The average telephone interview with a touring musician lasts about 15 minutes, and this is sometimes strictly enforced by a label rep who listens in and cuts things off at the appointed time. When the Straight calls Merchandise frontman Carson Cox, however, the singer-guitarist keeps the conversation going for almost an hour, wandering off the topic of his band and onto seemingly unrelated matters that are probably all connected somehow in his hyperactive brain.
Reached in his hometown of Tampa, Florida, the 28-year-old musician holds forth on the American class divide and its impact on the arts and pop culture, mentions that he’s working on a “rap song”, and reveals that he generally finds deejaying more gratifying than playing concerts these days.
“A lot of live shows leave a really depressing haze over my brain, and over my players’ brains,” Cox says. “We’re really not meant for professional touring. We can do it—and we can do it better than a lot of bands, actually—but the whole concept was never to be a ‘band’.”
This admission comes as a surprise, since Merchandise is, to all appearances, just that—a band, and quite a successful one, at that. Merchandise released After the End, its third LP (and its first for the 4AD label), last August to universal acclaim, with critics and fans alike responding to its lush layers of chiming guitars and brooding melodies with comparisons to the Smiths, the Church, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Merchandise doesn’t really sound like any of those, but After the End is a thoroughly convincing stab at shimmery ’80s mope-pop from an act that, as every Merchandise article ever written will tell you, emerged from Florida’s DIY-hardcore underground.
The record was made by Cox with David Vassalotti (guitar), Patrick Brady (bass), Chris Horn (guitar, keys, and sax), and Elsner Niño (drums); the Merchandise Facebook page lists only the first three under “Members”. When he’s asked who exactly is in Merchandise these days, Cox gets cagey.
“We don’t make declarations,” he says. “I’m not really a commitment guy. I’m terrible with that. I also have a hard time thinking about other bands and how they work—who stays, who goes—because I just sort of always follow whatever the muse says. Recently, it’s just been ‘You have to take some sort of lonesome-cowboy road right now.’ ”
This means that the legendary “band house” that Merchandise used to live in collectively—just like the Monkees!—is a thing of the past. It also means that the next Merchandise recording might not sound quite as slick as After the End, and that after its current tour, we might not see the project out on the road quite so much.
“We’re sort of reverting back to a more electronic and painterly, studio-driven entity, because for the last two years we were like, ‘Live band, live band, live band, live band,’ ” Cox notes. “We just got exhausted, because it never really was that. Our first record came out and we played three shows. You know, our second record came out and we played six shows. Then we started playing more. We’re kind of reverting back, in a weird way, and I think it’s good.”
Whether or not the folks at 4AD will feel the same remains to be seen, but Cox insists he doesn’t pay enough attention to the business side of things for it to have any sway over how he lives or creates.
“I still don’t think I see what the reality of the situation is—and I kind of think it’s bad to understand the reality of it,” he admits. “I’d almost rather Mr. Magoo my life, you know what I mean? Just walk from beam to beam. You can call that mysticism, you can call that whatever you want, but I don’t know; it’s like a part of my thinking that doesn’t work. I just write and work on music.”
Merchandise plays the Cobalt on Friday (May 22).