Recorded in Rosà, Italy, A Corpse Wired For Sound finds Merchandise marking their return to a trio with some of their strongest songwriting yet. Here, frontman Carson Cox explains how line-up changes, Soft Cell and JG Ballard helped inspire the follow-up to 2014’s After The End, and talks fear, subversion and creative freedom.

A Corpse Wired For Sound marks a return to Merchandise as a trio. What prompted that decision?

It was everything. I mean, it was definitely difficult to keep a band with five personalities on the road, trying to give everybody the respect and attention they needed to do their job. I feel like the five-piece band was a concept more than it was the way that the band had to be run. Also, we’d been down the road as a five-piece for two years, and two years on the road is the same as 10 years at home. You destroy your body way faster and you live way harder, so I think we kind-of maxed out. And it’s a little bit easier to run things in a smaller, more minimal way. But I don’t know, the muse just twists and turns.

Speaking about the line-up change, guitarist Dave Vassalotti said, “We were reborn as a rock band after After The End, and then we straight-up died again.” Do you agree?

I do. I think it’s really funny though. (Laughs) In the beginning we were challenging the idea of rock bands. We had been slighted our whole lives as punk-rockers, or whatever, so we were making our version of whatever it was we were interested in. The idea that the band can shape-shift was always part of the original idea and I think it’s natural for anybody who’s had a band for almost 10 years: you have to adapt and grow.

We didn’t want any artistic boundaries, and we also weren’t interested in a dogmatic boundary of how bands work. We used to play shows with just guitars. It was this deconstructed idea about destroying the concept of alternative rock; the idea that anything can be subverted. I think underground music is super judge-y and quick to point a finger at the rest of the world, but it doesn’t acknowledge its own dogmas. I remember on our fourth LP, when I told a friend of mine that we were getting a drummer, he was like, “So, you’re starting a band?” (Laughs) I thought it was funny, but that was the attitude that I felt like we were always up against. The idea was just make music forever and break through concepts.

Was there a particular concept behind this record?

I actually wrote a political record. I was very political when I was young, and I grew up in Florida so there was always a lot of political tension if you represented or voiced dissent. So I made this really political record because the world is just in the sh*tter – with all this horrible, far-right ideology coming up everywhere – and then scrapped all the songs because I just don’t think I can really do that musically. Or, if I did, it would have to be extremely allegorical or something.

So I just went back to weird, emotional, personal choices, though I feel like personal choices are still political. I had this huge graveyard of songs so I just started to hang out in that graveyard, taking fragments from those songs or re-writing them. Dave wrote ‘I Will Not Sleep Here’, which I think is probably one of the most complex things we’ve ever done. This project is always me and Dave writing songs, and it’s just us reflecting the weird time that it is. I turned 30 this year so it’s a very awkward time, I think. I accomplished a lot of things that I always wanted to do and now I have this whole new set of goals and predicaments. Conceptually, [the record’s] not very direct; it’s meant to be abstract. Even the title of the record is meant to bring about an abstract image, and maybe it will resonate in different ways for everybody.

The title is taken from a short story by JG Ballard, so that’s still a pretty political reference point, surely?

Yeah, I think so. But Ballard I became fascinated with because he plays devil’s advocate to the people that are reading into the pornographic, unsubtle part of his work. They’re the same people that are trying to destroy art or blaming artists for the real problems that exist in the world. I was reading ‘Vermilion Sands’ but also I was getting all these weird stories that just got printed in random sci-fi publications. That idea of fragmentation played into the way the record was composed and written, and how it ended up coming together. We just cut it up in a million different ways and then stacked the ideas on top of each other in different combinations. It became more about colours and less about concept, as opposed to making an LP which is like a 60-minute song, which is how I feel we normally do stuff.

It’s interesting you mention colour, because green was a recurring motif on After The End. In comparison, A Corpse Wired For Sound feels a lot darker.

Yeah, yeah, it’s way darker. The images are more about shadows and light than they are about colours. But yeah, the last record was an extremely green record - very lush and new and promising. This year and last year, those greener pastures disappeared. I feel like my personal life was shifted dramatically just because I couldn’t really stay in Tampa anymore. And Florida is just super lush and green, and I moved to New York and Berlin which were totally harsh and industrialised, and covered in graffiti. I’ve always been negative so I think it was easy to write a darker record, but especially after the last one because I would say the optimism has flipped. I mean, all the records are negative – there isn’t a single record that we’ve put out that doesn’t have negativity in it.

One of the key themes on the record seems to be the passing of time. Do you think that’s related to you recently turning 30?

I’m not really sure. I’ve left all these things up to fate and chance... I think sometimes it’s harder for me to be honest than it is to be myself. When you’re making art, every artist wants to be deeply honest but it can be difficult to do that if you’re in the middle of a personal time where you don’t even understand what’s happening. So I think there was a lot of blindly putting things together and after the fact it creates an image of your psychology. A weird part of my way of writing, is just trying to be blind – getting really, really stoned. [Author] John Giorno says he likes being super-stoned and drunk when he writes because it’s like a blade, in that it can cut away at a lot of superfluous mind pollution. When you look back, days later, you think, “Was this a moment of clarity?” And most of the time you can’t even answer that. It’s a problem that my friends that don’t want to record or put out records have – they’re maybe afraid of the answer that’s hiding in the work.

‘Right Back To The Start’ continues that cyclical, almost Groundhog Day-like feeling, and sonically it’s reminiscent of mid-80s Depeche Mode. Were they a reference point?

Yeah, of course. I’m just unabashed in my worship of all that stuff. On the last record we focused so much on being like a live band that I didn’t get to do as much fun stuff as I wanted. Pop music is this really versatile thing but when you’re using electronics – or at least the way that I use them – I think that side of me just comes out. It was more Soft Cell, actually, but it’s totally Depeche Mode because there are too many Depeche Mode reggae songs that have totally sculpted how I hear records. Black Celebration is still one of my favourite records of all-time, so I think that’s always going to come up forever and ever, and if I can ever afford to buy expensive synths, that’s the only thing I would do.

I was watching that movie ‘Dakota’ quite a bit, and there’s a Soft Cell song in it, ‘Seedy Films’, that’s on Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. The music video is just Marc Almond driving around and laughing at all the people, and doing this very hilarious but very dark and sleazy seductive thing that I became obsessed with, watching over and over, and showing to all of my friends. I was obsessed with that song so I think it ended up coming out on this record.

Why do you feel such a strong affinity with that era of British electronic music?

There’s a cool interview with Daniel Miller, where he was talking about this short period of time where electronic music was exciting – late 70s to 1981 –and after that there were good bands, but everything started to die. That’s sort-of how I feel. I’m very, very into the old way of people producing electronic records: not having anything beat-matched, and just having it be like these raw sounds, but still cultivating pop music out of it. New Order are a band where the discography fascinates me. I wonder if people listening to new bands would even think about bands evolving like that? I love hearing progression, and not just with New Order but with any band. I’ll listen to their discographies from front to back, and I guess there are not as many people as I want to think there are that can be so accepting.

The current trend is for artists to release 14+ track albums, so your brevity is really refreshing.

We actually produced more songs for this record than any record ever, but we ended up picking nine, so there are a lot of b-sides, a lot of unreleased stuff. Like, we could make our Sandinista! if we wanted to. But people don’t even buy records anymore so we’re not going to put out a double LP or a triple LP, you know? I feel like everybody is just hitting “next” on their computer when they listen to a record. I really like listening to a whole record so I feel like that’s part of the reason we made it the length that we did. Like, the only way people will listen to this sh*t is if we don’t add these ten other songs. (Laughs)

Having had a good year off from playing live, you’ve got a huge tour stretching right up to Christmas. How are you feeling about the prospect?

I feel like I’m enjoying playing live now, more than I ever have in my entire life. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time fighting for control over what was being addressed in the performance artistically. Now, it’s more rewarding than it’s ever been. Though I feel like 20 or 30 years ago there was a huge influx of people who weren’t interested in the music; people would come to a concert because they were looking to buy drugs, or to get into a fight, or to get laid. Now all those people are all into EDM, or food, or the internet or something. There are a lot of things for them to put their interest into, so I think it’s made live shows hilariously empty.

When I was younger, I was always really into playing to like five or four people, or one person sometimes. I’ve gone through all these phases where I would play on the street for nobody, and then we would play huge festivals with tonnes of people. The shows got bigger and I fought it for a long time; I had an attitude about it. Now I think it’s great for me to have the ability to travel and play. It’s fun but it all depends: an audience can turn on you, and you can turn on the audience really quick. But then I used to thrive off of that, and I still think I do.

Also, I feel like there’s a fog around reality right now in that you don’t know what’s real and what’s not. And people operate on fear so much. This is not about playing live, this is about being conscious: people operate on fear so much, that it’s very interesting to bring a stage into the equation. Like, what happens? What becomes visible and what stays underneath the surface? I think it’s just a very primitive, human thing. A stage ends up changing everything, and it becomes fiction, even though it’s reality. And at a time when everything’s based on fear, fiction is horrifying because fiction is becoming reality. It’s a very interesting time, but at least everyone’s having a bad year, it seems like.

September 2016