Alex G on his latest album, 'God Save the Animals'
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:
While just a college student, Alex Giannascoli was lauded by a major music publication as the internet's secret best songwriter. That was back in 2014, and the indie artist is most definitely no longer a secret, but he is still something of an enigma. He performs as Alex G, which kind of cloaks him in a bit of mystery.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUNNER")
ALEX GIANNASCOLI: (Singing) I laugh when you say the wrong thing, mouthing off to everybody else but me.
FOLKENFLIK: He's also known for being a musician who doesn't talk all that explicitly about his music. So I wanted to warm him up and started the interview with this question - why did Alex G name his new album "God Save The Animals?"
GIANNASCOLI: It was a lyric that I had used in a song I was working on that didn't end up making the record. I just really liked the way it sounded.
FOLKENFLIK: How does it make you feel when you hear those words?
GIANNASCOLI: I guess it's hard to, like, pin down what it's saying, whether it's hopeful or cynical. You know, and I like that it just kind of floats in between cynical and hopeful.
FOLKENFLIK: You've got dogs, right?
GIANNASCOLI: Yeah, I have a dog.
FOLKENFLIK: All right. What music do you play for your dog?
GIANNASCOLI: Oh, no, he doesn't like music that much. He leaves the room if I start playing.
FOLKENFLIK: (Laughter). So when you're rehearsing or you're producing something, he scampers out?
GIANNASCOLI: Yeah. I think he likes the quiet. I guess he likes to hear what's going on outside, so...
FOLKENFLIK: I want to play a little bit of "No Bitterness."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO BITTERNESS")
GIANNASCOLI: (Singing) My teacher is a child with a big smile. No bitterness.
FOLKENFLIK: This song - there's something hopeful about it. There's something peppy. And then there's really, from my perspective anyway, something that takes a dystopian turn.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO BITTERNESS")
GIANNASCOLI: (Singing) I give it one more try and open my mind. If I could, I really would. You want to see yourself. I cover my eyes. And it's a lie. You never die.
FOLKENFLIK: What's going on with that dissonance for you? Some of the lyrics, you say, I don't want a good time. I open my mind. And if I cried, I really would like it. When I see your cell, I cover my eyes, and it's a lie. You never die.
GIANNASCOLI: Oh, you know what? I - so that's actually - I've seen those lyrics online. That's actually not the lyrics. It's - and it's not your fault because I didn't write it on the record, but it's on...
FOLKENFLIK: Tell me. I heard the song, and then I went out and looked at the lyrics, but I didn't match them up in real time because, of course, when you're listening, you're just listening.
FOLKENFLIK: Tell me.
GIANNASCOLI: I give it one more try and open my mind. If I could, I really would. You want to see yourself. I cover my eyes. It's a lie. You never die. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then it goes off.
FOLKENFLIK: So is that more kind of the innocence of playfulness of childhood, or is there something else? No bitterness, as the song is titled? Or is there something else there toward the end?
GIANNASCOLI: That mantra at the beginning, like, my teacher is a child, is self-explanatory. That part at the end, I was just thinking about, like, taking a leap of faith and being, like - just being like I'm part of something bigger. Like, you know, something like that. Like, it's just a thing that I don't really have concrete ideas about, but I was just throwing words at the wall to try and come close.
FOLKENFLIK: You felt your way there.
GIANNASCOLI: Yeah, exactly.
FOLKENFLIK: All right. So let's talk about things that feel serious. What's with the low voice on "S.D.O.S."?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "S.D.O.S.")
GIANNASCOLI: (Singing) Naked in my innocence. Tangled in my innocence.
FOLKENFLIK: What convinced you to drop your voice like that?
GIANNASCOLI: You know, I was just really into that song "Low Rider" by War.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOW RIDER")
WAR: (Singing) All my friends know the low rider.
GIANNASCOLI: And so that's why I had the guiro and the - all the percussion and stuff. And it has that really low "Low Rider" voice. So I wanted to make a song, like, in that palette.
FOLKENFLIK: Did you have to play around to get the voice just the way you wanted? I mean, in a number of songs, it can soar high. It can go low. It can get distorted. You can have one effect or another. How much do you have to toy with it to get it where you want?
GIANNASCOLI: A lot. I was trying to make it low just using this pitch shifter on GarageBand, and it wasn't quite right. And then I messed around with this idea where I recorded it really fast. I sped the tempo up really fast and recorded it and then slowed the song back down to its normal tempo. And that was how I got it right, you know, and I got it to be as boomy and demonic as it sounds.
FOLKENFLIK: I know you don't have all the equipment with you, but is there a song or a riff that you remember in which you kind of had to play around with it just vocally a little bit? Can you give us a feel for what that's like?
GIANNASCOLI: I think most of the experimentation comes after the recording process, but maybe "Mission" is one where I was messing around with, like, (singing) I was asleep like a child. That's how it is, like, if I just sing it. But then I was messing around with getting really close to the mic and, like, gritting my teeth, being like, (singing) I was asleep like a child. Like, do stuff like that, you know? Did that sound different to you?
GIANNASCOLI: Yeah. So just, like, trying to make it grittier by getting closer or farther or, like, gritting my teeth. But that's, like, a rare instance. I think most of the time, it was just...
FOLKENFLIK: Through the tech.
GIANNASCOLI: Yeah, exactly.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSION")
MOLLY GERMER: (Singing) Hey, look in the mirror. Ain't gonna right your wrong with a stupid love song.
FOLKENFLIK: You're candid about the fact that there's a bit of a, to be fair, discomfort level talking about unravelling a little bit what you've done in creating these songs and these lyrics. How much should music just be listened to and not talked about?
GIANNASCOLI: I don't know. It depends on the music. I think there's people who have really concrete things to say, and it's really enlightening to hear what they have to say about their music. But I consider myself more of, like, an impressionistic writer. It's like if I was drawing an abstract picture and then trying to explain it, you know, it would do no service to anybody. And that's sort of what talking about my music feels like because I think it's about what you get from the product and not what you get from me outside of the product, you know?
FOLKENFLIK: So when you listen to other artists, maybe people have influenced you. Do you take it at face value? Do you absorb it? Do you listen to it? Or do you find yourself kind of analyzing it and pulling it apart after the fact?
GIANNASCOLI: When I was younger - and when I think music moved me the most was when I was younger - I didn't know how it worked. And it would just blow me away, just all the stuff that was happening. And, like, wow, why did they make this decision? Why did they make this decision? Like, I have no idea. And then now that I'm older and I sort of see behind the curtain a little bit more, I can still appreciate the craft, but I think it's, like, less exciting when you see how stuff works a little bit more, like, who's drawing from what. Like, when you know how stuff works, the magic is gone.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX G SONG, "MIRACLES")
FOLKENFLIK: I've been talking with Alex G. His new album is called "God Save The Animals." Alex, thanks so much for talking to us today.
GIANNASCOLI: Thank you. I appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIRACLES")
GIANNASCOLI: (Singing) Infinite futures become a single past. Everyone whimpers. Nobody lasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.