Philly indie-rock star (Sandy) Alex G: ‘I want to make good music that people can listen to 100 times’
Havertown native Alex Giannascoli - a.k.a (Sandy) Alex G - is playing a hometown show in support of his new album 'House of Sugar' at Union Transfer.
Have the 2010s been the decade of Alex G?
In a career-encapsulating sense, yes. On the (Sandy) Alex G page of the online music store Bandcamp — more on his moniker in a moment — the release date for Race, his first full-length album, is listed as Jan. 1, 2010.
That makes for a neat bookend to the 10 years between then and now for the Delaware County-raised songwriter Alex Giannascoli. A decade ago, the multi-instrumentalist was a student at Haverford High School, a teenage wunderkind handing out home-recorded CDs to friends and other interested parties in the halls.
In September, Giannascoli, now 26, released House of Sugar, his third album on the Domino record label, and the second since he added (Sandy) to his brand name in 2017 to avoid being confused with a Colorado singer also known as Alex G.
House of Sugar is also either his eighth or ninth album, total, depending on how many of his self-issued cassettes, CDs, LPs, and digital downloads count as official releases.
The (Sandy) part derives from “Sandy,” the first song he ever posted on Bandcamp. “I couldn’t think of anything else that wouldn’t look corny,” he says. “Like Philadelphia Alex G?”
Giannascoli has built up to the relative big time. The Temple dropout — he bailed on college after three years to devote himself to music — has been widely acclaimed. In 2014, music and lifestyle magazine the Fader called him “the Internet’s secret best songwriter.” Online music magazine Pitchfork bestowed House of Sugar with a deserved rating of 8.6 out of 10.
His audience has steadily grown. The indie-rock star is among a group of local luminaries — including the War On Drugs, Sheer Mag, Hop Along, and Kurt Vile — who collectively argue for Philadelphia’s status as the rock epicenter of the 2010s. He and his band, also billed as (Sandy) Alex G, will wrap up a U.S. tour with a sold-out show at Union Transfer on Nov. 30.
But while his music reaches many more listeners than it did a decade ago, how much has changed in the way Giannascoli makes it?
“Not much,” says the lanky songwriter, sitting in his favorite Spring Garden deli where he eats pretty much every day when not on tour. “I like food,” he adds, after enjoying the day’s pulled pork special. He lives nearby in Fairmount with his girlfriend, violinist Molly Germer, who will sit in on a few songs at Union Transfer.
“The creative process is really the same. I’m just in my house, or wherever, with a laptop.”
A DIY label is attached to Giannascoli’s music. It’s apt. Growing up in Havertown with an older brother who’s an accomplished pianist and older sister who turned him on to her Radiohead and Modest Mouse records, Giannascoli played several instruments.
In his early teens, he became obsessed with Apple’s GarageBand and got positive reinforcement after sending songs to his sister at college. She liked them, and so did her friends. “I was like, ‘Yeah,' ” he says with a broad smile. “I’m a musician.”
Solitary music-making — plugging his instrument or a microphone into his laptop — has been Giannascoli’s method ever since. Occasionally, band members contribute, and “SugarHouse,” on House of Sugar, was recorded live onstage in St. Louis.
But usually, Giannascoli doesn’t deal with recording studios. Instead, he works at home — “or wherever” — playing everything himself on sometimes noisy, sometimes sweet songs that tell hard-to-puzzle-out stories that don’t proceed in a linear fashion.
“I spend a ton of time on the music,” he says. “So I don’t know if it would be feasible to do it in a studio, because it would be so expensive. The way I work is, I’ll be watching TV at 3 in the morning and think, ‘I should add this thing to my song.’ And I’ll just run over to the laptop and do it.”
When he’s finished, Giannascoli takes measures to assure it sounds up to snuff, sending songs off to get mixed by Jacob Portrait and mastered by Heba Kadry, both trusted associates.
House of Sugar’s title borrows from the SugarHouse Casino, where Giannascoli occasionally takes his chances at roulette, and also The House Made of Sugar, a fantastical 1959 short story by Argentinean author Silvina Ocampo.
His homemade production techniques have resulted in Giannascoli’s music being lumped under the label “Bedroom Pop,” a categorization he doesn’t like.
“I understand it, but I’m just trying to make music that’s like normal music,” he says. “Those are the means that I use to make it just because I like to have control over the process. But it has little to do with the product. It’s like calling the Foo Fighters ‘Studio Rock.‘ ... ”
Going back to “Sandy,” which Giannascoli wrote as a high school senior, his music has had a bewitching quality, a fragility that shines through even when it’s fuzzed out or distorted, or when the themes are dark. “My name is Sandy, I’m 14 years old,” he sang. “My insides are changing, and right now I just want to grow up.” The song was covered in 2017 by Clairo, the “Bedroom Pop” star of the moment.
The artist to whom Giannascoli is most frequently compared is singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who died in 2003. Giannascoli acknowledges the influence, but also says he’s ”over it.” (Another common one is the indie-rock band Built to Spill.)
He will cop to being a serious fan of a select group of disparate musicians: electronic artist Aphex Twin, country-roots singer Lucinda Williams, and Dallas rock band True Widow. And he did cover Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One” in a session for Sirius/XM radio last month, though that was bandmate Sam Acchione’s idea.
Giannascoli focuses on making music, not listening to it. He has no record collection, and when he wants to hear a song, he finds it on YouTube.
“I don’t like when songs are distinctly happy or sad,” he says. “I just want to listen to a song that whatever I’m feeling at the moment, I can amplify that.”
When he started working on House of Sugar, his goal was the same as always.
“Every single time, I just want to make good music that people can listen to 100 times," he says. "... I want people to be able to listen to it and attach themselves to it. Because that’s the music that I liked when I was growing up. I would hear it and be like, ‘This is my song.’ ”
(Sandy) Alex G
8 p.m. Saturday at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St., Sold out. 215-232-2100. utphilly.com.