David Vassalotti talks Merchandise, 'Broken Rope,' the Tampa music scene and more
Sarah Sings, the sixth track of David Vassalotti’s new album Broken Rope, ends with about 20 seconds of his pit bull, Enzo, whimpering in content. It’s one of the most endearing and affecting moments on an album that — by Vassalotti’s own admission — can get a little weird and asbstract.
“He’s changed my life these last few years,” the singer and guitarist said of Enzo. “We just bonded in a way that I had never really experienced before. He brought some profound knowledge to me, so I had to put him on the record somewhere.”
At times arty and noisy, at others sweet and melodic, Broken Rope is Vassalotti’s second solo LP, and the latest chapter in diverse and busy musical life in Tampa Bay. He’s played in numerous indie, punk and experimental bands over the years — none more famous than outsider indie group Merchandise, which signed to esteemed British label 4AD in 2014 and swiftly attracted swaths of media attention from outlets like Spin, Pitchfork and NME.
Not all of it was positive. In one interview, Merchandise frontman Carson Cox called Tampa a “cultural wasteland,” which raised hackles around the local music scene. And this wasn’t Cox and Vassalotti’s first brush with controversy — in 2013, their punk side project Church Whip received its share of scorn for naming a tour “Raping the East.”
Vassalotti moved from Tampa to Sarasota last summer, partly to move in with his girlfriend and partly “because I was tired of punk house life,” but he still comes back for events every couple of weeks. He’s not planning to tour behind Broken Rope, but said he’s hard at work on Merchandise’s follow-up to 2014’s After the End.
“The next Merch record will be out sometime within the next year,” he said. “And it will be good. I promise.”
Here, Vassalotti talked about Broken Rope, Merchandise and more.
Where are things with Merchandise? Are you guys playing any shows or festivals this summer?
No, we are taking it easy. We’re working on a new record, so it’s pretty much just all been recording back and forth. Carson’s been living up in New York City for the past couple of months, so it’s just been a lot of satellite recordings and stuff. We haven’t been able to get together physically and work things out.
Where do you record your end? There at your place?
Just at my house. I record it all here.
Is that the same with Broken Rope? Did you record everything at home?
Yeah, it was all on my laptop.
How did you set yourself up? What was the key to getting the sound you wanted out of a home studio?
A lot of years of bad recording. I always used pretty basic means. I did the whole record on Audacity, which is the freeware program that anybody can download, and I have one $100 microphone and a $30 interface, and that’s what I made everything on. It was a lot of fine-tuning and listening to things over and over again, tweaking them little by little to make it sound like it was actually recorded in a real studio by somebody that knows what they’re doing. But I just kind of made it up as I went along.
And you played everything on Broken Rope yourself?
How’d you meet Carson?
He recorded another punk band that I was in back in 2004 or ’05. It was before Cult Ritual. He used to do sound at the Skatepark of Tampa, and my band wanted to record our demo, and we had no money, so he was the only person in town that would do it for that cheap. And we ended up hitting it off, just sort of talking about music. We had a lot of similar interests, and just over time, we really clicked. But it was a while before we actually played music together.
You mean publicly? Or did you play for fun, just sitting around?
Before Merchandise was ever really a thing, he and I would do sort of long, aimless recording sessions, just me and him, doing instrumental stuff for hours into the night. But it never had a name. It wasn’t really a band. It was just kind of experimenting with things.
Were you writing songs for yourself all this time?
Yeah, I’ve been writing songs for myself going back to high school. It was always around doing all the bands, but it was never the main focus.
How far back do the songs on Broken Rope go?
There’s definitely new and old throughout the record. One of the songs goes back to 2009. But it was rewritten, so it’s about half the same song that it was then. Whenever I have something in the background for so long, I always revisit and revise it. There’s pieces on the record that go back six, seven years, but it’s all been filtered through my brain as it is now.
Was all of it always earmarked for a solo project, or are there elements here that maybe didn’t fit in with Merchandise or something else?
Yeah, some of the songs I had originally recorded as demos to be on Merchandise records, and either there wasn’t room for them or they didn’t fit stylistically with what we were doing. When I write songs, I don’t really try and differentiate which one will go where. They usually fall in their own place.
I could hear it a little bit on some of the songs on this album, like Ines De Castro or Broken Rope, have that sort of more melodic sound.
Yeah, all the melodic guitar ones had the potential to be Merch songs at one point. And all the weird noise-synth stuff was always going to be mine.
There’s definitely bit of back and forth between those two styles. Do you think of it as an album, to be played front to back, or is this sort of a collection of songs you just wanted to record?
No, it’s definitely an album as a whole. It may not really seem like it, but it was composed to be listened to from front to back, with an A-side and a B-side, all as one big piece. There’s some themes that repeat themselves throughout. It is kind of abstract.
We’ve written about Merchandise a few times over the years here and there, although Carson, from what I can tell, doesn’t like to talk to local media.
He doesn’t like talking to anybody. (laughs)
It seems like the band doesn’t mind staying out of the local spotlight. How does the way you manager your own career differ from the way that Merchandise has operated?
I’d say with Merchandise, there’s more people to consider, and there’s more cooks in the kitchen. Whenever one person feels a certain way, there’s always a back and forth. But when it’s my own stuff, I don’t even think about it. I just take everything as it comes, and I don’t try to push it down anyone’s throat. I spent no money making this record, so even if I don’t sell a single copy, I’m not out anything. I’m just doing it for truth and for exploration and the love of music.
I think Merchandise’s problematics with the local Tampa scene sort of stem back from us being snotty punk kids and not getting along with anybody. We always just did our own thing forever. And I think we just wanted to keep it that way and pretend like we were still in our own little bubble, even within the city. But I don’t really feel exclusive. I don’t have any beef with anybody.
A couple of years ago, around the time After the End came out, you had all this publicity, and there were those quotes (from Cox) about the Tampa scene. Did any of that come back to you personally, or did everybody that you know in the scene — your friends and family and everything — understand? How did it feel, being on the other side?
I think there was some drama. But overall, it wasn’t anything that crazy. Our friends know how we stand with things. And the press always tends to distort things and take things out of context, even if it’s not meant how you originally said it. So I think some of the things that people took as insults or took the wrong way were really not meant to be malicious. But Carson does tend to have a big mouth sometimes.
Between that and the Church Whip tour controversy, did any of that inform how you’ve evolved since then? What did you take away from those experiences as you prepared for this solo album?
I just put them in the back of my mind. Especially now, I feel like Internet drama and Facebook drama and all this stuff, really it’s a poisonous environment. So I just try and steer clear of it. It’s too many distractions. It can be hard. So when making a record, I just try and not think about any of it. I never really read any reviews or interviews that I’ve done. I just tune it all out. Because it makes me feel crazy.
Do you feel pressure to follow After the End with something unique or different?
We always feel a certain amount of pressure, even before we were on 4AD. Just putting something out in the world, you want it to be worth people’s time, and worth your own time, and to push the great conversation forward. We’ve been working on this new record for pretty much a year already. It’s getting close to being done, but I don’t expect it to be out until maybe the end of this year.
But it’s going to be pretty different from After the End, because we’ve gone through a pretty significant lineup change, and now it’s back to pretty much just me and Carson recording everything. Whereas After the End, we were trying to be this big, full rock band, and in some ways it worked, and in some ways it didn’t work. We’re just following our own muses now and seeing where that takes us.
How has life been as part of the 4AD family? Has it opened any cool doors or helped you fulfill any lifelong dreams?
Eh, not really. I think it’s one of those things that you hold (with) very lofty expectations in your head, but in reality, it’s just another business, just another record label. They have their pros, they have their cons; there are some things I like about working with them, some things I don’t. They’re not the same label they were in the ’80s. But at the other end, being on 4AD is also a boyhood dream that I never thought would come true, so just having that on the back of the record is still cool to me.
Yeah, it’s just another business. I don’t think of them as this lofty entity like I used to. But that goes the same with any of the other labels, because we met with so many, like Matador, Rough Trade, all the classic indie labels. They all have redeeming factors, and they all still put out some cool stuff, but at the end of the day, they’re just humans, and nothing’s really sacred.
You’re not going to tour off of Broken Rope at all, right?
No. I may end up doing some solo shows later this year, or early next year, but I’m not really that into playing live at the moment. I’m kind of burnt out from all those Merchandise tours.
No festival gigs? Because you’ve gotten some very high-profile press for your solo work, from Pitchfork and Stereogum and stuff like that, so peolpe know your name and know your music.
Some guy in France hit me up to play a festival, but it’s expensive to get out there, and I just got this job, and I need to save some money. So it’s one of those things — if 20 festivals hit me up, I’d be able to do it. But I can’t really afford to go over there and do one show.
-- Jay Cridlin