It takes a while before I click with (Sandy) Alex G. On the line from Philadelphia, Alexander Giannascoli answers briefly, almost point by point. Scanning. He's audibly not quite comfortable in a (telephone) interview setting. Two sentences, three at most. Silence. An insecure “does this make sense?” now and then. Sometimes a little nervous. He doesn't come across as someone who likes to be the center of attention, but just wants to make music in peace. With an impressive vision. Frank Ocean and Oneohtrix Point Never wanted to work with him and after his new, sixth album House Of Sugar, his creative quest is far from over. The interview also turns out well: still waters run deep.
Written by Daan Krahmer
Photos: Tonje Thilesen
“Do you think it's an experimental record?” Giannascoli asks after a short while. “I see House of Sugar as the opposite: my attempt to write a pop record. I was hoping it would be a bit more accessible than my previous records! But thanks, I'm glad you hear an experimental record in it. Growing up, that was the music I always listened to. It's shitty, but for a long time I've had more respect for experimental music than for accessible pop music. I associated “good music” with music that you have to get used to. Like, oh my god, what crazy mind made this! I thought the artist who thought more deeply produced better records. I have now returned to that.”
After about ten minutes I tell Giannascoli that I started admiring him in the fall of 2017. Rocket had just appeared at Domino. It was a label debut of the nicest kind: a breakthrough from a hungry artist who had already written a body of work on Bandcamp at the age of twenty-three. Giannascoli released four good - and really good - albums there. That autumn in Café Wilhelmina in Eindhoven it became really clear: the set list contained a number of good songs that you would only expect from artists who have been around for much longer, not from a newcomer.
“Before I had a career as a musician, I released music through Bandcamp. In Seattle, a group of die-hards discovered my music. They flew me to Seattle, where they had a small record company. I was allowed to play at their house. They booked a small tour in the northwest. Before that I had only done some DIY shows, with no budget.” One of the songs on the set list in Eindhoven was the cute 'Sandy'. “It was the first song I put online, on Bandcamp I named myself after it. Sandy is a fictional character and all the songs that came online were written from her perspective. Actually, I only wanted to release music under that name.” That plan turned out differently, because Giannascoli soon got tired of the concept and continued as Alex G. Still, Sandy kept chasing him. He soon received an unpleasant message from a singer, one who also used the name Alex G and who had technically claimed it just a little earlier. It's clearly still a painful topic. He sighs deeply. “If only her name was different. I'm not going to say anything specific because otherwise I'll get sued, but... if her name wasn't Alex G I could have been Alex G... Sometimes I hear a band name and it makes me want to listen to the music, sometimes completely not. Something happened and now I'm (Sandy) Alex G… It's the name people associate with me now. I'm over it. Nobody thinks it sounds cool. Wait...” There is a waiting silence. “This interview appears in a different language, right? Fuck it. I hate Alex G.”
"She always says she thinks it's great, but I can tell from her face what she's really thinking. House Of Sugar needed a few listens."
It is the only time Giannascoli expresses his opinion clearly. He also makes a nuanced, gentle impression. He proves himself to be an introverted artist, something he has become thanks to his older sister Rachel, a great example for Giannascoli as a visual artist. “Rachel's way of painting is distinctive. She paints very thick, with all kinds of layers. When I was younger I borrowed her paintings. I was working on songs and secretly took a picture of a painting and used it as an album cover. No one would hear those songs anyway, I thought. For House Of Sugar I asked if she wanted to paint a skater, with Rocket she came up with a ram herself.” “Before music played an essential role in my life, I also drew. All my focus now is on music, but the process is largely the same. I'm fairly untrained in both. You figure it out yourself. I drew, modified it, redrawn and modified it again. Until I convinced myself of my own work. Sound works the same for me. In the end it will sound like music. What matters is that I like it and enjoy listening to it. My only rule is that I don't allow myself to be limited by that. That's what I do.”
“When I was thirteen or fourteen, my parents got an Apple computer. I was completely captivated by GarageBand. I never sought help, but I created work in my own bubble. When I thought I couldn't do better anymore, I dared to share it online. That old computer is still alive, there are many old demos on it. Besides, I still don't know how to record technical music. I do everything by ear. I think every record that is finished is already a success.”
In the past decade, the dominance of the professional studio seems to have finally come to an end. The list of artists who make good records in their bedroom is growing and growing. “Now that I'm earning a little more money, a professional studio is becoming a real option. I don't rule out going there in the future. Two things are holding me back for now: the need for endless time and complete control. Until I make enough money to enforce creative freedom, it's more valuable to conserve time and control. You can go a long way with nothing more than a computer and a microphone. For now, I travel with it between home studios, my own and those of friends. My friends like everything I make, so for an honest opinion I go to my friend Molly. We live together and I often let her listen to stuff. She always says she thinks it's great, but I can tell from her face what she's really thinking. House Of Sugar needed a few listens.”
Touring is hectic for Giannascoli. “I can't write on tour. Then I do everything myself, even selling records. When there's free time left, I just want to sleep. You will be completely absorbed by it, but as a DIY artist you will have more money left over. My band also has to be paid. That is enough for me: I just want to pay everyone enough, so that they have bread on the table.” Giannascoli immediately lets go of that train of thought when he makes new music. “I don't recognize the limitations of a live show when I'm making a record. I am not going to follow a formula that has proven successful in the past.”
You hear that immediately when House Of Sugar starts. The beautiful opening track 'Walk Away' is like a whole new world in itself, just like the songs of a Neutral Milk Hotel, for example. “You listen to the interpretation of a sketch. Often my songs are created like this: I hear a melody and I keep repeating it like a loop. Later I try to fill in missing places with lyrics.” As far as that careful work process is concerned, the last song on the record is a bit odd: it's a live recording. “I thought that was a cool way to round off the record.
Twenty-six years old is Giannascoli now. And you keep hearing him say it. When I was younger this, when I was younger that. “I do feel old now, haha. You know, I always think I can't grow as a person anymore. And yet you always grow. Bob Dylan wrote a song about that, 'My Back Pages'. He sings: “I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now”. I have the reverse. I always feel like I'm at my peak. But in five years I may have surprised myself again by my own naivety.”
House Of Sugar will be released September 13. (Sandy) Alex G will play March 5 in Paradiso Amsterdam and March 6 in Vera Groningen.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.