Carson Cox has that giddy, slightly menacing, machine-gun clatter of a laugh that’s ever so charming and endearing. But if you’re not super alert, he’ll use it to dangerous effect. When he’s a little flustered by an answer, embarrassed about something he said, or just passionate (the latter of which comes in like a steamroller spewing “fucks” and “shits”), there comes that laugh. If you don’t keep up, the conversation will move very quickly toward safer ground. It’s fascinating, because it’s not what you’d expect from a man who made a name for himself in the punk scene.
Just two years ago, Merchandise were a bunch of lo-fi, scratchy Florida DIY musicians. What the critics who dismissed them as a “punk band” didn’t see was that among the more rebellious songs were moments of honest yearning and tender confession, such as “Become What You Are” from their second album: “Oh, make me young again/ And find a way to mend this broken heart,” Cox chants. The fact that the band managed to catch and keep this subtle balance was remarkable. If being a Merchandise fan means steeling yourself for the odd revelation, it’s not hard to fathom how most will react to the new album, After the End.
Merchandise aren’t the same band that made Children of Desire. In fact, they’re a real band now with a new expressive and rhythmic driver; drummer Elsner Nino injects authority and texture, while Chris Horn lends presence and a delicate weight to the – yeah, you guessed it – horn section. They’re signed to 4AD now, and this new record reflects a modest new warmth without abandoning the ambiance that makes them so distinctive.
After the End is their makeover record, with that quality of a painfully bright summer day, the one that induces seeing spots from staring at the sun for hours. They manage to thread a feeling of violent joy and crippling pain into a few notes, a delicate balance that Cox and that laugh share. He opens up alright, and it’s spectacular.
So, I believe you live in Tampa, Florida. Has that had any effect on your career? Have you ever thought, “Shit, I need to get out of this town”?
[Laughs] I don’t think I’ve thought of myself as ever having a career. I do sort of have a career in music because this is what I’m making my living doing. I feel like we party all the time, so it’s kind of beneficial to be in a place that’s sort of cut off from a 24-hour party scene. There’s been plenty of times when I’ve thought of getting out, especially this week. We’ve been doing a lot of press, and we’ve gotten a lot of hate mail from people in Tampa, because in interviews we talk about how backwards this place is culturally. Everyone here is like Christian business people who are afraid to die [laughs]. It’s weird … I never saw us being this indie rock band that toured in a circuit, so we’ve been comfortable separating ourselves from it and isolating ourselves here.
But After the End does seem like your most accessible record, and even when the opportunity to speak to you came up, I thought, “What? He does?” You haven’t done much press over the past few years.
There has to be a time, a place, and the right mood, otherwise press is weird. I guess it’s more accessible, but I still think of it as “old man music.” When I play, it’s like the old man at the bar that’s playing acoustic guitar. I’m already working on the next record. I’m already tired of this one.
Well, good thing I plan on talking about it a lot with you then. Were there certain points during recording when you thought to yourself, “I’m still improving”?
Oh, yes! Absolutely! To make music, you have to be willing to make a mistake. Some of my most brilliant friends that make music or visual art don’t put it out because they’re afraid of making a mistake; I don’t know if it’s fear of failure. When we were young, we put out horrible-sounding records that were all fucked up and distorted.
I kind of liked them.
I liked them, too, you know, but someone left a comment on one of our songs saying that it isn’t as good as their masterpiece first record, and I thought it was so funny, because it’s audio that is not mastered and barely mixed. This is the first record that we put lyrics in; normally, I don’t do that because I’m too embarrassed. Dave wrote a lot of the music, so I wanted to point out the things that he has written.
I can’t say I’ve looked for meaning in your lyrics before, but there is this fixation on looking for a narrative meaning or logic, which seems extraordinary to me that in the 21st century we’re still doing that.
The record to me is like a psychological environment. That’s the whole point of a Rorschach test: your brain responds to stimuli, and it tries to make sense out of it. I don’t give a shit about how well I play something or what I do; if I can translate what I hear in my head to the record, then that’s the record. We recorded this record and didn’t play any of the songs live beforehand. It was really difficult actually if I’m being honest. It was really hard. Man, part of me wishes we could have recorded the record right now because we can play all the songs like crazy. But also that’s the fun of recording; we were discovering what the songs were while we were doing it.
That’s a big thing for writers; sometimes they don’t know what they’re trying to say until they start the process.
It’s a total Ouija board; it reveals itself. When it was nearly completed, I was like, “Oh, this is what it sounds like?” I could also have just been stoned. Inebriation is a big part of our house, and it seems like we’re never straight; we’re always foggy and always fucked up. We weren’t trying to control anything.
I’ve always felt that to be completely spontaneous you almost have to be incredibly prepared.
I like that.
So, I believe that you went in and figured it out as you went along, but there must have been something that triggered that fundamental core talent. I don’t believe that a person who’s nervous and shaky could be as spontaneous as someone who’s confident.
I think spontaneity has to do with time. We produced the record at our house. I woke up, ate breakfast, and worked on the record. I have to spend six months or a year on it. If you don’t test it over time, I feel like it doesn’t work. I can never be serious because I think spontaneity is also reliant on playfulness and having fun. I’m producing something right now on my computer that I didn’t expect to be anything, and now I’m thinking this is the next big idea.
You know, I feel like I understood some of this record better on headphones. The one thing that struck me was your vocal and the production. Was it intentional to put focus on the vocals?
Well, I can’t stop smoking cigarettes. I’m not addicted to them really, but I can’t stop. I always get compared to fucking Morrissey, which I don’t get. Like, I have a lot of weird personal feelings about The Smiths. I love them, but I kind of hate Morrissey, and I think he’s an asshole. The idea of controlling what your fans think and what they eat is just offensive to me. So now, if I keep smoking cigarettes, eventually I’ll end up sounding like Leonard Cohen, and that would be way cooler.
Are you waging a war against Morrissey one cigarette at a time?
I don’t really give a shit. At some point, I just have to stop reading the press because I don’t really like celebrity culture, and I can’t stand Jack White, and I can’t stand Kanye West, and Morrissey is becoming the same thing. At some point, the media culture just doesn’t think, and I cant imagine an adult reading some of the stuff that the music world prints just because it seems so silly.
Like a cultural merry-go-round?
I don’t get it, and it’s not for me, which I think is part of the old man misery thing. I feel like an alien, and I just don’t understand celebrity culture. Even when I was young, all the music I knew was from the ’50s and ’60s. I feel like I’m suffering from a 21st century psychotic problem. Do you know Ed Sanders? He sang for The Fugs. He was a New York City poet, and he talks about the muse for the retained image and calls the muse “retentia.” I always think it’s fucking me. But, I also think it’s okay, too, because I’m also sick of looking at interviews where I’m complaining about everything, because [laughs] it seems all I do is complain.
I was trying to give you a compliment earlier, and you turned it around on me, so yeah, cut it out!
It’s just my fucking brain! I don’t know what my problem is? I’m just a negative guy. Like, even when I try to be nice, I just end up being negative.
I don’t think it’s healthy to classify oneself as either positive or negative. It’s great you’re bouncing around. You have a lot of ideas, but you’ve come out with a really upbeat-sounding record, too. The opener, “Corridor”, with all its tinkles and chimes, is like the opening of a Disney movie.
Yeah! Dave wrote that song, and I produced the arrangement with him. By the end of it, I was like, “This sounds just like a Disney song, a cartoon from 1960.” But it’s not like, what’s that Sleeping Beauty song? [Starts singing it] “I know daaa na na na”
So, is “Looking Glass Waltz” an intentional reference to Lewis Carroll?
That song is a warning, because I suffer from crippling nostalgia. I become so nostalgic that I’m not a part of reality anymore. I’m just smoking a cigarette out on the porch by myself, and it’s kind of the most dangerous time for me, because it gives my brain time to think about the past, the future, and all my obsessions. It’s dangerous. Ultimately, it’s hurting me, and it’s hurting my feelings, you know?
They always say that the same amount of passion that you put into love, you also put into hate, so when you’re thinking of past pain, you’re using a similar intensity that you would if you saw someone in front of you who you were madly in love with. It’s also kind of comfortable in that darkness.
That is me. I don’t like movies with happy endings. I hate them. While we were making the record, there were certain movies that I was really keen on, and most of them were totally weird, freak-out London movies. I’ve seen the Blowup by Antonioni [Michelangelo] probably about a 100 times. Also watched Identification of a Woman, but it’s a dangerous movie for someone like me, because it romanticizes this old guy chasing two women, and he ends up totally lonely.
Have you done that before?
Chased two women and ended up with neither of them? Yes, many a time. [Laughs] Not recently, I’m living a pretty domestic life, because I was making the record.
Are you bored of routine?
We just need to get out of town and go on tour before the chamber of commerce burns our houses down and makes us move away.
You caused all of that!
Yeah, because we don’t like them, and we’ve spent years not liking them, and this is the first time they’re like, “Oh well, an English magazine wrote about us, so now the whole world knows how shitty we are.” It’s like, no one gives a shit about you or our fucking band; no one gives a shit about us. They’re like, “This band magically deceived the world into liking them, and now they’re going to spend all of their notoriety destroying us.” To me, it’s a fucking Tuesday. [Laughs]
What’s that famous saying? Opinions are like nipples, everybody has them?
Opinions are like assholes, everyone has them!
I was trying to be a lady, you old man.
[Laughs] You know you can never be a prophet in your hometown. People always ask me why I’m so angry. It’s not that; it’s just that I come from a circle of people, a collection of fucking weirdos that didn’t have anything in common, but there was no judgment. I don’t think that notion is understood in mainstream music culture.
Do you think it’s possible for an artist to approach contentment in their personal life?
Totally. Absolutely, I really do. That’s the belief that I’m living for now. To me, the dream that I’ve been living for is to create my own universe because society is rotten to the fucking core. America is too fucking big, and something is not right about it. I don’t think they control; I think it’s spinning out of control. I’m fine with inviting the world to listen to what I have to say and being a part of my dream, but I don’t want to be a part of theirs. I don’t want to listen to music that they like. I don’t want to see movies they like. I don’t want to date the girl that they have dated. I don’t want to make friends with anybody. I’m living to live in my own society.
Is your dream to leave society for good?
Yeah, like living on the fucking moon.
It sounds all very dystopian
I think it’s just post-modern sickness. The enemy is all around me throughout my life. I never viewed making music as a way to make money; it was just a way for me to meditate and reflect on my own life. I don’t ever feel comfortable. Everyone wants to simplify my ideas, but I’m not blaming other people for misrepresenting me. I just don’t know when I’m going to make it to that point where I’m living in my own bio dome. It’s not like this is an isolationist thing. If anything, I’m inviting other artists to me, but like they have to be righteous, humble, and virtuous. The idea of this record is that you don’t have to read the lyrics; I really want people to appreciate the record for what it is, and that’s the beauty of pop music. That’s another fear I have, though: I feel like they are gonna tear it apart. If they wanna, that’s cool, but they don’t have to.
Tell me about the song “Telephone”, then.
Perfect example. I wrote that in five minutes, and I was like, “This song works because I didn’t fucking think about it.” Being willfully ignorant is a big part of my life. Listening to really overly intelligent music is sometimes not healthy, because it makes you feel fucking horrible.
What sort of music would you define as “intelligent”?
Like Scott 3, the Scott Walker record.
He’s also on your new label, 4AD.
Yeah, that was a big trump card when we signed to them. He’s the only other person who could hold a candle to Bowie.
I love Diamond Dogs. Do you like Bowie?
Especially Diamond Dogs! Maybe that’s why you like our record, because it’s schizophrenic like that one? “Enemy” and “Rebel Rebel” are almost the same song.
At least the guitar line, and you Bowie-d out with a whole bunch of makeup during your video for “Little Killer”. The other day I was thinking if you had to do a cover, he would be perfect. I also was going to say Morrissey, but you may shoot me or smoke me to death.
I’m working on a cover right now, actually. It’s a Stranger Cole cover. It’s like a rocksteady song; reggae music is a huge part of my brain.
The Wailers actually did an amazing reggae Nina Simone cover for “Sinner Man”.
This has been a really fun chat! I’m glad you said Nina Simone; I listened to a live Nina record last night. I’ve always been really into her. She is a super stoic badass bitch and super influential.
I haven’t even gotten into your record yet.
If you wanna ask me a few, I promise not to talk about art and hatred. I grew up in intensive learning classes with learning disabilities, so I’ve been raised by public schools to think that I was dumb. That was always really painful as a kid. That was also the best thing that ever happened to me, because all my notions became personal and independent. After being a little kid and crying about it too many times, at some point you become an adult, and you’re like, “Well, what the fuck. I have a totally fucking cold heart now?” Sometimes I feel like a heartless person because people will say something to me, and I just don’t feel anything.
Do you get anxious doing press?
Not the way you do it; this has been really easy and fun. Most of the time it’s really clinical, and they want to talk to me about Joy Division. Not all journalists are created equally, which I’m sure you understand.
You mentioned earlier the conservative side of things, which reminds me that there are loads of religious references across this record.
There were a couple of songs that I didn’t put on the record, because they were too religious. You’re very smart for picking out those things. I feel like they were hidden really well, dammit. So, you must have actually listened to the record.
Of course, particularly during the track “Exile and Ego”.
That’s my mom’s favorite track! Every time there’s press, my mom will call me and be like, “Hey! I saw you in this. I’m very proud of you. I love you, goodbye.” She’ll send me a voicemail saying, “Hi, are you there? I love you, goodbye.” That’s her thing. Long after she’s dead, she’ll be with me.
It really is a standout track for me, but I feel there’s a deeper story behind the lyrics?
That was the second song I wrote for this record, and I almost didn’t put it on. It was a weird time. One of my sister’s best friends had just died from cancer, and she was 27; it was terrible. The girl who died, Sarah, is in a lot of our old music videos. She was dying of cancer, and we knew it for years, and we thought she was in full remission, and then she had a really difficult last year of her life, and I don’t know how much of it was health or psychological. There’s a choice in everyone’s brain when they’re in a traumatic situation. I’m prone to giving in, like when I was young, to depression or sadness.
I basically saw this circle of people fall apart, and it was fucking tragic. I was on tour and traveling the world at the time, so there was this bizarre thing where I came home and it was like, Sarah is gone, and she’s never coming back. It felt like a dream. I’m playing and people are excited about our music and you want to be happy, but you just feel so fucked up. Its also a part of life; death is a part of life. So, the lyric about the “angel of death” is for her.
I cannot imagine how hard it is to talk about this still, so thank you for sharing this with me.
No, I feel like I should tell you that, because I’ve been really honest with you, and it’s worth saying. It doesn’t ever matter how successful or happy you are; that trauma, there’s no god in it. There’s no benevolent, saving, healing force. The only healing force is love, and it’s really hard to make that work in an emergency.
Dave’s guitar on that song is so beautiful. Are you planning on playing that live? I’m not sure how I would feel singing something so personal to strangers.
We’ve only ever played it once live in front of an audience. It was hard the first year of the band trying to do it professionally , always thinking how the fuck am I going to do this in front of people all the time? Especially where I was mentally; I shaved my head, and I had a nervous breakdown. There’s never been a stasis in my life. The only thing that’s been steady is producing music and making records.