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The Murky World of Merchandise

Tampa, FL band Merchandise has been around since 2008, but no one could blame you if you hadn’t heard of it until now. Up until about a year ago, band members’ punk ethos dictated that they do things like record on broken equipment and turn down offers for long features from tastemakers like Pitchfork. But, just as the band’s music has evolved from its punk and hardcore beginnings, its philosophy has, too.

After years of sharing their music for free, culling fans from around the globe and hitting many of the stops on the punk life map laid out in that excellent history of the genre, Our Band Could Be Your Life—working crummy minimum-wage jobs, favoring non-traditional venues on tour, etc.—the members of Merchandise have had to face the fact that a lot of people think they’re great. And in order to reach all those people, they’ve made certain compromises with regard to their claims about not wanting to be part of the big music industry machine. This year, they played the decidedly un-small Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona, and they’re slated for this weekend’s Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.

All this, combined with Merchandise’s tendency to blend the palatable pop sensibilities of ’80s new wave and a melancholy that calls to mind early Morrissey with shrill noise and frenetic saxophone makes the group a little bit puzzling. I say as much to guitarist Dave Vassalotti, who’s known for his decidedly straightforward attacks on his instrument onstage.

“I think ambiguity is a beautiful thing,” he says, “and I think I’ll leave it at that.”

Thankfully, on other topics, he is more forthcoming. “It was something different than we’re used to. We’re used to playing basements and garages and stuff like that,” he says of Merchandise’s recent spate of big gigs. “I feel like if you go out there with confidence, you can make the best out of it. We’re going to be playing some huge stages.”

The confidence the band needs to take on this next step is something its members—singer Carson Cox, guitarist Vassalotti, drummer Elsner Nino and saxophonist Chris Horn—began developing in their punk and hardcore days on the tight-knit Tampa scene.

“We’ve grown up playing punk, and it’s how we all met each other and how we learned to play our instruments and all that,” Vassalotti, who attribute’s his band’s fierce individualism to Tampa’s “constructive insanity,” says. “It seems weird now watching punk and hardcore bands getting popular in the indie-rock world, but I think it can say a lot, coming from that place, because you have to do everything for yourself and come up from nothing.”

That sense of self-sufficiency permeates both Merchandise’s lyrics (from “Winter’s Dream”: “I’d rather kill myself/ Than to be somebody else”) and its public persona. Take this quote from Cox, from a 2012 interview with Pitchfork: “With punk, you count on no one but yourself. That is, to me, the most important experience.”

The band’s decision not to step out into the limelight until fairly recently has served it well in a way members didn’t anticipate—it gave them time to develop their sound, from the downer-pop of their first proper LP, 2010’s (Strange Songs) In the Dark, to something rich, emotional and increasingly hard to peg. 

With this focus on a honed sonic identity, Merchandise is racking up fans, especially abroad. The group recently made its first trip to Europe, and is planning to return after a brief run in the U.S. this summer. The Caledonia show this week kicks off the first of only seven shows in the band’s home country before it crosses the pond for an extensive European jaunt. Merchandise’s most recent LP, Totale Nite, has been quite well received there.

“A lot of the reviews in the UK and France have been pretty stellar, but people in the States have not taken on to it,” says Vassalotti. “You can definitely see a divide there. I’ve noticed a lot more enthusiasm from the European press. I think they are a lot more open to new things.”

And even at home, the band is enjoying a modicum of success. The members of Merchandise have finally been able to quit the minimum-wage jobs that supported them through the first five years of their career. (“I was the last to quit, and I did so pretty recently,” Vassalotti says.) Still, some of the band’s DIY tendencies remain. For instance, the band still collects donations through its website.

“Kickstarter [has] always left a pretty bad taste in our mouth,” Vassalotti confides. “I’ve just seen so many poorly done ones, where people should just do the work themselves.”

If this sounds a bit hypocritical, consider that all of Merchandise’s music has always been and continues to be downloadable, for free, with the band’s blessing. “That’s how we got into the music that we like—the first file-sharing generation and all that,” Vassalotti explains.

Merchandise continues to garner increasing name recognition, but who its members are, what they stand for, remains murky. They espouse punk virtues without making punk music. They refuse to neatly tie up their identity in punchy marketing material. They’ve railed against the music industry in interviews, and yet they have increasingly become a willing participant in it.

They also make lovely, often challenging music that defies categorization. And in the end, that might be what really matters. The ambiguity that surrounds it? It’s a beautiful thing.

WHO: Merchandise, Shaved Christ, RITVAL
WHERE: Caledonia Lounge
WHEN: Wednesday, July 17, 9:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $6 (21+), $8 (18-20)