Longreads Or Whatever

Not Buying It: Merchandise Questions Politics, Capitalism, and Everything Else

The Tampa band wanted us to call this article "Grand Marketing Failure."

by Eve Barlow
03 October 2016, 8:39am

The residential streets in Tampa, Florida look like they're sinking into the earth. "That's the best description I've ever heard," says Patrick Brady, bassist, van driver, and tour manager of local noiseniks Merchandise. "Hop in!" he says, tossing a joint aside and welcoming me into the vehicle. Florida is a bloated swampland. You're never too far from a muggy downpour or clattering lightning. Imagine being at a Dr. John concert in the jungle with Thor supporting: that's the trippy, apocalyptic vibe. Tampa weighs down competition; it's stuck in the status quo. Foregoing any radical modernization for decades, it favors the rich middle classes, including one local Indian doctor who is utilizing his fortune to build a mock Taj Mahal on the side of an otherwise dull highway. "What do you think of it?" asks frontman Carson Cox. It looks like it got lost en route to Disneyland.

Merchandise's latest, fifth album, A Corpse Wired for Sound (a title inspired by the pages JG Ballard's Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan), is Carson's attempt at a "political record." Released last Friday, it paints a bleak image of dystopian loneliness and arrested development. The sound is similar to other bands who've been inspired by Ballard (The Normal, Gary Numan, The Church, with added flickers of European electronica, the genre most inspiring to Carson right now). Together with guitarist Dave Vassalotti and new drummer Leo Suarez, the foursome celebrated its release with a week-long tour of their own Floridian dystopia—Tampa, Orlando, Gainesville, Fort Lauderdale, then back to Tampa—playing the still-standing independent record stores in each town. It's a homecoming of sorts for Carson, who's lived between Berlin, Italy, and New York for the past year. "I'd never lived through a winter," he says of his decision to get the hell out. "I got some gloves, a peacoat, and listened to Type O Negative in the snow. It was cool."

"Personal drama" informed this wanderlust—on the cusp of turning 30, Carson willfully moved out of his comfort zone. "It had nothing do with the band," he explains. "Our success meant changing dynamics in relationships elsewhere. I was much more comfortable before [success] when I was just someone to be stepped on."

This turmoil readily reveals itself in the lyrics: the Depeche Mode-y "Shadow Of Truth" contains the frustrated question "What do you want from me?" while on both "Crystal Cage" and "Right Back To The Start" Carson sings about starting over despite years of graft. Elsewhere "I Will Not Sleep Here" contains the visceral line: "Bloody is thicker than water / But both go down the same drain." Reality hit as the band gained notoriety. Turns out nobody expected them to do well. "We existed in total obscurity before," nods Carson. It was easier when they were ignorant to possibility.

All photos by Edward Lindsmier.

That's because the towns here are Pleasantville-type places, but ones without happy endings. Carson comes from Tampa proper. He points out his local high school, and the Denny's he used to hang around after-hours with his fellow goths. He'd order coffee and fries because at 14 he discovered 70s English punks Crass and became a vegan. He recently quit smoking and reverted to veganism. Denny's is now a Chase bank. Carson smirks that all the chain stores (Winn Dixies, Checkers, Hooters) have been replaced by other chain stores, a revolving door of ubiquitous facades. He's satisfied that the town is a victim of its own capitalism. It never nurtured anything creative, but rather was built on corporate dynasties—lawyers, insurance kings—whose corny mugs are still plastered on giant billboards. They're big fish in a little brown pond. "I want you to call your article: Grand Marketing Failure," he says, several times. Pat didn't grow up in Tampa, but in a neighboring town called Plant City, which is located by a water tank. It's a place so desolate it drove him to dabbling rather too enthusiastically with drugs, namely 'shrooms ("dirty ones") and weed. He was sober by 17, until the age of 24. "Then I thought, fuck it."

Ten years ago—before Merchandise played a backbreaking number of shows at SXSW, signed to 4AD, and became a highly blogged-about entity—Carson was a dishwasher. He remains a man of contradictions who mostly watches cartoons (Tom & Jerry is his fave), but knows more about fine art than most art school grads. All four members quit their desk jobs last week, for the umpteenth time. "I swear sometimes I plead with people to fire me," says Carson. "I have no schooling. On paper, I'm the same as anyone who would be thrown into a fire if shit hit the fan. My status as 'international artist' means nothing. We're all bags of meat." He adds: "That's inspiring."

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Carson Cox and Leo Suarez.

Despite the band's attempts to bring new resources from the success of their previous wins back to this place, the town wasn't interested in being renowned as a nucleus for DIY art. "I'm nothing special in the eyes of the people in control here," Carson notes. "If I stayed Tampa would betray me in a second. When you're surrounded by redneck metropolis, there's no reality to anything. Nothing. There's just capitalism. We found a loophole." Merchandise have an audience outside of Florida: in Brooklyn, in London, in Paris, and beyond. Carson is crushingly aware that theirs is a false economy, reliant upon a flailing music industry, but he'll take it. "It's the only reason we can do this. It's bizarre. Tampa is fiction. Reality is fiction. The whole world reminds me of Tampa now." Carson finds freedom in that notion. "I'm into the idea of letting go of the structure of the world, letting go of the structure of myself. What's left?"

Here, not much. As we drive up and down the main roads of Florida, back and forth from Orlando, listening to the never-ending hi-hats of Miles Davis's complete On The Corner sessions, Carson laughs in the face of despair. He might be disappointed that Drake is more celebrated than Michael Jackson and that people around here are more impressed by trucks than John Coltrane, but at least he can goof about it. There's unintentional comedy all around. Particularly at our first stop: Park Ave Records, Orlando. The stock is earmarked with Florida breakout acts, including New Found Glory, Limp Bizkit, and Flo Rida. Some young girls came in earlier and complimented the store clerk on her "extensive variety of calendars." "She'd never seen vinyl," says the clerk, who's worked here for three decades. A lifelong investment, for what?

"All our friends left," says Carson of the noise scene that once existed in these spaces. Noise is one of the only word Carson is satisfied describes Merchandise's sound. One YouTube fan sums up their back catalogue as, "The Smiths meet The Velvet Underground meets Santana," a surprisingly accurate assessment. Earlier this morning they previewed their tour with a TV appearance on Tampa Bay's Morning Blend. Dave wore his Stetson. When asked to define the kind of music they play, Carson retorted: "We play two kinds: country and western." Carson can't wait to watch it back tomorrow. "My mom and her book club are stoked about it. They told us we sound like The Killers. That's the only point of reference they understand."

Dave Vassalotti and Pat Brady.

I watch the show later. Carson definitely looks like Brandon Flowers, his hair contoured like a World War II cadet, with Levi 501s and heavy duty boots, he's got the looks of an all American anti-hero. If the two blue-eyed songwriters were to ever meet, no doubt they'd find some common ground in their Morrissey fandom, but Carson would run circles around Brandon. Carson has a grit Brandon can only dream of. He talks about moving the band to Berlin. He loves it there, particularly the Berghain, a 24-hour club renowned for uninhibited sex, rave culture, and drugs. It's the sort of place Lady Gaga gets her ideas from. He recently took his first E there. He's certainly dabbled in drugs before, but people don't take happy drugs in Tampa.

We cap off the evening at a vegan restaurant. Dave (Italian American, mustachio'd), orders the calzone followed by Amaretto tiramisu. Pat has cottage pie. We order mac and cheese "for the table." "It's the Vegan Applebys!" jokes Carson. Over stodgy fuel, Leo ponders his first live in-store with Merchandise. A few weeks ago, he almost lost his life. There was a carbon monoxide leak in his house in the middle of the night. His roommate woke up in a marginally better physical state and saving them from toxic death. The band aren't morbid by way of pretentiousness; it's in the air here, literally. "Let us pick you up tomorrow," says Carson. "You shouldn't walk around here alone. It's not safe."

The next afternoon in a park in broad daylight, Carson is swinging a bat. He unbuttons the top holes in his shirt, menacing outside the van with the other three. A Corpse Wired for Sound is Merchandise's second LP on 4AD after years of releasing music on underground imprints. Last time around there were five of them. "The fivepiece had run its course," explains Carson, over another buffet in another empty restaurant (this time an Indian place, vegan by default). "We weren't interested in being a professional band. We tried it. It didn't work. The dynamic was always me and Dave bouncing demos between each other. We had to simplify everything again, otherwise it would have ended."

I propose that perhaps they had an identity crisis on 2014's album After the End, feeling the pressure to make something more commercial, to satisfy the label's expectations. It was a great record, substantially more accessible than previous works, (Totale Nite, for instance boasts the seven-minute epic Anxiety's Door). "No. We've had artistic freedom," assures Carson. "The disconnect comes with media, tour, infrastructure. There's a reason why we existed for so long as something so small. It isn't success to be surrounded by hoards of people. Success is a personal journey, it can mean being homeless, living in a subway station."

Last September Dave and Carson reverted to old school Merchandise methodology, initially exchanging ideas back and forth between New York and Dave's newly adopted home of Sarasota, Florida. For two years, they built this LP, eventually heading to a studio in Italy. They attempted to build on their "political" ideas, but this fell flat. What worked was traditional Merchandise schtick: romanticism, loneliness, pouting. "I felt like the world was falling to hell and my political perspective was being grossly ignored," says Carson. "We're living in a watershed moment. This album is not a good vehicle for my politics. Most people want our music to be very surface. They want to vibe with it. But there's something there for people who wanna find more."

I tell Carson that abstract politicization can be good. Appealing to people's emotions is a subtle manipulation. He nods, a spoonful of lentil dal in hand. "To make an angry record seems like a fucking waste, you're just yelling at a wall. It doesn't matter how old you are, you see the shit that's happening right now and you wanna kick someone's face in. The work of true subversion is to infiltrate emotionally. I'm not saying I'm changing the world, but I'm not interested in political silence. It's so obvious where everyone should stand."

For a moment I wonder if it is obvious. Here in real America, Merchandise are black sheep: tolerant, cultured creatives, but also proud Floridians, who empathize with the people they love. It's a hard balance and this isn't the most attractive Presidential race. Carson agrees. "I mean, will I vote against Trump? Yes. Am I doing it to stop Trump? Yes. That's about it, you know what I mean? Politicians have always been puppets."

Pat chimes in: "We're left with a situation now where we can either have the oligarchy or a fascist." His brother is ex-military, and has very arcane opinions about the sanctity of warfare. "I love him to death," says Pat. "But…" Meanwhile, Dave believes America is built on exploitation. "That's all this country is. That's all it ever has been. There needs to be some kind of awakening in the American consciousness. We have to recognize that we do bad, evil shit all the time. Our comfort is somebody else's suffering."

This year has been full of wake-up calls. One in particular hit home for Merchandise on June 12 when 49 Americans died in a shooting in Pulse nightclub in Orlando."I was in Tampa," says Pat. "The guy bought the gun an hour South of us." Carson was in Berlin and describes the unfolding news as like watching a movie. On June 28 when there was a bombing in Istanbul he was traveling through Turkey.His mother texted him to make sure he was taking care. "I was like, 'But you're closer to Orlando! What's the difference in this situation?' I love my mother, I'm not criticizing her. But it's the way you're brought up here. It's not just a media skew."

While living in Europe, Carson witnessed a different generational divide, following the Brexit—a total breakdown in understanding between the elder generation and the youth. It's something that's now being mirrored in America. The band believe that conservatism is on the rise everywhere. "Nationalism is mobilized in a strange way," says Pat. "Social media gives everyone a soapbox. It doesn't matter whether words have substance, only how many people are reading. Like Donald Trump, 'telling it like it is'. No, Trump: You're just being a child yelling your warped perspective. It's fucking scary how fast ignorant shit gets spread."

As the world becomes more extreme Carson's turned to fiction, hence JG Ballard, a writer he feels a deep affinity with. "It's like cleaning my brain. It helped after reading the news. In my fantasy world I can watch people in power suffer and be punished for their own hubris." The singer also sees a lot of himself in William Burroughs. "I feel like I'm going further away from what people want [from Merchandise]," he says. "It's terrible for the marketability of everything…"

At 9 PM that night, the Mojo record and bookstore in Tampa is rammed for their second instore. You might recognize its interior from bootleg videos of Merchandise's pre-signing performances. This is the place they'd play when they didn't have anywhere else. Dave sits down on the carpet and noodles a mind-boggling guitar solo for 13 minutes, like he's chilling in his front living room. Carson sits next to him, whooping like a coyote before they play a short set of songs old and new, including "Become What You Are" from 2012's Children Of Desire. The very first time they played this song live was within these four walls. "I'm my mother's son / I'm a rolling stone" run the lyrics, as Carson sings about feeling conflicted. There's the place he comes from and the place he's going to. Both scare him. Somehow this song made it out of here, catapulting them elsewhere as it went. It's been a weird journey so far. "I'll understand Merchandise once the band is over and we're thinking about our reunion tour," he jokes.

Before I go he notices the David Bowie pin badge on my lapel. "I cried," he says, of Bowie's passing. Lemmy's death too informed the "mourning vibes" on this record. Bowie's last studio album, Black Star, came out right before his death, and deals with his inevitable end, but nobody realized that it was about any of that until he died. "What an inspiration," says Carson. "He was living in the face of death, as opposed to dying. That's the way I wanna live. How could you give up?" He pauses. "All you can focus on is the next thing. This whole record is about death. All art is. But it might as well be a bunch of love songs."

A Corpse Wired for Sound​ is out now via 4AD.

Eve Barlow's favorite Merchandise memory is watching their Islington Assembly Hall gig in 2014 when Carson tried and failed to get the audience to sing Happy Birthday to his mother. You can follow her on Twitter.