James Snyder is up to something when I call – some secret recording project – and I almost get him to tell me. But then he remembers he can't say much except it's a “cool thing” and he'll make sure his press person emails me as soon as it's done.
The Philly scene veteran (he led punk heroes Weston for many years before the band dissolved) seems invigorated by his new project Beach Slang, a dizzyingly hard-charging guitar rock outfit with a two EPs worth of heartbroken anthems. They've got a full-length in the bag, a tour with The Hotelier that stops in Indy on Tuesday, plus that new secret project – and like Snyder said in a call with me last week, they've got plenty more cards up their sleeves.
NUVO: You mentioned the chemistry with JP [Flexner, drums] and Ed [McNulty, bass] a lot in interviews. Can you define what it is about them as musicians, their playing and instincts that makes them work so well with you on this particular project?
James Snyder: I think Beach Slang songs and records would be a lot sappier [without them]. I craft these sort of sad-slash-hopeful-longing songs, right? And then I take it into the rehearsal space, and those guys give them muscle. JP is a real thundering drummer. And Ed just has really good sensibilities. You know how some bass players will just start slapping the thing, or trying to be crazy with the doo, doo, doo [imitates a bass run]. He just does the thing that needs to be done, sits in that pocket, fills up that nice space there. An intensity, an urgency comes with these songs once they leave my room and go into that rehearsal space. Some of that's the function of turning up and being loud, but more of it's just they're doing the thing.
We synched into that role within the first couple of minutes we played. I was just telling this story a few days ago. The first song I ever brought into them was “Filthy Luck.” The first time we played it we stopped and had this weird moment where we looked at each other. It was just like, “I guess we're a band now.” It was really that easy. It's been great.
NUVO: You had all of this momentum and options going into the studio off the strength of your two EPs. What did you know you definitely wanted to do in the studio sonically, and what did you want to stay away from when you were making this record?
Snyder: Two things I definitely knew I wanted to do, and one answers what I didn't want to do: One was I wanted to make sure we didn't get painted into a corner, like, “Here's the Beach Slang sound. It's this and if they stray outside of this, I don't think we're going to want it.” I wanted to make sure the paint strokes were broader. Kind of like these guys could bring something shoegazey or Brit pop inspired and it all sort of makes sense in this weirdo Beach Slang world. That was important to me. This is only LP one; I don't already want to have no cards up the sleeve.
The second thing I wanted to make sure happened was that we approached it with the same spirit that we promised each other we would always approach it with. We would turn up, plug in, hit record. It's first or second take; we don't want to bleed the soul out of these things. So now just because we had a bit of a budget and had time, and things like that, I didn't want it to turn into like [when] bands say, “Well we have time, what if we try this? What if we have a trombonist playing on the roof?” And it just all becomes silly stuff that's cool to like, write in the liner notes, but it's not going to add anything to the record. We're a rock and roll band. That's what we wanted to be.
NUVO: For the listener, it feels like such a fast turnaround for your work: EP (Cheap Thrills on a Dead End Street) EP (Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken?), full-length to come, tour. … How have you maintained the speed and momentum of writing so much? Is it just all pouring out of you ight now, and you have the time and the flexibility to do it?
Snyder: It is. Even when I didn't have the time, when I was still day-jobbing it. You know sleep to me is kind of overrated. I love to write. I do it everyday regardless of results. Most days, nothing comes out. But it's that process of crashing and burning that leads to the breakthrough. So I have songs already stockpiled once we have time. That's an important thing. Things go stale when they sit too long. That's no different as a rock and roll band. I had that conversation with Polyvinyl when we were still in the talking stage of working together. I was like, “I'm restless when I'm idle. I need to keep moving. Are you guys going to be cool with that?” I think they just sort of realized that it's been working for [us] so far, so we don't want to mess with the formula. They've been really sweet and cool and accommodating. I couldn't believe how fast they got vinyl turned around.
NUVO: You're both a graphic designer and a lyric writer. How do you balance those two spheres of creativity? How do they intersect?
Snyder: So, before Beach Slang, I went to art school, got out of there, and immediately started working at an agency. That was before Beach Slang. Even there, when I'm just a designer, all of my visual concepts would start with me sketching lyrics explaining how these things are going to look, and finding these right words. I wasn't a paid writer there, but I would sort of set these lyrical tones for copywriters, who thankfully were really sweet and accepting. But I suppose it's been, long before how I knew how to properly make pictures, before I knew a chord on the guitar, as a kid, I wanted to be a writer. Words have always set the bar for me. Now it's like, if I think in terms of words, say: 1970 Blondie concert t-shirt crashed with that lead in "Heaven" by the Psychedelic Furs, to me, visually, I know what that looks like. But I need to say it to myself like that first, and then I know how to [proceed].
NUVO: So I read this Ian Cohen interview with you for Wondering Sound — and I have to say, as soon as I turned on your first EP, I thought to myself, I do not know him, but I know Ian Cohen will like this, because I've read enough of his stuff — and you say, "As for me, I might as well be 20. I’m in it full bore. For whatever reason, my body’s holding up. If you dig it enough, it’s bulletproof to all the junk that comes with it. The payoffs and the adventures and all that awesome stuff is just worth it, so sleeping with your knees to your chest in the van doesn’t rattle me at all." I feel like you can hear that vitality and energy in Beach Slang's music. Tell me about this. How are you touring and making music and hanging in there after years of dealing with the hard realities that come with touring as a musician?
Snyder: I think it's just because I mean it. You know where you start off, right; I was a teenager and everybody has varying reasons to do it, whether it's like there's a girl or a boy you want to impress, or whatever your deal is. You just want to semi-run away from home, so you get to go in a van and drive around the country. For me, it was — and this sounds cliche and hokey, and I get that it sounds that way, but it's the truth — I don't know what else to do if I don't do this. And it's important to me to challenge myself, and break myself, and hate myself, and love myself, and do all these things to push that craft through. Because at this stage in my game, it's the thing I've defined myself as, and I love it. That's the thing, if you mean something. I know people that have been knitting their whole life, right, grandparents or whatever. I know people that, whatever the thing it is that they do, they're still so fiercely into it because they weren't posturing. They weren't trying to look cool. They were doing the thing they genuinely love. If you do the thing you genuinely love, you're going to have no trouble feeling and sounding and seeming vital the entire time you do it. Because it's the goods, that's what you're meant to do.
This interview has been condensed and edited.