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Merchandise's Carson Cox Q&A: 'Bands Are Fucking Boring And Stupid And Don't Know What They're Doing'

By Matt Wilkinson

Matt Wilkinson on Google+

Posted on 16 Jan 14

 
Merchandise's Carson Cox Q&A: 'Bands Are Fucking Boring And Stupid And Don't Know What They're Doing'
 

Merchandise are back this week with big news: an epic new song called 'Begging For Your Life/In The City Light', and a new record deal with 4AD. This is no small feat; they've had pretty much every decent label going try to sign them over the past 18 months. I can't recall a new act holding out for quite this long for ages, actually, and the fact they put out two amazing records themselves ('Children Of Desire' and 'Totale Nite') while doing so is even more impressive.

I chatted to frontman Carson Cox about it for the new issue of NME just before Christmas. As is his wont ("I have a bad problem of, you know, blah blah blah," he tells me), the promo interview went on for far longer than the 450 words I was tasked with writing for the mag. So here's the full interview in Q&A form. In it we chat labels, the new tune, the new album, playing corporate shows for cash, selling out, hanging out (with Thurston Moore), Merchandise's history, The Mekons, being a sleaze and what signing to 4AD actually means. It's a long read, but for what it's worth, I think Carson's got more to say on the state of things than practically every other frontman going in 2014...

NME

NME: Let's talk a bit about 4AD - it's very exciting that you've finally signed; it's been a long time coming.

Carson Cox: Yeah it has. I mean, we had to wait, we had to wait a long time. We didn't know anybody, and we were invited to hang out with all these people and we were just like, 'This is a really easy way to fuck up.' It wasn't real when everyone started talking about us. I'd think any minute they're just going to stop talking to us. And that's fine! But it was like, 'Christ, this is tempting but... none of this is real. They can't really offer you anything real.'

NME: And you’re not the kind of band who are looking to get on the industry treadmill...

CC: I guess, but it's actually rad to have an infrastructure. If I was smart, I would have started out pressing records from the beginning. But I was so bad at distributing shit, even when I put out tapes. It's just rad to have really knowledgeable people – technical knowledge that I have no idea about. Stuff like the fastest and smartest way to execute a record. I mean, a lot of the labels that started out like 4AD, like Matador, they just started in this totally backwards way at a really difficult time. And now they've come up so much that it's funny to call them indie labels, because they're so much bigger. But we were talking to Capital, you know? We were getting hit up by these big, weird agencies and that was surreal. Kind of like, 'What the fuck? How could we have overshot so far?! How could we have touched this side of the world?!' It didn't make any sense.

NME: What is it about that world you don't like?

CC: I just like stability. I want to be in control of my band and I want to be able to go on tour because I figured it out. I want to be able to put a record out because we figured it out this way, not because we threw a bunch of money at it, not because of any of that stuff. I'm talking about people who are pragmatic, who know how to put out records. I didn't want to ever be in a position where I was at the mercy of somebody else. It's the same reason why those bands like The Men and Parquet Courts and Milk Music tour. We just cut our teeth doing that, and we figured it out as opposed to paying a manager and all that stuff. We would just do it ourselves.

NME

NME: Do you have a manager yet?

CC: No, we don't.

NME: Is it going to stay that way?

CC: Erm…If it's as chilled as it is right now in Tampa Bay then yes. But I'm not afraid to change, basically. I'm not afraid to be like, 'OK, we need this'. This is an adult situation. You know, I don't want to put my bandmates in jeopardy if we squander anything, whether it's money or whether it's whatever. I would rather not be under-prepared, especially when it's dealing with this world. I feel like a lot of production companies or booking agents will see 'DIY' and they'll think, 'I could pay them less because they're used to shit,' or whatever. So I don't really adhere to that [to not having a manager]. I just have a dogma about us having a manager. If we found somebody who works, we would use them. It's the same as 4AD, it's the same as our buddies who book us in America. They found us and we never forced anything - it was never, 'We've gotta have this, we've gotta have that'. It was more, 'This makes sense and it's been a year so...'.

NME: Why did you go with 4AD in the end?

CC: I think 4AD preserved their history by not trying to repeat it. They don't find bands and they're not trying to re-package an old thing. I respected that they were doing their own thing. We waited a fucking long time. It was over a year, it was more than a year. I mean, we talked to everybody and we were like, 'Yeah, ok, we'll think about it'. And then just moved back home. We took a long time, I feel like we didn't rush into it.

NME: You're gonna be scrutinised a lot more now, but Merchandise is a band where every album seems to sound dramatically different from the last.

CC: And this next one is going to be totally different. It's going to be the first one we've ever done with real drums. We're doing a promo 12-inch ['Begging For Your Life/In The City Light'], it's going to be out in January, and then the proper LP we will drop later.

By signing and becoming that band, do you think you'll have to compromise your sound now?

CC: I dunno. It's weird, because I put every god damn last drop of goddamn blood into it, and it's kind of funny because it's totally the oxygen block. You know… music critics, take whatever you want - listen to it, criticise it, tear it apart, but it really is my everything. Which I know is bizarre, but I feel like we've been inching our way towards this for a while, pretty much since the first time we played a big stage or the first time we did press around 'Children Of Desire'. But if we were to do what everyone was expecting us to do, like burrow back underground, there is no way to erase us from consciousness. We've already had our record on satellite radio. People outside of the circle know about it. It’d be contrived of me to not sign to a label if I thought it was right for us just because we care about what somebody else is going to say about it.

NME: You're probably gonna be asked to do the same stuff as every other signed band now - TV shows, festival tour circuits etc. Will you do all that?

CC: I really detest television culture, like fucking despise it. So that's going to be the most trying thing I've ever done. But if we get asked to do it, we'll do it. We'll stand up to that.

NME

NME: You have to try it, right?

CC: I think it'd be funny. It’d be rad to see all my friends on TV. Even though I'll be on TV too, but to see Elsner [Niño, drums] and Dave [Vassalotti, guitar]. We'd just be these fucking rednecks on TV. I wouldn't be able to turn it down because my mum would fucking kill me if I didn't do it. I really want to play at the BBC again because there are so many covers and so much weird shit, even half-covers, that I want to do. I would come to Maida Vale every day if I lived in London.

NME: Right! I don't understand why bands don't record albums there, the sound's so good...

CC: Because bands are fucking boring and stupid and don't know what they're doing. They don’t care about the crazy history. Most bands don't give a shit. When I was meeting everyone [pre-signing to 4AD], Geoff Travis introduced himself and I was like, 'You don’t need to introduce yourself! I know every record you’ve done from '78! I know who you are!' And I thought to myself, 'Wow, he actually has to introduce himself to some people who don’t know him,' and that seems crazy to me. People who are in a punk band or an indie band and they don't know fucking Stiff Little Fingers or The Raincoats... that's fucking insane! In my head he's like an idol of all that, even though that Morrissey book came out and Morrissey was saying he's a total asshole. Which seems stupid. I met Geoff way later than he did though. But it's crazy to me that nobody knows history. I just can't imagine him introducing himself to people and not knowing who he is.

NME: Do you still consider Merchandise a punk band?

CC: I don't know. I was born after punk died, so whatever – as punk as that can make me. It's weird because in press for so long, we've had this, 'We're the punk band' thing. But at the same time, all the fucking bands that came out of England in the 80s, they didn't seem to be anything alike. The Fall were so weird. And that was the fucking spice of life: let's all be whoever the fuck we want to be. We can obsess over Oscar Wilde or fucking Charles Mason and it doesn't even matter. I feel like it produced the best. Even someone like the fucking Mekons (pictured below), they're still one of my fucking favourites. Like, who sounds like The Mekons?! I don't know anybody! They were just this band from Leeds, and they've had a huge influence of me. And they're still doing their own thing, it's totally fucking weird.

NME

NME: You've got this new standalone track, 'Begging For Your Life/In The City Light'...

CC: Yeah, yeah – the LP doesn't sound anything like it, nothing like it. It's really funny, there are no long songs on the LP. This next LP is the most proper pop record we have ever done. Like, it's kinda sick that 4AD are putting that track out because that's basically our long song for the year. We don't have to put any long songs on the record, so now we can just do a proper, formal pop record. I'm talking about pop rock - R'n'B.



NME: So 'Begging...' isn't gonna be on the album?

CC: No. 4AD wanted to put it out. We did a split tape with Chelsea Light Moving [in 2013] and that was the song which was on our side. We took a week and we were like, alright, we'll do this split with Thurston's band, and we've got to do something weird because of Thurston's reputation. And John [Maloney] and the rest of the players like Keith [Wood], the rest of the band. They’ve all done really seminal things and so we were thinking we couldn't put a pop song out for it. And that was something I was demoing when we were in Europe. I wrote it with my phone, basically. I was just jamming on long rides, trying to keep the brain going or whatever. I think we just had one band practice and we put it together and it went on the tape and we didn’t think anything about it. I just put it away but they really dug it. I couldn't believe they wanted to put it out. It was bizarre! We cut it in one session right before that Chelsea Light Moving tour. The only thing we did slightly different [for the 4AD release] was some extra vocals, because I'm like a nerd and I want there to be different versions of everything.

NME: You should definitely keep doing that, it's a lost art.

CC: It's something I maybe picked up from the English. For the LP we're doing, we're recording tracks specifically for Japan that aren't going to be on the other versions. There's going to be one version just for Japan. Again, it's just an opportunity that we wouldn't have had. For a creative person it's a perfect relationship because you can just be like, 'OK, how about this, this is an idea!' I mean, the video I'm working on right now has nothing to do with the record or anything... I was supposed to be working on a promo video [for 'Begging For Your Life/In The City Light'] but the only video that I've finished is this green screen video. It’s 10 minutes long and it's a song that Dave recorded. I mean, we have so much material, so much stuff that's just waiting, and none of it never really has anything to do with the rest. I don't know how to tie it in to the record.

NME: What stage is the full record at, at the minute?

CC: We're practicing today, this week we are demoing all the songs. We pretty much have all the songs written; there might be one or two more. When we do the records, I listen to all the songs back-to-back and it has to be an album, they have to flow. So we are at the last stages now where we’ve rehearsed. We’ve never done a record where we’ve rehearsed before – we've only ever written in the studio.

NME: Have you got a date when you want it to be completely finished?

CC: End of January. I mean, we've put a lot of work into it so I feel like we're going to reap the benefits. I think I'm going to mix it myself. The last thing came out really well, the track that's coming out. We did a lot of experimenting during recording that. I was watching obsessively this movie Candy, the swinging London one where Ringo Starr plays a Mexican (pictured below). Charles Aznavour, Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau; it's insane. It's basically one of those freak out movies. So I was watching it obsessively, to get that shitty, glammy, sleazy vibe. I was obsessed with it. So when we were recording I was like, 'This needs to be sleazy as fuck. It needs to be like filthy'. We tried to do that, I feel like we're getting better at it. The next record's not going to be that sleazy, but I feel like it's going to be – typical for us – sentimental. Moody and sentimental.

NME


NME: So the vibe is already in place then?

CC: I don't know! It hasn't really shown itself yet. I've been watching a load of Looney Toons, Bugs Bunny cartoons and stuff. That stuff is really great at working my brain. A lot of cartoons and even weird experimental cartoons like Robert Breer. He's a weird American animator. He's super arty, but his style is crazy. I love his stuff, I've always loved his stuff. And Kenneth Anger. I've been an obsessive Kenneth Anger fan for years – makes me feel like an old man.

NME: Have you got any song titles yet?

CC: The record's called 'After The End'. It’s weird because the chapter has already been closed. This is the epilogue. This is the beginning of a new life. 'Totale Nite' was the end of the book. This is a whole new book. It genuinely was the end of everything I knew. Part of me was like, no matter what happens, I want to have three records that are sung this way. And now it's like we can start a new band with basically the same name. We've already, like, exploded our reality – now we're living in our weird acid trip existence. It's like if you went crazy and then became a rock star in your own insane imagination. If you went crazy of course you'd do that, of course you’d be like, 'I'm going to be president'. It’s almost like I've just created my own reality. And now we're going to re-make ourselves as a pop band, but it'll still be a twisted reality. That’s what 'After The End' is. It's not like the end is coming, it's like we're living after the fucking end! A lot of my friends have moved on now, and my life is just so different. A lot of people I used to be close with... other bands who've broken up, gone through countless females. It's after the end, it's way after it. It's like adulthood and adolescence have gone, and you can't return.

NME: Where are you recording 'After The End'?

CC: My closet. My closet, in my bedroom. If we want to play with drum sounds, we record in a different room. We live in the same house, except for Pat.

Is that where the 'Become What You Are' video was filmed, on the roof?

CC: That's the old house. All of us used to live there; Pat did live at that house at one point. That house is literally the most disgusting house in the world. Beyond wretched punk house, disgusting. But this house rules, this is the first adult house I've ever had. Pat lives with my sister. They've been dating for two or three years or something. So it's me, Dave and Elsner on the top floor and then Chris and my old buddy Andrew, he does camera for all of our videos. He's my buddy, still one of my best friends since I was 14-years-old or something like that.

Merkhandise - Become What You Are (downhome) from Id House Vid. Group on Vimeo.



NME: You're taking a leaf out of The Band's book then?

CC: Exactly! Like 'Music From Big Pink'! Precisely. Dude, I mean... you know the story about them. They lived in Woodstock, New York – they didn't live in New York City. They lived in Woodstock and Levon Helm was always talking about how it's good, it's a great place to live. Garth Hudson said something like, 'Whenever we'd have company nothing would get done'. Company meaning crazy groupies and parties and whatever insane drug party that they were having with Bob Dylan. So people said stuff wouldn't get done, but that's where they recorded. 'Music From Big Pink' and The Band's self-titled second LP is to me one of the greatest - it transcends rock'n'roll. It's the most brilliant fucking shit in the world, especially 'Music From Big Pink'. The production on it is so ice cold, it's insane.

NME: It's almost more revered than Velvet Underground these days.

CC: Not that many people listen to the Velvet Underground but they all started bands, right? Well, not a lot of people who listened to The Band started a band! All of those people were bikers or fucking crazy drug addicts; rock'n'roll maniacs…lunatics. They're weird. I feel like The Band is more reggae. Levon Helm is so fucking reggae. I have no idea if they know it or not, and Levon Helm would never know it, because he's dead. I remember the day that he died, we played a show in Olympia the night before. And we were hanging out, just chilling and it was a real bummer. It was a gloomy, rainy day and we were like, 'Fuck, Levon Helm's dead'. It was insane. They're one of my all-time favourites. I like them more than Neil Young. They've put out fewer records, but I still think they're the greatest.

NME: Whenever I go to America I always find myself digging out Chuck Berry and The Band. Wherever I am in the US, it seems to work so well when you're driving there.

CC: That's because you're a rock'n'roll maniac. Just like them, and you crave it. It doesn't exist anymore. It's fucking pathetic and weird and sad. The way bands tour and do this shit is fucking sad. It's so soft and stupid. They're all fucking babies. They want their diapers changed. It’s ridiculous to me. You have to be tough to do this; you have to at least want to be tough. Who cares if you actually are tough? You just have to want it. You don't have to fucking beat up people; you just have to hold your own. The Band is the most hardass [band]. 'We're just going to do what we want.' They were people who would play like nothing could stop them, and you can't say that about bands right now. People are just getting into this shit to get free clothes or something. I don't know what the fuck it is.

NME

NME: You must have experienced gifting lounges yourself by now?

CC: Sometimes it's rad, sometimes it's sick. We've played shit for corporate sponsors. We've played shit for Urban Outfitters. But at the same time, we’ve played shows where I felt like no one wanted us to be there. We played a show in Urban Outfitters once in San Francisco that we flew to. We'd been on tour for 30 days, we were home for one day. We flew to San Francisco, played the show and got on a red eye back home. We didn't even get to hang out in San Francisco. We were there and just playing and people were so bummed, it was like all these mothers and their daughters who look identical to them. They’ve got shopping malls in America and at the weekend you see them and you're like, 'There's the mother and there's the daughter,' and they look the same but one is older. And sometimes they're both babes, and both beautiful. Sometimes the mum is more beautiful. Sometimes the girl is prettier. So there's all these women during the gig with their fucking fingers in their ears, so fucking bummed that there's a band playing and there are live drums, and they're like, 'It’s so loud!', complaining and shopping at the same time. We were like, blah blah blah. It's fucking bullshit. But I don't think it sucks. I mean, we play for corporate sponsors and we get free shit. Whatever – it's like anything else.

I think there's too much emphasis put on keeping rock music sacred, because that doesn't fucking exist. There's no such thing as sacred rock music anymore and I think it's idealistic and stupid to think that way. Maybe when I was younger I thought a little differently, but I had no experience. I had no clue. When we played this show for this Italian jean company, they were like, 'Wear our jeans on stage'. They were 200 euros, an insane amount of money. Even if I just wanted to bring it home and sell it, I would totally do it. And then some of the companies that do this are genuinely small and they are like, 'We think you're cool'. So I think it's arrogant to be all 'Fuck you'. It’s funny to say that, but at the same time, the reality of it is it's a normal ass person. Sometimes I think logos are the fucking ugliest thing in the world though. The thing I miss and the reason I love old movies is because there's not bullshit everywhere like there is today. Everything is tagged and has a label on it, and it's fucking ugly. The world looked so much better without that shit!

NME: I always think with your band there are one or two tunes on each album that immediately stand out. And the others you really have to listen hard to. Can you see that?

CC: Yeah. I feel like we deliberately made 'Totale Nite' the way it was so we could out the formal pop ideas on this one. People are going to think we've gone all traditional because we have real drums on this one. There's stuff that I'm planning to be singles or not singles. Dave has more songs on it too, he's writing more. This record has 'True Monument', 'Little Chore'. I think it has three new songs that are all Dave's. I don't know if you have ever heard his solo record?

I have – funnily enough the first thing we ever wrote in NME on you guys was about Dave's solo stuff. And two weeks later we heard Merchandise and the penny dropped!

CC: Yeah! But dude, when Dave and I were young we didn't have anyone – we were only playing for each other. Everyone just thought we were indie dorks – nobody thought we were doing anything cool. We were the lamest people on earth because we didn’t want to play hardcore all the time. So we would just play to each other.

MW: I think he's one of the most exciting new guitarists around at the moment.

CC: We have some really insane Robert Fripp shit on this next record. Some of the things he's doing with his pedal setup now… he's just bought a 12-string guitar too, an electric 12-string. There are going to be some crazy arrangements, because we've never had an opportunity like this – to actually plan it.

Did Dave and Thurston get on?

CC: I was waiting for the night where Dave was going to play for them, I really thought it was going to happen and you know…it didn't happen. We did it a few times with Milk Music and Destruction Unit. In Boston I just threw my guitar to Alex [Coxen, Milk Music frontman] and it was Alex and Dave going back and forth.

NME

NME: Alex is another amazing guitarist...

CC: I know! It was more like the sort of like insane spirit rock'n'roll thing. We were like, 'Hail this shit!' like Alice Cooper or something. Everyone went crazy. They're our boys, man. They are a very west coast state of mind kind of thing. There's some shit which is very normal and passable on the west coast that just won't fly anywhere else. I don't really know exactly what it is but they're so post 'children being raised by hippies' there. Like, their parents were raised by hippies! So they’re the children of hippy children. They're way far out, they are really far out. They're actually fuckin' groovy and far out... they really are. Some people fake rock'n'roll, but Milk Music are the god damn real thing. I don't know, the tours that we do with them are some of the best.

NME: I was trying to work out how we [NME] could have covered that tour with you, Destruction Unit and Milk Music (pictured below) last year. Three of the best bands in America, all on the road together.

CC: It's crazy, it was like the epitome of the fucking dirty-ass punk rock tour. But, you know, we still had some nicer spots than back in the day, when we didn't have a fucking friend in the world who wanted to help us tour. We had a lot of good friends but there were some raw moments. Everyone was just feeling it. I don't know how to describe it but we want to do it again. I have no idea, what with the change for us now [signing]. I have no idea what that means for, like, who we get to tour with.

NME

What do the people back home think about you signing to a big label, the people in Tampa Bay?

CC: I dunno. I mean, nobody knows what I do still. Nobody really knows. A lot of my closest friends don't realise how much we've done with music. Sometimes I think we're the red-headed stepchild of the music scene, because we weren't cool enough when we were young and now we are way too cool. It’s like they never thought we were anything then and they still don't think we are anything now. I feel like most of my friends don't want to talk about it, don't want to hear it, and there are a lot of people who aren't really my close friends where every time you tell them you are doing well, or they ask you about music, they are just immediately depressed because they can't have anyone doing better than them, you know what I mean? People are bummed immediately that we are doing what we are want, living our dream. So I don't know. I have rigid, stubborn friends and acquaintances.

NME: That 'hate it when our friends become successful' mentality?

CC: It's true, it's true. But my mother is very proud of me and she talks to me about it. Obviously she knows.

NME: The new recordings – they're the first to feature Elsner and Chris [Horn, sax] right?

CC: Yeah. Elsner's playing with the regular kit. He's playing with electronic toms on the new record as well. He’s pretty deep boy. He has insane knowledge, insane DJ knowledge. I think he just thinks he's on a really permanent tour now! I mean, we're really pushing each other's boundaries pretty far. And it feels mutual. But it can be tough; it's very different here [Tampa] than New York [where Elsner's from]. It's extremely different, but it's part of being a working musician. It's really easy for us to live off of whatever we get here. I didn't have much of a job before this. I didn't go to school. I think I was making minimum wage my whole life. So I still have made a more comfortable living doing this than washing dishes. To me, it's like I don't feel like I have a choice. I can either fucking wash dishes for the rest of my life, or work at 7-11, or gamble it all. My mother did a good job of raising me, but if it was up to the schools, they wouldn't give a fuck. I mean, a lot of my class are dead, a lot of people just don't make it, so...

NME: Why is that?

CC: Whatever, because there's no God. They get hooked on drugs. They fucking get into terrible relationships where they fucking destroy each other. Or they're just not smart. I don't know what it is. And they don't love anything. They only love themselves. Something like that.

NME: So you feel like you got lucky?

CC: Hmmm, I don't know. There was a long time when I didn't feel lucky. I haven't always been travelling the world and playing music. There were so many years of nothing. It's hard. It's hard to do it. You have to fucking give up the notion that you're going to make a living off of it in order to actually pursue it, I think. I think that's the same with anything – if you want to be a writer, or you want to be an actor or do something that's risky, you can't just go to a cool art school. It doesn't really work, unless you want to be in a fucking boring-ass academic dumb shit world. If you want to be a part of real life, and talk to real humans and not just creeps in suits, I feel like you have to do something different. You have to be somewhat brave just to be alive, you know?

NME: It must have been the same when it came to signing – do you go with the suits or not?

CC: Yeah. But the thing is, we're scraping the bottom of the barrel with any kind of traditional society now. Do you know what I mean? Nobody cares about anything. I feel like I grew up in an extremely conservative way. My city, my family, the church.... it was super conservative. It was a very normal, conservative American thing. And the music industry is surrounded by funny people too.

 
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