Alex Giannascoli’s dumplings aren’t coming. It’s been thirty minutes, I’ve had my food for fifteen, and tables have come and gone, so I ask if we should say something. But Alex isn’t bothered in the slightest. It’s all good. He goes with the flow. He tells me to start eating.
The quiet guy seated across from me is so unassuming that it’s easy to forget he’s (Sandy) Alex G. He’s collaborated with Frank Ocean, appeared on magazine covers, and is considered one of the most talented songwriters of his generation. At age 26, he’s set to release his eighth (!) album, House of Sugar. Like Alex’s best work, the album pairs elegant melodies with sounds and lyrics that seem to have been beamed down from another planet; it’s another brilliant, hypnotic rock record that sits in the center of the uncanny valley. But when I met him for a cheap lunch in Chinatown, you’d never guess it. He seems like just another guy visiting the city for the weekend to see a few friends, maybe catch a show.
A musician with his résumé could wrap himself in the trappings of a rock star—studio time, big name producers, expensive shit. But Alex G prefers to keep things simple and close to home. He lives in the city where he grew up and plays almost exclusively with his closest friends. He met his guitarist Sam Accione in sixth grade, when they sat at the same lunch table and, later, played AC/DC covers after school. His brother plays sax on the new album and his sister sings on a track; she’s provided the artwork for all his albums to date. He recorded most of House of Sugar at his apartment, where the biggest change from the last album, he insists, was a new microphone that he borrowed from another buddy.
Sticking to his DIY roots has proved a winning strategy. It lends him the creative control on House of Sugar to balance sing-along ready hooks like those on “Gretel” and “In My Arms” with the eerie vocals on a song like “Taking” or a spasmodic electronic experiment like “Project 2.” Those polar qualities of Alex G’s music, the unsettling and the infectious, are what make it so compelling.
On break from rehearsals with his band, Alex G caught up with GQ to talk about his new record—“a sex, drugs, and rock and roll album from hell” —his interest in writing fiction, and his influences, from Bruce Springsteen to the Knife to novelist Donna Tartt.
GQ: Are you still living in Philadelphia?
(Sandy) Alex G: Yeah. I moved to Francisville. You know St. Joe’s High School? I live in that area.
Do high schoolers ever recognize you?
No, never just walking around, but a teacher did ask me to come in and talk to a class about music, or I guess just the music industry. It was a class on popular music and poetry and how it represents certain time periods. It seemed like a cool class.
What did you tell them?
Nothing of value! I focused on how I write stuff, how I appropriate, because one of the subjects they covered was appropriation. So I talked about—I hope not in a bad way—how I hear stuff I like and take it.
Did you give them an example?
Yeah, you know Grouper? I used to listen to her a lot. She has a song, “Heavy Water,” it’s one of her more famous ones. I remember hearing that and making some songs that sounded so much like it. I’m not making a conscious choice to rip it off but it just bleeds into my stuff.
How was making this record different from the last few?
I got a new microphone—I didn’t buy it, my friend Tom let me borrow it for recording this album. It’s really nice, and so that kind of forced me to slow down because I wasn’t as familiar with it. The mic I usually use, I had been using since I was 15. It’s wild. My aunt got it for me. It’s low quality, but at this point I know how to work it. This new mic, I have to figure all that out again.
Do you think this is a permanent upgrade, or do you think you’ll go back to the old mic?
If I go back to the old mic, I think it would only be to make something sound lo-fi. Before, I wasn’t trying to be that way, it was just the only means I had. Now that I’ve done this high quality shit, I hear how lacking the other mic is and I can’t unhear it.
Do you think you’ll ever upgrade more? Presumably you could get in the studio and use really fancy equipment if you wanted to.
I would only do that if I were in a position where I could take my time and be as in control of the situation I am at home. Studios are awesome, but at home, if I have an idea, I can just run over, hit record, and put it down real quick. In the studio, you have to save it. If it doesn’t happen in the studio, if the magic doesn’t happen then, you’re paying for that time and you have to go back the next time, whereas at home, I can sit there all day until some magic happens.
How do you start to involve others in that process? Do you play the songs to people in your band for feedback? Or do you go out to people privately with something in mind?
Privately. I don’t really want to open the floor because it’s still my shit, and there’s politics involved when you let other people in. Not that anyone’s sketchy at all, but I don’t like opening the floor because I’m pretty adamant about my ideas, and I’m not trying to have to be a dick. So I just avoid the process. I avoid the discussions where I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no.”
Your sister has done all the artwork for your records. How does that work?
It’s different every time. With DSU, that was a dream. She’s like, “I had a dream about this painting with a football player, and it’s like glitter and gold,” and then when I finished the record I was like, “Can you please paint that?” But with Beach Music, she came up with that and Rocket, she came up with that, too. I was like, “The record’s done, can you paint a picture?” Sometimes I ask her, and sometimes she just gives it to me.
This record, House of Sugar, the picture is [based on] a photograph. There was a photograph of her figure skating. That was in our house growing up, and I was like, “Hey Rachel, can you paint this for the record cover?”
Tell me about House of Sugar. It’s the title of the album and the phrase comes up in several of the songs. I know there’s a real casino in Philly called SugarHouse. Why did you settle on that as the central motif of the album?
[The casino] actually wasn’t the real motivation. I didn’t name the album after SugarHouse, I wanted House of Sugar to be this temple of indulgence. I kind of knew at the beginning I wanted to makes a Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll album from hell. Like a possessed Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll album. The song “SugarHouse” came near the end of the whole album writing process.
Do you feel like you see a lot of that stuff, sex drugs, and rock and roll, in your life these days?
To be honest, I think I have my shit a little more together now than I used to. I think I see less of it—in a good way.
I say this sex, drugs, and rock and roll thing, but I don’t want to disrupt someone else’s attachment to the record. It was something that I was thinking about, but it’s not what the album is “about.” There is no story of the record.
When I listen to the song “SugarHouse,” maybe because it’s got that sax and is named after a casino, I hear a lot of Bruce Springsteen.
Are you a Bruce guy?
I don’t know his music that well, but I know “Atlantic City.” I know his shit that’s on the radio. I honestly wrote that song as a joke... or not as a joke. I was just trying to write a song for somebody else, and then I ended up liking it. I was trying to make this very corny, predictable song, you know? But then I wrote it and was like, this is actually good.
But yeah, like Bruce, like one of those songs… I was trying to make one of those songs you hear on classic rock radio. The guy who mixes my records, Jake Portrait, he always says to lean into it. If it’s corny, just lean into it, make it more corny.
But I shouldn’t say the song is corny because the band playing on it, those guys aren’t... my band isn’t corny. The chords and stuff, when I was writing it, I was trying to make it corny.
In the leadup to this album, your website has featured a long prose poem. Did you write that?
Yeah. I write a lot. Or, not a lot, but it’s a hobby, I just write random shit, you know? So I figured it would make the website interesting. I just take a little piece of this story, take a little piece of that story,
So they’re excerpts from actual short stories that you’ve written?
Like half-formed. If they were fully formed maybe I’d put the whole thing up there, but since everything’s a sketch, I don’t.
Is that something you’d ever like to do, write your own short stories?
I would love to. I'm trying to work up my discipline because I sit down to write every day, but I can only write like two or three words. Sometimes I get a bunch of shit, but the mechanics of writing don't come naturally to me.
In the way that songwriting does?
Yeah. If I can get more familiar with it, it will be easier. I know what a good sentence looks like. I read a lot, so I know what reads well. So I'll be writing, and I know it doesn't read well, and then I have to go back and do it again, and it still doesn't read well. I have to figure that part out because I know it's bad, but I don’t know how to make it good yet.
Are there any writers or books that you think are especially good?
You know who I love? Donna Tartt. She says the best shit. I just love when says about writing, she’s like, “I’m not trying to do anything. All I’m doing is giving you an escape.”
I saw you have a quote from The Goldfinch on your website.
That book is so fucking sick. I feel like it’s so deceptively layered. It’s like pop music, it’s like Charles Dickens-type shit. I feel like she has all these self-aware nods the whole time. The main character’s nickname, he wears glasses, and his best friend nicknames him Potter, like Harry Potter, so he’ll go through the story, and he keeps getting called Potter, shit like that.
That quote on the website is about how the masterwork’s always a joke. That’s the truest shit. It’s always a punch line. All the shit I like has a punch line.
[editor’s note: “That’s what all the very greatest masters do. Rembrandt. Velazquez. Late Titian. They make jokes. They amuse themselves. They build up the illusion, the trick—but, step closer? It falls apart into brushstrokes.”]
Are there any lyricists you admire in the way you admire Donna Tartt?
Lucinda Williams. She's great for making characters, and not glorifying herself.
Would you say you have lots of characters on House of Sugar?
For lack of a better term. It’s frustrating, because I think the best part about music is that you don’t have to find anything. It’s just this thing. To enjoy it, you don’t need to have that understanding.
There are lots of different voices, but they’re not exactly fully-formed characters. I'd like it to be unclear if this is the same character as this, or if they're different. I think the beauty of it is that it's like a Rorschach inkblot.
Taking that literally, you use a lot of vocal effects. Does that line up for you with this idea of different voices?
Yeah. I really like using the really high-pitched one, because it sounds so real, like a real person that's not me. It’s like when you're playing with the Photo Booth on your computer, and your cheeks stretch ... and you become a different character.
You’ve collaborated with people who also use a lot of vocal effects, like Frank Ocean and Oneohtrix Point Never. And now vocal distortion is having a mainstream moment.
Yeah, I kind of stole it from The Knife. I used to really listen to them nonstop. The singer from The Knife is a master, and so I heard that when I was pretty young and I wanted to do that too.
I like that it’s popular, but I almost wish it wasn’t because now I feel like I got to find some other weird shit to do with my voice, you know? That was my little gimmick for a minute. Now I got to find a new gimmick.
The songwriter crafts a wild hybrid on his stellar third album.
Originally Appeared on GQ