Carson Cox looks like a man satisfied with life. Lounging backstage on the canal-side terrace at Amsterdam’s Melkweg, he and his bandmates greet me with warm smiles and firm handshakes. It’s a balmy 24 degrees, there’s a table laden with food and a fridge full of top notch booze, and the most pressing issue they need to discuss is how to dry their laundry in time for a 7am lobby call, tomorrow’s show being a lunchtime slot at Belgium’s Pukklepop Festival. The salubrious surroundings are a far cry from their roots playing abandoned storage units in Tampa or getting excited when 70 people show up and, when you consider where they’ve come from and what they’ve endured, it’s hard not to conclude they deserve it.
Merchandise are that rare breed, a band that have grown organically, almost surreptitiously, and have snuck up on success, hard work and an unshakeable belief in their material finally paying off. Officially formed back in 2008, they’ve known each other – and played together – since high school, their paths frequently crossing in Tampa’s small, insular punk and hardcore scene. Though they’ve been through various incarnations and line-ups since, they’re now a settled four-piece, drummer Elsner Niño joining Cox, guitarist Dave Vassalotti, and bassist Patrick Brady just as their star was beginning to rise on both sides of the Atlantic earlier this year. With several high profile performances– most notably at SXSW and the recent Pitchfork Festival – and the near total acclaim garnered by second album Totale Nite, they’re now very hot property indeed and one of the must see acts at several of the UK’s late summer festivals.
It’s not bad for band who resolutely refuse to deal with established indie labels and, according to Cox, produce every album for “zero dollars”. Recording on second hand, borrowed, or just plain busted equipment, their DIY, rely-on-nobody ethos may be born out of necessity more than some pre-determined philosophy, but it hasn’t gotten in the way of the music; both Totale Nite and Children of Desire are full of swirling, enveloping songs and carefully crafted layers of guitar. Watching them later, it’s remarkable how polished and warm they sound, nary a synth or a sample in sight, and it’s no exaggeration to state that it’s one the most engaging sixty minutes of live music I’ve witnessed all year. Before all that though, we sat down to discuss romantic lyrics, their love of art, and “playing the game” in the modern music industry.
DiS: This is your second time touring Europe this year; how have you found the experience?
Carson Cox: Well, it’s our second time touring Europe period! But it’s been great.
Dave Vassalotti: Yeah, we love being over here. It’s a lot different to touring in the States. For the few brief weeks we’ve been over here, we’ve been treated so well, it’s been real nice.
Patrick Brady: A lot of pleasant surprises, I’d say. Shows where you’re not sure how well they’re going to go, and then they go really well.
DiS: How is it different to the States?
PB: We don’t get stuff like this [gestures to palatial dressing room] in the States. You don’t get catering, you don’t get a meal…
CC: Or sometimes even a dressing room!
DV: And the sound people here are brilliant.
CC: They really seem to enjoy working, and they seem to enjoy doing a good job as well. The clubs just sound better, and I think it’s because they take care of their own much more.
Elsner Niño: I don’t know where to start, it’s just so much better in Europe. I feel spoiled sometimes.
CC: Seriously, the first time we came over, we definitely had a feeling of being spoiled. You get fed very well, and the audiences are quite different, so our first time taking that in was a little too surreal. It didn’t seem normal, or like something bad was going to happen because this was so good. We were planning on being totally blind to the negative aspects of it but really, there haven’t been any beyond the normal negative aspects of touring, like you don’t get to be home, and you're travelling so much. It is work. Still, it’s never as bad as the worst day at any other job I’ve had.
DiS: You’ve come a long way from your roots in Tampa, and you’ve been playing together for years in various bands and guises. Did you ever think you’d get this far, that you’d be touring Europe? Or had doubts that music, or the band, could become your life and your livelihood?
DV: We never thought that once!
CC: I think we were just totally ignorant to the infrastructure that exists over here, especially with regards to touring, and how people seek out music; we were totally clueless to it. Most of the experiences we’ve had over the past year and a half have been learning what that is, because at least for me, I was totally ignorant; I had no idea that this world existed this way, or that you could fall into it just by playing music. It goes back to where we started, because there isn’t any glamour to music in Tampa or Florida, there isn’t any aspect of being a professional musician unless you're a hired mercenary, and just playing covers.
DV: There didn’t seem to be any way of making a living doing original music in your own way, the way you wanted to do it, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised that it seems to be possible for some people.
DiS: Have you found it easy to reconcile your feelings about freedom, being independent, and modern indie labels, with trying to reach a wider audience and be more successful?
CC: Yes and no. Because there’s a really positive, appealing aspect to it, but there’s also loads of fucking shit. There’s still loads of music that I don’t get in the world of indie. I don’t really understand that term even.
DiS: I don’t think many people do. I don’t think it really has any meaning nowadays.
CC: No, it doesn’t. But it has become the deepest marketing ploy of the past few years, the deepest, deepest way to push around paper and sell money. And I don’t even think that’s necessarily bad, it’s just not for me. If other people want to do that and hustle the indie world, that’s fine. We’ve played with bands who are on this bigger level that were inspiring, and we’ve seen big crowds that were very uninspired, or big bands who were very uninspiring. The thing that it goes back to, for me, is finding out what it is that I want to say, or what we want to say, or what we don’t even realise we want to say, but we just put it together. Making music is like that – you have no expectation, and then you just do something and it comes together. It’s almost strange to say there’s a premeditated idea, because really, you’re given materials and then you see what you can do with them. I would like us to be more part of a gallery world than maybe a music world, or like us to take advantage of the opportunity of the present, and say “We don’t have to be anything, we don’t have to do anything.” So there is an appealing part, there’s a really silly, false side to it too, and the line is super fine.
DiS: Do you feel, or maybe fear, that at some point, to achieve what you want, or get to where you want to go, you’ll have to “play the game” as it were?
EN: Well, we’re kind of already playing the game. To a certain extent at least.
CC: I guess it depends on who you ask. But for me, we still get to say the words that we like to, we get to make the music we like to, we’ve never had a producer, and we’ve never had anyone between us and our ideas. I don’t feel like that’s playing the game, I feel like that’s hustling the game and saying whatever we want to do. It’s just silly to pay into an institution like underground music, or mainstream music, because they’re not real things; they don’t really exist. They’re just these concepts that are floating in the air. It’s the same with music journalism as with independent music, there’s a very, very invisible line between what somebody’s writing and what a band is saying; I’ve seen now how it gets interpreted by an audience, and it can become real, but it’s really not. Again, it depends; if you ask some of the people we used to play shows with, maybe we are playing the game – but it still feels like no one’s told us what to say, no one’s censored us, and we’ve done whatever we’ve wanted, which is more important to me.
DiS: There’s an interesting line at the start of ‘Become What You Are’; “The music started, I realised it was all a lie / The guitars were running out / Last year’s punk”. Is that how you view a lot of the music today, or the music world as it were?
CC: It’s really funny because we’ve only printed the lyrics once, and part of the fun of putting out a record and not printing the lyrics is having everyone say the lyrics back differently. I don’t say “running out”, I say “ringing out”. But, you see how one word changes it? Personally, I really enjoy reading it back. I’ve seen people write stuff they thought I said, and it was not what I said, but it’s more fun that way for me, hearing what they perceive it as. In general, that line is just about how I felt totally isolated in regards to what was being offered and what I wanted with music. I don’t know what it is, but I've always had different definitions, different terminology for concepts like progress, the mainstream, underground, whatever; a number of people go this way, and I feel like I go that way. And not intentionally, it just always happens. I lived and died by rock’n’roll, I guess, for want of a better word. Lived and died by it for such a long time, yet it felt like so little was given back to me, and when it came time for me to do something different there was this massive amount of people asking “Why aren’t you doing this anymore?” And I was like “I don’t know”, I was just doing my own thing. It’s about being as far away as you can from a music scene, or an ideology, and still being judged by it and still being a part of it, when you never really were.
DiS: In order to survive, a lot of bands start to investigate stuff like licensing their music for film, TV, adverts and so on, or branch out into weird merchandise. How do feel about those sorts of things?
CC: Again, if it’s interesting…it depends.
DV: It’s not all black and white.
PB: There’s also a chance if you don’t set it up where you’re willing to deal with it, they’ll just use it [the song] anyway. And then you have no comeback really.
CC: There’s been a lot of bands who have sued, because their song has been stolen, like Beach House, or the Black Keys. A lot of bands have been ripped off creatively. We have sort of prepared ourselves to deal with that world in that way, but licensing can also be done through non-profit companies; you can do it in your own way. I think it’s the artist who dictates that more than the rules of a manifesto of the underground versus the mainstream, or whatever you want to call it. I think all roads can lead to wrong and right, and there’s not really one way to be exploited. There’s a million ways, and the inverse is also true. It just depends on what it is – if there’s something interesting that we want to be a part of, we would just do it. There’s no one to tell us that we can’t do it, and I would never be afraid of something because I was afraid I was going to become someone strange, or someone that I didn’t know. If we make a mistake, there’s a million chances to do something after, you know what I mean? But I don’t believe there’s a black and white way to do that – there’s a million degrees in between.
DiS: There aren’t many bands or artists who are knowledgeable about art in general…
CC: Ain’t that a shame?
DiS: It is. But scrawling through your previous interviews, you’ve talked about the likes of Andre Breton, Jean Cocteau, and Franco Battiato; what do you take from other art and other artists, in terms of inspiration?
CC: Freedom. To do whatever we want. To me at least; I feel like we all have a different answer to that.
DV: Yeah, the same things that inspire music also inspire people who make visual art, people who make poetry; they’re all different extensions of the same basic need, to express yourself. I feel that we definitely see a lot of connecting threads between mediums, and we just want to try and take that further if we can.
CC: Even if we fail a thousand times, it’s still more fascinating to attempt to do something. There was a point in my life where I did not know how to play guitar, and then one day I decided to pick it up. And there was a point in my life where I did not know how to use a camera, and then one day I picked one up. Or recording; I never knew what a microphone was until one day I picked one up. It just starts with a bead of inspiration, and then you go from there. The thing is though, it’s a very judgemental, critical world that we’re in for some reason, where people who don’t do anything get to criticise people who do.
DiS: Didn’t Pat say in an interview that “Judgement is the glue that holds the world together”?
PB: I actually said it was “hate”…
DV: Well, they’re both strong adhesives.
PB: It’s like people are way more interested in tearing something down than supporting it.
DiS: It does seem that on social media nowadays, everyone is a critic and everyone has an opinion. And some of the most vocal, ardent criticism comes from people who perhaps have no taste, or no idea what they are talking about.
CC: And sometimes those people are professors, and sometimes those people are experts, and sometimes those people are getting paid for their knowledge, even though they know nothing. It’s something I’ve always had a problem with. It just seems much more fun to try and invent. Failure is a big key, a big component to me. Just failing and failing and failing until you do something that you don’t think is a failure.
DiS: Like the Beckett quotation, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.
CC: Exactly. Also, there’s just so many art forms that people aren’t open to because they seem alienated from them, especially fine art because there’s this idea that you have to know history to understand it. That’s one side of it, but there’s another side in that you can just look and think. Coming to Europe and playing music is amazing because we’ve had incredible experiences in Poland and Germany, in places where English is not the national language, but it’s the music they’re connecting with. Over here, you have this way of communicating that’s not based on knowing the same words – it’s a deeper way to communicate. I feel like art is the same way; you don’t necessarily need to know history, but if you love something you should learn it, or the terminology.
DiS: It’s interesting how your music sounds both very modern, and yet like it could have come from some amazing, long lost 80’s compilation. Where do you take your musical inspiration from?
CC: Wait until you hear the next one – it’s going to be even weirder!
DV: A lot of amazing, long lost 80’s compilations that we get at flea markets!
CC: And every era, too. But also just trying ideas. Just literally trying anything. A lot of it was limitation. The band started out as a recording project, as a three-piece that died; it dissolved. The first LP was all studio, none of the songs were played live, so it was just limitation. I didn’t have a real studio, I had a couple of stereo inputs. I didn’t have any good microphones, I didn’t have an expensive keyboard, I didn’t own a guitar – I had to borrow one – I didn’t own a drum machine. I was just pulling whatever I could use. For the second record, I bought a drum machine at a pawn shop. I was determined not to buy one from a music store because at the time, I fucking despised music stores – I still don’t like them that much – so I thought “I’m not going to get anything from a fucking music store, I’ll just go to a pawn shop and that’ll be good enough.” And it was, it was totally good enough.
DiS: I was thinking not just in terms of the production or the actual sounds, but the style and feeling and mood that you managed to create.
CC: I listen to a lot of country music and jazz and blues.
DiS: There isn’t a lot of those genres shining through in any of your songs though.
CC: But if you look at the scales, they’re the same. But you can’t see the scales.
DiS: That’s quite technical though, and the average fan probably isn’t aware of stuff like that.
CC: It’s still a pentatonic scale that I’m using which is the same as blues and rock’n’roll, but yeah, it’s hidden a little bit. But if you were to take apart the songs, there’s a clear line between those things; production is where you get to confuse the listener, and that’s what makes it fun. To confuse them into this new idea. Or like filters; everything is a filter. Time is a filter, bad gear is a filter, you could use a bank of words, you could use cut ups, those are filters. It’s a bunch of layers going into a lot of stuff, and all the songs are heavily demoed. I’m writing music on my phone while I’m here, and that’s going to become totally different by the time I get home. Sometimes we’ll demo stuff just because we want to change something, but I would say lyrically the inspiration comes from a different place that probably has nothing to do with the bands we get compared to. And musically, we’re all players coming from a different place, which is another filter too. Deliberately picking people who aren’t going to play the exact same thing is good, it’s healthy for the music. Otherwise, it’s like in-breeding indie music, you mix indie with indie, or punk with punk; it’s cool, but it just gets flat. Or it becomes a genre. And there’s an idea that you could do something outside of a genre.
DiS: A lot of the lyrics are quite romantic, and deal with things like love, relationships and heartbreak. Are you a hopeless romantic?
CC: It depends on when you ask me.
DiS: I’m asking you now.
CC: Now? Maybe a month ago I was. And then maybe three months ago I wasn't. And then maybe a year ago I was. So I don’t know. I don’t think I'm anything, I'm just in constant flux. But most of my favourite songwriters were hopeless romantics. It’s like Bob Dylan, I don’t think he was ever in love, it doesn’t seem like it. He doesn’t seem like he ever felt in love.
DiS: Does anyone?
CC: Well, that’s a big question. Of course people fall in love, but I think the story of your life goes in different chapters, and mine’s in a fucked up chapter right now. Not fucked up in a bad way, just fucked up. It’s strange.
DiS: But it seems like such a fertile topic for you.
CC: Yeah, but it’s also a symbol, or an analogy for something else. Sometimes it’s not meant to be taken verbatim, sometimes it is. Like I have a really hard time talking about politics, and I feel that love and hate are much easier to talk about. Talking about politics is demeaning; it’s demeaning to your audience, and demeaning to yourself. I don’t want to come off as somebody who’s trying to educate people, or as someone with a plan or a philosophy, because I definitely don’t have one, but I still see a welfare state in my country, I still see very strange militaristic things going on…I’m not going say that I know better, because I don’t. And I don’t really believe in people who say they do know better, but love and hate are good ways to talk about that, so sometimes it won’t even be about one thing. Take ‘Become What You Are’ for example – it’s a song about a lot of things, and it’s more interesting for me to write about a lot of stuff in one song, and it’s not even vague intentionally. Sometimes I don’t think it’s vague at all, but that’s the fun of self-expression, it can be anything. It can also be a song that means nothing to people, and that’s cool too. I like that a lot. That’s the thing with pop music, it can just be nothing or it can motivate people to get tattoos of our band, which has happened a few times.
DiS: A lot of people complain that pop music has become very superficial lately, and has lost its subversive edge. Do you see yourselves as a pop band, or do you see yourselves as band with a message, something important to say?
CC: God, I hope we don’t have a message. I feel like we don’t.
DV: I don’t know if I’d call ourselves a pop band, but I wouldn’t say we think we’re better than pop music, because we’re all huge fans. It’s just a weird label to think of yourself under.
EN: I wouldn’t have joined a band if I felt there was a message. I wouldn’t even have considered it.
DiS: Not a specific political message or anything, but something more general, like be yourself, follow your dreams, ignore the haters…positive stuff and ideals.
CC: When I was younger, I used to want to save the world…now I think I want to burn it. But I'm fine with people who want to save it too. I feel like I get too pissed off if I talk about society and how they’re destroying themselves. That’s inevitably part of my own belief, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily a part of what we’re trying to say. I just don’t like separation, I’m not into dividing people. That’s the thing I don’t like about punk music, or exclusive music, it’s just about the fucking shirt that you wear, which serves as plumage or something. I’d much rather have everyone in the same room and have them talking to each other. Not in a hippy way, but just let yourself go, do whatever you want.
DiS: You’ve spoken before that you’ve had quite a difficult relationship with the scene and background that you come from, and the people you used to play with – the punk and hardcore scene in Tampa. How is it now that you’re enjoying some success and doing well?
DV: I still feel like we’re pretty unknown, as far as people outside our immediate circle of friends are concerned. I guess not many in Tampa really know who we are.
CC: Yeah, they just know that we leave for months at a time at this point. Some of them know, but I just always tell people I’m going out of town on business, I don’t even tell them I’m going on tour.
DiS: Isn’t a little disappointing that you don’t get more support or recognition?
DV: No. I kind of like not having that, to be honest.
CC: I don’t really care. As long as we get to play our shows, and do what we want.
DV: We don’t really need the extra pat on the back.
CC: You also have to remember that we’ve been doing this for ages and ages. I believe that if we had waited for that, or if I had waited for that, I would’ve stopped playing music a long time ago. And now that we’re doing more, I still feel like there’s no point in waiting on it. Even when it comes in floods from all over the world, of people being inspired or interested or whatever it is – I think it’s wonderful, but that’s not where the motivation comes from. The motivation comes from expressing ourselves and also living a life about art. Living a life totally around that, and that doesn’t really have anything to do with anyone other than us, so it doesn’t really matter. Also, at the same time, I’ve never been the type of person to say “Hey, check out my band,” you know? Even when we started doing really well, there’s just no point. You either find it, or you don’t find it. And if you don’t find it, ok, if you find it, ok…it doesn’t matter.
DiS: Don’t you want to help people find it?
CC: I think that the people who want to find it will get it. If you look at the history of the music and bands that we’ve played with, that people say we sound like, the bands that we’ve actually been inspired by, there never was anything other than put out a record that you believe in, and you like. That’s more important than anything else, at least to me.
DiS: Surely it’s nice getting a little recognition though, people saying “I really love your record, it’s great”?
DV: Yeah, of course, otherwise we wouldn’t even be here. It’s affirming.
CC: It’s good. It’s cool when you get it, but it’s not something that we wait for, or seek out. The best part of being able to create and produce is the moment after you’ve done it. The moment when you know what you've done, and only you know – nobody else does. That, to me, is still the most satisfying part. Because we spent years and years making stuff that I thought was just as good as the stuff that was received really well by critics, and it was received by absolutely nobody. I think that’s maybe the reason why this band sounds good, or why people say it’s a little different.
DiS: What does the future hold for Merchandise? Where do you want to take it?
CC: Anywhere and everywhere. Just continue. We got featured in High Times, which was pretty cool.
DV: As far as we can without having to compromise or lose sight of who we are.
Merchandise continue their UK tour on the following dates:
22nd August, Manchester, Deaf Institute
23rd August, Leeds Festival
24th August, Liverpool, East Village Arts Club
25th August, Reading Festival
26th August, Bedford, Esquires
27th August, Cardiff, The Globe
31 August, Electric Picnic, Stradbally, Ireland
1 September, End Of The Road festival
3 September, Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
4 September, Sheffield, The Queens Social Club
5 September, Oxford, The Jericho Tavern
6 September, Brighton, The Haunt
7 September, Isle Of Wight, Bestival