Pin It
EPR4221 -Alex G - PC Chris Maggio - 300dpi (1)

Alex G doesn’t need to explain himself

The elusive indie rock artist talks to James Greig about his new newfound faith, the return of guitar music, and his expansive new album, God Save The Animals

The DIY bedroom artist was one of the hallmarks of the 2010s; an almost mythical figure who embodied the radical, democratising potential of the internet. With a laptop and Bandcamp account, anyone could become a star – or, at least what passes for a star in the world of indie music. In recent years, a new generation of DIY artists, slicker and poppier than their predecessors, and helped along by TikTok and streaming platforms, have risen to build a billion-dollar industry. But few artists who rose to fame through the internet have been more influential, prolific and critically acclaimed as Alexander Giannascoli, whose ninth record God Save the Animals is released this month.

Under the moniker of Alex G, he first launched his career in 2010 with a series of albums that he both recorded and released himself. After building up a following on Bandcamp, he gradually became a critical darling; the kind of artist guaranteed a Best New Music slot on Pitchfork and who a friend of mine recently described, with some degree of accuracy, as “the only man who makes good music”. Throughout Giannascoli’s career, he has racked up an impressive array of collaborations including Porches; Japanese Breakfast, Frank Ocean (he played guitar on “White Ferrari” and “Self-control”, two stand-out tracks from Blonde) and experimental producer Oneohtrix Point Never, with whom he released a brutally sad song called “Babylon” (which, the day after a breakup, I once listened to repeat for the full nine hours of an office shift.)

His music has been described as ‘lo-fi’, which suggests something scuzzy, stripped-back and straightforward. But from the very beginning, Alex G’s music has always been more interesting than that. Even his first ever album, Race (2010), is experimental and diverse in its production, balancing acoustic strumming alongside synth organs; eerie, pitch-shifted vocals, and other strange effects which I couldn’t name if I tried. From that point onwards, his sonic palette has become ever more lush and expansive, incorporating elements of folk, country and electronic music. God Save the Animals, is no exception, featuring auto-tuned vocals and flashes of hyperpop alongside lush piano arrangements and looped drum beats which almost veer into trip-hop. As well as being instrumentally varied, it captures a wide range of tones and moods, being alternatively frenetic, ecstatic, sombre and sultry. 

Alex G, with whom I spoke on the phone last week, is simultaneously one of the nicest and most difficult people I’ve ever interviewed. Although he is extremely friendly, he is simply not very talkative. Almost every sentence either ends or begins with “I guess”; he qualifies his statements with “jeez, I don’t know” or “I don’t want to say anything dumb”; he trails off, leaving us in silences so extended I feel compelled to fill them with inane chatter. By the end, I started to feel guilty every time I asked him a fresh question, as though the process were a form of torture I was subjecting him to and which he was bearing with good grace. But ultimately it doesn’t matter: he’s already said what he needs to say in his music, which speaks for itself. If he’s not great at providing catchy soundbites, who cares? It’s not his job.

As the title suggests, God Save the Animals is suffused with references to religion and faith: the opening track, “After All”, begins, “After all, people come and people stay/ yeah but God with me he stayed”, and from there on the rest of the album is peppered with references to blessings, floods, prayer, sinners, miracles and crosses; it gestures towards themes of forgiveness and redemption. But this isn’t always as earnest as it might sound: at one point he deadpans, “Jesus is my lawyer.

Giannascol’s interest in faith is something which he only developed recently. “I guess I’m not sure why I was drawn to it,” he tells Dazed. “It just started to come up in my life more and more, so it was inevitably something I was thinking about. I guess it’s just another big question that everyone ends up asking themselves.” When some of his close friends recently became religious, he started to think more about what it means and what its value might be. “I guess the crux of it is believing in a higher power, but there’s more to it. I think what it does for yourself can be valuable, as opposed to just boiling it down to simply believing that God is in control of everything,” he says.

Even if the thematic preoccupations of the album are clear, Giannascoli is never obvious or preachy. His lyrics, while often vivid, are typically opaque, and listening to God Save the Animals you’d be hard-pressed to discern a declarative statement about the meaning of religion. For Alex, ambiguity has its own kind of power. “I guess you could equate it to visual art, where on one hand there’s photography and realism, and then, on the other hand, there’s Impressionism and stuff like that,” he says. While he thinks that both approaches are valuable in their own right, he identifies with the latter far more. “I guess that’s where I’m at with it,” he says. “It’s just what I am interested in, it’s the type of art I’m drawn to so that’s what I end up making, I guess.” His lyrics might be ambiguous, but they’re also evocative, emotionally suggestive and sharply specific in their imagery. This makes the act of listening to his music – and creating the meaning for yourself – something like a collaborative act. 

While making this album, Giannascoli drew on influences from mediums other than music. He originally studied English Literature at college, with the hope of becoming a teacher before dropping out to focus on music, and he still reads a lot today. When making his last record, 2019’s House of Sugar, he was reading a lot of Roberto Bolano (the Chilean novelist most famous for 2666, a sprawling, epic set along the US-Mexico border), while his latest album is partly inspired by the work of Joy Williams, a novelist and short story writer whose work explores themes of purity, sin and spiritual and economic collapse in America. “It would be hard to say how exactly [these other mediums] play into my music, but they definitely do,” he says. “If you’re making something your brain is taking in all this stuff throughout the day, and then what feels like it just came from nowhere, it’s actually just your brain, scrambling up all the different stimuli that you acquired throughout the day.”

Throughout Giannascoli’s career, he has garnered comparison to Eliott Smith, the undisputed titan of melancholy songwriting who died by suicide in 2003. This makes sense up to a point; at times their music shares a certain laconic, aloof melancholy, and they are both excellent melodists. But it’s Alex G’s production – the way he combines acoustic instrumentation with electronic techniques like drum pads, synths and pitch-shifting – that elevates his music into vital and unmistakably contemporary music. His work might share an emotional resonance with someone like Elliott Smith or Jeff Buckley, but it’s also interesting in a way that it wouldn’t be if he was simply doing a retread. While he’s arguably a modern update of the “singer-songwriter” archetype, he doesn’t quite fit that mould. “I completely understand why I am considered a singer-songwriter and I have no problem with any of that,” he says. “It’s just when I'm thinking of myself making music, I think of myself more as a producer.”

From his earliest days making music in his bedroom, he has always had a keen interest in utilising whatever technology he had at his disposal. “I think that's a big part of my music,” he says. “I guess the difference is that I have access to all this recording stuff and all this technology, whereas for Elliott Smith, and other singer-songwriters like him, their canvas was mostly limited to their instruments. But I can sit here with my laptop and mess around. It’s so easy for me to pitch-shift or do all this crazy stuff. The laptop is kind of like my instrument,” he says. This kind of experimentation is, above all, a way of keeping himself engaged with what he’s making. “The whole time I’m just trying to keep myself feeling something, and so if the melody isn’t doing it for me anymore, maybe I’ll mess with the pitch or add a harmony and sometimes I’ll end up liking it more after doing that,” he says.

Alongside his more esoteric influences, he was also listening to a lot of mainstream commercial pop music on the radio while making the album – something which is most apparent on “No Bitterness”, a song which starts out as a sombre acoustic ballad before exploding into a hyperpop anthem which sounds like something approaching a 100 Gecs song. “I always listened to the radio a lot, and I’ve always tried to capture some of that stuff in my music,” he says. “But it always comes across differently. I have never been able to get it right, I guess because of the limited means I had. I didn't have the nice microphones and I hadn’t developed my craft – and I still haven’t, I'm still not there. But I guess I just liked that stuff, and I respect it.” 

After years of being proclaimed irrelevant, guitar music has made a striking resurgence in recent years, with artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Sam Fender becoming wildly popular, even generation-defining. Alex G forms a part of this resurgence, even if he’s at the more experimental and inventive end of the spectrum. When I ask him why he thinks guitar music has made such a comeback, he says he hasn’t thought about it much. “I guess maybe it’s some kind of cycle where everyone is just referring back to the music they heard when they were kids,” he says. “With my generation, in the late 90s and early 2000s, there’s a lot of melancholy guitar stuff like Smashing Pumpkins, Elliott Smith, Wilco, Radiohead…” Is that the kind of music he liked himself as a teenager? “You caught me,” he says with a grin, “I was basically just listing off everything I listened to then. But yeah, I feel that’s what I’m always subconsciously referencing. I wonder if that’s why it’s coming back…oh, jeez, I don’t know.”

In the end, maybe Giannascoli’s polite refusal to go too deep, or unwillingness to expound on his own music – to stay restrained or platitudinous – doesn’t really matter very much. Maybe an album as great as God Save the Animals doesn’t need to be explained. 

God Save The Animals is out now