BREAKING: An Interview With … Merchandise

Merchandise live
Photo: Hisa

Of all the shows self-titled saw this year, Merchandise’s Brooklyn debut a few months back was the one moment where we thought the buzz band before us would actually be playing a much larger room six months from now. Filling the crammed confines of St. Vitus from front to back, the sold-out set attracted a mix of the Tampa band’s past, present and future–the kids up front who clearly owned most of the trio’s scrappy, self-produced albums, cassettes and 7-inches; the recent converts who had at least heard 2012’s list-denting Desire LP; and the music industry execs who clearly viewed this event as their chance to court a band that could be misconstrued as a muddy yet melodic, pedal-pushing mix of the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Killers, and the Horrors ever since they discovered Can.

“We’re used to playing on a much smaller scale,” explains guitarist/keyboardist David Vassalotti. “In Tampa, if more than 30 people come to your show, it’s a big turnout. We’ll go on to play bigger stages next year and that’s fine with us, but we do prefer to play more interesting locales than the standard ‘rock club.’ We want to do a whole non-venue tour at some point down the line, playing fields and parks and open spaces like that with our own soundsystem, but that’s not really a possibility for us at this point.”

It may be soon enough, as Merchandise readies their next 12” for a spring release on Night People, represses Desire through a distro deal with Secretly Canadian, and readies themselves for the hype cycle to come.

“We’re very skeptical and hesitant in our dealings with the music industry,” says Vassalotti, “but we are thrilled to have so much support. We’re just trying to focus on making something permanent, something that lasts. Attention spans are short and ‘hype’ is fast and fickle.”

In the following lengthy interview–an exclusive timed to our Art Bassel party with them, The Band in Heaven, Lil Daggers and Teepee–Vassalotti discusses everything from the band’s humble beginnings in hardcore/ska bands to what we can expect from their next record…

Let’s start by talking about Tampa. Was the city’s punk/hardcore scene the one place where you felt truly at home as a kid?
Tampa’s not known for being a culturally “on the ball” place. Things tend to take a bit longer to make their way down here. The city has progressed substantially in the last few years, but it’s still not anywhere near where it could/should be. The punk/hardcore scene was definitely a sanctuary from the boring and prescribed nature of the city and suburbs we grew up in. It’s the only thing that made sense to us as young teenagers. That’s where the three of us met and we definitely wouldn’t be making music together today if we hadn’t grown up going to those DIY punk shows every week.

I grew up in Buffalo’s hardcore scene during the ‘90s, which was very centered around being vegan, straight-edge and other ideals that were almost militant in a way. And yet, I feel like many of the most hardcore straight-edge kids I knew ended up being drug addicts or dealers later in life. Did you see some of the same struggles in your scene, where people weren’t able to separate the music from the ideals hardcore and punk is supposed to represent?
I think it’s like that all over this country. Pretty much everyone in Tampa was straight-edge and vegan at one point and right now I’m having a real hard time trying to thing of a single person who still is. People align themselves with those movements at a pretty young and impressionable age. The older you get (at least from my experience), the clearer it becomes that punk isn’t what you thought it was as a 14 year old. It’s much more personal than that.
It can be frightening when you take away that group element and ultimately decide if the choices you made were for you or for something else. Some people handle it better than others. With the three of us, music was always the most important part of the subculture. We were straight-edge, we were vegan, etc., but ultimately we were musicians and that’s the reason we were a part of that group to begin with.

Considering what your music sounds like now, I assume you’ve always listened to a lot more than just hardcore and punk. What were some records that really blew your mind growing up and why?
I got into hardcore and punk at a pretty young age, so I heard a lot of things in a backwards way. Start with the obscure, end up with the more widely-recognized. The first stuff that really blew my mind after punk were Bob Dylan’s ’60s records and the Who’s Quadrophenia. (Both kinda punk in the grand scheme.) Those got me more interested in lyrics and composition on a grander scale. John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, Albert Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village and Swans’ Soundtracks for the Blind were crucial as well. Scott Walker’s discography. The Velvet Underground.

If you listen to punk or hardcore now, what do you find yourself gravitating towards? Old stuff? Local bands? Something in between?
Something in between. [Frontman] Carson [Cox] and I still play in a hardcore band called Church Whip. When I [listen] to punk and hardcore, it’s usually 1980’s Japan or England. We just saw Napalm Death play the other night and they’re still great. There’s a lot of good punk/hardcore happening today (Salvation, Hoax, Total Control, etc.); it just doesn’t often find its way down to [Tampa] often enough.

I assume you were all in lots of different bands during high school. What were a few of your more successful ones called? What did they sound like? More like what was popular at the time, punk/hardcore wise, or more of a throwback to stuff like Minor Threat?
We all played in numerous high school bands, none of them even close to being called successful. I wouldn’t even call Merchandise successful! I played in a hardcore punk band called Lawnmowers Gone Awry. We were fast and sloppy and had a penchant for doing lots of foreign punk covers (i.e. Raw Power, Terveet Kadet, Gauze). Carson and [bassist] Pat [Brady] both played in ska bands. We’re all nerds.

How and when did all of you meet in the first place? What were your first impressions of one another?
We all met at local punk shows in the city. The scene was pretty small, one of those “everyone knows everybody” situations. Carson recorded an old powerviolence band I played drums in back in 2004. Pat helped with sound. We bonded over mutual affection of things nobody else in our punk scene liked (the pop-punk band Fifteen, jazz records, foreign movies, etc.). Those were the seeds of the relationship as it stands today. We relate to each other on a level much deeper than just taste in music and art, but that was the catalyst for sure.

How would you describe everyone’s role in the band? And how have those roles changed over the past couple years and records?
Roles have shifted but the lineup really hasn’t. I used to be the drummer, Pat played bass, Carson did guitar and vocals. We disappeared and turned into a studio project. Then we surfaced as some weird Suicide/Erasure karaoke keyboard duo. Pat joined up again. I now play guitar and synths instead of drums. We’re going to add a live drummer back into the mix next year. Throughout it all, Carson has been the primary songwriter and producer. Pat and I build upon those skeletons and the songs eventually turn into what they are on the records. The songwriting process is becoming a lot more collaborative than it used to be. These roles will inevitably switch again.

You’ve been pretty prolific so far. Is that partially a product of where you live–having the ability financially to focus on your art rather than balancing it with far too much day job work?
I’d say so. Living in Tampa has helped us develop our music. There aren’t many distractions down here. There aren’t a whole lot of things to do and it’s terribly hot nine months out of the year. Plus, our rent is dirt cheap so we’ve gotten away with being able to work part-time jobs over the years and still be able to support ourselves. That isolation has been a boon.

While your earliest album, (Strange Songs) In the Dark, is a lot noisier than Children of Desire, I feel like the foundation of your sound was already there to some degree. Which makes me wonder: was your lo-fi direction in the beginning an aesthetic decision, or simply a matter of working within your means?
A bit of both. Everything we’ve released up to this point has been self-recorded in our house. We’ve never really had nice gear. We are capable of producing clean-sounding music; we’re just fond of blown-out and shitty sounding recordings. Our punk roots definitely informed the sound of Strange Songs. It’s the first “pop” record we ever made out of any of our previous bands. The noise helped bridge that gap between the past and present for us.

Consequently, how does your new material for Night People sound in comparison to Children of Desire? Is it still an EP? Or has it turned into more of a proper album?
Hard to say. It’s only five tracks but it feels like a proper album to me. We sound like we’ve aged 10 years between these two records. (In a good way, I’d like to think.) We still sound like the same band, but there are definitely a lot of new sounds going on and strange avenues being explored. I think it’ll get more of a polar reaction from people than Children of Desire, but it still has very catchy moments. We’re all proud of it and I think it’s the best record we’ve made to date.

Is the repressing of the record going to include the book that’s in the original pressing? That seems like an important part of what you’re trying to say with the album.
Yes, both the LP and CD versions will come with the book.

Is the author of that booklet meant to be a character that you’re channeling in the record? Or a semi-factual representation of what you’ve faced in your own lives? (I assume it’s the latter, as themes of desire, love and becoming an adult pop up throughout the last two records.)
The booklet was intended as a sort of alternate voice to the record, but the author of the book isn’t the author of the songs on Children of Desire. They both go through similar things but they are not the same voice. It’s just another way of looking at the themes expressed in the lyrics. We figured adding another medium to the mix would help make the whole finished piece that much more dynamic. I wrote the book around Carson’s lyrics. All of the lyrics pop up throughout the book–often hidden one word at a time, sequentially–and act as a guiding light, but they didn’t really dictate the outcomes and events of the narrative. Both the lyrics and the book are explorations informed by our personal lives, but aren’t meant to be dramatizations of ourselves. It’s intended to be much more universal than that.

Is the author of the book–“W. Marchendes”–a reference to this, or am I thinking a little TOO deeply here?
I like having fun with words. Märchen des is German for “tales of” which ends up being an appropriate name for this teller of tales, but that’s just a great coincidence. In reality, we were just stoned as hell and wanted to settle on a name that sounded like Merchandise.

Have you struggled with the kind of dreams, nightmares and scrambled memories that are detailed in the book?
Yes and no. Embellishments are abound.

Outside of Bob Dylan, what are some musical influences on Merchandise that most people wouldn’t pick up on simply by listening to your records?
There’s a lot of music we spin repeatedly that may not be apparent (yet) in the records we make. The Grateful Dead, Henry Purcell, James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, G.I.S.M., Merle Haggard, the list could go on…

Conversely, what are some major non-musical influences on Merchandise?
We’re big movie freaks and definitely try to incorporate some of those influences into what we do visually. Film/video artists like Kenneth Anger, Kurt Kren, and Toshio Matsumoto have visibly left their stamp on a lot of the music videos we’ve made. We just got a new camera so things will probably change drastically. We want to do bigger things. Antonioni scale!

The writing in Children of Desire makes me think you had a teacher or friend who really opened your mind up to things like philosophy. Is that a fair assumption, or were you exposed to those kind of things more by reading on your own?
We started on pretty solitary paths, forced into some sort of autodidactism due to Florida’s public schools being so shitty and having little-to-nothing to offer in terms of art education. The internet has been a huge tool. It’s better than any school. We do learn a lot from conversations with each other and with our other good friends, but (for me at least) those changing worldviews are explored most fully when I’m alone in my room or in a van in the middle of North Dakota.

You started Merchandise about five years ago right? How long did it take for you to feel like you had an idea of what you wanted to do with the band?
We started the band in early 2008 with the intention of being just a normal punk band like all the other ones we were in. We never expected it to become what it is today. We still don’t really know what to do with the band. We’re constantly changing and I don’t think any of us know what it’ll be in six months, let alone the ‘grand future.’ That’s the way we prefer it, though. If we could predict the whole thing, we’d just as soon not do it.

What were a few of your most memorable shows early on?
The shows that stick out most from the early days are the most dismal ones. Nobody ever wanted to see us play. Lots of evenings in empty rooms scattered with disinterested faces. I still think it’s strange when we get a good turn-out at shows!

I love how you’ve given your records away on the Merchandise site. People are so impatient these days, though, so if you could recommend three or four songs that encapsulate what you’re going for with Merchandise, what would they be and why?
To the impatient people: we’re probably not the band for you. We record the songs to be heard within the context of the record as a whole. We do make a lot of music videos though, typically for ‘singles,’ so I guess those would be the best for the casual listener curious in hearing what we do. All of our videos can be viewed here.

Since you’re currently based in Florida, far away from New York or L.A., do you find it hard to trust people who claim to love your music suddenly, whether it’s record execs, potential managers, producers or writers like us?
I don’t expect anyone to have liked us from the beginning. I could count those people on one hand. A lot of the people listening to us now are hearing us for the first time and I think that’s great. We don’t want to be exclusive. I’m sure some of the industry folk I’ve spoken with haven’t even heard the records, but I believe most of the people I hear from genuinely like the music.

What’s the most off-base assessment of your music that you’ve heard in the past couple months? (I assume there’s been many.)
I assume there have been many as well, but I try and tune out all the chatter. Music criticism is rarely constructive.

Are you still working on ( ) material, or are you focused solely on Merchandise right now?
Yeah, but I’ve ditched the parentheses moniker. I got way too many Sigur Ros questions, which was not what the name (or lack thereof) was in reference to at all. I decided to just go with D. Vassalotti in order to alleviate any confusion. I put out an LP late last year called Book of Ghosts on my buddy’s label Vinyl Rites. I have a follow-up LP written but haven’t had any time to record it. Carson’s going to produce that one, so it’ll sound a million times better than anything I’ve put out already. In the meantime, I have a full-length tape coming out on Night People entitled Live in Infinity, which should be out around the same time as the new Merch 12″.

What can we expect from you guys in the coming months/year? More material on several different labels? Some videos? A full tour?
It’ll be a busy one. The Night People record should be out in February. Many video projects in the works, some print ones too. We’re working out multiple tours which should cover most of the US and a good bit of Europe.

Stream/download all of Merchandise’s releases by clicking onto the next page…

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