Alexander Giannascoli has a strange definition of lazy. The 26-year-old, in his own words, can be “kind of a bum,” whiling away his free days getting lost in books, playing games of pool and binging TV shows (he recently blazed through The Sopranos– “Amazing characters, man” – in no time at all). “I just sorta… sit around,” he says with a laugh, speaking over FaceTime from the Philadelphia apartment he shares with his girlfriend Molly, a classically trained violinist.
It’s a self-assessment that might surprise fans: most who’d label themselves deadbeats, after all, don’t release seven albums in as many years, amassing a devoted legion of followers in the process. Since his 2010 debut, Race, Giannascoli has carved out something of a DIY empire for himself, winning comparisons to the likes of Elliott Smith and Sparklehorse. His intimate, obtuse storytelling on albums like 2014’s breakout DSU even put him on the radar of Frank Ocean, who enlisted him to play guitar on two of his albums (Endless and Blonde, both 2016). “Maybe it’s more that I go from periods of extreme laziness to periods of extreme busyness,” he says, “and in that combination, there’s some kinda… equilibrium.”
House of Sugar, his latest album of intimate indie-rock under the title of (Sandy) Alex G, lurches between similar extremes. One moment, it’s Leonard Cohen-inspired calm (‘Crime’), all shimmery guitars and shuffling drums. The next, on tracks like ‘Bad Man’ it’s a fury of garbled electronics and glitching drums. But it’s also an album underpinned by tragedy. “He was a good friend of mine, he died… Fentanyl took a few lives from our life,” the Philadelphian sings on ‘Hope’, a sombre reference to a former flatmate who passed away after an opioid overdose, a loss he’s uncomfortable talking about in interviews.
Giannascoli is as endearing and breezy to speak with as his songs are to listen to, frequently veering off topic to supply movie recommendations (Alex Garland’s Netflix sci-fi Annihilation he describes as “totally fucking incredible”, before going on to explain how it inspired two songs on House of Sugar). The day we talk, he’s gearing up for his next period of extreme busyness: soon, he’ll be back on the road, thanks to a 40-date tour that includes shows in the UK in February. His days of being able to sit around watching mob dramas are numbered. But that’s okay. The songwriter known as (Sandy) Alex G is used to pinballing between extremes of quiet and chaos. It’s been this way for a while now.
When you started as an artist, self-producing and recording music in your room, it was out of necessity – you were in high school, and couldn’t afford studio time. Six albums later, despite signing to Domino and presumably having the resources to do things differently, you still record at home. What is it you love about it?
I guess it just represents freedom to me. Me, my laptop and my microphone: we can go anywhere and record. I could go to a friend’s house, record his drums, then go somewhere else to record a piano. The benefit of that is I can sit and work with those tracks for however long I want without worrying about some engineer looking over my shoulder, or worrying about a time limit cos I’m paying $30 an hour at a studio. What I’m getting from not using a studio is freedom, control and time.
Is it a case of, because you’re not on the clock, you can experiment with an idea that might go nowhere and end up being a total waste of time?
Exactly, 100 per cent. That’s honestly how I make every song. It’s just flailing in the dark until I’m like, ‘Okay, this sounds like music!’
You’re continually referenced as a ‘bedroom artist’ because of that DIY approach. What’s your relationship with that term?
Oh man, it’s really dumb. I don’t have anything against being known for recording myself or whatever, but ‘bedroom artist’ just sounds so stupid and limiting.
Like you’re not being evaluated on merit, but on handicap?
Yeah! It’s like, ‘This is good – for being recorded in a bedroom!’ It’s funny. I shouldn’t get all picky about it cos I’m grateful for where I’m at. Where that label has got me is pretty hard to believe – I have a career. But if I’m being honest, it’s such a dumb name. It evokes this image of this little teenager in his room or something, and I don’t relate to that.
How did you land on House of Sugar as a title for this album?
I don’t wanna sell myself short – like I didn’t think about it – but I don’t know that it has a concrete, fixed meaning. The main reason I like it is cos it sounds good and works nicely with the [figure] skater [in the artwork]. There’s something about it I can’t put into words.
There’s a casino in Philadelphia called SugarHouse Casino. I didn’t think about that, but I’m sure that was rattling around in my subconscious. There’s also a short story by Silvina Ocampo, this author who wrote really cool short stories: one of [them] was called The House Made of Sugar. I’m sure that was a contributing factor too, but honestly? I didn’t think about it too hard.
I guess if you write songs on instinct, then it makes sense to pick your album titles that way too – standing back and letting your subconscious offer ideas and imagery.
Exactly! Usually my subconscious is a lot more insightful than my conscious brain. Whenever I write, I’m just trying to get at some core things that I feel, letting my subconscious do the work. I’m not trying to connect the dots, I’m just trying to present the dots. I’m just trying to get at what I’m feeling in some way and use language to express some kind of truth about what those feelings are, what my existential bullshit is.
When you say you’re trying to drill down into your feelings and articulate them, is that for purposes of catharsis? Do you feel better after you’ve written a song that performs that task?
It’s not really catharsis I feel afterwards. It’s more that this is my craft, this is the dance that I do. It’s not catharsis.
I know that you dealt with some difficult personal issues in the making of this record. I was hoping to hear that writing it was an aid in processing the loss you detail on the song ‘Hope’. Was that not the case?
I feel like everyone else in [the sense] that shit happens to everybody. I deal with it the same way everyone else deals with it. Music doesn’t help me deal with it. When I was younger, I used to think that was the case. I’d unconsciously lie to myself, like, ‘I’m writing about this thing that bothers me to get it out there.’ An unburdening. In reality, it’s not cathartic. Thinking it is, that’s just grasping for some type of power.
After you worked on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, many fans wondered whether you’d become another in-demand indie collaborator to big name stars – like what happened with Bon Iver. Did you get offers that you turned down, because your focus is your solo work?
I got some random offers. There was one instance where someone saw my name associated with this famous record and wrote to me inviting me to rap on one of their songs. I thought it was funny cos that’s obviously not what I do and they clearly didn’t pay attention to what I did on the record – they must have been just like, ‘Oh, this dude’s doing famous shit, maybe he should do some shit on our record.’ I should have done it. As soon as they heard my voice they would have been very, very disappointed!
You grew up in Havertown, Pennsylvania. What was that like?
So Havertown, the town, is pretty nice. It’s a suburb of Philadelphia. There’s a lot of access to shows there, cos we’re so close to the city. Me and my friends could just hop on the train and go see a show. We had a lot of bands. That’s what a lot of people did for fun – start bands and play shows. I grew up with a lot of access to music as an outlet. Me and Sam, who plays guitar in my live band, we’ve been playing together since we were 14. We’d play at parties and stuff, drive up to Temple [University] campus, which is the local college. We’ve been doing this forever.
How much of a connection do you feel to that kid you used to be, playing parties?You know, I think my motivation then and now is exactly the same. I was always trying to make stuff that people would clap me for. I’m still doing the same thing – it’s just the stages grow bigger. It’s the same goal, the mechanism in my brain hasn’t changed. I’m still just like, ‘Okay, what are people gonna like me doing?’ I guess I just like [the sound of applause] or something.
This is your sixth album in a short space of time. What do you think compels you to keep writing and recording? What keeps you in that cycle?
I think maybe an identity crisis. At this point, it’s like, not in a grim way – I just need to do something. I need money too. And this is the best way I know how to make money – touring and writing songs. I happened to be writing shit at the right place, at the right time, and people latched onto it for some reason. So I gave up my other responsibilities and dove into it – and it worked out.
Have you ever tried to take a break?
I’ve never had the desire to take a break. I guess right now I’m taking a break cos the record is finished and I haven’t recorded anything new, but I’m still making voice memos of little ideas for songs.
I want to return to this idea of your letting your subconscious speak as an artistic choice. Working this way, do you often learn things about yourself when you listen back to your records?
Definitely. When I listen back to stuff I made when I was younger, it’s like reading through an old journal or something. I can make connections to what I’m saying and what I’m hearing. Things that at the time I didn’t realise were on my mind, I recognise now were definitely on my mind. It’s kinda crazy. It’s funny how that happens.
What do you think you might learn from House of Sugar when you listen back to it in years to come?
You know, I don’t know. My perception of it is really one-sided right now cos I just wrote it. Down the road, I might be able to see it in this broader context. We should do a follow-up interview in like, 15 years.
What will constitute this album being a success for you? How do you measure success today?
I don’t know if this is a human condition or just my condition, but once I get a taste for something I just want more. I want to play bigger and bigger shows. Success is the carrot you dangle at the end of a stick that’s attached to your back. I wanna make stuff that’s the best, then make stuff that’s even better than that. That’s the cycle. I don’t think I’ll ever feel satisfied – but I’m satisfied never feeling satisfied, you know? I like chasing that feeling.
House of Sugar is out now on Domino.
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