Merchandise was never meant to be a full-time band.
Back in 2009, the members of the Tampa outfit—Carson Cox, Pat Brady and Dave Vassalotti—began recording and releasing 7-inches and cassettes of fuzzy post-punk songs, with titles like Gone Are the Silk Gardens of Youth and Terminal Jagger Jane's Addiction Box Set. The band recorded songs in Cox's bedroom and played a handful of shows in warehouses and storage units.
For Cox, a veteran of the Tampa hardcore scene, that was as far as he thought it would go. But last year, Merchandise's third album, Children of Desire, earned the acclaim of an array of blogs, magazines and websites. Much of the appeal of Children of Desire stems from a simultaneous feeling of being both exotic and familiar: On some level, Merchandise's sound recalled the heavy fuzz of bands like My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain, but with a dreamy dose of pure pop beneath the distorted exterior.
The buzz caught the band by surprise.
"We didn't think anyone was going to like it," Cox says, speaking by phone from his home in Tampa.
In the wake of the positive response, the band began to focus intensely on live performances. Cox says they've become much more impressive than the handful of shambolic punk shows the band played in the last five years.
"We weren't really playing that many shows before," he says. "The year before [we released] the last record, we played about three shows, but last year we did a lot of touring.
"Live, the songs sound incredible," he adds. "We've been rehearsing, and we're the best we've ever sounded live."
Now, Merchandise is preparing the release of a new record, Totale Nite, which comes out April 2 on NightPeople Records. It has only five songs, but it's almost as long as its predecessor. Yet Totale Nite sounds much more dissonant and dark; Cox says he's heard the album described as "head-rattling."
Where Children of Desire combined the distorted shoegazer sensibility of The Jesus and Mary Chain with the jangly melodicism of The Smiths, Totale Nite descends into much stranger territory—from the reverb-heavy industrial rock of "Anxiety's Door" to the sprawling no-wave grind of the title track, whose abrasive saxophone part makes it that much harsher.
In a sense, Totale Nite is almost like Children of Desire's evil twin. And that's fitting.
"All the songs were written at the same time, but these were all the bastards—the freaks," Cox says. "They didn't really seem like pop songs or ballads. But, thematically, they kinda fit together on their own. We weren't going to put it out, but Night-People offered to do it, so we did."
Lyrically, Totale Nite is a considerably darker record, as well. Take, for instance, the title, which Cox says is a symbolic reference to personal and psychological troubles.
"It's a figurative night, or a mental night," he explains. "It's the dark space in my head. I was exploring dark space, and desire comes up—loss, anxiety. It's extreme midnight."
The songs dive into deeply personal realms: Album highlight "Anxiety's Door" deals largely in abstract but vivid imagery, as Cox describes seeing "old men sleep in the road" and begins the track by declaring, "Some things are never really there."
Those things, in this case, refer to anxiety itself.
"In your brain, you can't change it," Cox says. "That's kind of how anxiety works. When I step onto a plane, I know it's not going to crash. But it still freaks me out."
The closing track, "Winter's Dream," is a particularly mournful dirge that finds Cox confessing, "The greatest joy I ever had was killing him." But the "him," in this case, is Cox. And despite the song's elegiac tone, he's come to accept that metaphorical death of an older version of himself.
"Life goes in chapters, and we go through figurative deaths," Cox says. "The world turned, and I'm a new person. I can't say I'm the same person I was when I was 18. The person I think I am changes.
"The song is all about the end of that season," he continues. "It was written and recorded in winter, but after winter comes spring. So, at least symbolically, there's a symbol of death and renewal. I mean, I'm still here, making music. But that person is gone.
"And I'm not really sad about that person being gone. That person made mistakes and ruined relationships," Cox admits. "I can be critical of myself."
As dark as his songs may be, Cox has undoubtedly reached a positive stage in his music-making, as Merchandise's listenership continues to expand. Yet, despite the band's growing popularity and increasingly busy tour schedule, Cox still expresses some doubts about finding a widespread audience for an album like Totale Nite.
"It's the polar opposite of dance music to me," he says. "It's not something you can spin in mixed company. Put it on and you'll drive people out of the house.... Unless you hang out with freaks."
Merchandise plays with Wet Hair, Ditches and DJ Art Vandelay at Soda Bar on Wednesday, March 20.