Q&A: (Sandy) Alex G On “Idiotsplaining” Rocket, Working With Frank Ocean, & The Business Of Being Himself
“Yo, you ever put pepper on shit?” Alex Giannascoli asks me as he picks up a pepper shaker and begins seasoning the heaping plate of home fries a waiter just placed in front of him. “I like, just started putting pepper on my food. I never touched it before,” he continues. “My sister dumps it on everything. So, one day I tried it for myself and I was just like, ‘FUCK. This is awesome.’”
Alex Giannascoli is trying to fill an awkward silence. We’re sitting across from one another in the corner booth of an unassuming restaurant in Greenpoint, not far from the studio where he mixed his forthcoming album, Rocket, alongside Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Jake Portrait. Giannascoli and I have already spanned a series of subjects — his family, his collaborators, the Sbarro’s he ate on the way here, a book he just finished (The Tin Drum by Günter Grass) — and now we’re on to common seasonings. Giannascoli pauses a lot between words, filling gaps in his sentences with expletives and ums, but when we start talking about pepper, he’s suddenly enthusiastic. Giannascoli has a lot to say, he just doesn’t always say it exactly when prompted, and he doesn’t love explaining the meaning behind the music he makes as (Sandy) Alex G. (Giannascoli used to go by Alex G, but he recently changed his moniker.) Giannascoli doesn’t mind talking about his creative process, though, and once he gets going he’s candid and goofy and unpretentious.
Rocket is Giannascoli’s eighth full-length release, his third on an actual label. For years, Giannascoli wrote, recorded, and mixed all of his music on his own before uploading it to Bandcamp. He gained a following online despite having very little social media presence, and eventually his breakout album, DSU, was released on the bedroom label Orchid Tapes to critical acclaim. (It was later reissued by Run For Cover.) Rocket is Giannascoli’s second LP on Domino, and it’s the first music we’re hearing from him since the release of Beach Music in 2015. It’s also the first music we’re hearing from him since he revealed his involvement with Frank Ocean’s Endless and Blonde. His Wikipedia page lists only two associated acts: his high school band, the Skin Cells, and Frank fucking Ocean.
Giannascoli turned 24 a couple of months ago and he’s not slowing down. The backpack on the floor next to him contains a laptop and a microphone — the most basic tools he needs to record an album — and he’s already working on new material. For Rocket, he brought that backpack from place to place, recording himself and friends wherever it was convenient. It makes sense that Giannascoli hesitates to explain the meaning behind what he makes, because some of these songs defy explanation; they’re a patchwork of ideas that truly exhibit the breadth of Giannascoli’s ambition.
There are tracks on Rocket that sound like repurposed American folk music from a bygone era, there are also songs that sound a lot like other (Sandy) Alex G songs. And then there are the outliers — like “Sportstar,” an autotuned love song that vaguely recalls Panda Bear, or “Brick,” a near-hardcore temper tantrum that could’ve been included on Show Me The Body’s recent mixtape — that showcase how broad Giannascoli’s vision really is. He wouldn’t necessarily agree with those references, or even get them. Giannascoli doesn’t listen to a ton of music — the stuff he’s most drawn to is whatever’s stuck in his head on any given day.
Finished with his potatoes, Giannascoli starts humming a wordless melody to me in an attempt to break down the process he goes through while writing lyrics. “That’s the rhythm of the melody, so from there I know I want [to sing] one syllable, two syllable, two syllable, one syllable,” he says slowly and deliberately. “The phonetics kind of limit the words. It’s like a puzzle, but I can’t pretend I’m calculating this thing out. It just shits out of my fucking face.” He laughs and pantomimes his face exploding in my general direction.
That’s what makes every new (Sandy) Alex G release so exciting: They present a collection of ideas run rampant. They tell weird, bottomless stories about made up characters, and in doing so, they tap into real emotions that we all carry within ourselves. One of the most telling lyrics on Rocket surfaces in a track called “County.” After Giannascoli tells a tragic story that might be true to life or might not be, he sings: “Hey why don’t you write that/ Into a song/ Your fans will dig that.”
Rocket is sad and funny and uplifting all at once, and it’s kind of a perfect embodiment of the person who made it — at least, from what I could gather over the course of an hour-and-a-half conversation on a rainy afternoon. Giannascoli and I talked about how hard it is to sell yourself as an artist, what it was like to work with Frank Ocean, and why it’s so pointless to search for a song’s meaning. Read our Q&A below.
STEREOGUM: Does your family read your interviews? It must be really weird to be the parent of a musician and have to read about your kid on the internet.
ALEX GIANNASCOLI: I can’t even imagine. ‘Cause everyone’s trying to be cool all the time [in interviews] and you knew your kid when he was a little shithead. My family members all read this stuff — and that’s cool, I’m psyched about that — but I feel like it’s probably so funny for them, having known me when I was a little weirdo.
Interviews are just something that I’m not great at… but I figure I should just blast my stupidass shit till no one wants to read about it anymore. I want this to last. I want this “business” to last.
STEREOGUM: Damn, that’s scary to start thinking about what you do as a business.
GIANNASCOLI: Well, it’s not scary, it’s just the reality of it. Even like, making T-shirts was a thing I had to get used to. Like: Fuck. That. Putting my name on a T-shirt? And selling it? And then, like, making hats? It’s so… wack. But you can’t beat around the bush with all that shit and be like, “Oh well, the [merch] enhances the art,” or something. It’s just straight up like: [Giannascoli puts on a gremlin voice] “Here’s more stuff so you can pay us more.” [Laughs] Which is fine, that’s the way everything works, I guess, so it’s fine.
STEREOGUM: There must be some inherent level of pressure once music becomes your full-time job and you’re recording stuff for an actual label and not just uploading something to Bandcamp.
GIANNASCOLI: Yeah, that’s true. It’s a good pressure, though. It forces you to answer to people who are going to be critical of your work, you know? Whereas if I just continued to do stuff on my own I’d just be catering to the people who would say [my music] is good no matter what. So it’s cool to feel that pressure.
STEREOGUM: I know you usually record on your own, but there are a lot of new sounds on Rocket. Did you have anyone else play on it?
GIANNASCOLI: Yeah, my bandmates Sam Acchione and John Wesley Heywood are on it. And my girlfriend, Molly Germer, she played violin on it. She’s good as hell at the violin. A year ago I hit her up because we went to the same high school and I knew she was a good violin player. I sent her some stuff and was like, “Hey can you write parts for this? I can pay you.” And that’s kind of how we started seeing each other.
STEREOGUM: During the recording process?
GIANNASCOLI: After, I guess. Like, we finished everything and then she was like, “Wanna get dinner?” or something and I was like, “Cool.”
Molly wrote parts for this song called “Bobby” first and I was like, “Woah… this is awesome! What about this song?” And she sent something back that was also great. And so I just kept sending her stuff to write parts for… Sorry I’m answering you so slowly, I just don’t want to blow up her spot. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: That’s really cool, though. You take a chance and let go of some of that creative control, give it over to someone else and the result is awesome.
GIANNASCOLI: She’s a master.
STEREOGUM: I feel like so many times when I interview people and they struggle to come up with an answer, I want to tell them, “You actually don’t have to answer this right now if you don’t know what you want to say.”
GIANNASCOLI: That’s like my whole life, dude. Someone will ask like, “What’s up with this lyric?” or some shit I don’t know how to answer and for some reason every ounce of me just goes ahead and answers the question. Like, I can’t restrain myself from answering the question even though I have no fucking idea what I’m talking about. It’s like “mansplaining” but instead I’m like… “idiotsplaining.”
I should get used to just saying, “I don’t know.” That’s what wisdom is. Isn’t there a quote that’s like: “You’re wise if you admit you don’t know shit”? [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: I think that’s true but I don’t know the quote. For me, it’s sometimes better to not know what a song is about. It can take a little bit of the magic out of it.
GIANNASCOLI: One-hundred percent, dude. That’s the biggest problem for me. Without fail, every time I’ve loved a song and looked it up to figure out what it’s about, I won’t care about it anymore. It’s this personal magic, and nobody realizes the reality of a song’s meaning or whatever is not gonna compare with that untouched story in your head. The reason you enjoy [music] is because of its unlimited potential, the inability to really understand it.
I like to give just enough information so someone can relate to a song. It’s a sweet spot. You want to seduce the max [number of] brains.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel pretty confident when you’re done recording something? Once you’re finished, do you think it’s good?
GIANNASCOLI: When I’m done with something I know it’s done, but whether or not I think it’s good changes 100% day-to-day. I feel like I hated this album… I feel that way with every album, though, it’s not like this one’s special. It’s just the feeling that kind of comes from listening to something over and over. I’ll wake up and have the worst pit in my stomach like, “I can’t believe I’m about to put this out. I’m gonna… ruin my life.” [Laughs] And then the next day I’ll listen to the album again and I’ll be like, “I’m SO amazing. I’m SUCH a genius. I’m so fuckin’ smart and awesome.” And then, the next day, I’ll be like, “I want to disappear,” again. [Giannascoli pantomimes crawling under the table] So, I just don’t trust myself.
STEREOGUM: Do you read your criticism?
GIANNASCOLI: I do. I’m getting better at not taking it seriously. But even still I remember like, the first things that came out about me, even if they were positive, if the littlest shit was off it would bother me. Like, comparing me to ’90s indie rock. “Throwback Elliott Smith rock shit!” I should embrace it, because people are appreciating my music. But it would still drive me nuts. Now, the more it happens, the more I’m like, “It’s cool, it’s cool. Whatever.”
STEREOGUM: Yeah, well I guess it goes with what you were saying. You put something out into the world and people interpret it the way they interpret it. It does seem impossible to read a thing about Alex G without a mention of Elliott Smith.
GIANNASCOLI: EVERYBODY does it. But I get it, because when I was first starting out I was teaching myself how to [record] shit and I listened to Elliott Smith ‘cause I knew he was home recording everything, too. So I would just do what he was doing. Play, double track everything, double track your voice, and I would sing like him too ‘cause I figured that’s how you make it sound good. I mean, it goes without saying that I liked his music a lot, too. So I totally get why I’m compared to him because I just ripped off his shit! [Laughs] That’s his method.
STEREOGUM: What was recording with Frank Ocean like? It must’ve been a crazy experience.
GIANNASCOLI: Yeah, it was. It was pretty simple, though. He was in LA most of the time. I recorded “White Ferrari” when we were on tour in the UK ‘cause he was over there recording. So I just went over to his place before a show and then… You know there’s not much that I can say that’s interesting about it. He’d just be like, “Hey here’s the stuff.” And he had an engineer, Caleb, and then they’d give me a guitar and I’d just figure shit out on the spot. They would just play me a vocal track or whatever and I’d just fuck around for hours and then they’d pick and choose if they liked it or not.
STEREOGUM: Did you know that Kanye co-wrote “White Ferrari” when you were working on it?
GIANNASCOLI: I didn’t know anything about it.
STEREOGUM: How did Frank discover your music? How did he know to ask you?
GIANNASCOLI: [Laughs] I don’t know… dude, I WISH I knew. I feel like people always ask me that and I feel like a dumbass ‘cause I’m just like, “I have no idea.” He’s just a super normal-ass nice guy… I’m grateful he asked me.
STEREOGUM: There’s such a mythology surrounding him. It’s cool to hear that at the end of the day, he’s just a dude.
GIANNASCOLI: I bet it takes a lot of strength to… I don’t know, to get like that famous and still be… actually, I really don’t know. I’m not even gonna comment on that. But it must be crazy to have so many people be ABOUT YOU like that.
STEREOGUM: Do you ever deal with that? The pressure of playing a show and having a shitload of people in the audience that are all about you? It’s cool but it’s also like kind of intense, I imagine.
GIANNASCOLI: I don’t really think about it and I don’t even think about not thinking about it. When [I perform] I just sort of… I just GO. I’m trying to still live like that, to just do my thing.
Rocket is out 5/19 via Domino.