Long Read: We caught up with Alexis S.F. Marshall to discuss Daughters’ latest record and tours, poetry, the current state of music journalism

From a band whose name was whispered like a mere footnote even amongst the underground, to one revered by both indie and major publications. À propos of the band’s one and only show in Portugal last year, we caught up with Alexis S.F. Marshall to discuss Daughters’ latest record and tours, poetry, the current state of music journalism, and more.

It’s been mentioned in a lot of interviews already, you guys were away for a while, and then you came back, and the reception to the record and the shows has been really amazing… so how does it feel to have this kind of comeback reception during all of these tours since the new record came out?
Oh, it’s nice. It’s unexpected, and it’s new for us. We never got a lot of attention years ago, so it’s great, because now we can come play in places like here, and we’ve gone to a lot of places we’ve never been to before this past year, so it’s great. If people don’t pay attention, you really can’t do as much. So thankfully, people are looking at us.

As announced by the promoter, it’s your first time in Portugal, right?
No, I think we played here in 2004, or something like that.

Oh, right at the start!
Yeah yeah, early on. Maybe 2005… I’m pretty sure we played here. I think we didn’t play in Spain and we drove all the way to Portugal and played a show in Portugal, because we couldn’t get a show in Spain.

That tends to be a problem, because we’re in the periphery of Europe, so that basically means that people have to come here on purpose to play and then go back so, logistically, that tends to suck.
[Laughs] Yeah yeah, it’s like Southern Florida, in the States. Nobody wants to go to Florida.

You mean like Orlando, Miami…?
All the way to the bottom. It’s a pain in the ass, yeah.

But even in, say, L.A., that’s in the periphery too, right? Isn’t it the same problem?
I mean, it’s the coast, so you gotta go out there, because there’s so many people there, so the Bay Area, L.A., it’s a part of it. But so, we came a long time ago, and it’s our first time back in quite a while.

Nearly 15 years. So I wanted to ask you a question about the new record. I don’t know if it’s just because of the tone of the record, or if it was on purpose, but it always seems to me like there’s some kind of story in the lyrics. “Ocean Song” has a protagonist, but was it intentional to try to create a story, or is it just my impression?
Well, it’s not necessarily a linear story from beginning to end. When I write, I try to write more from a literary standpoint than trying to make things rhyme or write a catchy hook or something, so there are characters, and things are situational, but some of it is a bit personal and some of it is fantastic, make-it-up type of shit. But that’s just my way of writing: more literary-centric than a typical songwriter thing. There are a lot of recurring themes, and you don’t have to look hard to see that there are recurring themes in my writing. I think it’s easy for people to think that everything is linked in some way.

And the music also helps, because it’s definitely got a vibe, and it never feels like you stray from that vibe throughout the album, so that’s why I got the impression that there had to be some kind of connection between the songs.
No, nothing deliberate I suppose, but it’s up to the listener to decide what’s there and what isn’t.

So you’re all for the listener making up meaning from the lyrics?
Absolutely! I mean, I’ve done that listening to music myself over the years, so a song might mean one thing to the writer, but it means something else to me, and I don’t wanna be told how I’m supposed to feel about a particular piece of music or anything else, so I don’t have any interest in doing that and telling you how you should feel about it.

“I try to write more from a literary standpoint than trying to make things rhyme or write a catchy hook or something, so there are characters, and things are situational, but some of it is a bit personal and some of it is fantastic, make-it-up type of shit.”

For me that always made sense in terms of how people feel about the music, but then I always think that if the writer meant something particular, or there was a story, it’s kind of weird to then say “you get whatever you want from the track”, because maybe there was an intention to the track, and that feels like a cop-out to being able to write whatever you want, and then the listener will figure that out him/herself.
[Laughs] Yeah, I mean, I think that it’s important for you to write something that you feel passionate or care about, but once you put it out it’s for everybody now, and so to try to hold on to that when people look at it in particular ways just seems fruitless, and I have no interest in doing that.

You can’t control that.
Right, and there’s no point in trying.

You mentioned the way you write lyrics, and this goes into something I really wanted to ask you about. Other than lyrics, you also write poetry, and you’ve released a poetry book (A Sea Above The Pains of Our Youth). Is that book still in print?
No, it’s out of print now. I’m in the process of putting some other work together, so I’m kind of happy that that book is done, and I felt great about it at the time, but in hindsight it’s something that I look at and I just think that there’s some good stuff in there, but a lot of it is shit. I feel the same way about things that I’ve written for records over the years.

But I think that’s normal for every artist, right? It’s hard to be proud of every single thing you do.
Yeah, I’d say so. It’s just part of it.

Was it difficult to navigate the literary industry? Because it seems like it’s even harder than the music industry sometimes.
Yeah, because you can’t just play and get noticed. You have to put yourself out a lot more and sort of sell yourself, and I’m not good at that. So luckily for me, Permanent Sleep published the book, and Dylan Walker from Full of Hell told them I was writing, and they approached me and messaged me about it. So it was pretty easy to get that first one out. At first I was going to try to do it myself, with no idea out to do it. I got on social media, and started doing all that kind of shit… I don’t know what the hell I was doing. I’m so glad that I didn’t have to try to sell anything, because they found me, and it worked out.

That really helps things. I’ve been trying to find a publisher for my own poetry, and it’s hell. The best thing you find are contests where you have to pay 30 or 40 euros/dollars to get even slightly noticed.
Yeah, I don’t like submitting work. I stopped doing it, I didn’t like it at all. And I hate looking at the band as a “springboard” but people are already sort of paying attention, so it’s easier for me than for a lot of other people, which seems a bit unfair, but I don’t know, that’s just the way it is. So luckily I’m working on a couple of other things, and they’ll appear soon enough, I suppose.

That’s great, I’m really looking forward to reading that, actually. I recently came across a not-so-recent quote from Robert Frost, and he said: “Free Verse is like playing tennis without a net”. And then I started thinking about recent poetry, and all of this Instagram poetry, Kupi Kaur and all of these people, and I felt like it was appropriate to ask you about your opinion on this topic, because you care about poetry. And I don’t know what is happening lately, it’s like the industry is changing a lot, and people are only paying attention to poetry if the authors have Instagram “likes”.
I think a lot of people who are feigning an interest in poetry are doing so because of things like Instagram and these kind of fortune cookie poems where it’s something motivational, like two lines or something very morose or comically sad and all of that, so… and it’s easy, it’s everyone who ever felt sad in Junior High, who wrote their feelings in their notebook, and now people will praise them for these terrible, terrible things. But I think it’s temporary, and I don’t necessarily see… I mean, Christ, I hope not… someone like Rupi Kaur or anyone else becoming a poet laureate or something like that, or being published in The Paris Review. It doesn’t hold water, it’s not gonna last, and it’s just like what we see in music, where… I use The Strokes as a reference the whole time: they got so big, and all of these other bands came up around them, and nobody remembers those other bands. It’s temporary, and it all fades.

“The point is: you should contribute in a positive way, or at least in a way that is productive, and not necessarily in a way that is self-serving, and that’s what I feel, that many journalists are very self-serving.”

Perhaps at some point we will have a revival of… I don’t want to say “real poetry”, because that sounds really pedantic, but something that is more than just something you can put on a background image of someone at the beach or a sunset.
Yeah, people love it, and the people speak and you should listen, but… it’s tough, man, when it comes to art. People love Nickelback, they’ve sold millions of albums. I mean, personally, I don’t like it, but there’s an audience for it, so it’s hard to argue against it. But will it last? I don’t think so.

Probably not. I wanted to ask you one last thing: there’s a song on the new record called “The Reason They Hate Me”, and you mentioned in interviews how it addresses music journalism and album criticism. And it’s interesting, because you address that, you release the album, and then it’s got this great, great critical reception. Does it give you second thoughts on addressing the topic, or do you still feel exactly what you meant when you wrote the song?
No, it was sort of a general statement. I did write a bit about some “journalists” (and I use the term loosely in particular), but it’s more of a… people feel that their opinions are the beginning and ending of everything, and that all that they have to say is very important. And that’s all well and good, but when your only contribution to the conversation is a sort of angry and spiteful message, like some guys in Criticism, I mean… I think it’s lazy, and it’s what people do when they really don’t have anything to say. They want you to know why their opinion matters about this and that they’re smarter than you. “Here’s why you don’t need to listen: because I’ll just tell you what it is and you don’t have to think about it”. And everybody just lets them get away with that. That is of no benefit to anyone when you’re a journalist on anything, in any case, covering whatever. Like the war of Bosnia, or some shit. You need to tell us who, what, where and when. The point is: you should contribute in a positive way, or at least in a way that is productive, and not necessarily in a way that is self-serving, and that’s what I feel, that many journalists are very self-serving. Especially in the States, with major news outlets, because it’s not just with music journalism, it’s journalism across the board for the most part. And it’s not even exclusive to journalism! It’s people with their opinions, everyone can say a bunch of bullshit whether they believe it or not, on the internet and comment sections, and… people who do that feel good about themselves to do some nonsense like that, and I don’t think it’s positive or helpful. It’s not that I’m an extremely positive person, but if you’re gonna be an asshole, at least be smart about it. But very few are.

But the thing is that even when the reviews are positive, a lot of them just seem to be people grabbing a couple of really cute words from a Thesaurus dictionary, and putting them out there.

Would it be better, in your opinion, if the reviews at least had a little bit more analysis of the music itself, and the lyrics themselves?
Yeah, probably, but… I’m not a critic. I have opinions just as anyone else does. People are criticizing the critics right now, and I’m doing so in a vague way, I’m not even being very specific.

You just don’t make a living with those opinions.
Right, it’s mockery, you know? Everyone’s got their shit they want to say, and everyone wants to be heard. I think that if critics really took a little more time to really analyze what it is that they’re critiquing, then they may benefit from it themselves, and not just say something and then throw it out into the ether… and move on to the next thing. The frustrating part is the critics that care so little, they have to care the least. They say their bullshit, and then move on to the next thing, they don’t dwell on it… they don’t think about it again. Suffer those of us who are criticized! Because it can be frustrating.

Words: Bruno Costa // Photos: Reid Haithcock – You Won’t Get What You Want is out now on Ipecac.

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