“It’s bleeding on the inside, and on the outside. It definitely might be broken. But it’s all good, man.”
The bearded redhead had a paper towel shoved up one nostril, and a raw, red wetness across the opposite side of his schnoz. But he was cheerful, almost giddy, giving the lead singer of Bloodwave a good slap on the shoulder.
The singer laughed nervously. He was very, very drunk, shirtless and sweaty. He’d done the maybe-nose-breaking halfway through his band’s miserably sloppy second-slot opening set for Merchandise’s hometown tour kickoff show. He’d also thrown a friend of mine halfway across the room into a bar table, spent a good chunk of the set swinging his mic stand recklessly around the room at eye/concussion level, and continuously hurled epithets at the audience.
Which is one way to make your set entertaining when you’re a singer who can’t sing, fronting a band that can’t play.
“I mean, as soon as you hit me the first time, I was like . . . woah, this is real,” laughs redbeard.
It does seem like he had fun, so who am I to judge what makes a ‘good set,’ right?
First openers Coldskin weren’t quite so . . . interactive, probably because they were putting their energy into playing solid, melodic, psych-y hardcore. Good enough that the audience got things moving themselves – three guys in particular bunched up into a little six-foot tall nugget and wheeled themselves around the Hub spilling bystanders’ beers. A cold splash down my left art momentarily distracted me from the permanent, RNA-transcription-error inducing miasma of smoke that makes the place what it is.
[Note: If you’re smoking inside in 2014, as far as most people are concerned, you might as well be sucking on one of those glass pipes they sell in gas stations with tiny roses inside of them.]
Before Coldwave were done, they made sure to allude to the week’s Mercha-controversy:
“We hope you’re all excited for the most hated band in Tampa – Merchandise!”
And then I noticed that one of the guys up there causing havoc was Merchandise’s lead singer, Carson Cox.
I grew up in a spot at least as far from the center of anything as Tampa – Fort Worth, Texas. I left as soon as I could. Then I kept moving, from Austin to Iowa City to Tokyo, and now Tampa. I’ve mostly followed professional breadcrumbs, but I’ve also always made it a goal to live in cool places. After a while, I realized that in practice, chasing cool places makes it hard to form the community needed to actually do much very cool yourself.
I’ve hung out over the years with people who took Merchandise’s more static, more productive path – including my acquaintance Shawn Reed, the head of Night People records, who put out Merchandise’s Total Nite record in 2013 (and who also brought bands like Peaking Lights and Tampa’s Russian Tsarlag to Iowa for the sole purpose of keeping me sane through Midwestern winters and grad school).
Shawn lived in Iowa City, Iowa for a lot longer than he needed to, and he fought hard to create both national and local connections for himself – including the connection to Merchandise. He put out that record in part because his commitment to his unlikely homebase resonated with Merchandise’s staying in Tampa.
Let’s get one thing straight – Tampa clearly isn’t the ‘cultural wasteland’ that Cox called out in the now-infamous Dazed article. Because A) Lets get real, we’ve got underground galleries and house shows and warehouses and the awesome old theatre where Merchandise shot their new video and an alt-weekly that actually pays people to write about this stuff, and B) there’s the specific power of that broken-down and busted and marginal Tampa thing, a power that Stereogum’s Ryan Leas captured much better than the knee-slapping-I’m-23-and-New-York-Is-Rad-and-everywhere-else-is-funny writer for Dazed did.
Merchandise clearly love something about Tampa, or they wouldn’t still be here. What I think is going on is that the people who have been upset by Cox’s comments are not the people he’s talking about. He didn’t mean nobody wants to be exposed to intelligent stuff. Just that the majority of the city doesn’t want to.
I mean, have you ever been to South Tampa on a Friday night? Those are the people he’s talking about.
It ain’t Portland.
I do need to cosign one thing the CL camp has mentioned – it’s pretty clear that Merchandise haven’t made a huge effort to get their name out locally. I’ve been in Tampa for three years now, and writing for CL for about six months. I certainly heard of them, and knew they were getting some national attention. I saw their flyers occasionally. For a little while I was even helping run a space where they played at least one show.
But I never got the sense that they were trying to be a Big Band. There’s good reason to think they either cultivated their local marginality, or really didn’t care.
And that’s totally fine. Most bands from places like Tampa probably should be focused on making national rather than local connections, on touring and creating. The way things work now, they can put out their music to the world, tour widely, and come back to a comfortable, quiet resting place with nice beaches. All well and good.
But you’re not necessarily doing the local scene any favors when you take that route. There are amazing alliances that could have been made, for instance with local visual artists who have a lot in common with Merchandise’s aesthetic. That’s unlikely to happen now, because – oh, I guess I haven’t mentioned this yet – Merchandise are definitely going to be famous.
I’m not really into the smoke or the violence or the sweaty mess of people jammed into the Hub, almost certainly breaking fire code. But I definitely used to be. I’ve seen different kinds of art and music scenes, from Iowa City’s totally genuine familial thing to Tokyo’s refinement and focus to Tampa’s very loose and open vibe.
What went down at the Hub on Friday was most notable because it didn’t really feel like Tampa. Not because any part of it was inherently better than much of what I’ve seen here – as I’ve noted, as music, a big chunk of it was pretty awful.
But there was a ferocity to it, real blood and excitement, and there’s something special about that. It was a little slice of my memory of Austin in the early 2000s, so overheated with anticipation and possibility no one cared if bones got broken.
[I saw At the Drive In at house parties. I used to share a cubicle with Will Sheff of Okkervil River. I interviewed Cannibal Ox in 2003. Cue LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” a reference you probably don’t even get.]
The crowd, too, could have been Austin, in its roughness and mixture. There were old, broken-down drunks; the curators of major local museums and small underground galleries; toothless, goateed crackers wearing gym shorts and flip flops; OxyContin-addicted promoters; scary-looking Sons of Anarchy types; a really odd pair of scantily-clad teenyboppers. A free show and Tampa’s biggest PBR account brings people together way better than giving the world a Coke.
It all set me up to be a little disappointed by Merchandise’s actual set. The heat was still there, and I knew they’d bought it not just by bringing on a pair of high-octane openers, but by building a small but loyal local network.
But the Merchandise of today is, as those profiles above point out, not the trippy Merchandise of Total Nite. Actually, going back through their catalog, they’ve been a pretty conventional, polished indie band for a long time. Cox’s voice is soaring and confident. They’ve got a tambourine. From half a block away they could be U2 or Franz Ferdinand. The difference between 2012’s Children of Desire and After the End (out now on 4AD) isn’t much more than a few sanded edges.
What Merchandise are doing now is the epitome of accessibility. Nothing wrong with that! And the degree to which they’re shitting on Tampa has been blown way out of proportion. But they do seem to be using their cultivated apartness from Tampa, at least a little bit, as part of their public and private narratives.
Being an outsider is artistically productive. Making something out of nothing is a skill that massively strengthens you. It just starts to seem a little false when what you’re making would pretty clearly appeal to exactly the people you’re talking down to, as much as it does to the small core of fans you’ve let into your circle.
I would love to tell you how they wrapped things up, but I left before they finished their set.
I still smell like smoke.