How to Write Something Corny
After releasing five well-received LPs on music streaming site Bandcamp in as many years, Alex Giannascoli dropped out of Temple University to sign a record deal with Domino Records and write, record, and tour full time as (Sandy) Alex G. Alex’s latest album Rocket, which Pitchfork called “one of the year’s most endlessly generous records,” was released in May of this year and he’s been out on the road in support of of it ever since. Ned Russin, GS ‘18, spoke with Alex about creativity, control, and collaboration while on a day off from his current fall tour.
The Blue and White: So you’re on tour. Did you already play Austin City Limits, did that already happen? Alex G: We played that yesterday and then we have to go back next weekend to do the same thing again. So, yeah, we did yesterday at 1 PM and I guess we’re doing next week probably same time. B&W: How was it? AG: It was pretty good. It’s kind of hard—I think we played good but it’s kind of hard to feel like you’re… I don’t know. At 1 PM, when the sun’s beating down on you, it’s kind of hard to feel, like, in the music or something, do you know what I mean?
B&W: Yeah. AG: But I think we played good and I enjoyed it, but I don’t know if I was as entertaining as I should be or something. B&W: What makes for an entertaining set do you think? AG: I don’t know. I guess just believing that the performer actually is, like, feeling what they’re saying or whatever. Or something like that, yeah. Not to say that I wasn’t feeling it, but I just don’t know if I was conveying the fact that I was feeling it, you know? Like I feel like some people do that by jumping around, and sometimes I do that. Or just… I talk to the audience a little, but I just didn’t do any of that I guess. Just because it was kind of early and I felt a little shy or something because it was so early. B&W: Was it a big crowd, too? AG: Uh, it was big. Not, like, crazy, but, um, like I think later on in the festival the crowd got huge. And we played early in the day, it was sort of a fraction of the size. But I guess probably like a couple hundred, maybe 200 or something. B&W: Yeah. You already brought up a couple of things that I wanted to touch on, but you were talking about believing what, you know, what you’re saying or what you’re performing. Something that I think is really interesting is that you write about and from the perspective of characters a lot. AG: Yeah. B&W: When you say you believe what you’re saying, are you kind of acting in a way then? Do you believe that you are the characters that you are talking about in that moment? AG: Yeah because I think it’s all… I guess it’s not as much characters as it is like really one-sided monologues of my own perspective, you know what I mean? So instead of… It’s not like I’m fabricating something. It’s more just that I’m giving a piece of my own mind but leaving off a lot of chunks that make it more rounded or something. Does that make sense? B&W: Yeah. AG: But it’s not like I’m, when I’m saying stuff it’s not like I’m saying stuff that I don’t think or something. It’s just like… or if it is, like… Actually there are songs where it’s totally from another person’s mouth, and at that point I think about my relationship with the person or something who I’m trying to sing about or whatever. Yeah, you’re right, it is kind of like acting. B&W: Yeah, because you do sing about people. You have names in your songs of people, and some songs titles are even just their names, and I think it’s, like, an important part of your music that there are these people that are being talked about and that it seems that the performance and the records make them a real thing through your performance of it. AG: Yeah, I think you’re right, it is like acting. Cause I have to think about the song and… Yeah, yeah. You’re right. I forget cause, like, sometimes I write like that and sometimes I don’t, and I don’t… but, yeah, I agree. B&W: And also, so you’re out touring in support of your newest record, Rocket, which was, you know, a huge hit, right? Like it went over really well with the press and with fans and with the music world at large, but it’s your second record with Domino, it’s your second piece in this world of being, like, a more established, you know… I don’t want to say real, but “real” artist, band, musician thing. Was there any pressure on you in writing this record that you hadn’t felt before because of all those things involved and the new stakes at hand? AG: Nah, I think I did feel more pressure but I wasn’t like thinking about the label or fans as much. I would catch myself more easily now when I’m writing, like, if I have a stupid lyric or something, I can see my own mistakes — or not mistakes, I can see my own, like, shortcomings as a musician and lyricist more clearly now. So that makes things more difficult in a good way but, yeah, I guess that’s more where the pressure comes from. Like I’m still trying to do something as good and feel as good about it as I always did, but it’s harder to feel that way when I’m catching myself all the time now, you know what I mean? B&W: Yeah, but you have released so many records, you’ve written so many songs at this point that now that, you know, you’re not trying to repeat any of those things. Is there a difficulty in that? AG: Yeah I think there is, but I don’t… Yeah, it’s hard to tell when it’s because maybe I’ve already… Either I don’t want to repeat myself or just because my taste has changed, so my interest in that kind of stuff has changed. I wonder if I had never — yeah it’s hard to say but that could be. I just wonder if at this point, if I had never recorded any records in the past if I’d still be making the stuff I make now just because my taste in music is different now that I’m older, you know? B&W: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. But also I want to talk about… You’re talking about checking yourself and putting all these things and kind of having this new filter but still everything is completely you, right? AG: Mmhm. B&W: You’re writing everything, you’re recording everything. I mean you have a couple guest spots on the record… AG: Yeah, yeah that’s what I was going to say… B&W: But, you know, it’s still everything is from your head at the beginning.
AG: Yeah, yeah. B&W: Is that a difficult thing? Do you find that to be increasingly difficult to only have yourself to rely on, or is it something that you’re just used to? AG: It’s something that I’m kind of used to. Like I much prefer it that way, but I never… I think because I’ve never successfully done it a different way, so if it is great writing collaboratively I don’t really know. So, it’s the best thing that I know of because I never have to, like… What would take me like an hour to explain to somebody else I can just do because I don’t have to explain it, you know what I mean? That’s guess the biggest thing — that I don’t have to communicate, because a lot of times I want something to come off in a certain way that’s hard to communicate to someone, you know what I mean? Like I want it to come off a little bit corny, a certain part, or a little bit over-earnest, you know what I mean? I feel like I always try and do stuff like that a lot, and it’s hard to tell someone to write something corny or something. B&W: I know what you mean because it comes across in the songs. Like the parts that you’re mentioning I know exactly what you mean by that. But was the recording process any different for this record? Because it was more… I feel like — correct me if I’m wrong — but you had a couple more guest spots on this record than you have had in the past. AG: Yeah, definitely. B&W: So was the recording process different in that regard? AG: I mean I went about it the same way but I guess I wanted to capture the feeling of, like… I think the other records feel like they’re coming out of one person so I did wanna make this one feel like it was a big collective thing even though it’s still not that many people, but I think if you add like someone else’s input at key parts it really spreads out the whole aesthetic, you know? I don’t know if aesthetic is the right word, but it makes it sound, like, bigger. But other than that, I went about it the same way as all the other albums, and then the only difference is this one got mixed the same way Beach Music did where it was brought to a professional named Jacob Portrait and he mixed it, and he also mixed Beach Music. After I got the feel and the basic mix down on my own, he fine tunes it and everything.
B&W: So, yeah, you record everything yourself and you use one microphone, right? AG: Right, yeah. B&W: So, like… I don’t know, I still find that crazy. But what is the actual recording process like? Do you have every song mapped out before you start? Do you have everything sorted out in your head before you put it to tape? Or is it a thing that you let evolve as the process goes on? AG: I think it’s more like that. I let it go as I record it. I kind of think it lets me, like… I don’t know, I just noticed that when I’m with other people recording it’s usually they’re trying to to match what’s in — like they have an image in their head before they even lay down the first track. And then I guess the difference with me is that I have the chord progression and the melodies, but I don’t have the… I have the most basic impression of what it’s going to be and so I can just let it go. If a part comes in and it feels like it’s lacking in a certain way then I can overcompensate by adding another track on top of it that does something else, you know what I mean? So basically what you say, I let it evolve as I go on. B&W: But it seems like there’s also a difficulty involved in that because of the limitations of using one microphone at a time. Just, like, the sheer difficulty of lining up drums the right way and playing everything and having it sound good, and all this stuff. AG: I think I’m finding… Like I was able to get that down over a long period of time because I still have the same mic that I was using since I was like 15, which is almost like 10 years ago now. It’s like this little, you know, inexpensive mic that plugs right into your computer. I’ve been using it so long that I think I’ve just kind of figure out how I could make that sound the best that it can be, or almost the best that it can possibly be. So, it just came from like a long time of trial and error with mic placement. And go to EQ, like, things. I’ll know to boost the bass if I’m doing drums, or boost the treble on guitar. Stuff like that. And so it comes really quick to me with that, everything has a kind of… I didn’t realize but everything has a kind of layer of, you know, shittiness on it or something so that when something is a little bit shittier, when something is recorded a little shittier than the other things you don’t want hear it, really. You could if you were using a nice mic. And that’s something that I’m kind of starting to run into now. Cause my friend has a nicer microphone that I’ve been trying to record with, and, uh, that’s starting to take me a much longer time because, like, I’ll record the guitars and the bass and it’ll sound really good. And I’ll try and record the drums and it’s like, “Oh, relearn how to do this because this.” Because the slightest difference in mic placement actually does make a difference when the mic is so much nicer. So, I think, uh, the shittines set up kind of frees it in a way. B&W: Yeah that’s interesting. But it’s also, like… it seems to match everything about the band. I mean like, you know, people like to talk about the fact that you’re a “bedroom artist” or whatever they want to throw around, but it’s the kind of intimacy just makes sense with the music it seems. AG: Yeah I think so too. Like I don’t like the bedroom thing because it’s like… I don’t know, I feel like when I think about it I think of, uh, something that you hear coming out of the bedroom. Like really quiet, minimal stuff, and I never thought of myself as minimal.
B&W: Yeah, it’s not. But it’s something about it being all recorded by you, all written by you, all, like, all done by you that it’s not this big-budget studio thing and I think there’s a vibe about it that somehow walks the line between the two because, you’re right, there’s these big instrumentations and, like, a big mix and everything, but it’s still just all you somehow. AG: Right. Yeah, you know what? I think that’s an aspect I don’t plan on and don’t even know how to capture, but I think it just ends up that way. You know what I mean? I think that’s something I wouldn’t even… That I can’t pick up on about my own stuff cause to me it sounds like so normal and I can hear all my own, like, fuck ups and stuff so I can’t, uh…. I don’t know. I can hear myself acting, kind of. You know what I mean? So I’m glad that it comes off that way, but I wouldn’t know how that happens. B&W: So you’re still in Philly, right?
AG: Yeah. B&W: So you went from doing the band and being in school and having a more traditional route to taking the band full time and going on the road, still living in Philly and everything, but has that affected how you make or think about music at all? AG: It definitely has because any lifestyle change would affect it cause I’m trying to be super… I don’t know. I don’t know if honest is the right word but I’m always trying to reflect everything that I can so, like, yeah, everything kind of affects it. But then as far as the way I think about the process, I don’t think that’s really changed. I think it’s just a little harder cause I’m like listening to stuff all the time and thinking about it all the time as opposed to part time. So maybe it gets a little too abstract, or something, you know? To the point where it’s not that enjoyable for anyone but me, or something. I think that maybe will be more of an issue as I go on, because I have so much time. That’s what I’m thinking about all the time now. It’s like I’ll have an idea and then be like, “That’s too obvious, let me warp it a little bit.” And then go, “Oh that’s too obvious, let me warp it some more.” Because I’ll go back to it so much, and I wonder if in the future something where my original idea doesn’t come across because it’s become some, like, morphed, Frankenstein thing or whatever. B&W: I think a thing we have to talk about and another thing that is, you know, something people can’t stop talking about with you, is the Frank Ocean collaboration. AG: Oh yeah. (Laughs) B&W: It’s a crazy thing obviously, but it’s a weird thing that I feel like a lot of people, in talking about you in, whatever, music journalism, bring up as a sort of validating point of your musicianship or something. I wanted to get your take on it. Obviously I want to hear how it started, I think that’s an interesting story, but I also want to know, like, how you feel it’s come to be represented as well. AG: I think it’s like… well it started right before we met up with [Title Fight] actually. We were in Europe, like we were touring Europe, and we come home for a day and we left for tour with [Title Fight] and it was like a couple days before we left Europe, we were playing a show in London and, like, he emailed me, like, the night before, or his manager emailed, and was like, “Hey, my client would like work with you,” or something. And I was like, “Sure. I’d like to work with them.” But it was really cool, he was the nicest, most… Just like a normal down-to-earth, really conscientious person and stuff, and he was just telling me what he wanted me to do, which was basically just — he would show me a song or whatever and ask me to come up with stuff. And he ended up only using a couple little things that I made, but I thought it was an awesome experience, if anything. I got no complaints about it other than that it’s, like, what people write instead of my name now, it’s like “Frank Ocean collaborator” or something, you know? Which is cool, too, but honestly it was all him. He had me play and just used a few snippets of my guitar, which is so flattering for me but they make it seem like I was some creative force behind the record when I had a minimal input. B&W: It’s also interesting because, you know, we were talking about how you’re creative process is so individual and personal, and going to another person who works the same way but just lets you be you is an interesting thing because it’s a whole other level, you know? AG: Yeah I think that’s what kind of made me want to go and ask other people to throw their stuff in my record because I saw how effectively he was doing that, you know? Just letting people do their thing and choosing the parts that he wanted, like, post production or whatever. And I thought that was the coolest idea. So that’s one of the forces pushing me in that direction. B&W: Did you get to meet Brad Pitt at FYF? AG: (Laughs) No. No I kind of stayed away because I was drinking a little bit and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. B&W: You mentioned that you were recording some new stuff with a new mic, but are you already working on new material?
AG: Yeah it’s so, like… I made such little progress so far so I can’t be like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got new thing coming out,” or something, but just in the brief period that I’m home I’ve been trying to get stuff down just to keep that part of my brain working. I get paranoid if I don’t… If I take a long break from it or something I won’t be able to do it good it anymore or something. I’m just worried that it won’t come as easy to me any more if I take a break. B&W: Have you ever really taken a break though? AG: Not really. I guess that’s why I’m obsessed with doing it all the time. Ever since I started doing it I’ve just been a thing that I always do. B&W: It seemed like the live part and the touring part of the band came later. AG: Yeah, absolutely. Cause before that i was always, like in my free time, always just recording. B&W: Has that, knowing that the songs are going to be played live, changed the way you are recording or writing them at all? AG: Um, maybe a little bit, but I know that I think about that sometimes and then remind myself not to think about it, you know? So hopefully no. Hopefully I just do my thing as I always do and will figure out the live thing out later. Who knows, like, what my subconscious is thinking, but yeah I know I’m always like, “Oh, should I add this weird stuff in here, how am I going to do that live,” and I’m like, “No. That means I have to do it because I’m not supposed to think about that.” B&W: Do you have any things that you couldn’t pull off live because they were so weird? AG: I’m working on getting most of it down, but I think the voice of “Sportstar” I’ve got to figure out that out. That’s a song where my voice is high pitched and auto tuned and stuff, and, let me think, I think the trick stuff is just all the instrumentation. Cause I mean we could do it all, it would just be more people than we have, or can afford to pay. But, yeah, it’s all doable, just a matter of finding people to play it. Which I don’t think we’re going to do any time soon.