Why Merchandise's Carson Cox Feels More at Home in Underground Film Than the Music Scene
To paraphrase The Lonely Island's "Jack Sparrow": It turns out Carson Cox is a major cinephile.
When the topic of his work as the band's video director comes up, the Merchandise singer reveals a depth of movie knowledge that would put most film students and critics to shame. It isn't surprising that Merchandise's core trio of Cox, Dave Vassalotti, and Patrick Brady are so well-versed in the arts. They've long put most other bands in the D.I.Y. community to shame with their beautifully designed album covers, merch, and haunting music videos. And that's without even touching on the band's formidable discography.
Starting off in Tampa, Florida as a tight-knit trio of noisy art-rockers that recorded albums in their closets, Merchandise have grown from being a group that joked about being a 4AD band by drawing the label's logo on their test pressings to actually becoming a 4AD band. Their appreciation for the label makes perfect sense, considering the band's love of dreamy sonic textures and goth romanticism.
Merchandise's latest album, A Corpse Wired for Sound, is as sharp and sweet as a razor blade tucked into a candy apple. It marries the widescreen sound and lush melodies of groups like Echo & The Bunnymen and The Church with modern-era noise, reminding listeners that the new romantics in Merchandise are also touring buddies with eardrum-shredding groups like Destruction Unit.
We got a chance to speak with Cox as the band drove to the next tour stop in Boise. We talked about movies, British punks The Mekons, and what it's like being a three-piece again.
New Times: You've scaled back as a group between the release of After The End and A Corpse Wired for Sound. How's it been touring as a trio again?
Carson Cox: We're actually touring as a four-piece right now. We have a live drummer, but it still feels pretty scaled back in an intensive way. We've been able to do more of our older repertoire and find a better balance between the new material and the older stuff. On our last tour, we could pretty much only do new songs.
Considering the fact that you all live far apart from each other, how does that impact your creative process? Do you send ideas back and forth and write songs remotely, or do you wait until you're together in a room to come up with material?
I don't know – it kind of always varies. Even when we were all living in the same house or in the same city, we were always working independently on songs or videos for the band, or working on our own projects or doing stuff for other bands. I've got a lot of friends when they're together at band practice; we've almost never done that as a band.
Most of your albums have been self-produced and recorded, but for A Corpse Wired for Sound you worked in a full-on studio for the first time. Is that something the band is interested in exploring further for future releases, or do you envision Merchandise going back to home recording after this album?
We did a good percent of the record at home; we left the studio with a good framework for the record. Dave and I recorded a lot of stuff at his house. We never went complete studio. In a way, it'd be nice – there are sacrifices you have to make for recording outside the studio. We still have the home recorders, so we're into working with both styles, really.
Your music videos really stand out. They have such a clearly thought-out and distinct aesthetic sensibility to them. Since you direct and edit Merchandise's videos, I was wondering how much of a background you have in working with film. Was doing this kind of work something that appealed to you before the band started, or is it something you kind of fell into as the music took off?
I feel like it's always gone side by side – music and film. The editing interfaces for video and music are very similar to each other. You can apply a lot of the same concepts to each. I've always worked in both forms. ... I love making videos. I've made videos that I haven't made available for anyone, that I've only played for certain friends. I've always been fascinated with it. Sometimes I try to justify just doing one or the other, like I should just focus on one art form, but I love them both so much.
As a director, what are some of your influences? I was watching the video for “Crystal Cage” yesterday and it had a really strong Kenneth Anger vibe to it.
Yeah, I love Ken Anger and Maya Deren. There are a lot of people who make great short films – I like Polanski's short films a lot. Stan Brakhage ... Joseph Cornell's weird Rose Hobart stuff. And Jonas Mekas — that whole underground '50s filmmaking school. Whenever I go to New York, I try to go to Anthology Archives. They have the best repertoire for any movie house anywhere. I've never been disappointed. I've even gone there to watch TV shows that hadn't been released on video until recently. They'll show anything, no matter how obscure it is.
With digital stuff making everything more available, it's easier for me to see that stuff. Like Standish Lawder's The Corridor – that's the first time I heard Terry Riley. I've always really been into those kind of films — seeing Taxi Driver, Godard's Weekend. I wasn't a big reader growing up, so all my stories came from movies.
I got a chance to go to Anthology a few years ago. They were doing a screening of Tony Conrad's The Flicker, and watching it literally messed me up for hours afterward.
If I was still living in New York, I would never be anywhere else. In fact, I've felt more embraced by the underground film scene because sometimes it feels more open-minded than music. If you're into underground film, you can like lots of stuff: You can be into horror, art films, schlocky commercial stuff. Music is way more divided. People are like “I'm this kind of person, I'm that kind of person.” I like the openness of film versus the cliquishness of music.
It's funny that you say you weren't much of a reader, 'cause your lyrics always struck me as pretty evocative and poetic.
Writing lyrics is something I've done over a long period of time, and I have a weird way of doing it. Dave's written a lot of the lyrics for the songs on our discography. We've always had this back and forth, because I like his lyrics a lot. We kind of play off of each other. From the first demo on, we've shared our common interest in lyricists like Bowie and Scott Walker. We're trying to find a counterpoint to the music. So if it's like really melodic or lush, we try to find something that's... with the new songs, a lot of the imagery is pretty violent, whereas the sound of the music is very romantic. So they play off each other in an interesting, Ballard-esque way.
Are you guys working on new material while you're together on the road?
We've done some improv on the road, and we've recorded a few new songs. There were about 20 songs we cut from the record; we had a lot of material. We've brought some of those in, we've rediscovered some older songs, but we try to keep it neat cause we're playing in front of an audience. My dream is just to play new stuff all the time! Not even play recorded stuff. But that doesn't really work in practice – you've got to play songs that people know.
In past interviews, you've mentioned that The Mekons were a big influence for the band. That intrigued me, because they're one of my favorite groups. I was wondering what kind of inspiration you drew from them? What did you hear in their music that resonated with what Merchandise was trying to do?
While we were doing the second record, we were listening to Fear and Whiskey a lot. The Mekons are an inspiring band because they love Hank Williams Sr., but they're from Leeds and they use drum machines. It's this combination of tastes that would repel this type of listener and that type of listener, so you were forced to listen to the band and not the genre. We were really into that.
It's funny, too, because we were in Florida at the time where we felt isolated. In Florida, we're taught to feel like we're not part of anything, not part of the country or any cultural movement. So there were all these people like The Mekons on the outskirts of it too, in underground music in the '80s and '90s. Before the digital revolution, before you could just put your stuff up on Bandcamp and find an audience immediately. They had to grow in different ways, so we really felt a kinship to that.
Merchandise are playing on Saturday, June 10, at Valley Bar.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.