The prominent scars on his forehead have healed. It’s clear that the time off the road has done him good: with his hair slicked back and a newly grown moustache framing his warm smile, Alexis Marshall is at peace.
A little nervous, maybe, given that, as we speak, the world is now just hours away from the release of his debut solo album, House of Lull. House of When; a collection of cascading soundscapes and unhinged vocal performances. Also: bacon being smashed by a hammer.
It’s a first for the vocalist of Daughters, whose energetic live performances have become renowned for their wild abandonment and discharge of bodily fluids. Today, the only fluid in sight remains a full cup of coffee, as we talk about his love of Jacques Brel and his desire for genuine expression beyond judgement. Daughters’ last album, You Won’t Get What You Want, has been instantly canonized, so the urge to make something all of his own is understandable. “I wanted to have something where I didn’t have to take anyone’s thoughts into consideration and do whatever I wanted in my own timeline,” he says. “Everybody in Daughters is talented, so it can be hard to bring in ideas without feeling self-conscious about them. This is my project, so whatever ideas I have they’re mine, and I can use them without feeling uncomfortable.”
With that in mind, continue reading our conversation below.
Speaking of Daughters, I read you guys had up to 70 Demos for You Won’t Get What You Want. Did you prepare as many sketches in your solo effort?
A week out, I had about 20 demos and then decided not to use any of them. We got to the studio and just created from there. The songs were created on the spot, we had a good vibe in the room so that everybody could feel comfortable being creative and bring some idea in they maybe had in the past and couldn’t use. With everything being done in such a short period of time – writing and recording in a week – I think things got tied together by myself and my voice and the lyrical content connecting everything.
It’s interesting that the record came together so quickly, because there’s a lot of thematic and atmospheric density to the songs. Most of it feels incredibly cinematic, suggesting a unified approach to visual suggestion – was that something you worked out throughout the production?
I suppose I lean towards specific aesthetics myself. We finished the record in march, just as the Covid lockdown started. When we finished recording we went to Philadelphia – just as the protests started. The building a block away was set on fire, and we realized ‘we need to get out of here’, so we went to rural Pennsylvania and rented a house. We were there for a month, close by Three Mile Island, where there was a meltdown in the nuclear facility during the 80s. The whole town is incredibly weird, so the atmosphere lent itself to the content.
It wasn’t intentional to use the facility for the cover, but when we got the mixes back and drove to the lake and listened to them and that cover you see… that was the view we had. The sound was lending itself to the visuals and vice versa in kind of a natural way.
Overall, I feel like there is a collision between the urban themes of You Won’t Get What You Want and the more rural imagery of House Of Lull. House of When. Where the former started with “This city is an empty Glass” and ended on “Let me in”, the bookend mantras on this album seem to be “I am here” and “I was only passing through”, suggesting transformation and questions of presence.
That’s fascinating… I didn’t connect that. (laughs) I’m not much of an analyst. I like one act plays, Sam Shepard, stories that take place in a room and the meat is the conversations. My writing process is more motivated by ‘what can I say without saying it?’ I’ve worked with people who put so much of themselves into their work and are analytical and research things, I think it’s very impressive. But for me, I feel like a field worker. I never read much philosophy, but I have my own philosophy of what it means to be alive and where we are. If you see things tie together, that’s probably due to my being so self-referential. But I don’t plan how to open and close albums. I really put it all together as I’m going. Yet I think, for the most part, if you focus on something that works out you can create something elaborate with very little. You do slight of hand, and you can kind of fool people thinking that you’re smarter than you are. (laughs)
That makes me wonder – somebody pointed out that “Satan in the Wait” lasts exactly 6 minutes and 66 seconds.
Is that true?
Yes – it’s 7m06s on spotify.
(laughs) Yeah… that’s funny…
I think there is an interesting correlation at times where an observer’s interpretation can lend even more cohesion and new layers to art, where perhaps the unconscious aspect of it was lost on the artist during the creation.
Everything is personal. But if I do my job right, it doesn’t become so personal that you need to have had the experience I’ve had. Even when I’m writing in Daughters, where the lyrics feature more of a story, I try to be at least abstract so that people can draw their own conclusions and relate to it. With this record, there’s this stream of consciousness to it that made this aspect easier. That was new to me, to write a song that way. Ultimately the goal was that this isn’t so much about me openly – if I keep it vague enough and speak in enough generalities then a person can connect to it, then it becomes important to them and not just about me. And, judging from audience feedback, I’ve written lyrics that are important to people, or have helped them via their interpretation. That’s my goal.
Would you say philosophy and politics are important to your writing process? There seems to be a cohesive approach to perspectives on class, struggle for meaning and empowerment in your writing.
I like Epictetus. I read the Enchiridion. I like the stoics. But I also have my own interpretation of those things. In this way, I become more comfortable being wrong. (laughs) As opposed to having people think ‘Oh this person knows their shit!’ and then them realizing, ‘Oh now I just got this guy’s analysis.’ I like to get my own information and be able to point out I don’t know everything about it.
As an example, there’s this interesting dichotomy in “Guest House” – most interpret it as a bogeyman trying to enter a safe haven, but it could as well be the struggle to enter an elitist space or achieve a goal which is simply unattainable – that could be financial, emotional or status related.
With “Guest House”, I really like to hear people’s interpretations because I think that I left it vague enough that you don’t know if the protagonist is inside, trying to keep anyone out, or is outside trying to get in. And there’s sort of like this conflict of self; ‘Who the hell are we?’ Are we trying to get out of here or into something…
The same is true to the writing on House of Lull. House of When: this mantra of “I am here”, seems very much the current generation trying to leave a footprint. Compared to the previous generations – say like the silent generation – there seems to be this urge to be of lasting presence. My grandfather passed away a while ago, and I was impacted how this was the last generation who did not document their lives and found themselves just… silent, where this generation is incredibly loud in their desire to outlast time.
There’s a lot of concepts in the record that are apparent and others that are maybe interpretive and some are intended that will get missed and some I didn’t intend at all… I’m sorry I got distracted, you mentioned your grandfather and I keep a picture of my grandfather on my desk…
I think there’s a lot of concepts of youth that’s on this record, people leave their footprint online and measure their value by their followers. I don’t really care, I’m 41, I feel like I’m too old to give a shit, but then I’m expected to give a shit? And I also want to care about it? I stopped being a person doing their best to not give a shit what anybody thinks of them – but then to also accept that my entire career depends on what other people think of me? That’s a difficult thing.
And you know, my grandpa was a lumberjack, and I wish I just took on that job instead, climbing trees not caring about outer perspectives… The exploration of youth and what it means to me is on the record. Have I done enough? Did I try to be too relevant that now I look insincere? Is anyone even going to care? At some point I’m going to die, sooner rather than later most likely. I’m middle aged and death is something present – I hope that I’ll have accumulated enough financially so that I can give my children something, but the rest of it doesn’t matter. The art I made and whether anyone appreciates it or… you know, maybe no one is going to care about this record and then five years after I pass, people will say ‘Yo, this fucking changed the game.’ Well I’m dead, it doesn’t matter to me at that point. My footprint or anyone else’s – it’s going to mean something to the people who are still here, but they’re going to die too. My great grandfather, he was apparently an interesting guy, but I don’t know a whole lot about him. He’s gone. And that’s it.
Speaking of family – has being a father changed your art?
I thought it would but it didn’t. What it really changed is how I watch films and read books. Any time something happens to a child I can’t deal with it. I just can’t. I think I was trying to read The Road after my first child was born and my partner at the time just went ‘Don’t read this, don’t do this, you’re going to be so fucked up for weeks.’ (laughs) The other day, I was watching something so stupid, and there was just some family dynamic and I was crying. It’s changed the way I view art, but my output… If I am feeling vulnerable because of family matters, then that will be reflected in the work, but was not necessarily inspired by myself as a father. Yet, at the same time, the experience is molding me into who I am now, so obviously it’s having an impact because it’s creating who I am. But I try not to make it a source of inspiration.
A while ago, you spoke online about therapy and how you’re trying to learn no longer to conform to the expectations others put into you to perform in a certain way: that’s incredibly brave!
I think that I was lucky enough that I was young when we started out with Daughters. I was 22 during Canada Songs and coming out of the mid-90s hardcore punk sound, but that was not what I was playing two years later, which in turn was not what I was playing after that. I didn’t want to fit in to things like ‘Oh I have to be in this type of band and now everybody likes this band, so I have to continue to be this band’ – I want to just see where my art is going to take me. Some people don’t, and they kind of paint themselves into a corner and just become a parody of themself.
But having said that, I still think Keith Morris is fucking cool. And he’s just been Keith Morris his whole fucking life. (laughs) I dig that shit, I love Circle Jerks and Black Flag, so I think it’s cool, if you find your comfort zone and that’s just who you want to be. But my comfort zone is to continue to move around, like refracting light, different things at the same time.
So this is also something related to the scene you came up in?
I think the era that I came out of, the mid 90s New England hardcore scene, it was inspired by Boston and New York, but then there was so much weird rural bands coming out of New Hampshire and Vermont. And then during a really important period of my life, moving to Providence where there were so many incredibly weird bands, all students at this major art school, bringing in people from all over the country and everything was present and accessible. It told me that you didn’t have to be a particular type of person, you didn’t have to figure out the type of music you wanted to make and then be that type of artist until you were dead. I got lucky. And there’s people who stuck with it, and are still playing music now. But there’s some people who played music and are now bartenders. They didn’t see it through. They see music as something they did in their youth and then got a job and became an accountant and are stoked to be just that – which is cool. (laughs)
But then, there’s certain times when I wish I could stop playing music. For instance, I went to see a doctor a couple of months ago due to some neck pain. And he took an X-ray and it turned out I had terrible arthritis all through my spine and neck. And I thought, ‘I wish I got out of this…’, because it’s irreversible, there’s only treatment to halt it so it doesn’t get worse. And this is all because I continue to play music. Compared to some fictional former collaborator who’s now an accountant, I’m sure he’s now healthier. They got out of it, and now they can scratch their back without pain. Meanwhile I’m still playing music, but it just… hurts to stand up. (laughs) It’s sort of a price you pay for certain things. In hindsight though, I did a lot of shit… (laughs) Yet, I’m the reason I’m here, and the choice is on me.
I saw Daughters here in Berlin, it was an unbelievable performance you put on and remains one of my favorite concert experiences. I think I described your on-stage demeanor as ‘wild abandonment’. So I hope you can continue for a while.
Yeah, I’ll be careful.
Speaking of striking performers, I’ve heard you’re a big fan of Jacques Brel, whose charisma and presence was truly out of this world. And there seems to be qualities of his, such as his anxious diving from spoken word into singing, which I recognized on your album.
I’m not a trained singer. I think I went into this record with hopes of creating a very Scott Walker-esque, Tilt-esque record. But I had to accept very early on that this vocal style was not something I can do. So I experimented with other approaches, but I think some listeners will overlook it, especially those who think they’ll hear another Daughters record. I often sing kind of stuck in my throat (points below adams apple) to create a desperate vibe, there’s a lot of my voice cracking – all this intentional technique that I did to separate it from how I performed in the past. It’s hard to avoid the comparison, because obviously it’s the same singer. I can’t change my voice. I work with what I’ve got, and if I can’t belt out a tune, then I have to perform it.
I love Brel – he doesn’t just sing songs, he fucking pours sweat, and the expression on his face, it’s so wonderful. I think he’s so incredible. I found Brel because I became a Scott Walker fan, who was so influenced by him. Those two are my favourite singers.
I’m also a huge fan of Iggy Pop. I revisited to his stuff recently – those French albums he did, Preliminaires… I love these records. He’s got that deep, smoky, spoken-singing voice, it’s just so incredible.
Which is your favorite Scott Walker album?
You know, I always struggle with that later catalogue a little, stuff like Tilt and Soused. Especially the latter took me a while to get into. Climate of Hunter is probably my favorite. It’s so weird. Just the first line… “This is how you disappear” opens the record. Every fucking time, I think ‘Oh my god, the man is a genius’. That and Nite Flights; “The Electrician” is one of the most extraordinary songs ever written!
This era of his work is truly outstanding. I love how he opens “Rawhide” with the sound of a cowbell, and it immediately creates an atmosphere and images in the listener’s mind.
There’s a song on The Drift – “Jolson and Jones” – where there’s a fucking donkey! It’s just madness! And it’s so good! I sometimes think when people listen to me, they go ‘Oh, I hear the guitar and I hear that thing and this thing and some strings, predictable, it’s what I want to hear…’ – and then somebody else is punching the side of beef or a donkey appears. We need to break those associations, it’s almost like a sort of Rorschach test: ‘I hear this thing, so the music is that!’ You need to put those preconceptions away.
I was really hoping to do that and I’m not brilliant enough to achieve that but I was really trying to do that a lot on this record. I don’t care much about melody. I don’t sing to the melody, or think about hooks or choruses. We would start with the drums and then add elements and construct the song around that. Sometimes we didn’t even have drums: we just prepared some piano notes and got a rhythm going and built from that, as opposed to writing a hook or chorus. Instead we… at one point I just bought a bunch of bacon chutes and beat them with a hammer! (laughter)
Hold on, which is the bacon song?
“They Can Lie There Forever”. For another song I put a bunch of doorknobs in a drawer and moved it. We experimented a lot! I wanted to start with ‘Let’s see what sounds we can make with a bunch of stuff and then turn that into music: a bag of coins and a sheet of metal…’ I just spun some coins. We recorded that for five minutes and then we asked ourselves ‘What are we going to do with that? Well, I guess I sing over that’ (laughter)
We just figured those things out. It was so great to do it that way.
The coins on “No Truth in the Body” reminded me of how the producer of The Slits’ debut album did a similar thing for “Newtown” when their drummer didn’t show up. He took the theme of the song and created a beat out of the items associated with Heroin consumption live in the studio.
It’s a little ‘John Cage’. We had a bunch of found instruments and we would just see what they do. Sound is sound. What we interpret or believe to be music doesn’t necessarily mean notes. It doesn’t have to be that. A painting isn’t just paint – visual art is greater than that, and we approached it that way.
Going back to your humble assertion that Tilt would be artistically out of your grasp, I think realizing how inspirations can form work is very notable. For example, when Scott Walker recorded Nite Flights with The Walker Brothers, he just showed up in the studio with a copy of Bowie’s “Heroes” and said ‘This is what we’ll do!‘
(laughs) I didn’t know that.
And in the 90s, as Walker kind of disappeared after Climate of Hunter, Bowie in turn would start his session work for Outside with Brian Eno playing him Climate of Hunter saying ‘We need to make the Scott Walker album that would have followed this album, because it doesn’t exist yet.’ So the work equals the inspiration, it’s a unique interpetation of prior dynamics.
There is really no way – and that’s from the outsider’s perpspective – for me to ever feel 100% about what I’ve done. I’m always going to think I could have changed this or done that differently… there’s so many variables and so many possible worlds when you’re creating music that when you’re listening back, you have that one experience with it. Nothing is ever going to be done if we, as creatives, just stop. Because there’s always something you can change. There’s so many possible outcomes, you’re going mad if you try to pursue them all. As a listener, I’m sure Scott Walker had albums where he went ‘Aaaah, I probably bungled that’ – yet for me it’s perfect. The man is a genius and couldn’t have improved on it in any way.
That’s true – he was very harsh on his 60s work. There was an interview where he characterised his work from Tilt onwards as progressively coming closer to fitting his ultimate vision of the music he always wanted to make, with Soused being the definitive work he was longing for all along.
I realised a while ago that those works audiences treat harshest tend to be those the artist loves the most, as they’re the most genuine expression of their creative identity.
You know, I have been listening to that Metallica Lou Reed record, Lulu…
It’s good, right?
It’s fucking good, yeah! (laughter)
I was having discussions the other day and mentioned it and while some people admitted ‘Oh I dig that!’ Most people just dismissed it. I really like it and I’ve been listening to it a lot these past two days.
I have a lot of conflict with the feeling of what I think people are expecting my record to be, and then I’m worried everybody will dislike it. I fear that it won’t find an audience, as a lot of people who are familiar with Daughters are going to want another Daughters record, and this is not that. I don’t want to engage with who people think I should play with, I’d rather tour with (Einstürzende) Neubauten. I want to find some weirdos in Berlin who dig my style. I fear I might get pigeonholed into this thing, but… I don’t even know how I got here – I mean I do, it’s caffeine… (laughter)
Which brings us back to how toxic internet discourse can be – believe me, I’ve been there…
(laughter). It sucks. I admit, I’ve also been hard on journalists. That’s why I wrote “The Reason They Hate You”: it’s my feelings about a particular day related to a specific experience related to journalism. Making art is no different from me giving an opinion of how music should sound like, and verbalizing that creatively. In a way, journalists and musicians depend on each other, but in some way it’s turned into a weird sort of rivalry. It’s hard to be vulnerable and invest all you have into a creation it and then have people deride that in a disrespectful fashion. There are so many people who hate Weezer and go ‘Their first album changed my life but all this other stuff, FUCK WEEZER.’ Hey: they made this album that changed your life, that’s the same people you claim to hate and attack!
Fans have ideas of what music should be and then they are confronted with something more personal or different than what people expected.
Art and whatever else it is we create is just part of life. Hopefully we learn as we go and improve, change if you want to do this, and constantly evolve as a person. I’m just trying to do the same thing and reflect that in what I do artistically. I don’t feel the same as I did 20 or 10 or even two years ago.
Speaking of personal experience – is there a meaning behind the title of House of Lull. House of When?
I keep a list of titles or interesting phrases for later use, and I think that’s from there. Lyrically, it reflected thematically on the title and then I matched them together. There was the lockdown and we were staying in this old house that must have been haunted. There was some weird stuff going on. It was very uncomfortable at night. So it was this lull, this waiting period. ‘Am I going back to music? Am I ever going to do anything ever again, or… will we all just die? We finished the record – is it ever going to come out?’ It connected within this house and how everything around us just dissipated.
Have you ever had a paranormal experience?
I lived in this farmhouse that was built in 1890… but I don’t see or hear anything. When I was a kid, my mother says our house – that we lived in briefly – was haunted. My mother said you’d go into a room and the lights would go on and off and you would put something on a table and later find it in a different room. Stuff like that: very minor things. And most of those can be explained in other ways. So I believe, but I’ve never seen an apparition, or had an experience that had me think ‘oh that’s paranormal.’
Most things are easy to explain as sleep paralysis or something, but then you’re still just fucked up for days when it happens, I assure you…
(laughs). Kierkegaard said ‘You can’t have faith without doubt.’ They go together. I believe in some things that maybe can’t be substantiated, but I want to believe it. But I also do my best to just go ‘Nah, that’s just what it seems, it’s not really, I get it.’ You’ve got to weigh these things.
Is faith a big theme in your life?
I don’t know… (pause) I don’t believe in a monotheistic god. I don’t go to church in a conventional sense. However, I did work certain programs, 12 steps and such, and there is a certain spirituality there that I have to accept. I do have some issues where I do I need help from somewhere else and there’s got to be something greater than me because there’s a control I don’t have. So there is faith that helps me get through the things I just can’t get through on my own. And I think that applies to people in bad situations in general. ‘This just can’t be all.’ Finding faith in prison or in war, if you’re sleeping under a bridge – there just has to be this other thing. The explosion of Christianity during the dark ages, it wasn’t about Christian proposal, but the argument of ‘We know it’s really bad here – but we’re going to this place, and everything will be really cool and great,’ and people believed it, ‘yes, please! Anything other than this shit right now!’ (laughter)
I don’t want to go on too much about this stuff, because it’s my personal recovery story. So yeah, I don’t go to church, but I fucking pray, you know? I believe there is something bigger than me, but that could just be my program or my response to everything.
I find religion incredibly fascinating, just as mythology is. The Iliad, for example, or the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna, Christianity, all these texts are wild, at times it almost reads like science fiction.
Speaking of different cultures: I heard a big influence was Public Image Ltd.’s The Flowers of Romance, an album that mixes religious and tribal music with world music influences and sonic experimentation.
As I said earlier – I’m not concerned with melody. A record like The Flowers of Romance was just super inspiring to me because there’s no fluff on it. We did as little as possible: we built the structure and that was as if we built a door, through which you can enter a room. How can we dress it up and what can I do while in this room, also lyrically? I started to work with repetition, in the way of how classic American folk and blues did.
Speaking of influences – I have several of the Smithsonian recordings of chain gangs and men cutting wood and singing. The music that comes out of that is incredible. There’s a couple of songs we didn’t put on the record due to time constraints, and there’s one song that very much has this chain gang feel. It has… (slowly claps hands rhythmically) and I worked with everything I could put over this, vocally. I love this stuff, that’s my wheelhouse, artistically: create something guttural with something inspired of this philosophy. The sun is up: let’s get going. And then the sun goes down and it’s time to sleep. Something primal and rhythm based. Which is also how I approached instruments: a used the piano for rhythm… I played a dulcimer that was out of tune, but I played it like a drum. I wouldn’t even know how to play it properly. If we had a harp in there, I would have probably thrown things at it instead of play it.
There’s also a very prominent saxophone here, which is funny, as my best friend just remarked that what the next Daughters album needs is saxophone! (laughter)
It’s something I pondered. I don’t want to tour House of Lull. House of When with a fixed bunch of people or band. I thought, maybe I’ll just have somebody sit in and do some noise here, or somebody can play saxophone, or maybe John here wants to play drums on this song. I really want to just be free with this. I do have friends who would just want to come in – and if you just want to come and sit down with me and play, that’s the thing I would love to do. Daughters is a band, so everything needs to be in the right place, but for the stuff that I’m doing: the less I think about it, the better it’ll get.
Alexis Marshall’s House of Lull. House of When is out now – read our review.