Despite their name, Merchandise isn’t a band that seems all that interested in marketability. The Tampa-based trio is a tough act to categorize, from their constantly evolving sound — which can wander from the outer limits of experimental rock to the radio-friendly reaches of pop — to their very name, which they sometimes spell as “WMerchandise,” a move that seems designed to confuse uninitiated record store employees.
But according to frontman Carson Cox, the band’s slippery identity is less about posturing and more about removing ego from the art. “If it’s cryptic, it’s just meant to open your mind to something different,” he says. “Not only to sounding like something different, but just … not being so self-centered and not being so focused on us, but on the art. And that happens to work against the capitalist ideology of music marketing.”
If there’s a thread connecting Merchandise’s already considerable discography — they’re released five full-length albums since 2010 — it’s a sort of reverb-heavy post-punk sensibility. Earlier albums, like 2012’s excellent Children of Desire and its 2013 follow-up, Totale Nite, layered Cox’s distinctive baritone with distorted guitars and dissonant instrumentation; the group’s two most recent records, 2014’s After the End and last year’s A Corpse Wired for Sound, stripped most of the chaotic elements of their music away for a cavernous, expansive sound, allowing the group’s increasingly straightforward pop-song structures room to breathe and resulting in some of the band’s finest material to date.
Merchandise will perform at Saturn on Friday, June 16, as part of Good People Brewing Company’s Saturn Nights concert series. Recently, Cox spoke with Weld about his band’s unpredictable sound and the value of giving up control over his music.
Weld: After the End represented a pretty major shift in sound for Merchandise, away from distortion and toward poppier song structures. Did you have a clear goal for how you wanted A Corpse Wired for Sound to expand on that?
Carson Cox: I don’t really know. It’s really hard to think about that after the fact. At the time, you just internalize whatever’s going on. After the End was a hard record for us to put out because a lot of people refused to listen to it. They said it was too different or too pop-oriented. And so it was hard to do the follow-up, because we had a lot of problems getting that record accepted.
For A Corpse Wired for Sound, we wrote a lot of music, and a lot of it didn’t end up on the record. There were many directions [in which] we could have gone, and I guess we sort of went for a cut-up method of colors and textures. … We tried tried to put as many colors into the last record as possible, and we did a lot. There were some ideas that got cut that I wish would have ended up on the record, but that’s the game — you work fast and you try to hit the deadline. The idea, though, was some kind of diversity of sound.
Weld: You mentioned the “colors” of the album. That element has been very important for you in the past; After the End, for instance, has a pretty heavily reliance on the color green…
Cox: That was sort of an accident. Green for After the End kept coming up over and over again. Florida and the house we were living in was just super green, and I spent a lot of time just in our backyard working and writing. We would have people from out of state come through all the time, and we would show off our Florida vegetation which is really tropical and heavy, and the humidity is really dense down there. It ended up being this layering effect that all our records have — but green is a clear color, and for that record, we really tried to refine some tone as opposed to layering a bunch of hazy ones like on the old records. We tried to refine it into one color, one sound.
With [Corpse], we were searching for textures and sounds, and because we had so many ideas, we weren’t really focused on one thing.
Weld: One thing that’s really striking about your last two albums is how massive they both sound — even though After the End was recorded as a five-piece in a closet in your house, and A Corpse Wired for Sound was recorded as a trio in various studios.
Cox: In the recording process [for After the End], we did a lot of stuff with layering recordings and using other instruments, and we would just find sounds an appropriate them — then then live, we would just perform it as a five-piece. For the records, we always try to think a little bit beyond [what we can accomplish live]. … You want to have freedom of sound and freedom of space and to be able to go as far as you want. We always had our eyes on the far horizon, trying to do something really crazy.
We did a lot of sampling on [Corpse] too, finding different sounds and different ways of using different drum kits. We recorded between Italy and New York and Berlin and Florida, and all of those places have different things to exploit.
In some ways, going into a studio, we had more finite choices to make, because we had time limits. We had to cut things because we couldn’t redo them because we ran out of studio time. I think that reduced the process.
Weld: Earlier, you mentioned that shifting toward poppier music alienated some of your fanbase — but it also managed to shake off any sense of narrative or predictability that might have been forming around the band’s sound. Is that something that you were intending to subvert?
Cox: I think our approach is not to control it. There’s not an illusion of control. We’re not in control of our careers. We’re not in control of the choices that we make. We’re influenced by a million things, but it’s a simplification to try and control it — which can hurt a working musician, because you have to be able to sell the same thing over and over again. That’s not true for everybody, but we felt a lot of pressure to simplify —and I mean pressure from the world, not from a label or anything specific.
When you read the narratives of bands and how they’re put together, with the exception of maybe fine art or people that are long-dead and canonized, there’s not a narrative that we can hang onto for very long. But also, I think we’ve outlived a lot of bands that we started with or ended up playing with. We’ve really been doing it for about 10 years. So a narrative of 10 years is always going to be changing and moving.
I think underground music always had an ‘80s tradition, like a habit of playing all over the place and not trying to fit into one thing. But we grew up on [experimental record labels] Homestead Records and Mute Records, and [for those labels] it’s not unconventional for a pop band to be using influences from anywhere or performing with anyone — at least in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when there was less of a market.
Now there’s a huge market for ‘independent’ music. It’s become a style that’s, I don’t know, nerdy and middle-class. I think in the ‘80s it represented a broader range of things, and we were more influenced by that than what was happening within our time. Sometimes it’s isolating, because the market is so big.
Weld: A lot of your discography could be considered experimental — some of your older songs are over 10 minutes long — and a lot of your discography could be considered traditionally pop. Are you drawn more toward one or the other? Do you see Merchandise moving back in a more experimental direction in the future?
Cox: Melodies go in and out of vogue, and it’s cool to be against the grain. Eventually, when that gets tiresome, it becomes more radical to make pop music. We just explore whatever we are into at the time. I think it’s better to not put a boundary around the music, even though it’s a very difficult thing to produce pop music and tell people it’s experimental or subversive. Maybe it’s not just the sound, but lyrically, the themes aren’t pop themes, and that’s something that I like about it to. That’s something that’s been happening since the Kinks. Pop musicians have been writing about unconventional stuff [for a long time].
I wouldn’t say it’d be a move backwards if we decide to embrace experimental music more. It’ll be a move forwards. I don’t see it as being a back-and-forth thing, where one thing progresses and the other does the opposite. It’s all a continuous line. I think we’re open to our music embracing any form or any style.
Obviously, it’s harder for an audience to keep up with that, and we’ve kind of found that out. But we’ve always been lucky to find audiences that are interested in finding something progressive and different. They’re not interested in everything being static or moving forward and backwards, in and out of vogue. That audience is really small, I think, but it’s an audience that should be appreciated.
Merchandise will perform at Saturn on Friday, June 16 as part of Good People Brewing’s Saturn Nights series. B Boys will open. Doors open at 8 p.m.; the show begins at 9 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.