Interview: Joe Medina of Merch

Frenetic and furious might be the exact words necessary to describe the latest release by MerchThis Betrayal Will Be Our End, a triumphant orchestration tinged with punk vigor and old school psychedelic rock ‘n roll finess. In fact, I haven’t heard classic metal-daring psychedelia quite like this since Sour Soul smacked me in the face. From the sinister cello intro by hire-on, Sam Bass, on the opening track “Death of Love (opening credits)” you can feel the rancor, the malice and brooding disdain for eros and all its forms hatched in the musical mania of mastermind, Joe Medina. This booming LP comes at as a vitriolic revenge, a reply to his own musical frustrations and empowering step towards recovery after, yup, you guessed it, a terrible break up. The gimmicky concept-album verbiage aside, the force and potency pummels the ears, the heart and the head. The witty, wry, and vicious lyrics, the intensity and intimacy divulged by Medina spells it all out. Break ups are a bitch.

This LP packs in tons of instruments and a raw, crude, scratchy, imperfect approach to recording. Produced by Greg Ashley who came in on synths, piano, organ, electric bass, and back-up vocals with Medina, every note on This Betrayal… counts as a bludgeoning bash against the insults and injuries of an unfaithful partner. The passion and the artistic prowess displayed, certainly awed me. When approached by Medina via Facebook a couple months ago, I was thrilled by the project. After some time soaking in the full effect of the album, sitting with every one of the rest of the hire ons including Charles Boschetti‘s upright and electric bass chords, and savoring the unexpected lifts of Zach Field‘s saxaphone work here, I wish Medina hadn’t told me these guys aren’t set in stone members of the project.

But my humble opinions aside, Medina is the boss, so we’ll trust his judgements. The most surprising moments of the LP come from tracks like “Infidelity” which remind me of Black Sabbaths’s “Devil Woman” for its classic metal hardcore hate. The LP might fit somewhere between Leonard Cohen meets Tunde Adebimpe via Mexico City’s Soledad.

It was after reading one of my interviews with Eli Reyes of The Quiet Americans, Medina hit me up with the hopes for a feature, sharing he’s also from Fresno. So, we finally got a chance to google-chat and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this genius is not only plotting some big stuff for the future but he feels me on the awkwardness of these type of interviews.

So you were a music journalist once?

Yes, I was Head Writer for a music magazine called Independent Musician that was around for a couple years. The loft that I live in now used to be their offices. I remember once upon a time doing a chat interview with Britt from Spoon years ago. It[‘s] funny being on the other end of this. Interviews in the chat format, is what I mean.

I want to hear more about your writer days and Independent Musician. It’s not everyday I get to speak with someone who knows both ends of the press/performance spectrum. How did you fall into their Head Writer position?

I came on as an intern and showed a bit of tenacity, I suppose. I did a pretty solid interview/article on John Vanderslice (a guy who ended up being a big help in my early years of music-making) and then did various other pieces on Spoon (during their Kill The Moonlight era–right at the cusp of them breaking really big), Guided By Voices, various other bands. Eventually the magazine folded and I decided I could make music as good as any of those folks if I really tried. It took a few years and a release or two that I’d rather forget Finally, I think I have made something that puts me in the same room and I will continue to now try to put out something as good or better as this one every year.

Wow. I’m in a similar place. Well, in the sense of wanting to start making music too. But, I’ve never had any musical training. Have you always played instruments? Were you trained formally?

I started playing guitar when I was nine or so and took lessons for about six months. I stopped taking lessons as soon as I realized that I was essentially just learning this instructor’s particular style. I learned the rock stuff of the day, learned blues and other stuff from the college-radio station, studied Django Reinhardt and Bob Wills songbooks. I also had a Brazilian music method book that I enjoyed very much and can still pull off some samba and bossanova stuff. Over the years I’ve become friendly with a dozen or so instruments that I can play with varying degrees of ability. My music has gotten complex enough now though that the demands of the songs don’t allow me to play nearly every note on a recording–which was the case early on. I can handle the guitar and some other instruments, no problem. Now though, I use world-class string players and the like on my music. I am definitely not a world-class cellist.

I’m glad you mentioned the cello, because that’s one of the sounds that stood out to me.I love the albums orchestral pulse and your voice’s urgency against the soft clashing of electro-guitars and cello? Any classical, internationally renown instrumentalists that you admire?

I can’t say that I know much about contemporary classical instrumentalists. There are a few obvious ones that everyone knows that I don’t want to bother mentioning because it will incite groans amongst your readers that are more familiar with that scene and can go way deeper than I can. I think I’m more interested in composers than individual players. As far as the charts are concerned, Zoe Keating counts as classical music so I will say her. I had the privilege of being on a bill with her back before I gave up performing to work on albums. She is a wonderful and kind person. Recently, I have been attending a lot of operas (I saw Moby Dick a few days ago, for example) and am really excited about attempting to write and stage one within the next couple of years.

Hmmm. Opera, aye? Did you study performance or theater? That’s kind of a leap…

No, unless living in an arts-rich city like San Francisco and taking full advantage of that counts as a form of study. I try to soak up everything I go to and not merely be a spectator. I take mental notes on how everything is done and when it is time I will, of course, surround myself with collaborators way beyond my knowledge-base so that I don’t fall completely on my face. I think everything I do next (for a while, at least) will look like a grand leap from whatever project was prior to it. ‘This Betrayal Will Be Our End’ was a quantum leap from anything I had done before because I was attempting to make one of the greatest break-up albums ever.

To grow from some DIY, ramshackle, ‘doesn’t matter if it’s in tune’ approach to attempting that is a big jump. I’m planning for the next album to feature a full orchestra in Prague. I’ve even brought on an orchestral arranger to help me through the process. This person is responsible for the arrangements on one of the great cult-classic albums that most fellow record nerds will know. I am hesitant to say who it is this early because I’m afraid to jinx it, but I tracked this person down, had them listen to ‘This Betrayal’, and they amazingly said yes. That is a big leap as well. I am eager to keep pushing myself and not just crank out the same thing. I am really trying to make a legacy that will exist beyond my years.

As a writer I think I understand that impulse, to leave a legacy. But, do you feel it’s distracting sometimes; that pressure and want for grandeur… not personal grandeur, mind you… just for that quality in the work.

Possibly, yes. I also think though that the pursuit to make the greatest art that you possibly can is a noble effort. Experiencing art, in various mediums (film, music, canvas), has been the closest thing I’ve ever had to what one might call religious experiences. I owe getting through any of the hard times I’ve experienced in life to music and I believe in it whole-heartedly. I think it might be a lot like how someone hears the call of God and it saves them, so they dedicate their life to becoming a priest and being a good one. I feel a responsibility as a ‘thank you’ to produce the greatest work that I can.

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