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My first meaningful interaction with Punk Culture happened circa 2008 during a college choir trip to London. My friend/R.A. Wes told me after we landed that we had to hit up Camden Town because it was, like, the birthplace of punk, man. I pretended to know what he was talking about in the same way I pretended to know a lot about the Sex Pistols back then, because I wanted to seem in touch and cool despite the fact that I had no idea what he was talking about. I grew up on emo rock and early 2000’s rap a la Eminem, 50 Cent, and late teenage years Lil Wayne, and I didn’t totally “get” punk. I had heard MXPX a few times in my friends’ cars but it didn’t sound like something worth losing my mind over and my only other hope of exposure to it, the Fringe Kids in my childhood church, got sucked into Punk’s kinda weird Rockabilly-ish little brother Ska instead, which also wasn’t for me. I guess I just couldn’t get my head around going out in public in a black and white checkered vest and arm dancing to Big Band Rock. I was also a pretty depressive kid, though, so being that expressively happy and excited for that long sounded exhausting.
Anyway, Camden Town is, from my limited exposure and research, really fucking different now than it was back in 1976 when all of the hoopla started popping off there. Gone are the days of all night raves attended by the likes of then-future-famous icons like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Damned, Chrissie Hynde, etc. As far as I can tell, a combination of time and crustaceanal tourism has picked the place clean of any meaningful flesh and left behind a gaping and skeletal monument to another Once Was while giving us another regrettable example of something meaningful being commercialized to literal death. I met a few people there I’ll never forget, though, mainly because they came across as the last embers of a once necessary fire. One of them, a record store owner who seemed to have collected the last of his teeth and shoved them to the front of his mouth to keep up appearances, talked to me distractedly for awhile about what it was like Back Then to be here. Wes and I were the only ones in the store, and I think the guy was sort of revisiting it in his mind at the same time as he was describing it to us and giving both things an equal amount of attention. He had some great stories though and, after buying a CD by a Japanese electronic producer that he described kind of hollowly as being “totally fucking rad, man”, we bailed and headed back to the city, talking the whole way on the train about how sad the whole place was. That’s what you do when you’re young and still convinced that you’re going to grow up and be different so you don’t end up like that. Thinking back on it now, though, I think that guy and the rest of the folks we saw were something else entirely. They were a testament to the unsexy erosion that comes from giving yourself to something fully and riding its wave to the inevitable conclusion. They were a sobering proof that the real danger people my age may face isn’t so much making a bad choice about how to spend our lives as it’s that we might never make one in the first place.
I say all that to say that I heard someone describe Beach Slang as a punk band awhile back and, when I finally got the greenlight to interview their front man James Alex last week about their new record, I started thinking about what that could possibly mean. I still don’t know much about punk, past or present, and so I decided to use the interview as an opportunity to give him the floor on the subject. Were they a punk band, and was being a punk band still even a thing, and does punk music even matter anymore? Is there anything new about it, or is it just a referential ode to something that used to be true/important? Kind of run of the mill stuff, I guess, but I really wanted to know.
When James took my call, he was on the road between Oklahoma City and Austin en route to the last show of their tour. The band is in limbo at the moment because their guitarist has just been kicked out of the group over allegations of sexual assault. James seemed calm about everything, though, and pretty upbeat. “We’ll figure it out. We’re one hundred percent against anything even remotely like that, just totally unacceptable, and so we did what we needed to do right away and we’ll find our way through it.” We moved on because I know he’s already talked about that topic quite a bit over the last couple of months, and instead we got pretty quickly into how Beach Slang happened in the first place. As a band, they’re very much dialed into what typically are seen as young people emotions and, since James is in his early 40’s, I found the dichotomy pretty interesting. Older guy getting Young People Rock right seemed like the set up either for another Tryhard who couldn’t let it go or someone who had tapped into something important, and I was excited to find out which one it was.
“Punk is more my ethical guide, I guess you could say, but I wouldn’t say we’re a punk rock band. Truthfully I don’t even know what a punk rock band would sound like these days. Punk defines who I am, though. It’s how I walk out into my life every day.” I’d just asked him whether people who call Beach Slang a punk band (me, I guess?) are right to do so and he very generously changed the direction of it a bit. “There was an honesty and urgency to punk and the people who played it and that’s what I connected with most when I was young. It ended up guiding me creatively for sure, but I’m not a punk musician per se.” Given the little context I have for punk, and my experience in Camden Town, I pushed him a little bit on what punk as an ethical guide means. I’m skeptical because I have a hard time understanding what kind of establishment it could still be pushing against. Rock is kind of a decaying mansion at this point, and continuing to deface it just seems cruel. “For me, I think punk means radical honesty and having the will to be optimistic and kind to others no matter what. It’s kind of this persistent generosity both to yourself and the world around you. A will be to be good to others while being true to yourself at the same time.” Woah, what? “Yeah, I think people have a really hard time being honest and open about how they feel, and it ends up kind of hindering them and their development because they’re not expressing this stuff, so my mission is to make music that helps people be more comfortable with themselves and the people around them. Punk, to me, means being a good human being and caring the most about the things that really matter.”
I guess I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. From what I could tell, he was describing a kind of rock and roll that the Dalai Lama can get down to and I wasn’t sure what to say, so I did what I always do in situations like that, which is retreat into literary references to try and find some air. “That reminds me of this thing from David Foster Wallace about how irony has gutted modern art stuff of any meaning, and how he thinks that because of that the next great literary revolution will be this radical sincerity where people say exactly what they mean or feel in simple terms and it’ll be a necessary shift but they’ll be seen in the short term as naive and kind of hambone-ish because of it.” Everyone in the entire world was giving me side eye for making a DFW reference and he wasn’t really following. “Huh, yeah, I guess. I think it’s more like Bukowski, or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, both of which I read a lot especially when I’m out on tour. I love them both because they push this emotional sincerity that I really admire and want to emulate. They just like or don’t like things really forcefully. Because, dude, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with unabashedly loving something and being yourself. There’s just no need to wrap yourself in irony, or trying to be cool. Pretentiousness is just a mess.”
We wrapped up the interview by talking about what it was like coming up in the Philly rock scene and about some music he’s really into right now, and he ended the call by saying thanks and that it felt more like he was talking to his best friend than that he was giving an interview. I said something doofy like “thanks man that really means a lot”, which was/is true but always comes across as kind of desperate I think. But he was right. It did sort of feel like that. I hung up, packed up my mic, and headed back into the office to finish the rest of my day. I was excited about the interview because it seemed really natural and full of some good stuff, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to write about it. It felt like we had covered something important, but I wasn’t totally sure what.
Over the weekend, while I was driving to throw away our Halloween pumpkins and run some other errands, it hit me that maybe what James was getting at, without saying it directly, was that punk isn’t so much dead as it just looks different now. That it kind of went away for awhile and came back to fight the same nostalgia-inducing old battle against a different looking enemy. The thing is, the whole time I was planning this piece I kept wanting to tie Beach Slang’s albums back to punk in a musical way, and tried to do some weird math to figure out if they really were the grandchildren of the Replacements or something. And as far as I can tell, they just aren’t. That kind of punk music is, stylistically speaking, an artifact from a time that will never be true again, regardless of whether or not modern bands continue to conjure it for their own referential or less admirable ends. No amount of making more of it will make it come back.
What Beach Slang is, though, is a punk band in a different kind of way. They’re a reaction against the latest version of a tired-eyed rock establishment where the What has long since replaced the Why and become an ethos in and of itself. Where bands talk a lot about wild DIY stuff and not wanting to be nailed down as any one thing because they are always, they would love to have us believe, so much more than that. Where so many bands manufacture the kind of complexity, both personally and collectively, that makes them come across in interviews as the sort of people who pray to themselves and their own internal architecture when they wake up every morning.
And that’s the main reason I’ve started loving Beach Slang even more since the interview. Because James is very much ok with just being a frontman who plays loud simple rock music about the stuff he feels while unabashedly loving everything about the process of it. Because Beach Slang is a band that not just gets by, but thrives, on its own reductiveness and has turned it into a refreshing retreat from the day-to-day grind of self-promoting-ly-heady art rock. Because their albums are full of easily identifiable and relatable emotions that many of us feel but don’t usually express without first taking some time to make them come across as more intricate and dense than they really are. Because they’re a band who is so unassumingly comfortable with finding the beauty that comes with just letting something be what it is that it makes me want to be the same way.
“That’s the thing, I guess, Tyler. I’m just a blue collar guy singing about blue collar emotions and writing blue collar rock. It’s pretty simple, and I like that.” And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think he’s right. It really is pretty simple. Punk, at its core, has always been a rallying cry for self-liberation and a push towards The Good Life. It has always been a loud wake up call. And so in that sense, I guess Beach Slang sort of is a punk band, at least in a very philosophical way. And while it may be sad to some that rock music is no longer the main loudspeaker of the current generation, I found it funny, and also pretty poignant, that in 2016 it’s somehow become pretty punk to be called naive. And I had a newfound respect for a 42 year old guy from Philly who is willing to go out there every night and sing lines about wearing his heart on his sleeve without caring what we think.
Tyler is the co-founder of Vinyl Me, Please. He lives in Denver and listens to The National a lot more than you do.
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