“Am I eating this right?” It’s around lunchtime on a drizzly Wednesday in April, and Alexander Giannascoli is shoveling a triangular rice ball into his mouth at Cafe Hanamizuki in Midtown Manhattan. Other patrons are demurely eating their rice balls with chopsticks, but since I just consumed two of my own hands-first, I tell Giannascoli not to worry about it. He looks relieved and scarfs down another.
In his nondescript T-shirt and hoodie, the Philadelphia-based lo-fi luminary doesn’t behave like someone who got signed to Domino Records before graduating from college, earned spots on just about every year-end album list via his 2014 breakout, DSU, or even someone who’s worked with the elusive Frank Ocean. But Giannascoli, who used to perform under the name Alex G but now, as of last April, goes by (Sandy) Alex G, has done all of these things —and more. He just isn’t prone to talking about it, nor is he that into other self-promotional strategies: social media, selfies, et al.
“I don’t know enough about the world to know if this is true or not, but Australian Aboriginal people don’t even get their picture taken because they feel like it captures their soul or some shit,” he says. “And I was thinking that whenever I get my picture taken I get so preoccupied with how I look and I feel like that’s just a bad move. Like, my day’s going great until I look in the mirror.”
“I was thinking that whenever I get my picture taken I get so preoccupied with how I look and I feel like that’s just a bad move. Like, my day’s going great until I look in the mirror.”
But having his picture taken is just another reality the 24-year-old faces more and more lately, between the cult success of his Bandcamp output, as well as both Domino releases, 2015’s Beach Music and the forthcoming Rocket (out on May 19) and, oh, working with Frank Ocean.
Just a few years ago, Giannascoli was your average college student at Temple University, but the setting didn’t agree with him. “It’s such a big school that no one cares,” he says. “Like, the kids who knew what they want go and can use the school to get what they want, but school doesn’t seem like a great idea anymore for most kids when it’s so crazy expensive. I talked to other people who went to college and they either went to smaller schools or something, and they’d say how their professors would talk to them and make sure they’re up to date on everything and understanding material. I just couldn’t make myself care about school.”
Instead, Giannascoli focused his energies on writing and recording a pastiche of spare, homespun pop melodies using just a laptop and a mic. He eventually released six full-lengths, including the critically acclaimed DSU, which the Run For Cover label re-released that same year. Halfway through Giannascoli’s junior year at Temple, on the strength of his cult-Bandcamp status, Domino approached him with a deal, allowing him to leave school early. To him, it was the practical choice. “I figured I could probably start paying my bills with this,” he says. “Domino had a generous offer, and I was like, ‘Okay, I can do it!’”
Leaving school was undoubtedly the right call — in the years since, Giannascoli has enjoyed tremendous critical acclaim, with Beach Music getting a glowing review in The New York Times and Frank Ocean himself reaching out about contributing guitar-work to the aforementioned Endless and Blonde. Giannascoli is in full shrug mode when it comes to Ocean’s name. He actually plays down the experience. “I don’t know how he heard [my music], but I guess he liked it,” he says. It definitely wasn’t, like, me and him sitting in a recording studio. He just had me record over some stuff. Everyone there was really nice and conscientious.”
Ocean and Giannascoli are more kindred than the latter might admit — both are known to their respective audiences as quiet and cryptic, secretive and introverted. Those qualities are certainly present on Rocket, which is a patchwork quilt of instruments and genres: Rocket opens with traditional guitar-folk on the minimal “Poison Root,” Animal Collective-sounding vocal echoes abound on “Witch,” while “Bobby” features Americana violin scratches (supplied by Giannascoli’s girlfriend, Molly) and the chaotic “Horse” is a clatter of bass drum thuds, atonal piano tinkles and moaning synth, plus it’s all capped off with a long, drawn-out groan from Giannascoli himself.
The album is also recorded in a similar fashion to Giannascoli’s earliest work, which is to say, no studios are involved (though he says he did turn it over to engineer Jake Portrait, who acted as co-producer, for “fine-tuning”). Raised profile or no, (Sandy) Alex G just knows what works for him. Little has changed in terms of his writing and recording style since getting signed, except now he goes out a little less around Philly. “I used to be out a lot, but now I kind of lay low,” he says. “My friend Scotty plays music in this thing called Shelf Life, I go to his shows. But I think some of those people just don’t need the support of seeing me show up to a gig. They’re getting mass crowds.”
He’s also grateful to have help with actually promoting his work. “I think I was way hungrier before I signed, but creatively I think it’s about the same,” he says. “I think that before I signed to Domino, I was a little more like, ‘I gotta do it all,’ because I’m trying to get paid, or something. Now I feel a little more secure. Maybe I’m less pretentious now. Maybe I’m more pretentious. I don’t know.”