The Florida five-piece made the most poetic guitar record of 2014 in a cultural wasteland. They show us how they created a new bohemia in America's corniest town
It's after dark in Tampa and the humid air is thick. By dim light, you can still make out the hovering green foliage that engulfs this part of Florida. The five men behind ever-morphing pop experiment, Merchandise, stand on the lawn of their humble two-story home, arranging Northern Light fireworks purchased from the grocery store nearby. Carson Cox, the crooning 28-year-old frontman with old-soul charm and razor-sharp wit, is keen on setting them all off at once. As musicians, writers, filmmakers and general eccentrics, it's not hard to believe these guys have fire in their bones, despite coming from a place where the proverbial incendiary match is not simply handed to you. "When we were young, we couldn't just pay for fun," Cox says, always with a tinge of drama in his voice. "So the way we did it was just raise hell—a classic story of restless youth."
The Merchandise origin myth points to Tampa hardcore circa 2006—a scene known for its lawless storage-unit gigs at the isolated Stor-Ette Business Park, and for shadowy shows inside tyre shops. But their punk was blown-out, mutated and eclectic, more spiritually in-line with the artier side of 1980s SST bands like Saccharine Trust or Sonic Youth. My favourite among them remains the miscreant noise-sculpting Neon Blud, in which Cox channeled a different voice, pummeling on drums. He has produced and home-recorded all four Merchandise albums, and back then he was the punk scene's de-facto engineer. His makeshift recording set-up was called Lady Godiva's Operation, after The Velvet Underground song. If punk served a foundation for Merchandise, then Tampa's impenetrable mid-2000s noise underground was their muse—notably the enigmatic Cephia's Treat label and avant-garde sound artist Russian Tsarlag, known for his sets inside shopping carts and on roller skates. These bands poured fake blood on themselves. They taped trash to their heads.
Today, Merchandise are home in Tampa between tours. They are hardly catching a breathe before flying to Europe, where they've traveled several times since 2012's Children of Desire. That record remains their master-work, a collection of noise-laden kraut-pop and industrial gloom over which Cox evocatively mused on identity, self-manifestation, and fierce individualism; its most epic track, "Become What You Are", drew its title from the 1960s zen philosopher Alan Watts. Children of Desire was so idea-drunk that the scrap-book journal where Cox catalogued his inspiration is literally breaking at the seams, held together with masking tape. The record was accompanied by a novella and dizzying video work—it was a total vision, and resulted in their signing to the iconic label 4AD. They have played to sold-out London crowds, to a sea of bodies at Primavera Sound, but for now their next stop is Estonia, and Cox is glad: "I feel kindred to people who live in disenfranchised places," he says.
The clichéd image of Tampa Bay may recall palm trees and beaches, but that is not where Merchandise reside. "None of these places are nice!" Cox warns of our impending city tour. "It's Tampa trash." With Nashville Skyline on the stereo, we drive down Nebraska Avenue, at night full of street-walkers, empty buildings, and sketchy hotels with hourly rates, all of which inspired the Merchandise industrial sprawler "Anxiety's Door". Our destination is Alpine Liquor, a shady-looking Tampa institution. Cox mentions Amscot, a local "legal loan shark" that offers dodgy pay-day advances. We pass strips malls and demolished strip malls. The only upcoming cultural event in evidence is the 12th annual Elvis tribute festival.
"I'm proud of the fact that we did this in a cultural wasteland, that we made something we think is intelligent in a place where they just don't want anything intelligent," Cox says. "America's pretty corny, but Tampa's super corny." He laughs, but the challenges are apparent. The Tampa Museum of Art recently received an $805,000 U.S. grant for economically distressed areas. Last year, Girls creator Lena Dunham tacked the city to the end of a joke decrying New York's rising cost of living: "We can't have our generation's Patti Smith moving to Tampa!" Little did she know that he might already be there.
Merchandise's bars of choice do not have PBR or Kombucha on tap – rather, we visit smoky, well-rooted establishments like The Legion, where at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday we appear to be the only patrons under 60. A virtual bowling game is underway nearby, and Cox is describing his plans to produce "a poetry cassette with lots of delay". Later that night we regroup at a downtown fixture called The Hub, a "true American cocktail lounge" with the heaviest pour in town and a reliable jukebox repertoire of 60s folk and soul. Out on the street, Cox gestures towards an office building: "This is the enemy," he declares, plainly.
“I'm proud of the fact that we did this in a cultural wasteland, that we made something we think is intelligent in a place where they just don't want anything intelligent” – Carson Cox
Cox calls himself and his peers "rednecks" and embraces a low sort of humour. But he's traced Dylan to Rimbaud and Patti to William Blake, a self-educated student of art movements and punk scenes, with a commanding presence. Merchandise's live shows channel the sax-punk energy of no wave experimentalists The Contortions through possessed, poetic pop—they are possibly the most New York-sounding band to emerge from Florida in history, and I'm not surprised to hear Cox describe how rebel-spirited visual artist Mike Kelley has recently been rewiring his brain. In the absence of a cohesive Tampa scene, Merchandise's comrades are scattered: Australia's Total Control, the Olympia-bred Gun Outfit and Milk Music, the Ascetic House circle in the Sonoran Desert. "I want to make music for the next fucking consciousness," Cox says. "Everyone recognises the change, but we don't have a word for it. We've found power in being nothing—there isn't a school worth being a part of. So I just say New Consciousness."
The new record, After the End, is their most radical and precise transformation. Cox calls it "the fucking drunken montage" of their discography, fusing colour, space and mystical words. "Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists," he says, quoting the late American artist Sol LeWitt from memory. "They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach." The gorgeous "Green Lady", for one, was inspired by a green lightbulb in Cox's bedroom as well as nature and Chartreuse. It's meant to be hallucinatory dream music, informed by Art Nouveau. "I wanted to talk about the sky and the grass—I feel like they all deserve music," Cox says. "For me, the only kind of adventure left was one without logic. So I went through an absinthe wormhole, and it led me to the Belle Époque and weird Armenian music and Charles Manson. Part of my problem with the information age is that it's too easy. Why is no one fucking up information? It's such a straight line to the answer. That's not interesting to me."
Discussion of After the End inevitably leads to Tony Conrad, Coltrane, the Band, and Can, the virtues of improv and the possibilities of Romanticism. The record deftly evolves the Merchandise aesthetic into the realm of hi-fidelity, while still functioning under the band's own set of standards regarding what constitutes "avant-garde" or "alternative" in 2014. "I don't think experimental necessarily means difficult," Cox says, qualifying the record's more formal pop-rock structures. "And at this point, it doesn't matter how angry or distorted you are; it becomes a mask, it doesn't really express anything." Instead, Merchandise have gone for sincerity: "Now, it's more about this deep-seated honesty—who can be the most honest in their music?" he says. "I can't just say, 'I am happy, I am depressed, I am smart, I am dumb,' the music has to prove it." (In a brief encounter with Cox's mother, an interior designer, I see where he perhaps gets his theatric conversational flair: "We're so close to the veil, and some people never see behind it. Where is the inspiration?" she says, describing the incessant search for artistic voice. "We are all creating magic.")
The Merchandise house is in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighbourhood—"the cultural center of youth and whatever the fuck," Cox says. "This is where everyone moved to because they wanted to feel like they're culturally important." In other words, it is on the cusp of gentrification, having recently spawned antique and vintage shops, a brewery and a boutique café. "This used to be bohemia, and now it's Williamsburg," Cox says, disdainfully. But Merchandise visibly live some version of a bohemian American dream. Their home feels like an endless multimedia installation—a dream factory revolving around the projection set-up Carson built himself. We watch 1930s Tom and Jerry cartoons—some in French—before skipping to the most psychedelic parts of 1988 sci-fi animation Gandahar, muting the sound and playing Louis Armstrong underneath. Cox enthusiastically shares music videos ranging from the wild French pop group Les Rita Mitsouko to Tim McGraw's baffling, Lil Wayne-referencing country anthem "Truck Yeah". He puts on the widely-hated 2006 film Idiocracy, calling it the "best satire of the past 20 years" and referencing Jean Cocteau in its defense. Perhaps you have gathered that in Tampa the perpetual state of affairs is stoned.
“If I had to rely on the world for my entertainment, it'd be really bleak” – Carson Cox
A stream of free jazz, Eastern chanting, and opera flows from guitarist David Vassalotti's room, in conversation with the techno beats thumping from drummer Elsner Nino's side. The house is filled with incense smoke and the warm radiance of clamp lights—everything looks second-hand, from the misplaced chandelier to the library, which spans a whole wall: Essential Art House, Duchamp, Italian cinema, Bukowski, Beats, Greek tragedies, Surrealism, Dada. It looks like a journey inside the brain of almost every classic post-punk band. And like the self-cultivated intellectual firebrands of that era, Merchandise feel exciting to follow because their narrative offers not just a world of records ripe for exploration (try Vassalotti's 2011 Book of Ghosts next) but also a voracious set of creative principles for living. On the coffee table are an array of fashion magazines, which Cox considers to be more in touch with the history of American cinema than film itself. At night, while they sleep, the room fills with the Eno-produced ambience of Harold Budd's 1978 Pavilion of Dreams.
I get a crash-course down the rabbit hole of the collective Merchandise imagination. There's a series of homespun Merch House films made on green screen, including the Psychic TV-inspired short Buddy's Hott Xmas, in which Vassalotti plays the piano with his nose and Cox's monster drawings hover about. We sift through a suitcase of punk zines and explore the cluttered walk-in closet in Cox's bedroom, where Merchandise recorded After the End. The space is like a tiny Tampa underground gallery, walls covered in Xerox-ed show flyers and stacked with tapes. Merchandise have been archivists, amassing artifacts as they've lived the Tampa chapter in some future sequel to U.S. indie bible Our Band Could Be Your Life. "I feel like we're creating our own society within this one," Cox says. "It's important for us to make our own movies, make our own music, make our own food, do everything ourselves." He pauses. "If I had to rely on the world for my entertainment, it'd be really bleak."
After the End is out on August 25