured falsetto—How are you today/ I saw your friend’s band play/ A little show last night—I realize everyone standing near me is singing along. The story grows darker from there: Remember when you took too much?/ I didn’t mind being your crutch, but the melody stays wistful until the end, when Loos’ live drumming and the two guitars meet head-on for a cathartic, jammy breakdown—a noisy reminder that even the most troubling memories can seem tender when they’re warped by the passage of time.
Even though they had barely spoken much offstage that night, Sam Ray gives Alex G an admiring public shoutout towards the end of Teen Suicide’s headlining set. "Every once in a while they let him out of his penitentiary so he can come and play with us,” Ray says. “He's a genius." During the set, I think about how I’m not sure how well Alex fits in with some of the artists who’ve championed him, like Ray or Cothran, dudes with restless tendencies to jump from project to project and opinionated Twitter accounts; Alex doesn’t even have a smartphone. At one point, Teen Suicide covers Sky Ferreira; Alex G doesn’t know who Sky Ferreira is (though, if Sky had a really smart A&R, she would know who he is, and would be tapping his demented pop psyche to pen songs for her next album). There are obvious parallels within these three’s withdrawn, homespun guitar music, but in a lot of ways, Giannascoli is an outsider in a scene of outsiders.
After the show, we pile into his Chevy Malibu, which he bought himself with cash he made working a construction job (“It’s mine as fuck”) and drive over to the big, old, South Philly house where Dexter Loos lives with a bunch of roommates. Up in Loos’ fourth-floor bedroom, we’re joined by a few other dudes: some friends asking how the show went and one wobbly, red-eyed straggler from a party downstairs who slumps over on the ground and rests his head against the desk. Loos’ brown leather jacket is too small for him and he gives it to Giannascoli to try on. Everyone decides it looks cool and Loos says “keep it.” From the pleased look on his face, I’m pretty sure he would have gifted it to Giannascoli even if it had fit him in the first place. “It’s like Christmas or some shit,” Giannascoli says while Loos lights a cigarette and someone whose name I can't remember tries to decide whether the girl he’s chatting with on OkCupid is a prostitute or not. Everyone talks shit on Morrissey for a while and then someone pulls up Schoolboy Q’s “Man of the Year” video on a laptop. Giannascoli sits on the bed, looking worn-out and distracted, silently nodding while the smoke-filled bedroom buzzes around him.
Around 2AM, before heading home, he offers to drop me off at a trendy dive bar in the Fishtown neighborhood where I’d made plans to meet a friend. He’s never been there, but he’s heard of it. On the way he plays me a song by a band from his hometown called Rasputin’s Secret Police. It’s a pretty straightforward rocker with a heavy, early Sub Pop quality. The lyrics list off every town in Delaware County, and Giannascoli knows all the words.
I first got into Alex G’s music during the long, humid summer I’d spent working in the kitchen at a burger joint. Between nine-hour shifts, I savored the 30-minute air-conditioned bus ride to get there, and for a long time on these commutes I only listened to Alex G. There was an almost immediate desire to share it with everyone I know. “Have you heard Trick?” I’d ask a friend rhetorically, knowing they hadn’t, quickly queuing up “Forever” or “Change” on my iPhone and placing my headphones over their ears. What makes Alex G the type of artist to make a person go all Garden State? He’s surely an underdog; at the same time, his unpretentious songwriting feels intrinsically universal. Perhaps Alex G typifies a new model of rock star, the Bandcamp genius whose recognition will never quite stretch beyond Philadelphia or Delaware County or these weird, specific pockets of the web—a deity to a certain crowd but unknown to the rest of the world. Or perhaps, with such fanatic supporters, he’s destined to be legitimately famous, selling out mid-sized rock clubs while cool dads in quiet towns trade his CDs with one another because it was recommended to them on satellite radio. To me, a believer, the latter doesn’t feel too far off.
The morning after the PhilaMOCA show, even though it’s chilly and overcast, Giannascoli and I take a walk down Broad Street through Temple’s sprawling urban campus. Dressed in the same clothes he’d worn the day before, he wants to show me his stomping grounds and suggests going to a rooftop lookout spot that he sometimes visits. But since the route involves sneaking through an official university office building that’s locked up for spring break, we keep walking. Even for a damp and gloomy Sunday, there’s startlingly few people on the street. The 40-degree weather is pretty typical of March in the Northeast, but if someone told me that it was like this year-round in this part of Philly, perpetually cloaked in a bluish-gray haze, I wouldn’t question it.
"It's like, not being able to deal with the way reality is.”—Alex Giannascoli
We stop walking when we get to the Divine Lorraine, an eerily run-down 19th century hotel that’s been vacant in construction limbo for more than a decade, and step in through an opening in the fence. The graffitti-covered building is sad and ghostly but also strangely magnetic; even half deteriorated, it's beautiful to look at. Giannascoli seems sort of nervous, like he’s got something to get off his chest. He lights a cigarette—the first I’ve seen him smoke all weekend. “I’m like really, really high-strung, if you haven’t noticed already,” he says, the boarded-up hotel looming and blurred behind him. “People always tell me I sound stoned when I talk, and I think I’ve made myself talk slow and easy. I work hard to not talk a mile a minute. I could contradict every point I make in a second. I have like, a feeling and I make music to match this thing, this feeling,” he says. “It’s extreme. It’s like, not being able to deal with the way reality is.” It starts to rain a little; a few tiny silver droplets stick to his black, water-resistant jacket. “That sounds good,” Alex says, pushing the hair from his eyes and grinning, happy that he’s finally described his music in a way he likes. “I’ll keep it, man.”
Before we leave, I bring up “Animals,” an Alex G song from Trick that’s about preferring the company of animals to humans. Sometimes, when he performs it live, he stresses the final word of each verse’s opening line with a jarring, high-pitched, bronchial scream (I get sick when I get STONED!!!!!), intending to make the audience “as uncomfortable as the people in the song.” At the show last night, however, he sang it mostly straight. “I don’t want people to mix up absurdity with humor,” he tells me. “I don’t want to be misinterpreted as joking, cause the songs are really serious to me.” Trick was released on cassette by a little Seattle label called HazeTapes, and its cover artwork is a photograph that Giannascoli’s older sister took of a German Shepherd running down the center aisle of a church. The shot was taken when the animal—a stray or a runaway or something—unexpectedly burst through the chapel doors during a family member’s funeral service. Alex G songs are like that, exploring those kinds of surreal, senseless spaces, where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, or if something’s real or just happening inside your head.