Alex G: One-man band a Philly indie success story

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Alex Giannascoli, AKA Alex G, dropped out of Temple to pursue a musical career and is a rising star in the indie-pop scene. (Ed Hille/Staff photographer)

Alex G has never liked playing other people's music.

Why would he, when it's so much easier to make his own?

"I would always write my own stuff," says the 21-year-old songwriter from Havertown. His album DSU (stands for "Dream State University"), which came out on the Orchid Tapes label in August, is one of the standout indie-rock releases of 2014.

"I think I just didn't like to practice," says the singer, whose full name is Alex Giannascoli. "It's like work to play someone else's music. But when you make your own thing, the work I was putting forth seemed a little more productive, and made me feel more satisfied. It was always pretty easy. It was fun."

The lanky guitarist, who has forgone his senior year at Temple University to concentrate on music full time, plays Johnny Brenda's on Thursday with Cymbals Eat Guitars, a Staten Island band who are Alex G enthusiasts. (DSU "is so special," the band, speaking as one, recently told music blog "Brooklyn Vegan," "that I'm not sure what to say about it other than go listen now and give it your full attention.")

On a rainy afternoon last week, Giannascoli, whom influential music and lifestyle magazine the Fader has called "the Internet's secret best songwriter," was eating bean curd and broccoli at a Chinese restaurant on South Street. He was a short walk from the South Philadelphia rowhouse where he lives with eight other people and records his music using the Garage Band program on his laptop.

It's easy to be impressed by the quantity of Giannascoli's output. He started recording when his parents brought home a Macintosh when he was 13. While at Haverford High School, he made two albums he passed around to his friends.

What counts as his first public release came in 2011, when he posted the song "Sandy" ("My name is Sandy and I'm 14 years old / My insides are changing and right now I just want to grow up") on Sandy.bandcamp.com, his page on the online music store Bandcamp. That has remained his label until now, with "Sandy" followed by five full-length albums, a 7-song EP, and various singles.

But what makes Giannascoli so worthy isn't the quantity of the music. It's the quality. He's a particularly gifted melody writer frequently compared to beloved singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, one of his acknowledged influences. And his fuzzy, sometimes distorted songs, which hark back to slightly askew 1990s bands such as Pavement, can't hide his skill as a pop craftsman and a constructor of elliptical narratives that call for repeated listening.

Giannascoli's older brother Matt, 32, is an accomplished pianist who, along with an older sister, Rachel, 29, was instrumental in turning their younger sibling on to Radiohead, Modest Mouse, and Wilco. "My sister wanted me to call my album Dream State," Giannascoli says. "And I thought, Dream State University - that's funny.' "

DSU is the first Alex G album not to be self-released. In London, where he played five shows last month and will return for a full European tour with his band in February, the Guardian said his was "the new name to drop in alt-rock circles." He's been profiled in Rolling Stone ("After that, my mom and dad had a physical thing to hold to brag about"). Online music site Pitchfork rated DSU an attention-getting 7.9 out of 10.

Giannascoli may be a digital-age indie success story, but his route to renown runs counter to the conventional wisdom that relentless self-promotion is the way to make a name for yourself.

Instead, Giannascoli has relied on the kindness of Internet strangers. The blog "Circling the Drain" raved about the release of his album Rules in 2012. South Carolina musician Mat Cothran, who fronts the bands Coma Cinema and Elvis Depressedly, heard his music and contacted him out of the blue. Cothran's advocacy - tweets such as "RT if Alex G is the greatest songwriter you can think of" - helped lead to his present deal with Orchid Tapes.

Giannascoli can even point to a few educational highlights while studying English at Temple University. He connected with James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and its coming-of-age story, and he filtered that into the track "Rejoyce" on DSU. "There's a lot of self-reflection on the album," he says. "It's not something I was consciously doing, but I think it's inevitable."

While at Temple, he regularly played basement house parties, "and I had people in Philly who liked my music. I would fantasize about someday touring, but I was really just focused on making music, really, because it was fun for me."

Now, with a manager, booking agent, record label, and publicist, plus hypnotic DSU songs such as "Black Hair" and "Hollow," Giannascoli is clearly poised to make his move into the pop-culture limelight.

   He's charmingly unsure about that transition, though. When asked about a recent gig at the World Cafe Live, he says, "I'm still getting used to playing on stages like that. I feel like we're not yet sufficiently professional to entertain that many people."

And he has no intention of changing the way he makes music. That generally involves going out for coffee in the morning, and coming back to his room to create. "I usually work on something every day," he says. "It's how I define myself. If I didn't do it, I'd probably be really lost."

He plugs his guitar into his "MacBook whatever" laptop and sings into a microphone that he rests on top of an open book. "I lost my mic stand," he smiles and shrugs. The multi-instrumentalist adds keyboards later, and goes over to somebody else's house to record drums, since he doesn't have his own kit. The label "bedroom pop" is apt: "I wish it wasn't. It sounds so sexual."

But now that his career's off the ground, is it tempting to work in a fancy studio?

"I feel like I'm eventually going to have to do that," he says, "but I just don't want to. Because I don't know how to work all that stuff, and I don't want anyone else to have control. I just want to follow my own ideas, and I'm uncomfortable doing it any other way.

"What does that make me, an egomaniac? No, a control freak. That's it. I think I'm a passive control freak. I try to be conscious of how the people around me feel. But if I had my way, I'd do it all myself."

 


CONCERT

Alex G, opening for Cymbals Eat Guitars

8 p.m. Thursday at Johnny Brenda's, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. Tickets: $10-$12. 215-739-9684, www.johnnybrendas.com


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