Alexander Giannascoli is better known by his stage name, Alex G. His music is often characterized as indie rock with a lo-fi or “bedroom pop” aesthetic. He began by building up an audience with his label debut, DSU (2014), released on Orchid Tapes to critical acclaim. He later signed with Lucky Number, who reissued his earlier releases, Rules and Trick (2012). In 2015, he signed with Domino Recording Company and released his sixth studio album, Beach Music. He followed in 2017 with Rocket, which received further recognition. Alex G’s eighth studio album, House of Sugar, was released last year. FRONTRUNNER caught up with Alex G during the COVID-19 lockdown to explore the meaning of place-and-time, collaborative potential (even while remaining socially-distanced), and the concurrent challenges of making and listening to music in isolation.
So where are you based right now during lockdown?
I’m in Philadelphia now. I mean, now that we’re talking about kind of being holed up in one place, I like to think that being a musician, you know, being on the road so much certainly plays a part for some people. For others, it’s really just about trying to find that metaphorical “Log Cabin” to go to and not be worried about doing anything, but just playing the songs and focusing on the discovery process.
I’d love to go back in time, in making House of Sugar. How did some of the songs start to come together, and was there a new or familiar type of songwriting process for you?
I guess I don’t have anything interesting or anything specific. I could sum it up by saying the album came out the same way that all my other albums came about. It was a way simpler idea on the guitar to play a chord progression and then, over time, arrange it as I’m recording it. I recorded a part and then came back to it later, added something or rearranged it. I revisit the songs over the course of the months that I was recording.
Now that you’ve had many recorded experiences under your belt, do you feel that when you’re writing it’s still just very much about trying to get down those ideas and not think so much about how they might evolve, or to make a polished, recorded song?
I guess it stays familiar in the way that I’m always trying to keep myself…interested? At this point, it’s just the process of exploration. It remains the same type of exploration that it’s been over the years where I’m always trying new things in order to keep myself interested. Rather than knowing which chord [will] go to after this quarter. Something like that, you don’t need.
Do your lyrics come before your music? Or do you structure your music and write the lyrics later?
It happens differently. Sixty percent of the time, this song will come from the melody and maybe a couple of the lyrics are intertwined. Then that hook will become the foundation of the song. Then, I build out from there with music and lyrics. Lyrics will crop up, and that first hook will just come out of nowhere. Due to the phonetics of the words, you know, I’m playing a chord progression and then there’s some melody that I feel would work really well with it. A lot of the time, I start singing a few words that just seem to rhythmically make sense. Then they happen to have meaning, as well. Then I build up to actually give them meaning.
So you’re just sort of swapping out different lyrics, as you thought all along, that sell those place holders.
About the process of collaboration and how you’re working with different musicians: do you have any anecdotes? On your Instagram feed the other day, I was surprised to see (right out of nowhere) someone playing the violin with you.
Oh, yeah. That’s my girlfriend (or partner), Molly Germer. We live together and she’s on a lot of my stuff now. We started making music together, I guess, in 2016, 2017. I was making this album Rocket. I wanted a fiddle on some of the songs, and I remembered Molly from high school. We went to the same grade school together, and I remembered she was a good violin player. So I contacted her, we kept in touch, and ended up moving in together. I can’t think of any really interesting anecdotes. But it is nice having someone like Molly who plays violin and, as a whole, has different perspectives on music than I do. I would say that it elevates some of the songs.
That’s awesome to have somebody in life and in collaboration, creative celebration. I think that there’s a lot to be fortunate for right now. Do you enjoy the time alone, or is it driving you a little crazy?
Right now it’s actually not driving me too crazy, but I am having a harder time writing music than I normally do. I’m always working on music. I’m always compelled to do it. Luckily, I don’t have to force myself to do that. But since this quarantine thing, I guess it’s a lack of inspiration. These ideas aren’t really coming to me, so even if I did want to force myself to make music, I don’t know if anything worthwhile is coming out. But other than that, I can deal with this for now. I don’t feel too crazy, yet.
Does location inspire your songwriting? Like, no matter where you are, do you write songs, or do you think it’s just some kind of happy accident?
I think I would be able to write anywhere, because I don’t really involve the outside world very much when I’m working. I’m sort of holed up wherever the instruments are that I need to use, then I have my computer, and that’s all I really need.
Tell me more about your new album. How did the name happen?
There are two sides that prompted the album. One was this short story called The House Made of Sugar by Silvina Ocampo. That was about this couple with a husband and wife – and the wife is really superstitious. She doesn’t want to move into a house that someone else has lived in already. The husband tricks her and finds this White House that looks like it’s made of sugar, and then says that it’s brand new, even though someone did live in there before. The spirits of the people who lived there before took over the wife’s life, and she ran away.
But then the other thing is this casino that has been renamed since the album came out, it used to be called Sugar House down the street from where I live. I thought that was interesting because the casino is this place where your sense of indulgence is used against you. They flash steaks on the screen and luxurious, random shit that casinos put on the walls. You’re kind of tricked into indulging and losing all your money.
Then the other thing was Gretel’s story with the witch’s house made out of candy – how she uses that, the fat, and the kids in order to eat them. So with all that information, I don’t really have like a mission statement or something. Just some images that I thought were evocative, and then I tried to wrap them up in some music. But once again, I couldn’t tell you what my clear meaning there was. A lot of the music speaks for itself.
What kind of inspiration or advice can you give to younger artists who are just setting out, trying to find their path to being songwriters and musicians?
I’m not sure what advice to give because I didn’t really set out. I mean, I’m always happy that I have this career, and I’m grateful for it. But it wasn’t my mission. I was just doing it a lot and had resigned myself to the fact that it was probably unattainable to make money doing this. There’s some type of validation in my community that I was in. But then, luckily, it took off and it was out of my hands. That type of success didn’t come from diligence on my part. Besides that, I was making music all the time. That being said, maybe the advice would be to not put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t just dedicate your life to making money as a musician, unless there’s a real clear avenue for you to take.
Maybe there are unfair expectations that you set for yourself, and so you’re disappointed at every turn. It’s kind of hard to keep going. So I think that what you’re saying is right.
I would just keep all your options open. I just see some people close off all their other options. Maybe they’re thinking that if they just hack away at music as hard as they can, they’ll crack it. But, there’s a percentage of luck involved. If you don’t get the luck, you’re kind of screwed.
I guess with the Internet, it’s become a little bit easier to make a modest living. I have a comfortable income with music and I’m not a superstar. But I’m paying my bills. I pay my rent. I think there are more musicians at this level now because of the Internet than there used to be. I’m guessing that back in the day, it was sort of all or nothing. Now it’s like you can find spaces in the middle because there’s more markets for music than there used to be. I’ve heard it said that there are very few “superstar superstars”, but there are more micro-communities.
If people had not heard of you, what are some songs you love to play for an audience?
If someone hasn’t heard my music before, they could listen to the song “Sugar House” from the album. Then the song “Sugar”, as they are two pretty different ones. It will make you happy, like, “What the fuck?”, when the music gets really weird. It’s like two ends of the spectrum for my music.
Did you have trouble figuring out which songs you wanted in what order, or was that something that came pretty naturally for you?
I mean, there are a bunch of songs I didn’t include on the record, but it’s not because they’re too weird. It’s because they’re not exciting anymore. After hearing that song 100 times, there’s some that remain listenable for me and then others that just become like white noise, irritating. So the ones that don’t make the cut are the ones that I can’t listen to over and over. But weirdness – it’s kind of the opposite. Maybe the weirder ones [that] make it on the record are more likely to make it because I can listen to them more.
Do you listen to other music while you’re making your music?
It doesn’t bring me as much joy as it used to. But if I listen to the radio and I’m driving, I don’t really consciously avoid it unless it’s time to mix the album. I always mix with this guy Jacob Portrait, and sometimes it’ll be like, “Oh, yeah. I’m trying to get the bass drum to sound like this song and it helps to put on some other song.”
Is there anyone that you suggest that we reach out to, or someone who’s making interesting music right now that people haven’t heard of?
There’s a band called True Widow from Dallas, Texas, and they never get press. They’re just the best band.