(Sandy) Alex G: It’s a mood
He’s worked with Frank Ocean, attracted ardent fans and amassed a genre-defying body of work. Still, (Sandy) Alex G hasn’t got used to talking about his music.
Interviewing Alex Giannascoli is difficult. That’s nothing to do with the 26-year-old Philadelphia native’s demeanour – he’s easy-going and friendly when we meet on a humid day in London’s Granary Square – but more because the sprawling, complicated music Giannascoli makes under his alias (Sandy) Alex G is very hard to assign words to – especially for him. His new record House of Sugar might just present the biggest challenge yet.
Today Giannascoli is chill, baseball-capped and starfishing in his chair, his comically omnipresent guitar cased up and strewn at his side. He’s on a European press tour in service of House of Sugar – today London, then Paris, Berlin, Madrid – and tonight he’ll play a sold-out show which will basically devolve into a requests set, a characteristically rabid crowd of fans yelling the titles of deep cuts, many of which he can reel off without a second thought.
Over the past decade, Giannascoli has created prolifically. His work has evolved from self-released, emo-adjacent bedroom ruminations to the multifaceted soundscapes of 2017’s Rocket with a slow ease, a rumbling of something more – more uneasy, more complex – present in even his earliest work. The first lyric you hear on his 2010 album Race, “I’m here to kill my maker,” now feels like a premonition about his entire career, which has bloomed into something genre-defiant and unique.
Though he has spread his wings considerably over the past decade, Giannascoli is still best known within emo, and the response to his work still carries the precise, music-nerd enthusiasm characteristic of the genre. His fans know every song in his catalogue, and seize on bootleg recordings of new tracks with the enthusiasm of pole vaulters. He inspires this sort of devotion because he feels both familiar and far away; he is unassuming enough to seem like a guy you’d drink a beer with, and his lyrics can be disarming in their candour (new track Hope describes the loss of a friend to fentanyl, for example). But he is also withdrawn enough that when he does reappear, there’s a stir over what he might do next.
The zealousness of his supporters is one reason why Giannascoli finds his music difficult to discuss, at least publicly. For the most part, he thinks that his music should be what the listener makes of it. “That’s what makes me so hesitant in interviews,” he acknowledges, squirming slightly, presumably because he’s speaking to me, an interviewer. “To be talking about [the music] in a way that’s going to be digested by people before they hear the album, or even after they hear the album? That’s something that makes me – I hate saying ‘nervous’ – because the point is the thing. And everything I say about it is not the point.
© Gray Lee Brame
“The song is just like, me flicking paint at a canvas”
He wants everyone to hear his music without any interference, including his own. The only problem is: “I accidentally fuck that up all the time by talking about it. The way the music press works is that one small nugget of information becomes the mantra for the whole work,” he says.
This type of apparently unwelcome assessment from the media is something that Giannascoli has attracted much more since 2016. That year, he was named as a collaborator on Frank Ocean’s desperately awaited records Endless and Blonde, amongst musicians like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Kanye West. His profile was inevitably raised, and his press obligations grew.
“I understand it, because I’m trying to make money doing this. So I gotta advertise. And that’s what you gotta do to advertise,” he says. But as a kindred spirit with the musically experimental but press-avoidant Ocean, it can’t be easy. After all, Giannascoli has always made music within tight-knit scenes and communities, and struggles to discuss his work publicly in a way he’s happy for his fans to hear. He searches long and slow for the right words now, contorting his face like he’s trying to work out how to split an especially annoying restaurant bill. Eventually, he just shrugs, his shoulders rising and falling in his button-down. “I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate it.”
Giannascoli tells me about a book he enjoyed during his most recent period between albums, a collection of short stories called Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo. “As an author she uses really opaque symbols. She was a painter first, so I just liked how colourful her stories were without going out of her way.” He read this book how he reads a lot of things, he says. “It’s face value. It’s just like, ‘That was a really cool image.’ Next story.”
The idea of imagery comes up a lot throughout our conversation, and seems to inform Giannascoli’s work to no end. “The song is just like, me flicking paint at a canvas,” is how he describes his writing process. He says that Walk Away, the first song on House of Sugar, is where “I show you all the colours that I use.”
Like visual art, (Sandy) Alex G’s music often communicates all it needs to non-verbally. Like well-crafted short stories, his songs coalesce around one overriding idea or mood. In the same way as both of these art forms, Giannascoli’s music lends itself best to personal reflection, rather than outward over-articulation.
© Gray Lee Brame
One of the stories in Thus Were the Faces is called The House Made of Sugar. It opens, right enough, with bold images – “The moon seen through two panes of glass, the initials of her name carved by chance on the trunk of a cedar” – which fold out into a disquieting narrative about identity and fate. In the way that the story suggests that life’s sinister side is always lurking close by, it feels not unlike Giannascoli’s own creations – in particular, how they map an underlying sense of unease onto genres we thought we knew.
Indeed, on House of Sugar he runs the gauntlet of genre more masterfully than ever – this time around, he felt “able to pinpoint how to do that a little better.” One track, Near, sounds like Boys of Summer if it played on a ghost train; In My Arms is Weezer doing a Bonnie Raitt cover. The final track Sugar House is a wide-open Springsteener, all horns and resignation. He accurately describes his approach to genre as “like a wink.”
For Giannascoli, the genre is part of the narrative. And the mood is part of the narrative, and the big, bold brushstrokes of synth and guitar and percussion too, are part of the narrative. It’s as important, if not more so, than words. He really does use instruments like an artist uses watercolours, adding a little red here and some yellow there, until he achieves something that catches the light the way he likes it. You understand it best just by feeling it – in fact, talking about it is beside the point. He’d say so himself.
Photography: Gray Lee Brame
House of Sugar is released on 13 September via Domino