Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Become What You Are: An Interview with Merchandise

The members of Merchandise could care less about image. That came out deeply during the interview, but it became sort of obvious after just a few seconds of chatting with them. Despite making gorgeously romantic and gothic indie-rock, everyone in the band had a deep sense of humor and were more concerned with being able to make music than anything else. We talked about that at length, as well as the nature of press, how the DIY scene has devolved into posturing more than music, and what it’s like being part of the bigger indie world by following Sonic Youth’s example.

The Creative Intersection: You recently added a drummer, after using a drum machine for a while, and I just saw you play with a saxophonist (merch guy Chris Horn). Has this changed the dynamics of how the band plays, and how you make music now?

Carson Cox: We don’t know yet. (Band laughs) We’ve done it for about two weeks. And yeah, but everyday changes the dynamic of making music. It kind of has nothing to do with adding another instrument, is like how you feel when you wake up.

TCI: Merchandise, with this, has sort of cohesied into a proper band to a certain degree. Is that at all strange for you? When you started the project, it was just supposed to be a one off cassette like you once said.

Dave Vassalotti: We actually started as real band like five years ago. I used to play drums and he (Cox) did guitar, and Pat played bass. So it’s kind of has come full circle from what it originally was, but it’s gone through a couple detours.

TCI: You (Cox) make solo music under Blonde God, and you (Vassalotti) have released solo music under () and you just released your cassette on Night People too. And when you started Merchandise, you were also in Neon Blud as well, they conceited at the same time. How do you when you want to make music that will be through Merchandise, and when it will be channeled through other bands?

CC: I don’t know. Everything gets demoed. And when I demo it one of the muses will speak, and when the muse speaks that’s where it goes. There’s a different muse for Merchandise, there’s a different muse for Blonde God, there’s a different muse for Neon Blud, there’s a different muse for all the videos and all the video work that we do. They all work in a different way and they’re all their own fucking…temptress and goddess.

TCI: Do you feel the same way?

DV: Yeah, I think so. Usually things kind of just work themselves out; each project that we do has its own director I guess, and that makes it easier to focus certain things towards one project or another project. Usually it just depends on where the momentum is at any given time. Like right now everything’s pretty much going to Merchandise because we’re so busy with it and it has taken over our lives. It’s very awesome.

TCI: You mention your music videos. You’ve released a lot of them…

CC: Yeah, almost twenty!

TCI: Yeah. What inspired you to do that because a band in your position usually doesn’t create music videos…

CC: Is there another way to do it?

TCI: Well, sort of. I mean, bands do it to coincide with the press, but that doesn’t seem like your reason for doing it.

CC: Well…press is funny because it’s kind of self-inflated and it’s not real in a way. So when you’re making something, in my opinion, you make it to make it, you make it to make the object. So the reason we made the videos is because we desired the object to exist. And to me it really doesn’t have anything to do with the promotion; it has to do with the fun of creating something or making something. It’s really a simple thing; we really just like to make videos. We like to have total control, we like to everything ourselves.

TCI: Do you come from a video background? What inspired you to pick up the camera?

CC: I don’t know man. We basically used cellphone video quality for a long time, and we just started toying around with better technology. And it’s exciting because the new stuff is richer I would say. But…it doesn’t really have anything to do with having a background…I didn’t have a background in music when I picked up a guitar. I mean everything I do I didn’t really have a background in. My grandfather gave me piano lessons when I was seven or something, but I wouldn’t say I have a background in music. I just wanted to do it.

TCI: You have a background in singing though.

CC: I do. But that’s just because of how my family was. But saying you have a background in it is kind of funny because my mother was not a professional singer. She sang in the choir in church, but that doesn’t make her a professional. And she didn’t have a background in that either, she just knew a bunch of songs from watching movies growing up.

TCI: And she taught them to you?

CC: Yeah. I would say every family is like that. I would say everyone in the band has a different...what songs did your parents sing growing up Elsnor? Do you remember?

Elsner Nino: Like a lot of Spanish ballads. A lot of romantic music. That’s what my mother sang to me. Not to me directly, but…

CC: Yeah, in a way even if it’s not traditional music, when it’s song it becomes traditional. “Erving Berlin” isn’t really traditional music, but Cole Porter, that was traditional in my family. It was something that we just knew.

TCI: You process it in some way.

CC: I mean, you don’t have a choice really. So if you want to make something honestly, you don’t really have a choice in the matter. You just have to do it.

TCI: In the past few months, you’ve gotten more “mainstream” indie attention then you have ever in the time you’ve been in bands…

CC: And we’re not even paying for it either

TCI: You got a PR person.

Patrick Brady: He’s our buddy though. He’s one of our best friends.

TCI: Oh, that explains a lot.

PB: He works us for free because he’s passionate about the music we make.

CC: (Laughing) People have a misconception we’ve hired out this team or something when in reality …

PB: It’s people that we’ve met over the years doing everything else we’re doing.

CC: People that have come from a similar background that have come to just like “I feel like we can help you”. And they do.

PB: Because they want to.

CC: But that is not…that is very rare in the music industry. The only reason I feel they are doing it is because there’s been enough people who believe in the fucking hilarious experiment we’ve been doing for like years now. (Laughing) A good hint for a lot of bands is if you want to get press, if you just make up a fake email account and say “I’m Frank Grimes at Grimmy Press and I manage the Cheesewheelies and also the Crankles. We were hoping they could get into your magazine”. And if you make it look inflated enough you can really do whatever you want. You’d be surprised how far it will go because the problem right now is the music industry is kind of grabing for anything they can get. It really doesn’t have anything to do with how good bands are, it just has to do with…

TCI: If they can get the right PR people.

CC: Yeah. It’s not even the right PR people; you can fake the right PR person. You can pretend. I wouldn’t say every year is like that, but I would say for the next two years bands can have a free-for-all and you can totally just pretend to be somebody else. Pretend to be a manager. I know a lot of friends who did that. I think it’s good because a lot of people won’t even listen to you unless you have a manager or whatever. But I don’t know, that doesn’t really matter. Again, you can fake everything; t has nothing to do with what’s real and what’s not. You can even play bad shows, it doesn’t really matter. It just has to have the appearance of something that’s together, but it doesn’t really have to be together.

TCI: Yeah I was wondering your feelings on being part of this now because for the longest time you sort of kept [mainstream indie] at arm’s length to certain degree. So what’s it like being accepted by it to a certain degree?

CC: A big reason was so that we could tour the world and go to other countries. We have a lot of supporters in South American and Western Europe and Eastern Europe. Asia. We have people who buy records in Australia. And a big way to get to them was to do press, so that was sort of the biggest reason why we started to accept that. We had people asking us to do stuff for a long time; we just kind of ignored it because we really didn’t feel like it was important. It seemed more important to make records. I still stand by that decision. I still think that making good records is more important than press or anything else really. You can kind of ignore everybody, and so long as the record is good it doesn’t really matter. At some point it will catch on; they just have to resonate. They have to be what you want to do.

TCI: Right because you made stuff with Cult Ritual for a long time and that was in its own world, but it popular really quickly.

DV: It still is popular. I would say at every show there’s always someone who’s asking…I mean you knew the bands.

TCI: Yeah, I was a big Neon Blud fan, that’s how I got into you guys.

DV: Yeah, I would say all the projects are connected; they still are. Merchandise and Cult Ritual played shows together all the time.

PB: Yeah we played show together…it must have been 2007, 2008. We did a tour together, a really brief Southern tour together. But when we played Tampa, we would always play with Cult Ritual.

TCI: You’ve also talked about falling out of the DIY scene you were a part of, and people getting upset about how you’ve grown sort of and people paying more attention to you…

CC: And it’s not just that, it’s also the fucking egos that are growing in DIY music. (Chuckling) Honestly, I feel it’s kind of more humble in indie music then it is in DIY in a lot of ways.

TCI: Well what’s the difference between the two because a lot of people would conflate both the words?

CC: They definitely don’t. DIY is just…there’s a good chance if you go to a DIY show, it’s not a bar. Basically DIY for us was everything stripped down except for music. The only thing at the shows was music, and it had nothing to do with the sort of circus that goes around with shows and obviously there wouldn’t be sponsors. They probably didn’t sell booze. If they did it was homebrewed. Or they sold hash or drugs and didn’t sell anything else. I played shows where everyone was sober and nobody sold drugs. You weren’t even allowed to take drugs. I played shows where you weren’t even allowed to drink milk or eat pizza because there’s animal products in the food you are eating. The spectrums was huge, and DIY stood for “Do It Yourself”, but it has kind of transcended into do it without everything else. Because you can book a show at a bar, but that’s not really a DIY show.

EN: DIY: Don’t Include Yogurt!

TCI: You talked about how these limitations have bothered you to a certain extent, that there was an ego to limiting to what people could do or what was allowed. You compared it to high school…

PB: It’s posturing. DIY has become such a posturing (gestures to Cox), like you said, circus. There’s been such a disconnect from actually appreciating music and it’s more about being seen at a show, fucking…and the people who put on the show, more often than not, are more concerned about being the guy who put on the show then making the show enjoyable for everyone there and everyone who’s playing it. Which is what it’s all about.

CC: It’s being perceived as something that’s really elite, and because of that the music industry has caught on pretty hard, and so now people are totally self-aware of it, as oppose to when we were young, there was absolutely nothing like that, it had nothing to do with that. It was also easier to do for people your age…I mean I’m not much older, I’m turning 27 in June, but it’s something that is much more kids that are young. That being said I know people who are in their 40s in New York and LA that are involved in the DIY music scene. It’s just perceived as being posh, and because of that it has become really different; it’s become strange. That’s where the egos have fucking developed, and it’s actually much easier to be a part of the indie rock world and play within it. People actually have to work harder in this then they have to do in DIY. But again there is a disparity between big cities and small cities because if you’re doing DIY music in a small city I would say it’s more or less the same, but I know in our scene back home there’s a DIY venue I’ve never played and it sprouted up after stopped playing…

TCI: Shows there.

CC: Yeah, pretty much. It’s not that we really play corporate places or bars in Tampa, we just don’t play. We go on tour, and when we go home we’re just chilling out, getting stoned, doing nothing.

EN: Not having a job.

CC: Not having a job. And we’re just trying to enjoy ourselves in Tampa with our families and friends, and…yeah, we’re not involved in any indie rock world in Tampa. It’s something we participate, outside of our city because we’re away from that. But I would say again, the whole infrastructure between the small cities and the big cities are totally different. I would say that every corporation that is trying to market to kids has picked up on all that has changed and all that is happening. For instance, Sonic Youth. They were on Geffen Records for a long time, and we just played with Thurston Moore’s new band Chelsea Light Moving, and they’re incredible. They’re incredible musicians, super interesting, well thought out, totally new concept for Thurston Moore, and all the people in the band. I would say they did a pretty good job at never really compromising their actual music, or the idea of it, or even the image of it. Even then, when that shit is hyper-marketed, Sonic Youth didn’t really change. People kind of moved to it, and said “we respect what you do”. I would say they are a really good example of doing it, not even in the indie world, but in the corporate world. But at the same time they were on SST, hyper-fucking influential at a time when it was very good for them to be. The thing that they did back then become more beneficial with age. When people look back, it’s like “you’re so far removed from 1981”.

TCI: People did complain when Dirty came out.

CC: It’s true but…

PB: People complained about Dirty?!

CC: (To Brady) Yeah people talk shit. Yeah, people talk shit, people don’t give a fuck about your band, they’re really just jealous, and they want attention for whatever they do. I’m going hate a minute.

TCI: Sure, no problem.

CC: And it doesn’t matter. I mean, I’ve had punk bands that were too punk for the punk scene, and now this band is not punk enough for the punk scene…

TCI: How were you too punk for the punk scene?

CC: I’m not going to go into it. I’m talking about previous bands, old things that we did that weren’t accepted by the punk community because they were too experimental. OK, well then I’m going to completely fucking divorce myself from you because in reality we never really had anything in common. I would say the only thing I have in common with the punk scene was the people I had through it, but it has nothing to do with this invisible scene, it has nothing to do with that. And music scenes are bullshit anyways.

TCI: You think so.

Everyone: Yeah.

EN: I know for a fact that music scenes are bullshit.

TCI: Why would you say that? Because that’s how music is defined sort of these days…

EN: No, I wouldn’t say that. The scene encapsulates all the other bullshit that goes along with it. That means ridiculous trends. Having to wear an outfit. Having to adhere to specific codes. So like you’re into metal, but you don’t have long hair, you’re not wearing so tapestry, you’re not metal. And that’s bullshit. And that applies to hip-hop. That applies to…chillwave. It applies to all that different stuff.

TCI: It doesn’t add up to anything.

CC: No man. It’s more important to do your own thing. Like, there’s plenty of examples of people that were born before rock’n’roll. There was so much time before 1950. What did those rocknrollers do? They didn’t play rock’n’roll, but I’m sure there was pissed off, subversive people.

TCI: I think it was called jazz.

CC: (Chuckles) Maybe. It’s pretty far from rock’n’roll.

TCI: I think it’s about the attitude, or your approach to it.

CC: (Smiles) Well then, you answer your own question.

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