Interview: Merchandise

Merchandise - Photo courtesy of Merchandise

Merchandise – Photo courtesy of Merchandise

It’s a chaotic start for Merchandise. Running behind schedule due to a soundcheck involving more smoke than anyone would wish, frontman Carson Cox gleefully admitted that Merchandise has never played its new set to a live audience. Unprepared? “It’s been the same for every show we’ve ever done!”

Monday (June 2) at the Kantine was Merchandise’s opening night–the band will spend two months on the road promoting the forthcoming album, “After the End.” Given the Floridan five-piece’s complex discography, it’s a release difficult to place: two records–EP “Totale Nite” and a split disc with Milk Music and Destruction Unit–have followed since second album “Children of Desire” in 2012. But even that doesn’t count as a ‘real’ sophomore effort; Merchandise started playing and self-releasing around eight years ago, in the depths of Tampa’s now-infamous hardcore scene.

Notoriously hard to categorize, Merchandise has been dubbed everything from shoegaze to post-punk. The group’s spacious sound, often introverted and always hard-hitting, is one easily identifiable: Dave Vassalotti’s descriptive guitar work scene-sets for Pat Brady’s bass and Cox’s characteristically full, 80s-nostalgic vocals. Recent years have seen the addition of drummer Elsner Nino and multi-instrumental Chris Horn, as well as Merchandise evolving into a very different incarnation.

For “After the End,” the band has made the plunge, combining home recordings and an independent ethos with the guidance of cult label 4AD. The album title is no coincidence–in both sound and tone, it’s classic Merchandise, but this record is dosed with a self-awareness and direction that’s all new. It’s cheerier, for starters, and there are plenty of tracks–lead single “Little Killer,” and the jaunty, angular “Telephone”–that sound far more radio-accessible. Cox blamed the change in direction on a recent obsession: “I watched a lot of old European pop TV shows–Top of the Pops, Beat Club. Especially in the late seventies, every single band is a power-pop band.”

“And before, our set-lists were always only like four songs long!” added Vassalotti. Cox nodded, “… now we can still say what we want to say, just in a more…concise, fun, way? Sometimes it’s difficult to do that super intense, emotional, drawn-out stuff.”

“Definitely,” agreed Brady. “A lot of times, you just see the audience going…” he trailed off as he mimed taking out a phone to text.

“And I really don’t feel like our job is to educate,” Cox continued. “Everyone’s just there to get drunk and meet girls. I don’t feel like there’s an intelligent reason to come see us…” He raised his voice as he was cut off by the rest of the band’s laughter. “…But I don’t! I honestly don’t! There’s no point in sharing your politics or whatever. It’s more important to share a time, to have fun.”

In contrast to the newly lighthearted material, this time around, Merchandise’s focus is sharp. It’s evident in the way the members discuss the production behind their new record, and in the way they attempt–unsuccessfully–to distance themselves from their DIY roots.

“We do this as a job now,” asserted Cox, “rather than just making music and having it exist as a satellite to come back to you occasionally, this time we knew what we were doing.”

Together they explain that they wrote and recorded recent records in their home studio, using electronic percussion, but that this album marked a throwback.

“This time we’ve written them all live, recorded demos live, and then brought that in,” Vassalotti added. “We haven’t recorded a record like that since 2008.”

Cox elaborated, enthusiastically, “We’ve had Gareth Jones mix this record and he’s done a lot of incredible stuff…Depeche Mode, Neubahn. Most new records are made with beat replacement or are very synthy”–“Auto-tuned!” interjected Vassalotti–“Yeah, there’s none of that with Gareth. He gets the sound with EQ and reverb, delay, compression, basic technique. Engineering the record as opposed to translating it to computer language.”

Nino jumped in, stern-faced, “but he did not produce, which I think is going to be misinterpreted by media. He did not produce the record.”

The band’s need for creative independence is blindingly obvious: Cox produces and records all Merchandise output, and it’s well-known that the group’s Tampa Bay house is the location for this, as well as most of the visual work, too. It’s surprising, then, that Cox vigorously refutes Merchandise’s DIY reputation.

“I don’t feel the tie to the scene. That time is very real with us, but the press has made us into this last dying vestige of DIY, and it doesn’t really apply to us at all,” he said.

There was a brief pause before Vassalotti and Brady noisily interrupted, “apart from that we do do it all ourselves?” and “apart from that we do produce our own records?”

Cox laughingly conceded, “Yeah, and we did do it all in my closet. OK. But to say ‘DIY’ implies that we’re attached to a scene and we’re really not any more. DIY is a mask you can wear; you can trust me, we do it for the right reasons. But there are just as many snakes in the grass in the DIY industry.”

So if Merchandise is that independent, why even choose 4AD? “I don’t know.” admitted Vassalotti. “We thought about putting out our own record for a while, but we realized we’re too high to do that.” There were sniggers all round. “It would never work!” shouted Brady.

Merchandise clearly enjoys this chaos, reluctant to appear too polished. However, the band fails spectacularly to hide the meticulousness and pride in its work. For the first show of a very long tour–and as ‘unprepared” as the five claimed to be–their set seamlessly combined material both old and new. Whether we’re watching a ‘new’ Merchandise, or simply a band that’s realizing potential, it’s definitely going to make for an interesting journey.

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