Follow music critic Dan DeLuca's journey at SXSW on philly.com/inthemix
James Alex is making up for lost time.
"I remember this story about Charles Bukowski," says the 42-year-old leader of the ardent Philadelphia-area rock-and-roll band Beach Slang, whose busy coming week at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, includes not one but eight showcase performances.
"He had been writing poetry and his publisher wanted a novel, and Bukowski came back a week later with a full novel. The publisher was just astounded. He asked, 'How were you able to do that?' And Bukowski said, 'Fear'.
"That's kind of how I feel, man," says Alex, whose best-known band before Beach Slang, the Bethlehem emo outfit Weston, released its final studio album 16 years ago.
"I'm getting this lucky second go-round, and I'm so afraid that if I'm not pedaling to the metaling that this thing is going to go away. And I don't want it to. Because it's what I love.
"And all that time, when I let it slip by and I was thinking, 'It looks like rock and roll is done, what am I going to do with my life?' This is me apologizing to myself for that. Because there was never a reason to think about a Plan B. So it's good to be back on track, and I remind myself of that every day."
Alex grew up in Rhode Island and then the Lehigh Valley after his parents split up. He lived in Philadelphia with his girlfriend and now wife, Rachel, a physical therapist, from the mid-00s, when he was attending the Art Institute of Philadelphia and working as a graphic designer, until 2014.
The couple, who have a 10-month-old son named Oliver, now live in Easton, Pa., where Alex was busy with guitar, pen, and laptop, writing the band's follow-up album to the urgent, justly acclaimed debut The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, which landed on many 2015 year-end best-of lists, when he gave a phone interview this week.
Beach Slang got its name from a term a Rhode Island girl who was Alex's teenage skateboarding buddy invented to describe his teenage predilection for words like gnarly and rad.
"I wasn't going to use the name, but then I read an interview with a band who said, 'If you have the word 'beach' in your name, you can't be taken seriously.' And I was like . . . 'I'm going to make it matter.' That's what 100 percent sealed the deal."
Bass player Ed McNulty, 26, and guitarist Ruben Gallego, 28, both live in Philadelphia, and drummer JP Flexner, 34, is in Montgomeryville. Beach Slang strongly identifies as a Philadelphia band.
As such, they lead a local charge into SXSW, whose music festival dates are Tuesday through March 20. The SXSW Interactive festival was set to start Friday and continues through Tuesday. The film portion runs Friday through Saturday.
Other Philly music acts at SXSW include rappers Ground Up and indie rock band Cold Fronts, as well as old-school hip-hop mixmaster DJ Jazzy Jeff. All three are part of the #AmplifyPhilly showcase organized by "music incubator" RECPhilly, which aims to promote Philly music and tech start-ups. It will be held Wednesday night at the double-sided venue the Main on Austin's Sixth Street strip, and rappers Chynna Rogers and Swizzymack, among others, will be part of a second all-Philly showcase in an adjacent room.
Among the more than 2,000 acts - ranging from punk legend Iggy Pop to country songwriter Kacey Musgraves to Philly-born, Brooklyn-based avant-pop artist Santigold - playing over five days and nights of wall-to-wall music in hundreds of venues in the music industry's largest annual gathering will be still more Philadelphians, including much-buzzed-about 1970s riff-rock heroes Sheer Mag, Havertown-reared low-fi song savant Alex G, and Alabama transplant Katie Crutchfield, a.k.a. Waxahatchee.
And Philadelphia radio station WXPN-FM (88.5) is one of the sponsors of a Friday afternoon six-band concert to be live-streamed on the VuHaus video platform featuring Hinds, Lucius, Bombino, and Chvrches, among others.
Along with all the bands, President Obama, the world's most powerful fan of Philadelphia rock-and-roll outfit Low Cut Connie - he put the band's song "Boozophilia" on his Spotify presidential playlist last summer - also planned to go to Austin this year. He was scheduled to address the SXSW Interactive Conference on Friday.
POTUS's timing was bad: Low Cut Connie won't play the first of their seven shows until Monday.
Michelle Obama, however, will deliver the opening keynote for SXSW Music on behalf of her Let Girls Learn initiative, which advocates for female education worldwide. (Low Cut Connie does have a gig that day at the Scoot Inn as part of a Lagunitas CouchTrippin' event. So if you need a chaperone, FLOTUS, I'll be happy to be your plus one.)
For Beach Slang's Alex, heading down to Texas is another experience to embrace with the urgency that is felt throughout the unabashedly earnest, catchy, and to-the-point The Things, which everywhere expresses the openhearted gratitude of a wayward soul being embraced in the bosom of rock and roll.
"I feel most alive when I'm listening to every record that hits harder than the pain," Alex sings on "Ride the Wild Haze." "I'm always that kid, always out of place, I try to get found," he confesses in "Throwaways."
Asked which influences helped him get found, he mentioned the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, 1980s hardcore band Husker Du's "Girl From Heaven Hill," Dear You by '90s post-punks Jawbreaker, "any record by the Smiths," and the Replacements, whose "Bastards of Young" and "Can't Hardly Wait" Beach Slang covered in a sweaty, sold-out show at the First Unitarian Church in December.
They'll be back here on May 21 at Union Transfer before heading to Europe for a summer tour.
Between Weston, where he was one of three songwriters, and Beach Slang, Alex fronted the short-lived Lehigh Valley band Cordova. He played a Weston reunion in 2009 in Philadelphia, where he first played with Flexner. The drummer heard some Alex songs that became the seeds of Beach Slang and that turned up on the 2014 debut EP, Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken?
Alex kept writing when he wasn't in a band, he says, "but it's like when you lose someone you've been dating that you really love. You learn how to live with it, but there's this hole inside you."
With Beach Slang, who plan to record a Things follow-up shortly after SXSW, he said he feels "sprung - it's like a rebirth."
"Rock and roll is holy to me. This thing is really in my veins. I love going into a venue and just that smell of stale beer. I love, love, love all of the details of this life, and I missed those. When I was writing and working on the craft of it, I missed that part of it. Being out in the world."
Beach Slang's The Things met with immediate enthusiasm, including an 8.0 rating from influential online music magazine Pitchfork.
Whereas Weston "toured and toured" to try to get recognition, "the Internet did a lot of the heavy lifting for us this time," Alex says.
One reason the response has been so immediate, he believes, is the "fearlessness" in his writing now.
"This is where age and life experience played a role," says the songwriter, who is proud to be called an "adult teenager."
"I don't know if 'belief in myself' is right. It's more like I now have a courage to talk about me and my friends. I've compiled enough interesting Saturday nights to write about these things. Before, I didn't have a way to deliver these stories that made sense. But I finally got there. I availed my full self, and made that leap of faith. Maybe that's what I was missing."