“We played, and then the audience were just [sat] waiting for George Clooney,” Alex G wryly recalls to NME in an east London pub about what it’s like going from cult DIY musician status to late-night US talk show live performer. Back in July, the Philadelphia singer-songwriter and his live band ticked off a bucket list goal by making their US TV debut performing Alex’s sleek and driving single ‘Runner’ on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. They followed that in September by bringing the folksy and emotively probing ‘Miracles’ to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Their fellow guest on that episode? None other than the aforementioned Clooney.
Reading the YouTube comments beneath that pair of performances, you find a recurring sentiment among Alex G’s legion of notably fervent fans. “Never in a million years did I expect this,” writes one commenter, while another notes: “Saw him play in a basement in 2012, now he’s on Fallon in 2022.” A third comment sums the feeling up a bit more dramatically: “Nothing could’ve prepared me for this. Literally full body shivers… we have waited YEARS for this moment.”
You can forgive the stans for getting so worked up. Alex’s music has always possessed an underground spirit – organically born via the internet and full of odd, unconventional earworms – so tangible mainstream acclaim like this must feel like a proud personal moment for those who have been fans since the beginning. For Alex G (real name Alex Giannascoli), though, it was just another thing to take in his stride. “I got texts from relatives I hadn’t talked to in a while. People were really sweet about it, so stuff like that is cool,” he says, before adding nonchalantly: “It seems like some sort of career milestone, I guess.”
Despite sharing the bill on the Colbert episode with Clooney, Alex says that he never actually got to meet the certified Hollywood A-lister: “Someone had to break it to the crowd that George Clooney’s interview was actually filmed the day before. Like, ‘Sorry, show’s over, you have to go.’”
Thanks to a prolific early run of self-released demos, EPs and bedroom-produced albums that garnered considerable Bandcamp buzz, Alex was once labelled “the internet’s secret best songwriter”. But a decade into his intriguing and often shapeshifting career, the 29-year-old has become much less of a secret, with his work attracting acclaim from peers as varied as Frank Ocean, Oneohtrix Point Never and Charli XCX.
The release in September of his typically genre-blurring ninth album ‘God Save The Animals’ has seen his talents propelled into the spotlight more than ever – even if his renowned reluctance to indie stardom remains intact.
‘God Save The Animals’ is up there with the very best of Alex G’s back catalogue; a masterful listen that you discover more from with each spin. It’s a first, too, in that it was recorded with engineers outside of Alex’s home at various studios around Philadelphia. It was an experience that Alex enjoyed: by not worrying about every technical detail, he permitted himself to “go off” both creatively and in his performance. You can hear it on the record as well: sonically, it packs a bigger punch than before.
Like much of the Alex G discography, this album veers freely between genre lines. While his landmark 2017 LP ‘Rocket’ put country-rock right next to industrial noise-rap and its 2019 follow-up ‘House of Sugar’ merged folk with frenzied electronica, there are sprinkles here of alt-rock (‘Runner’), nu-metal (‘Blessing’) and hyper-pop (‘No Bitterness’, ‘Immunity’). Each album, Alex says, is “a snapshot of my taste at that time”.
“I’m always true to my taste. I’m not saying that as a flex or something, it’s just the only gauge I have,” he explains, before adding: “Almost every song has a nod to something.” He says that ‘Blessing’ was inspired by Audioslave, the drum part from ‘Early Morning Waiting’ pays homage to a Keith Richards song, and ‘No Bitterness’ was informed by 100 Gecs, “pop music in general” and the drums from OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya’. Following fan speculation that ‘Runner’ is a play on the 90s alt-rock staple ‘Runaway Train’ by Soul Asylum, Alex swears: “I totally hear it, but that wasn’t intentional… Hopefully they don’t sue me.”
As well as its title, religious imagery is at the album’s core. Opening track ‘After All’ begins with the refrain, “After all, people come and people go away / Yeah, but God with me he stayed”, while there’s biblical references to floods (‘Blessing’), New Testament teachings (‘Forgive’) and Moses (‘Cross The Sea’). On ‘S.D.O.S.’ Alex proclaims humorously: “God is my designer / Jesus is my lawyer.” The latter phrase is now being used for an Alex G-branded bumper sticker.
These biblical tropes feel less about concrete religion and more a metaphor for putting faith in external sources: a loved one, life, the ability for change. Alex tells NME that he was attracted to the sheer emotive weight that comes with religious language. “Throwing certain words into my lyrics with recklessness felt exciting for me,” he says, adding dryly: “I liked that it was a massive trope that I could just squander into my music in a completely selfish way.”
When asked about his intentions with the record, Alex thinks for a couple of seconds before replying: “Most of the time I couldn’t really put it into words, or explain it in a way that feels justified to me. I just like something and I go with it. For me, it’s the only way I know how to do it.” Of its title, he adds: “I liked that it landed somewhere between cynical and righteous. It’s unclear where it stands. I kinda like the ambiguity of it.”
A week before meeting NME in London, Alex G’s North American tour wrapped up with a trio of Philly shows. These homecoming gigs brought several highlights: an on-stage marriage proposal, a special cameo from Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner and, er, a viral hoax about a lice outbreak.
Obviously untrue, the joke here was about stereotypes that surround the kind of fanaticism Alex G attracts – that is to say that you might enjoy deciphering his cryptic, often elusive, lyrics online and, in the case of this gag, favour scrolling Reddit over regular washing. “I felt bad about all the people that got lice,” a deadpan Alex jokes when NME mentions the hoax. “It was a new strain apparently, it was scalping people.”
The day after our interview, Alex heads to Brighton for an in-store performance that attracts a queue that stretches down the street. In between songs, fans’ eager voices overlap as they call out personal requests, while at a signing after the show one fan asks Alex to add his signature to a copy of the fantasy video game Elden Ring. An avid player himself, Alex is still surprised that his fans know his video game preferences.
“I’ve thought about it a lot… it’s like when you buy a bottle of wine,” Alex tells us while attempting to explain the dedication of his huge online following. “It’ll say something like, ‘These grapes were grown in this weather, at this altitude’. You know how people get into wine like that? I guess that makes them enjoy it more.” Although he stresses the importance of privacy, he understands why fans might be “Googling shit” about him: “That’s how I listen to music too, I try to understand the character who’s making it. So I get it. I think that’s part of how music should be enjoyed.”
In a way, the reluctant and laconic nature of Alex G’s public persona may actually be partly responsible for generating such a passionate fan base. After all, the combination of ambiguity in Alex’s music and his aversion to discussing his work at length in interviews seemingly adds fuel to fan speculation.
But he objects to this hypothesis: “I don’t feel like I’m that mysterious, I just don’t have a lot to say. I say what I want to say with the music. It’s not like I’m hanging onto all this extra shit. I guess it’s a romanticised, ‘cool’ thing to be mysterious, so I’m down for that.” He lets out a laugh, before adding: “It’s a cool reputation to have, but I don’t give enough of a fuck to be actively mysterious.”
‘Miracles’, the penultimate and perhaps most heartfelt track on ‘God Save The Animals’, muses upon commitment and the prospect of fatherhood. But there’s also a wrenching verse that toys with the idea of giving up music altogether: “How many more songs am I supposed to write before I should turn it off and say goodnight?”
Upon finishing the album, Alex says, he felt it was his worst to date – a sentiment he often feels when concluding work on a project. He jokes that revisiting his previous work is “like looking at an old picture of yourself. You’re never like, ‘I love that. This is such a good picture of my face.’” Three months on from its release, though, his feelings have mellowed more towards apathy. “Honestly, I’m indifferent towards it,” he answers when asked about how he feels now from this zoomed-out vantage point. It might sound cold, but Alex clarifies that he loves all his records and respects the work he put into them. He adds, however: “I get so into it when I’m making it, and all the love and the good feelings are in the process of making it. Then once it’s done, it’s over and I got nothing else to do with it. It’s a weird process; it’s almost like [adding it to] a junk heap or something.”
Part of Alex’s motivation, it seems, comes from the possibility of what’s to come. “You never reach cruising altitude, there’s always more to do,” he explains. “I guess that’s how you stay sane. It never hits you like, ‘OK, I’ve reached this point’. From the outside, you’re like, ‘This is going to happen and I’m going to feel like this’. But the thing happens and you’re still hungry.”
While 2023 will see Alex continue his tour, with UK dates set for March, he already has one eye on more music: “I’ve got a lot of new stuff. I’m always just trying to focus on songs in my free time. Nothing’s close to being fleshed out or release-ready [yet], it’s just how I pass the time.”
Don’t discount any detours, though: having recently worked on the soundtrack for a horror movie, Alex says that lately he’s been inspired by the idea of dabbling in literature. “I’ve always been interested in writing prose,” he reveals. “I doubt anything will come of that, but I like the idea of creating things you can immerse yourself in. So it would be cool to write a really engaging book.”
Towards the end of our interview, Alex returns to that feeling of hunger. “That’s what making the songs and records is like,” he suggests. “You’re like, ‘This is going to be awesome. I’ve added these drums and guitars, this song’s going to be so great’. Finally when I reach the end I’m like, ‘This is it?’ Then I’m like, ‘Fuck it’, and I start on another song. That’s life. The carrot’s always at the end of the stick.”
Alex G will tour in the UK and Europe in March and April 2023