Alex G is sharing his hidden talents
As soon as I come face-to-face with Alex Giannascoli across a park bench on a Shoreditch housing estate, I break into a smile. In the midst of an interview with The Fader earlier this year, Giannascoli was gifted a big brown leather jacket by his six-foot-four live drummer Dexter Loos, for whom the garment was too small. Now, here he is sheathed in the same vintage cow hide, six months later and half the world away on a brisk November morning.
It’s a minor detail, but a warmly reassuring one, emblematic not just of Giannascoli’s lack of sartorial fussiness but a broader imperviousness to the changing of styles and seasons. Since the age of 13, the Philadelphian has been quietly producing a homespun blend of college rock, lo-fi indie and confessional singer-songwriter material on a prolific scale. Now 21 years old, he remains an avowed outsider, still operating wilfully adrift from pop culture’s ebb and flow armed with little more than an Apple Mac, Garage Band and a microphone.
“Yeah I like doing stuff myself I guess,” Giannascoli says, his bleary, jetlagged eyes betraying a hint of shyness as they avert mine for the first few minutes of our time together. “If it’s something that, um, needs to be done right, or something that I’m tasked with, I want to do it, like, myself. Not that I can do everything the best or something, but when I don’t have complete control I get kind of frustrated.”
Giannascoli has every right to be protective, having built himself a reputation as one of the internet’s most intelligent and exciting pop craftsmen. If at times today the songwriter’s eloquence abandons him – sentences are punctuated with an abundance of “likes,” “ums” and pauses – he always gets there in the end. “I’m, um, used to the, uh, sticks,” Giannascoli mumbles sheepishly as a couple of chewing gum tablets spill out across the table from the pack he’s fumbling with.
Earlier this year Giannascoli presented the world with DSU (it stands for “Dream State University”), a perfectly carbonised amalgam of early Radiohead, Pavement and Elliott Smith that’s been enthusiastically received. The record is the first to have seen release via a bona fide record label instead of Giannascoli’s usual Bandcamp outlet (it was put out on Lucky Number over here and Orchid Tapes across the pond) but it’s no less a product of bedroom- bound solitude than anything else in the Alex G canon.
“My process, I’m keeping as close to the same as possible because it’s been working pretty well so far,” says Giannascoli, finally having shovelled some gum into his mouth. “I’m trying to still keep writing in a kind of bubble and not really think about what the live band can do, or what the label might want. I worry about that when I have to but otherwise I like to have free reign over my music. I just don’t trust other people with, like, the vision that I have for my songs.”
Despite the upheaval of the past 18 months – a period in which Giannascoli found himself a record label, formed a touring band and released one of the most critically acclaimed indie albums of 2014 – from a lyrical standpoint DSU also reflects the enduring insularity of its architect. Harvey begins as a rumination on the importance of success before turning into a proclamation of love for Giannascoli’s younger brother (“I love you Harvey, I don’t care”). Elsewhere the album concerns itself with darker themes; the disintegration of relationships, with family, friends and lovers.
It’s heavy stuff for a lyricist barely out of adolescence, I suggest. “I think it’s a place everybody learns to not ever go, you know?” Giannascoli says. “Like when you’re a teenager you’re there all the time I guess, and you kind of eventually train yourself to…” Put it in a box and forget about it? “Yeah, you know, then it’s like, you go back to your happy place. But it’s always there and I guess I just visit it because I think those kinds of emotions make it easier to be passionate about a song.”
Much of DSU is the product of two years spent studying English at Philadelphia’s Temple University, though Gionnascoli dropped out this summer. Album track Rejoyce references James Joyce’s coming-of-age story A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and it’s natural to wonder how much else of the new album represents an inevitable reflection of Giannascoli’s college life. I argue that DSU, with its name, American Football cover painting and sound, might owe much to its surroundings.
I’m dead wrong, says Giannascoli. “Is Modest Mouse a college rock band?” he wonders aloud. “I’ve never really thought of it that way. The title’s obviously related, but college wasn’t something I thought about much at all, other than that I had to do it. Now that I can support myself doing this, I’m going to stick with it and save college for another time … or another life.” He starts laughing.
Evidently school is out for Alex G.
DSU is out now via Lucky Number