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You'd be forgiven for thinking Joel Marquard of indie rock band Gospel Claws and his solo roots/Americana project The Through and Through Gospel Review is a morose guy. After all, his biggest hit, "Summer Nights Lakeside," contains the doomed line "If you take me down to the lake, I'll drown you if you ask me to."
But Marquard isn't mopey. He's a man quick to laugh, and that's what makes lines about aquatic-assisted suicide work, and allows him to shrug off a recent brush with cancer like it's no big deal. Call it gallows humor if you want, but whatever you do, don't chalk it to a newfound faith or spiritualism. Despite the fact that the word "gospel" hangs tellingly in both of his band names, Marquard didn't experience any typical near-death conversions.
"It's pretty much over, and I'm at 100 percent now," Marquard says. "All my CAT scans came back clear, but the doctor wanted to do more preventive stuff because the theory is that it might travel up, like, up the tubes that connect to your balls."
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He chuckles after he says the word "balls."
Just three months ago, Marquard was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Marquard was lucky. Catching it early meant he could start treatment immediately.
"I had to get 17 days of radiation treament where they just zap you with this big machine in your abdomen for, like, a minute," he says. "It just made me extremely tired and a little nauseous, plus I had to work during all that, too. I'm a dilivery driver, so it was kind of hard being extremely tired. I'm running to 150 people's front doors every two minutes.
Beep. Beep. Beep. As if on cue, Marquard's hand-held package scanner sounds off as we talk over the phone while he works.
Marquard didn't take time off from his musical pursuits, either. Gospel Claws began recording its sophomore album while Marquard received treatment. The running joke in his circle of friends was that the new record might sound a little less ballsy than the Claws' first outing. Indeed, Marquard says, the record's influences — '50s doo-wop, Sam Cooke, and the Beach Boys — don't point to an aggressive sound, but he says it shouldn't be much much mellower than the group's 2010 debut C-L-A-W-S.
"Luckily, testicular cancer is one of the more mild cancers," he says. "It's definitely survivable, and I think I caught it early enough. I just have to get tested every four months now."
With a clean bill of health, Marquard has turned his attention to the mounting medical expenses he has incurred. Chuckie Duff of local label Common Wall Media (home to Gospel Claws, Bogan Via, Snake! Snake! Snakes!, and The Through and Through Gospel Review) is helping Marquard raise funds by uniting a small army of Phoenix's brightest indie acts (What Laura Says, Yellow Minute, ROAR, and Snake! Snake! Snakes!) for a benefit show and an accompanying compilation album, which features exclusive new music from many of the acts scheduled to perform, as well as Black Carl, The Go Reflex, Mergence, and El Sonida de Reposa.
The benefit show gives Marquard a chance not only to show off songs from the new Gospel Claws record but perform for the first time the songs that make up The Through and Through Gospel Review. He's assembled a lineup and plans an onstage spectacle that borders on dangerous. He's planning on hanging pots and pans from the ceiling, and he's building a big frame, one he wants to fit a sheet of glass in. With a hammer, he hopes to replicate some of the sounds on his lo-fi record of spirituals. "I still gotta try and figure out how to do that safely," Marquard says. "Maybe I'll hand out safety goggles to the people in front."
Marquard initially imagined that The Through and Through Gospel Review songs would never leave his bedroom recording studio, but Duff released the recordings, and the warm reception encouraged Marquard to try the songs out on stage.
"If I was going to do it live, I wanted to do it with, like, 30 people singing; just a huge thing," he says. "This opportunity — if you want to call it that — came along [laughs]. The band that's assembled is pretty much made up of all the other bands playing that night. So I have Mitch Freedom from What Laura Says, Sean Brennan from Yellow Minute, Austin Owen from Ladylike, Rachel Ludeman, Shane Kennedy on drums, and the singer from Fine China, [Common Wall alum] Rob Withem."
"He's assembled a lot of very capable musicians, but also people that were into the project to begin with," Freedom says. "All of us kind of came to this project because we were friends of Joel and/or fans of Gospel Claws."
Marquard's side project resonated with his peers not only for its traditional tone, but because of the originality of the songs that otherwise sound like scripture.
"I've always been a big fan of Joel's voice and his songwriting style," Owen says. "It's kind of scary how effortlessly Joel represents a certain part of gospel music. It's like it has occupied a whole part of his brain or something."
Freedom and Owen have been champing at the bit to be a part of a live production for Through and Through ever since Marquard advanced them a copy of the record before the album's official digital release. So far, rehearsals have been fueled by everyone's eagerness and enthusiasm for the music but also by coming together for a friend in a time of need.
"It just goes to further show the strength and unity in our community here," Freedom says.
"The set's going to have everything from a nice solid gospel hillbilly rocker to a completely vocal track with little to no instrumentation," Owen says. "There's going to be a lot of diversity, which will be nice."
Marquard says he's eager to see what shape the songs take on, but he doesn't see more Through and Through shows in the future. The Gospel Claws' release will take up most of his time, and beyond that, he plans on tackling a new solo album with more of the doo-wop he just can't get out of his head. Even when he's driving around in his delivery truck, he's writing new songs — melody first, of course.
"Like earlier today, I wrote a super-catchy, almost pop melody," he says. "It's not too hard to sing and think of melodies when you're driving along. I read that kind of thing happened to Michael Jackson. He was driving along when — bam — there's the bass line to 'Billie Jean.'"
Owen has witnessed the creative flow firsthand during rehearsals for the upcoming benefit concert: "It seems like once he has a lyrical idea and a melody, the music and the harmonies just come right out."
"The whole thing is just supposed to be fun," Marquard says, brushing off the heavy theological implications that his gospel sounds have had a role in his recovery process. "I hope people get that vibe. I've had enough trouble in my life trying to explain the ridiculous 'gospel' parts of my band names."