ORLANDO — The gear is loaded in, the instruments set and tuned. The band is lingering near the back of Park Ave CDs, watching fans trickle in from the rain. Carson Cox nods to a small group hovering near the makeshift stage.
"You get a sense of our Florida fan base," the singer says. "I think we got more at our in-store in Berlin."
Berlin, this isn't. This is Orlando, where Cox and his band, Merchandise, are about to play the first stop on a weeklong promotional tour of their home state. The Tampa indie rockers are gearing up for Friday's release of A Corpse Wired For Sound, their second album. That night, the band will play a show in Ybor City before embarking on a three-month tour of North America and Europe.
It's a huge week for a group that occupies a spotlight rarely bestowed on artists from Tampa Bay. Over the past eight years, Merchandise has been anointed a Very Cool Band by outlets like the New York Times, Spin, Billboard, Pitchfork and NME. They're not pop-famous, but they've enjoyed real critical acclaim, and have played huge gigs around the world, representing the city of Tampa in ways few musicians ever have. In the local music scene, you'd think this would be cause to celebrate.
Yet Merchandise has a complicated relationship with its hometown, one that on both sides doesn't always feel like love. Two years ago, when Cox described Tampa as a "cultural wasteland" in the pages of a British magazine, comment threads and local taverns alike lit up with indignant Florida voices largely asking the same question:
Who do these guys think they are?
• • •
Merchandise has never behaved like most local bands.
Cox, 30, grew up in West Tampa, attended Chamberlain High School, went to Bo's Ice Cream every day in the summer. He says he wasn't a great student but he played music, wrote poetry, studied drama and, at the urging of an English teacher who introduced him to Brian Eno and Lou Reed, embraced avant garde music, art, literature and cinema.
After high school he spent some time in New York, but also worked in local restaurants and handled sound for concerts at the Skatepark of Tampa, where he met guitarist David Vassalotti and bassist Patrick Brady. They bonded in the local DIY punk and hardcore scene, discovered shared loves of jazz and world music, and hung out at Ybor City's Goth institution the Castle.
About a decade ago, the three began playing together. They staged house shows, street shows, storage unit shows — basically any spot where they could be in total control, playing noisy, difficult-to-categorize songs they self-recorded at home. Even to those who followed the local music scene, they were an enigma, eschewing the spotlight, content to operate on Tampa Bay's darker fringes.
"I thought Tampa was actually pushing the boundaries of avant garde," Cox says. "I felt that there was a really powerful underground here."
Their rigid adherence to authenticity piqued the interest of punk fans along the East Coast, including influential music websites like Pitchfork and Stereogum. In 2013, Merchandise played huge festivals in America and Europe, including Barcelona's prestigious Primavera Sound.
When they finally signed with esteemed British record label 4AD — the former home of Bauhaus, Pixies and Bon Iver — the move made sense. Merchandise's prickly style had evolved into a softer, swoonier, more romantic sound. Their 2014 album After the End was a critical success, earning comparisons to the Smiths, Joy Division and Cocteau Twins. NME and Stereogum named it one of the year's 10 best albums. That fall, the band made its television debut — in France, of all places, on the program Album de la Semaine.
"Bonsoir; how y'all doin'?" a chuckling Cox told the French studio audience. "We're Merchandise, from Tampa Bay."
If only that was all he had to say.
• • •
Charismatic and boyishly handsome, Cox did a lot of interviews for After the End. One in particular, with London's hip Dazed magazine, struck a nerve.
The tone of the piece might sound familiar to the sensitive souls of Tampa's creative class: Out-of-town writer sneers at "America's corniest city," with its "strip malls and demolished strip malls," "street-walkers, empty buildings, and sketchy hotels with hourly rates."
Here's where you might expect Cox to stand up for his hometown, as he has in other interviews. Instead, he said this: "I'm proud of the fact that we did this in a cultural wasteland, that we made something we think is intelligent in a place where they just don't want anything intelligent. America's pretty corny, but Tampa's super corny." For good measure, he added: "I feel kindred to people who live in disenfranchised places."
The whole piece dripped with condescension. In the comments, local scenesters tossed out words like "pretentious," "arrogant," "pseudo-intellectual" and "garbage." Wrote one local musician: "Carson Cox — GO THE HELL AWAY!"
"It was definitely the conversation piece of the week," says Tampa musician Jeremy Gloff, one of the kinder critics who chimed in. "They're from the punk scene, which is all about supporting small cities and places that aren't hip, thinking outside the box. If you're going to come from that place, be supportive of the city that you live in, that you're a part of."
Shortly after the Dazed interview, Merchandise played an album release party at the Hub in Tampa. Any tension in the room was mollified by Merchandise's sloppy, drunken performance — parts of the night, Cox says he doesn't remember — but it never fully went away.
"How much did people say to my face? Nothing," Cox says now. "It was all the Internet. It was all people taking a s--- on their smartphone and saying, da-da-da-da-da, this-this-this, that-that-that. It was funny. In general, people were talking to me like I didn't know what I was talking about."
Cox admits his comments back then were fueled in part by "ego," but also "misconstrued by a lot of people." He says he's since learned a lot about the music industry ("I think we were very naive two years ago, and I would say we're less naive now"), and that even today, Merchandise is still trying to figure out how to navigate its niche success.
"It's been difficult to go from playing a storage unit on 50th and Hillsborough to the Bowery Ballroom," he says. "There was sort of a disconnect there, because we really were a garage, DIY-space band, and we started playing these huge venues, and we didn't sound right at all. I think it's taken us years to not just be comfortable with ourselves, but comfortable with everything."
But he remains outraged by the "progressive gentrification" of Seminole Heights, arguing that the neighborhood's influx of hip bars and restaurants — one of which, he says, threatened to blackball him after the Dazed piece — is symbolic of capitalism's corrosive effects on a community. As he sees it, the cheap homes and dingy warehouses from which Merchandise arose have largely been pushed out. The DIY scene he knew is gone.
"I think people just need there to be money involved in order to be comfortable," he said. "And on some level, everyone's comfort is someone else's suffering."
For the past two years, Tampa remained Merchandise's base of operations, even as its core trio splintered outward. Vassalotti moved to Sarasota for a day job; he and Cox wrote A Corpse Wired For Sound largely by email. Brady stuck around ("There's a lot of cool stuff happening in Tampa," he says), but Cox drifted between New York, Berlin and Washington D.C. His family still lives in Tampa, but he recently got rid of a storage unit, his last physical footprint in the city.
"The opportunity to be a weird, avant garde, independent music artist is not really in Tampa," he said. "Do I consider myself living in Florida right now? Not really. But I don't really consider myself living anywhere at all, actually. Geographically, I don't think I'm attached to any real place anymore."
• • •
The day after the Orlando show, Merchandise is back in Tampa to plug the new album in its own backyard. In the morning, they make a surreal appearance on Tampa Bay's Morning Blend, a chipper 10 a.m. show on WFTS-Ch. 28. One host compares them to the Killers. "Shoot, we'll take any compliment we can get," Cox says.
That night, they're back at a favorite haunt, Mojo Books and Records near the University of South Florida, where Vassalotti graduated with a literature degree and later worked. There is no stage at Mojo. Here, the band will set up on the floor, eye-to-eye with fans, backed by shelves of Salinger and Wallace. It'll be their first hometown show since January 2015, and their first as headliners since the Hub.
Asked how he thinks it's going to go, Vassalotti shrugs.
"I'm expecting at best, neutral; at worst, downright hostile," he says. "It's free. There's gonna be free beer. Even for people that hate us, they can have a drink and heckle us."
But the room fills quickly with friends, family, musicians, writers, people in local band T-shirts. Hugs are exchanged. A stack of CDs of A Corpse Wired For Sound sells out quickly; vinyl copies move fast, too. At one point there must be 90 people crammed amongst the stacks — easily triple the turnout in Orlando.
As the minutes tick down to their performance, Vassalotti tries something new. He starts noodling around on his guitar, strumming out soft notes and looping them into a swirl of deep, psychedelic tones. Cox sits on the floor, legs crossed, silently nodding as the song unspools slowly but beautifully, like a film score.
Some fans around them keep talking. But many nod along with Cox as Vassalotti strings a song out of nothing, working out on the fly where the music will take them next.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.