Considering his reputation for putting on the kind of live show where blood flows, clothes end up discarded, and public decency laws are occasionally violated, it’s a little surprising to hear what Alexis S.F. Marshall has been up to as he readies to hit the road with Daughters.
“Oh shit, I missed my turn,” the engaging frontman says, speaking on his cellphone via Bluetooth while navigating the streets of Providence, Rhode Island. “We have a band meeting in a little bit, so I’m in transit trying to get back to the house where it’s at. I was just at an antique store and I lost track of time.
“Because I’m 40, I antique,” he continues with a laugh. “I collect old photos of people—things like the 13th Regiment, or the Men’s Polish Club of Tahoe and shit like that. Weird, old black-and-white photos of people in large groups.”
His fascination with such finds is multifaceted.
“First of all, everyone looks great,” Marshall says. “Everyone will have fantastic hair. But there will be some guy missing an eye, and someone who’s pigeon-breasted—hard living, and it really shows. At the same time, no one’s wearing fucking sweatpants. It’s when picture-taking was very much a formal thing. I’ve got pictures of the Knights of Columbus in some weird American town I’ve never heard of. They’re shots from a different time when people were cut from a different cloth. There’s a wonderful charm to these kind of photos because they tell stories that you don’t know.”
What he likes is that the more you use your imagination to flesh out things, the more fascinating they become. That works as a description of Daughters’ most recent record, last year’s essential You Won’t Get What You Want.
Continuing a legacy that dates back to the band’s formation in 2002, the full-length’s brilliance is in how Daughters belong on the same record shelf as trailblazers like Nick Cave, Dead Can Dance, Cop Shoot Cop, Big Black, the Locust, and every pioneering band that’s ever distilled Swedish death metal or American hardcore down to brutal basics.
That’s another way of saying that Marshall—along with guitarist Nicholas Sadler, drummer Jon Syverson, and bassist Samuel Walker—does grimy industrial clatter every bit as effectively as coffin-dirt goth, tribal postpunk, carnival-of-souls techno, and road-rash noise rock. More importantly, they do so in a way that’s as fiercely original as it is frequently terrifying. Imagine a modern-dance soundtrack for a midnight performance a week after the end of the world and you've got a good leaping off point for You Won’t Get What You Want.
Right from the postapocalyptic opener, “City Song”, Daughters not only set an oppressively chaotic mood, but take listeners on a journey. Pick apart the album’s 10 tracks and you’ll find sprawling treatises on everything from ideological extremism to religion to suburban ennui to the character-testing trials and endless tribulations that mark the lives of most of us on this planet.
As a lyricist, Marshall—who is also a published poet—has a flair for near-genius lines like “That bastard had a head like a matchstick/Face like he was sucking concrete through a straw.” He’s also smart enough to know that things can have the biggest impact when they’re left up to interpretation rather than laid out in black-and-white.
“I think the record is dark, in that a lot of the material is obviously about mental illness and so on, but there are also certainly moments where things come out the other side,” the singer says. “So I don’t think that it’s all horror. There’s goodness stored in there somewhere, even though it might seem few and far between. But that’s my take on things. What it means to me doesn’t really matter a lot, because everything is open to interpretation.
“What’s nice about art in general and as a whole is that there’s no definitive way to listen to this record or interpret lyrical content, or the themes, or the aesthetic, or really anything,” he continues. “It’s up to the listener to decide where they stand and how they feel. Something that to me might be tragic might have a positive lining for someone else.”
It’s no accident, then, that the shadow of religion hangs over sonic night terrors like “Satan in the Wait” and “The Lords Song”.
“People want an answer for comfort, and to help explain things that are absolutely without explanation,” Marshall says philosophically. “So what do you do? Everyone can’t be a scientist, but everyone can have faith. You don’t have to be educated to believe in something, and I find that exciting. I was not brought up religious at all. I was baptized—but only because my mother thought that’s what you were supposed to do when she had me. I never went to church. It never made a lot of sense to me, and it never appealed to me spiritually. But I’m a fan of stories and literature and song, and religion lends itself very well to all of that.”
Marshall acknowledges that he spent more than one lost weekend staring into the void. That’s made him philosophical, and in some way weirdly inspired by past life decisions.
“As a former—actually, forever I’ll be an alcoholic, I did have my moment of clarity, as most alcoholics have,” he says. “There was that external, or internal, realization of ‘All right, this is not working.’ And I hold on to that during those times when I think, ‘Man, I should get drunk as shit right now because it could be a lot of fun.’ But I don’t think that there’s anything spiritual that I cling to otherwise when things are unravelling. Everything is always unravelling—my life right now has been unravelling in a very large way these past few months. It’s more important to seize on and embrace those moments when you realize ‘You know what? This is a beautiful world, as bad and shitty as it sometimes is. There’s goodness beneath the dirt.’ ”
And that explains why he’s able to see that even the most hopelessly black times were a blessing.
“A few years ago I was prescribed some antidepressants, and I didn’t want to take them because I wasn’t sure what they would do to me creatively,” Marshall says. “Like, if they alter my mood, am I going to be able to write if I’m not unhappy? Maybe it was also that I didn’t want to get better at that time. We all know what it’s like to suffer—we’ve all been through something. And it’s not hard to tap into that. There’s a willingness that I have to kind of go into unpleasant places that I’d rather not go back to. But it has to be done. That I can sometimes get some good out of that justifies the means.”
And getting something good out of the pain is sometimes the best one can hope for. For Marshall, that’s as true in the studio as it is during Daughters’ infamous live exorcisms, where the singer is as likely to be losing his shit, and clothes, in a sweaty lather with fans on the dance floor as he is to be bruised and writhing about on-stage.
Perhaps his ultimate goal is to guide his fellow travellers through the darkness, knowing that the point of the journey is not only to use your imagination, but also to end up in a better place.
“It doesn’t all have to be misery, but I find we learn the most about ourselves in moments of tragedy rather than joy,” Marshall says. “When we’re happy we don’t really question the world around us and the point of life. But when you fall down hard, you begin to question everything. That, unfortunately, is of great interest to me and has been since I was a kid, and I don’t think that will ever go away.”