WHRB Interviews (Sandy) Alex G
As I began chatting with the King of lo-fi alternative indie rock, the eerie vocals from Tomberlin’s soundcheck verberated throughout the venue. While sitting backstage with the man whose music has served as the background track for my young adult life, I figured it was only fitting to hear these distant melodies as I began exploring the mind of someone who for years now has offered me such hypnotic and immersive sonic experiences. The prolific songwriter has been releasing hauntingly unforgettable and captivating songs from his home recording setup since the age of 14. Back in 2014, TheFader referred to (Sandy) Alex G as “the internet’s secret best songwriter” and anyone who’s taken the time to dive into his expansive discography knows this is no overstatement. At 26 years old, the internet’s beloved recording artist has already released seven studio albums, toured all over the world, and has a dedicated subreddit that is run by fans who never cease to worship his music.
It was just a few hours before (Sandy) Alex G was to perform at the Royale in Boston, which would mark his second to last stop on his tour for his recent album House of Sugar. While still remaining true to his time-tested methods of recording with GarageBand on his Mac laptop, the acclaimed House of Sugar makes clear that (Sandy) Alex G’s musical trajectory is steadfast and only expanding. Songs like “Gretel” and “Taking” demonstrate beautifully integrated experimental and rich new sounds that offer a professional yet unfamiliar new path. Additionally, the album jumps from playful melodies to exploring many heavy themes such as drug abuse, temptation, and consumption, offering the duality of an unusually mature and contemplative tone while still capturing the youthful, optimistic energy fans know and love.
Andrew: When working on this album were you intentionally trying to create that dichotomy between the seriousness and playfulness, or was it more just a natural outcome of your writing process?
Alex: Yeah, I like to cover as much as possible, you know. Like if you’re seeing a movie you want it to be happy and sad and funny and scary–I want to see it all. I like music to also be as encompassing as possible.
Andrew: In an interview with Trasher Magazine while back I read that you were reading a collection of short stories by Silvina Ocampo whose work you described as “kind of creepy and loosely put together” and that she “always focused on the images and the colors rather than the plot being well constructed”. I mean this in the best way possible, but in many ways I think similar things can be said about House of Sugar and your general songwriting process.
Alex: Oh I’m flattered. I admire that about her stuff a lot. Where she just like gives you a scene–it’s something I’m always struggling to convey when I’m doing interviews–I’m not trying to prescribe the interpretation of the song, you know what I mean. Here’s the picture and I don’t want to say what it’s about, because it's not important what it's about to me. The craft, in my opinion, is creating something that is meditative in some way for the listener. That sounds too grand, I shouldn't say it's like a meditation, but the music I love is something I listen to and apply to myself and it feels good and that’s what I love about music and that’s what I want to make for other people. And I think that's what she does with her stories because you know, usually stories are point A to point B, but she almost gives you dreams or something and it's up to you to draw conclusions.
Andrew: Do you feel that your music is influenced by the literature you read?
Alex: No–well, I think it's influenced by everything I experience. Whether that's the literature I read or the movies I've seen or the music I listen to.
Andrew: I was really intrigued to hear your album artwork comes from your sister. I’m really curious what the process is like having her create something that always somehow perfectly matches the vibe of your albums.
Alex: I think me and her are just extremely similar for obvious reasons. She’s older but we’re either always on the same page or I’m always on her page. I think she’s shown me most of the cultural things I’m interested in–they’re kind of like hand me downs from her. Regarding music or art or whatever. So, it's almost unsurprising that the music would work so well with her paintings.
Andrew: As I understand it, you haven’t had a formal music theory education and describe your writing process as more freeform. How do you feel that that’s impacted your creativity or the direction you’ve gone in as an artist?
Alex: I guess I try to maintain a lot of ignorance as far as music theory is concerned, because I don’t want to know if I'm doing something basic or if I’m doing something complex. I don’t want that interfering with my gut process which is just: does it sound good? does it sound good? If it sounds good then, I like it and I keep it. And if it doesn’t sound good then I don’t keep it. I don't want to be like “well this should sound good” so I keep it. You know what I mean? I don’t want any of that knowledge interfering with my intuition.
At this point of my life, I’m holding onto that ignorance. It was like I was growing up being like “Oh noooo I don’t want to learn this”. Growing up I just played because I didn’t even realize music theory was part of the equation. Now, I realize it's a thing but I haven’t needed it before so I don’t want to fuck with my gut feeling.
Andrew: Where does that cowboy energy come from on songs like Badman?
Alex: You know, it's probably just from hearing–like Badman for example, there were a couple songs that came out that I really liked. There’s this one “Like a farmer” by Lil Uzi Vert–I forget the other guy who’s on it. Do you know Tierra Whack? She’s a Philadelphia musician and she had this 10 minute album where all the songs are one minute long. One of the songs on there she goes into this accent that’s obviously not here. It's this extreme Southern sounding accent. I don’t know–I just got such a kick out of it. So yeah, I had this song Badman and I went through a bunch of different versions of it cause I couldn’t make it right you know. And then eventually I just started messing with these synth sounds and I just sang it with that accent–I guess that other music had crept into my subconscious–and I just tried it like that and it sounded good. You know it had the right amount of irony in there to make it palatable.
Andrew: I read in an interview you did with MTV that with this album you wanted to move in a new direction and make stuff that “makes you wanna dance and shit”. I’ll have you know when I hear the beginning of Southern Sky, I definitely have an immediate urge to dance and shit, so good job there. Where did this aspiration for the album come from and do you think it’s going to stick with you moving forward with your next projects?
Alex: You know I guess I always want that to happen. I don’t know–I think my opinion on even my own shit changes constantly. You know I did want people to dance. With every song I want people to laugh and cry and dance and shit. My perspective on it changes every time I listen to it. The music I like I can dance to so that’s why I guess.
Andrew: The mixing is absolutely beautiful on this most recent album. Like when the drums come in on “Taking”, I think it the drums just work so perfectly. Also, the sounds you were able to create on “Gretel” are pretty unbelievable. I’m wondering if you could talk more about the process of working with Jacob Portrait and what that is like to spend so long creating something on your own and then handing it over to be tinkered with.
Alex: It’s interesting. I’m definitely a pain in his butt. I just have these headphones I mix everything on. When I’m demoing or tracking everything I’m creating a rough mix on GarageBand and I bring it to him with a rough idea of what I want it to sound like. There are all these difficulties that we run into because he hears things I’m not even equipped to hear. Because he’s EQing it and has these speakers and he’s a pro. And so, a lot of like the drums coming in and sounding great is probably because of him–his ear for making the drums hit and the bass hit. I’m like messing with the volume of things. You can hear in my older recordings before I was working with Jake, you know I could never make things pop. I’m not familiar with EQing and that type of thing.
Andrew: I’ve read somewhere online that you called the process as if you were all learning a cover. I’m really curious about what your process is like going from recording all your stuff on your own on garage band to playing with a band for this album. How do you feel like your music transforms from home recording to live shows with your full band?
Alex: Obviously the songs are different but the whole process of going from recordings to live show is the same. And that process is I’ll finish the record and then as a band we kind of sit with the songs and we’ll practice them and figure out how best to perform the songs with our limited means. So that might mean substituting a synth for an electric guitar, or you know, some weird techno-percussion thing with the real drums. The four of us kind of work together to make sure its still an exciting performance even though a lot of elements are changed.
Andrew: I’m curious about how you feel about the fact that you have such a wealth of music floating around on the internet. It seems to give people so much stuff to obsess over, make bootlegs album out of, and there’s even a whole website dedicated to your unreleased stuff. How do you feel that its effect on your cult following and how it seems to give people a sense of ownership and community through discovering and sharing your music?
Alex: It’s cool–I appreciate it! I guess my only real concern is like a lot of that stuff, I think people dig it up from god knows where. And some of it is stuff I’m not exactly proud of. I definitely appreciate that people like it, but sometimes I guess there are certain things I wouldn’t want someone to think I put this thing out now and that I’m proud of these old tracks now because some of them are so childish. And I get part of the appeal: the youthfulness of them and a kid being really ignorant and silly. But yeah, you know I’m 26 now, so some of the stuff makes me cringe and I wouldn’t want someone to think that’s me now.
Andrew: You’ve been making music since around 13 right?
Alex: I guess the stuff you can hear online I was like 14 or 15. I mean yea, I would just make a thing on garage band and then put it on a CD or give it a friend or email it to anyone who would show any interest. I would just be like “ooooh look at this one look at this one”–email, email email. I wanted attention I guess or something.
Andrew: Are you ever weirded out when you see an old recording doing well on YouTube or just being out in the public?
Alex: Yeah I am! Well, not so much anymore. Yeah I used to be like “How in the hell did this appear?” I would only remember sending it. I guess I don’t know, I would just email stuff to people and they would have a tumblr or something and put it on there–I don’t really know man. But I got hit up by this guy I went to high school with who was like “Hey man, some kid just emailed me asking if I had any recordings of yours”. I was like that’s weird as hell, just people scouring the internet. But, its flattering–I shouldn't say it's weird as hell! Those people are supporting me so I appreciate it, but it’s kind of jarring.
Andrew: I just have to ask about the crazy weird story about you and Beto O’Rourke. It was one of those absolutely insane, baffling internet stories that made me laugh so hard. I just want to ask if you could briefly explain what happened and what it was like seeing that all unfold!
Alex: Yeah it was baffling to me too. Out of the blue, I got a text from a friend from high school who I haven’t talked to in years. And she just sent me a screenshot of twitter where its a picture of me where I had wet my pants and someone thought it was Beto O’Rourke. And this right-wing media group was making that image circulate like it was a meme saying “This is Beto O’Rourke who had pissed his pants”. They’re like “oh this little boy pissy pants thinks he's going to take our guns and shit” and I felt bad because it’s me! It’s not Beto O’Rourke. And then like, I just thought it was funny as hell. I couldn’t believe it. They firmly believed it was Beto O’Rourke. It’s so crazy man.
Andrew: Yea the internet can be so funny.
Alex: Yea, its so funny but it's kind of pathetic. I shouldn’t say pathetic–it just seems hopeless. You can just say anything, but whatever. I guess it's kind of cool too. You know, if you want to use your powers for evil, it’s probably the shit!
Andrew Charroux is a DJ for Record Hospital and reporter for News. Photo courtesy of Tonje Thilesen.