Cover Story

This Is The Ether: Reintroducing Merchandise

Next to the Tampa Theatre is another location dear to Merchandise: The Hub Bar. It’s a sizable room, with an attached liquor store out front. It’s midday, so there are a few grizzled men at the bar, and one regular Cox recognizes at a table in the corner who, as always, sits gambling on his computer and chain-smoking. There’s a jukebox old-school in both appearance and selection, and vintage arcade games. It’s unclear whether these were acquired in recent years for nostalgic purposes, or whether this same Pac-Man game has been sitting here since Pac-Man was new. There are no smoking fans in the Hub. The air feels weathered.

While the band are relatively new to the Legion, the Hub Bar is an old haunt of theirs. Minutes after we arrive, the manager comes over with a tray full of free double-shots of tequila. Cox recounts spending many Christmases at the Hub after attending church with his mother. Someone would always buy the bar a whole round, because it’s Christmas, after all. They talk over details of the show they’re playing here at the end of the month; they’ll need to bring their own PA, so there’s a guarantee the electronic pads of Nino’s drumset will have the necessary impact. After a while, the bartender comes over to say hello. She has approximately three teeth; she feels my beard and proclaims that I’m a “real Irishman.” She tells us she’s been working here for twenty-seven years.

“She’s tough as fuck,” Cox says, shaking his head in amazement as she walks away. It’s a phrase he applies regularly to the women in his life. Having been raised by his mother — and his paternal grandfather, until his death — Cox has a boundless admiration for her and his sister. “They’re my best friends,” he says. “I come back here, and I hang out with them.” His father, on the other hand, he dismisses in one line: “He’s a piece of shit.” He doesn’t go into any further detail, though there are telling lyrics from the Children Of Desire track “Time”: “Tell me father/where you’ve been?/ I’m alone/but used to it.”

The presence of family is one of the factors that make Tampa something of a safe haven for Cox, and for the rest of the band, in between tours. While Merchandise have steadily garnered more and more attention in the past few years, they remain relatively unknown in their hometown itself. Several members mention that Merchandise are easily bigger in New York than they are at home, and especially bigger in London than they are at home. This has afforded the band a certain double identity, the ability to be well-loved in an international scene and play festival stages, but still return home to a relative anonymity that’s more conducive to the creative process. “I like it,” Cox says of returning home to less attention. “I spent like six months working on a record and nobody was bothering me.” And even outside of the work itself, he prizes a delineation in his life. “You go on tour, and you drink and you fuck and you go crazy all the time, and if you come home and it’s the same thing, you will die,” he continues. “I leave, I have fun, and then when I’m home I’m like, ‘OK, I’m going to work.'”

In fact, even as every bit of Merchandise music is born in Tampa, almost everything else about them seems willfully placed elsewhere. They weren’t ingrained in a thriving local scene that birthed a series of other indie breakthroughs. “The reason everybody wanted to sign us was because we did an interview with Pitchfork,” Cox says, almost describing it as a fluke. When they eventually did sign to 4AD, it was the end result of a two year decision process and a lot of conversations, but today Cox sums it up simply: “I just wanted to be on an English label. I thought it was cool. All my favorite records were on English labels.” Around this time in the conversation, a man approaches our table from the bar, explains he’s a longtime fan of the band and 4AD, that he’s excited about the new album. Cox is gracious, and when the man leaves the band remark on how this never happens to them in Tampa. “It’s hard to explain what we do [to people here], honestly,” Cox insists. “We’re nobody. We’re ghosts.”

As we start to leave downtown, I start to ask them what sort of connection they still feel to Tampa now that they are on the road more. “Do we feel obligated?” Brady asks before I can finish the question. I explain I probably wouldn’t have used a word as strong as “obligated,” but he and Cox are already trying to sort through their thoughts on the matter. “I feel like if we can help people, we always do…” Cox trails off. He’s not as directly involved in the Tampa scenes as he was when he was younger; he’ll attend his sister’s art parties, or his friends’ film nights, but he rarely helms them himself anymore. Brady still organizes the occasional show at a storage unit, but his increasingly demanding travel schedule has made these grow fewer and farther in between. “I certainly don’t feel a disconnect from it,” he decides.

We pass Comic Con attendees on the sidewalk, dressed like Game Of Thrones and anime characters. Rain, as it does in Florida, seems to fall from the one patch of sky not obscured by clouds, a matter far more perplexing to me and Nino than to the others. We take a turn, and pass a building decorated with a big, cartoonishly postcard-esque sign proclaiming “Welcome to Tampa!” Brady sneers, and I ask why.

“It’s just this cheesy throwback sign, where the old one was cool. They unveiled it and it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re revitalizing downtown!’,” he says. “And there’s fucking $1,800 condos so you can live in an abandoned downtown, and just … none of that money’s going to stay here.” He reflects for a second, and quickly adds: “I think it’d be great to graffiti over that sign.”

***

The color of After The End is, according to Cox, green. Cox outfitted his room’s lamp with a green lightbulb, bathing himself and the band in green light throughout the process of recording After The End. He developed an enthusiasm for chartreuse, both the color and the drink. He was looking at Art Nouveau that used a lot of green. There is the sort of punchline but also relevant “I smoke weed all day,” delivered, as always, with his ellipsis of a grin. But maybe most importantly, there’s Florida’s green. The years preceding After The End were some of the most unique and tumultuous but, seemingly, ultimately gratifying of Cox’s life. He saw Europe for the first time when Merchandise played shows there. They were exposed to new people and new places. Upon returning home to Tampa, he suddenly had new eyes for a neighborhood he has spent much of his life in. The greens of the trees and lizards stood out to him. Nature radiated.

Cox and I are sitting outside the band’s house, in a small garden to the side of the front yard. While most of the yard is plain and manicured, this garden feels like a tiny, untamed pocket only barely contained by the white picket fence around it. There is a small pond with water from a nearby river, and all manner of foliage and insects. As Cox speaks, I watch a horde of smaller bugs devour a larger one in furious motion, as if in a time lapse video. The mark of the band, as it is, comes in the form of several folding chairs, a few scattered ashtrays and lighters on a single table. As Cox exhales after a drag from a cigarette, the smoke curls and hangs in the air in a totally unfamiliar way — it becomes bodily, like if you reached out, it would fall and situate itself in your hand, unmoving. “It’s different down here,” he says. “Heavy air.” He’s also right about the greens. My gaze turns up to the trees forming a small canopy above us. Their shades look alien, supernatural.

Cox, for all his lack of pretensions and proclaimed nonchalance about playing the game of the music industry, at least seems like he could be a rock star — albeit one who would likely never shed his eccentricities, niche interests, or down-to-earth qualities. He’s charismatic, and magnanimous in conversation. Out of any of the band members, he seems the most comfortable in front of a camera, throwing poses and faces out like it’s his natural state. Though there would seem to be a host of circumstances at odds with it — the band’s personal beliefs and predilections, as well as the fact that there aren’t really rock stars anymore — Cox radiates the vibe of someone who could, and should, be standing on the lip of an arena stage at some point in his life.

It wasn’t an easy road to this point. Starting in early 2013, Cox went through a phase he now characterizes as a minor breakdown, a period that ended around the completion of After The End earlier this year. He’s usually vague when speaking of it: he shaved his head, and, apparently, had to work at processing everything that was going on around the band. All the people who wanted to write about them, sign them, manage them, whatever. He calls it all “casual shit.” “You meet managers, you meet all these people, and everyone wants to be your friend,” he says. “No one gives a shit about the music.” These are steps any band goes through, but it’s understandable that for Merchandise, it was a more severe process. Living at a remove in Tampa, operating for years in a local scene that their sound had nothing to do with, and yet still being able to go about things entirely their own way, and then finding a bunch of different labels knocking on their door at once could’ve, at first, simply looked like they were losing control. Even now, it’s hard to pin down exactly how they feel about the prospect of After The End making them a bigger band. “We’ll fucking see. I’d like that to happen,” Vassalotti says. “If it happens, cool, but there’s no way,” Cox says.

There’s a quality to Cox that makes him more of just a restless artist, in general. “I never gave a shit about being a rock star,” he says. “I don’t have an image. I have fascinations that people turn into image. I just never cared about any of it, so the fact that it was put on me…didn’t matter.” Whether that stance is entirely believable or not, there’s no doubt that Cox has ambitions. Musically, he wants to keep writing Merchandise material at their current rate. He already has plans for a follow up to After The End he hopes to release later this year, full of remixes and other material. “I’m kind of into the idea of having limitless content on the internet to a certain degree,” he says.

Merchandise 2014

Beyond that, his ambitions spread to other practices. He’s always working on short movies, and wants to explore film. He’s working on visual art, and envisions a later life in which he’s a fine artist. He talks of buying a ranch in a more rural part of Florida where he could build a church he’s been thinking about for years. Citing the Rothko Chapel in Houston, he likes the idea of a spiritual building that “there was no reason to visit unless you went out of your way to go to it.” The notion is in line with the abstract mysticism Cox repeatedly refers to. Having been raised religious, he’s now passingly curious about Eastern religious philosophy, and interested in “human myth, like Joseph Campbell’s work.” “All my ideas just eat money,” he laughs. “Just eat money, and they don’t put anything back. Some people dig that. Some people are into that.”

To have a conversation with Cox, two days into this and alone in the band’s yard, is to have a conversation far more free-wheeling, contradictory, and harder to parse than anything else this weekend. He’s a fan of saying he doesn’t believe in anything anymore, and it’s never easy to get him to define what he means by that, because he’s clearly still invested in a lot of things. “I’m still always obsessed with beauty, there’s plenty of things that keep me going,” he says. “But I have no faith in society. I’ve always felt it was a lie. I always felt like I was actually interested in counterculture because the people I grew up around were actually counterculture. Moved to Florida because they just wanted to be away from everything.”

The disjuncture of that outlook, and the idea that he is in a professional band that sells its music, is not lost on him, but it’s another one of those things that seems to be an ongoing conversation. On several occasions this weekend, Cox says that part of the band’s new direction has to do with him wanting people to enjoy the music, to do with being able to connect with people more. There is, still, a bit of him that is defensive about what might become of the band now that they’re putting out a record that is “more accessible and visible.” That is, by its very nature, more designed for a mass audience, whether it finds it or not. “The ideas are not consumable, the things are not consumable,” he insists. “The passion of the band is not consumable.” He says it more emphatically than almost every other emphatic thing this weekend, and yet it’s still the kind of statement that can be seen at odds with a slew of other ones today.

Eventually, it’s evening and time for me to drive south to Naples, one of those pristine vacation towns in Florida that stands out in glaring contrast to the scenes here in Tampa. Cox and I stand to leave the garden, and he surveys his home. “I’m the luckiest man in this city,” he says, smiling. That one, it seems, he believes with every bit of his being.

As I pull away from the house and drift through Tampa, Cox’s words echo through my head. I keep getting distracted by the sky as I drive. The clouds here seem somehow more tangible — titanic and bodily, able to come to earth and level whole human cities if they so wished. Heat lightning perennially throbs through them, like the clouds are experiencing growing pains to become what they are. Being down here, you gather a greater understanding of the anatomy of the sky. That’s the part of Florida that is, on some level, a mystical experience. To even put it into words makes it those discreet bits of information, that lingua franca of our day and age, that Cox is so eager to dismiss from his music. And as I turned the volume up on After The End and disappeared down murky Florida highways, that’s not how I was thinking of them at all. They ceased to be entities like that, ceased to welcome your mind in that way. Instead, I thought of abstractions, I thought of one idea. I thought of colors.

//

[Photos by Palmer Holmes/Stereogum.]

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