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Think of all the truly awesome things that Merge Records has accomplished in its 20-year existence. Not only has the label—founded in the late ’80s by Superchunk members Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan—released countless 7″ singles, LPs, and at least one boxed-set by myriad worthy artists, but they’ve pulled off a few truly improbable feats. Merge basically invented the tolerable use of brass in indie-rock. Before Neutral Milk Hotel, the best you could get was June of 44’s Fred Erskine playing balloon-on-scalp-style free jazz trumpet. The label also put out countless Lambchop records, even though Europeans were the only people who listened to them.
But most remarkably, Merge has grown into a widely successful record label in the most humble and respectable way possible—keeping their business personable, modest, and honest. Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, an oral history assembled by John Cook alongside Ballance and McCaughan, tells the label’s story through countless photographs, fliers, and extensive interviews. Washington City Paper recently spoke with McCaughan, who will be reading selections from the book tonight at Crooked Beat.
Q&A after the jump:
Washington City Paper: When did you decide that Merge was finally ready for the book treatment?
Mac McCaughan: We started talking about it a year and a half ago, maybe even longer than that. It was the idea of an old friend of mine who works in publishing. He’s not even that into music, he just thought the story of the label was interesting.
We were a little skeptical, though. Being in the middle of the label it’s hard to see what the dramatic arc of a book would be. There were no dramatic moments in our history where we almost went out of business. We were never teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. It’s always just been this slow steady thing. But once I read the proposal, I was a little more into it. It put the history of Merge in the context of the music business as a whole, in contrast to the major labels. That made a lot of sense then.
WCP: What made you decide to make it an oral history, instead of a more conventional narrative?
McCaughan: It didn’t start out as an oral history. I guess once John [Cook] started doing the writing and organization of the book, it became clear that it was too hard to incorporate as many quotes as he wanted into standard format. Also, I love oral histories. I love reading them.
WCP: In the beginning, Superchunk record sales basically drove Merge, sort of in the way Fugazi’s sales and reputation drive Dischord. When did that start to flip-flop? When did the label become an established entity independent of your band?
McCaughan: It was a little bit of a gradual thing. It kind of happened once we started putting out full-length records. We put out the Superchunk record On the Mouth and we put out the first two Polvo albums. That changed the label in terms of perceptions in how it had to function. After that we hired our first full time employee. Another shift was putting out bands that were from outside of North Carolina—Magnetic Fields, the 3Ds.
WCP: Was that it a difficult decision to move beyond just releasing records out of the local scene?
McCaughan: That wasn’t a hard decision at all. It was exciting for us. And even before we did albums we did a 7” by The Renderers. That was really exciting, too. But once we were doing albums that opened us up. If you were Claudia [Gonson] and Stephin [Merritt, both of Magnetic Fields] you could see Merge as a legit label. But I think that really the transition came in the mid-90s. By that point Merge was a label and not just Superchunk’s label. And certainly by the time of 69 Love Songs and Neutral Milk Hotel came out, in the late ’90s.
But yeah, I don’t think that you can pinpoint a couple of big turning points or a couple of big decisions that caused it all. It was just a general approach to business and music. When we were starting out one of the things that kept us going was that we weren’t trying to have the label be our job. We were putting out records because we loved music and the label never had to be anything. Even after we started having a staff and selling more records I think we still tried to keep that approach. There were labels that started around the same time that thought, “Well, if we’re a label we need to have this kind of office and have these people working there.” To us, that seemed like a backward way of looking at it. The label was going to become what it was going to become.
Even though we’ve put out records in the last few years that have sold a lot more than we ever could have imagined selling 10 years ago and certainly 20 years ago, I still feel like we operate on a different level than a major label. When people talk to me about the music business…I kind of think that we’re in different music business than they are. If we’re putting out and Arcade Fire or a Spoon record, sure, we certainly have to do some things to keep up with that. But we try to have the flexibility to do a good job with a record that’s only going to sell 3000 copies, too.
WCP: There’s some pretty personal stuff in this book, specifically the details about your breakup with Laura [Balance, bassist of Superchunk and co-founder of Merge]—was it difficult to be forthcoming about that stuff?
McCaughan: Well, I mean, it certainly wasn’t fun to maybe talk about that or read about it. But if you’re going to write the book, tell the story. Don’t gloss over the difficult parts. I mean, if I’m reading a book I want to feel like people are being honest.
WCP: Were there things that you learned from reading other people’s interviews that you didn’t know before?
McCaughan: There’s a lot I learned about the history of some of the bands. Bands like Spoon, that had a long history before we started working with them and how close they came to breaking up or stopping all together, I didn’t know some of that stuff. I learned a lot about Jeff Mangum and his friend’s history in Ruston. Also, you learn stuff about the way other people perceive you.
WCP: There are a few bands—like Lambchop—that Merge has stuck behind for quite a few albums, even though they don’t sell very well. Has keeping them around ever been a tough call?
McCaughan: It may be hard for the bands to stick with us, but not hard for us to stick with them. Lambchop specifically—every record they make is a masterpiece. If you’re an indie label and you’re putting out a record, you must love it. So it can be frustrating when something doesn’t do as well as you think it should. But no, it’s not hard to stay with those bands. They’re still making music that we love.
Mac McCaughan reads from Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records October 5th @ 6PM Crooked Beat 2318 18th St. NW