Last night Merchandise played to their largest crowd yet, on Primavera Sound’s modest ATP Stage, as the second band on. It was, they will tell me, not a means to an end, but the end itself.
They have no more planned for wider success than they have expected it, forged in the DIY punk scene of Tampa, Florida, where each member grew up playing in little known noise and hardcore bands Cult Ritual, Neon Blud, Divisions and Church Whip. In 2009 they changed tack and released their self-titled debut album. Inspired by Royal Trux and Throbbing Gristle, Merchandise left the world of hardcore behind as they embraced gothic anti-pop melodies, tracks that bothered the 8-minute mark and nods to mid-80s British mope rock. It was a treacherous move in the eyes of many punks. Singer Carson Cox even abandoned straight-edge for his new project.
Since then, the band have batted away sneers from purists as they’ve honed their swooning songs over a further three albums and a handful of tour tapes and singles. You can download them all, bar this year’s ‘Totale Nite’ LP, via the band’s tumblr, free of charge; another denouncement of hardcore punk’s righteous way of distributing music in physical form only.
Today, Merchandise sound more like Morrissey than Minutemen, which is perhaps why they’ve found more fans in the UK than anywhere else. It’s where a vast majority of label interest is coming from, too, but do the band really need to sign a deal having gotten this far alone? What would that mean for giving away their music? And just how smug do Carson Cox, David Vassalotti, Patrick Brady and Elsner Nino feel to be getting their just desserts?
We meet in the lobby of the hotel that both the band and I are staying in, where Merchandise, enthusiastic and humble, frequently laugh at the absurdity of being such a hot topic in certain parts of the indie world.
So it seems like 2013 is going extremely well for Merchandise.
Carson Cox [vocals]: “Ha ha. Well that’s because you’re from England, and you understand that it’s like living in a bubble, yeah? It’s like living in Brooklyn. It’s not how you think it is. It’s been a good year, but I would say it’s a little skewed in England. I mean, we still don’t have a record label. We put out our new record on Nite People, but in the eyes of the music industry that’s not a label – obviously we honour it and they’re our best friends, and I’d say it is the American underdog label, but no, we don’t have any real presence from the label side, or even press, really.”
“In fact, I feel like in America, magazines don’t really want to write about us because we don’t really have the infrastructure available – we don’t have the conveyor-belt thing, and it’s life-affirming because so much of music is bogged down in, like, ‘I won’t write about it unless I get an email from this person’. People in the UK are more like, ‘well, I heard the record and I liked it, so let’s write about it.’ But that really is not that common.”
David Vassalotti [guitar]: “Magazines never write about us. SPIN only talk shit about us now.”
Cox: “They gave us ‘Worst New Music’, but from the same record they gave us ‘Best New Track’.”
Patrick Brady [bass]: “They thought three songs of the five were great, but the other two were clearly totally offensive to them. But they hired someone from outside, and when you go through the review this guy’s is obviously more angry at us as people than he is at our music.”
Vassalotti: “They referred to Pat as the minority shareholder of the band.”
Elsner Nino [drums]: “Hey! What does that make me?”
Brady: “He didn’t even know you were in the band.”
Last week you played your first UK show, at London’s 100 Club. How was it?
Cox: “It was crazy for us because it was our first gig in Europe, and it’s fucking London! We’ve been trying to do that for so long and it felt like it was something that would never happen.”
I heard it was full of record label A&Rs seeing what all the fuss is about. Has that attention changed the feel of your shows?
Vassalotti: “Well, we’ve been talking to a lot of [label] people, especially from the UK, so they’ve become friends, and most of them aren’t standing at the back on their phones, they’re down the front dancing.”
Cox: “And it’s interesting, because even with indie music becoming this massive fucking thing – and it really is fucking massive – it’s amazing to find out how many music fans are still in it and it’s not just cold industry people. Like, there are still a lot of real people in it, almost more than in DIY punk music right now. I don’t know why it is, but it’s almost as if there’s an opportunity to reinvent something now, and that’s attracted a lot of bizarre people.”
How has mainland Europe responded to Merchandise?
Vassalotti: “This festival is, in a lot of ways, a barometer for the rest of Europe, and that was probably the biggest crowd we’ve ever played to, last night. I think there’s a lot of people hearing stuff for the first time here, and people being open to new things, which doesn’t happen so much back home.”
Brady: “Back home, if you’ve not been told that this thing is great by at least 10 people, well, why waste my precious free time checking it out?”
You mentioned how massive indie music has become now – do you feel that that has given your punk critics even more ammunition since you moved away from hardcore?
Cox: “Totally. There’s a massive backlash against indie music now, because it’s become so big. People think it’s not cool enough anymore, or not edgy, or they talk about it not being ‘punk enough’, which is the funniest one. It’s so stupid to me, but basically a lot of hardcore punks don’t want anyone to do something more interesting or new – they’re afraid of something new, so they judge it immediately.”
Does it feel like they’re missing the first rule of punk – to do what you want?
Cox: “Yeah, but I expect to always get the backlash because we’re not playing punk anymore…”
Vassalotti: “… but it’s not been as bad as I thought it would be. There were tons of punks at our show last night.”
Cox: “It’s just going to get stranger. We’re coming back in August and I don’t know how that’s going to be. I assume it will be totally different. It has to move on. When we recorded our demo it wasn’t like we had any support from punks. No one liked it. History might paint it like we’ve always been supported by this small community, but the reality is that when we put out this demo most of them were thrown in the trash, even when I gave them out for free to friends. It’s not like the spirit of punk protects you all the way up to your first RedBull show and then it goes away – it’s not how it exists.”
What made you quit hardcore?
Cox: “You mean, was there a time that we decided to get funky? Ha! No, there wasn’t any one thing that made us change the music we were playing. I really didn’t think anyone would like the second LP [‘Strange Songs (In The Dark)’] we did. I just thought there was no way. But in a lot of ways we’ve never stopped, and we’ve got other recording projects but the press isn’t going to cover those bands, because there isn’t an audience for it. The audience for it already has the records.”
Now that you’re getting all of this interest from labels, is it not a little too late? I mean, you’ve made it this far alone now. Haven’t you proved you don’t need a label?
Cox: “It’s really obvious that there’s been a huge paradigm shift, and the power is back with the musician, but not everyone has embraced that. Like, there’s still a lot of people who feel that we have to cater to something, be it the press or a manager or the clubs, and that doesn’t fucking matter. If anything we’re proof of that right now. But again, the UK and Europe have just been way more excited about a band like us. We have a bit of that pull in the States but not like here, and it’s because it’s entertainment in the United States, it’s not art, and there’s something to be said for entertainment too, but no one can make things up or improvise or play different versions of their songs live, and that’s all we do. If you interviewed us in Mississippi it’d be totally different – it’d be good for you to see. The South is a lot like England, y’know, they say ‘reckon’ a lot, the mud, the bad teeth thing is a myth, though. Your teeth are great… what was the question?”
Vassalotti: “Record labels.”
Cox: “Yeah, they’re great.”
Will you sign to one?
Cox: “Maybe. I do wish that people would just believe in what they’re doing. That’s what’s kept us in underground music for so long. Blind faith, operating in total darkness with complete faith in what you’re doing.”
So is endurance a key to success? I’ve loved some bands who’ve called it a day after a record, presumably because they weren’t instantly successful enough.
Cox: “What kind of life is that? I mean, imagine being someone who’s like, ‘I’ve done music for five years, and I think I’m done with it now, I’m going to become an accountant.’ It’s not like music is something you should do just to make money or make a career out of.”
Brady: “The most important bit is that you get a life. It’s not like Primavera is a means to an end. This is the end! It’s not like this is our showcase to get to the next level, where we get to open for Eminem or whatever – this is the reward. Why don’t people think that getting to play is the reward?”
Cox: “I think it’s because everyone learned a different way. For us, we learned how to tour on nothing, not even with gear or having records to sell at shows, so for us, getting to do this is insane.”
Do you plan to always give your records away on your site?
Cox: “I want to keep doing it, but I don’t know because the bigger things get it is harder to do, but part of me thinks we should keep doing it but incognito, like make a fake Russian website and put all of our records on it, with some other shit. I got into so much music because of file sharing, y’know. I had Napster when it came out; that’s how I heard Crass and The Dead Kennedys when I was twelve or whatever. I believe music should be free because that’s how I got into music. It would be hilarious if we made some kind of statement about how we don’t want people to download our music, because that’s all I’ve done.”
Like your change in sound, that’s a move away from punk too. So many bands reject the Internet and only release on vinyl.
Cox: “But vinyl has become less and less punk. There was a Dave Matthews Band boxset released for Record Store Day that was like $700 and was going on Ebay for twice that. It’s like, ‘how did you manage to ruin this in like 4 years or whatever?’. The vinyl comeback was so short. But I think music should be free. I mean, I hope people who dig our records, or ‘fans’, I guess – I’ve never really said ‘our fans’ before, because that sounds weird to me – I hope they get into it and then buy the records too, like I do. And I would hope that if we can’t keep up giving away our music, all of our friends will, because that’s important.”
It must feel pretty good to have this success on your own after all this time?
Cox: “I’d say yes and no, because we really have been playing on blind faith. There was no great revenge plan on the world of music. Sometimes it feels that way, but no. We wanted a life playing music, the thing we didn’t plan was other people catching onto it. We just wanted to play, and now we’ve got to this point where we’ve been fetishized by some places. But I don’t have it in my heart to feel like we’ve got what we deserve, and I don’t care if we’ve converted anyone. This just happens to be a very fruitful time.”