Beach Slang's James Alex Talks Touring Solo After Tumultuous 2016: 'I'm a Band Person, But I'm Doing It'
"It's like a skill set I'm learning in real time," he says of performing alone after losing two bandmates this year.
James Alex is a band guy. His favorite acts are gangs of noisy brothers in rock like the Replacements and Psychedelic Furs, which is why the creative force behind Philadelphia's Beach Slang always pictured himself tearing it up onstage with some compatriots helping to deliver his forever young punk anthems of rebellion and confusion.
But last week, on the eve of the band's tour in support of their ripping new album A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings, Alex found himself forced to go it alone when sexual assault allegations surfaced against Beach Slang guitarist Ruben Gallego, in addition to the ouster of drummer JP Flexner back in July.
"It's pretty weird. I described it last night when I was playing that I feel like Billy Bragg if he came up on the Replacements," Alex told this reporter during an interview for WCPO Cincinnati's Lounge Acts podcast on Friday (Oct. 21) about his solo show the previous night at the Southgate House Revival in Newport, Kentucky, and the band's tumultuous last few weeks.
(James begins to discuss the band issues around the 10:20 mark)
"It's like a skill set I'm learning in real time. I'm not wired to be... that," he said haltingly of his newfound status as a solo act. (Bassist Ed McNulty is accompanying Alex on the tour but not performing.) "I'm a band person, but I'm doing it."
The reason the floppy-haired, emotionally raw singer prone to wearing bow ties and frilly tuxedo shirts was measuring his words is because it's been a rough year for his group. In the summer, he booted drummer JP Flexner after an April show in Utah that was so chaotic some thought it signaled the end of the band. Then, just before the Oct. 11 launch of the current tour, Alex announced that he was removing guitarist Ruben Gallego due to allegations of sexual assault.
In typically raw, heart-on-sleeve fashion, Alex wrote on Facebook that, "For us, Beach Slang has always been and will always be a safe place for everyone. It was built to be welcoming. It was built to be soft. If we are going to continue to exist, we have to exist in this way. There have been allegations involving sexual assault and our guitarist, Ruben. Although this occurred four years ago and prior to him joining Beach Slang, we cannot in good conscience continue with him. We believe survivors and we want to believe Ruben, but until we learn more information, we don't feel it's appropriate for him to be a part of Beach Slang."
So, Alex -- who learned about the assault allegation through a social media post from the alleged victim -- is soldiering on as Quiet Slang and has been playing the band's raucous, 'Mats-tinged anthems of alienation and hope by himself on acoustic and electric guitar. (Gallego responded to the charges to Pitchfork on the same day, saying, "What’s important to me is that people stand with survivors and that we continue to foster an environment where people aren’t afraid to speak out against their abusers," noting that he felt what is being said about him is "inaccurate.")
"A lot of what Beach Slang is live is this loud, raucous sort of loose cannon of sincere buffonery," Alex said, noting that his knees were "knocking" on the front end of the tour because he wasn't sure how audiences would react. Luckily for him it was with "a hug the size of a room," so far, which has lifted his spirits. "Some things are human chemistry, some things are unfortunate circumstance. ... If [Beach Slang] had a flashing neon sign, it would be 'All Are Welcome,'" he said.
"It needs to be soft, it needs to be sweet... that thing needs to continue to exist. What we try to do is take whatever steps might be necessary to ensure that that vibe of Beach Slang... not only the records we make, but when you walk into a room that we're playing that just sort of hangs out in the air." With Flexner, Alex said it was a "bit of a time coming," a friction that the band tried to work out but had to change because "you can only throw a Band-Aid on a broken bone for so long. Eventually you have to fix the break."
As for Gallego, Alex said the circumstances around his firing were "considerably heavier." At a loss for words, he simply said, "That one was tougher." For now, Alex is pushing ahead with the tour through November, and as of now he's still trying to figure out how to get back to that perfect mix of sincere buffonery.