“I just quit my job,” David Vassalotti tells CL over the phone last Friday. The 29-year-old guitarist apparently doesn’t run errands around an office anymore and is checking in from Sarasota, where he lives with his girlfriend and their pitbull, who is named after transavantgarde Italian painter Enzo Cucchi.
It’s two weeks from release day for A Corpse Wired For Sound, his band Merchandise’s fifth release and second for revered UK imprint 4AD. A three-month tour starts in 10 days and takes them into Canada, every corner of the U.S. and across Europe. The boys — Vassalotti along with bassist Patrick Brady, frontman Carson Cox, and new drummer Leo Suarez — have a break scheduled for Thanksgiving and will be home for Christmas. “Lonesome Sound,” the menacing, drum machine-driven third single from Corpse, has just been marked “Best New Track” by the tastemakers at Pitchfork.com.
CL EVENTS CALENDAR: MERCHANDISE LP RELEASE SHOWS
MOJO BOOKS & RECORDS 09.20.16 | CROWBAR 09.23.16
These are familiarly fast times for the Tampa-bred outfit. It’s also the first time Vassalotti and Cox, who’s been spending time between New York and Berlin, don’t actually live in Tampa. Merchandise are two years removed from a Dazed magazine article in which Cox’s comments about his hometown were taken out of context by a community that believed it had long outgrown some of the critiques thrown its way. Vassalotti, like most anyone familiar with Merchandise’s creative output and reverence for this slice of Florida, understands that the statements weren’t meant to be demeaning or knock anyone down. He also knows that Cox, 30, did right by selling all his things and getting out.
“He’s lived here his entire life,” says Vassalotti of his friend of more than a decade. "Getting out of Florida is good for him.”
It was good for the new record, too.
Merchandise ended up spending two weeks in Italy, recording with producer Maurizio Baggio, who helped the band put 12 tracks to tape. Four of those are on Corpse. Baggio, 35, whom Vassalotti affectionately refers to as “Iccio,” helped the record find direction and was an extra member of the band in that sense. After Italy, Cox went back to New York and kept recording while Vassalotti did the same thing in Sarasota. On holidays, they would work together in person. That long-distance relationship would go on for the better part of seven months.
“It felt weird and natural at the same time,” says Vassalotti. That makes sense considering Merchandise’s direction, and redirection, over the last two records. Songs from their 4AD debut After the End completely ditched post-punk tendencies from the Merchandise of yore and swapped in polished, shimmering 1980s-era guitar pop buoyed by sharp songwriting and arrangements that listeners could digest even if they didn’t come of age in old storage units. On Corpse, Vassalotti continues an exploration of his instrument while hints of aggressive sampling and overdubbing manifest themselves over the heavy scent of dark, electronic drums.
Cox’s pen, for its part, has gone to gloomier places on songs like “Shadow of the Truth,” a propulsive, industrial lament drowning in a sea of seemingly answerless questions. He continues to battle with the ideas of leaving home and reinvention on “Right Back to the Start,” and lead single “Flower of Sex” still feels as naked and lustful as it did when it was released in June. Everything is tied together gloriously on tempo-shifting album closer “My Dream Is Yours,” in which a quiet sample grows progressively louder along with Cox’s stacked vocal and a simple arrangement from Vassalotti that develops slowly and folds into luminous guitar wash all before dissolving into a chopped-up, resampled lead passage that gets abruptly cut off to end the album. It’s a cruel way to close the book, but it hints that there is more on the way.
Vassalotti confirms that suggestion, telling CL that there are numerous outtakes and almost two dozen cuts that didn’t make the album. He feels like the human element is the most important thing in music, though, and hopes to tap into the skill set of Suarez, Merchandise’s new drummer, who is steeped in the tenets of jazz.
All of that will have to wait, however, and it can.
Merchandise have no record obligations with 4AD, according to Vassalotti, and it’s up to them to decide when they start work on the follow-up to Corpse. For now, they’re holed up, relearning songs with new gear and a new traveling engineer who’ll man the mixing board every night on tour, which kicks off proper with a local album release show at Crowbar in Ybor City on September 23.
Fans likely won’t see that sound guy at Merchandise’s intimate, free in-store performance at Tampa’s Mojo Books & Records on September 20. That show — announced after the big tour plans were revealed — is a way for the band to experiment in tiny venues. It’s a nod to their past, and more importantly a way for Merchandise to remind themselves and fans that you can make music anywhere.
“It allows the most freedom. There is no bureaucracy of the professional music environment, no sound checks,” Vassalotti says. “Being accessible is very important , and we still care about those things. Mojo used to be the only place we’d play, just us and a drum machine — it’s cool to go back.”
Make something new, tear it down, go back to the roots and rebuild. For now, that seems to be Merchandise’s M.O., and all that reinvention seems to be working quite well.
Merchandise play two LP release shows this week. One on Tuesday, September 20 (Mojo Books & Records, Tampa, 8 p.m. FREE) and another on Friday, Sept.ember 23 w/Public Memory/Sleeping Pills (Crowbar, Ybor City. 8 p.m., $10). More information is available at local.cltampa.com.
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