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Doing It Themselves, but Not Necessarily DIY: An Interview with Merchandise

Carson Cox talks crazy English mystics, mushrooms, punks in patches, and well crafted pop songs.

Tampa's Merchandise enters a series of firsts with their new LP After the End. The album is their first LP since the cult-favorite Children of Desire. The album is the first with new label home 4AD. After the End is the first album to feature the band's five-piece lineup. And the band will embark on it's biggest tour ever this fall. This would be a lot to take if we weren't talking about Merchandise, known for jumping headfirst without abandon.


Since the quiet release of Children of Desire in 2012, Merchandise have steadily grown in popularity starting within the DIY and punk scenes and eventually into the indie music realm. In the time since Children of Desire, the band have released several smaller EPs (like the three-way split on 540) and twelve-inch records, steadily growing the personnel in the band from three to five and expanding their sound to not only include a live drummer, but a saxophone as well. With so many changes within the band in such a short period of time, we cornered frontman Carson Cox to discuss the new album, DIY, drugs, the Little Mermaid, the significance of the color green. The results of our discussion is below.

How are you feeling man? You have all this shit coming on deck. I feel like you’re on the edge of something here.
Yeah. I mean, we’re ready for it. We’ve had more or less six months of preparation, so. I think we’re ready to move around and to shake it up.

Your trajectory is so interesting.
[laughs] Tell me about it. It’s bizarre.

The album, which is definitely outside of the box a little bit, came out to a punk label. And then you were doing all of these shows…
On super shitty PA’s. Not prepared at all. I couldn’t sing. I was not prepared to sing every night. We were super fucked up. We played in front of a lot of record labels really shitty and they were still like hey, you want to do a record and we were like what the fuck is your problem, can’t you see how bad we are and I think we were a little weirded out by it and then we cooled down. We took some time and yeah, I don’t know.


It’s funny cause it’s almost like you guys became a full band as you went along. You were adding members, adding instruments, and changing your sound from show to show, but the first time I can remember hearing about you…
Well, you’ve heard it way before a lot of people did because you have cool friends.

Well, you might call them shithead friends.
Well, those are the best kind anyway. You know. Sometimes you’re just bound to people and you don’t know why, but you still love them.

I think the first time I actually saw you guys might have been Saint Vitus… I think that was your first show in NYC after the release of Children of Desire.
Yeah. That was a weird show. It was a great show but it was really stressful for me because the first time we played there I was like “this is so huge! Who’s going to come to this?” I guess a lot of people would consider it a medium sized room for Brooklyn, but I was really freaked out. I remember almost hallucinating at some point toward the end of the set because I was totally sober and I was so scared. I just felt like everything left my control and I was fine with it, but I remember being really scared at that show.

When we started, we never practiced. We would just play shows, which is terrible. It just means you’re always going to do something fucked up. I don’t know and I think a lot of it has to do with—Everyone likes to throw this word DIY around and we did operate that way mechanically speaking but I never felt like we were really based in any scene.


Anyway, performing used to be super difficult but recording was definitely my comfort zone. I’d say I still feel most comfortable recording, but it’s kind of switched around a little bit because we have these live ideas and sort of know how to interpret them now.

However you’ve done it, it seems to have worked so far.
The past has been fucking bizarre. It’s still bizarre and now I think it’s even weirder because I’m not really afraid of the world. I feel like when I was young, I was afraid but now, I feel like it’s fine. You can kind of do whatever you want if you have your own ideas or if you have your own shit that you dig.

Influence is everywhere, clearly.
This past weekend, I ate a bunch of mushrooms and tripped really fucking hard. I don’t do that all the time, the last time I did it was years ago, but I had this semi-religious experience with color and sound. Anyway, I watched the Little Mermaid with a group of friends of mine, and I was listening and everything was repeating and doubling, and the sound would totally scrunch and Sebastian the crab would just be like this crazy voice every time it came up. Everything was totally twisting and I was in awe at how I was hearing a piece that was very familiar to me in a really different way. It made me think of early tape loops and experimental music.

Anyway, I like the feeling of letting go, it becomes this like strange thing and you can’t control it and the lack of control is really fun. Just sort of floating in your own perception or not controlling it has been a bit fascinating. When you don’t have goals or don’t have anything that you’re trying to meet, you kind of can go anywhere.


So clearly deconstruction is an important theme for you, but on the converse do you feel like you have always thing for pop music?
When I was really young, the big music in my life was The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Elvis, all the stuff on Sun Records, Chuck Berry, and that early Memphis rock and roll. I was always really, really obsessed with that. Later it was Bryan Ferry, Scott Walker…

Things with a strong male vocal?
Yeah. My mother was born in 1950. My stepfather at the time, who was around me a lot, was born in 1940. My grandfather was born in 1910-1911. I remember being in elementary school and whatever pop music was at the time, I remember feeling like an alien because nobody in my family cared about it. I remember watching “I Dream Of Genie” and listening to classic rock and I thought that was normal. I knew all the words to La Bamba. I was like a nerd.

You did a lot of this recording on your own right?
I recorded everything and then Gareth Davis mixed it. He didn’t produce it. He produced it in so far as we would Skype and discuss ideas. I mean, we did spend quite a bit of time talking about music… his catalog is insane: Nick Cave, Tuxedomoon, Einsterzende Neubauten, and especially my favorite Depeche Mode album, ‘Black Celebration.’ That record that for taught me about pacing; it’s the most perfectly paced record.

He was really inspiring. He’s like a crazy English mystic, his energy is beautiful and because I feel like it made the production what it is. He produced it in his own way. All of the ideas and music was tracked and done in my house, and I would just send it to London.


That said, did you have a perception of how the LP would sound in aggregate?
Not at all. There was like four months where I was like what am I doing? Up until the last minute I was changing songs, just trying to get the track listing right or the flow right. I mean we worked our asses off. It really was day to day, maybe up until six in the morning some nights.

And the record was mostly recorded live. You know, I just now started to mess around with quantization and some newer studio effects, but none of that was used on the record. “Green Lady” was something that was heavily produced. That was me and Elsner going through tons and tons of pads, totally destroying his drum kit building it back up in the arrangement.

Were there records that you were hoping that After the End would turn out like, production-wise?
I feel like there are certain records that I had in mind when I was producing it… early My Bloody Valentine… but there’s just so much shit that reminds me of the LP. Tons of classic Scott Walker and Serge Gainsbourg arrangements. I would say he is more responsible for sort of my production.

Also, I’m kind of always watching Gene Kelly movies, Marlon Brandon, Elia Kazan, tons of Roger Corman, too… and they just kind of worked their way into the project. Hell’s Angels movies. Up until recently, I didn’t have access to a lot of film, so I’ve just been bingeing on Martin Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich… the new wave of American film directors. When I was young, I loved foreign stuff, but the older I get the more I appreciate American film from the 70s. It’s the hardest stuff of all time.


It sounds like a lot of what you’ve taken recently for that record is not even musical, but it’s just in different facets of art, and you specifically mention the idea of color.
Yeah, yeah! Color was a huge part. I used the color green on everything. The color green is still the biggest, like when I look through the record and look at lyrics, there are lyrics about grass, there are lyrics about absinthe…

The album art, many different facets… but why green, necessarily?
Because it was haunting me. I was totally entranced by green. Any time we played shows, I would ask the light person, like just use green lights. I was just really into the color green. I’m talking to you from my backyard and I shit you not, it’s like a jungle right now. That’s where I’m from. Also smoking loads of weed, loads and loads. Smoking more than I’ve ever smoked in my life just because I’m working at home on a record, Neil Young style, just burning the whole time. So, green just keeps coming up.

This is the first LP that you’ve offered up your lyrics.
When I was really young, I was really traumatized by printing my lyrics and showing them to my friends. [laughs] Everyone made fun of me. I was writing when I was like 15, listening to loads of Nine Inch Nails and trying to impress my friends by writing dark lyrics.

With Merchandise, people would always ask for the lyrics and would just be like “I think this is what you’re saying” and they would always tell me something totally different. I loved that because it was like a different form of perception. It’s really cool to see what people think you’re talking about or what you’re dreaming about or whatever and then it becomes their own lyrics, it becomes their own words.


I agree, which is also why it kind of confuses me about why you would print them… it’s narrowing the interpretation.
Normally it is. In the past, we never even put our names on the record. I mean, the first two records, we don’t have anything on them. The second record definitely doesn’t have anything on it.

It’s really funny when we got the test press for the second record, we made copies for each other. Test presses come in just a blank sleeve, so I’d make Dave a cover and he’d make me one and he put 4AD on it as a joke because it sounded so much like a 4AD record. [laughs] So, now our record actually has 4AD on it. So, it’s one of those bizarre things.

Anyway, I feel like it kind of helps to know where we are going and who wrote what considering this is a record that will actually be distributed, whereas our other records would go out of print. It’s international, so there is a non-English audience that supports us, especially in like South America and Mexico. So we really want to reach people everywhere.

After the End, I started writing when we were in Poland because I was just so overwhelmed because it was so beautiful. All the roads were so destroyed and it was just like really, really depleted, but the people were so fucking beautiful. The girls are unbelievably beautiful. I was just listening to music and driving through Poland.

Our dream is to go to Asia. I want to go to China. There’s a lot of people that love music, that follow music, that never get to see American bands. Where I’m from in Tampa, bands from New York don’t even travel down here anymore.


That’s a question that I’m really fascinated by, the idea of how you’re from Tampa and like you were saying, there aren’t a lot of touring bands.
Almost none.

…And just what that really means to you as a music fan growing up. How that shapes you.
I mean I guess that just explains why I got way into records. I get a lot from records and from digesting stuff alone, so I think that plays into it. I can be plenty of social and affable, but I really, really—the place that I learned and interpreted music from was a solitary place. I think Dave is the same way. I think most of the band is.

I also learned a lot from seeing bands live. Most of the bands that we saw growing up were like freak bands, you know, totally weird. People playing with fucking cottage cheese and shit, just like totally odd shit. I feel like that’s kind of the reason why we got so into records and doing different things, from growing up with that.

Anyway, to be able to go places that are more isolated than Florida is still really inspiring because I feel I have a lot in common with people that are isolated from the New York scene or the L.A. scene because…

They want it more?
They are just trying to get by with what they have and yeah, for sure they’re more excited, but I feel that’s not just it. I’m more excited to reach that audience. It’s much more fun. I felt that’s what alternative rock bands in the 80’s did. They played fucking everywhere. They played places that nobody was playing.


When we started, it was for sure the same way. I get more of out of a direct connection with a person, than through a big show. Sometimes you’ll play a festival with like thousands of people and it’s like no one saw you.

Speaking of playing shows on this upcoming tour… it’s pretty big and ambitious.
Yeah, it’s pretty big.


Some pretty exciting venues. Thinking back, I feel like I have only seen you at these tiny, intimate, packed out places, you know. Like at the Nothing Changes party with 80 of my closest friends.
We’re playing lots of big places but I still view the band as like a critical success more than a massive success. I know we’re playing to a broader audience now, but I really would like for people to just enjoy it and not have to be academic about anything. Sometimes I feel like that’s our audience in certain places, especially in the United States.

So, I have no idea. I ponder on commercial fate every once in a while but I’m never afraid because I live in the cheapest place in the world. I could make art until the day I die, so it’s not really a concern that I won’t get to be an artist anymore or whatever, in terms of “success.” We’ll still travel and play places.

Regardless of the audience, I feel like we sound better on a giant PA. I mean I can’t tell you how many times we’ve played DIY spaces where there were just no vocals. I much prefer playing on good systems but that’s also because I cut my teeth playing every fucking shithouse in America. I’ve literally played them all between 2008 and 2012 to 2013, pretty much every dive in the United States. Any time we passed through, we played the biggest hole in the wall. And so it’s like I’ve kind of had that experience. I feel like I lived it when it was very true and very honest and I had no other place to go. Now it’s like when you have the opportunity to do something bigger and better, you take it


I would imagine part of smaller rooms is a bit of romance?
There is, I mean, but…

…but not enough to really really sway you….
We’re talking years and years of DIY punk shows where it’s Oliver Twist or something. I can remember sleeping at a house where I played a show and the door wouldn’t close. It was December! There have been plenty of times where it wasn’t romantic, where it was just painful.

I think romance and nostalgia is just kind of a killer, it’s just not real. There were plenty of times where I was playing somewhere I was not happy and I didn’t give a shit about anyone around me. I would say DIY is full of pariahs just like indie music, especially now. There are plenty of people who want to exploit you no matter where you are.

All places are not created equally and now, especially, it’s bizarre. All the DIY bands are becoming lionized. They’re all becoming the thing, like “the voice of now.” In some ways it is, but it’s very dangerous to be that romantic about it because you run the risk of running into the same issues as with the hippies. The hippies vowed to make a perfect society, but there was no such thing. People want to make DIY into a perfect society. That doesn’t exist. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.


You’re ready for a new chapter.
I mean we’re playing our release show at a bar in Tampa that’s way too small for the show that we’re going to do. Fights are going to break out. You know, people are going to be fucking in the streets. It’s just going to be insane.


That’s great, you know. That’s what we need, especially in Tampa Bay. We need a pure, ignorant experience.

It’s not like we’re above playing a small room. It’s just like a lot of the ideas have gotten so big now that like we need a PA—we have five members. Sometimes we’d show up to places and they’d be like well, we only have one mic. That kind of thing, it’s not fair to the music to say that we have to play these places because politically they’re just more like us.

I just wanted to talk about when you were originally doing the band with a drum machine and how that evolved. How did Elsner join the band?
I met Elsner in 2008. He booked a show for Divisions, a band that I played drums in, and it was Elsner’s old band Pollution and Drunkdriver at Silent Barn. It was the sickest show ever.

Pollution and Drunkdriver were both so dope.
Everyone was crazy. I think we covered “Lifestyles” by Poison Idea and it was just like the biggest old man circle pit I’ve ever seen. It was the coolest show ever. That was how I met Elsner. I was like “What’s up man, this is a pretty cool show.” He was like “fuck yeah,” and that was it. [laughs]

So, I guess the way that he started playing with you guys though was just because of the 538 Johnson gig and you guys wanted to try with a drummer?
Well, he asked to play drums for us in an email from a long time ago. He sent this email with like a Savatage video link in it of them playing in a parking lot in Clearwater in the mid 80’s and he was like” let me be your drummer.” [laughs] It was totally in passing just like let me be your drummer after we put out ‘Children of Desire’. Elsner really understood the b-boy shit, all of the Kraftwerk shit that I was obsessed with, the drums, and he could really interpret the breakbeat thing. There is a soul/R&B element in Children of Desire that most people just saw as new wave, and he saw that, and came from the same world, and was totally crazy and into all of this salsa music… I was just like “you’re perfect, let’s do this,” mentally.

I mean we never practiced anything. We had only played on show at 538 Johnson and that was basically like a live audition. We practiced for 20 minutes before the show and then we played the show. [laughs]

And there’s video of it too and it’s so funny because… the encore, I just told him to play this beat or whatever. We didn’t practice it at all. We were just playing it live and everyone was going off. It was just pure energy.

It’s interesting because knowing Elsner and then seeing you guys together for a gig and assuming it’s a one-off thing. Next thing you know…
Part of the fun of playing music is the parts change. I sing them differently than this year and that year. We wanted to grow. Once we had a drum kit and once we had Chris as a full time member too, it’s like this is a live rock and roll show.

I think ultimately the band felt like they needed someone outside of our direct circle. I thought everything Elsner did while he was in New York was brilliant and I always thought the New York scene failed to see that he was in one of the best bands in the scene. They seemed super underappreciated.

Pollution was like crazy underappreciated.
Yeah, they were great. And we played with them when Pat D. from Villains was in the band.

All of these idiots in New York that were covered in patches and bullshit, it was like none of them give a shit about people who just want to make their own music. It’s like they just really—it has to be the cool thing of the scene. I mean I have plenty of friends in New York that don’t think that way and I have plenty of friends that did support Pollution, but on a whole, it’s like man I’m just sick of fucking punk scenes. It’s like you can have the best punk band in the scene and people still won’t like it because they won’t sing a song about tofu or whatever. It’s like this porridge is too hot. This porridge is too cold. For a bunch of people that are not supposed to care about anything, they certainly give a shit about everything.

It’s funny because clearly it’s supposed to be open-minded.
Everyone’s supposed to be like I don’t give a shit, but everyone cares so much. They’re so careful about what they say and what they do.

Merchandise's new album After the End is out now via 4AD. Get your copy of their previous releases via 540 Records or on digital via Katorga Works.