Merchandise Are Like the Smiths, but Punk
Merchandise are three guys from Tampa, Florida, who—after spending a few years playing in hardcore/punk bands with names like Dads, Cult Ritual, and Neon Blud—decided to leave behind any dreams of being cool non-conformists and form an indie pop group. I have to say, I wasn't all that impressed until I happened to see them play in New York, and I've been acting like an scary tween obsessive ever since. Carson Cox’s voice makes me think of the child that Morrissey will never have, and while this is probably a good thing for humanity, it was a very sad fact for me. Thankfully these guys have rectified that and made me feel and chipper and happy again.
Their second record (Children of Desire) in particular is incredible, so it's no wonder that there are rumours of a bidding war between amazing labels like Sub Pop, Domino, and Fat Possum, all trying their darndest to sign the band. I thought I'd talk to them before people I hate start posting their songs on Facebook.
VICE: Hey guys, I saw you playing a few weeks ago in New York. Where are you now?
Carson: Tampa, Fl orida.
Dave: Yep, we're back home. In the "recording studio."
Pat: Back home with the girl and the pups.
What sort of venues have you played on this tour? After seeing you at 538 Johnson, I wanted to go to the St. Vitus show, but it was sold out. Is that what your shows are like usually?
Carson: We played all sorts of spaces. DIY, 21+ clubs, we played this half pipe in a loft in Toronto... It's still mostly smaller spots, but we did play a few 300+ capacity venues, which isn't common for us. It's nice to play club gigs 'cause the sound is way better and we suck when we have to play quiet sets. The louder, the better the show.
Dave: The St. Vitus show was the only real "sold out" show. I think it may have been one of the only ones that required an actual ticket. We played a lot of packed shows but they were mostly just in the major cities. We've played to a bunch of half-empty rooms as well. We haven't found our ideal venue yet.
Pat: It varied from night to night, city to city. I agree that we haven't figured out an ideal venue size, but the need for a good sound system seems to dictate how well the set is perceived, both by us and the crowd.
Are you still playing in punk/hardcore bands or are you 100 percent focused on this project?
Dave: Carson and I are both pretty active outside the band. Our other band, Church Whip, plays more frequently than Merchandise does. That definitely falls in the punk/hardcore category. We have a bunch of other projects going on all the time. The variety is a necessity.
Pat: I still play in a hardcore band, too, and have a few other projects on the horizon. I don't feel like my other projects encroach on the happenings of Merchandise, though.
Since English isn't my first language, I have a bit of trouble understanding the lyrics, but I get a sense of pain when I listen to your records. Are you loners?
Carson: Yes and no. I have some songs about love without heartbreak, but not many. Being in your early twenties is sort of a crummy time. People still act like children but can drink legally and drive cars and make adult decisions without understanding the consequences. Most of the lyrics have to do with coming of age and time's passage. People have asked me a lot about my happiness on this tour and I'm sort of at a loss for what to say. Writing is sort of a reflective thing where I don't really know how I feel about something until the song is written.
Sadness and drama is a big part of it, but I hope that it comes off as theatre and not someone airing out dirty laundry. The place I wrote from the past four years was very strange and I was depressed, but life has thrown a new reality at me and nothing about the past seems to be true today. Everything inspires me, especially beauty. I hope I'm not a loner, but maybe I am and just don't realise it.
Have you always experimented with pop and noise music or is it just something you stumbled upon?
Carson: I've been working with this style since about 2007, I think. I've had weirdo, non-electronic recording projects since I was in middle school. Tampa has a bigger pop underground scene than a punk underground scene and most of my friends that play noise write songs, too, so I don't think in terms of genre really. It was more like, "Do I want to make mean music or make pretty music?"
Dave: It's something we've been doing for years and years—we're just spending a lot more time on it now. We've been playing in punk bands since we were 14. There's no way we could limit ourselves to just one way of writing songs.
Pat: The way this project is approached is always changing, but I don't feel there was ever a conceived shift, things have just fallen into place due to our environment.
"Become What You Are," aka the best song of 2012.
I'm surprised about the good reception that the record has had among punk kids in the US. That's something I wouldn't have seen in Spain; you'd probably have been crucified for being punk kids doing pop music. Did you expect that?
Carson: I don't know. I think it’s hard for "punks" to identify with punk here. There's so much that's open to experience in the past, the present and the future. I think most punk kids now are full blown hipsters; that is to say hippies or bound to a generation. I think our time is going to dictate our art or voice more than a single style. I just don't care either way. There are poets and painters that died hundreds of years before rock and roll that mean more to me than that. I grew up in hardcore but I was listening to jazz, too.
Dave: We grew up in the punk scene. Our records are on a punk label. It's just the crowd that has known us the longest. People have tended to identify us more with our past bands than as a project of its own, but that seems to be changing as our songs reach more people outside the punk scene. An easier and more shallow answer: A lot of (American) punks love the Smiths and we're probably the closest thing they're gonna get to that in the hardcore scene.
Pat: I think a lot of the support we see from American kids and adults alike comes from people respecting what we're doing because of ethical similarities that we've shared growing up in the shaky punk scenes around the country.
I was checking the Children of Desire LP today and saw the fanzine that comes with it. Can you tell me about that?
Dave: The record comes with a book called Desire in the Mouth of Dogs, credited to W. Marchendes. It's a fictional diary that acts as a sort of doppelganger to the LP. Many similar themes are explored. Lyrics from the record pop up throughout the book. It's a snapshot of life in this city at this time just as much as the record is. It's not a fictionalisation of Children of Desire, just a related voice.
Merchandise playing at 538 Johnson.
What do you do in Tampa besides playing music?
Carson: Watch movies, get stoned, hang with the boys (B-Town Wolfpack) and buy dollar bin records. I hang out with my sister and mother at least once or twice a week, then I read and write and create visuals as well.
Dave: I do office work at a university, hang out at the library downtown, avoid the heat, lurk the malls, etc. Many hours are spent on records.
Pat: I live with my girlfriend and share a lot of my downtime with her.
I know it's not the same level, but you kind of remind me of bands like the Men or Iceage—bands with a punk background that caught the attention of well-known music websites and now play huge festivals. Do you think that might happen to you? Carson: We're buds with both those bands. My other bands played with the Men a lot—like ten times, or something—when the first two records were out. I'm not surprised if people see us being similar.
Dave: It feels like it's already happened. We haven't played any big festivals yet, but I have no doubt that we'll be entering that world next year. Bands like the Men and Iceage both come from a similar background to ours. We're friends with all those guys. I don't think it'd be weird for us to cross over to that next level. We make pop music (for the most part) and playing those bigger shows is what we should be doing.
Pat: Yeah, I think those things are already in motion for us.
Any plans for a European tour? Will you let me book a punk show for you?
Carson: Fuck yeah. We're down to play punk gigs and club gigs.
Dave: We'll be in Europe in 2013. Not sure where or when yet, but it's definitely going to happen. You can book a punk show for us and we'll play it, you just have to make sure that we don't get crucified by the punks for playing pop.
Pat: Yeah, if we can avoid altercations with the punks, I'm down.
One final, slightly irrelevant question. What are your favourite records of 2012?
Carson: I really dig the new Wet Hair album, I just got two new ripping seven inches by the Helsinki band Beastmilk, I'm digging the VVARQRT record—it's from 2010, but it’s my new jam—on Hot Releases. Midnight at Mary's House and Liquid Nails, both by Russian Tsarlag, are great. And all the new bands out of the Total Control camp, especially Rat Columns. Uhh—I haven't heard the new Swans record, but I'm sure it rules.
Dave: Wet Hair's Spill Into Atmosphere is really great. Also, the new live Antony and the Johnsons 2 x LP, the D-Clone LP, American Snakeskin's Turquoise for Hello, Jeff Zagers' Archivist Privilege tape, the Daughn Gibson LP, the new Spiritualized record. I'm sure I'm forgetting a tonne, but my brain is fried right now.
Pat: Zagers blew me away live recently, Rat Columns were on point when I saw them earlier this year, and both bands have solid releases to back them up.
Merchandise have, among other things, released two LPs through Katorga Works. You can listen to (Strange Songs) In the Dark here and Children of Desire here. If you like them, you should buy them here.
Follow Alejandra on Twitter: @alejandeath
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