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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.]