Run The Beach… In Conversation with Beach Slang
The U.K. doesn’t really do music like Beach Slang, the Philadelphia rockers who wear their hearts on the sleeves of their denim jackets, their blue jeans and white t-shirts, and any other article of clothing Paul Westerberg might have worn. Our punk tends to fall into a darker, more cynical sound or one with lighter, satirical party vibes, and as a culture we don’t really do the open optimism that characterises Beach Slang (one of the few bands who do, Muncie Girls, are fittingly supporting them tonight). When I pose this to James Alex, Beach Slang’s lead singer, he responds in typical style. “To me optimism will never fall out of favour. It might be blanketed, but people want to remember it can get better. We’re just that little tap I suppose. We’ll see how much positivity we can throw out tonight, I plan on a lot.”
It’s the sort of answer that will characterise our chat. James and Reuben [Gallego, lead guitar], really live by the sincere messages in their songs, and judging by their show later that night in Camden the rest of the band do too. It was a triumphant performance characterised by mass sing-a-longs and classic rock tropes that in the hands of Beach Slang somehow feel fresh. It’s reminiscent of The Gaslight Anthem or Beach Slang’s Polyvinyl label-mates Japandroids, bands doing what others have done before, but in an honest way that doesn’t feel stale.
“It’s a tough one to answer,” James replies when I ask why bands like Beach Slang, Gaslight and Japandroids can still feel new and exciting when others who embrace an old sound just seem like throwbacks. “I guess we were lucky enough to come up on the right records. It’s that spirit of rock and roll that we sort of learned from like The ‘Mats [The Replacements for the uninitiated] or Jawbreaker or whatever. We believe in things like being honest, turning up, plugging in and playing loud. We want it to be reckless, we want it to be dangerous, we want it to be sincere, and if you look at all the bands we love that’s kind of what they did. There was no pretence, there was no sort of manufactured element, there’s no smoke and mirrors, and I suppose we just want to carry that on a little bit. We want to carry it on a lot a bit.”
“Authenticity is a good word for it,” adds Reuben, and when you watch Beach Slang this authenticity shines through. In the same way you know Bruce would be writing those same songs if no one knew his name and Angus Young would play like a maniac in his living room, you feel like they’d be doing this in a basement together regardless of how many people were listening.
“I said that to Reuben today,” agrees James, “we were at Camden Market and I was like ‘we get to be here for a thing we’d be doing at home, just in our basement to no one.’ It’s just incredible. I suppose when Reuben talks about authenticity there’s a lot of purity in what we do. No one in this thing is trying to be a rock star. I didn’t start doing this for all that vapid stuff that comes on top of it, I did it because I fucking love doing this. That’s the connectivity of this band; we boil it down to what really matters. We make really loud sounds and connect with new friends.
This lack of pretension draws parallels to one of the other groups Beach Slang reminds me of, and I can’t resist offering it to them. James was part of the pop punk band Weston, who always flirted with mainstream success but never quite broke through. As part of Beach Slang, with all members in their 30s and James in his 40s, they have managed that breakthrough, perhaps because they weren’t really looking for it. In my mind this draws immediate parallels to Run The Jewels.
Killer Mike and El-P both had impressive solo careers that they worked incredibly hard on for years, but it was when they linked up to make a fun tribute to the old school rap they loved that they exploded. “We’ve never been compared to Run The Jewels,” laughs Reuben, “but I have to say I am a huge fan of both El-P and Killer Mike, so that is a really cool comparison, thanks. That’s made my day.”
After a few more jokes - “We should get them to change the press release to: For fans of The Replacements / Run The Jewels and start putting up a pistol and fist” - our talk segues into Killer Mike’s political work and the politics of Beach Slang. They aren’t openly political in the way a band like Against Me is, however when you listen to Beach Slang it does feel like there is a coherent ideology.
“The most important politics for me are really based around golden rule stuff,” explains James. “Be good to each other, treat each other with respect and then we can all lift each other up together. I’m not trying to get up on a soapbox and tell you what you should think or what you should believe, but what I am trying to do is get you to think for yourself and believe in yourself.”
“Even Killer Mike may be politically active but he’s not the kind of person who tries to tell people how to think”, adds Reuben. “He leads by action, and I think that’s a big thing with Beach Slang, specifically with how you right and how you live. We’re all political people in like a personal sense, and for us it’s more about how you present yourself, how you live your life, and how you treat other people. So as far as politics goes, it extends more beyond governmental stuff, and it’s like a personal thing, how you live your life.”
“That’s the thing,” agrees James. “I can throw all sorts of pretty words in to the world and paint a picture, but if I’m sort of the opposite of that then those words just sink and there’s nothing to it. What I typically say is ‘It’s not our show, it our show.’ I think that’s Beach Slang politics.”
Whilst overtly political language doesn’t feature prominently in Beach Slang’s lyrics, religious imagery occurs regularly. Whether they’re throwing up “sweaty prayers” in Punk or Lust, getting “holy and strange” in Ride The Wild Haze or “floating around this noisy heaven”, Christian imagery is a staple of James’ song writing.
“I’ve said it before, Rock’n’roll is a holy thing to me,” he explains. “I came up in church and around a lot of spiritual readings and the bible, and it’s not like I’m devote in any specific way, but I think it’s interesting. I think along those lines about your mortality and your life and your death, and I think that stuff trickles in. The way I write about it in Beach Slang is just the way that I view rock ‘n roll. We were in Minneapolis on the last tour and went to the place that The Replacements recorded ‘Let It Be’, and I described it as ‘this is what Church must be like.’”
When you speak to James and Reuben, it’s clear how much Beach Slang, their music and nights like this mean to them. Their passion for the band literally flows out of them through their hand gestures, and this all explodes forth during the show later. James has said before that he feels “personally responsible” for the people who connect with his lyrics, and I have to wonder whether he feels this level of investment is completely healthy.
“You know man, I’ve been asked about that by people in our own camp, and it’s probably not the healthiest, but I suppose because of the way I’m wired there’s no other option for me,” James explains. “I exchange pretty heavy letters and conversations with people, and if we get back to Beach Slang politics for a minute, how could I not want to wrap my arms around them and take care of them and try to make it better. We’re so lucky to even be in this position, and if the worst ‘quote-unquote’ burden I have is caring for people who care about this band as much as we do, I can handle that.”
“People tend to be afraid to feel that, like you shouldn’t have these personal connections, but that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day,” says Reuben. “I mean I didn’t write those words, so it’s different, and I can’t describe what that’s like to you, but I would imagine having someone say they connected with the things you wrote that are that personal, I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think that’s the human condition at its best, people connecting on a raw visceral level.”
Finally, as the sound of distorted guitars echo in from the main room, we move on to Philadelphia, the city that Beach Slang, and seemingly every other great new American punk band call home. The Menzingers, Hop Along, Modern Baseball, Cayetana and more all hail from The City of Brotherly Love, and I’m always curious to know why bands think it’s such a fertile place for punk rock.
“It’s cheap and strategically it’s a good place to live because you if you want to do a weekender you’ve got New York, DC, Boston, Detroit, Baltimore, Richmond, all within driving distance,” explains Reuben. “There’s a lot of history in Philly, musically as well as culturally, but I think a lot of it is a financial thing. But then on top of that there’s also an incredibly supportive community of really supportive, really aware people who really care less about the glamour and more about the music and the personal connections, and Philly is incredible for that. Unfortunately, the financial side of it, with gentrification and all that, is becoming more expensive, but it’s the community more than anything, without a doubt.”
“I always describe Philadelphia as having a romantic grit to it,” adds James. “It’s like this thing I always say, ‘we have a foot in the gutter and a foot in the stars,’ and Philadelphia is sort of an encapsulation of that. And with Reuben’s point about the community, we’re in this really healthy thing where it’s like all our friends are putting out records that are fucking amazing, and no one wants to be the weak link in the chain, so it pushes us in a healthy way to sort of way.”
Looking back this feels like perhaps the most Beach Slang answer given all night. The primary reason for Philadelphia’s successful scene is logistical, because of course people will build the community if you give them the means. We can all be loud and proud and drunk for two and a half minutes at a time if we believe we can and are given the opportunity. That’s the type of world I want to live in.
I’m a cynical person. I like black humour, I don’t trust people’s intentions and I got celebratory fucked up when Margret Thatcher died. Sometimes when I wake up hungover I’ll find notes in my phone with lyrics too open and sincere for me to ever write sober, and I normally delete them and scold myself. Maybe this is why the Beach Slang lyric that resonates the most with me is “Most of the words get stuck in my mouth, But I mean all the ones that punch their way out.”
The day after Beach Slang’s Camden show I found a few of those lyrics and decided to finish them properly, because during their set and the residual joy that remained after that’s what I believed. They were the words that punched their way out and I should probably listen to them more, because Beach Slang is one of those acts that make me want to be better, to play music and just enjoy it, to rejoice in being alive, loud and drunk. And even if I can’t be like that all the time, for two and a half minutes is still better than not at all.