Joe Medina is the mastermind behind "Merch" project. They recently released this really nice psychedelic album with high quality production and orchestration. You can hear some quite unique sounds on it. So if you are for modern psychedelia go for it, but before that you should read our interview with Joe. He shared the whole story behind the project.
Hi Joe! How are you? We will talk about your music project called Merch, but before that I would like to know a bit more about your background, by that I mean what were you doing before this project and perhaps if you can tell me a few influences on you?
I'm doing very well. It has been a warm and sunny weekend out here in San Francisco and I'm in an overall good place in my life so I have no major complaints. As far as my background, I was born to a middle-class family in Fresno, California which is midway between S.F. and Los Angeles. My first exposure to music was probably through my father singing oldies songs to me as a toddler that he would convince me he had written. Usually they would be pretty but morbid songs like 'Last Kiss' or 'Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)'. It wasn't until I was a few years older when I first heard The Beatles on the oldies station in town that I said “Dad, they're playing your song 'Love Me Do' on the radio!” and he admitted that he didn't write any of them! Listening in the car with him and singing along (although I was an absolutely terrible singer until just a few years ago) gave me my first understanding of melody and what goes into making a catchy song. Between listening to oldies with my father, hearing more adult-contemporary stuff in the mornings while my mother got ready for work, and watching whatever was on MTV with my older brother's friends (I have fond memories of walking around with them while they would take turns doing verses from the rap songs of the day)—I was thoroughly engrossed in music. With them it was always more of a passive thing though, kind of background noise—no one in my family actually plays music or anything like that. I absorbed it all, so by the time I received my first guitar when I was nine years old I was able to move around on it pretty quickly. The first time I remember discovering music for myself was at an Asian grocery store three blocks from our house where I would sit at the comic book rack and read while my folks shopped. There was a magazine there whose name I don't remember, but it covered all these bands I'd never heard of and even had a flexi record in it of Mudhoney's 'Touch Me I'm Sick'. Around that time I also came across a cassette of 'Axis: Bold As Love' that totally floored me. I really got into everything from way older stuff like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and Django Reinhardt or blues like Robert Johnson and Lightnin' Hopkins to anything current but obscure I could get my hands on like The Boredoms out of Japan. There was this insatiable thirst for knowledge on my part at the time for not only all kinds of music but also literature. I was very into Nietzsche and French Symbolists like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. I definitely got into trouble for reading that kind of stuff in school, but luckily by this time I was in a school for the gifted so I didn't incur the kind of ridicule I might if I was in a regular establishment. By the time I was in high school I was able to play back on the guitar whatever was playing on the radio and was running with a crowd of kids that were deeply into punk rock like The Germs, Operation Ivy, Black Flag, The Subhumans, The Exploited, and I was making all my own clothes too. We had an all-ages punk rock venue in Fresno at the time called Patterson Hall, so we would go to shows every week by bands like Youth Brigade as well as ska bands like Let's Go Bowling and Skankin Pickle.
A major influence on my life occurred when I was a sophomore in high school. I came down with meningitis and almost died. I can still very vividly remember the feeling of being on a cold metal operating table and having that long needle put in for the spinal tap. It was such a serious case of the disease that complications would come up from it for many years after. From that experience, I understood the fragility of life and how we don't have time to follow anyone else's path but our own. I think that had more to do with me leaving my hometown than anything else.
I still hung around for a few years because I had a little sister that was born and I wanted to make sure I was there to develop an early relationship with her. My first trips to San Francisco happened because I got involved in swing dancing and it was a big thing there at the time. I got good enough at it that I didn't have to work a regular job for a while—just teaching people how to flip over eachother's shoulders and such.
Crossing the bridge into San Francisco represented absolute freedom to me. Coming over in a car late one foggy night while blasting some bebop and just having that fog suddenly open up and this vast metropolis towering in front of me was such a magical experience. Once I had a taste of that there was really no question. I worked something like three jobs, gave plasma twice a week, and even delivered newspapers to get the money together to move. Once I got to the city, I committed to not having to move back no matter what (most people when they leave my hometown, they wind up back pretty quickly). That meant eating rice every couple days with duck drippings or taking a long subway-ride to eat at a homeless shelter (I was living on the outskirts). I landed various odd-jobs at a laundromat, a library, telemarketing, all while auditioning for bands that I didn't feel were doing anything fresh or exciting. This influenced me to drive my car around when I could afford gas(instead of upsetting my housemates with the noise) and singing at the top of my lungs until I could hit every note that I wanted to. I figured I would be better off eventually putting together my own project than keep trying out as rhythm guitarist or bass player for something I didn't believe in.
I managed to land a job as rock specialist at a big record store here and also got some freelance writing jobs (working on history books) which were both big turning points for me. That eventually led to me becoming Head Writer for a music magazine.
So how did it all start with Merch?
Well, I wrote and did interviews for this magazine for a couple years until it folded. I did interviews with big bands in the indie world like Spoon and Guided By Voices and when the magazine ended I thought, perhaps naively, that I could make songs as good as any of the bands I talked to. The curtain had dropped for me and I realized that all these big musicians that I looked up to weren't really different from me and I could do it too. I put an ad on Craigslist, managed to convince a drummer and cellist that I knew what I was doing, then put money down for a rehearsal space. We did shows, went through some personnel changes, just all the kinds of stuff that a young band goes through—especially one with a bandleader who feels like he knows best but hasn't really found his footing yet. There were tours throughout the state and then across the entire country. A couple of 7-inches saw the light of day during this period as well as a full-length CD. By the point that it was time to record that first album, our third cellist had just quite after having a nervous breakdown from the road and out of some internal need to make things hard on myself I decided to play all the cello parts on the album since I wrote them all anyway. So I practiced the parts for eight hours a night for a month and then recorded the songs in order of easiest to hardest. Amazingly, that album got a lot of college-radio airplay and even made it as far out as Australia and Israel. I am rather shocked by that, looking back on it, since I can't even listen to it. I think someday I'll redo it as a double LP, the original version and how I would approach it now. After a time, Merch really stopped being a band and became my individual musical outlet with outsiders brought in to help realize the completion of projects.
It's pretty obvious you are a fan of psychedelic music. What are some perhaps less known bands, that had an impact on the band itself?
These aren't really lesser known artists, but I was definitely listening to a lot of Love's 'Forever Changes' while planning out 'This Betrayal Will Be Our End'. I probably listened to that everyday for a while. Greg Ashley [This Betrayal's producer/engineer] turned me onto Dungen which I hadn't heard before and now adore. Some of that probably seeped into there. I recall also listening to some Roy Harper, 13th Floor Elevators, Moby Grape. There was also some United States Southern metal like Baroness that I was listening to that has some psychedelic touches to it. Stoner metal like Electric Wizard too. There's also all the Bay Area psych stuff happening now like Thee Oh Sees, The Fresh & Onlys, Kelley Stoltz, The Sandwitches, Ty Segall, Sleepy Sun, Six Organs Of Admittance. 'Odessey & Oracle', 'Pet Sounds', and 'Smile' were all pretty big for me too.
This Betrayal Will Be Our End is a mixture of »indie« psychedelia with some other genre touches. Is there a concept behind the album?
I went through a terrible break-up with someone that I thought I was going to always be with. I think it would be impossible for me to convey to someone how much a broken love can destroy you (especially that big first one) unless they have been through it too, but I did my best. I wrote the lyrics and basic chord structure for all the songs in a flash fever of a couple weeks. It really seemed at the time like it was either do that or perish. I initially thought this would be more of a singer-songwriter type record with just voice, guitar, and maybe a bit of cello. Once I really looked at what I had though with these songs, I decided that I needed to prove something to myself to get through that time. I wanted to take various genres of music whether it be 70s AM radio like 'Bread', black-metal, noisy indie-rock, country, whatever. I decided to take different types of music I had absorbed over the years and channel that into making one of the greatest break-up albums of all time—something that could shift through styles much like how one goes through various kinds of emotions during an occurrence like that. I knew that the lyrics seemed probably so over the top that they might not work on just an acoustic guitar. I didn't want to change a word of it since it's all true and it was important for me to not go back and retouch any of the words so I constructed this grandiose soundscape around it.
That kind of came together at the last minute. I was toying with a few concepts and wanted something with a darkly cinematic feel to echo the music. It was also important to have something that would catch the eye in a record store, since this was first-and-foremost always going to be vinyl. A photographer in Brooklyn agreed to license one of her pieces for the cover, but ended up asking for more money at the 11th hour. I ended up finding an old photograph through Creative Commons that had been used before but to evoke a very different mood. There was also some help to get the Merch logo to look appropriately Argento-ish.
As I understand this project is not really new and it's actually a few years old…What happened, that you finally decided to release it?
The only real story there is that everything took a lot longer than expected. The basic recording of the album only took two-and-a-half, maybe 3 weeks. A couple labels showed some interest but weren't offering anything that couldn't be done independently—all they really did was slow things down. Then it was the matter of getting a mix which showcased the music off properly. That was a real learning process and took months. Getting the money together for the mastering and then the pressing of the record then pushed things back even further. Finally, once it seemed like everything was in the clear—there were issues with the test pressings and it had to be done over again. None of this is uncommon, I just wasn't prepared for it. I'm just happy it's finally beginning to get in people's hands where it belongs.
Sassafras is the name I gave to a stuffed toy lemur of mine that I used to take on tour with me. The first Merch album I released under the name Sassafras Records even though it wasn't a real company at the time. I decided to distribute the vinyl of 'This Betrayal Will Be Our End' myself (at least domestically), but once I started the process of doing so I realized for the amount of work I was putting in that I should offer the service to other artists/labels. Within a couple weeks of putting the word out about the service, I had a roster of a few really great labels/artists. That was just a few months ago and I'm adding new labels every month. Sassafras focuses on vinyl and cassette distribution and is currently just focused on record stores in the United States, but will expand soon. I'm always on the lookout for interesting labels/artists and also overseas distributors to work with.
How about concerts? What are you planning?
My aim is to release records that will sound good today, tomorrow, and fifty years from now. One of the next ones will be with a full orchestra recorded in Eastern Europe. There is one coming out before that next year, but I don't want to ruin the surprise of what its going to be.
Greg was really helpful in the studio. He'll be the first to tell you that this record turned into the most ambitious thing he'd ever worked on and it got a bit stressful at times. He also really allowed me to blossom and try out different things and let me run with an idea even if he wasn't sure if it was a good one. I never felt tethered in the studio which is a big part of how it ended up like it did. Picking sounds that captured a wide dynamic range made all the difference too, which Greg deserves a lot of credit for. It was a great deal of fun (which was really important in completing such a dramatic piece of work) figuring out where a song needed a low growly ancient synth to add some bass or a ukulele to cover the high-end.
Chris Porro mixed the record and did a fantastic job. I really wanted to avoid making the album sound tied specifically to 'now'. We had some hiccups at the beginning, but then I brought in some albums that I liked the feel of and Chris worked from there. I recall those being Neil Young's 'After The Gold Rush', Black Sabbath's 'Paranoid', Nachtmystium, and Kanye West's 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (interestingly enough).
What do you think about the current psych scene? Like it, hate it or love it?
I think the scene is very healthy right now. It's really great seeing my friends, colleagues, and just people that I admire getting recognition and doing well. The Black Angels just played to a huge crowd at Coachella. I think with all the avenues that we have to explore that things are only going to get better. Like, if one of the bands wanted to release a four-hour song online they totally could. In turn, because all the music can so easily be made available online, those of us that want to make vinyl it challenges us to make a record good enough front-to-back that someone would want to lay down money in order to put it on their turntable. I was in a record store a few weeks ago and they were playing 'This Betrayal Will Be Our End' on the speakers and there was a copy on display with 13th Floor Elevators and Scott Walker. I feel if all of us in the scene set the bar high so that we belong in record stores amongst greats like that (instead of necessarily competing amongst ourselves), the music will only improve.
Well, thanks for taking your time! Would you perhaps like to say any final words or a message to It's Psychedelic Baby readers?
Well, to any of the It's Psychedelic Baby readers out there that are also musicians: keep open ears. No matter what style of music you're playing, listen to as many other sounds as you can. It's that mix of the various things you absorb that makes something original come out of you. Also, thank you so much for all the support for this record that everyone has been giving. If your local record shop doesn't carry it, you can send them to the Sassafras Records & Distro site (sassafrasrecords.wordpress.com) to get copies for their store. You can also order copies directly on sassafrasrecs.bandcamp.com and, as of this writing, Aquarius Records has exclusive colored copies of this first pressing of the vinyl (as opposed to the standard black-vinyl copies that all other retailers carry).
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar / 2012
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