Nine Songs: Daughters
You Won’t Get What You Want, the record with which Daughters returned last year after an eight-year absence, is one of the albums of the decade. There’s no question about it. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
A thrillingly dynamic and versatile band throughout the tumultuous early days of their career, You Won’t Get What You Want marked an enormous leap forward for the Providence, Rhode Island group. Gone was the nihilistic frenzy of their first records, replaced by a monolithic, imperious mastery of their terrible craft. A traumatised, haunted work of noise, post-punk, dark ambient and industrial metal, often with more in common with the experimental likes of Pharmakon and Yves Tumor than anyone in the mathy hardcore milieu from which they emerged near the beginning of the millennium. It sounds like nothing else this writer has heard in a very long time indeed.
For all the instrumental prowess on display - all dervish percussion, piercing guitars and seething electronics - the record, not to mention the band’s sensational live show, centres upon frontman Alexis Marshall. His drill-sergeant bark manages to be utterly commanding, without spilling into the semi-grotesque machismo that afflicts many of his American hardcore contemporaries, and his vivid, wild-eyed approach to lyricism provides him with lines that pull up entire songs by the bootstraps, underpinning their sonic musculature with enormous emotional depth.
In conversation, like many formidable heavy performers, Marshall is surprisingly reflective and softly-spoken. Speaking to him down a temperamental phone line, which he blames on his living in “a valley in Pennsylvania, it’s a terrible place”, he takes me through his selection of nine pivotal songs to his work with Daughters.
Some of the songs he’s chosen are relatively blatant in their relationship to Daughters - there’s a fair bit of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in the gathering darkness of You Won’t Get What You Want, not to mention some Swans in the band’s ability to tease an unspeakable tension out of pummelling, industrious repetition, and some are more oblique. It’s difficult to immediately see the link between this very modern noise-rock outfit and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” for example, but as Marshall eloquently explains, there are certain threads that run through his selections that may not be visible at surface level.
“I have to combat music, not just passively listen,” he says. “I like to find something that’s seemingly uncomfortable and sit in it for a while, because that’s life. I want all of the worst parts of life to overlap at the same time, that’s what being alive is, and I love when music has the feeling of that. I’m still emotionally stunted from all the trauma I’ve had in my life and music’s one way I have of processing that.”
“The original version of this is by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood and it’s kind of sexy. The character’s a sort of gigolo type, but the Einstürzende Neubauten version lends something completely different to it. It’s much more sinister and the character’s a travelling man of death.
“Blixa Bargeld’s voice on it, and his delivery of both Hazlewood and Sinatra’s parts, is really unsettling and changes it in the most wonderful way. Whenever I hear the original version of “Sand” now I always think that it sounds like a less impactful cover version, and it’s amazing that Neubauten have been able to do that.”
“I never got really into Laurie Anderson until a few years ago, when I was driving late at night and I had college radio on. This track came on as I was reaching my destination and I just stopped and sat in the car and listened to it. It seemed strange that this song was on college radio and I had to do a little digging afterwards, as the DJs were a little lazy about saying what the songs were and who they were by.
“Big Science” made me realise that I’d never really paid attention to Laurie Anderson and that she’s a genius. Her use of her voice as an instrument - not simply something to convey a story - is similar to the way that Blixa Bargeld sings and all the repetition and loops, it’s really incredible.
“It was the perfect time to hear it, at one in the morning, sitting in a car outside a hotel. It’s got a real dark, strange mood to it, with the lyrics giving you directions through this town that used to be something else, and that doesn’t know what it is now. It felt very appropriate and it resonated with me.”
“The early Nick Cave records exposed me to lyrical content as literature. Especially on a song like “Saint Huck” and especially on albums like Your Funeral... My Trial, there are just amazing musical stories.
“He has a really phenomenal body of work, especially early on. This song is a retelling of Huckleberry Finn - a modern version and a darker version of what Twain had written - and it’s not only about Cave’s ability to retell and reframe something, but to put something familiar in a really unfamiliar place.
“It’s his delivery as well. He’s never technically been a great singer, and I’m not a great singer myself, so the singers I’ve admired most are the ones with lots of personality in their vocals, and Nick Cave’s got so much of that.
“If everything was stripped away and I could only keep a handful of songs, “Saint Huck” would be in the centre of my hand. Everything about it is incredible. He’s got so many extraordinary songs and if I wrote just one of them, I’d be happy.”
“I first got into Scott Walker’s odder stuff and then I went backwards through the catalogue. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to The Walker Brothers initially, but when I first heard Nite Flights it seemed to embrace of all the weirder stuff he was starting to get into, like on “It’s Raining Today”, the first track on Scott 3, where right off the bat the strings are really disturbing and they turn what would be a really simple crooner pop song into something else.
"By Nite Flights it seemed like he really had all that stuff together there and thought ‘This is the last thing we’re going to do as The Walker Brothers, so let’s get crazy on this shit.’
“Lyrically “The Electrician” is phenomenal, it’s about someone flicking the switch and turning on an electric chair. It’s got a really sadistic quality to it about the experience of watching someone jump like that, but it handles it with a kind of grace that heavy metal can’t do, pushing the topic so far like an Eli Roth film or something, and it’s beautiful in its way.”
“I don’t really connect with celebrity shit. When people get upset when artists or actors die, it’s ‘We lost so-and-so, how tragic’, but we don’t know these people, so I don’t get upset. They could’ve just retired and what would be the difference to me? We’re left with the work and we should appreciate that.
“But when Scott died, I wasn’t prepared for it. It wasn’t upsetting, but it was really unpleasant to have to think about. I put “Face On Breast” on and I’m not ashamed to say that I cried.
“There’s this amazing thing about his voice that seems to absorb what’s happening around him. When you hear his early records his voice seems really rich and ‘proper’, but on his solo recordings in the later years the music accompanying him makes it sound almost like he’s without depth. It’s like getting hit with a bat, where he’s this strange product of the volume of the music. You almost think ‘Is he not a good singer?’ but then you really focus on his voice and you realise he’s exactly where he needs to be. I don’t think anyone else sings that way and is that effortlessly versatile.
“But he died, and it fucked me up and “Face On Breast” is the song that I went directly to; it’s always been a favourite Scott Walker song of mine. For years, I’ve felt so close to the last five or so records he did; he’d always existed by suggestion, like you didn’t really know what he was up to, but then he was gone. It’d be like having a really large home that’s haunted and you begin to appreciate this ghost before you go away for the weekend, come back and someone’s like ‘Oh, I had an exorcist come in and sort that ghost problem you had.” Suddenly your house is really quiet, and there’s something missing that kind of wasn’t there before anyway.
“Scott was never really there, but now he’s even further away. I don’t know how to process that.”
“This live version from Soundtracks for the Blind is fucking punishing, it’s just ferocious, and I love it. It builds and builds and builds and Jarboe just blows it out and it’s terrifying. She’s a really incredible singer, with this really gorgeous side and this monstrous, murderous intensity.
“When I’m writing myself, I have that song in my head all the time. I’ll start recording something and then realise I’m just writing a version of "Yum-Yab Killers"! And I do it every couple of months. I’m continuing to write it over and over again, it’s always in my head somewhere.”
“I’ve listened to Portishead since high school. They were the exception to the rule during my prime of loving hardcore and punk and metal, and I allowed it in because of the otherworldly sound of it; I couldn’t dismiss it.
“I love Beth Gibbons’ voice, it’s a bit like with later Scott Walker, sometimes you’re ‘Can this person sing?’ It’s so unconventional, but there’s a sincerity in her voice.
“Not too long ago I was working at a café between tours. I put on a Portishead album and the younger people I was working with were ‘What is this? We can’t listen to this!’ and I was just ‘You don’t fucking understand music, you’re a fucking idiot, you’re too young and stupid to understand how exceptional this is’, in my old man voice.
“It’s A Fire” is a really hopeful-sounding song, but the lyrical content is really sad, like a march into the abyss, it’s fucking crushing and exquisitely beautiful. If Sade sang it, it’d be a really sexy song, but Beth Gibbons turns it into this heart-breaking track. I love it so much.”
“I got really into American folk music and Delta Blues, a lot of field recordings of chain gangs, stuff about 1930s America and how shitty it was. I followed this weird trail and ended up consuming all these records and books, just sat in my bed.
“I love “Grinning In Your Face” and I get annoyed when it shows up on a film soundtrack or a commercial like ‘This is truly American, and there’s so much and so many cultures in this country which make it really remarkable.’ American folk music is one of the few things that is truly American. Well, it’s not; you can follow everything back and it leads somewhere else, but still.
“On this song, with just his voice, accompanied by occasional clapping, it’s really pleasant to just hear him sing. A lot of singers should do that I think; I’d take the time to stop and listen to that.
“There’s a great, sad message on here about not being able to trust anyone and there are questions in the song itself. Like the lines “You know your mother would talk about you / your own sisters and your brothers too,” Is that ‘Your sisters and brothers are talking about you’ or that ‘Your mother is talking about them?’ Does this mean we have no-one, that we’re utterly alone? Or does it mean you need to hold onto what you’ve got, because there are a lot of motherfuckers coming for you?”
“I watched Miloš Forman’s film Amadeus when I was a kid, and what really stuck with me was how powerful the music was.
“I never became a classical music buff. I have some friends who studied it and they make me feel embarrassed when I show any amount of interest in classical music. It’s so deep, with so much history, so it’s daunting to know where to begin.
“But thank you, Hollywood, for making this film. Watching the penultimate scene of Don Giovanni, when he’s dragged to hell, to this day - and I’m turning forty - I still cry when I hear the music. It’s breath-taking in its intensity.
“A few years ago, we had a projector on the wall and I was trying to get my three-year-old to watch it. I thought he’d get into it, but he didn’t give a shit. But it’s just magical, it has everything at the same time, it’s horrifying and it’s gorgeous.”