American Graffiti: The story behind Beach Slang’s improbable rise

James Alex, vocalist/guitarist for Philadelphia-based melodic punk band Beach Slang, was so humbled by a recent crowd’s reaction to one of his new songs that he stopped the band mid-song and jumped into the audience to show his appreciation.

“We played the first verse of the new song and people were singing along with everything they had,” gushes Alex, referring to “Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas,” the first song released from the band’s debut full-length, The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us. “I stopped us after that first verse to go give people in the audience hugs because I was just so happy.”

The response to the band’s debut album so far has been a relief for Alex. Expectations were building after the band’s two EPs from 2014 were heralded as some of the best melodic punk since the glory days of Jawbreaker, a band that Beach Slang has been compared to almost perpetually since they formed.

“When you make a couple of EPs that connect with people on that level, there’s a little bit of worry about the things you do after that. You wonder if people want to freeze time and those will be the things they are attached to, and future stuff might have a rockier road in breaking through,” says Alex. “So to just see that first punch of things being okay with the new stuff was really, really nice and wildly comforting.”

Things “being okay” with the new album is a vast understatement. The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, the band’s full-length debut on Polyvinyl, shows the four-piece reaching out in welcome directions that their two EPs from last year, Cheap Thrills On A Dead End Street and Who Would Ever Want Something So Broken?, only hinted at. According to Alex, writing a full-length was exactly what the band needed after the two four-song EPs.

“We had been waiting to do this,” he explains. “The EPs felt so short that just when we started getting into recording, it was over already. So there was something cool about being able to make something that lasted long enough to swim around a bit, and have some movement and dynamic range to it.”

With the recording of a full-length came the chance for Beach Slang to push into new territory, and that meant Alex digging deeper into his record collection and bringing in some other influences.

“There are things I’ve been listening to a lot that I didn’t explore on the shorter EPs, things like the Jesus And Mary Chain or Swervedriver. A lot of those shoegaze or Britpop bands—I adore that stuff,” he says. “With the earlier stuff, we just pushed the pedal down and went, but I wanted to spread this band out in a way that’s still true to me as a writer, so it can have growth and different feels to it, and I think that was accomplished on this first LP.”

Often compared to the aforementioned Jawbreaker and another one of Alex’s big influences, the Replacements, Beach Slang was formed out of connections from drummer JP Flexner, who knew Alex and bassist Ed McNulty separately, and set up the band like a “little rock ’n’ roll cupid,” jokes Alex. Flexner knew that Alex, also a member of longtime Pennsylvanian punks Weston, was writing songs at home that were rooted in loud, three-chord punk, but had a defined element of texture and history to them.

“I knew what I was chasing from the beginning,” says the frontman. “I wanted to write songs and make music that if I reached into my record collection, it would sound like one of those records that I held dear. So we got together and the first thing we played was ‘Filthy Luck’, and it immediately sounded like Beach Slang.”

Alex is the sort of lyricist that grabs you with every line, similar to his songwriting idols Blake Schwarzenbach and Paul Westerberg, with that hint of moody darkness peeking out from behind the hopefulness. It’s been that perfect balance of light and dark that’s found the honest lyrical spot that many have latched onto.

“When things are too polished and shiny and happy, on some level that’s manufactured, because it’s just not realistic. On the other end, when everything is always dark and totally terrible, that’s also a manufactured image,” explains Alex. “So how about we just do something totally honest? I get kicked and knocked down, and those days are rough, but then there are days that I get up and hang out with my friends, and those days are awesome. That’s what living is; being alive. Remember the knockdowns and celebrate the get-ups, and that’s super-important because it celebrates the honesty of being a person. And that’s what I wanted this band to be.”

Sneaking up and becoming one of “those bands” has happened quickly and naturally for Beach Slang. Just a few short years after their formation, the band is now in a “state of perpetual motion,” according to Alex, and they’ve already reached the point where fans are following the band on tour and even getting tattoos of their song lyrics.

“That’s been the most humbling part of this,” he enthuses. “Before I picked up a guitar, I wanted to be a writer. And I still want to be a writer. Words are the most important things to me. So when something like that happens, and when people send me photographs of these tattoos with my lyrics, it really flips my wig, and in the most beautiful way.”

“Humble” is a word that fits well with Alex and Beach Slang. He and his bandmates, rounded out by second guitarist Ruben Gallego, have stayed on the same level as their fans, and Alex has no desire to become a punk rock figurehead. The band is about friendships and connections, and that won’t change, even if their debut full-length fully gets the recognition it deserves.

“Every time I meet someone who’s into this band, they’re just the sweetest people in the world, and it’s amazing that the little songs I’m writing are connecting with the people I want to be friends with,” says Alex. “One of the big things we get from venues and promoters is that our band draws the nicest people, and I’m always like, ‘Right on! That’s fantastic!’ If a gathering of really nice people is at Beach Slang shows, I love it.”

Although Alex half-jokes that with Beach Slang, he is really just trying to write “soundtracks to John Hughes films,” he says there’s a prominent difference between this band and others he’s played with in the past.

“There’s a hunger to this band that I haven’t had in quite a while,” he admits. “Musically, it’s probably the first thing I’ve really felt confident in. That whole approach of having no guard up and writing straight from the gut, I never really did that before. There was always some level of trying to keep myself safe. But with Beach Slang, I wanted to do it a certain way, and these guys respect the notion of tearing my goofy little heart out and spilling these songs. We feed each other in all the right ways, and that’s a special magic.” S

A version of this piece was published in Substream #48.