Friday, October 26, 2012

Feeling Lots of Feelings: A CMJ Postmortem with Carson Cox of Merchandise

Posted By on Fri, Oct 26, 2012 at 12:45 PM

Long identifying with Tampa’s DIY punk scene, Merchandise’s second proper album, Children of Desire, falls somewhere outside its genre barrier—but where, exactly, is difficult to pin down. It’s a noisy, painful, romantic gesture made by believers in capital-A Art and not so much in capital-B Business that has found them in an unfamiliar spotlight. For a band that allegedly turned down Pitchfork coverage (though that has since changed), their sold-out, three-night spree through NYC this September and hyped return for last week's CMJ festival was nothing but unexpected, and maybe for no one more than the band.

Talking on the phone from his home in Florida fighting "some weird mouth infection" (“It’s not like I made out with any strange people while I was up in New York”) frontman Carson Cox reflects on the last few months, Merchandise's desire to stay industry outsiders, and the frustration of being mistaken as a Brooklyn band—a label they don't at all want. He's extremely friendly and talks with little breaks, allowing a series of unfiltered thoughts and ideas to tumble out that occasionally bump into self-contradiction. Making sense of Internet success has never been easy though. Especially if you're determined to fight the good fight.

The L Magazine: In past interviews you’ve talked about the band in really simple terms: You’re three guys who just want to create music and whatever happens after that point just happens. So now you’re suddenly dealing with this element of press and popularity, which can complicate things. At the end of the day, are you guys excited by the sudden interest in the band, or is it something you’d actually rather not be dealing with?

Carson Cox: To me it’s just another tool. I mean, I don’t think the attention is bad. I do think a lot of it is shortsighted. A lot of it is overly simplified. Especially when you talk about Brooklyn. You can live there and be a totally self-sufficient band. Where we’re from, you can’t really do that. The kind of infrastructure that you can live off of in Tampa, Florida is if you played Jimmy Buffett covers at a bar. You can’t live off of post-punk.

I’m almost a little more excited for things to calm down. We’re basically going to be inactive for a couple of months. We’re working on a music video, and we’re not going to be touring. I’m interested to see how things go. We have a fanbase that is pretty diehard. Those are the people that I want to waste most my time for as opposed to people who [treat the record] like it’s a new toy that will throw it away. [laughs] There are people that appreciate what we do whether we’re hot or not, so I feel like the attention may complicate it slightly, but, I mean, we’re still the master of our own destiny when it comes to what we do. Intelligent music listeners will always be with us if they choose to be, but as far as us catering towards this, like, finicky, picky crowd—this temporary crowd who just wants to listen to whatever’s new and aren’t really interested in the expression behind it—we’re not into that. I feel like we’re still in the same place [even if] things are different. I can’t pretend they’re not.

I feel like our focus is more on things outside of the music. I was an actor before I became a musician. Dave [guitarist] is a writer. I work on all our visual stuff. Our videos are really important to us; our artifacts are very important. I’m kinda more leaning towards art or visual art or fashion or something other than the music industry because I don’t feel like it’s that cool to be part of the music industry and be a full-time band when you’re given access to a lot of different things. [I] don’t just want to focus on, you know, what’s the biggest show we can play? What’s the most money we can get for our record? For me, there’s a whole lot more to expression than that. I don’t like the way a lot of bands operate or maintain themselves. It just annoys me. It just seems like a one-trick pony if you’re just a band. You could do a lot, especially in the position that we’re in right now where a bunch of people would like to be involved in what we’re doing. We will do a lot if we can.

The L: Have people been approaching you with ideas for collaborative projects?

The next LP is a sort of collaboration. We’re hoping it will be done in February. We have Shawn Reed from Night-People—it’s coming out on Night-People—doing all the artwork. We give him the music, and he brings the visual and his aesthetic to it. We’re working on a few more video collaborations and that sort of thing; a few more things in print that will probably be done by the time we hit the road. For the next formal LP, we’ll do everything, but everything up until then will be collaboration-based and fun.

Performing at Pitchforks unoffical CMJ show
  • Karsten Moran/The New York Times
  • Performing at Villain, as part of Pitchfork's unoffical CMJ show

The L: You’ve mentioned that one of the main goals of the band is to reach people who aren’t really all that into music. With the tendency of music communities to be so insular, the idea of wanting to grab people who have never really connected or experienced music in the way “music people” have is a really nice thought…

CC: It has to do with how diplomatic pop music is—you don’t have to be educated in a bunch of things to know about it or like it or listen to it. But at the same time, it’s very difficult to write. I feel like it’s easier to write punk or hardcore. So there’s that: I feel like we can talk to more people just because [our music] has less to do with some subgenre that you have to be educated in before you can listen to it. Everyone has the desire to communicate with each other. All humans. Everyone wants people to talk to in some capacity. I think it just has to do with our interest in communication or an interest in expression.

The L: Continuing on the theme of communication, you post a direct email address on your blog and invite people to get in touch with comments and concerns. Why is it so important to you to engage in conversation with fans—and non-fans?

CC: To connect directly to people? Because it’s more significant than casting a wide net. For me, that’s part of the reason why we never wanted to do press. It didn’t seem like it was something that was worth our time. I was like, “Well, we’re never going to hear from anyone, or no one is going to read it, or it’s just going to exist on the Internet and won’t do anything.” My perspective has changed I guess a little bit, but still, I’d rather be able to talk to one person directly than indirectly speak to a large number of people.

Like this whole CMJ thing, I think out of the two performances we did—the first night was a couple hundred people and the Bowery Ballroom was maybe in front of 700 people—I maybe had 20 people respond to me and be like, “This was great!” or “The sound was terrible!” But 20 people. I didn’t get close to even 10 percent of the audience. [laughs]

The L: I remember seeing on your blog after you reasonably, nicely explain why you’re asking for donations when giving your music away for free, the first comment posted says something along the lines as, ‘I’ve lost all respect for you three.’ You responded with a nice ‘Sorry to disappoint!’ but does stuff like that bother you?

CC: No! [laughs] I mean, there’s no point. Like, who is that person? That’s the number one reason the Internet is pointless. To spend any energy on that is just dumb. If they really wanted to say something to say to us, they would’ve emailed us; they wouldn’t have made it public.

When we put out our demo, we were maybe the most invisible band in the world. We had a CD demo and a tape and nobody supported it. Everybody thought it was weird. Hardcore kids didn’t like it because it wasn’t hardcore, and it was a little too strange and a little too poorly recorded to be pop. But of course now that we’ve changed [with the new album], people say, “Oh, the old stuff was so much better.” You just can’t pay attention to it. I’m sure we’ll lose people, I’m sure we’ll gain people. It doesn’t really matter to me.

And, you know, it’s our band. [laughs] If anything, we’re going to do the opposite of what people want us to do. We have no allegiance to any sort of politics. I have no allegiance to anything except the people I love and my friends, and that’s it. I’m never going to make a decision because I feel like somebody at some point at time thinks I should make it. Even if it fails, I’d rather it be my choice. We don’t have time to listen to any of these fools.

The L: That’s a good life lesson.

Yeah, yeah. [laughs] But it’s strange. It may sound like the answers come out of me really easy, but [none of this] is easy or simple. People are just fickle and weird and stupid. Especially Americans. They spend all their time being negative and spend all their energy in the wrong places, and it doesn’t make any sense. Our European fans aren’t like that at all [laughs]. It’s only the Americans that have this weird fucking attitude. We’ve been given the opportunity to work more in Europe, and we’re going to take it and tour there next year. That’s our next step. We have a pretty significant following in places like France. I feel like Europe is going to be our main demographic, if you wanted to use that word.

Merchandise - Brooklyn, 538 Johnson 13 Sep 2012
from (((unartig))) on Vimeo.

The L: As far as your New York demographic goes then, have you noticed any difference in how the crowd responds to you here compared to other cities?

CC: We’re definitely way more popular in New York than we are anywhere else in the country. The only show that came close to our New York ones was Toronto or maybe Boston. They were really surreal. Really heavy, crazy. Over the top.

The L: The Pitchfork CMJ show in particular had a feeling of being more of an event than a typical warehouse show. There was the long line to get in, the YouTube stream, Jon Caramanica from the Times tweeting about it

CC: Yeah, it was kind of a disaster. The sound guy just didn’t do anything we asked him to, and the room sounded really bad. But the people at the show were great and all the Pitchfork people were awesome. All those people running the show were killer. It was just one of those things. Our gear never works. Like ever. It’s a total pain in the ass. And I’m always sick. [laughs] The whole weekend I was sick, our gear was breaking, but we still played anyway because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

The L: I kinda got the sense it wasn’t going as you had hoped. It would be nice if people knew the backstory to these things, yeah?

CC: I don’t care. They don’t have to. I really prefer them not to. I’d rather them think we just suck. Because there are no excuses when it comes to that. I’m not going to go up there and be like, “Oh, we’re very sick and the guitars don’t work.” There’s no point in making any kind of apology before you play. That’s just stupid.

But I don’t think people understand what it’s like to be where we’re from or do what we do. I can’t say anything has ever worked, ever, for us live. [laughs] Just because we’re so reliant on a PA, it’s like playing on a different guitar every show. Everything is totally different each time. At some point, you just have to be like, “It doesn’t matter.” We had the opportunity to tour and do whatever the fuck we’re doing this year, so we took it, but we didn’t know what we were doing when we started it. Playing live is so different than the recording. For the record, Dave plays guitar and keyboard. There are, like, 17 guitar tracks on everything. It’s not like we can do that live. We’re at the point where we just play, and I’m kinda indifferent. Because sometimes we nail it; sometimes it sounds great! And sometimes it doesn’t sound good, but it doesn’t matter because no one was listening anyways. [laughs] I’m sort of cynical.

But especially in New York! It’s like, “Ok, I read about this band, that’s why I’m here, but the whole time I’m here, I’m just going to be texting on my phone.” I would say that’s been most of my experience playing in New York. I’m singing a lot in my head. [laughs] I don’t really know what is going on with the audience—why they’re there, what they do. I don’t really understand other people around me—other indie, post-punk people. I don’t get their thing either. It just seems like in general I don’t really understand the vibe of everything there. And it’s not a bad thing; it’s just that I don’t know. I’m just not from there. It’s cool when we get flown up, but it’s still not anything like I’m used to.

The L: One thing that seemed to keep coming up in reviews of those CMJ shows was that you played without a live drummer. Is bringing a drummer into the touring lineup something you’ve considered?

CC: We have a drummer! So we’re doing that, but it’s absolutely not because of any of the reviews. It’s just that he lives in another state, so it’s very difficult to figure out how he can be part of the band. But we’re trying. In general I feel like that most of the people who said we need a drummer don’t get what the fuck we’re trying to do at all. Like, they’re confused, and they think they’re seeing another band. I also think it’s really arrogant to tell people they need this or they need that. I understand the point of a review, but, I dunno, to me getting a drummer is like Dylan going pop in 1965 or something.

It’s just different now because we used to play for fucking nobody, and we never played shows for 700 people. I understand the point of filling a room with a drummer, but nothing in our lives is very easy to coordinate. We’re still unsigned, you know. We’re not on a major label. We don’t have real income coming in. It’s not like other bands in Brooklyn where you can live off your band. It’s not like getting a drummer or touring with a drummer is a cheap thing.

In general, [that’s] kinda the number-one thing I don’t like about New York—this really, really deep-seated capitalist mentality. It’s like, “Well, just spend more money!” It’s part of the reason why all the bands in New York suck: because they think all they have to do is just spend a little bit more money, and they’ll sound fine, which is the laziest, dumbest attitude in the world and why their bands aren’t good any more. It’s annoying when people think we’re from Brooklyn.

The L: Do you get that a lot?

CC: Yeah. That’s the whole reason why we’re going with a Midwest label. Night-People is based out of Iowa City. If you look at their roster of bands, it’s like the anti-Brooklyn. It’s way, way more interesting than what’s going on there. I have friends in bands that I like up there, but in general, I’m just like, “Dude, what the fuck is this?” That’s another reason why I want to communicate with “non-music” listeners. Because as a music listener, I’m fucking disgusted by most of what people are trying to pass off. It’s a time of singular bands. You can’t say that there’s a fucking scene that’s great or dominate. You can’t say any big city has the best “scene.”

It’s weird because it used to be you could go to New York and find tons of great shit, and it’s just not like that anymore. I don’t understand why. The biggest bands in the underground have all come from Olympia, Washington, or Providence, Rhode Island, or Tampa, Florida, or fucking Copenhagen, you know what I mean? None of them are from New York. None of the bands that people are covering are from New York. There isn’t anyone coming out of there. I hate that arrogance. It’s a really narrow-minded perception of how things actually are. But I’m a cynic and fucking hate everyone, so, you know. Maybe it’s my own fucking fault. [laughs]

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