IMAGE: Sachi Arakawa
[TOXIC LOUNGE SINGER] Two years ago Rex Marshall was trapped. In trying to translate his one-man band, Mattress, to the stage, the equipment had become too cumbersome, too constricting; his homemade setup (two keyboards, a drum machine and various pedals) too clunky to carry around. After a few trying shows with a failed backing band, Marshall decided to ditch the gear and the people and go for something a little more mysterious.
“I just decided to put everything on cassette,” Marshall says between bites of sushi. “It’s like, whatever, people sing with laptops, ya know? I think I can sneak a tape deck in and nobody will know. It’s like this mysterious background music pumping out. Where’s it coming from? It’s coming from my hands! That’s what I want it to look like.”
It’s in the flesh that Marshall excels; his shows are epic, awkward interactions between audience and performer. The first thing you notice about the lanky crooner is just how he commands the stage—flailing around, arms akimbo, hands holding onto the mic for dear life. While his harsh, often dissonant music is difficult to coin as anything “pop,” his presence is built on singers who command the stage: Nick Cave, Suicide’s Alan Vega, even Dean Martin.
Marshall grew up on the Vegas strip, and the seedy glitz of the casino life has sunk its way into the music. He’s a lounge singer—just not in the traditional sense.
“It’s more of that Vegas I can’t get rid of,” Marshall half-jokes. “I didn’t see a lot of celebrities, but I saw a lot of celebrity impersonators—Tom Jones, a Michael Jackson impersonator who was brilliant. And, you know, there was always an Elvis impersonator—one in every corner of the strip. I think the heat got most of them.”
The sweltering, unbearable heat is one of the things that led Marshall to move to Portland, where he’s looking to establish a niche with his recently released debut record, Heavy Duty. Both bleak and oddly comforting, songs like “Pollution” filter squelchy synths, slow-mo drum machines, and Marshall’s unmistakably deep croon through frustration, heartache and, ultimately, optimism. “I try to keep my songs genuine and centered around real emotions,” Marshall points out. Emotions that translate beautifully to Mattress’ live shows. “That’s why I like the tapes—I can put on a tape and I don’t have to worry about the music.”
SEE IT: Mattress plays the Ash St. Saloon Thursday, Sept. 11, with the Trucks and Boy Eats Drum Machine.