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The Sweet Seduction of (Sandy) Alex G

We talk to the prolific musician and producer about his acclaimed new record and learning to collaborate.
By Sarah Gooding|
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Photographed by Deirdre Lewis

As I walk into a tiny cafe in the Lower East Side of New York City to meet Alex Giannascoli, the musician known as (Sandy) Alex G, a mash-up of sugar-themed songs plays over the speakers. “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies segues into Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and I laugh. Not simply because these songs smashed together sound ridiculous; but because it feels serendipitous.

(Sandy) Alex G is preparing to release House of Sugar, his ninth album of songs that weave together haunting indie pop-rock, experimental electronica, occasional bouts of brooding noise and whimsical Americana into a confection so sweet it’s habit-forming. Giannascoli began his sweet seduction in 2010, when he uploaded his first album, Race, to Bandcamp. Since then it seems even he hasn’t been able to control the stream of music that’s poured out of him since he was a teenager; House of Sugar’s title was inspired by excess.

“I was thinking about sugar as this symbol of indulgence,” Giannascoli says carefully, squinting in the midsummer sun. We’re sitting on a bench in Allen Malls, a narrow park that runs down the middle of bustling Allen Street, where we wandered after Giannascoli downed an espresso. Traffic hurtles past us on both sides and it gets comically loud for a few seconds, causing Giannascoli to speak even more slowly. “I just thought sugar is a good symbol for all of these different types of vices.”

The album’s final track, “SugarHouse,” a live recording of a Springsteen-esque song Giannascoli wrote at the end of the recording process, shares a name with a casino in Philadelphia not far from where he lives. This, coupled with the many lyrical explorations of excess – concerning drugs, greed and gambling – suggest the album as a whole was inspired by Giannascoli’s occasional visits to the casino with his brother (who plays saxophone on the song).

But while it may seem like the characters peppered throughout his album were inspired by gamblers and grifters he encountered in real life, Giannascoli insists they came purely from his imagination. “I named it House of Sugar, and then people kept being like ‘oh, ‘cause of SugarHouse!’ but honestly I wasn’t really thinking about it. I just liked the way it sounded.” He says the song “SugarHouse” is “kinda playing with the casino theme,” but the rest of the album isn’t. “I don’t want it to come across like it’s some concept album about that casino, ‘cause it’s not. It’s just random. I go there for fun sometimes, but I’m not a gambler.”

Anyone who’s ever set foot inside a casino will be familiar with the strange allure that they provide. They hold a palpable darkness that’s also present on House of Sugar. Bright, sparkling moments are juxtaposed with a foreboding feeling. On the song “Sugar,” droning bass recalling The Velvet Underground underscores vocals that are pitched up to the point where they sound like a swarm of aliens serenading us from their spaceship. Giannascoli says, “It’s just life. Like the other albums, I’m not thinking about anything, really. I just write it as it comes to me.”

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He says that if anything has seeped into his subconscious and inspired him with the album’s title, it was a piece of fiction. “I read this short story a couple years ago called The House Made of Sugar by Silvina Ocampo, and it was probably just floating around in my subconscious.” Ocampo’s story is about a woman whose superstitions about living in a house that was previously occupied appear to be warranted when she is deceived by her husband.

House of Sugar shares a similarly off-kilter, unsettling vibe to Ocampo’s story. It opens with Giannascoli’s heavily affected voice wailing disconcertingly over backwards reverb-soaked drums and gloomy guitars. The second single, “Hope,” tells of losing a friend to a drug overdose. It’s named after the street Giannascoli lived on, near one of the areas hardest-hit by Philadelphia’s opioid crisis. It’s also one of the few overtly personal songs on the album. In the opening verse he sings, “He was a good friend of mine/ He died/ Why I write about it now/ Gotta honor him somehow/ Saw some people crying that night/ Yeah Fentanyl took a few lives from our life.”

Living in Philadelphia his whole life and being witness to this crisis may have inspired the 26-year-old to reflect on notions of “good” and “bad.” These words appear frequently on House of Sugar, in lyrics like “Baby I’ve been a good boy,” and “You know good music / Makes me wanna do bad things.”

In “Bad Man,” one of the album’s most uniquely beautiful songs, Giannascoli adopts a character who reflects on his negative qualities. Over a scattering beat and wonky synth he croons, “I’m a bad man/ How about that… If I had a way/ I would take it back.” It’s not the first time Giannascoli has penned a heartfelt country song (the lilting “Bobby” was a stand-out of his previous album, Rocket), but his southern accent here comes as a surprise. Giannascoli laughs and shrugs when asked about it. “I wish I had a good answer, but it was just like… that song went through a couple of different changes. First I did it with acoustic guitar, and I sang it and it didn’t sound right. Then I did it on piano, it didn’t sound right. And then I was just messing around, and I tried it with the synthesiser. I don’t really know why I did it!” he chuckles. “I think I was just getting frustrated with the song, so I thought it would be funny to be a character in it, or something.”

The accent lends the song a detached storytelling quality that’s also present on “Gretel,” House of Sugar’s first single. Giannascoli wrote the lush, cinematic song after a period of reflection on the fairytale “Hansel and Gretel,” where he reimagined his titular character as a guilty, gluttonous traitor who justifies letting her brother succumb to the witch. “Good people got something to lose,” he sings in a velvety voice over a siren-like synth and layers of guitar. “Good people gotta fight to exist.”

He says he was drawn to the ridiculous simplicity of judging something or someone as either good or bad. “It’s so basic and so misleading to say something is good or bad, you know? It has no bearing on reality at all. But I guess I like that – that really fallible stuff. Those are the stories that I like to read and listen to, so those are the stories that I make, too.”

Giannascoli excels in the abstract – his songs are more instinctual than intellectual. This means you’re unlikely to get a straight answer from him about the meaning behind his songs or lyrics. He will shrug or say he doesn’t know, or say that there is no meaning, or that it changes constantly.
This abstract quality clearly resonates with his listeners, though. There’s a whole thread on Reddit where fans present their theories on his lyrics and discuss “the creative genius that is (Sandy) Alex G.” One fan even posted a lengthy hypothesis about the potential themes and meanings in his upcoming album, based on scant information that’s been released so far.
Giannascoli says this is why he doesn’t want to disclose any definitive meanings behind his songs or lyrics. “I like when other people read into it, I think it’s cool as shit!” he smiles. “That’s why I’m so reluctant to talk about it, because if I’m like ‘This is what it’s about…’ then that can’t happen. It’s just limiting. And I change my mind, too, all the time, about what it’s about.”

He’ll take a look at what people are writing about his work on Reddit every “once in a while,” but he admits, “It fucks with me a little bit. It’s not normal to read about yourself. It’s usually pretty flattering shit, but I don’t think it’s for me to look at.” He adds, “I don’t want to come across like I’m bashing it or something, ‘cause I think it’s cool and it’s very flattering, but it’s just overwhelming to look at.” That said, he says it helps to know that people care enough to devote time to talking about his work. “It honestly is a motivator, seeing that people care. ‘Cause it’s like ‘oh man, people are really gonna think about it!”

Giannascoli’s difficulty in talking about his songs seems to stem from the fact that they center around nebulous things like emotions rather than tangible events or people. They tend to be part fiction, part reality, with an emphasis on feeling. His most popular song, “Sarah” (from his 2015 album Trick), is an example of this. It’s partly based on a relationship in which he found himself “being manipulative,” which he then embellished on. “I’m trying to just capture what the feeling is. And in order to do that, sometimes you’ve gotta blow it up.”

“I’m trying to just capture what the feeling is. And in order to do that, sometimes you’ve gotta blow it up.”

Overall, House of Sugar gives off a more emotional vibe than his previous albums – there’s more dissonance and drama in the tones of the songs. Giannascoli credits his recent upgrade in gear with allowing these qualities to shine through more clearly. Having used the same cheap Samson USB microphone since he was a teenager, he switched to a clone of the sophisticated Neumann U87 microphone, built by his friend and drummer Tom Kelly. He says, “I guess with the sound quality being better it just makes everything almost more aggressive, because you can like, crystal-clear hear it.”

Giannascoli had also spent time in the studio with Frank Ocean, having contributed to his landmark albums Blonde and Endless, and says that that probably had something to do with his desire to upgrade. But he learned more from that experience than just the value of a nice mic. He says that working with Ocean taught him how to more effectively approach his own collaborations. “I saw how he works with other people, but still maintains control over the product. And I thought that was cool, ‘cause I wasn’t clear on how to navigate that. But now I’m like, yeah you can have people do stuff but still be in charge.”

While Giannascoli has been stepping out of his bedroom studio more to collaborate with a wider range of artists – also collaborating with Ryan Hemsworth and Oneohtrix Point Never in recent years – he still very much values solitude. He’s started writing fiction – “little story-type things” – but says that it’s early days and he’s still figuring out “how to do it.” “Right now I have a bunch of failed attempts at it,” he says modestly. “There’s a level of craftsmanship that’s practiced, and I’m not there. But I’d like to get there.”

He adds, “I’d just like to be able to write something without music, you know what I mean? Something that stands on its own as a piece of writing. I mean, I’m talking a big game,” he laughs. “It probably won’t amount to anything, but that’s something I’ve been talking about.”

Despite all of his accomplishments – going from a teenager recording songs in his bedroom and uploading them to the internet, to signing with Domino, one of the world’s leading independent record labels, who released his last two critically acclaimed albums, Rocket and Beach Music – he’s still hesitant to have any expectations.

“To expect something, you’re asking to get disappointed, you know? In my experience, any time I’m like ‘I’m gonna get this,’ I don’t. But if you just do your thing… I dunno, I’m not trying to be like, ‘I have wisdom!’ ‘Cause I don’t!” he laughs. “All I’ll say is that at this point in my life I don’t have expectations,” he says. “I just go for it, and then if shit happens, it’s cool.”

Giannascoli says he never even had expectations when he first started sharing his music almost a decade ago. “I just loved making music. I guess I got addicted to making music and having people be like ‘good job!’” he smiles. “So I just kept doing it!”

This approach seems to have served him well so far. “Yeah,” he grins. “This is a sweet gig!”

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