Allow No Distractions: Marshstepper Interviewed

Marshstepper live in Arizona's badlands and like making an unholy racket without wearing many clothes. With European dates and a new record on Downwards imminent, they tell Luke Turner about their mysterious practice

The photograph shows a man and a woman, both naked, holding up bowls, bathed in blue light. Click to the next one: there’s a bald man, skull covered in blood, ropes from his arms. Pictures of Marshstepper continue in that vein – nudity, both male and female, flames, knives, gore, lanterns, plague masks. That sort of thing. The group, formed around the duo of JS Aurelius and Nick Nappa, hail from the badlands of Tempe, Arizona, but make music that takes its kinship from the basement of Throbbing Gristle’s Death Factory, circa 1979 or some wooded wilds in Eastern Europe. Marshstepper’s music fascinates because it feels so incongruous against the place in which it was made.

I once spent a considerable time in the American middle, roads powering through a featureless expanse of ranchland and deserts that stank of giant cattle farms, sports sweat, Miller Light and potluck lunches for veterans, congregations, convention. In places like this, getting away from the stultifying mainstream is often more likely to take the form of slacker escapism than this gothic, at times cartoonish, mixture of performance art, noise, black metal, nasty muttering and the fringes of British Murder Boys-style techno. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising that forthcoming Marshstepper album A New Sacrament of Penance is finding its home on Regis’ Downwards label.

Marshstepper are not alone, however. The two key members, JS Aurelius and Nick Nappa are also part of thrashy racket merchants Destruction Unit, about which Aurelius says, "beyond the obvious member overlap, the connection is a dedication to honesty and experiment. With such an extreme commitment to both, the idea of genre becomes irrelevant." They all operate under the umbrella of the Ascetic House, an art collective (for want of a better word), the website of which features a manifesto that boldly proclaims that "we seek nothing less than the destruction of a culture which dictates the forms our art may take… This is a total assault on our culture and ours needs no experts, no artists – only you".

Can you tell us about the first germinations and murmurings of Marshstepper? How did you all meet and what sparked a common bond?

JS Aurelius: I was sick of playing music, and had stopped pretty much entirely. I was focusing mostly on writing and illustration. I had written a couple performance art pieces and couldn’t figure out who I wanted to get to perform them. The idea to start a project that incorporated performance got me interested in playing music again.

Nick Nappa: The music is a collaboration between Jes and myself. The performances include additional people depending on the night. Sometimes they are elaborate, and both myself and Jes participate. Sometimes they are minimal. We have all been playing together and touring in various bands and projects over the years. Where we are from in Arizona is a small place, so its easy to find those with common interests. Our bond has grown naturally as an extension to what we we’ve been doing our whole lives, which is just surviving here. It’s very instinctive.

Why the name? It conjures up something ancient, primal, unknown, unpleasant.

JSA: It’s got a number of different meanings. When we chose it, it was just a non-sensical word, thought of on a whim. Our collaborator, D. Pupillo, thought of it. He was also our original performer. However, we played a show a few years ago in a small town where a girl showed up who saw our name on a flyer. She was studying Old English and came solely to tell us that in Old English, ‘mearcstapa’ (one who stalks the marshes) was slang for an outsider. It came from Beowulf, the monster on the outside of town was known as a "marsh-stepper". She was surprised anyone had heard of the term, and we were just as surprised it meant anything. Quite a fitting meaning at that. 

How is Tempe, Arizona as a place to do what you do? Is there much of an underground scene, or are you outliers operating on your own? Has this ever caused you problems?

NN: In Tempe life moves a little bit slower and less chaotic than say a big city. It allows for more discipline and concentration on writing, releasing, and performing new music. 

JSA: It allows no distractions. Most of us don’t know how to do anything else. The desolation creates a very specific kind of person with an outlook that fits with our goals. It’s really all we’ve known. It’s a small, dedicated group of artists and scientists and engineers, all working on their own things and collaborating and such. We are certainly outliers from the mainstream culture, and even some of the other alternative scenes. But I wouldn’t say it’s a problem. There are less people watching, and I think that is great for creativity. 

Tell us about the Ascetic House collective. Why is it important to operate like that?

JS: I don’t think there is any ‘one way’ we operate. It’s important to be honest with yourself and your work. I think it’s important to explore sonic and mental universes that haven’t been explored. But it is certainly not for everyone. 

NN: Everyone explores their own sound and operates within their own set of rules. In Arizona, we all live relatively close to each other and are constantly collaborating and creating new projects. We’re really free to explore new sounds. 

How does Marshstepper’s music relate to the moving image side of this, e.g. In Pure Linen. Tell us about that film.

JSA: Film is a very powerful medium, maybe more so than music. It’s illuminating on so many levels. To be a film-maker is to bring light into people’s lives, literally and metaphorically. Lucifer was the penultimate bringer of light, right behind each of us who claims that power. In Marshstepper, we often utilise film and projection in our live performances for that reason. It’s just another powerful tool. 

You have a poster which says: "The transgression continues". How do you think it’s possible to transgress in an age when, supposedly, everything has been done?

JSA: Transgression isn’t about breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules. It’s stepping outside the rules. It’s about painting outside of the frame. Like any exploration, you come across a lot of things that mean nothing, or are unimportant. A lot of things don’t stick or don’t work. Sometimes the rest of the world isn’t ready for what you’ve found, and it has to be revisited again and again until it sticks. There are plenty of things that haven’t been explored enough, and plenty that haven’t been explored at all. It’s not always obvious, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

NN: I don’t actually believe everything has been done. There will always be those that actively try and push boundaries, whether they hit their mark or not, and those that are complacent with the world around them. 

From what I can see on YouTube, your gigs are violent, intense affairs. How do you get yourselves in that frame of mind? 

JSA: Of course it’s when the gigs get violent that’s when the cameras come out, but there are plenty of nights that aren’t violent. A lot of nights are meditative. Some nights are celebratory. Some are a disaster and an embarrassment. Every night is different and coming into a Marshstepper gig with the expectation of violence or sex or anything at all really is only going to hold back your experience. In the same way you should never go into an ayahuasca or mushroom trip with an expectation of what it should be… just come with an open mind and let things reveal themselves to you. 

When we were talking to Regis about booking you for a Quietus/Jealous God and Downwards party, he said "Marshstepper would play for $100 plus acid". Are you advocates of narcotic indulgence?

NN: I am a fan of having an open mind. 

I see nudity. How much of what you do is inspired or driven by sex?

NN: We are human after all. 

JSA: Sexual energy is extremely powerful. There is a reason religion has been trying to so hard to suppress it all of this time.

How did the ritual element of the live set come about? What are the inspirations for that?

JSA: I don’t think I really like calling it a ‘ritual’. It’s not a religious thing. It’s not about being shocking or extreme. It just so happens that speaking truthfully about our lives or the state of things as we see them can be quite jarring and at odds with prevalent points of view. Like I stated earlier, it changes night by night. Often times, many of the performers showed up as attendees without any idea they’d be performing that night. It’s important for people to be able to release that type of energy, especially when they have no other means to do so. Sometimes it’s quite minimal, with Nick and I only. Sometimes it’s elaborate. But it has nothing to do with any kind of religion. It’s a release of energy, a closing of the gap between spectator and spectacle. The world can be a harsh, inexplicable place and if we’re going to be honest, art must be as well. To approach honesty you have to eliminate those boundaries.

NN: We’ve been doing it since the first show. It’s been a natural extension of the sound.

Is there an element of humour to what you do? Sometimes this is overlooked in extreme music, from Throbbing Gristle onwards…

JSA: Yes, there is a great deal of humour in everything we do. The main failing point of every major religion or art movement is its loss of humour and introspection. I think there is a great deal of humour in the work of Throbbing Gristle as well, and that’s not to minimise the power of their work, or the importance of the ideas they explored. 

NN: Most definitely, if you can’t find the humour in the chaos of modern life then what is the point.   

How did the connection with Jealous God come about? Why did you want to work with them?

JSA: We are extremely honoured to be working with Karl [O’Connor, Regis] and Juan [Mendez, Silent Servant]. They’ve helped us more than we could ever ask. There is only a small handful of people we would even consider stepping outside our own means to work with. We met Juan in Los Angeles at a Marshstepper performance, and have been friends ever since. I can’t say enough nice things about him and how he operates.

Are there any other artists you feel a kinship with?

NN: Posh Isolation, Chondritic Sound, Sacred Bones, Nostilevo, PAN, Fallow Field, Perennial, Downwards, Jealous God, Alter, Cult Maternal, Unseen Force, Blind Prophet and too many more to name. There is an amazing underground music community traveling and performing around the world right now and I feel both honoured and inspired to be a part of it.

How do you record? It sounds like the music could have been laid down in one take.

JSA: Well, almost every Marshstepper release to date was recorded live at a performance. There are a couple ‘studio’ recordings, but those we’re done at Nick’s house before we really had any idea what we were doing. The upcoming record on Downwards is one of those. We still really don’t know what we’re doing, but when that was recorded a year ago, we were pretty ignorant to recording and production methods.

How does the live sound differ from the record? Does it?

NN: The live show is a little more visceral and in the moment where the record is more calculated. Both the live sound and performance is constantly evolving and varies from night to night.

What are your non-musical inspirations?

JSA: That’s a very broad question and a hard one to answer without sounding pretentious. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. The best I can say is don’t be scared to dive deep inside yourself for inspiration. 

What is your dream for America? 

JSA: I don’t have an ultimate ‘dream’ or ‘goal’ for America. America is made up of millions of individuals, all with different interests, loves, prejudices, struggles and dreams. As innovation and technology advance exponentially, people will have to be more accepting of each other. Eventually, physical matter will be irrelevant and we will all be godly spirits with the infinite power of love.

NN: All I could ask for America, and the rest of the world for that matter, is to approach life with an open mind and to not be afraid to question the world around us.

Marshstepper’s A New Sacrament Of Penance is out via Downwards and Jealous God this November. Their forthcoming European tour dates can be seen here

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