Interview: Dave Vassalotti of Merchandise


  • Merchandise.

Emerging from Tampa, Florida's small hardcore punk scene and playing shows in storage facilities, post-punk outfit Merchandise has always stood out as a more ambitious, if eccentric, band among its DIY counterparts. Its brooding, Anglo-leaning '80s pop influence — jangly guitars, snappy drum machines and Carson Cox's new romantic crooning and lyrics, as well as his heightened-drama live performance — were hinted in its breakout release, 2012's Children of Desire. But its debut for 4AD Records, August's After the End, is fit for a Cure-filling stadium, with lush acoustic arrangements and an unmistakable touch from Depeche Mode, Wire and Erasure producer Gareth Jones, who helmed the album's post-production (the album was, of course, home-recorded by the band in Tampa).

The band returns to New Orleans at 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, with Direct Attack, Heat Dust and TV-MA at Siberia. Below, Gambit talked to guitarist Dave Vassalotti about After the End, the leap to arena-sized sounds and breaking out of Tampa.

What's on the agenda before you leave town?

We're running around town. We have one more day before we go on tour with three months. Right now, we're running around making sure our shirts are printed. We're doing the screen printing ourselves. It's time consuming when you're trying to make enough for a couple months of touring. So that, and making sure our bills are paid while we're gone.

I saw you last at the United Bakery in New Orleans. 

I remember that show. The PA did not like our drum samples. (laughs)

Was it you selling bootleg album T-shirts?

That was our buddy Zack who plays in Ukiah Drag now, but he was our merch guy on tour. He brought a bunch of bootleg shirts to sell. I guess this tour we'll only have our own stuff. (laughs)

The new album has a huge sound. Reviewers say it's fit for arenas. Do you think you've outgrown that punk audience, or do you see that sound growing with your audience?

I wouldn't say we've necessarily outgrown it. We can still do shows in those settings, but a lot of our new material, we're trying to evolve as a band in a way that makes sense. We don't want to have the limitations of a small space necessarily dictate the music we're going to make. If we had the means to play a show on a decent stage with a nice system, we'll take it. We can do things musically we can't necessarily pull off in a small room — but that's not to say we'll never play small rooms again. The last few shows we've done in Florida were in crazy cramped spaces with no PA and bodies flying everywhere. It's trying to find the balance between the two.

In Florida, did you ever feel your ambitions were put in a box, or that you had to make people comfortable with the idea that you weren't just going to play The Fest?

We've always done our own thing within the scene here. We never worried too much about trying to break through or convince people we're good. We just try and follow our own voice here.

What artists did you look to for production notes? It is a much larger sounding record. I imagine you talked a lot about what you wanted that to sound like.

We had been listening to different stuff than we had with the previous records, for sure. A lot of '60s folk-rock stuff, The Byrds, Richard and Linda Thompson, which really came out in the slower acoustic-based stuff on there. A lot of the overall sound was helped by Gareth Jones, who ended up mixing the record for us. He did a ton of records we've worshipped — the mid-'80s Depeche Mode records, Neubauten records,Tuxedomoon, all that kind of stuff. We kept that in mind while recording knowing he would ultimately be mixing it, to see if we could work on his strengths. That led to the bigger sound.

You're among like-minded bands with 4AD. How was that jump been from your background to an "important" record label?

It's definitely a label we've always looked up to. They've put out some amazing shit over the years. The transition wasn't as big of a jump as any of us were expecting it to be. They work in the same way our friends' bedroom labels work, just with more people. Ultimately we still get to call the shots and do what we want to do. We just have a stronger backbone now. The relationship has been short, we haven't toured off this record yet. We haven't noticed any change in how we've been received internationally — hopefully, in a good way.

But they're open to the ideas you have?

They've given us a lot of space and total freedom to do what we want to do. Being able to record in our own house, and them being cool with that, was a big plus. And they helped us procure Gareth for the mix. Those connections have been a big influence in our music, for sure.

I was looking over the liner notes from Children of Desire, with your book excerpts. Are you going to continue something like that?

We definitely want to branch out to different mediums as much as we can. The music has been the base of the band but we've always been interested in communication at-large. We'd love to do something literary in the future. Right now, Carson is working on a bunch of video projects, like some narrative stuff, some abstract shorts. We're trying to keep things interesting.

What's your impression of Tampa now, musically, since you started out?

I haven't really detected any change. I feel like if anything, the scene we know and play to has only gotten smaller. So many people we knew have gotten fed up with the state and they've all moved across the country. (laughs) It's a pretty negative place. The heat drives people the same. I'm sure there are similar things in New Orleans. It's a hostile attitude. We've got a lot of enemies in this town.

It seems like scenes in the South like that are split: there are people sticking together who want to make something good despite the odds and another who are even more inclusive.

That's kind of how it's always been around here, the Gulf Coast.

What is the live show arrangement now? No drum machine, right?

A lot has changed. We have a real drummer now (Elsner Nino). We've got another guy, Chris (Horn), who joined the band full-time who's doing keyboards and guitar. It's a lot fuller now. We'll be playing a lot of new stuff from the new record. We're practicing everyday tightening it up. But we'll be playing older shit too, and not trying to lose our minds playing the same set every month. We'll be trying to throw different things in here and there.

So the band's not becoming a stadium headliner for 10,000 people?

(laughs) I think we're just gradually increasing what we've been building the past few years. It's baby steps forward. We're a club band primarily. We're not playing to thousands of people every night right now. Who knows, maybe in the future, we'll see. If the people want it, they want it. None of us care very much.

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