Who: Carson Cox, Dave Vassalotti, and Patrick Brady, three vets of the Tampa, Florida hardcore scene who, as Merchandise, specialize in shape-shifting noise-pop that suggests a wealth of interests beyond the boundaries of punk. But Cox, 26, describes his work in the Tampa scene as that of both architect and disciple, having resolved to begin recording his bands, his friends’ bands, and distribute cassette tapes from home each time he left to travel or tour. “To say it’s a hardcore scene is funny because, yeah, it was,” Cox explains. “But that was just the surface. Below it, if you were involved in it, there was a lot of music and a lot of art, from pop to punk. You learned way more than you would in college.” And what began as a purely personal, “thoroughly humiliating” songwriting project for Cox has bloomed into a fully functioning band, one whose signature has become a top priority for nearly every major independent label.
Sounds Like: “I have this really strange obsession with Merchandise morphing into the Band,” Cox says. “Like a really weird, country-reggae band. In my head, that’s what we’re doing. We’re not playing anything gothic.” Though this year’s Children of Desire is redolent of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Depeche Mode, and the Smiths, it’s also a career-vaulting effort that shirks easy categorization. “You read about classic bands and the Minutemen almost never talk about punk,” says Cox, whose hand-combed croon was modeled after Morrissey’s, but was also shaped by a childhood spent singing along to musicals. “It was weird that [the Minutemen] were a punk band because it seemed like that was the music they liked the least. They were more into James Brown, you know? Less punk, more about developing something different, and playing whatever you want.”
Bigger Is Not Better: In recent years, hardcore has become a major component of the indie-rock mainstream, a development Cox says he doesn’t fully understand. “Can what you see in a warehouse in Tampa exist on a stage at a huge festival? I don’t think it can,” he says. “You can’t see Fucked Up at a festival and say it’s the same thing as seeing Fucked Up just as they put out their first seven-inch. That’s not a moral judgment; one is just different from the other. I don’t really identify with a lot of the hardcore bands that are making it right now. If you’re going to play [to a larger audience], I feel like you should play really beautiful music. Because I don’t feel like you can bring punk into that world and pacify it. I don’t want to play with big punk bands. I want to play with amazing pop musicians, people who have an affinity for strangeness. I want to sound as good as we can.”
Great Expectations: Early next year, Merchandise will release the follow-up to Children Of Desire, an as-yet-untitled, classical, and jazz-informed four-song full-length (on tiny Iowa City label Night People) that Cox worries may be too experimental for those who have just discovered his band. “It’s a really, really strange record,” he says. “I’ve never done anything like it. It’s easy to work on a pop record because you can understand the desirability of the music. But this is different, definitely a ‘smoke weed’ kind of record. I’m a little nervous. I didn’t expect any of this attention. I thought the punks were going to hate [Children of Desire], but it’s been the most successful record I’ve ever made. I don’t know. Maybe the response will be good.”