Though bloggers routinely call Alex Giannascoli “the Internet’s secret best songwriter,” you need not trawl the dark web to hear about him nowadays. Thanks to a high-profile Frank Ocean collaboration, and an ever-expanding catalogue of music-critic catnip, the 26-year-old - better known as (Sandy) Alex G - is about as under wraps as Donald Trump’s bald spot. And he isn’t sure what to make of it.
“It’s not like I’m like trying to be secret, but I don’t know how I feel about being a public person,” says the Philadelphia indie-rock visionary. “I think that would be hard.”
It appears hard times are ahead - Giannascoli is set to drop House of Sugar, his most painstakingly crafted, earworm-riddled record yet. His third LP under indie label Domino, and ninth(!) overall, it crystallizes a formula - elliptical narratives, ’90s guitar-pop sensibilities, and hazy, hypnotic soundscapes - that’s been earning him cult status since he began uploading music on Bandcamp in 2010. While Giannascoli gained notoriety for working on Ocean’s 2016 releases Endless and Blonde (“My contributions were minimal,” he downplays. “It’s like asking the person who chopped up the onions about the whole omelet”), his new album could make him a household name.
“I’ve always thought of my brand as the music itself, but at a certain point you have to come up with this bite-sized version of yourself to also sell,” he says. “I think it would be detrimental to my music. Like, I spend a lot of time labouring over this album, and I hope it’s this perfect thing. And then me, Alex the person, starts talking, and I’m pretty basic. I don’t want that getting in the way of the music. I’m talking way too fucking much.”
His reticence is understandable – much of his work’s appeal is in its indirectness. House of Sugar, like most (Sandy) Alex G music, is full of ambiguous character sketches - from gamblers to swindlers to victims - that blur the lines between autobiography, fiction, and perspective. In a social media age when artists eagerly overshare how the musical sausage is made, his restraint is refreshing. “I don’t really want the artist telling me what to think about [their music],” he explains. “Then it doesn’t have that quality where you can just get attached to it.”
Giannascoli’s less-is-more approach may well inform the music industry’s future. “Gretel,” the lead single on his new album, features a virulent chorus that never repeats itself - a technique he employs often. “I like making songs in a way that allows you to repeat them over and over,” he says. “I keep hacking away at all the excess until I’m left with the parts I think are the best.” For the streaming era, where artists are paid on a per-play basis and hits are thereby getting shorter (see: “Old Town Road”), it’s a smart move.
“It’s true,” he admits. “That’s my master plan.” The secret’s out.
So will we be seeing you on The Tonight Show anytime soon?
Like, if it would sell more records then I guess fuck it. But it’s just kind of ridiculous, thinking about talking. Like, even right now, I’m just rambling to you. But if it brings more people out to shows and shit, I’ll do whatever, I guess. But I’m just not trying to become like a joke either. I don’t know, man! I don’t think about the future too much. I guess that’s why I have such fucking long-ass rambling answers to this shit.
You really don’t like making elevator pitches for yourself, huh?
It’s kind of how it goes. Like with the album, everyone has like a little story, you know? Like, ‘Oh, this album’s about blah, blah, blah.’ And it’s real concise. I never have that ’cause I just don’t know. Like, the whole thing is intuitive from scratch - from the beginning. I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about right now. Did that make any sense?
Yeah man! I get press releases for new albums all the time.
Yeah, it’s frustrating because I guess I’m trying to make an album that is, like, all encompassing. That’s the goal: to make something that covers everything. And then [the label] asks me, “Give us a little something…” And then I’m like, “Alright, I guess this albums about like…” I don’t know. I forget what’s even in the press release that you guys got. It’s just some shit. It’s not right. I mean, I shouldn’t say that ’cause the guy who wrote it is an extremely talented writer. It’s hard to sum something up that you spent so much time on. That’s all I’m trying to say.
When you say “all encompassing,” what do you mean?
I guess I just want to cover all the bases, like it’s a movie or something. I’m trying to make something that makes you laugh and cry and get tense and relax, you know what I mean? I’m kind of trying to make it like a movie or something.
So, House of Sugar. What’s your favourite sugar-based food?
That’s a hard question. Right now? Maybe… Reese’s cups or something. Those are very good. Yeah, they’re the shit.
Those are the best. And they make the giant ones now.
I don’t know about those but I like the ratio of the normal ones.
Ah, the classic three pack.
Yeah, it’s the perfect, uh… the perfect, uh… ratio. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I like all the candy. I don’t discriminate.
Last time you played Toronto, you exclusively played Incubus on the speakers while your band was setting up. Are you a huge Incubus fan?
[Laughs.] Not really. My friend Sam, he plays guitar with me in the band, and I think he’s a fan. He’s also kind of like a troll. So I think he likes Incubus but he also really loves being a troll. He’s always putting on music thats kind of funny.
Ha! I see.
But Incubus is good! He’ll be pissed if I’m saying that he’s a troll. He’s not a troll, he’s… I don’t know, man. I feel like I’m getting caught up because I’m thinking about him reading it and being like, “What the fuck?” I think he likes Incubus but it’s obviously kind of funny to play Incubus at these shows. So that’s all. I think it’s just a little bit funny. But they do get me pumped up. They’re cool as shit. It’s funny ’cause kids sing along and shit to Incubus. And Incubus is fucking awesome but you don’t get cool points for liking Incubus. I don’t even know. I shouldn’t even talk right now.
Tomorrow you’re gonna wake to headlines about your beef with Incubus.
Shit, I know! Like, I gotta stop just saying anything. I can’t say shit.
There’s some pop star out there also named Alex G. Do you ever run into problems with that?
There has been confusion. People show up to the wrong show and stuff. When we were first touring, sometimes like a little girl would come with her mom and be like, “What the hell is this?” They’re trying to see the other singer named Alex G who is more, uh… I don’t know, she attracts a different type of crowd. It’s all good, though.
You’re my favourite Alex G.
Oh, thank you. Not even yourself? [Laughs.]
It’s all you. I’m trying to be like you.
That’s cool. [Laughs.]