Cover Story

This Is The Ether: Reintroducing Merchandise

As it goes with many musicians, Merchandise’s points of reference are far more all over the place than their sound would suggest, or at least how their sound is talked about would suggest. It makes complete sense that Cox would throw on a Bowie video, a certain kind of sense that Tears For Fears would appear, and then we start to get farther afield when all the Elvis stuff pops up, before the surprising revelation that Cox claims the Band as one of his all-time favorites. Nino and Brady are the resident metalheads. Vassalotti was mostly listening to Russian classical and Townes Van Zandt during the writing and recording of After The End, while Cox had fallen into a deep Big Star obsession. As the three of us climb into Vassalotti’s car and pull away for the art show, a dub mix — which Cox points out, hasn’t left Vassalotti’s CD changer in years — melds with the humidity drifting in from the open windows. We pass, for whatever reason, several meat markets in a row. We pass a white church, which Cox identifies as a cult church that an acquaintance had joined some time ago. He says it very matter-of-factly.

The art show is held in Cox’s sister’s backyard. We walk down a dark driveway, and find ourselves at the backyard gate, where she is serving everyone wine in plastic cups. At any given moment, fifteen to thirty people mill around, somehow at ease with standing around talking in humidity that forces me to basically focus on breathing, and just on breathing. This is how Merchandise like to socialize. Support creative endeavors of friends and family, catch up with their small circle, see some art. (Considering the small outdoor structure that houses tonight’s show — primarily comprised of prints — also has the salvation of a fan, I’m all about seeing some art, too.) It’s hard to get a handle on whether Merchandise’s rising profile has altered anything in their interactions here. Mostly, they appear to mingle and hang out as if they were just still local artists, many of the other attendees also being local Tampa musicians, some of whom are maybe only a few months or a year removed from having collaborated with members of Merchandise in another group. At the very least, women never seem sorry, exactly, to see Cox — bearing a passing resemblance to Michael Pitt and a charming demeanor, he seems to be something of a ladykiller.

Merchandise 2014

Over the course of the night, there are various light debates about which bar to go to after the art show. A lot of the band’s friends are championing a place called the Mermaid, but the members themselves are steadfast about going to another called Legion. Which, as I find out about twenty minutes later, is actually an American Legion bar.

The building is as you’d expect: a low, colorless thing with a jaundiced sign advertising cheap beer. Inside, there’s a few lonely gambling machines, a digital jukebox mainly churning out classic rock staples, a scattered group of old people at the bar. The bartender is a fifty-something woman who from afar looks like she might be a head taller than me. She has an ’80s haircut and a voice like shattered glass catching fire. After soldiering through the dense humidity at the art show, Carson wants a Pina Colada; when he receives it, it’s in a little plastic cup of the sort you might use at a water cooler. People are still allowed to smoke inside of this place. The overall experience, essentially, is another that feels extremely disassociated from time and place. It is not the sort of venue you usually find yourself in with popular young artists in New York.

At a certain point in the night, Nino spots me through the dim lights and the band’s various friends crowded around the tables. Pulling himself off the bar, he points at me, says nothing, and beckons me towards what looks like an emergency exit in the far corner of the room. We walk through, and exit into an outdoor garden. “I couldn’t let you come here without seeing this part,” he explains. There are Christmas lights strung noncommittally around a patio awning, scattered lawn furniture and ashtrays. Given his still newish-minted status as a Tampa resident, Nino takes another opportunity to work through his perception of the place with me. “It’s better to be an artist here because no one wants to exploit it,” he starts, implicitly comparing the place to the Brooklyn scene he had been so used to. “Nobody wants to come here,” he adds, seemingly without a smirk or sarcasm. He takes a drag from his cigarette and a sip of beer, pauses for a moment.

“You feel this humidity?” he says. “It’s good. It’s good to realize where you are.”

***

After The End feels like Merchandise’s actual debut album. Which is weird to say, because they’ve cranked out three LPs between 2009 and 2013. But their own “recording project” description is relevant here. Merchandise’s first three albums were almost like super-sized EPs — five or six or seven songs (occasionally very lengthy ones), always an exercise in playing with sound and conceptual grounding as much as in actual songwriting. And just as a band might use one or two EPs to craft their sound before issuing a debut, After The End comes off as a synthesis of where Merchandise have been before, while also being an entirely new thing. There’s that fact that this is a new band, that this is the first record with a traditional label deal, that it’s the first one with live drums. Before, there was magnitude in Merchandise’s music, glimpsed in blearier, more diffuse forms in older songs like 2012’s “Become What You Are.” Despite the music itself now being more controlled, more direct, the range and drama of After The End lends it a massiveness that comes off as the band’s first, totally definitive, declarative statement.

Of all the qualities that make it feel like the first album from an entirely new artist, there is the simple truth that After The End is the fourth major Merchandise release, and it will be read as the “shocking left turn” move of their career, or, if it wasn’t 2014, perhaps the “shocking decision to make a bid for stardom.” This, of course, comes down to After The End’s poppiness. It has a polish one might’ve never thought possible on a Merchandise record. The band has previously displayed it could write a hell of an unshakeable guitar line or vocal — last year’s “Anxiety’s Door,” probably Merchandise’s greatest moment until now, showed this definitively. It was the most direct and infectious the band had yet allowed itself to be. It was also seven minutes long and still coated in that drone-y, moody fuzz of Merchandise’s earlier recordings. After The End is a totally different thing. After experimenting with all manner of warped sounds, the path of experimentation for Merchandise was, at this point, to streamline, to sharpen — to, essentially, become more accessible. “Somebody on YouTube said ‘Enemy’ sounded like Coldplay, which I thought was sick,” Cox says. “I just hope we sell as many records as Coldplay.” It’s hard to tell where the line is drawn between seriousness and jocularity when he says it, but even if the scales tip towards the latter, he’s not joking that much.

While “Little Killer” was the first song released from the record, Cox’s comments on “Enemy” make sense: it felt like an opening salvo. “Here is what Merchandise are now.” Appropriately, it was the first song completed for the record, and the rest spread outwards from there, to indelible synth jams like “Green Lady” or spectral introversion like “After The End.” “Much in the same way your body changes when you get older, your mind changes, and music is a reflection of the spirit, or your whatever,” Cox says. “You don’t really know how much has changed until you’re sitting down and staring at it. I didn’t know how much we had changed until, even yesterday, when I listened to the record [again].” That the band members themselves are still processing the change is important — there’s a confidence and immediacy to After The End that can only come from a natural, inevitable progression. From finding a song like “Enemy” in yourself suddenly, and riding that out to see where it takes you. “We want to be surprised by the music,” Cox says.

It’s all right there in the title of the record. The song “After The End” came first, and Merchandise decided to make it a title track because it “seemed fitting.” For Cox, it comes down to the idea of closure vs. how life usually plays out. “Everything is different, but it’s not a fiction. There’s no goodbye or ‘Here’s the credits,'” he says. “It’s sort of about the joke of closure. Maybe it’s real to certain people, but not to me.” Accordingly, Merchandise continue on in a different form, playing different music, with different concerns. After The End is the record that comes, well, after the end of a certain idea and identity for the band. “Nostalgia’s a big theme of the record because I’m walking away from all these things I used to think were ethically and deeply rooted in who I was, and I realized my life was going to continue without them,” Cox says. And there is, for any creative person, always that temptation to put a bullet in the head of the past. “Even when you walk away, you still continue and there’s a constant threat of nostalgia,” Cox says. “Nostalgia’s a beast that’s really impossible to satiate. I can never be satisfied with nostalgia.”

In a larger sense, the primary inspiration for Cox’s songwriting in particular has moved from political fervor and personal narrative to mysticism. It’s slightly ironic that this occurs with After The End — the strange, sometimes formless nature of Merchandise’s older work would seem a more fitting capsule for mysticism, but these concerns have reached the forefront on an album featuring Merchandise’s tightest, most straightforward songs. To be fair, it’s been a progression, evident in the ever-changing definition of the band. While Cox prefaces it with a warning that “These are all good answers that aren’t true,” he offers a lineage of the various meanings behind the name Merchandise. Earlier on, it was more political, rooted in Marxist ideology. Always fascinated with wordplay, the band would later start stylizing it with a “w” in front, as wMerchandise, the idea being to try to take a word out of context and practical use, and make it more of a blank symbol. “For a long time I thought it sounded like it wasn’t English,” Cox says. “It sounds German. It’s not a soft word.” Removing the literal and chasing the abstract became more of what Merchandise would be about. “I’m not excited by politics,” Cox says. “I’m much more excited by unexplained things, and I’m much more excited about color and sound.”

There is, naturally, also the fact that this is music made to be sold, art made to be sold. It’s commercial product by a group of people reared in punk bands staunchly opposed to traditional notions of American society and consumerism. And while this stance has softened for Cox — he describes a newfound fascination with advertising and fashion photography — the name still has potency when it comes to the idea of consumable identity. “The more the band became defined and itemized, the less interested I was in information,” Cox says. “I’m just not as excited by hashtags, definable concrete points in the world that you can use to organize things. The desire for information is so strong now, it has sort of numbed the other side of that, which is not knowing.”

There, again, is the irony. The songs on After The End are the most consumable of Merchandise’s career, but they are about colors and nature and abstractions — no longer as rooted in personal experience or actual people. It’s the big question of reaching an endpoint and realizing that life doesn’t always move in concrete points and, well, what do you do next when you’re on the other side of that but still carrying everything else with you. “This record is more about just trying to write from an unknown place, or pull the unknown out of you, and go from there,” Cox says. And then, excitedly, he proclaims: “This is the ether.” The way he says it, raising his arms up as if to hold the whole world, it’s unclear whether he means this, out there, a ramshackle America captured in Tampa, or all the other cultural detritus on his radar, or all those eternal ineffabilities of human reactions to art, or all of it and everything at once. Which, I guess, is exactly what the ether should be.

***

Saturday’s destination is downtown Tampa, the site of many of the city’s (apparently flailing) attempts at revitalization. We pass large and glistening malls far more insistent than their counterparts in Seminole Heights. We pass a picturesque red house marked as “Honey’s Bail Bonds,” with a photo of a grandmotherly fifty-something woman on the sign. Downtown, whole blocks remain deserted, lined with peeling, empty storefronts and abandoned buildings, with a bar or restaurant periodically sandwiched in between. And, as a very sensible addition to the mix, there are new, expensive condos, someone’s vision of a cleaner-cut, more prosperous Tampa. We pass the Tampa Theatre, a regal outlier in the mix. There’s a way to look at it like the ancient Tampa sign hanging from the theatre’s front lords above the street with memories of more gilded times. Or, a way to see it threatened, like it will someday slowly be eroded by the dilapidation encroaching on its front door. It’s difficult to say who’s mocking whom.

“I think, in general, America’s on the decline,” Cox says. It’s one of the comments that strikes me the most in hindsight. Over the course of my time in Tampa, Cox talks of classic American rock bands, he watches Elvis videos of one sort or another multiple times, he talks of great American directors of the 20th century, like Martin Scorsese. A photo of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull is on his wall. There’s some interplay there, wading into the works of America’s height, reading them against the more depleted surroundings of your own life, reinterpreting them and using them as your own. Trying to make the old language legible once more. He compares his point of view to that of his mother’s: she was raised in the ’50s, with the belief that America was great and everything would progress upward and onward. Cox was born in the ’80s, spent much of his childhood living on welfare. He saw a different side of things. He’s inherited a different America.

Merchandise 2014

“I was born and immediately fell into skepticism,” Cox continues. “This city in general … it’s starting to see some kind of boom in [our] neighborhood, but if you go to St. Pete, if you drive down US 19, it’s all empty buildings.” Big questions and concerns about America isn’t something I’d really ever identified in Merchandise’s music, and I still don’t hear it there, but maybe it’s another function of those big mystic questions that fascinate Cox now. An attempt to understand your history and your present just a bit more. Again: the ether.

The Tampa Theatre is also a place of some importance to the band. Cox, who also has a passion for film, has a particular connection to the place, rattling off the names of all the classic movies he saw there as a child. Additionally, it’s where a good deal of the action takes place for the band’s recent video for “Enemy,” and there’s something fitting in that — “Enemy” as the clear announcement of a totally new Merchandise, the video their most ambitious and striking yet. Part of that, like with After The End itself, simply comes with higher production values — signing to a label like 4AD means you get the money to have a director, and a sound crew, and a more intricate video as an end result. The other part is that, having seen the world, the band still find inspiration in their hometown, pulling out choice images and memories from Tampa and bending them to their own artistic means. There’s a nice little resonance there, nodding to your past and hometown and what created you, right at the moment where you are turning into something else, something that could very well take you further from your roots than ever before.

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