Indie Singer-Songwriter (Sandy) Alex G Goes Country On ‘Rocket,’ His Latest and Best Album

The first thing I ask Alex G when I get the prolific indie-rocker on the phone on a recent Friday afternoon is why in the world he’s now known as (Sandy) Alex G. After all, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter (born Alex Giannascoli) seemed to be making a name for himself in the mainstream in the wake of 2015’s critically acclaimed Beach Music, the sixth full-length album (amid many more singles and EPs) that he’s recorded on his own dating all the way back to high school.

Much of that music was posted initially on Bandcamp, and along with Car Seat Headrest, Giannascoli ranks among the independent music platform’s biggest success stories. He gradually built a big enough following with his impromptu, shaggy-dog tunes to convince Queens-based indie label, Orchid Tapes, to put out Giannascoli’s breakthrough LP, D.S.U., in 2014. Last year, Giannascoli received an even more significant PR bump from Frank Ocean, who enlisted him to play guitar on Endless. Now, he’s about to release Rocket, an eclectic collection of heart-rending country ballads, beatific electro-pop, pure noise, and loose-limbed rock that stands as the best album Giannascoli has yet made.

So, again: Why add that strange (Sandy) to his moniker? Is it a reference to one his earliest songs? If so, why now? Unfortunately, Giannascoli can’t comment on the record about the name change due to an ongoing legal proceeding. (It seems safe to assume that the existence of another Alex G probably has something to do with it.) But Giannascoli hasn’t let this hopefully short-term headache dampen his natural stoner-dude affability or his restless creativity.

As with his previous records, Giannascoli made Rocket at home using Garage Band software. But in other respects, Rocket signals a new maturity in his songwriting, moving beyond the obvious ’90s rock influences (most notably Elliott Smith) of his previous work and toward folk, country, and avant-garde music. (Steve Reich is a recent favorite.) Lyrically, Giannascoli eschews literalism, classifying his instinctual approach as “phonetic” writing. Nevertheless, Rocket is imbued with a reflective melancholy radiating from Giannascoli’s slack vocals and his insinuating melodies.

When you write songs, do you think in terms of albums, or are you just a guy that puts out songs as you’re doing them?

More like [the latter]. I guess at this point, since I’ve been putting out albums for a while, I do think of it loosely in terms of an album. But it’s not like I’m in a single studio session or something like that for the recording of an album. I’m just doing my stuff. So inevitably I’m just doing song by song, over the course of the year or whatever. I guess with this album it’s more lyrically tied together.

I imagine that happens organically, just from being in the same headspace when you happened to be writing the songs.

That’s it, yeah. It’s not like I’m thinking about it.

What was on your mind at the time when you were writing these songs?

[It’s about a] character that’s causing a little more harm than they realize. Going through the world and kind of bumping into stuff along the way.

It’s interesting that you said “character.” Are you writing about someone who is not you?

I think it’s a lot of myself, but it’s also a lot of everyone I meet, too. So I couldn’t say it’s myself without lying, because it’s definitely not all me. Just like me plus a million things that make it more interesting.

I get the feeling that you’d rather not talk too much about what your songs are about.

When I’m writing them it’s more impulsive, almost like going about it phonetically. More so than a concrete message I’m trying to send. Because I think at the bottom of it, it’s real up in the air. Whenever someone comes up at a show and actually has a really profound [interpretation], I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, it’s about that.’ And then when someone comes up and asks me if it’s about something that’s not profound, I’m like, ‘No, it’s not about that.’ I just make it up as I go along.

The impression I get from your records is that you’re always trying to capture a moment in time — a flash of inspiration, the sound of a room, the feeling of a certain atmosphere, a vibe. Is that why you continue to make records at home?

Yeah. Since I’m recording at home, I don’t have, like, the real physical pleasing quality that a real expert recording would have. [My] songs, you can’t really rock out to them the way that you can rock out to a song that’s done in a studio. So I have to make up for it with other dimensions. Maybe catching a moment is one, or making it sound like it’s really real. Like, the character is realistic or something. I’m the character, I guess.

I was surprised the first time I heard Rocket because the album opens with a series of folky, almost country-sounding songs. That’s not really an influence that’s popped up on your other records.

Well, I’ve always like country stuff. [Some] of the first records that I got into that were alt-country records, like Wilco and Lucinda Williams. Modest Mouse even has that country-like style. I guess my interest in rock-y, ’90s sh*t has definitely started to decrease. I don’t really get joy from that kind of music anymore. And I used to love it so much. But now I think I’ve just heard that style so much that I’m not trying to do it anymore.

I think country is [my] new thing because it’s real. The narrator is trying to be earnest like country music, too. Maybe it’s a little less self-absorbed [kind of] earnestness in country music than it is in ’90s rock music.

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One of my favorite songs on Rocket is “Sportstar,” which is really beautiful and a little more lush and poppy than a lot of your stuff. Did you feel like that song was a progression for you?

I stumbled upon some cool guitar stuff because my girlfriend was showing me this guy, Steve Reich. You ever hear of him?

Oh yeah.

She showed me this stuff, and I never heard of it. And he did all those pieces like Violin Phase, Electric Guitar Phase, all that stuff. So I was adding a lot of different phase things in the background of that song and maybe that’s why it sounds lush. Like the electric guitar you can hear pretty well, it comes in with that phase right at the beginning.

Has your process changed it all from when you started?

The older I get, the slower I get. When I was younger, I would write a song, which would be easier because there was so much more open because I had written way less. So there used to be chords that I never touched, and then the next day I’d be working with these five chords I never touched. But now I’m always retracing my steps and trying to avoid retracing my steps so that takes awhile. It’s just harder to convince myself that what I’m doing is worth recording now. When I was younger I was like ‘Oh, whatever I do is good.’

Do you think you’ll ever work in a conventional recording studio?

I could see that happening, I guess. I could see it happening more now just because I’m getting like… I don’t know, I feel like my work ethic is getting worse. I can’t get psyched about it as easily. I still do [get excited] — when I end up finishing a song it’s because I’m psyched about it. But getting to that point is way harder than it used to be. If I end up going to a studio, it’s going to be for that reason. Just so someone will be like kicking my ass to make me just eat it and finish it instead of wallowing in why isn’t it good.

I don’t think your work ethic is the issue. It sounds like you have more of a filter now, and perhaps are more discerning than you used to be.

Yeah, 100 percent, which just makes things difficult.

Do you wish you didn’t have a filter?

Well, I think now that I’m older I can’t excuse my lack of filter. When I was younger, I would even hear the shit I did and almost say to myself, “Wow, this is like garbage.” But I could think to myself, “I’m a kid, who gives a fuck?” But now I’m not a kid, so I can’t just be fucking around. I just got to be good or I’m fucking up.

Rocket is out 5/19 via Domino Records. Pre-order it here.