A Lot of Work To Do: Brian Marquis Talks the Punk Scene, Homelessness and the Importance of Community

Photo: Dani Fresh.

For many music lovers, hardcore has always been just another genre. But for Brian Marquis, it has been so much more than that. It has been his passion and his livelihood, and it has served as a conduit to his social awakening.

A native of Litchfield, Connecticut, Marquis immersed himself in the New England underground punk movement of the early 90s, attending shows all over the region, playing drums in his first band, Charlie 5-0, and spreading the word about up-and-coming bands. The Berklee alum paid his due to the scene early on, and it graciously paid him back with a career as one of the most well-known and most well-respected names in the scene today. His resume includes being a member of disbanded New England hardcore legends Therefore I Am; a respected solo career that launched with his debut album, “Blood and Spirits,” in 2014; and a stint as the creator, curator and emcee of the Acoustic Basement stage on Vans Warped Tour until its final go-around in 2015. Marquis always had his hands full but never full enough to halt his desire to help the scene and his community flourish.

“I had a friend whose brother was in a band, and I had been given some cassette mixtapes made by him,” said Marquis. “And while at this point, I was into mainstream heavy metal like Metallica and Ozzy Osbourne, this was the first time I heard something so raw, and it was just so interesting to me. I had never really played out much. I was pretty young, but their band needed a guitar player for one show, so I learned the songs, and I played my first hardcore in a halfpipe at a skatepark in Bristol, Connecticut.”

Marquis was hooked on not just the music but the atmosphere as well.

“I loved the environment and just felt that this was something different, and there were people who were running the shows who were my age. It all seemed self-contained, our own separate community. It was where I learned about straight edge, and veganism, and Anti-Racist Action [ARA]. It was just a really rad time. It felt like it was ours. It was a place where people were just there for the music and the feeling of community.”

In many ways, Marquis sees the hardcore and punk scene as a community based on love, appreciation and support. Social justice and activism run deep in the hardcore scene, and the shows aren’t just a place for music but for bringing awareness to issues, and they always have been.

“[The scene] was a really special place where people could literally bring their ideas to the table, and while bands sold shirts and music, you would have ARA at a table, or early veganism and vegetarianism activists with baked goods and such, and women’s rights groups,” said Marquis. “You had a lot of religious activity, you had people doing their own zines and publications about the scene, so I think that [sense of community] has always been something very important, with people being allowed to think freely and share ideas and learn from each other,” he continued. “That’s the part of punk rock that was so cool—that people were so on-board with equality.”

And while the scene was a kinship of sorts, it was not impervious to hate. Kids gathered to mosh the hell out of each other—most of the time in good fun—at every show. They knew the words to countless songs written by countless bands, who were also friends. But Marquis sees some similarities between the social turbulence of today, such as the rise of the alt-right and the re-emergence of neo-Nazis, and the interactions he had with neo-Nazis and skinheads at shows back in the day.

“With what’s happening lately with the alt-right, and the apparent visibility of neo-nazi presence and white supremacy in America, it kinda dawned on me that I have a different perspective on that just from seeing them at shows,” said Marquis. “I grew up with skinheads and neo-Nazis at shows. I don’t think that average Americans have even talked to a neo-Nazi or seen one in public in full regalia,” he continued. “I don’t tout that as a badge of honor, but I don’t know many people that have had to say ‘fuck you, fuck what you believe in, because it’s not right, and you’re spurting hate, and there’s no place for it here.”

“I feel like a lot of people just think that Nazis are just in films and history books,” he said, “but they don’t always get the gravity of it. There seems to be a lack of camaraderie when it comes to coming out against neo-nazis. People are scared to come out against them, when we grew up kicking those guys out of the fucking room. We ran that scene, and we made it known that their ignorance and their hatred was not welcome there.”

The sense of community Marquis carries with him was embedded in him at a very early age, much like his love for music.

His parents were young when Brian was born in 1981, and they didn’t have much money, so early on he grew up in a farmhouse in Bethany, Connecticut, with many different types of people.

“My earliest memory of music is my dad playing music for all of us in the house,” said Marquis. “I remember when Hurricane Gloria happened when I was little, we all huddled inside with no power, and we got everyone together to play a little concert,” he continued. “It was really my first feeling of a community vibe.”

It was because of his father that Marquis began to play music, starting with air guitar sessions accompanied by his childhood best friend, but it was in that farmhouse that Brian caught his first glimpse of people who were down on their luck with nowhere to live. Those experiences, after moving to Los Angeles in the early 2000s, motivated Marquis to get involved in his new community, and it spurred him to volunteer with the Los Angeles County homeless census.

“I live in Los Angeles, and homelessness is a daily, visible, active thing in my life,” said Marquis. “There’s a park in downtown LA called Grant Park where I work with the county to put on events and concerts, and there is a very present homeless population that comes through the park. I worked as an Uber driver, where I go to parts of the city I never would have seen had I not had someone to pick up or drop off. It’s heartbreaking to see. A lot of it is brought on by mental illness and addiction, and I don’t know what the answer is to fix it, but people need our help. I don’t believe everyone is looking for a free handout, and I just feel that a lot of these people have been neglected and discarded by the system.”

“The mental health aspect of homelessness is huge, and it never gets dealt with,” he said. “My mom worked for the state of Connecticut, and would see how the state would cut funding for programs helping those with mental disabilities and mental illness, and state-run homes would be shut down to just let these people roam free. While they were high-functioning, they still needed assistance. I think the middle class spends an awful lot of time getting pissed at the poor for being lazy or not doing their fair share, more than we get pissed off at the CEO who is paying non-livable wages but he’s making $6,000 an hour, and sure, there will always be people who abuse the system, but I think we have an obligation to take care of these people. We are very behind the ball when it comes to helping the impoverished and homeless in America.”

Some might feel that the hardcore scene is in some ways a microcosm of our current political and social climate—people of all backgrounds standing up for those intimidated by hate and fear—and Marquis, while years removed from those underground shows in Connecticut, is not standing idly by.

The day after this past election day, while half of the nation reeled with a sense of mourning, Marquis enlisted his greatest tool—his acoustic guitar—to record a demo for a protest song, “Work To Do,” and its lyrics are evidence that Marquis is not taking his platform for granted, both as a performer and as a white male.

“We can’t sit on our morals and just admit defeat and say, ‘oh well, the alt-right has this now.’ As much as that is true, we can still make it really hard for them,” said Marquis. “And as much as they are coming out of the woodworks now, we are already here, so let’s use our voices, do what we can, give to causes, making it a banner year for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU or whatever cause you support,” he continued. “Make it the biggest grossing year for them, and help them help as many people as they can. I know I can do more, and I know I can give more.”

While he’s prepared to use his platform for causes, it admittedly took time for him to accept certain “woke” concepts, like the idea of white privilege.

“I grew up poor, and growing up, the phrase ‘white privilege’ always irked me, because I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth,” he said, “but I didn’t thoroughly understand it until a few years ago, what it means to have white privilege, and now I understand it more and how it affects me, and what I can do with that. I would rather be like Spider Man, like ‘with great power comes great responsibility,’ because what do I have to lose? I risk criticism, people not agreeing with me, being uncomfortable, and that’s easy compared to some of the s—t some people will have to deal with these next four years. If I feel that all I have to worry about is being criticized, like I worried about being criticized for posting the song, all that worry means s—t to me compared to what I know people are already going through and are going to continue to go through these next for years.”

He ended with the following: “For the chance of inspiring other people, and getting other people fired up, or with the chance of just talking about issues with other people, I will risk whatever discomfort I have to go through to do just that.”

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