“I’m writing music in the same way and at least my comfort zone is still preserved,” Merchandise’s vocalist Carson Cox tells me over the phone. “My creative comfort zone is literally the fucking same, the way we’re producing records is still the same, and so what if a new audience wants to hear it, as long as I’m inviting them to my world and I’m not going to there’s. I think that’s important.”
Merchandise has been the source of much speculation in recent years, as fans and critics alike followed the band’s trajectory from underground scenes into more mainstream music circles. They’ve become a band known for its fluidity of movement, drastically changing in both sound and value systems as they’ve jumped from one record to the next. Carson has never been one to hide his disillusionment with his punk past. He’s candid about his changing politics, proud to have abandoned the ideologies that stymied his artistic expression for broader audiences and new possibilities.
With the release of their third full-length After the End on 4AD, the band makes a definitive statement about the direction they’re headed. They’ve risen to meet their first major label release with an aesthetic that’s both clean and accessible, shedding the confines of noise and new wave posturing for a more straightforward sound best described as mainstream rock.
Even so, they did it all on their own terms, managing to strike an unusual balance between professional production and DIY self-sufficiency. The record was recorded over the course of six months in the band’s Tampa Bay home before being sent over to the UK for postproduction. There are certain lines the band refuses to cross, unwilling to fully surrender themselves to industry constructs even as they disavow their allegiance to any of the philosophies that may have typified the band in earlier years. The following conversation reads like stream of consciousness at times, an internal dialogue that struggles to differentiate between past and present as the band negotiates its emerging identity, deciding what exactly to carry with forward and what to leave behind.
Can you start by telling me a little about the new record?
So far we’ve been receiving some various hate mail and some random funny things because of the weird perception of the world and of me by people in my hometown. We spent six months recording it, deliberately trying not to make a concept record and ended up making maybe the biggest concept record we’ve ever done.
I wanted to make a very classic pop rock record. I don’t know where it stands in terms of what I wanted it to be and what it ended up being but every time I listen it sounds like something different. It’s like six months of blood, sweat, and tears put into 40 minutes.
What was it like working with Gareth Jones on the record?
It was sick! He’s a genius and he’s got a great ear. Beyond his celebrity, he’s just a badass, hardworking, mixing engineer. Working in professional music world stuff is really difficult because you never know how you’re going to hit it off with people, but with Gareth there was this instant rapport. Beyond music we talked a lot about art and sculpture, where he grew up, where I grew up. He’s the kind of person I just didn’t want to stop talking to. I would Skype him and the conversations would just go for hours and hours.
He made it less stressful, which was important because this is definitely the most stressful thing we’ve done. Before we would put out a record and no one gave a shit about us, no one knew who we are, there was no pressure. If it was a failure it didn’t fucking matter because we were just ghosts and didn’t exist.
Did you record it in your house like the previous records?
Yeah in my closet. It’s really funny because I sent it to a bunch of old friends and they were like, “Oh, so you recorded this in a studio?” It’s just the London mix, recorded in Tampa Bay, mixed in London and then mastered at Abbey Road so it sounds huge. For the amount of studio time that we took it’s kind of insane. I can’t imagine making music in another way honestly.
Like booking time at a studio…
Yeah, unless it was with a symphony or something. If it was something where I just couldn’t fit it in my closet. For the next record I thought about maybe getting an engineer to do the drums because they’re the most challenging part. Everything else you can sort of just fake, but the drums are really tough because if you don’t capture them it’s not going to have the same energy that it needs. That’s the biggest thing Gareth gave to the record, he gave it a ton of energy. The music sounded okay but then Gareth put it together and it was just like… explosive.
Do you think it changed the process a lot for you guys? Just to have an outside voice weighing in?
Yeah everything about this record was different except for the fact that I wrote the songs with Dave [Vassalotti] and produced it. So that was normal but all the external portions were different. The lineup changes changed a lot. The studio was different too. The studio that I did the first three records in was really, really shitty. The gear that I was using was totally fucked. When it comes to recording music, I literally learned the opposite of how to do everything. I did it all wrong, fucked it up and then pressed it and showed it to everyone so they could tell me that I did everything wrong.
That’s pretty much been the history of my life as a musician. So I feel like with the amount of mistakes that we’ve made, we’ve learned a lot from them. We didn’t build a huge studio but we sort of rebuilt the most minimal version of the best studio we’ve ever had.
We can never be happy. We have to be making sad music or destroyed music or music about mental anguish.
But now I’m ready to just do something totally different. I want to write something that’s more fun, that’s less obsessively introspective. We tried to do that with this record, we tried to have fun but ultimately we just have to be sad. We can never be happy. We have to be making sad music or destroyed music or music about mental anguish.
Why do you think that is?
Because we’re all fucking weirdos, I don’t really know. None of us want to be a part of anything, we just want to be creative and express ourselves. We come from a really warped place. Art is the reflection of the soul, the music we’re making is the reflection of the soul, but most of the time I don’t know how I feel until I finish making the record. And then you move on.
I think maybe our world is so vast and it’s really frustrating because we want to explore and go to all these places and come to new understandings about music and all these things and redefine them all for ourselves. But the rest of the world doesn’t want to do that. The rest of the world wants to eat McDonalds and do whatever the fuck they do, go fuck around.
We live in this music world now where everyone wants to be like, “Tell me what you feel in 30 seconds. Explain yourself in 30 seconds…” But we cant really do that, we’re still very, very, very alien to it, I think. And I think maybe that’s some of the public fascination, like “Why the fuck do you guys do what you do?” I don’t really know if there’s an answer, I just want to get further and further into my own trip really.
Do you still feel like outsiders within the music industry even as you’re sort of being thrown into that world?
I don’t know if it’s for me to say. It’s kind of impossible to make that assumption yourself. I can say we’re definitely not treated like we’re insiders all the time. There is a huge percentage of people who don’t know who we are, who don’t care to know who we are. So I think that’s had a big effect. That kind of keeps you an alien for a long time. But I don’t know.
Honestly if we are just totally part of the music industry, I’m almost fine with it at this point just because I don’t really want to be a part of anything. There’s not a jet set that I want to be a part of. So if they want us, whatever. That’s fine. When I was younger I think I thought of things in really extremely militant simplified terms. I guess I don’t really see the world as the same black and white sort of universe.
I think it’s interesting to reflect as you get older, because a lot of times you kind of become the people that you hated when you were younger…
Yeah. I’m the indie rock nightmare I never wanted to be. It’s funny because life puts so many priorities in perspective. You grow up and you have friendships and you fall in love, you have family and then over the course of time you fall out of love, you break up with those friends and people around you that are close to you either leave you forever for some other life or they end up passing. I think a lot of experiences that I’ve had like that have put a lot of things in perspective. If I have an opportunity to do something I’m just going to do it now because I feel like, “Why not?”
So you do still draw certain distinctions there?
Yeah, to me I really feel like we operate within our universe. I really don’t give a fuck about working with advertisers or anywhere in the commercial world because I feel like the identity of the music is what it is, it can’t really be taken away from an advertiser or whatever. But now I’m older and I just don’t really feel anymore. I feel like my heart has grown totally cold towards politics. When I was young I spent all my energy and all my time trying to change the world and realized the lazy fuckers that make up the world aren’t worth saving. I don’t feel like my generation is really worth a damn.
I felt like the whole point of me preserving and making this righteous music was so silly because the things I thought were important about it were just being ignored. I spent so long really feeling like I was going to change the world and just got to the point where it’s like, “It’s not worth saving. The people in it aren’t worth saving. Why am I being so righteous? Why do I give a fuck about saving anything?” Maybe that’s just what happens when you grow older and start to feel jaded. I was like, “Well I’m not going to ignore how I feel. I’m just going to do whatever I want to do.”
Ultimately I was listening to loads of mid-70’s art records that were made on Columbia and RCA. Like Serge Gainsbourg, Scott Walker, Bowie, and listening to musicians that don’t really give a shit. They were freaks and they became these people that were associated with subculture and counterculture or whatever, but they were all totally commercial products. I felt like I identified more with that than anything else. They were all total studio concepts.
It was the one thing that I feel like I hadn’t really tried yet. We haven’t tried making high-fidelity records or big records. We could make another record that’s a lo-fi DIY punk rock record or whatever record, pop record, but we’ve done that. This would be our fourth album if we did that. Plus countless tapes, 7-inches, videos, we’ve done it to fucking death. At the end of the day, it really feels like trying to make something deliberately fucked up sounding is more fake than making something deliberately nice sounding.
Does it feel like you’ve been able to maintain your fan base as the band has developed and changed? Or does it feel like you’ve established an entirely new one?
I don’t know. Because every time we put out an LP we break with the old idea. It’s not like we ever put out one idea, we’ve always put out a ton of ideas—maybe to the detriment of our own band. It might be easier if we were just like, “Here’s the same song again!” A couple years later, “It’s the same song!” I feel like there are plenty of bands that do that and it works great for them. I don’t know how it feels to play the same thing over and over again. But this project has been literally the exploration of my mind. I think it always breaks with what came before.
I think that if you want to keep your audience you kind of have to change, if you want to keep a smart audience anyway. I’m sure the McDonalds eating audience wants whatever the fuck they want. They just want the same hook. The same kind of nauseous experience you get from listening to the radio. It’s just constantly the same thing over and over.
What has the experience been like for you guys at home? Have things changed a lot as the band has become more successful?
Well like I said before, we received a lot of hate mail this week. Really I think it’s funny because at home we’ve got a lot of opposition. I feel like in the rest of the world music press and journalism is a normal thing. You’re doing a record you do press for it. But to the people in Tampa Bay that hate us, they think it’s magic, that we’ve deceived the world into liking our band and that now we’re going to use our opportunity to punish them. Which on paper is the coolest thing we could do. It sucks because I’m really proud of where I’m from, I’m proud of my family, I’m proud of my friends because we all come from the same place. I’m proud that we were able to rise above how shitty the commodified idea of local music was here.
The only reason we did anything is because we left the music scene. And all our friends nationally like the Parquet Courts guys, Destruction Unit, Milk Music, Total Control in Australia, Lower in Copenhagen, the Ice Age kids. It appears that we have our own scene now, but really what it was four years ago, five years ago, everyone was like, “You know I don’t want to be a part of whatever the fuck is going on, lets start our own idea.” And then all those people met. I feel like there’s the appearance of a scene but really it was all these people that left the idea of a scene, the notions of a scene. That’s why the music is all over the place and so fucking vivid. There are all these bands that left the idea of music scenes to start not their own scene but just to play music.
Has touring changed a lot for you guys since then? Moving more towards a festival circuit as opposed to playing basements and punk houses.
It’s like apples to oranges. It’s so different that you can’t say one is better than the other. Because when we were playing basements and bathrooms—or wherever else—it was definitely going to sound bad and you would never hear the vocals. So we would go on tour never hear my vocals, I wouldn’t hear my vocals for like two weeks and my voice would be dead from screaming. The old shows were fun but if the chemistry wasn’t right they were totally humiliating.
Now we play these big venues and even when it’s harder to connect to the audience sometimes it’s way better because it sounds so much better. We played a couple shows on this last tour where we were playing punk spaces. There was no point plugging in my acoustic guitar, so I just sang. We’ll still do that if we’re playing a space that’s not going to support the new ideas of the band—which is really what I want to do. I really want to be playing the new songs and talking about all the new ideas. Before the idea was like, “We’ll just do this crazy raw shit and just go insane.” But it’s not like that now. We want to compose these ideas and try to sound good because the way to win an audience is not by playing loud and crazy and showing them how crazy you are. The way to win an audience is to groove them. In a big room it’s not about speed, it’s about groove.
That can only work in a small space. It only works when the audience is right next to you. You’re playing these punk spaces that people think are very sacred things—and they can be and they are. But it’s funny because my experience has been screaming at people and they’re just standing with folded arms. Then after the show they buy two records and sell one of them on Ebay. So it’s just like, “How crazy are you? Why do you crave this intense shit when you’re just going to stand there and do nothing and then flip the record on Ebay?”
It’s easy to find people who want to spend money in punk rock. They want to buy shirts and patches and records. They love capitalism. They’re capitalists through and through.
I’ve met plenty of people that are part of straight normal indie culture that are way more extreme than them because they have no politics, they have no identity. The identity that they had was a mask. I feel like I meet people in the street who don’t even like music who are crazier, who are wild. And that’s what I want, that’s the audience that I feel like I’m trying to find. It’s weird. It’s easy to find people who want to spend money in punk rock. They want to buy shirts and patches and records. They love capitalism. They’re capitalists through and through. And then you’ll meet these other people who have no politics and they’re just the total opposite. They’re way more extreme than the punk rockers. That is the post-modern punk rocker, literally their parents, before they’re even old, they’re boring yuppies.
Do you feel like doing records with a major label like 4AD is succumbing to that same capitalist world in a way?
I don’t know. I don’t care. I honestly don’t have any politics. People can think I’m a horrible person. I just don’t care. Even if I try to explain myself, whether it’s through media or whether it’s through my music, it’s like still it doesn’t really fucking matter. At some point it’s like there is no way to impart ideas and philosophy and politics.
At this point I have a total free open relationship with capitalism, I’m a willful participant. I have no problem with it really because I have no reason not to be. I don’t necessarily identify with capitalism because I think it’s destroying this country. But I think it’s weird because the indie world is so vilified and underground punk rock but they really don’t realize how similar it is to the rest of everything else.
We’re a totally normal band and we work with totally normal people. I would say that I feel way more freedom to express myself and I don’t feel like I’m being censored. I feel like in the punk world I was censored a lot because my art went against whatever people thought. But with 4AD I don’t feel censored. I feel like I can say whatever I want. Our record has great distribution and it sounds good.
4AD doesn’t give a fuck about how people perceive them. They’re responsible to the artists that they put out and that’s it. To me, that’s not something that’s really well accepted in underground alternative culture right now. It’s a very censored place, at least in my experience I feel like I’ve been censored a lot. It was like, “If you’re not this then we’re against you. If you don’t have these set of rules and this diet, if you don’t record in this way, if your record sounds good we’re against you.” Whereas the world that we’re in now is sort of like, “Do whatever you want. Why should we tell you what to do? You know what to do, don’t you? Don’t you have ideas?” It’s like, “Yes, yes I do.” Now I actually get to do whatever I want.
Merchandise’s After The End is out now on 4AD.