Tonje Thilesen

It's Calling Me Back: Inside (Sandy) Alex G's Creatively Restless House Of Sugar

The Philadelphia singer-songwriter tells MTV News how he wanted to 'keep my name a little bit more for myself'

(Sandy) Alex G is being asked about Frank Ocean again, and all he can do is politely laugh. To be fair, the connection is a key part of his bio: The 26-year-old played guitar on both Blonde and Endless, raising his profile from beloved lo-fi linchpin with hours of music on Bandcamp to marquee collaborator. Or so you'd think. In the years since, apart from a spare Oneohtrix Point Never cover and production work for Glitterer, his name has only appeared on his own musical projects. This is very much by design.

"I don't want someone to hear a song and then they don't know which part is me and which part isn't me,” Alex told MTV News. On his restlessly creative new album House of Sugar, out today (September 13) via Domino, all the parts are his, even as he enlists added help for violin, bass, drums, guitar, vocals, and even saxophone on key tracks.

After Blonde, he put the word out about potentially writing for other artists behind the scenes, but prospective partners wanted more. "The few people that asked I think wanted me to be a public collaborator," the Philadelphia singer-songwriter said. "I wasn’t that into that just because I'm trying to keep my name a little bit more for myself."

That name — born Alexander Giannascoli but known widely as Alex G before adding (Sandy) in 2017 — is distinctly his. His Bandcamp page stretches back to 2010, brimming with slender yet emotionally complex acoustic numbers with titles like "Gnaw" and "Harvey." The experience of listening to his music, home-recorded on a laptop but roomy, always feels uniquely private. It's led to a fanbase so devoted they've dedicated a subreddit to him; r/sandyalexg posters share guitar tabs, upload live videos, and in one recent example of extreme fandom, even unearthed Alex's own high school track times.

Alex has seen the site, and he says he's grateful for their dedication even as it continues to blow his mind. "I feel a lot of respect from those people and I appreciate that, but also I guess I'm just like, why are you interested in [my track times]?" he says. At the same time, the mere presence of the site "makes me feel more secure in my efforts." The subreddit speaks to the state of modern fandom, where the barrier between artist and listener is more tenuous than ever thanks to social media. But Alex's official social pages are mostly promotional, leaving most of the personal connection to occur via the music itself. It comes in the details.

On "Hope," a House of Sugar highlight and early single, he sings with an ache in his voice, "He was a good friend of mine / He died, why write about it now? / Gotta honor him somehow." The next lines specifically reference fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid linked to nearly 60 percent of all opioid-related deaths in 2017 (as well as those of Prince and Tom Petty).

"It happened," Alex said. "I was living with a guy, and then he died. But I'm usually reluctant to talk about any songs because, you know, they're all autobiographical in a way." He's especially reticent to divulge too much about "Hope" given the sensitive nature of its creation. "I felt differently because I had never been so literal, and so I wanted to be sure that I was as respectful of the situation as possible because I knew the people around me were gonna be like, 'Uh, what the fuck?'"

Alex stresses that his goal is to create resonant art by being honest with himself while maneuvering around telling his own precise story. It's more like, as he explained, "look at this character in this context." You can hear those inspired machinations across House of Sugar. On "Bad Man," he adopts a winking Les Claypool twang to deliver some unsavory details about broken wrists and bombs. ("I wanted the listener to hear me saying, like, 'I get it,' basically.") "Cow" shimmers gorgeously even as he sings, "You big old cow" to a potential savior. And if you've ever messed around with rudimentary keyboard and drum programming in an attempt to ape Aphex Twin, "Project 2" will make you feel extremely seen.

House of Sugar's endless charm lies in Alex's commitment to his comparatively barebones setup. Just like on previous releases, everything's run through a laptop, though this time, he upgraded his microphone in order to "move forward in a different direction" that "makes you wanna dance and shit." One song notably not captured in the studio is Springsteenian closer "SugarHouse," whose immediate sax wails make it feel at first like music trailing in from another room. The version here — captured at a November 2018 gig in St. Louis with his live band Sam Acchione, Tom Kelly, John Heywood, and David Allen Scoli — holds as much melancholy as the dozen tracks before it, yet Alex found inspiration in a hopeful place.

Tonje Thilesen

"I toured so much with these guys, and basically they're my closest friends. I respect their musicianship a lot, so I wanted them on the album," he said. There's also precedent: Neil Young's 1992 album Harvest Moon, which closes with a sprawling 10-minute live cut of "Natural Beauty." "I just really fucked with that. It takes you out of the studio for a second."

While Alex creates in the studio, his sister Rachel, a visual artist, creates separately. After, her work — often singular figures in the middle distance — becomes irrevocably linked to his by occupying his album covers. "I think it's cool because we are kind of always on the same page about stuff, at least aesthetically," he said. Alex attributed his exploration of alternative music to her, and she even lends vocals to the ghostly "Near." Her "strong-willed" pursuits of art and music ended up paying off for him, too. "I'm sort of the spoiled benefactor of that."

That symbiotic dynamic made me think of Alex's own backlog of music, hours of intimate recordings all available at a click. Once you start in, the way he bounds from industrial hardcore to Pavement alt to lovesick folk can intoxicate. You might start to recall it in, say, a sunset. Back over at r/sandyalexg, a fan did exactly that, photoshopping House of Sugar's cover skater onto a beautiful purple nighttime vista. It was widely praised, how else but with some casual lyric quoting. One commenter invoked "Gretel," one of Alex's best, just about summing up the intangible power of his music: "It's calling me back."