Members of the pop-rock band Merci.
Members of the pop-rock band Merci. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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It is a late Tuesday afternoon and the members of Merci are looking slightly stunned, having just returned from their photo shoot for this paper—their first for a media outlet. 

“It was awesome!” lead singer Seth Coggeshall exclaims. “It was our first ‘Oh, we’re going to send somebody. Oh, the photographer will meet you.’” 

They’re hoping this shoot will be the first of many firsts as the D.C.-area quintet puts the finishing touches on their yet-to-be titled debut album, which will be released by Rise Records. With the way things are plugging along, one half expects Penny Lane from Almost Famous to enter the Zoom room and utter “It’s all happening.” Of course, like most bands, all of this happening took a while. The synth-pop rock band’s journey included singing Broadway tunes, performing in concession stands, and a total musical overhaul. 

Initially, though, it was prompted by a coast-to-coast move and a meeting on a basketball court. After leaving the Seattle area for Fairfax in 2008, Coggeshall (who looks like Justin Bieber and Ryan Phillippe have somehow bred) found a musical mate in keyboardist Colby Witko, spotting him in gym class at Cooper Middle School. 

“I was trying to find somebody to make music with, desperately,” says Coggeshall. “And he was singing with his Osiris shoes on playing b-ball.” 

Given their disparate musical influences, it’s surprising that they teamed up at all.

“I grew up with a lot of pop stuff,” recalls Witko, even admitting that the band listened to Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” on the way back from the photo shoot. “I grew up with Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC and all that stuff. Dancing around in front of my TV with my little VHS tape.”

“I was trying to mold you,” remembers Coggeshall. “I was trying to get you into My Chemical Romance, which is what I was really into.” Coggeshall won, and their early material is very much in the vein of Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco, which might surprise listeners, since Merci’s gone from sounding like MCR to sounding like Phoenix.

In their high school years, at Langley High School in McLean, another chance meeting in gym class brought drummer Jack Dunigan to Coggeshall’s attention. 

“I met Jack through a mutual friend who was starting a metal band,” recalls Coggeshall. “He introduced me to Jack as we were waiting for the period to end. I remember showing up to practice and being blown away by his playing.”

Meanwhile, at Oakton High School, lead guitarist Nick Jones—whose influences fall more in line with the Rolling Stones and Jeff Beck—was playing in his own band and became aware of Coggeshall thanks to a Fairfax County Public Schools event. 

I played at a Langley battle of the bands,” says Jones. “I saw [Seth] perform and thought ‘This guy’s really talented!’ So, when the band that I started needed another singer, I called him up on a last-minute thing.” The whole group ended up working together.

After graduating high school in 2013 and eventually adding bassist Justin Mason in 2015, the five-piece, like others before them, decided to pursue their musical dreams. They even managed to make the classic baby band mistake: coming up with a god-awful first band name. (In this case, it was His Dream of Lions).

As His Dream of Lions, they did the usual things baby bands do—playing shows at local venues, including Jammin’ Java, releasing EPs, and picking up regional shows wherever they could, which led to an unusual Broadway turn (of sorts) for some of its members in 2015.

Lexis Yelis, Jones’ former classmate, was producing ‘Punk Goes Below’ shows at 54 Below in New York City, where musical theatre  performers would sing songs by pop-punk bands like Paramore and Fall Out Boy—and pop-punk performers would, in turn, do Broadway classics. Knowing the band and their style of music, Yelis would often recruit Coggeshall and Witko to perform in New York. “It started as me convincing them to do it,” laughs Yelis. “It wasn’t necessarily they wanted to do it, per se.”

The relationship with Yelis would prove beneficial; she later became director of sustainability for Warped Tour and provided one of the band’s first breaks in 2017.

“There was this new thing for Warped Tour. They called it the Transform stage,” says Yelis. She knew of an opening at the Merriweather Post Pavilion tour date (and the guy who ran Transform), so Yelis asked a simple question: “Hey, tomorrow, can my friends come play?” She got a ‘yes’ and informed the band.

“It was hot and very humid. We parked our cars by the mall adjacent to the venue and made our way to the festival, acoustic guitars in hand,” Coggeshall recalls. “When we got to the Transform Tent, we discovered that they were set up in one of the amphitheater concession stands for the day.” After playing a 20-minute set for family, friends, and whoever happened to be waiting in line for food or the bathroom, the band seized the opportunity by asking a total shot-in-the-dark question of Warped’s staff after their set.

“We walk up to the guy who runs the tent,” explains Coggeshall. “We just said, ‘Can we just keep playing?’ And he’s like ‘Yeah, sure. If you can get yourselves to every date, sure.’ So we’re like ‘OK!’ So we got in my parents’ car and drove…”

“All the way to Texas and back,” adds Jones, smiling at the memory. 

“[We did] two weeks of the tour and it worked really well,” says Coggeshall. “So, we were like ‘This is awesome. If we can do this again, let’s do this again.’ So, in 2018 we went back having established the relationship and did the entire tour.”

As a barnacle band (a term lovingly applied to unknown artists who attach themselves to a larger entity), they got firsthand experience of the grind of the road. They weren’t an official act on the tour, so the gigs were unpaid, but they managed to sell enough merchandise and work day jobs at other festival tents to cover gas and food. Overall, it was a sleep-in-the-van experience. “The whole thing was an operation,” says Mason. “I mean, even getting water and food was a process.”

But they were making some headway. The band performed as an opening act for the Plain White T’s at the Capital Brewfest. A representative from Rise Records came out to see them at a Warped performance. They toured with the band Under Fire, catching the attention of manager Matty Arsenault at Reclaim Management. Arsenault is also the lead singer for A Loss For Words, signed to Rise Records. For Arsenault, who signed on in 2018 to manage them, deciding to work with the band was easy.

“I think Seth is a star,” says Arsenault. “He was like that cool dude in school who was smart and good-looking that I was jealous of. They are perfect all around.”

After Warped Tour ended, the band ended up in Los Angeles and tried to gain industry attention while there. Those efforts proved futile.

“We were just going to take the world on and meet as many people as we could and play as many shows as possible and just do it,” says Coggeshall. “It didn’t necessarily manifest as immediately as we thought it would. So, we make our way back across the country [to D.C.] with our tails between our legs, sort of defeated, kind of wondering what the future of the band was going to be at
that point.” 

Encouraged by Arsenault to forge ahead, Coggeshall wrote “I Hate Venice Beach,” stripping away the three-chords-and-a-dream sound the band had been churning out and bringing more pop and synths to the forefront: Think less actual punk and more Daft Punk. Pursuing their new sound with an additional song from Coggeshall, “City Hair Cut,” the band recorded a two-song
demo. Arsenault passed the rough mixes along to Sean Heydorn, vice president at
Rise Records. 

“There are folks we have developed special relationships with over the years, and when they send you something, it’s approached with a different perspective and really gets the time and full focus,” explains Heydorn. “Matty is one of the people we have that kind of relationship with. The demos were great. With Matty sending them, us having a conversation about the vision, and knowing the band has the team that can help deliver, it was a
no brainer.”

And just like that, a mere 11 years after Coggeshall and Witko’s meet-cute on the basketball court, the band was finally signed.

With a new sound and a record deal came, thankfully, a new band name—Merci. Recording for their forthcoming album started in December 2019 at D.C.’s Ivakota recording studio, and like everything else, came to a screeching halt in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Merci looked at the situation as an opportunity to take stock of their work
thus far.

“It gave us time to get a little perspective on what we were doing,” says Coggeshall, “when we were able to safely begin the recording process again. Pick up where we started off, but with the benefit of three months of independently practicing and working on our own creative processes and then reapplying that to what we were doing initially.”

The music they’re currently producing is what Coggeshall calls “alternative rock but filtered through a sort of pop immediacy.” The combination of influences are evident in their first single “Foolish Me,” an ode to a long-distance relationship that Coggeshall was in for many years. The epicness of a love lost can be heard in the arrangement, which includes tubular bells and a timpani sample inspired by the orchestration of Smashing
’ “Disarm.”

Due to COVID, however, the music video for “Foolish Me” is far less epic. Only nine people were involved in filming, including the band (who are in their own pod), directors Lindsey Byrnes and Aysia Marotta, and two crew members. They convened in the fall at the Photogroup Inc. sound stage in Silver Spring.

“There was a day of shooting there and that was supplemented by footage we had taken as a band independently,” says Coggeshall. “[They] put it together beautifully despite our entire shooting plan not panning out at all the way we thought it was going to.” (And if you want to get an idea on how Coggeshall’s relationship turned out, roses are aflame in the video.)

In the music video for their second single “Haunt Me,” out Feb. 12, Merci draw upon cinematic influences, specifically pre-’50s and ’60s horror movies. They spent a few days in January at a cabin in the woods in New Jersey built several generations ago by members of Jones’ family. The location provided the perfect atmosphere for the shoot, giving the video a Friday the 13th vibe. (“There’s a creature…” is all Coggeshall will divulge).

The video was directed and shot by the band on iPhone 12, and Merci’s taking D.C.’s DIY punk ethic to heart; Dunigan is handling the final edits.

Before we got signed, we produced several other videos on our own and we really appreciated that level of creative control,” says Dunigan. “[After] we got signed and we shot the ‘Foolish Me’ video it was great, but I think we wanted to see what we could do on our own just by ourselves, no director or anything.”

Now Merci are playing the waiting game, finishing the mixes for their album and waiting to see how the pandemic will affect the timing of its release. Another unknown is how His Dream of Lions fans will react to the synth-pop material of Merci; if Warped Tour still existed, Merci wouldn’t be booked. But Coggeshall isn’t worried about losing fans.

“Merci, and this upcoming record, is an extension of a continuing musical evolution that we’ve been following for years,” explains Coggeshall. “If people don’t care for it, that’s totally cool. We’re just trying to keep challenging ourselves as musicians.”