Interview by Jason Schreurs
It’s interesting to talk to songwriters about some of the albums that inspired them the most. Beach Slang‘s James Alex says one of his most influential albums comes from a band his own group has been compared to countless times, The Replacements. The ‘Mats’ 1987 album, Pleased to Meet Me, not only gave Alex the songwriting push he needed to take Beach Slang to the next step, it also features one of his all-time favourite songs. But maybe not the one you’d think?
James Alex: This is shooting from the hip, and I could answer right now and probably change my mind in 10 minutes, but in this moment in time that we’re talking right now, I could definitely hit you with a favourite record. Pleased to Meet Me by The Replacements has always been really huge for me. I like everything by them since the beginning, but something about when they got to this album and [guitarist/vocalist Paul] Westerberg’s songwriting started to go into a place I’m more drawn to as a songwriter. Stink and Sorry Ma had that really punk attack, and I subscribe to the spirit of that, and I love the songs on those albums, and those records mean so much to me, but as a songwriter I really dig on the direction they went with Pleased to Meet Me. A song like “Never Mind” has always meant so much to me. I just got asked by someone about my favourite song of all time, and while that’s totally impossible to answer, I can think of the one that really lifted me up as a writer for the Beach Slang stuff, and that’s “Never Mind” on this record. Then there’s “Alex Chilton” and “The Ledge,” and they cut the album in Memphis with [producer] Jim Dickinson, and with all of the Big Star interconnectivity on the album, so it just felt like it all came together on that record. All the cool things they were thinking and believing in, it just sort of all hit perfectly on this record.
A lot of people would say it’s The Replacements’ pinnacle album. In your mind, was this where they reached their peak?
Yeah, I think so. If I very, very loosely equate this album to my life, and I’m certainly not trying to put myself in that sort of company, but I remember when I first started writing songs and I basically tried to steal from The Ramones, right? And then you knock that around so much and you start to think, “What else can I do here?” And you start to make some weird chord moves, or you get a bit smarter and weirder in a really cool way, and it’s just pushing your craft forward. With Westerberg, I hear that on this record, where on the early songs, I’ll still turn those up and have at it, but here with that push, and that push, and that pop… and there’s that breakthrough, and as an enormous fan of his writing, I really feel that on this album. So, as a listener, it’s really exciting, but as a writer, when I hear that breakthrough on this album, I’m like, “Yeah, it’s possible,” so you just keep pushing forward. So this album really resonates with me.
One of the cool things about this album is how restrained it is. A song like “Can’t Hardly Wait” is so understated.
For sure, man. And there’s a quiet power to that. I know the expected power is just turning up and going, but there’s something equally brilliant about restraint.
I have to admit, I was always weirded out by the cover art of this album, with the two shaking hands.
Yeah, exactly. Someone showed up to one of our shows recently with that shirt on…
It was almost to the point where I was afraid to buy the album because I thought it would be totally lame with that cover art. Like, “Oh my god, what have they done?”
[Laughs] Right on, man. I’m a graphic designer and before I started doing Beach Slang full time I was working at this agency, and that was one of our creative director’s rules, that you could never have shaking hands be symbolic of anything, because of the cover of this record! [Laughs]
You guys get a lot of comparisons to The Replacements, and also to Jawbreaker. How does it feel to be compared to bands like that?
It feels incredible. Those two bands are in my top five. It’s pretty amazing and it’s really hard to put into words. When you first start a band, all of that stuff is weirdo dreamscape stuff, and to think that you could even get mentioned next to someone that you revere and respect and admire so much as an artist, I don’t know how to say how much that means to me. I’m still that kid that hangs up posters in my room; rock and roll is my life and I love it, so to be mentioned next to bands like that means everything to me.
The Replacements‘ Pleased to Meet Me was released in 1987 on Sire Records.