Life in the Merge lane | News Feature | Indy Week
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Life in the Merge lane 

At 15, the label is still going strong

On the outside, it might seem that things have been strangely quiet so far this year in the downtown Durham office of Merge Records.

In the past seven months, the 15-year-old label founded by Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance has released only four albums--a slower than normal pace for one of the most consistent and respected indie rock labels. The quality of the four are notable, though, and up to Merge's reputation for releasing landmark albums from The Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Versus, Spoon and Superchunk.

Two of the four were released on the same day by the same band, Lambchop, a Nashville orchestral pop collective of 10 (or more) musicians led by Kurt Wagner, one of the best voices and most compelling songwriters in the land. Merge agreed to release and market Aw C'mon and No You C'mon as two separate albums, although the band's venerable British label, City Slang, flatly refused.

This spring, Merge also issued the first stateside album from Camera Obscura, the beautiful boy-girl Scottish pop octet. And, although Underachievers Please Try Harder is as light as a feather, it still packs the same kind of surprising, sing-as-your-heart-breaks power that made If You're Feeling Sinister a classic. Merge released its last album of the first half of the year--Destroyer's Your Blues--way back in April. The quiet since then, of course, is deceptive.

The label has at least 17 releases scheduled for the next 12 months, including Merge alumni Crooked Fingers, The Radar Brothers, M. Ward and Shark Quest. New Canadian recruits The Arcade Fire are set to release one of 2004's most buzz-worthy records, Funeral, in September. Two Camera Obscura re-issues are in the can, as well as the re-release of the first three albums from the seminal Dinosaur Jr. And Lou Barlow--the indie icon of Sebadoh, Sentridoh, The Folk Implosion and Dinosaur Jr.--will issue his first Merge album in early 2005.

As if that weren't enough to look forward to, Merge just released a comprehensive, three-disc compilation that's an indie rock encyclopedia of the names, bands and personalities that took the zany idea a few college kids had and helped make it an indie institution.

Despite the work load from their upcoming release schedule and their preparations for the four-day, 15th-anniversary Merge Fest celebration, McCaughan and Ballance sat down with the Independent Weekly to share a few thoughts about their label, its teenage years and how it's kept going all these years.

Independent Weekly: Fifteen years later, how does it feel knowing you've been so successful with the idea?

Mac McCaughan: I mean, it's weird because we've been around so long that we are still doing stuff every day, ya know? There is not that much of a chance to really stop and be excited about it, like "Oh, today is the day 15 years ago." It's more like we're excited about the stuff we're still releasing, and the fact that, looking at a release schedule for the rest of this year, it is awesome because there are people that we've been working with for a while or since we started--and there are new things. There is a Shark Quest CD coming out later in the year, and Sara Bell, of course, was in Angels of Epistemology, which was one of the first things we ever put out.

Later in the fall, though, there is an American Music Club record coming out and something by Richard Buckner. Those are just people that we've never put records out for before, but they are people we've been fans of for a long time. Then there is also Arcade Fire, which is completely new to everyone. I mean, it's their first album, and we're getting to do it.

I look at the release schedule, and there is just this whole continuum of stuff that we do and it's all still happening, ya know? These are people that we've been with a long time, but the label is still growing and changing.

Laura Ballance: Yeah, for us, it's almost like it is easier to be excited about the future than it is about the past because it's something to look forward to.

Your release schedule has certainly been ambitious, but it seems that Merge doesn't try to flood the market and put out something unnecessary.

MM: The last couple of years we've kind of accelerated the releases not necessarily by choice but because artist's schedules and our schedules happen to create a situation where we are putting out a lot more CDs than we are used to. But even then, I think we try to keep a handle on the fact that we are still a small label, and I think when you pass a certain point and you try to do too much with too many people, those people will suffer from lack of attention.

That said, we try to keep track of the records we put out. We obviously can't determine what people are going to buy or what people are going to write about, but our job is to give everything that we put out a chance to be heard by as many people as possible.

We try not to overreach in terms of how much we do. Having said that, this year and last year have been very, very busy years. But there are some things you can't turn down. Those people came to us looking for a label, and we are fans of both. We couldn't really say no... .

So, how did you decide to start putting out your own music?

MM: It wasn't really that hard of a decision just because there were so many bands around here, and there weren't a lot of record labels doing it. The only thing to make it hard was coming up with the money for each release, because we were putting 7-inches out. That doesn't really produce a lot of money.

How did you deal with the money situation?

MM: The first few records we were borrowing money from friends to press them, and sometimes the bands themselves would put money into the project. So that situation with the money really was restricting, but the decision to put out records by people we knew really wasn't.

What did the bands you were in or started later think of the decision to put out your own music on your own label?

MM: We never really consulted anyone else. We did things first with a couple of sets of bands that I was in from Raleigh, like WWax with Wayne Taylor and Brian Walsby and Metal Pitcher with Jeb Bishop. That was kind of the band that existed when we were talking about starting a label, and it was kind of like a dare to ourselves. Here we were in this band, ya know? It was a band but it wasn't a real band. It was more for fun, and--for us--it was funny to commemorate the short existence of that band by putting out a record. The label just kind of grew from there.

How did you manage the label at first?

MM: I was going to Columbia, and Laura was going to UNC. We started the band during the summer before our last year, and when I went back to school Laura kept doing the work for the label. Superchunk would practice or do a show when I was on vacation or that sort of thing, but that next summer we started to tour and things got busy for us.

LB: I ran the label out of my house--actually, a couple of different houses, like three or four--a few years. Later, when we would go on tour, people would come in and do mail order and distributor stuff.

Who were some of the volunteers that really helped the label get started and persevere?

LB: These people would come over to the 7-inch stuffing parties, and we would buy beer and rent a movie. They would come out and put together all of these things, and the bands themselves would be there. It was this ... community. People were always helping out with that sort of thing ... Sara Bell, Mike Carter, Wayne Taylor and Brian Walsby.

MM: And Barefoot Press was great to us when it came to printing.

Major labels were courting the band. Why the decision to stay with Matador?

MM: We were happy with Matador, and--like I said--we were happy with Merge. We had good options already, so to sign with a major label, I think they would have had to offer something pretty amazing. They weren't prepared to do that because it would have been something unheard of. It would have been a major-league ordeal or something to be better than what we already had. In terms of the long view and part of what we wanted to do, we wanted to have Merge and have Superchunk. It didn't just benefit Superchunk, it also benefited Merge. That really shaped this label into what it is now.

So would Merge have been different--or, would it even be around--if Superchunk had signed to a major label?

MM: Maybe not. Or, yeah, it would have been different. A lot of things would have been different. With Superchunk on the label, it made Merge a real label, something legitimate that was not just a hobby, ya know? We had a band that people had heard of, and we were putting out records. Being on the label ourselves also made Merge appealing to other bands that wanted to sign because it created us as this entity. It would have been hard for me to let someone be on the label if I chose not to be on the label. If we weren't on our own label, I think other bands would have questioned that.

Speaking of other bands, who were some acts from outside of the area you first released?

MM: Lambchop was one of the early bands that we started to work with that weren't from here. I knew Jonathan Marks, who is in Lambchop and who started to send me his tapes of the band. I got a feel for him, and that's one of the first bands that we pursued out of the area. I still love that 7-inch that we did.

LB: The 3Ds were important, too.

MM: That was kind of like a big deal, doing the 3Ds' 7-inch. Everyone else that we had worked with had been through personal connections, and all of sudden we were doing things with people we had never met on another continent. For once, finally, someone wanted to be on the label because we wanted them to be on the label and because they wanted to be, not simply because they were our friends.

What's it like for you when a band you've worked with goes to another label, like when The Magnetic Fields left for Nonesuch?

LB: [laughing] It makes me kind of sad, honestly.

MM: It makes me sad especially because that new record [I, on Nonesuch Records] is great, ya know? You know all the records Stephin Merritt is going to do are going to be great, so you would obviously like to be putting them out. But at the same time we have so much going on that we have to ... well, you are never going to be able to put out all the things you want to. The Magnetic Fields were always very upfront about what they wanted to do, so we never felt betrayed when they moved on to Nonesuch. You have to just move on, frankly, once you know that it is happening. You can't even think about it anymore because you don't have time to. It's a drag, but it just goes with the territory.

LB: It can be disappointing, but, at the same time, if a band wants to move on to a bigger label, they should do it. We don't want unhappy bands on our label.

Are there certain records that you're really proud you released as a label?

MM: On the subject of The Magnetic Fields, I'm so glad we released that boxed set [69 Love Songs] because it's just a rare thing to be able to do something that's different than everything else out there.

LB: And it seemed really frightening at the time. When we first did it, we made it a limited-edition set, and we were only going to do 2,000 or 2,500 of the boxes because it was just so expensive to do the packaging and make the boxes and the booklets for it.

MM: We guessed wrong on that one. But, at the same time, if it had only sold a 1,000 copies or something, I would still have been so psyched that we did it because not a lot of people have the idea and the wherewithal to follow it through.

The first Polvo record to me was really exciting, too, because it was an album by someone that wasn't Superchunk, and I was finally getting to hear all these great Polvo songs recorded that I had heard live so many times. Polvo was so weird anyway with the guitar tunings, and it was all so crazy live. It was hard to explain what it was like to anyone that hadn't heard it. It was almost like you didn't know whether you believed in it yourself, but having this record was concrete proof that we weren't wrong. It was great.

Anything else?

MM: The second Neutral Milk Hotel record for me is that way. I liked the first one, too, but that record is amazing because it caught on and people liked it. It is an amazing record, but it's a pretty weird record, ya know? It's definitely not the most commercial thing we've put out, but people are still buying it. It's exciting to know that something is still out there that people can and do still get into.

LB: That first Spoon record. For some reason, I was resistant to the idea of even liking Spoon at all, but then I completely fell in love with that record and couldn't stop listening to it. It was too catchy. It irritated me. I knew this band was good, maybe great, but I just couldn't like that record for a while.

MM: There are a lot of records that you put out that, for whatever reason, don't catch on that same way that some do, even though Laura and I listen to them, ya know, several times in a row when we first hear them. They don't sell 100,000 copies like some do, and I do not know a good way to explain why that is.

An additional interview with Mac about Merge Fest prep, the Triangle music scene and more, along with the Merge discography and helpful links, are on our resources page at the indymusicawards.com/resources Web site.

Editor's note
We considered publishing along with this feature on Merge Records the label's discography, and maybe we should have. More than all the plaudits and congratulations from music luminaries and even the words of founders Mac and Laura, the list underlines what an impressive body of work Merge has assembled. The discography, though, runs nearly 3,000 words, and even with the tiniest type size we'd have trouble fitting it all in.

But the volume and quality of the work is only part of why this paper and a lot of other folks love to tell the Merge story. This is a label that came up through hard work and fierce independence. They could have taken the route of so many entrepreneurs and sold out to a major label. They could have moved to an "entertainment capital." They could have burned out.

Instead, Merge remains vibrant, independent and a world-renowned local enterprise.

With an entertainment industry that is becoming less independent, less locally centered and producing pablum at an astonishing rate, toasting Merge's success is a pleasure.

If you want to read the discography, you can find it along with an additional interview with Mac and some Merge links on our resources page at indymusicawards.com/resources. --Kirk Ross

  • At 15, the label is still going strong

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