Confounding Expectations with Daughters’ Alexis S.F. Marshall

In 2018, hardcore agitators Daughters released their first album in eight years. In a timeline with such in-fighting and stylistic changes where the volatility always made everything feel so temporary and vital, the fact that the album exists at all felt like an achievement. That it turned out to be arguably the most accomplished, ambitious and cohesive thing they’ve ever created just added to the positive subversion of expectations. It was nice to see that the element of surprise which has underpinned their whole career were still alive and well. The overt intensity, scaled back with a disciplined restraint, created a sound which constantly felt like it was about to explode, yet bubbled under in a way which created another level of tension. Since then, the band have toured extensively, finding a new generation of fans introduced to their material, even appearing on Adult Swim’s Fishcenter with a blistering rendition of Satan In The Wait. Their tour stopped off at Nijmegen’s Doornroosje for the annual Soulcrusher festival, where Steven Morgan sat down with frontman Alexis S.F. Marshall.

Is this your first time in Nijmegen?
I think it is, yeah. I’m never sure, we came here a lot and I used to be a pretty vicious alcoholic so sometimes I go places and it turns out I’ve been there before and I just don’t remember it.

You were a vicious alcoholic?
Yeah, well I’ve been sober for over eleven years.

You seem to have cut your face, if you don’t mind me asking, what happened?
I got hit with a microphone. It happens sometimes. Occupational hazard.

On stage or just out and about?
On stage (laughing). Yeah, I was strolling downtown and there was some maniac wielding a microphone.

I remember reading an old interview with you guys, and I got the impression that to a limited extent with your music there’s a dry and dark humour that underpins it.
Yeah, I mean that’s certainly possible. When I’m writing lyrics I try to come from some sort of literary standpoint as opposed to lyrics that just convey some sort of emotional state. I like it to feel like a very short story or prose poetry to some extent which is oddly not how I write poetry.

So you write poetry separately to lyrics?
Yeah, I’ve had some stuff published there but I try to keep the two separate for several reasons. There’s a bit more of a story inside some of the lyrics, and I suppose they can be dark, but there’s humour in there, I try to put everything in there.

When you say literary, do you mean you eschew the delivery of the words and value the message more?
Performance-wise I think the delivery is good, but when people are sitting down, they obviously don’t experience the live performance. The lyricists that I admire most are more literary, Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen, though he can do both. Normally I don’t like it when lyrics rhyme, but Leonard seems to do it alright. Neko Case, people like that, and obviously Nick Cave. There’s more depth and there’s something to chew on rather than words you can just shout in the air. That’s all well and good though, I wrote that way many years ago, several years ago I was in a punk band with some friends and I wrote in a way where I just wanted to say fuck and jump up and down and convey that I’m upset about this social issue or something. Definitely not from a literary standpoint, but more of an emotional, reactionary thing.

When you changed the vocal style, and it became much easier to understand what you were saying, did you feel pressure at that point to make things more cohesive?
I think everything was coming together at the same time. I wasn’t singing that way, so I didn’t want to write that way. I was trying to advance on both fronts to change the way I played and think about my instrument and the sounds it makes. I don’t think one pushed the other, it happened in a symbiotic way.

That makes sense, there’s a lot of change that goes through your music. It’s rare for a band to come back after a period of time and return with something that’s so cohesive and having intent, yet your latest album manages to do just that. With the reputation that the Daughters name has, did you feel pressure to create something of a certain style?
I don’t think there was a pressure to create a style because we’ve always morphed into something else with each album. There was pressure to make something that wasn’t garbage. If you go away for years and come back and release some trash, then why come back? We certainly didn’t want to be a reunion band where we do a bunch of shows here and there so everyone who wants to see us gets to see us. We took enough time off from each other that when we came back writing music was important to us. Not that you’d know it from our back catalogue with three or four years between albums and now eight years between the last two. There was a long time where we just didn’t know how to do it, we just went out and toured. You end up never stopping playing because people keep asking you to come out. It didn’t often occur to us that we needed to set aside some time to write a record. We’d have moments where we were like “Shit, we’re bored, we’ve been playing these same songs”. Now we’re trying to be much more conscious of things and realise that this is actually a job and that we can live doing this. It’s important that we behave in a much more conscious way. We can’t take a record out on the road for four years because people will have had enough and we’ll have also had enough. Last night was the first night where I was like “Fuck! I’ve gotta sing these god damn songs again man” and there are 90 more shows to play before we finish this cycle,, or whatever the hell you call it. I thought “Christ, I’m ready to get this done and do the next record”.

That’s now an inspiration for you?
Yeah, and we’ve got quite a bit of material sitting around. We thought we’d just keep touring because that’s what bands do, we had no concept of a timeline.

There was no pressure from your label?
No, certainly not, we worked with Robotic Empire, Hydra Head, labels where they were like “Well, what do you want to do? You want to put out a record? Sure, why not!” and if you don’t then they’re not bothered. It’s amazing fifteen years later to see that we’re playing with Pelican tonight (Soulcrusher, Nijmegen). We’ve toured with Pelican, we’ve played together dozens of times here and there. We’re playing together again after a decade away from each other. I think they were a little smarter with their Hydra Head career releasing things properly, but we just didn’t know.

(c) Susana Martins
(c) Susana Martins

You say that, but simultaneously a lot of bands, including your own, create a mystique from that cycle.
If we did, it was inadvertent; we had no plan. We’re the least thought out band you can imagine. We just want to play and when it comes to writing a new record, we’re bored so we want to do something else, add something in it to keep ourselves entertained. Probably beating those records to death helped us with the desire and need to do something different to what we were doing. We were just exhausted. We’d occasionally talk about a band like Hatebreed, who spent about five or six years touring on Satisfaction Is The Death Of Desire and they got huge doing it. We couldn’t possibly get big on something like that. We were like “Jesus, aren’t they tired of those songs?”. For us, we got tired, but we didn’t think to stop. I wonder if that was the same for them, if they thought they would just keep playing.

I guess there’s always a relative precariousness to where you fit in and who you are in the grand scheme of things.
You also have to accept that music is a business. It’s an industry. There’s marketing involved. There’s a lot of stuff you’d like to pretend doesn’t exist when you’re just playing house shows and VFW halls, which I don’t think you have here.

You know, Veterans of Foreign Wars. It’s where guys who all served in Vietnam or Korea get together and wax poetic. They have function halls and you’d be allowed to play on the floor and put on a lot of punk shows that way in the States. Eventually, you have to accept that you cannot sustain it that way in a practical sense. You’ve gotta live, you’ve gotta pay the bills. I have children, I need to function as a proper human being as much as I don’t want to. You start to look at it all as something you need to accept. Even though we dealt with it years ago with labels and management, there’s all sorts of shit to think about. You can sort of pretend that’s not part of your life, but eventually, now that I’m almost 40, I accept that this is what it is and I’m OK with it. All I want to do is play. This is a capitalist society, especially in the States. We’ve gotta charge something so that we can keep going and deal with that and accept that.

How do you think yourself from twenty years ago would relate to these views?
I would have just been drunk. I would have been excited that there was a refrigerator filled with beer and a bottle of whiskey. Now I’m still as belligerent as ever, but not due to the alcohol. I don’t know the name of the city I’m in, but it’s OK, I’m just here to play. Not that you shouldn’t tell me, I probably should know so that when my folks and family ask me where I was, then I can tell them that I was in this place today. The truth is that someone told me and I couldn’t pronounce it and I immediately discontinued the information. There’s the part of me that’s still just here to play.

Do you still get the same satisfaction from playing as you used to?
Yeah, of course, absolutely! Once I don’t then I suppose that it’s not going to be worth it. This is a nice job to have, it’s great to be able to do this for work. I woke up in the morning and put my shoes on and then came into the venue. This beats the hell out of getting up and getting dressed and thinking my boss is an asshole with shit like “You’re five minutes late! You punched out early yesterday!”. I mean, I went off today and got a massage at some woman’s house.

It was professional! People were telling me about the fair downtown. I’m thinking “I’m at work right now, this is a really great thing to be able to do!”. It beats the hell out of all other jobs I’ve had.

Is songwriting now something that feels like it’s easier than it was before in terms of relations between the members of the band?
I think we’re much more pleased with the output than we’ve ever been. We made a record where we knew we’d written a really good one. Before, we just wrote the best record that we could write but this time we’d done better than we expected.

That must be an amazing feeling.
It’s strange, and it sounds super-egotistical but there were certain end-of-year lists that we didn’t make and I was like “Oh! Revolver don’t want to put us in their top ten!?”. I truly felt that we had done something of true significance with this record. Not because I think we’re so great, but I think we just did an outstanding job for the first time ever. We’ve always done the best record we can do but it was certainly more than what was expected of us.

What was it do you think that made it come together so well?
I don’t know. Maybe we were just itching for it, I mean, eight years. We took our time and we were very thoughtful about what we were putting together. Sometimes it can be harmful to not have a deadline, you can be frivolous and just keep going back and keep going back, and we did that to an extent, but when I look at older records I really see that there was material that suffered because we did have a deadline. On Hell Songs, we threw Cheers Pricks together. It was a mashup of a lot of different songs, and when I look back you can see that we were just struggling to put it together and then decided that it was done. “Let’s go record it!” I think with this album a lot of things had several different demos and we really took our time to make sure we were happy with everything. Less Sex we sat on for years. There was an 18-month period where Nick was like “I hate that song, I don’t want to hear it. We’re not going to put that on the record”. He eventually came around to it and our friend Jeremy made us a wonderful video.

In the same form, or did it have to change?
It changed very little. He added a couple of things, and that was enough for him. We just gave ourselves a lot more time with the material that we ever did before. We were more thoughtful about how happy we all were with what we were doing and not thinking “Let’s get this fucking thing out so we can go back on tour”. That wasn’t the case.

It’s almost like a different band when you think about it.
Absolutely, we’re different people. A lot of bands can just make the same record and be a power band, or be a doom metal band and exist there and be perfectly happy to do that. I think that’s admirable, but I personally wouldn’t be able to do that for an extended period of time. It would exhaust me, mentally and emotionally, to keep doing the same thing. I look at a band like Baroness or Ceremony who constantly ask themselves “What can we do next to keep ourselves pleased and interesting” and not just fall into saying “We’re a metal band” or “We’re a hardcore band”. Some people don’t appreciate that, but I love it. I don’t know how much longevity you have. When you look at Metallica and their career, that shit suffered. They tried to go outside the box and suffered for it, and now they’re back to plugging away at the same old shit. It doesn’t have the heart that it had. I admire that they decided to do something else and as much as I don’t like it, I think it’s good that they did. On the other hand, I love Anthrax, but when they put out a new record I’m like “Well, I don’t know…”. I’m not trying to bash anybody, but I hear music and think do you really want to do this or are you just doing it now? Luckily for us, we never made the same record twice so it allowed us to continually morph into something else and people expect it. People who got into us and decided to stick it out when we didn’t write another Locust inspired record or something like Canada Songs. People who followed us along on this transition were rewarded with a new experience every time a record came out. They also got exposed to new forms of music and bands that they wouldn’t have otherwise listened to. We could have made another Canada Songs, we could have just done that every year, but it didn’t interest us. There are bands that want to do that and good for them, if they’re happy. We’re lucky enough to not have people expect us to do that thing which everybody likes and I think those bands are few and far between.

I think it’s such a good situation to be in. There are very few artists that manage to create an expectation from their fans that something will change and that be the thing that they’re excited about.
It’s a tough line to walk, because people do get possessive of things and think “This is what you sound like and that’s what I want from you”. A lot of listeners don’t have consideration that people who are creating something have their own agenda and thing that they want to do. I don’t pull a fan aside and demand “You were working here and now you need to work at Staples for the rest of your life even though your heart’s not in it!”. That’s just crazy, I would never make that kind of demand of a person.

If you leave Staples, you can get the fuck outta here!
Oh, you wanna go work at Burger King? Nope. Sorry. Now you’re working at fucking Chicken Shack for the rest of your life. I don’t really understand that, and it seems to be applied to art and music the most. Even with art, people understand that a lot of artists go through their blue period or are doing still life. This is the process of things artistically. Look at actors! I mean, Johnny Depp’s played everybody. You have to have depth if you’re creating art, but I think there are expectations in music where, after it’s been delivered, it becomes personalised. I mean, how many times can you watch a 90-minute movie? People put out a record and listen to it over and over and over again and have experiences on top of it. You can have a breakup and a song that was playing at the time touches a person in a certain way. There’s a connection that you make and that’s what makes music different to other forms of art. It’s much more internalised than any other form, I think.

It’s a good point and an interesting angle to look at the differences with music in that way.
There’s music playing in this venue right now. We could have put something on, while we were having this conversation. Music can be background, but there’s always a moment where it grabs you. There’s a really amazing scene- Look, I love U2.

(c) Susana Martins
(c) Susana Martins

With the exception of the last few records, they were on a shortlist of bands that I thought never made a bad record. Then they put out that Atomic Bomb record or whatever the hell it was [Ed: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb] and I hated it and was like “Oh you’ve lost me now”. There’s an amazing documentary they did during the making of Achtung Baby, and there’s a great scene where I don’t know if it’s The Edge or Bono – or whichever of the two – listening back to these old demos, and they’re being filmed as they listen to them. Then there’s a progression which appears, and it’s what they used for One. There’s a moment where Bono stops, and you can see him make that connection. “This is how we got to One”, with The Edge hearing it and doing the same thing. “There it is, that’s where we found that progression”. It’s a really wonderful moment and I don’t think you have that often looking at art or watching a film where you’ll go “Oh! The butler was the killer, he has the knife!” each time. You see that once, and then you just know. I think with music, you can have a profound moment and you can revisit it two years later and experience it new again, but it takes you where you were when you originally had that experience. As I said, music can play and we can always have a moment with it. It’ll always be associated with something. If there was a movie on in the background, then we’re not looking at it. There are pictures on these walls, I’m not looking at them, I’m not making that connection.

Do you ever get that thing where you associate certain artists, albums or songs with a particular time of your life or a thing that happened, a thing you were doing?
I’m sure that I do, but I fail to think of one off the top of my head.

For example, whenever I hear anything from the Prodigy’s Fat Of The Land, I’m playing Mario Kart on my Super Nintendo as a teenager.
When I was a kid, I got really into Billy Idol, he was really popular when I was a kid so if I hear Billy Idol, I’ll think about my admiration for him growing up. There’s also the theme song for Beverly Hills Cop called Axel F where I made up words for it. It was a huge hit; it was on the radio all the time and I have a vivid memory of sitting in the back of my mum’s car and just making up the words to it. Now every time I hear that song it’s this strange, cringey nostalgia that I have, and I will never recite the words ever again, but I’m back in that moment and it’s great! It’s hard to pinpoint those sometimes. When you asked this question I thought “Shit, I can’t think of anything” but then I remembered Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room. When Jon, our drummer, and I were living in this terrible little apartment in Providence I listened to that album over and over and over again. Now whenever I put it on, I go back to that shitty apartment and remember where I was in my life. Years later I had children and now I start to find new things when I listen. There’s a line, “Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows” and I think of my children and this world we live in and life and I’m always beating myself up. It’s a new angle to this thing that’s very familiar with me. When I listen to it now, I still have the old associations but now I have this new one where I think of my own kids.

Does that happen a lot? As a father does it change your perspective on a lot of things?
Yeah, I think you start to look at things differently. It’s like if I’m reading the news and read about some child that was taken somewhere, I just think “I can’t deal with this, I can’t deal with this stuff”. It’s way too personal for me. Musically I start to think about things differently, but I wonder if that just comes with age and experience? I was this person and then I was this person and there was change. We should change as people and our output changes, our perspectives and opinions too.

It’d be more terrifying if it didn’t
Yeah, absolutely! If you’re stagnating and you’re going to spend 40, 50 or 60 years like that, then I don’t know man, that’s not any way that I want to live.

One last question, as we’re running out of time
I’m very tangential, I talk a lot and just go off.

I enjoy it, it’s fantastic, it’s a lot more fun and much prefer it than the generic band interview questions.
You answer the same questions so many times.

I can imagine, and that’s why I try to mix it up because I don’t want it to be boring as fuck for you.
I appreciate it.

Otherwise I could just read another interview and see the obvious questions are already there.
Already asked and already answered.

OK, but after saying all that I will ask one obvious question to end things. What can we expect from the next album?
Oh I don’t know. We’ve got material that didn’t make this record. I think with hindsight you can look back at the previous record and think “Oh, they got from A to B” and I think people will think “Oh, they got from B to C” with the next one. I don’t think that anyone should have expectations, we certainly don’t. We just want to go do a new record and go play it and be happy with what we’re doing.