Not Hollow: In Philadelphia with Alex G

Post Author: Quinn Moreland
Alex G In Philadelphia

“I have kind of a funny walk.”

This is how Alex Giannascoli describes himself via text as we struggle to locate one another outside of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. I’m confident that I’ll be able to locate him because of his signature shoulder-length black hair. After much confusion and several phone calls—apparently there are two blue bridges in the area and I, unfortunately, am standing under the wrong one—we spot each other from afar. Sure enough, both the hair and the odd gait are in full effect.

Though this is the first time I have met Giannascoli personally, I have seen him perform several times as his musical pseudonym Alex G. As always, it is initially uncomfortable to meet someone whose life you have researched in preparation for that very moment. In a way, it feels like meeting the Internet crush you’ve stalked for months in real life. When Alex G performed at my college several months ago, the hype the week before the show was intense. Almost everyone I spoke to had been pre-gaming by listening exclusively to his music. When the band finally went on stage, the audience was entranced, passionately singing along and attempting to mosh. Three months later, Alex G performed at the Shea Stadium-hosted fourth Orchid Tapes showcase to a crowd of die hard fans. Although this time there is no moshing, the audience sings along with an obsessive fervor. The vibes were overwhelmingly positive. Surrounded by a sopping wet group of close friends and fans, Giannascoli performed a collection of old and new songs to a very warm reception. Giannascoli was quiet onstage, leaving most of the banter to drummer Dexter Loos. All eyes were on Giannascoli, though, and the audience clung to his every word.

Giannascoli’s early experience making and sharing music was, as it was for many, through Myspace. “In middle school, I made a Myspace where I put up a bunch of techno stuff, but then it got deleted,” he remembers. “It was called Rubberthump. My sister came up with it. It sounded like Aphex Twin in preschool, it was just dumb techno shit, but I was trying to be good.”

Fast forward several years. Giannascoli is performing in a band called The Skin Cells. They never officially broke up, but, as Giannascoli says, “all the people who ask for The Skin Cells now ask for Alex G stuff.” The Skin Cells were the closest Giannascoli has come to being in a traditional band. One of the most notable aspects of his recording process as Alex G is that he records all the instruments alone but typically performs live with a full band. This is his preferred method, and it works incredibly well.

The decision to incorporate a live band into his set came about unintentionally. “There was one time when someone asked me to play a show at Kutztown, a college in Pennsylvania somewhere,” he says. “I was going to go up with a friend’s band and he said he would back me up, and that kind of sparked the idea that ‘Oh, I don’t have to play this acoustic all the time.’ One of the members of Skin Cells was gone and we were asked to play a Skin Cells show, so I was like, ‘Why don’t we do my shit’, and my other friend Sam, who played drums in Skin Cells, played drums for me, and then I got my girlfriend’s roommate, John, to play bass. Since then, the lineup has switched a little.” The current Alex G live lineup consists of Sam Acchione, Loos, and John Heywood.

Giannascoli has released music on Bandcamp as Alex G since 2011, quietly building an intensely devoted fan base. Throughout his eleven Bandcamp releases, he portrays a wide cast of characters, manipulating his voice to best encapsulate mysterious, individual narratives. But it was 2012’s Trick that brought him into the indie spotlight (although being in the “indie spotlight” is a distinction Giannascoli would probably laugh at). The album is a perfect introduction for Alex G newbies, displaying his weirdo guitar pop skills as well as a twisted sense of humor. On “Kute” he sings, “I think you’re kute / I’ll keep you in the cellar / Show you to the children / Kill me after dinner / You’re alright / You look like someone I could bury / In the garden.” When I ask Giannascoli if there is anything he’s truly afraid to write about, he responds, “I think most of the stuff I write about is the stuff I’m afraid to speak about. It’s a way to vent. Some of the stuff that really bothers me I can warp into something that is unrecognizable and means something to me.”

All of this leads to the now, the DSU days. DSU is Giannascoli’s first full-length vinyl, out today on the beautiful Orchid Tapes. The album has been met with a ridiculous amount of excitement, currently on its third pressing after selling out of the first press in less than 24 hours. DSU retains the themes that have permeated past Alex G records: death, change, mistakes, regret, and love. However, as Giannascoli explains to me later, it is pointless to try to create concrete meanings from his lyrics. Either way, it’s an overwhelmingly strong album with several stand out moments: the catchy ease of “Harvey” and “Black Hair”, the inhuman falsetto on “Rejoice”, the final heartbreaking moments of “Hollow”. As always, the album feels deeply personal, a sense that is once again heightened by an isolated recording process. This intimacy is not necessarily inviting, though. At times, it’s even abrasive. It was my own difficulty to grasp an individual identity behind Alex G that pushed me to pursue an interview with Giannascoli.

After finally convening in Philadelphia, we power walk back to Giannascoli’s illegally parked car and drive toward an uncertain destination. We begin the small talk, the regular, “What are you studying, wow, Philadelphia looks really cool, etc.” I learn that, like myself, Giannascoli is 21 and that he studies English at Temple University, although he is taking an indefinite break to tour. I also learn that he was once slapped in a Chinese restaurant. “Shit” litters his sentences; he uses the word as both as an exclamation and as a space filler. We drive aimlessly through a neighborhood that he claims is much nicer than his own. We pass carefully manicured lawns, brownstones, and a pottery shop called The Expressive Hand. Giannascoli suddenly realizes that we are in Loos’ neighborhood before calling up his faithful drummer to see if there’s anything cool to do in the area, since our only option seems to be a farmers market.

We meet Loos, Evan Stephens Hall and Sam Skinner of Pinegrove in a Rite-Aid parking lot. The three boys are briefly in Philadelphia while on a national tour for their bands Tawny Peaks and Pinegrove, respectively. After briefly catching up on each other’s lives, we walk to Loos’ house, which he shares with six or seven other roommates. In a previous life, the house was an old store and is the perfect size for hosting its occupants and any other number of passers-through. This time, the temporary visitors are beer cans and several sleeping boys, one of which is Pinegrove’s Nick Levine, my friend from school. Standing in a cluttered kitchen lined with faux copper tiles, Loos tells us about a recent visit from his landlord, a character who refers to women as broads and believes the boys and their broads are attempting to sabotage his property by stuffing tampons up the pipes. We laugh at the idea, though I feel slightly offended by the term broad.

Sleepy boys begin to pour in, greeting Alex and updating each other on their plans for the day. One roommate, Colin Pezzano, has brought the house eggs from the farm where he works. Pezzano informs us that the shelf life of fresh eggs is dramatically reduced if refrigerated or washed. Giannascoli and I study the carton of eggs, covered in poop specks and irregular in size and color. I jokingly tell him that my article will attempt to compare him to an egg. Giannascoli one-ups me: “Alex G is like an egg, covered in shit and able to stay fresh for a few months.”

Alex G

Everyone in the rooms seems to be speaking at unnaturally high volumes except for Giannascoli, who occasionally pipes in from a corner. He sits on a bench at the kitchen table while everyone else stands. The only other seating option is a wheelchair that several bodies inhabit during our brief time at Loos’ home.

The roommates and friends split up for the afternoon, and after Giannascoli, Pezzano, and go record shopping (Pezzano comes away with the new Sun Kil Moon album) and grab some pizza on South Street, we visit Giannascoli’s favorite art gallery on the block, a multi-storied maze filled with colorful Latin American art. We move as a small pack, never straying too far from each other. This close proximity allows us to make quiet observations about notable pieces, of which there are many. The boys favor gigantic, bright animal masks while I am entranced by a collection of miniature skeletons enacting mundane activities. “I’ve always wanted one of these,” Giannascoli says as he plucks a tiny coconut thumb piano. We collectively marvel over intricate details and careful craftsmanship, as well as a vaguely tropical Destiny’s Child cover. Pezzano, himself a sculptor, takes many notes and photographs. Giannascoli observes that every time he comes here, the space appears completely different. We eventually leave the gallery empty-handed, still marveling at the beauty of ART.

We stop in a thrift shop our way to Prof. Ouch’s Bizarre Bazaar & Odditorium. Giannascoli is looking for a simple polo, but leaves with a red t-shirt, a blue polo, and a black hoodie (for those Alex G fashion devotees out there, if any). As if afraid of losing me in the hectic store, Giannascoli watches over me like a parent. Several times I wander away on my own, but before I know it, Giannascoli has found me. This behavior is not at all overbearing. Throughout my afternoon with Giannascoli, he displays a complete responsibility for my well-being. Perhaps this is just a respectful subject-journalist interaction, but Giannascoli is intensely attentive, a trait that does not surprise me considering the precision of his music.

Following the Odditorium visit, the three of us post up in a neighborhood park. Pezzano and Giannascoli catch up on each other’s lives; Pezzano is going to be filmed for a TV interview soon and will be letting a journalist see him at work. He quickly points out that this is exactly what Giannascoli and I are doing at that moment, reminding us all that this is technically an assignment. As if remembering that I am there and conducting what is hardly an interview and more like a normal day, the conversation switches to Alex G-related business. Next to us, a picnicking couple feeds each other. Pezzano recounts a particularly memorable Skin Cells show at a Hard Rock Hotel in which the unsuspecting audience of adults and families covered their ears and complained while the band played. The time on the bench is extremely positive, with both boys offering each other praise and support. I am immediately reminded of the very quotable Alex G lyric: “Success for my buddies / Success for my friends.” So although Giannascoli never takes to Twitter to praise his pals, he is not short of words and genuinely cares about the people he chooses to surround himself with.

Giannascoli and Pezzano handle their pizza slices.

The day is coming to an end, at least for me. Pezzano is going to record with his band, Cold Foamers, and invites us to tag along. On our drive to North Philly (soundtracked by RJD2), Giannascoli and I discuss a wide range of topics including flip flops, psychedelics, beer gardens, graffiti, and his recent acceptance of Pearl Jam but consistent hatred of Dave Matthews. We somehow arrive earlier than Pezzano, so we buy an Arizona Iced Tea and Pear Nectar (thanks Alex) and have a brief formal interview.

My time with Giannascoli rarely felt like an “interview,” though. Asking him formal questions about his music felt uncomfortable for both of us, and felt almost like a chore. Once the essential questions were asked, our conversation quickly evolved from these attempted formalities to an abstract discussion of dreams. We discussed the origins of the album art for Trick and DSU, which were created by Giannascoli’s sister, Rachel. In terms of Trick, Giannascoli explains, “It was my grandma’s funeral. Everyone was leaving the church and all of a sudden a big fucking stray dog ran up and down the aisles and my sister took the picture as it was running out of the church.” We agree this event sounds like an omen, which brings me to the larger feeling hanging over the day.

Earlier as I rushed to meet my 8:40 a.m. MegaBus to Philadelphia, I witnessed a horrible accident at the intersection of Tenth Avenue and 34th street. 100 feet from where I was standing, a red Dodge Durango plowed onto the sidewalk and into a crowd of people. Immediately: screaming, blood, the uncontrollable urge to vomit, a million “what if” scenarios. Later, while reflecting on the bus, Joan Didion’s words in The Year of Magical Thinking came to me: “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” Yet life continued. DSU opens with the simple lyrics, “After you’re gone / How can we tell them / You’re gone / How can we show them / You’re gone.” It seems only natural that my conversation with Giannascoli would return to this horrifying event. Like Giannascoli’s cryptic lyrics, the events of life are at times inexplicable, and all we can do is accept them and continue on. Following the accident, I put my headphones on and listened to Alex G, not because of my assignment, but because it just made sense.

Finally, we enter the Cold Foamers headquarters and begin watching a muted episode of Battlestar Galactica. Like earlier at Loos’ house, Giannascoli is comfortable letting others carry the dialogue while he attentively listens. As he plays with a Super Mario mushroom candy container, the Cold Foamers boys attempt to convince Giannascoli to listen to Mount Eerie. One friend’s reasoning is “Alex likes dark things,” before adding, “Alex has a dark past, he has the brains to show it.” Giannascoli seems to approve of Mount Eerie, though he never promises to check out the music on his own. I secretly laugh to myself at the knowledge that Giannascoli has never listened to The Microphones or Mount Eerie, two Phil Elverum projects to which he is constantly compared.

Giannascoli has developed his sound on his own, shying away from what is popular or hip and sticking to his own ideas. He seems to be someone who has a lot to learn about the world around him, as we all do, and his modesty and willingness to learn have created an air of genuineness around him. This unflinching acceptance of life is extremely heartfelt, and I leave Philadelphia with the confidence that one of my favorite musicians truly is real.