WILLIAM ALEXANDER: THE OL’ SHRED STICK
photo by alex the brown
Long Beach multi-instrumentalist William Alexander Marquis released his record Girls Basketball earlier this year, and within weeks it had graced the pages of NME, shown up on countless blogs and provoked a storm of phone calls from PR people and record labels. So why is it that after playing music for 20 years and five releases with his previous band the Meanest Boys, his first solo record under his Christian name William Alexander is the one attracting the non-stop attention? Let’s find out! This interview by Frankie Alvaro. William Alexander plays Sat., Jan. 31, at 4th Street Vine in Long Beach.
Where did your musical talent come from?
I can’t really say. I can say using the words ‘musical talent’ when describing me feels a bit odd. I don’t have a lot of confidence in my technical ability when it comes to playing instruments. I can play guitar and keyboards, but I feel like it’s all bullshit. I just fake it. I never truly learned to play any instruments, and I can’t read music at all. I took guitar lessons as a kid, but as soon as I learned power chords I quit! It was like … ta-da! That was all I needed. My strength is definitely on the creative side, like songwriting and melody. I think it’s just natural talent though, and a genuine love of music. I remember being kind of obsessed with music when I was younger, and when I started playing guitar I began to understand song structure a lot more. I understood early on too that your heart has to be in it. If your heart’s not in it the listener can tell and it’s worthless. That was a big advantage realizing that so young.
When you are ‘faking it,’ do you ever feel like people can look right through you? Do you get self-conscious when you’re on stage?
I get a little self conscious about it. I guess as long as you’re selling it—as long as I’m confident in it when I’m playing it and confident about the music when I’m recording it and put it out, I think that comes through. Anyone with a real technical ear could probably listen to it and tell that what I’m doing is pretty basic on a technical ability level, but I think I have such a good ear for tones and the sounds that I come up with that the final product really comes across as being something sincere and enjoyable to listen to.
Do you remember what songs or musicians made you feel like their hearts were truly in the music that they were making?
Roy Orbison was someone I listened to when I was younger—there’s something so powerful about his voice and it’s just so emotional that you can hear how sincere he is when he would sing. I instantly just loved his voice and his music—and the power and sincerity that came through.
Do you ever feel that the music you make you make has so much emotion and so much of your soul in it that you almost tear up when listening to it? Because that much of your heart is in it?
I definitely tap into something where I can get really lost and be putting something out there that’s very true to who I am. There’s moments where … Yeah, I think I’m brain dead right now.
Want to get stoned?
That will probably make it worse. What’s the question again? I’ve definitely felt exposed. And felt that I’m putting a lot of myself out there through the music. I don’t know that I’ve ever teared up to one of my own songs. There’s definitely other songs that have brought me to that point, where it’s such a deep song that I connect so deeply with it. I try to be very honest with myself and not be restricted by anything when I write so that it is truthful to who I am, and I think it comes across as very sincere.
When you got into punk, did you get super into punk?
Oh yeah! All the way.
Have a mohawk?
I had spiked hair, started sewing patches onto my jackets, and stopped showering. [laughs] I probably went a good … I don’t know, sophomore year of high school without showering. I’m kidding—not that long but there were long streaks where you could smell me coming for sure. I drank a lot. Smoked cigarettes.
Drinking 40s under bridges?
I know you have a Screeching Weasel tattoo that makes a lot of people very excited.
I have a few music related tattoos. ‘Son of a preacher man’—an ode to my father who is a preacher, but to Dusty Springfield as well. I have the notes to ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)’ with a songbird, too.
What kind of music was in your home growing up?
At that time it’s hard to say. My mom was super into this flamenco guitar player. I can’t remember his name at the moment. He was really popular. Stuff like that. Nothing close to what I was listening to.
Do you feel that flamenco artist had any influence on you?
I don’t think so—maybe something to move away from. [laughs] It had a bit of an opposite effect. No one in my immediate family plays music but they definitely appreciate it. I remember playing 8-track tapes in the family car. Beach Boys, Motown stuff, old country music. My dad loves soul music and that definitely took hold on me. It’s probably my favorite music still to this day. I just saw Brenton Wood play a few months ago—he was incredible. I’m a devoted listener of the Art Laboe show.
You definitely have the best Art Laboe shirt on the planet. What do you love about Art Laboe? Do you think the world would be a pretty different place if he never got famous?
What I love about him is how dedicated he is to sharing music. Specifically the kind of East L.A. soul music that he championed, and still champions. He’s so passionate about it. He’s like in his 80s and he’s still on the radio every night sharing these songs. I’ve never called in personally but it’s one of my favorite things to listen to him read the dedications. He’s this older man, reading this dedication from Spider to Crazy Eyes conveying their love for each other. And there’s something so great about that.
I knew a girl growing up who cheated on her boyfriend and called in and apologized to him on the air. She recorded it on a cassette and played it for me.
How would you describe your own voice?
A cross between Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra, and Gilbert Gottfried.
That is so sexy.
I tend to sing pretty softly, and that’s mostly because I record songs in my bedroom in my apartment building. I can’t be that loud so I have a pretty soft voice. I don’t know who it really sounds like. I’ve never gotten direct comparisons before from anyone about who my voice reminds them of so I don’t know. I’d say it’s beautiful? Magical?
I think it’s beautiful and magical!
Sounds like an angel singing through the clouds down to earth?
Do you think people can make love while listening to your music?
Would you want people to make love while your record is playing? Do you want your voice to be that smooth?
I definitely want to be the soundtrack for some romantic occasions! I’ve never done it.
You’ve never made love while listening to your own music?
No I haven’t! That would be the weirdest thing ever. Holy shit! No—I don’t think I could ever do that. That would be fucking intense!
Has your family been supportive of your musical endeavors?
Definitely. If I have shows, they go. I think my dad has a creative side he was never really able to express or pursue, so he was supportive of me being able to express and pursue it.
I could image him being pretty proud of you. Especially because you’re not making death metal or something to freak out the squares. It’s all beautiful music.
Yeah, they’re able to listen to it, understand it and enjoy it.
And you said your dad is a preacher?
Oh yeah. There was definitely some gospel music being listened to growing up. I remember around Christmas time standards being played. Bing Crosby and the like.
Were there rules to what you could listen to? Or what he encouraged?
He wasn’t into me buying Metallica or Guns ‘n’ Roses. I remember going to a friends house and him playing me Anthrax Attack Of The Killer Bs and knowing I couldn’t go home and listen to it there. There’s a song on that album called ‘Starting Up My Posse’—the chorus turns into a punk blast and he just rattles off every curse word imaginable, and I knew I could never listen to that at home. That was up until I could start buying my own records.
Once you’re buying your own music, did they become more lenient? Or were they still on you for listening to ‘the devil’s’ music?
They were open to me listening to what I wanted to listen to, and weren’t as critical—and were a bit more supportive.
Who had the most influence on you musically?
Getting into punk bands when I was in junior high. It’s right when I was learning how to play guitar and I realized I could actually play these songs I was listening to. That was a great feeling. Like, ‘I don’t have to know how to do a guitar solo and I can still start a band!’ Which I did shortly after. It was the attitude, not your ability to play. I guess that really stuck with me—ha. I had a pretty good ear for figuring out songs. Well, three-chord punk songs.
When did you realize you could sing?
Probably not until my early twenties. I had been singing in bands in high school, but I didn’t really enjoy it. It was like an ‘If you’re writing the songs, you have to sing them’ type deal. Then as I got out of high school I started listening to more and more experimental stuff. The college rock of the time. A lot of those guys had really unique voices, like Isaac Brock or J Mascis. It made me realize that you don’t have to have a ‘great voice’ or a ‘pretty voice’ to be an incredible singer. You just have to know how to use your own voice and have confidence in it. I started implementing different techniques when I would sing until I found myself becoming really comfortable with it.
How did you figure out your own voice?
Experimenting with different volumes and inflections. From screaming in punk bands in high school, and singing in bands after. Figuring out my range. I was able to hone into the strongest part of it. I’m still using different voices and I’m discovering the different personalities. The song determines how I sing. I do like where my voice is at now.
Is there something you wish you could do with your voice? Or something you’re working towards? Falsettos!
I’m not sure. I’ve never had a vocal coach before. I’m sure they could give me some techniques. I’m pretty happy where it’s at now.
John Lennon said he didn’t feel like a real songwriter until he wrote ‘ In My Life.’ Is there a song you’ve written that made you feel like you’ve become a good song writer?
The first song I remember writing where I was like, ‘Oh shit, that’s a really good song. Maybe I CAN do this!’ was a song called ‘Apples In The East’. It’s about ten years old now but that one gave me a lot of encouragement to keep at it and really try to improve. It’s funny cause it’s a pretty sloppy song but it has a lot of heart. And it’s sweet. Like it’s a sweet little love song.
Why was ‘Apples In The East’ different?
I think I paid a little more attention and spent a little more time on it. And it really paid off. Instead of just writing a song and recording it really quickly and kind of doing it in a flash, I really worked with the song and tried to make it as good as a song as it could be. Even though it’s kind of loose, there’s something about that makes the song so special to me. It’s when I really kind of started trying to put a lot more effort into the craft, instead of just throwing it out there, whatever came first. I just sat down and said, ‘OK—what parts can I make better? How can I arrange this so it’s a perfect song?’
Do you find yourself spending a lot more time with a song now? Fine-tuning it until it’s ‘perfect’?
Definitely more than I used to. I don’t think any of them are perfect but I spend more time with them, and really listen to them a lot. I can listen to it one day and think it’s a great song, listen to it the next day and hate it, and then the following day listen to again and say, ‘Well, you know … this actually isn’t so bad. I see what I didn’t like about it, but now that I’ve sat with it for a little bit I know how to fix it.’ It all evolves as I listen to the songs.
At what point do you stop and say, ‘OK, this is done. This is perfect.’
That’s one of the hardest parts. Just knowing when to stop. I could keep working on these songs forever and ever and ever, but I would never put anything out if I did that. So you just have to get to a point where you’re happy with it and you have to give it wings and let it be free. It’s like sending your kids off to college, I guess. You just have to let it go.
Are there songs you wish you’d handled differently?
There are songs I hear years later that make me think I should have done that chorus two measures later, or I totally left that squeaky guitar part in there that I should have cleaned up. There are little things that I notice because I’m super-critical—hyper-critical—but I’m sure other people don’t notice those things. And that’s why you just have to let them go.
Would you ever want to put out a record of your songs re-recorded? Do you understand how other musicians do that?
Yeah—you get that second chance. I don’t know if I would do that. Maybe some day if I had a song that I feel didn’t get my fair attention the first go-round. And if I had the chance to re-record it in a nice studio or something.
What’s your dream show to play? Dead or alive artists.
Modest Mouse, Built To Spill and Jawbreaker. 1997.
Why 1997? That was a great year for me too. What happened for you?
1997 was the year I started exploring a lot more music, instead of just really sticking to the punk stuff I had been listening to. I started listening to more bands like Modest Mouse and Jawbreaker, and those bands influenced me so much at the time—and to this day. It was a really special time where I started finding out about more of the obscure music that is out there. Now those bands are commonplace, but in 1997 no one in my high school knew who those bands were.
At that time you could go out and see kids and know, ‘OK, they’re into punk, they’re into indie, they’re into emo, they’re mod …’ Now you go out and everyone looks the same. What did you love about those early Modest Mouse albums?
There was just something so special to me about those early Modest Mouse albums. Even to this day they’re still some of my favorite records of all time. I saw them play at the El Rey. It was a great show.
Did you see them with Johnny Marr?
No, I know they recorded with him but I couldn’t really hear too much of his influence on the albums. Either way—it’s still cool they got to play with him.
What was your inspiration for the Girls Basketball cover?
I found that photo on the internet. It was from a high school yearbook in Oklahoma from around a hundred years ago. That photo was the page leading into the photos of their girls basketball team. There was just something about it. The drawing and the girl in bloomers with the basketball was a really amazing image. And the font, too. It has that great gothic hand drawn font. I just loved it right away and it clicked! This is my next album cover. Done.
Was there something specific that inspired you to write Girls Basketball or was it compiled over time?
The songs were written over the period of a year or so—2013 I guess. I had probably 5 or 6 songs recorded and no plan with what to do with them. Then I found that cover image and it inspired me to create the album. I needed something to tie the Girls Basketball cover together with the music so then I wrote the song ‘Girls Basketball’ and I knew I had something worthwhile. I think ‘Holding It’ was the last song I wrote and it felt like it was a good closer. As far as the overall inspiration, the lyrics are just cryptic stories from my life—the stuff I ponder on, heartbreak, family, my vices. I always write from a very introspective place. You could find out a lot about me if you studied my lyrics. Like my love of burritos.
There really isn’t anything more beautiful than a good burrito. Who are some of your biggest inspirations ?
Mostly food. Just kidding. Musical inspirations … I would have to say Animal Collective. Their album Sung Tongs really shook me up when it came out. It was like a sound I had been looking for but had you asked me I never would have been able to describe it. I remember being really moved by a lot of those songs and it affected the way I made music after listening to it. I’m really inspired by the local scene in Long Beach right now, too. There’s a ton of great bands and musicians all playing together and everyone is really supportive of each other. Not to mention venues like Alex’s Bar—Alex is a great dude—and 4th Street Vine. Jim Ritson is a great guy too. It’s got me hyped for the future.
What are the main instruments you play?
I usually write on guitar. Yeah, that would definitely be my go-to instrument. The old axe. My git-fiddle. The ol’ shred stick.
On this album you played all of the instruments right?
Correct. I played all of the guitar stuff including bass, keys, and a sampler. I programmed most of the drums but my good friend Shawn Cutts played drums on a few tracks. Then I did all of the vocal stuff too.
Tell me about your song writing process.
My writing is fully incorporated with the recording process. If I get inspired or have an idea, I typically start by laying down a drum track that I can play to. It’s nice to have a backbeat that I can try ideas out with. And it kind of informs me what I will do on the guitar. There are a couple of drum tracks on Girls Basketball that my friend Shawn recorded and I didn’t really touch them. I really liked them and let them dictate the structure of the song. It’s fun to work that way sometimes. If a particular beat isn’t gelling with what I’m doing on the guitar, I just make a new beat. Once I have the guitar part down with a few variations I record it over the drums. I can then chop up parts and rearrange them till I get something I like. Then I can start laying down other guitar lines and bass parts. The whole time rearranging and tweaking little parts here and there. Once I have a solid foundation I start working on lyrics and vocals. By this point in the process I’ve listened to the song over and over and have a pretty strong melody built up for it. It just becomes a matter of writing lyrics to that melody and that can either come in a flash or take me months. I rarely sit down with my guitar and write a full song. It’s happened but not a lot.
What was the process like for making Girls Basketball?
Me in my bedroom. I work a 9-to-5 so I mostly get to record when I get home from work. I’m usually really tired and usually sit in horrible traffic on the 405, so it can be really hard to feel inspired or motivated. I usually have to force myself to get everything set up but when I do it’s easy to get lost in a song. Hours will go by in a blink. It’s seriously my favorite thing to do. I absolutely love writing songs and recording.
Tell me about Juniper Tree Songs.
Juniper Tree Songs is a rad tape label run by my buddy Matt. He puts out a lot of lo-fi bedroom stuff and was nice enough to do the cassette release of Girls Basketball.
You have any plans for playing live?
I do! I haven’t played live in so long but I’ve actually put together a band recently, or rather these other guys made me do it cuz they’re such rad musicians and I would’ve felt like a dick if I didn’t take them up on their offer to play music with me. Dustin Lovelis is playing bass and he’s got his own solo record coming out next year on Porch Party, which is a sweet sweet label out of Long Beach. Joel Jasper is on guitar and Zach Mabry is on drums. Joel’s got a solo thing going on and collectively they play as Forest Of Tongue. Zach is in like five other bands and they all rip.
When you play live with those dudes, do you like the way they’re translating your music? Or would you prefer to have five other Wills up on stage?
I definitely like the influence they have on it. They’re very talented musicians. Much more talented than I am. So it’s great to be surrounded by such strong players. They bring so much more to these songs than I originally put into them. They sound bigger. They sound tighter. Plus on all my recordings, it’s me singing all back-ups and all harmonies. And now I have other unique voices singing with me. So that’s one of my favorite parts about it.
You’re so critical of your own music—when you have other people play with you, do you let them have artistic freedom?
I totally trust them. They never bring anything so off the charts that it doesn’t fit with the song. They have really good taste in music, and really similar to mine, so whenever they have an idea or suggestion I normally take it because they’re right most of the time. I remember the first time we played I was so excited to plug in and jam with them that I was playing really loud, and Zach the drummer said, ‘Why don’t we ease up a bit and play it a little quieter?’ As soon as we did that the song sounds a hundred times better. He just knew right off that bat that it sounded cool … but maybe I needed to take a chill pill and let the song exist. It doesn’t have to be full blast to come across.
What’s the newest thing you’ve done?
I’m working on a big batch of new songs I’m putting out with the label I just signed with—Yellow K. They’re going to be releasing my next new album. I’m really excited to have that support. And a label behind me encouraging me, so when I’m writing these new songs it’s nice to know they’re going to have a good home when I’m finished with everything. Yellow K is fairly new but the guy Josh who runs it is just like the nicest dude and he’s really supportive of my music. They’ll be re-releasing my album Strangest Things on vinyl kind of early next year. I couldn’t be happier about it. Oh, and I’ve been talking to another awesome label called Forged Artifacts and I think they’re going to do the cassette release of those albums. It’s been sort of overwhelming after not really putting myself out there for so long and now I’m getting all sorts of amazing feedback from all over the world. It’s extremely flattering and I’m incredibly grateful. Not just to them, but anyone who’s taken time to listen to my music. It’s so rad.
What’s different about your new songs?
I think over the years I’ve learned the process of recording better, and my ear is constantly getting a little better, and more finely tuned to what my strong suits are. The songs each time they come around they sound a little better to me. And maybe I mature a little bit.
WILLIAM ALEXANDER WITH DUSTIN LOVELIS (THE FLING) AND LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT ON SAT., JAN. 31, AT 4TH STREET VINE, 2142 E. 4TH ST., LONG BEACH. 8 PM / 21+ / FREE! WILLIAM ALEXANDER’S GIRLS BASKETBALL IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM JUNIPER TREE. WILLIAMALEXANDER.BANDCAMP.COM.