Alexis Marshall: Good Dude Extraordinaire
by Mateo Rispoli and James Ammirato
“These thing happen,” Daughters’ frontman Alexis Marshall says, gesturing to two gridded abrasions on his forehead, accompanied by a slight grin and lone chuckle. He makes a point to not expand any further, reclining and saying once again , “These things happen.” Marshall sits cross-legged in a beat up wooden chair at a bar table, “Reserved for the Syverson party” written on a paper tent in front of him, mere hours away from the penultimate show of the American leg of Daughters’ supporting tour for their 2018 monument of sonic bombast, You Won’t Get What You Want. His ankle-length lace-ups are weathered, creased, and wrapped in black duct tape to keep the sole from separating. His formerly black jeans explore the greyscale incurred by wear, rolled for a slight sock gap and held up by a pair of crisp elastic black suspender with silver hardware. His hair, obscured in a profile view, peaks out of the back of his head as he turns, latched on like a reverse facehugger from the Ridley Scott’s Alien. As he reaches up to massage the back of his left ear, it reveals a tattoo on the underside of his arm that reads “Tough Guys Don’t Dance.”
Born in Massachusetts, Marshall moved all around the Bay State before finally settling in Providence, Rhode Island, for college. Coexisting with such acts as the noise duo Lightning Bolt and kitchen-sink metal experimentalists The Body proved to be a boon to his budding creative career. Marshall recalls his time in Providence reverently, “It’s hugely important being from that city...everyone’s kind of creating on top of each other, and it helps.”
Marshall is one of the two members, along with drummer Jon Syverson, who have remained in the band since its rise from the ashes of As the Sun Sets. Releasing only four studio albums over the course of their 17 year history, the story of Daughters is one of push-and-pull between Marshall and guitarist Nicholas Andrew Sadler. “I don't know, I’d say that there's a yin and yang relationship that Nick and I have, not quite at the Fleetwood Mac level,” Marshall pauses for a self-approving laugh.
Just as the relationships within the band have steadied, so has the studio and live output filtering through them. Daughters’ early work, commonly categorized as mathcore or grindcore, was more jagged and unapologetic in its presentation. “We were kind of more of a circus,” Marshall laments. “Like, ‘Let’s see the guy get naked and drink his own piss.’” There are numerous videos of such performances on YouTube, multiple of which prominently feature Marshall’s stark-white ass. Marshall felt that these performances were “incidental,” seeing flashes of audience members leaving and entering, talking at the bar. Though it may be hard to brand someone rubbing their flaccid penis on the windscreen of a microphone as anything but pure spectacle, that was the source of Marshall’s unrest.
Tough guys do dance. What Marshall put on the sparsely set stage at The Sinclair in Cambridge was anything but incidental; it was an enthralling and invitingly dark performance of a frontman at the height of his abilities. He retains a measure of his signature on-stage antics. It became very clear where the aforementioned gridded marks on his forehead came from. Complemented by the sounds of a glorious noisy hell, Marshall flippantly swung the mic to wrap the wire around his neck like a tether ball, flailed it around his head like a morning star, and whipped it against the ground. He spat into his palm five times and then mashed the windscreen in it like a mortar and pestle, and to top it all off, shoved his fingers down his throat, and rubbed the spit on an eager fan’s hands. Marshall remarked before the show that he had been getting sick, but that’s neither here nor there. Marshall is earnest in his intentions, “I just want to give something of some substance or value to what we’re doing, and not just go on tour and play some songs. I mean, if you like the record you can listen to it at home. There needs to be a reason people come see us play. That's what I’m hoping to give people.”
The character Marshall takes on when raised four and a half feet on a stage is very much still a part of the show, it’s just not the whole show. “I think we found a great mix of people want to see us play because something absurd will occur but we’re a good band,” Marshall says with pride. “We’re song based, we’ve written some good songs, and there’s more to it than just a sideshow.” This persona is formidable and a contradictory joy to observe as he jitters and jerks across the stage like a deranged James Brown of industrial noise. This performance style better suits the cerebral nature of their latest works. The road to this flourishing persona and work is one of recovery, one that allowed this performance to happen. Marshall struggled with alcoholism and an addiction in the years in which those early performances were taking place. “I’ll be an addict my whole life,” Marshall pauses, “but I’m not a drunk anymore or on anything, I’m not gonna fall asleep with my eyes open in the backroom anymore.” His new style comes with a philosophical slant as well. “Before it was a little more about what can I do that was so wild, now it’s like I’m trying to just interact with people,” Marshall says.
Even with Marshall admitting to getting older along with the other members of the band, the material they put out remains as visceral and uncomfortable as it was when they were just starting out, but in a more seasoned way. Marshall commented on this change when discussing the relevance of Providence to the band’s sound and material, saying “...maybe we wouldn’t have found that if we were in a different city, or somewhere much more sprawling like New York or Chicago or L.A. where we probably would have found a niche and stayed there. Like ‘Oh, here’s where we are, we’re just gonna be this band now.’ It helped us create, I mean there’s so many fucking great bands...” going on to quote Arab On Radar as one of Daughters’ main influences moving forward, as well as seeing Lightning Bolt at Fort Thunder in the early days of the band.
With talking about the band’s change in sound came talk of Marshall’s own lyrical maturity over the years. One cannot deny the messages accompanying Daughters’ harsh instrumentals on an album like Canada Songs were equally, if not more, abrasive and unsettling. One of the more obvious examples of this is the song “Pants, Meet Shit;” a classic example of adolescent humor, the song is a great timestamp of where the band was over 15 years ago, but does not evoke such thought as lines on more recent material like “Satan in the Wait;” “Tell me what's best and when. I’ll save the date / I’ll set the tone, I’ll wander in my sleep / They each raise a glass and clang / ‘Here’s to what will / Here's to the sharpened pencil…’” Reflecting on the former, Marshall quipped “What, you don’t think ‘Pants, Meet Shit’ is poetic at all? Is that what you’re trying to say?” then conceded that the idea is indeed “dumb.” When asked about what changed, he thinks back. “I think the earlier stuff was much more tongue-in-cheek, and we were 22 years-old, we were just kinda fuckin’ around, we didn't have an identity or anything, or a purpose, we weren't trying to convey a message or anything like that. Not that we’re trying to convey messages so much now, but then we were just young and being stupid,” Marshall says. Apart from age and “learning how to sing,” Marshall cited poets Charles Simic, Raymond Carter, Sam Lipsyte, and Philip Levine as major lyrical influences. Going back to a record like Hell Songs, he thought back to his writing process; “...I was watching Carnivale, set in the 1930s, Dust Bowl era of America … I had a bunch of, in my bed, early Nick Cave records, and Leonard Cohen albums, and I tried to put myself in this 1930s Dust Bowl era wasteland of the United States and wrote the record from there.” Though it seems glamorous, Marshall brushed Hell Songs off as somewhat of a failure, going on to say, “...That's what you do, you try to do your best and hope for the best. Everything in hindsight could have been better, could have improved somewhere.” He even feels that way about Daughters’ latest album. “Something like Ocean Song, where I feel that there were moments that were derivative of previous moments like in the song and it's a little repetitive at times, I get frustrated with,” Marshall says.
Alexis Marshall performs with his 120 bpm palpitating heart in the palm of his hand, his legs and head in rhythmic pulse, flowing like mercury and leaving nothing behind. Heated generously by his bandmates, he simmers to a vicious boil, leaving the audience questioning whether he’s going to spill over or not. Typically, after an eight year break between albums, the band’s future is anything but certain. But Marshall sounded hopeful when asked if anything was on the horizon, “We’re hoping to have something out by next year. We have a pretty heavy touring schedule for 2019, so will we find the time? I don’t know, but we have a Dropbox that’s full of songs and pieces of songs, and ideas, and we just need to lift the sail and go with it.”