an interview with Beach Slang, whose debut album ‘The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us’ is streaming (listen)
by Andrew Sacher
photo: Beach Slang at BV-RBSS at Baby’s All Right in January (more by Ryan Muir)
In certain punk and indie rock circles, Beach Slang were without competition the most exciting new band of 2014. The members were already mainstays in the Pennsylvania punk scene, having done time in Weston, Ex Friends, NONA and other bands, and they came together to create music that felt instantly familiar yet fresh at the same time. They gave us two killer EPs and a year and a half of life-affirming live shows, and now they’re finally about to release their debut full length, The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, on their new label home Polyvinyl.
It’s their first release with live guitarist Ruben Gallego contributing to songwriting and recording, and they make a few subtle progressions from the EPs. It’s still rooted in the Paul Westerberg school of song craft, but singer James Alex would be quick to point out its shoegaze and Britpop influences too, which you can hear in the ringing lead guitars, the harmonies, and the falsetto “oohs” and “ahhs.” Those are influences they just paid tribute to on a new mixtape for Cassette Store Day that has them covering Ride, Dramarama, Senseless Things, The Plimsouls and Best Kissers In The World (streaming below). James brings the romance and the charming pop of those bands to The Things We Do, but the monstrous rhythm section of Ed McNulty and JP Flexner keep things hitting hard. It’s a contrast not unlike the time a certain band made The Vaselines sound like this.
You can pick out which bands they sound similar to all day if you wanted to, and Beach Slang probably wouldn’t mind if you did — that mixtape aside, they seem to cover every comparison they get. But as their fellow Westerberg disciples and new Polyvinyl labelmates Japandroids reminded us on 2012’s Celebration Rock, with enough spirit, sincerity and cathartic release you can make a rock record for the ages. And Beach Slang have an overload of those things.
photo: Beach Slang at BV-CMJ 2014 at Baby’s All Right (more by Mimi Hong)
“I try a lot to write. I try to use my brain. But every time I try, my heart gets in the way,” James roars on early standout “Ride The Wild Haze.” And that’s just about the most honest look into his songwriting that you could ask for. So much of this record is finding ways to say this is the thing we’re doing right now exactly as they’re doing it. Later in that same song, James decides, “Let’s make the loudest sounds until we feel something,” which is exactly what everyone on and off stage is doing at a Beach Slang show. When the kids sing that back to him (and they will), they’re gonna feel it in that moment as wholeheartedly as he does. Later, on “I Break Guitars” he’ll ask, “If rock and roll is dangerous, how come I feel so safe in it?” And for 30 sweaty minutes, Beach Slang crowds will feel that too. To revisit that Japandroids comparison, Beach Slang could’ve accurately called this record Celebration Rock too. It celebrates all the things we love about rock and roll and all the ways it brings us together, while also being those things. But they called it The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, which might actually be the most accurate title it could have.
It’s not just a record about feeling alive (a word that appears in seven of the ten songs), it’s also about overcoming a sadness to experience that euphoria. It’s why Beach Slang write these songs, and let’s face it, it’s why we listen to them. “I’ve always felt stuck, alone or ashamed,” he admits on “Bad Art + Weirdo Ideas.” “I feel most alive when I’m listening to every record that hits harder than the pain,” he tells us on “Haze.” And on “Hard Luck Kid” he shrugs, “Almost everything is a waste of time.” If you connect to punk rock, you’ve probably felt these things too. You were a misfit kid, an outsider. You were awkward and weird. Someone or something hurt you, and you needed to be saved in some way. James takes the thing that hurt him, and as he tells us repeatedly with the last line on the record, “I blur all this hurt into sound.” Maybe his sound can help you too. Maybe connecting to this record and to the other people who connect to it is the thing you’ll do to find people who feel like you.
The album is officially out on 10/30 but you can stream it in full below (via NPR). (Update: Bandcamp stream now below too.) And if you pre-order it, you get a download of the full album immediately. I also caught up with Beach Slang when they played Riot Fest Denver in late August, and that interview is below too.
BV: I read in another interview that you, James, said Polyvinyl was like “We don’t want you to change your sound, we don’t want you to change your art, we love exactly everything you’re doing, that’s why we wanted you.” So I imagine it’s been great working with them?
James: Yeah, I mean it’s felt like sort of a natural relationship, like nothing’s really changed. Like from putting out our first record with our friend Mike [Bruno, of Dead Broke Rekerds] and then going to Polyvinyl, it’s felt the same — which is important to us. It’s like, as soon as that sort of formula starts to wobble we just feel like we’d be in trouble. And when we started talking to them it just felt like it wouldn’t wobble, and it hasn’t. So yeah, those guys have been really really cool. We just got to meet them in real life two nights ago on this run. So it was really cool to be like “oh you are real and you actually do like our band!” like it all felt like it legitimized the whole thing, you know?
JP: We got to go out and get a bite with them before the show and it just felt like going out with some people. There were no like, professional overtones, it just felt really cool and informal.
James: And then we played this DIY collective sort of place down the street, and they just like… you knew they were from that scene, which is important to us. We talked about how Polyvinyl got started and things and it was like “oh yeah you weren’t just telling us what we wanted to hear, you guys are like the real thing” you know?
BV: Speaking of DIY scenes, obviously the Philly scene is having an international moment right now. How has being part of that scene impacted Beach Slang?
Ed: I like how there’s always an opportunity to see something different, see something new, and there’s always all these different spaces opening and closing. And it’s just so eclectic right now, that I think that’s kind of why Philly has so much attention. Because there is so much going on, and not that it’s been devoid of that for a while, but it’s really kind of catching on now and paying off.
JP: I think there’s like so many bands and so many things happening in Philly at once that — I mean it’s even like, there’s like a little punk scene in different neighborhoods. There’s shows that happen in different areas of town that I don’t even know about because I’m just not from there, you know?
BV: It also just feels like when these Philly bands come to New York, they’re all so tight live. With like you guys, Hop Along, Cayetana, Waxahatchee, etc. We don’t really have that as much in Brooklyn anymore, possibly because you have to work like 80 hours a week just to live here and then rent a separate practice space on top of that.
Ed: I was gonna say that might be because there really are so many spaces to play. Like when Waxahatchee started I remember they would play shows almost two, three times a month at different houses. You could see them wherever. Same with Hop Along, I think it’s just being able to have the opportunity to kind of hone your craft when you’re getting started that Philly affords bands more so than places like Brooklyn.
Ruben: Yeah economically it makes a lot of sense to live in Philly. You can get a house for like under a thousand bucks.
Ed: Yeah, do shows in the basement, practice whenever you want. It’s a fortunate city in that regard.
BV: So the new record incorporates strings. How did that come about?
James: Well you know how we toured with Cursive and they had a cellist out every night? It just sounded so good, right? So she’d be warming up back stage and it was like the only thing you heard, and it had this really sort of creepy loveliness to it. And then… okay so when I recorded “Too Late To Die Young” for the Lame-O comp, that was just this thing I did in like an hour — it wasn’t like a completely realized thought at that point. So I knew we certainly wanted to re-record that for this record. And then it just made sense, you know, so it’s like we did the thing on the acoustic and I really sort of dug the intimacy, but you know what’d be even better? If we called Megan [Siebe] and see if she’d put some cello on it. And she did that, and she sent us two separate cello tracks and we were like, they kinda sound really great together. It was never intended to be that, it was gonna be one or the other, but we were like “let’s keep both.”
BV: When you guys played that first NYC show (and second show ever) at Suburbia, there was that part where you backed away from the mic during “Kids” and you could hear the crowd yelling the words, and it was like your first EP had only been out for two months. So on the new record I’m already hearing these moments where I’m like, “that’s the part where James backs away from the mic and the crowd sings!” Were those parts intentional at all, or did it just kind of happen that way?
James: Nah it just happens. I mean if I tried to start writing songs like that, it’s like what a mockery of the whole deal it is.
BV: Oh I didn’t mean it like that!
James: Oh no of course not, but I think it’s like just the way it is now, it’s sort of the sound we have found. I think those sort of anthemic moments just sort of fall into things now. Certainly we’ll be doing the thing during practice or whatever and just be like, “Ah, I really hope this is a moment where a kid wants to do the thing with me,” you know, like I’ll certainly have that hope. But yeah, I suppose it’s the nature of like grabbing on to life, right, there’s gonna be moments like that. But I wish I could do that though!
BV: On that song “Noisy Heaven,” that opening like, “The night is alive, it’s loud and I’m drunk!” When I heard that I was like this is so funny, it’s like the most Beach Slang thing ever. So I’m wondering with those kinds of lines, like — so you know you’re hanging out with your friends, you’re not gonna be like, “The night is alive!” So when you’re throwing those kinds of lines in with the super super honest stuff, are you ever thinking “I gotta metaphor this one up a bit” or does it just bleed out that way?
James: It’s more a bleed out for sure. Cause even like, to me the metaphors are almost less metaphorical. I mean they really are like, when I’m in that moment that is the thing I kinda wanna shout out. And I want you to shout out with me and let’s be in this and like know what the fuck it is we’re doing here. So they come off metaphorical and poetic I suppose because I care about how I craft words together, but all they really are is kinda what’s going on in my head. And coming out in song is better than me running around a bar and shaking people and being like “Can you fucking believe this?! Everything’s wonderful!”
BV: You could get arrested that way.
James: Precisely! So I try to keep it to this medium that keeps me out of prison.
BV: At this point in your careers, lives, etc, what does “punk” mean to you?
JP: I guess for me, man, I was 12 when I started playing drums in a punk band. So it always felt like a full lifestyle choice, and I just feel like I’m further down that path now but just doing the same thing. It’s been going on so long that the line is blurred. It’s all just a pastiche of people I know and songs I listen to.
I think everyone inevitably has to face the kind of decisions where the ideology you sort of wave as a flag and maybe don’t fully understand when you’re a kid becomes very clear as an adult, and you have to start putting pieces together. So maybe the best way to put it is you just hope that the ideology and the fervor you had as a teenager is maybe what helps guide your decision-making as an adult.
James: Punk to me now is the same thing it was then, right? It’s this like non-conformist attitude. Like I’m going to do the thing I want to do, and that thing might be wearing you know, cargo shorts and a Ralph Lauren shirt. You know, that to me is pretty fucking punk. To just not succumb to like, “this is the expectation of me.” And those things may shift as you kind of go through life but that attitude, to me that’s punk. Everything else is just sort of like a uniform and just sort of a wavering belief system and a record collection. But it takes a lot to sort of buck trends, so you know if everybody’s listening to Op Ivy it’s pretty rad to walk into a club playing like a Lisa Loeb song. It’s just sort of not succumbing to anything but the thing you choose to believe. It doesn’t have to be liberty spikes and a Casualties patch, you know, it can be like… a Lisa Loeb song (laughs). You know and if that’s the thing you truly believe in and you’re following your gut, that to me is what it is. It’s really as simple as that.
Ed: To me it’s mostly about the collective conscious that like — you know, we’re surrounded by 30,000 people this weekend and most people here know that like, what Hulk Hogan had to say was fucked up. Just kind of being surrounded by people who share relatively the same ideas and mentalities as you. That’s kind of why I’m drawn to punk and that’s why it’s like when I go to a house show, regardless of whether or not people have liberty spikes and Casualties patches, it’s like oh these people are putting themselves together in these rooms for a love of this thing. And yeah, that’s kind of more what it is to me. That’s kind of what I’ve always taken from it, the community values.
Ruben: Yeah I totally love that that’s like a thing in our scene, that people care enough about other people that they feel like they have to say something. I think a lot of it is what it means to you being true to yourself.
Ed: And when we come to a fest like this, we’re always the type of guys who will, you know, be nice to the sound crew. And it’s like I’ll see plenty of bands who aren’t, and for those who just don’t have like that empathy for the people who are working to help what you’re doing — those are morals I feel like are lost on people who don’t come from the punk scene.
BV: It’s kind of a rock star mentality.
Ed: Exactly. None of us will ever exhibit that, I think it’s safe to say now on the record. Not to like, toot our own horns or anything. I’ve just seen that a few times this weekend and it’s just like “come on, we’re in this together.”
photo: Beach Slang at BV-CMJ 2014 at Baby’s All Right (more by Mimi Hong)
BV: I assume the new record has a lot of those same influences that you guys talk about and cover: The Replacements, Jawbreaker, Psychedelic Furs. Are there any artists that really influenced the new record that are maybe less obvious to listeners?
James: Yeah, maybe it doesn’t come across when you listen but I was listening to a ton of Senseless Things and The Jesus and Mary Chain and Swervedriver. Just kind of getting more into the kind of shoegaze and Britpop kind of stuff — you know because when the EPs are four songs you can sort of just freight train those things. But it’s like, I think if we do that over the course of ten songs it’s gonna be like you’re 22 minutes into it and you can’t tell if you’re at the 22-minute mark or the 3-minute mark, it’s just been kind of one long drone. So we wanted to make sure it had movement to it. And yeah, those records are just as important to me as Replacements records and Jawbreaker and the Furs and stuff. That just happened to be where the sound kind of got found in those early records, but then I wanted to make sure we didn’t get stuck there. Obviously that will always sort of rage through and be the predominant thing, but yeah I think we wanted to dive a bit more into the sort of shoegaze and Britpop kind of stuff.
Beach Slang have tour dates scheduled through February 2016, including a run with Cursive’s Tim Kasher and Field Mouse that hits NYC for a BrooklynVegan-presented show on December 17 at Knitting Factory. Tickets for that show are still available. All dates…
Beach Slang — 2015/2016 Tour Dates
Oct 24 The Southern Charlottesville, VA
Oct 25 Neptunes Raleigh, NC
Oct 26 The Milestone Club (w/ Lithuania) Charlotte, NC
Oct 27 The Masquerade – Purgatory (w/ Cayetana, The Sidekicks, Lithuania, Roger Harvey) Atlanta, GA
Oct 28 Pre-Fest Ybor City, FL
Oct 30-Nov 02 The Fest Gainesville, FL
Nov 02 The End (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Nashville, TN
Nov 03 The Firebird (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) St Louis, MO
Nov 04 Jackpot Music Hall (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Lawrence, KS
Nov 05 O’Leavers (w/ Tim Kasher, Lithuania, Worriers) Omaha, NE
Nov 06 Larimer Lounge (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Denver, CO
Nov 07 Kilby Court (w/ Worriers) Salt Lake City, UT
Nov 08 The Watercooler (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Boise, ID
Nov 09 The Vera Project (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Seattle, WA
Nov 10 The Cobalt (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Vancouver, Canada
Nov 11 Analog Café (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Portland, OR
Nov 12 The Ricksaw Stop (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) San Francisco, CA
Nov 13 San Diego Music Thing @ The Hideout San Diego, CA
Nov 14 Bootleg (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Los Angeles, CA
Nov 15 The Rebel Lounge (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Phoenix, AZ
Nov 17 Mohawk (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Austin, TX
Nov 18 Doublewide (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Dallas, TX
Nov 20 The Outland Ballroom (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Springfield, MO
Nov 21 Subterranean (w/ Lithunia, Worriers) Chicago, IL
Nov 22 Mac’s Bar (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Lansing, MI
Nov 23 Lee’s Palace (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Toronto, Canada
Nov 24 Great Scott (w/ Lithuania, Worriers) Allston, MA
Dec 16 Amityville Music Hall (w/ Tim Kasher, Field Mouse) Amityville, NY
Dec 17 Kniting Factory (w/ Tim Kasher, Field Mouse) Brooklyn, NY
Dec 19 First Unitarian Church (w/ Tim Kasher, Field Mouse) Philadelphia, PA
Dec 18 Starland Ballroom Sayreville, NJ supporting Taking Back Sunday
Jan 19 Owl Sanctuary Norwich, United Kingdom
Jan 20 The Rainbow Birmingham, United Kingdom
Jan 21 Star & Garter Manchester, United Kingdom
Jan 22 The Hug & Pint Glasgow, United Kingdom
Jan 23 Think Tank Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom
Jan 24 Brundenell Social Club Leeds, United Kingdom
Jan 26 Bodega Nottingham, United Kingdom
Jan 27 Barfly Camden, United Kingdom
Jan 28 The Exchange Bristol, United Kingdom
Jan 29 Joiners Southampton, Uk
Jan 30 Green Door Store Brighton, United Kingdom
Feb 01 Blue Shell Cologne, Germany
Feb 02 Sputnik Café Münster, Germany
Feb 03 Hafenklang Hamburg, Germany
Feb 04 Underwerket Copenhagen, Denmark
Feb 05 Cassiopeia Berlin, Germany
Feb 06 Conne Island Café Leipzig, Germany
Feb 08 Club Stero Nuremberg, Germany
Feb 09 B72 Vienna, Austria
Feb 10 Milla Munich, Germany
Feb 11 Freakout Café Bologna, Italy
Feb 12 Surfer Joe Club Livorno, Italy
Feb 13 Treibhaus Lucerne, Switzerland
Feb 15 Garage Club Saarbrücken, Germany
Feb 16 Schlachthof Wiesbaden, Germany
Feb 17 Paradiso Amsterdam, Netherlands
Feb 18 Kavka Antwerp, Belgium