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Backstage at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, the members of Beach Slang piddle about in the green room.
The concert venue, which is an actual church up top, moonlights its basement as a venue for sweaty punk rock shows. Tonight, “The Slang” as their publicist calls them, make their triumphant hometown return since their debut album was released in October.
“The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us” garnered immediate acclaim, the follow-up to a pair of EPs, neither longer than 11 minutes, that only whet the pallets for an audience old enough to appreciate The Replacements but young enough to view getting drunk and screaming until you’re hoarse as a noble act.
Ruben Gallego, the band’s jolly guitarist, stares at his cell phone with wide eyes.
“Holy shit,” he gawks and giggles. “Look.”
He passes the phone around to the three other band members. On the screen, a fan holds a copy of The New York Times. A massive five-column-wide photo of the band’s lead singer, James Alex, strumming his guitar and staring toward the heavens leads the page. A year ago, Beach Slang wasn’t more than a few hastily recorded songs, and yet this is the New York Times, proclaiming them “prepared to punch.”
Alex smiles wryly and acknowledges the spread. He says he saw it already and he has to get changed.
Alex wears the same thing every night his band plays. A navy blazer, an argyle sweater, and salmon pants. They smell like stage sweat and countless spilled beers.
When he’s home however, in the suburban house he shares with his wife Rachel, and their 11-month-old son Oliver, he’s a bit more casual. Today, he’s in a hoodie that says “Born a Bad Seed” in block letters on the back.
It’s impossible to talk with Alex about the developments in his life, without acknowledging the inherent contradictions. Even he winks at them to a certain extent in his songs. He was born in 1977, “the same year as punk rock.”
“Too young to die, too late to die young,” he sings on the fifth track of the recent record.
His son, Oliver, or Ollie, has meant a lot of change to Alex, but much of that he views as opportunity.
“I exist in two modes and it’s tour mode and dad mode,” he says. “So it’s wonderful. It keeps me grounded. It reminds me that while balancing a pint of beer on my forehead while I’m playing guitar and leaning back is funny and is a great time and we’re gonna all laugh about it while we’re in rocking chairs… There’s also… The world’s… bigger.”
“I exist in two modes and it’s tour mode and dad mode.”
Alex’s dad left him and his mom when he was a kid, and he admits that abandonment has haunted him.
“I’m better off when I’m all alone/ that’s a lie,” he sings on an early Beach Slang song. “Dirty cigarettes and a dirty soul/ tell me I’m enough I’m dying to know what it’s like.”
He says that lyric was very specifically about a moment 15 years ago, at his grandfather’s funeral. Alex’s grandfather had stepped into his life where his dad failed to, he says, attending Little League games, doing all the traditional dad things.
Alex and his father were both pallbearers at the funeral.
“So we’re standing there and I was, ya know, crying,” he says. “I’m doing the thing you do when someone you love passes away. And I just fell into my birth father because I just need to feel hugged. And I said ‘I love you’ to him which I suppose was the first time I said that since elementary… Since I was a little boy… And he didn’t say it back. And I just was like man, fake it. Lie to me right now. Just give me something that I need.
“And that has stuck with me like a really sharp thorn.”
Beach Slang’s success over the past year has meant nonstop touring, which in turn, has meant time away from his own son. Alex says he keeps one of Oliver’s little onesies in his road bag, to always remember the little boy back in Philadelphia.
He says missing out on his own father gives him motivation.
“The beautiful thing that did give me was that my heart is [Oliver’s],” Alex says. “I just want to make the world a really soft and beautiful place for him. And know that he’s everything to me.”