(sandy) alex g on pursuing new sounds, and reading really old plays

The prodigious songwriter and multi-instrumentalist releases his new record, ‘Rocket,’ today. We chat about the album, collaborating with Frank Ocean, and German literature.

by Emily Manning
19 May 2017, 2:00pm

photography Tonje Thilesen

Calling Alexander Giannascoli — better known by his musical moniker (Sandy) Alex G — means I have to put down A Little Life. It's been awhile since I made the time to read a novel, and Hanya Yanagihara's 800-pager is a tough one to shake. Fortunately, Giannascoli is game to talk books. "I finished this book called The Tin Drum recently, and it was great," he says of the Günter Grass novel, a work of magical realism published in 1959. It's not the only German lit he's been gnawing on. "I'm halfway through this old play called Faust." Published in two parts during the early 19th century, the richly philosophical Faust is widely considered Goethe's magnum opus. "It's kind of tricky sometimes," Giannascoli confesses. "I have to read stuff over and over again because it's kind of dated." He pauses, and laughs, imitating himself: "'Kinda dated' — it's like 200 years old. But it's still fun to read."

Though he's only 24, it's often said that Giannascoli has authored a lifetime's worth of songs. Rocket — the record he's releasing today — is his sophomore effort for British label Domino, and his seventh studio album. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this immense body of work is its diversity. Rocket — already being hailed as Giannascoli's "most ambitious and varied project yet" — moves mercurially from country-pop into blistering hardcore noise without feeling forced. His guitar compositions often get compared to indie mainstays like Elliott Smith or Pavement, but here they sound like Lucinda Williams and Death Grips in equal turn.

"On all the different records, I usually just try and change up the instrumentation from song to song, to keep it interesting for myself," he tells me. And yet, his prolific output is shaped by some common elements. His sharply attuned sense of melody is certainly one. His interest in literature is another.

Giannascoli grew up in Havertown, Pennsylvania, about nine miles west of Philadelphia's Center City. He learned to play piano in elementary school, and guitar at 13 or 14, around the same time he began mastering GarageBand composition. He excelled in school without much effort, and enrolled at Temple University as an English major. Though he ultimately dropped out to pursue music, he still lives close by, in Fishtown, a neighborhood often likened to Philly's Williamsburg. He'd been self-recording and releasing music on Bandcamp for the better part of a decade by the time his break arrived in 2014, with the release of DSU. The outstanding record collects fuzzy, distorted guitar melodies, and evocative piano lilts. Its lyrics — about success, uncertainty, responsibility, adulthood — are inspired in-part by James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

These days, Giannascoli says he tries to force himself to read. "I feel like my attention span gets shorter if I don't. I treat it like an exercise, something more than just pure enjoyment." On Rocket, he makes meaningful experiments with character work — sketching and speaking from different perspectives that are anchored by his own distinctive voice (as Joyce did with Dubliners). On the record's B-side, we meet a self-assured boy in "Powerful Man," and a schoolgirl in "Alina." "Bobby" — one of the first Rocket singles Giannascoli released, and one of the record's finest moments — is a country cut about despair, depression, and dependence, narrated by a couple. Emily Yacina, who works with Giannascoli regularly, adds vocal harmonies that enrich the piece with a beautiful, shared loneliness.

To construct Rocket's cacophony, Giannascoli enlisted more collaborators than his past efforts have entailed. "I usually don't do things where other people write stuff on top, but the violin on this album is unique. I can't play the violin, so I had Molly [Germer] play it. She's really talented, and came up with those parts herself." Germer is joined by Giannascoli's touring bandmates Samuel Acchione and John Heywood, who contribute guitar and bass. "My brother played keyboards on one of the songs, too," Giannascoli adds. Closing track "Guilty" bridges synths and saxophones, united by a spirited chorus of vocalists.

Some have suggested Giannascoli's turn towards this orchestral authorship may have been inspired by his work with Frank Ocean. Shortly before a show in London last year, Giannascoli received an email from the elusive R&B virtuoso's manager, asking if he'd be interested in working with Ocean on what would become Blonde and Endless. Giannascoli began riffing on guitar parts during their meeting the next day, and over the following months, when he'd fly out to Los Angeles from Philly to record. Ocean picked which notes he liked, and arranged them how he wished. You'll hear Giannascoli on both records; "Slide on Me," "Rushes," "Wither," "Self-Control," and "White Ferrari" all feature beautiful fragments from these sessions.

Ocean's appreciation for Giannascoli's music didn't end when the records wrapped. Before spinning "Mis" — a catchy if melancholic tune from Giannascoli's 2015 album RULES — on the second episode of his excellent Beats1 radio show "blonded" earlier this year, Ocean included the track in his list of all-time favorite songs. Published in his Boys Don't Cry zine, the index also includes The Smiths, Nina Simone, and Aphex Twin. Pretty solid company, especially considering Giannascoli once described his music as what Richard James might sound like "if he was stupid."

Such co-signs make it unsurprising that Giannascoli is constantly asked for any kind of clue about Ocean — how he works, what he's like. And Giannascoli answers these questions with the same straightforwardness, nonchalance, and easy patience he does every other query. He's long insisted the pair didn't really chat outside of the work they made at the time, and continue to be cordial. "He'll very, very occasionally shoot me a text like, 'what's up?' and that's really it," says Giannascoli honestly. "We're not like great friends or anything like that, but he's definitely a nice and conscientious person."

The same can be said of Giannascoli. Shouted out in Rolling Stone by Weezer's Rivers Cuomo at 21, he's since been hailed as "the internet's secret best songwriter." Yet, it's remarkably easy to shoot the shit. He's funny, honest, and says what's on his mind. I reminisce about the bars I snuck into the summer I lived in Philly; he tells me about trekking to Alaska for a college show. "It was awesome, the people there were so nice — really welcoming. Hopefully we can go back, but it's so hard to get up there. We flew from Philly to Minneapolis to Seattle to Fairbanks, and that's where we played." How does he pass the time on tour? "Honestly, I don't do anything. I just stare out the window, or drive. My brain turns into mush. I always do bring a book in the hopes I'm gonna read, but I never do."

'Rocket' is out now via Domino. 


Text Emily Manning
Photography Tonje Thilesen

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