This Is The Ether: Reintroducing Merchandise
When you drive through Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood, you will pass an endless collection of gas stations and strip malls, the latter seeming to surrender their final delayed breath into the aqueous Florida air. You will pass a laundromat whose wan teal sign looks as if it hasn’t been touched since the 1950s. You will pass rows of Florida bungalows and ranch houses, some occupied by artsy faux-hemians, some by the sort of Floridians who have three rusted-out vintage cars on their lawn and a Confederate flag hanging from the garage. Seedy motels are omnipresent. Nestled amongst this is the house where all five members of Merchandise currently live, the same house where they recorded their new album After The End. When you arrive, the thought is hard to escape: Unconventional as it is today, this is the sort of thing that could be — and, perhaps, will be — read in hindsight as the beginning of a rock ‘n’ roll myth.
Merchandise are a band who have, until this point, largely been written about as if they were a punk band. This is primarily due to their roots in various punk scenes and their DIY approach to recording and releasing albums and not to the music they write, which has been associated with a handful of genres friendly to the indie scene in the past several years (shoegaze and post-punk amongst them, though this is more how people have described them than how the band have described themselves). This is likely about to change. After The End is major step in a new direction for the group. It’s one of the best albums of the year, and has the potential to raise their profile from that of a buzzed-about, cult-favorite to something more in the forefront. This is, admittedly, not a world with which they have any association. “A big part of the record is a total re-imagining of this band,” frontman Carson Cox explains.
The band occupies a decently sized two story house of faded brownish-white, with red shutters and deep, pine tree green shades that stand out in dark contrast to the tropical plants surrounding it. In an era when it isn’t uncommon for musicians to record albums together without ever actually being in the same studio, trading demos and ideas across whatever state or country lines necessary via email, there’s an undeniably romantic quality to the way Merchandise exist. They stay in Tampa, when many young bands in their situation would feel the lure of Austin or Brooklyn. They’ve already been playing music for much of their adult lives and, (mostly) in their late 20s, are still the sort of gang of rock bands past — living and working and partying together under one roof.
“You’ve caught us in the midst of the stupid summer,” guitarist Dave Vassalotti admits not long after I enter the house. Today, the band is hanging around the living room, one side of which is dominated by a giant projector screen where, over the course of the weekend, frontman Carson Cox will occasionally play music videos, or old Elvis movies. Idle chat is punctuated by the meandering sound of Vassalotti absentmindedly playing an acoustic guitar, or the stray piano notes echoing from Chris Horn in the adjoining hallway. Occasionally, a loose strain of a new Merchandise song finds its way in; Vassalotti might sneak the lead riff of After The End standout “Enemy” amongst a casual fingerpicked solo. After over a year of intensive work on their new record interspersed with touring, they’ve earned some downtime before they begin touring After The End — a break they’ve filled with hanging out in Tampa, smoking copious amounts of weed, and watching old Howard Stern shows and Real World episodes from the ’90s.
“Do you want to see where we recorded the album?” Cox asks excitedly, no more than ten minutes into our visit. He leads me to his room, and opens the door to a closet. Miscellaneous music equipment crowds the floor, photography gear lines shelves, and the walls are covered in all manner of posters, ranging from shows Merchandise have played with other bands, to images Cox has been working on for this current tour. If there was one more person in there with us, it’d be exceedingly cramped. This is where they recorded everything, even drums, before sending it all over to Gareth Jones in England, the producer known for his work with Depeche Mode and Erasure. Jones did the engineering work and Cox credits him with helping make After The End sound as big as it does. Regardless of Jones’ touch, though, it’s shocking to find that an album as dense and lush as After The End was born here, in such small confines, the same as the band’s earlier, far more lo-fi output. The band have never recorded an album in a studio, and don’t plan to anytime soon.
This “stupid summer,” actually, is not entirely dissimilar from any other time, save for the fact that the band isn’t obsessively working on new music all day. The 2014 version of that looks a lot different than any past incarnation of Merchandise, though. Drummer Elsner Nino relocated to Tampa early last year after over a decade in Brooklyn to formally join the band and work on the new record. “I did everything in my fucking power to convince them to move to Brooklyn, man. Totally failed,” Nino explains, giving me a look like he wouldn’t entirely mind if I gave it a shot, too. “I was like, nah, you’ve gotta move to Tampa,” bassist Pat Brady finishes for him in a tone that suggests there was no way in hell Nino would’ve ever succeeded. Nino, at first, may seem tangential — he is 40 compared to the rest of the band’s 27 or 28, is the only one with no connection to Tampa (before his stint in New York, he hailed from LA), and for many years held a job doing post-production work for various shows at AMC. Even during that, though, he played with punk bands and frequented small shows all around Brooklyn, catching some of Merchandise’s earliest performances. He recalls one at Williamsburg’s Death By Audio, and that a friend, stunned, had said “They’re going to be on KROQ.” “I said, ‘Yeah, they are. You’re right,'” he reflects. Starting as an impressed fan, then sometimes sharing the bill with Cox or Vassalotti’s other bands, Nino wound up befriending all of them. “Elsner sent me a really scrambled, high email,” Cox recalls with a smirk, “Like, ‘Hey man, let me be your drummer.'” They didn’t have the money to tour with anything besides a drum machine back then, but when it came time to find a drummer, Nino was Cox’s first choice.
The other new addition is multi-instrumentalist Horn. He and the other three Tampa-bred Merchandise members have all known each other in some form or another since high school, and he has lived with Cox and/or Vassalotti in some variation for several years. Horn was a sometimes collaborator starting with Merchandise’s 2012 release Children Of Desire, his saxophone taking particular prominence later on the title track from 2013’s Totale Nite. With Horn now officially a member as well, Merchandise have become a five piece.
Insofar as there had been a plan for Merchandise (and, essentially, there had never been much of one), this was not it. What began as an experiment between the duo of Cox and Vassalotti amongst their many other bands and projects, and then morphed into an official trio when Brady was more of a permanent fixture, has now become a more dynamic unit. For years, Merchandise were really more of a “recording project” — a phrase used by several of the band members at many points during the weekend. For Cox, this was the case until Totale Nite, the album Merchandise released through Night People in the form of, as he puts it, essentially a tribute to the label and all the music he had connected with there. This means that even in 2012, when Children Of Desire garnered them critical attention and media buzz, as well as their ardent following, there wasn’t necessarily the notion that Merchandise were supposed to grow into anything more.
While it’s now possible for Merchandise to live as professional musicians in Tampa, it’s a relatively recent development that they’ve all quit the day jobs they held back around the time of that initial buzz around Children Of Desire. Cox worked as a cook and dishwasher, Brady managed a grocery store, Vassalotti did administrative work at a university, and Horn was a Chinese food delivery guy. In between, they experimented with recording and saw what came out, not showing allegiance to any one project for some time. Even until earlier this year, Vassalotti and Cox were in a hardcore band called Church Whip. Cox describes their sound as “a fucking nightmare”; it is, let’s say, pretty different from Merchandise.
It was a long, slow, considered process to reach the point of making Merchandise the primary focus, to acquiring all the assorted necessities that come with being a full time touring band, to signing with 4AD and writing music like After The End. One of the effects of growing up in a distant and narrow scene like Tampa is that Merchandise were always fiercely individualistic and self-sufficient, running much of their affairs on their own and eschewing the larger mechanisms of the music business. It’s the sort of approach that the expense of a major city would prohibit. “Honestly, we couldn’t really afford to do this in Brooklyn,” Cox explains. “The way we do everything is really, really reliant on the fact that the artist makes no money. I mean, we could pull it off, and then I would just kill myself.” Meaning, not only would they still have to maintain day jobs elsewhere, but they certainly wouldn’t be able to rent a house together in Brooklyn — even if moving to New York was something that interested them. “I would’ve quit by now,” Vassalotti says, and Horn echoes the sentiment. Even so, some adaptation had to occur. “When it becomes dogma, it’s forcing itself,” Cox says of their steady and, to some degree, inevitable movement away from their punk roots and towards some notion as a mainstream indie rock band, or whatever you want to call it.
It’s a transition the band still seems to be working out in their heads, to some extent. The indie rock scene isn’t something any of them have much investment in or past with, culturally or musically. “I was never into Arcade Fire,” Brady says off-handedly. “I don’t even have the mindset to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, these bands are going on.’ It’s not even that I’m against them. I just didn’t fucking care.” While their reaction to their amount of indie-media fame can range from ambivalent to bemusedly grateful, Merchandise have finally reached a point where it didn’t make any sense to continue the project as they had. “The biggest frontier was hi-fi,” Cox explains. “To not approach that, to not even try to do that … it was so clear, so in front of us. The only real way is to advance the idea, or quit.” “It was all about moving outside the comfort zone,” Brady says, and Vassalotti is quick to add, “We’re better than that [now]. We’ve gotten better at writing at our instruments, better at writing songs. Hiding behind a lo-fi mask when you don’t have to is sort of a lie.”
“Every single goddamn thing is different [about the band],” Cox says. “I’m trying to think of what’s the same other than I’m singing and Dave and I are writing.” That does seem to be the only exception to the “every single goddamn thing” rule — Cox and Vassalotti have always been primary songwriters, bringing in chord progressions and melodies and letting the other band members work out the parts they think will fit. Sometimes, what Brady or Horn or Nino contribute may totally overhaul what the song was originally. In the past, though, this process always unfolded on the fly — back during the “recording project” days, Merchandise tended to write and record simultaneously, experimenting and seeing what worked or what didn’t. “This is the first time we had the songs written, and we rehearsed to where we could essentially play the whole record live, and then we went back and recorded it,” Brady explains. “We wanted to break some of the stereotypes of the band,” Vassalotti adds. “Like, ‘Oh, that’s the band that plays all the long songs.'”
The end result is a Merchandise that are more clarified, and vital in a different way. “All the members are guiding the idea now,” Cox says, which goes for the overall concept of the band but also the very simple fact that their live setup is totally altered. Touring with a drum machine had become boring. “You knew how the song was going to begin and end,” Vassalotti shrugs. Now, there are two more people onstage, two more minds to play off of. “[All of] it was a way different approach for us as a band, and I think it really shows,” Brady says. “We’ve been pretty up front with it. This is going to be different. Do not be surprised if it’s different.”
We take a walk around the band’s neighborhood at dinnertime. Cox is friendly, waving and saying hello to people in their yards as we walk to the restaurant. One guy is sitting in a standalone garage, framed by old, beaten up cars, blasting classic rock radio, and eyeing us suspiciously — we’re a group of young people, and Merchandise have the look of musicians. Cox waves hello, and the man completely ignores us. “Just chillin'” he describes the man, issuing a small laugh.
When we return to the house after dinner, the band begins a common ritual. Vassalotti starts up their vaporizer, meticulously measuring out the correct amount of weed to place within. They’ve acquired a super-sized bag to accommodate the groups of friends they usually host, and Cox’s computer is loaded with entire bands’ discographies and a seemingly endless amount of movies and TV ephemera. Today’s selection is tailored to me: after finding out that Vassalotti and I share an appreciation for Bruce Springsteen, Cox insists that he has to show me the episode of the short-lived The Howard Stern Show where Stern plays basketball against E Street member Nils Lofgren. The show, somewhat expectedly, seems outside of time, whether due to Stern’s hair or the fact that he has a porn star sing the national anthem, after asking her “Are you afraid you’ll get the AIDs?” but before he insists she follow through with her striptease and show everyone watching Channel 9 her g-string. It’s bizarre, for sure, and then also somehow refreshing to meet a band that figures, hey, this is wildly non-PC and offensive but we’ll still watch and laugh with an interviewer, because why not?
Merchandise are far more unguarded than that, far more aware of a wider world outside of the music industry cliques that can crop up in more popular cities. For all the extreme punk politics they used to subscribe to — and maybe still do; Cox declines to discuss his personal political opinions anymore — their being raised and located in Tampa gives them the vibe of being far more in touch with like, actual America. “I’m from here, man, I’m red, white, and blue,” Cox says at one point, and he takes pleasure and pride in being from a place so idiosyncratically, myopically, and surreally American. He asserts that there’s a kind of morbid beauty to the state, unexplored potential in its swamps and decrepit corners, and that this is something you just have to engage in. Often jokingly but also never totally inaccurately, Florida is conceived as one of the bizarro endgames to American culture (LA and Vegas being two other, but different, primary candidates). Whether it’s crystalline retiree enclaves or extra-rugged-individualists living in the swamp, Florida gives you the sense that many of its inhabitants are here to not deal with the rest of the country, in some way or another. It’s the mecca for mutated depictions of all sorts of different kinds of Americanness. It’s even there geographically: the Southern outcropping, where people and ideas and perceptions spill down from the rest of the country to fester in solitude and humidity.
Perhaps understandably, when you go to the farthest reaches of a place, you will find a lot of people who don’t like it when their existence — supposedly protected by remove and isolation — is tampered with. The four Floridian members of Merchandise all relate stories of feeling out of step with their surroundings in their youth. The word “xenophobic” is thrown out there. “If we were in other places, it probably would’ve been a lot more forgiving. There would have been people who had interests like ours,” Horn says. “There wasn’t an infrastructure, it wasn’t cool. You wouldn’t make friends doing it, there was a lot of pressure not to do it. We would’ve been different people because we never would’ve had to make hard choices about ourselves.”
Cox describes the scene as having been dominated by a handful of indie bands, and Christian hardcore — bands filled with members who were all about church, getting married, and joining the army. The ironic quality of Merchandise’s Tampa identity is that they have grown out of Tampa but also so much in opposition to it, perhaps equalling out to where they’ve made peace with that morbidity and somehow don’t have the desire to leave a place they, at times, sound ambivalent on having grown up in. Disenchanted as they were with the dominant arts cultures immediately available to them, they bonded over the fringier aspects of Tampa — whether it was having life-changing experiences at a noise show in the woods, or whether it was banding together with small groups of friends and hosting their own film festivals or art shows.
The latter is still the main way the band interfaces with Tampa when they’re back in town. Tonight’s plan is to attend an art show. Horn and Nino depart, but Cox wants to stick around for a bit and play with some music videos. This is another go-to of his when stoned — taking songs and slowing them down, exposing some other identity hidden deep within them. He queues up Tears For Fears’ “Pale Shelter” and explains: “I don’t even like Tears For Fears that much, but I love this song. I first heard it at a goth club that used to be really important to us.” Cox’s customized slow-burn version is pretty cool, but the most revelatory is when he takes Serge Gainsbourg’s disco single “Sea, Sex, And Sun” and reframes it in a seductive, infectious groove. Vassalotti dances by himself in the corner.