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A Quietus Interview

Overwhelmed By What’s Inside: Alexis Marshall Of Daughters Interviewed
Jamie Ryder , December 6th, 2018 10:48

The frontman of the fearsome Rhode Island four-piece takes a call from Jamie Ryder to discuss punching journalists and one of the best rock LPs of the year, You Won't Get What You Want

Portraits by Reid Haithcock

Musicians are often excellent multi-taskers. Although, says science, what we describe when we use the term ‘multi-tasking’ doesn’t actually exist. What we’re really talking about is task switching, or the ability to hop neatly from job to job without getting stuck in too much cognitive traffic en route.

Recording albums or successfully getting through live performances calls for a musician’s attention to be deployed in multiple directions. You’ve got to consider timings, textures, dynamics and arrangement, not to mention the heady world of tonal maths, to get anywhere.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Alexis “Lex” Marshall, vocalist of the Providence, Rhode Island band Daughters, is such a natural at making threats while folding laundry. We speak over Skype, and it’s fairly early in the morning in central Pennsylvania when he takes my call. Getting some domestic tasks out of the way concurrently makes sense: two chores in half the time. We discuss the band’s new work first, and Marshall arrives at the topic of ‘The Reason They Hate Me’, a standout track from their latest album (and their first with Ipecac), You Won’t Get What You Want.

“Don’t tell me how to do my job!” the track sees Marshall chant over screeching guitars and hurricane-force drumming. A cry against the rude customers, the overbearing managers, the backseat drivers of the world? Not quite. ‘The Reason They Hate Me,’ says Marshall, is directed at music journalists.

“They’ve somehow inserted themselves into the music community as though they’re ‘one of us’, as in people who are being creative and putting music out there to be swallowed and digested. They think their opinions are really fucking important. And they’re just pricks. And they don’t have the gall — or the balls, for lack of a better word — to be creative because they know there are people just as shitty as themselves who are gonna stomp all over it and they aren’t willing to do that.” I respond that I’ve always wanted someone to write a song about me, and now feel that a lengthy piece graphically shit-taking Marshall, his bandmates and their output seems like a fast-track to that goal.

“Well, we’ll be in England soon,” he says diplomatically. “And Hemingway, when he got bad reviews, would find the reviewer and go to their home and punch them.” I can’t see Lex over Skype, but I know that he’s wearing a smirk (and possibly a nicely warmed shirt, fresh from the dryer).

Marshall, who formed Daughters with Brent Fantini, Nick Sadler and Samuel Walker in 2001, is used to getting up close and personal with listeners. The band’s confrontational live shows, which at times feature Lex enduring “people spitting in my mouth, punching me, grabbing me, trying to pull my shirt off or whatever,” are exercises in tension-building and punishing release, the initially suave and suited Marshall becoming increasingly dishevelled and frantic as the night progresses. He’s a bit too wry and considered over the phone for me to really picture him getting into fistfights with detractors (especially as a father of two) but the ferocity of his performances is no joke.

“Some people say they’re always nervous when they play. But I don’t feel nervous, really — I get antsy. I want to just play. It’s why I don’t really like to go to shows that much. Whenever I see people playing I get jealous and think ‘Well, I wanna play now.’ It’s very selfish.” He chuckles. “I see other people performing and get inspired and immediately want to perform.”

“My brother had these old VHS tapes of Alice Cooper cutting his own head off and holding snakes onstage and all the crazy theatrics — it was brilliant. I got older, and saw punk bands, Henry Rollins and The Stooges. That was more interesting to me than anyone being a good singer. My interest was in the energy and not really the sounds coming out of their mouths.”

On the press topic, I sense a wound. Daughters wouldn’t strike anybody as the kind of band that cares about their press — from the early work, full of alarming speed-punk freakouts, to the latest material, stately and harrowing, few listeners would immediately peg them as a group with critical acclaim and popular appeal on their minds. But I can also understand that it mustn’t be fun to take great care labouring over art for months only to have some obnoxious grad condemn it, bobbing smugly on his or her office gym ball somewhere in New York.

“I never read a review and thought ‘Here’s a hell of a reviewer,’” Lex continues. “I never thought ‘I’d better follow this guy.’”

Are we talking criticism in general here?

“Art criticism? Get the fuck out of here. How do you criticise art? It’s great for the critic. But they’re not creating anything. They’re doing nothing of any real value. They’re just looking at what other people have created and giving their opinion about it. That’s fucking meaningless.” I mumble something about Susan Sontag and the tangible impacts strong writing can have on people’s lives. Lex relents a little.

“Well, the song is about my personal experience with people who aren’t particularly interested in conveying information. They’re just interested in their opinions of things, which I think is more harmful than helpful. Observation and discussion is lacking in journalism. People are much more interested in saying ‘These are my tastes. Here’s why this doesn’t fit in with my tastes and why it’s not good enough and shouldn’t be good enough for anyone.'”

Whatever the case, critics are keen on the latest Daughters. It’s an intimidating listen, full of shrieking glass, dented metal and lyrical brooding. I risk one last critical sally and tell Lex one of my friends thinks the commanding, half-spoken vocal performances on You Won’t Get What You Want sound like an evil Jonathan Richman. Surprisingly, this is met with approval. “I’ll take that,” he laughs. “I like the Modern Lovers. That’s maybe my favourite comparison I’ve had so far, actually.”

Writing the album, Lex says, couldn’t have happened without the internet. While he’s spooked by pathological device-use (“I speak openly to all my friends about being excited to deprive my children of things like phones”), the band relied on file-sharing platform Dropbox to help them knock songs into shape as a unit, contributing digitally from their various respective home states. That style of working — airing ideas in a group forum following individual tinkering — is one you’d likely associate more with a hip hop collective than an established noise-prone rock band. But it seemed to suit Daughters just fine.

“Nick [Sadler, guitars] was working on things endlessly and he would add regularly. ‘The Lord’s Song’ was one that Nick had finished, he felt, and he wasn’t paying any more attention to it. One day I was sitting on the toilet listening to the demos, singing along in my head. I immediately texted him saying I wanted to go back to it.”

That song, the record’s pummelling midpoint, contains some of Marshall’s most emphatic vocals along with allusions to "the sampled voice of God”, the narrator “staring at the ceiling, cry[ing] about it because I want to.” What “it” really is is not disclosed.

“There are hundreds of songs in that Dropbox,” he continues. “A lot of things vanish, but I think we’ll revisit those soon and see. There’s always an output. When you’re creative, you just have to keep creating. I’m kind of thinking about it now and suddenly feeling really overwhelmed by what’s inside.”

Despite the fragmentary nature of the writing process, the band assembled in the studio with producer Seth Manchester to lay the tracks down once enough material had been amassed. And, really, you’ll be glad for it — the record is indulgently lush and expensive-sounding, even at its most abrasive. Guitars grab you by the collar, the bass empties your pockets and the drums sock you in the eye. Marshall’s voice presides, circling you, taunting.

“I’m not a gear person,” he points out. “I honestly hate the process of recording. I like being together and the camaraderie, but often I hate having to track something multiple times. And if it were up to me, we’d just write a record and we’d go somewhere, play it front to back and record the whole thing live. But that’s not the way it works. It’s good that I’m not allowed to make those decisions because the record would be a lot more stripped down.”

While the band works together on songwriting, lyrics are Lex’s domain. He’s a published poet as well as a musician, but for him the two disciplines rarely inform each other.

“For Daughters, the writing is much more narrative and less personal. I keep [poetry and lyrics] very separate. I’ve rarely written a song that’s turned into a poem or vice versa.”

However, it does happen now and again: “On the self-titled album there’s this song ‘The Virgin’ that started as a poem I was writing and the anaphora began to lend itself to the verse. But it’s not very often. Especially now. I have to be careful, because I’m writing the lyrics but we’re a group. It has to be a representation of everybody and not exclusively my feelings on something.”

I’m interested in how the process might differ across the two forms. Lex likes character studies for the opportunity they afford to step away from the self and adopt new perspectives.

“It’s more fun because I’m not writing one particular way, constantly. When I’m writing poetry I’m myself. I’m in my skin interpreting situations. And I read literature, poetry, fiction and non-fiction and the paper. I don’t feel that I need to write one particular way because I don’t read one particular way.”

Marshall’s hate addiction to cheesy Instagram poetry is well-documented. I don’t want to retread barren interview ground any more than necessary, but I would like to hear his opinion on just what it is that makes signally awful content so weirdly absorbing. If we really do all despise Rupi Kaur’s writing and think it belongs on a school desk rather than in The New York Times, why are we back on her feed for the third time in a week? Is it for the sheer fun of expostulating?

“I find it humorous,” Lex explains. “We all love to feel outraged. We love to get upset and shake our fists. And I look at these people with 50,000 people following their page and think, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ There’s great poetry out there. I’m happy to know that, eventually, we will all move on from Instagram and Facebook and people will realise getting published is actually quite hard. And people like Charles Simic and John Ashbury will still exist.”

So Lex seems determined that worthwhile art should eventually be recognised, whatever the view of journalists or the public. For his own band, he hopes for longevity, genre-traversal and as wide an audience as possible.

“I don’t know where we fall in the pantheon of rock music or whatever, but ultimately I’d like to think of us as a band like Killing Joke or Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails — a band that appeals to everybody. You can like death metal and still like NIN. You can listen to whatever pop music’s on the radio and still like Radiohead.”

More fans is a concerning prospect where Lex’s physical health is concerned. Busier shows mean more people to please, which means the Daughters frontman pushing himself ever harder.

“My body is just bruises and cuts. My forehead is all scar tissue. I come home and take my clothes off and my partner is like ‘What the fuck happened to you?’ I’m all fucked up, and I’m happy about that.”

“If I was to play,” he goes on, “and I came off and my suit was still nice and crisp and my hair looked nice… I would feel that I’d done a disservice to the people that came to see us play. You go to a show, you want to see a show. If you want to hear the record you can sit at home and do that. I want people to see something that’ll stay with them. Sometimes I’ve gone too far with that and hurt myself pretty badly, but I don’t regret any of it. I want to perform. It’s what I care the most about doing.”

While Lex’s workmanlike attitude makes sense in the context of his earlier remarks about which art endures over time, he acknowledges that sometimes the really awful shows stick with you as much as those by the super-tight, smooth and assured bands. His clear appreciation for the absurd contrasts nicely with the intense focus You Won’t Get What You Want, which while not without humour is insistently uncompromising and dour. “One experience had me almost on my knees,” he says. “We played a festival called Dirt Fest outside of Detroit. We had a show, and it was a mixed bag as it often was back then. I’m there sticking my fist in my mouth, puking on my shoes and pulling my dick out. People didn’t really know what to think of us, especially at festivals.”

(Daughters weren’t asked to return to the festival. “We often aren’t asked to come back to things,” Lex says neutrally. His tone is matter of fact, but I detect a hint of pride.)

“So,” the story continues, “we had our performance and our tour manager went to see the promoter to get paid while we stopped at this stage hidden off to the side. It was, we discovered, the local stage, which was for all of the bands from the area that were… not good. At all. And there was this band called GrAsS [a stylisation I learned of later], as in marijuana.”

“They were a three-piece, and the guitar player had this kind of House Of Pain look — he had a fisherman’s cap, and he was doing a really funny strut-stomp thing across stage. He was scatting, you know, ‘Wap-bap a doop-bap’; it was some of the worst shit I’ve ever heard in my life. There was a guy in the mosh pit with rollerblades on.”

I call a timeout and demand an explanation. Surely not. I’m aghast, but also extremely impressed. Unfortunately Lex has no comment to give on where that individual might be today.

“And we just stood in the back of this. We were beside ourselves. The singer said ‘Yo — all these bands, fuck these new bands that have come in here. But we saw Daughters!’ And he saw us standing in the back. ‘Daughters kicked ass up there!’ We didn’t know what to do. We were like deer in the headlights.”

It’s a great image — Daughters, assembled, tattooed, monochrome-clad and morose, exchanging alarmed glances as a tentful of local diehards swivels to stare in unison. Perhaps the rollerblader, without the pit to catch him, goes headfirst over the barrier at this point.

“Could we really walk away? The beam had us, and we were frozen. It was pulling us in.”

Fortunately for Lex and co., GrAsS didn’t ask them to join in onstage. “We watched their set, and it was mid-blowing. As we left, the drummer ran up and gave us his CD, and was like ‘Thanks for watching us!’ To this day, I don’t know how to feel about that experience. It was kind of disheartening but also sweet. It was terrible and wonderful at the same time.”

“Terrible, but wonderful” wouldn’t be a bad label to put on You Won’t Get What You Want. Terrible in the intimidating, overwhelming sense rather than meaning “low quality”.

“But the story of that band,” Lex adds, “the guys in GrAsS — they had started the festival a decade before in their backyard. And every year they were allowed to book the local sage in the back off to the side where all the white trash could go and watch their buddies play their terrible music. While all the actual bands played around the Alternative Press photo booth and the fuckin’ Monster Energy Drink section and all this ridiculous shit.”

He sounds resigned. While Daughters now have the kind of name recognition and fanbase that would make them a shoo-in for a litany of branded tents, sponsored stages and ghoulish corporate tie-ins, it seems like a large part of Lex might miss life on the lower tiers and shows on the local stage. While his feelings about the quality of GrAsS’s live show are clear, there’s an affectionate note to his voice throughout.

It’s difficult — you might put long hours and lots of sweat into producing distinctive work to satisfy an inner urge, enough that the payoff goes beyond the simple satisfaction of the need and becomes fiscal, becomes real. You’re lucky enough to make music for a living. But then, when the art is the job and when the reality of the Monster Energy Drink stages makes itself clear, you might start to pine for the grubby backyard shows, crappy gear and simplicity that characterises amateur band membership. At that point, a guy on rollerblades in the mosh might seem like a sign from the universe rather than somebody to laugh at.

“I remember the first time I played with a bunch of guys in a garage,” Lex tells me. “They were in a band, and they had a singer, and they were playing a party in the garage. But he — the singer — had gone off to a swimming hole or something, and they said ‘Hey, you want to sing? We’re going to do this Slayer song,’ or something.”

“And I did it, and suddenly I was one of them. I don’t know if anyone was even in the room watching or whatever, but that was an important moment to me. That it wasn’t me just singing into a comb in front of a mirror or something like that. This was some real shit, like I could do this. Like, not on a major level or something, but I thought I could sing in a band. I pushed through that wall, and there’s another world on the other side that I can explore."

You Won't Get What You Want is out now on Ipecac