Following My Gut: A Q&A With (Sandy) Alex G

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(Sandy) Alex G backstage at Terminal West in Atlanta. Photo by Olivia Whatley.

Since hitting the scene at the beginning of the decade, (Sandy) Alex G has become known for his eclectic musical sensibilities, his ingenious writing and his DIY recording style. A darling of the lo-fi community, he put out his eighth studio album, House of Sugar, this past September. Featuring brilliant melodies carried through acoustic guitars, violins, effect-heavy vocals, synths and pretty much anything else that excites him, this record is one of Alex G’s finest works to date.

American Songwriter sat down with Alex G in October at a tour stop in Atlanta. He talked with us about his writing process, the progression of his career, being mistaken for Beto O’Rourke by right-wing Twitter and how he still uses Garageband for everything.

When talking about House of Sugar you’ve said that you “wanted to make a sex, drugs, and rock and roll album from Hell.” Did you set out with the intention of writing a whole album with this concept, or did it start coming out that way once you started writing the songs?

To be totally honest, I don’t even know why I said that. I think I just thought it’d make some good interview material. I just kinda did what I always do, which is go into it without much thought, just guided by what feels right as I’m making the stuff, you know? That’s the boring answer but that’s the more honest one. 

When listening to your music there are many moments that feel reminiscent of several artists—like Elliot Smith, for example—but your music is also very distinctively “Alex G.” Who do you feel are your main influences? How much do you feel that what you listen to influences your music?

When I’m writing I really don’t consider any influences, although they bleed through obviously. During the writing process, the last thing I’m thinking about is “I want to be like this, I want to sound like this.” I’m trying to be better about it now, but because of that I think I end up more blatantly lifting stuff from other people, because I’m making an effort not to be conscious with it but just go with what feels in the moment.

I listen to music pretty casually now, so it’s hard to say what my influences are at the moment. When I was younger I used to really dive into stuff. I liked Modest Mouse a ton, I was non-stop listening to them. Elliott Smith I liked. I think especially the way I record was influenced by him. I loved his music and I was looking him up and saw that he recorded albums himself, so I would try to duplicate that style of recording. I thought “he does it himself and he sounds like a professional, I’m doing it myself so I could make something like that.” Through that process I sorta ripped off his sound, with the double vocals, double guitars, double everything. I think I’m getting farther away from that now because I got a little nicer equipment, so there’s less need for doubled vocals. 

For your age, you’ve been a fairly prolific artist. Do you feel that your writing style and workflow have changed throughout the course of your eight albums? How so? 

I think I’m less prolific now than when I was younger. I guess I question what I’m doing more. When I was younger everything was new that nothing was redundant, but at this point there are so many opportunities for me to be redundant. I’m more self-aware. Like, do I really want to say this? Do I really want to make this guitar part? You know, shit that has the potential to be redundant. 

Do you feel you’re more methodical now?

I’m definitely more methodical than I was, but I think that I make an effort to still be intuitive about it and try to shut off the methodical side for the most part. There’s a whole editing process that’s unique to my way of producing stuff. There’s this whole part of the songwriting process which is me returning to the recording over and over again, nudging stuff, adding little stuff. When that time comes, then I get a little methodical. When it’s the core of the song, I try to be intuitive.

Do you feel that the more advanced production techniques you’ve used on your more recent albums—House of Sugar especially—has changed your writing process?

It’s the same process, just evolved. Both processes have evolved together, really slowly. But it’s the same feeling. I might have more tricks at my disposal. I’ve been doing it for so long now that I can say “I remember years ago I did this thing and it worked for this song, now I can pull it out again,” and then I can build on these other tricks. It just gets more complex because I’m building on the same foundation I’ve had for all these years.

What’s the story on Race? What was the background of you making that record and why isn’t it on Spotify?

Race was something I recorded over the course of a couple of years in high school. I was always making recordings, but those were the best ones at that time and I put them on a CD and gave it to friends and shit. I ended up putting it on Bandcamp, either right after I graduated high school or right before I never really released it because… well, I’m not sure. I don’t feel motivated to go back and be like “hey guys remember this?” and make it a whole thing. I’m proud of it obviously, but it’s old and I don’t know if people understand how old it is. Besides that, it would seem like such a money thing, like “Oh guys look at that, I’m putting Race on Spotify just because I love the fans” [he makes the money sign by rubbing his fingers and thumb together]. 

Your music is often acclaimed for its eclecticism—is unconventionally combining genres / sounds something you consciously think about when writing?

Really it’s just me following my gut. I start a lot of songs in a short timespan and I keep working on them over time, so one will develop in one direction and another just wouldn’t develop in the same direction because I’m listening to the first one and I’m trying to keep myself entertained, I’m not going to create the same atmosphere. I wouldn’t feel excited. I think that’s also why I’m less prolific. It’s harder for me to find those grooves that are really inspiring in that “gut” way. When I was younger I’d play a G and then a C and I’d say “oh, this is a song!” But now I play G to C a zillion times, so I just gotta keep doing weird shit. It has to keep feeling special and I have to keep doing things to make it feel that way.

You’re famous for your home recording—what does the process of making a record actually look like for you? When other musicians play on your records, do they come over to your house to track? At what point do other engineers get involved?

I have a laptop that I record everything on, so usually I’ll just go somewhere. Tom [Kelly] played drums on “Hope” on the record, so I drove to his warehouse where he had his drums set up and I just set up the mic in front of them. That’s pretty much how it goes for everything. Emily [Yacina] lives in New York so I sent her the song and she recorded vocals at her house and sent it back to me.

I pretty much do everything with one mic—this time I had a nicer mic. In the past, I had this mic called a Samson Q1u, which is a little USB mic that looks like an SM-57. I’d stick that in front of everything, play, and if it sounds bad just move it back a bit. This record was the same process but I borrowed Tom’s microphone… it’s like a clone that he built, it’s like a Neumann or something? I forget the name but whenever I tell people they’re like “oh that’s really nice.” But I did the same thing, I’d put that in front of the drums, put it in front of the guitar, put it in front of the violin. That’s pretty much it.

I get a rough mix together at home in Garageband and once it’s all listenable, I give it to Jake Portrait in New York and he mixes it in a way that’s so much better than what I could do. You can kinda tell if you listen to my old shit before I was working with Jake. He cranks certain shit so it sounds more palatable.

Every other record I engineered myself, but for this record Jake was mixing the drums on “Gretel” and there was a problem with them. I think with that shitty mic, drums kinda sound shitty and it’s a given when you listen to it that it’s like lo-fi or whatever, it’s cool. But on House of Sugar, everything was nice and the drums were weak, so he said we should re-record them and the “Gretel” drums were done in his studio. “In My Arms” was recorded in his studio too. Because those two are drum-heavy songs, the mix I got at home was just not enough.

So it’s true that you’re still using Garageband?

I use Garageband for everything. It’s kinda like an instrument at this point, I know how to manipulate stuff the way I want to, really quickly. There’s no lapse in momentum. I can just be like “oh maybe I can pitch it up,” or make it backwards and do this shit and just click click click and I can do it quickly.

Do you use third-party plugins for Garageband?

No, it’s just the basic shit. You can do so much with the basics though, you can just add plugin on top of plugin. Many times I’ve pitched stuff differently, many times I’ve reversed stuff—with just those two things you can do so much.

What’s the story with the Beto O’Rourke photo incident?

I think that was after we played with Japanese Breakfast in New York at the end of a long tour. I didn’t know someone took a picture of me like that, but someone took it and it got passed around. Then a couple of weeks ago a friend of mine was like “Hey I was looking at people replying to Beto O’Rourke on Twitter and there are some conservative accounts posting that picture.” The accounts were like “Oh look at this liberal candidate, pissy boy liberal guy,” but it’s just not Beto O’Rourke [he cracks up]. It was so funny. I don’t know how it happened though, I don’t know who gave those people that picture, but I couldn’t stop laughing. I was just blown away, it’s crazy.

With your past few albums gaining commercial traction, with House of Sugar especially garnering a lot of attention and critical acclaim—does it feel surreal that this creation that you make on your own in your house is becoming such a huge hit in the indie community?

To be honest, it’s not surreal because I don’t think about it. If I’m being honest I even try to think about it, like I try to think “oh there’s a bunch of people at this show, that’s something” but it just feels the same. I go on tour and that’s pretty crazy, but we’ve been going on tour forever. Then I get home and I do the same shit I always do. It’s really cool, but it doesn’t feel like anything real, it’s hard to describe. I think the big jump happened when I first started and just a very small amount of people liked my music. That was surreal. That was like breaking the seal. I’d play shows and think “I cannot believe that people fuck with this.” Now I just keep doing it. I’m so extremely grateful, I don’t want to come off as if I’m not, but I’m just trying to be honest about how it feels—it doesn’t feel surreal, that’s all. It’s been such a slow thing that my very first experience was the biggest leap. Since then it’s just been tiny little steps.

This interview was condensed and edited for length.

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