Merchandise grow up
A wander through the Merchandise back catalogue uncovers an adventurous dream-pop band in thrall to the moody sounds of mid-80s Manchester and Liverpool, from the Chameleons through to the Comsat Angels. But the Tampa, Florida fivesome are also a post-punk band in the most literal sense – having emerged from the maelstrom of the local hardcore scene in 2008.
“I’m into a bunch of different shit but when I was young I limited myself to one style [hardcore punk], because I felt like it was appropriate. I was doing limited music because that’s all I could do at the time”, remembers frontman Carson Cox. “Part of that was because we had nothing when were young and bands from New York didn’t even tour down to Florida. We were considered the lamest place on earth. The only bands who ‘came up’ were savage. So we were savage in how we did everything and we didn’t give a fuck”.
Initially working as a three-piece home recording project known as Dry County, Cox and lead guitarist David Vassalotti adopted the Merchandise moniker in time for 2010’s full-length debut on Katorga Works, (Strange Songs) In the Dark. It wasn’t until follow-up, Children of Desire, that people began to take notice.
“Ultimately the biggest change happened in 2012, when people started coming to our shows”, confirms Cox. “And it’s not really through this band, I think it’s more the years and years of playing music. Just me and Dave alone have done like 12 LPs or something before this record came out, and then way more tapes and shit that just no one ever heard”.
Of course, there have been a couple of other reasonably significant developments since then. After 18 months of flirtation
with just about every label going, Cox and Merchandise signed up with indie titans 4AD earlier this year. A lot of music industry types weren’t surprised, considering the progression in sound across their earlier releases.
Cox reckons it isn’t so simple. “We’re not a classic 4AD band,” he argues. “It’s funny how the stamp of a label affects people’s brains. I guess our second record was probably intentionally the closest to that sound”. So how come Merchandise ended up with 4AD then? “For me, the Scott Walker record [2012’s Bisch Bosh] was the bravest record that came out in the last year or so. With a label as big as 4AD but no real commercial value to the record; it was purely artistic value. That said a lot.
“I also feel like our new record would have been totally different had we gone with somebody else, in terms of production”, he continues. “4AD gave us a list of producers which was basically a who’s who of English production, and I was like ‘Well, I don’t think we’re quite good enough for half of these people’. It was amazing having Gareth Jones [Wire, Depeche Mode, Erasure] produce the record”.
The new record in question is After The End, Merchandise’s fourth full-length release and one that pushes some boundaries but retreats from others. Gated drum machines, swirling vortexes of noise and tracks spanning 10-minutes are out; guitar hooks, prominent vocals and bombastic choruses are definitely in. Fans of Interpol, The War On Drugs and even early Doves will be right at home. Anybody looking for something more esoteric, however, might be disappointed.
To be clear, it’s a fantastic rock album with lush arrangements and clear pop sensibilities, for which Cox makes no apologies. “Part of the reason I made this choice – and I don’t know, my bandmates also have different views on things – is that I’m just sick and bored to death of subculture. It’s weak, it’s a way for people to wear a mask and for them to appear cooler than they actually are”, he explains.
“If you don’t fit into the nonsense of a genre or whatever [subcultures] will just sort of turn their noses up at you. I don’t really care. I’d rather speak to some open-minded and intelligent audience that has nothing to do with subculture. If you align yourself with a subculture, you’re part of the problem; you’re part of the mainstream. The only way to free yourself is to align yourself with nothing”.
Isn’t there still a risk that people will interpret songs like new single Little Killer purely as a sop to the mainstream? “I don’t think we’re afraid to put out any type of music”, Cox responds. “I think there’s this notion of, ‘Oh, you’ll lose some kind of essence when you put out pop music’ but really we’ve been putting out pop music since we started. We’re excited to do stuff in the pop realm that other people don’t seem to want to do, or they used to but don’t any more”.
One element that After The End does share with Merchandise’s earlier albums is its emotional core. This time the lyrical theme is change and distance borne out of the band’s recent success. “Everyone’s different”, says Cox. “Everything’s changed, all the relationships around me have changed and everyone has changed in their own lives [Merchandise] becoming a band that tours the world has had a huge impact on our lives and when I come back home I feel like I don’t live here, even though I’m in my house and I’m from here”.
The idea of dancing to one of Merchandise’s earlier releases, for instance, would have been ridiculous. Now, with a spate of festival slots lined up this summer, it’s not only possible but probable. “You have to remember that before 2012 we’d never really been to a music festival”, Cox reasons. “We’d never really used monitors or played to those kinds of crowds. Now that we’ve got the hang of it, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s just push that’. It’s exciting because we’ve never done this; we’ve never exploited this before”.
So does that mean a party album is on the way? “I do want to make music that people can just spin at parties, especially now that we’ve played at all these festivals,” says Cox. “We’re playing all these places now where there are tonnes of people and the sun is out. So how emotional do we want to get? Well, not very. In fact, really I don’t want to get emotional at all. We’ve never had this opportunity, so let’s just build up the crowd and have fun.”
As Cox reveals, Merchandise are actually planning another release, possibly even before the end of the year. “I don’t know if 4AD knows that”, he laughs. “It’s going to be like a supplement to After The End… Being at home for six months [recording the album] made me absolutely fucking crazy. The point of this next record is: ‘No thought: don’t think’. Everything’s not always just about pulling your heart out of your chest. There are lots of songs that are totally dumb and brilliant because of it”.
After The End… is released via 4AD on 25 August