Story by Sandra Davidson
Thirty years ago somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the great American west, two twenty-somethings decided it would be fun to start a record label. The duo, Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, noted a desert road sign on their cross-country trip back to North Carolina and decided to name the label after it: Merge. It was 1989, and the mission of Merge was simple: to release music made by them and their friends.
“We’ve always operated Merge as a label that we put out music that we love,” says Mac, while we’re sitting in the light-filled lobby of Merge Record’s offices in downtown Durham. In the early days, it was often music they made by their band Superchunk. Today, the label’s talent includes a blend of internationally known acts from North Carolina and beyond like The Arcade Fire, The Mountain Goats, Hiss Golden Messenger, and The Magnetic Fields.
“We choose bands that we like to work with. We manufacture their records. We promote their records. We distribute their records. We help develop the artist from whatever point they’re at when we start working with them until they win a Grammy…and then we’re done with them,” jokes Laura – who is responsible for the massive aloe plants sitting in the front windows of the office. Her comment is only a half-truth – The Arcade Fire did, in fact, receive a Grammy Award in 2011 for The Suburbs.
One wonders if Mac and Laura imagined what Merge would become in the early days: one of the most esteemed independent record labels in the nation. A linchpin in the Triangle’s storied indie music scene. One of our state’s crown jewels.
In celebration of the 30th Anniversary, which will be marked by MRG30, a multi-day festival from July 24 to July 27, I sat down with Mac and Laura for a special Come Hear North Carolina 50 for 50 interview.*
Will you describe what was going on in 1989 and how Merge came to be?
Mac McCaughan: It’s funny because I don’t remember when we started talking about doing it. We took a road trip across the country in 1989 to drive a couple of friends of ours back to the West Coast. We were going to drive across and then drive back by ourselves, and we were already trying to come up with a name at that point.
Laura Ballance: See, I think we didn’t even start talking about it until that trip. Or maybe you had an ulterior motive.
Mac: Maybe. But on that trip, we visited the Sub Pop [Records] offices in Seattle. We were obviously visiting because we were fans and we thought it’d be cool to see the office...but I also felt like we were already thinking about doing our own thing. And we were looking for a name, which is how we came up with Merge Records because we saw it on a road sign in the desert somewhere out there.
Laura: Whenever we’d talk about the road sign and naming the label, I also think about pronghorn antelope because [they live] in the part of the country that we were talking about it. We could have been called Pronghorn Antelope Records (laughs).
Mac: The first couple of releases we did were tapes, but we also had started what would become Superchunk. We were just called Chunk at the time. And the first three things that we put out – a 7-inch and a couple of tapes – were of bands that weren’t even active anymore, or in the case of Bricks, barely active. Chunk was kind of like our “real” band. That fall we put out the first Chunk 7-inch before we changed our name to Superchunk. All that happened in pretty rapid succession.
Why did you want to start a record label?
Laura: It seemed like there was a lot going on in the area musically. Maybe a summer or two before, Mac had taken a year off from college and was hanging out with a lot of people from Raleigh.
Mac: Wayne Taylor. Bill and Barbara who had Tannis Root productions. I was in a couple of bands including Wwax which was from Raleigh and Slush Puppies which was more based in Chapel Hill.
Laura: But all these people had decided to put out this box set of 7-inches, and it was very homespun.
Mac: The box set was “Evil I Did Not, To Nod I Live,” which is a palindrome. Wayne Taylor was very into palindromes, and this was kind of his idea. It was Black Girls, Angels of Epistemology, Wwax, Slush Puppies, and Finger. There was one single by each band in this box, and they came in a tape box that would hold a reel to reel tape, and the covers were silk-screened, and we did a couple of release shows where we sold the box set. It felt like a big deal to us, but it essentially gave us the experience of making records, so we knew how to do it. We knew that was not a mysterious thing and that it could be done.
So you were already embedded in the music community here and you saw a lot of people who were making music and were looking for ways to put their music out…and that was why you thought you could do a record label yourselves?
Mac: Yeah and I think at the time, certainly, bands around here put records out, but they mainly put them out on labels that existed somewhere else. It was a fairly novel thing to be a local label that was putting out local music.
Laura: But a lot of the smaller bands never put out records. They would be around for a little while then disappear…and it seemed like you could put out a 7-inch by some local band that may not be around that long and it’s not a big deal. It felt really much more casual and just fun than a serious pursuit…like it feels like now.
Laura: Now when we put out records it’s a commitment. If we’re going to put out your album you’ve got to tour. We want you to be around awhile. We’re going to put you through your paces. You’re going to do interviews. But back then it was like we’re going to put out a 7-inch. we’ll make 500 of them.
Mac: That’s fun.
Laura: And that’s fun! It doesn’t matter. It was great.
Are you both from North Carolina?
Mac: Well I was born in Florida, and we moved to Durham when I was 13, so I went to Junior High and High School here.
Laura: I was born in Charlotte, but I didn’t live there for very long.
Will you paint a picture of that era of music in the Triangle? It’s legendary. I’d love for you to talk about what the scene was like as it pertained to live music, indie music.
Laura: I’m thinking of two different eras. There’s pre-Merge when I was in high school, and then there’s the 90s. They feel really different to me. When I was in high school, I was living in Raleigh with my mom and it felt like this funny combination of punks and hippies all together. There were tons of shows at The Brewery in Raleigh, and the Cat’s Cradle was going at the time too, but I didn’t go to many shows at the Cat’s Cradle at that point. It was a stopping point in between D.C. and Atlanta, so a lot of bands would stop here even though it was a podunk town in terms of punk rock draw.
Mac: And I think that the 90s were different because there was some national attention to the area, whereas what you’re saying – in the 80s there was a ton happening, but it was more like around [just] here.
Laura: It was internal. It was family. It felt like family-style to me.
Mac: I think so much came out of the punk and hardcore scene which was really big when I was in high school because they were all ages shows. Whether it was at The Brewery or at a non-traditional place like Sadlacks in Raleigh, [which] had hardcore shows. There were shows in the basement of St. Joseph’s church over here in Durham. There was a place called the Turning Point in Carborro…it was kind of a hippie space, but they had punk shows there. There were lots of shows happening. A lot of bands played at parties. The first time I saw Polvo was in the basement of someone’s house in Raleigh. It really felt like in the late 80s there were a ton of bands, and even if they didn’t have records out you could hear them on WXYC and WKNC because those stations would play tapes, so, there was a lot of support for local bands even though very few of them had records out or had played outside of the area.
How did that scene impact the type of music you were making with Superchunk?
Mac: I mean I think that Superchunk – just like the label – reflected stuff that we were into. [It] sounded like bands we liked. I feel like Superchunk has never been the most original band musically because we sounded like a lot of the records that we listened to. The Buzzcocks cover was one of the first songs we learned when we first started playing in bands together. Dinosaur Jr. Sonic Youth. I feel like our first record sounds like that.
Laura: I know you were really into Soul Asylum.
Mac:Yeah, Soul Asylum. I remember Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ was an amazing live band I used to go see a lot. There was just a lot happening, and in the 90s it became a little bit different because the area became known as a place where there were a lot of bands, and it was going to be the next Austin, Seattle, etc. It became more nationally known at that time, but there were a million bands in the 80s.
Laura: I feel like the sound of the bands changed in the area around that time too. In the 80s it was much more eclectic, and there was no attempt at making something that would be successful commercially. It was just artistic expression, and with a lot of bands, it was just super weird. If you think about Angels of Epistemology or Erectus Monotone…they were just weird and awkward and difficult to get your head around sometimes, but then in the 90s, there were more bands like Archers of Loaf and Superchunk that are more like…normal sounding. Traditional rock song structure.
How did that national attention on this area impact Merge?
Laura: I’m sure the national attention to Chapel Hill helped Merge grow a lot at the time. People were more interested in what was coming out of this area, but also Superchunk helped Merge grow because at first Superchunk got more attention than Merge. We were touring a lot, so we were taking the message around the world. If Superchunk hadn’t done as well as it did, I don’t think Merge would be in existence today.
Mac: That carried the label for a while and was our full-time job more than the label was for a few years. Because people knew about Superchunk and knew that we had a label, I think it legitimized Merge. When we talked to someone like The Magnetic Fields, we were coming from a legitimate place. It provided a foundation for us to show other artists that we could do a good job with their records because they’d seen Superchunk records in stores, and they knew that they were doing well. The first Polvo record and the first Lambchop record those were kind of the first full-lengths that we did. Magnetic Fields was soon after that.
So, there’s the creative side where you’re making music, but then you also have the business side. How does that work for you? What has that been like for you both to manage being artists yourselves while also managing a business and being a steward of so many other artists’ work?
Laura: I think it helps that Mac and I have really different personalities and roles that we play. I tend to be more bottom-line oriented, or business oriented. He’s always been more creative focused. Of course, we both go back and forth on those things.
Mac: As Merge grew and Superchunk was also still active and busy, I think a lot of it just became [about] time management and structuring…not just your week but your year. Like…Superchunk’s going to be on tour for these six weeks then we’ll be here. Especially once we had a couple of other people working at Merge, we could do that more easily. But at the same time, it’s happened gradually over 30 years. There was never one tipping point where it was like all of a sudden, we have to figure out how to do all this stuff. You’re just kind of learning as you go. Little by little.
Laura: I have to say it was never my fantasy when we started the record label that I would have to deal with personnel management and things like that, and there are times where I wish it was just the creative part because the rest of it wears on you sometimes.
I feel like for most people there’s that reality or duality if you’re working in a creative field.
Mac: Yeah because you start it out like it was a fun art project. And then 30 years later a lot of your time is contracts, talking to other artists’ managers, finding the right distributor for your records in another country. All this stuff that you never had to think about for a while.
Was there a moment in the existing arc of Merge where you were like, “Wow…we’ve really arrived with the record label?”
Laura: A lot of them, I think. I think the first time we put out a full-length record and Touch and Go shipped it to us and we held it in our hands…we were like, “Damn we’ve done it now!” But then we had the 69 Love Songs box set, and it was so much more in demand than we anticipated. That was another moment when we were like, “Wow we’re doing something right except that we’re not making enough of these.” That happened again with Funeral– the Arcade Fire record. We thought, “This is a good band, this is a great record. We can sell at least 4,000 of these.”
Mac: Which would’ve been great for us.
Laura: That would’ve been great. But instead people immediately wanted way more than that, and we had committed to a very elaborate packaging that involved this silver foil that took a long time to dry, so when we printed them they had to sit there for a while or they would get messed up in the folder.
Mac: It wasn’t a normal job.
Laura: Had we known we would’ve made more in the first place.
When you are speaking with bands about coming to join Merge, what is your pitch? What makes Merge a good place to be an artist?
Laura: What I try to get across to bands is that we’re people you can trust. We’re also artists. We have been through everything we’re going to ask you to do, and we wouldn’t ask you if we wouldn’t do it ourselves…and if you say no, we understand. We’re not the biggest label, and we don’t have the most money. We’re never going to be the one to offer any band the biggest advance, but we want people to come here that want to be on Merge and want to be part of the family.
Mac: Just the fact that Merge is artist-run can give people an immediate confidence in the place that we’re coming from. Also, we have a staff of people that work here who are dedicated to what they’re doing which is trying to present your music in a way that you envision it being presented to the world and to make sure your music gets heard by the most people as possible without having to do things that are distasteful. Everyone who works at Merge including us always works with that in mind. [We’re] thinking about how the artist would want their record out there. How they would want it talked about to fans, to record stores, to distributors, to people at radio stations, to people who write about music. I think that we do a really good job at doing that.
We’ve been around long enough that I think it’s clear that we can adapt to all the different changes in the music industry. We’re always trying to come up with new ways to do what we do to make sure that we’re still doing the best job that we can in getting music out there. There are so many ways you can consume music, and there’s so much music out there which is great, but it also means that if you’re a label or if you’re an artist, you’re trying to cut through a lot of noise to make sure that people hear what you’re doing. Hopefully, the name Merge being on a record helps do that because we have 30 years of putting out records we love. I think people really trust the name to the point where yes, of course, they’ll listen to a new Lambchop record or a new Superchunk record, but also, they’ll listen to the new Ibibio Sound Machine record even though they’ve not heard of them before. Because it’s on Merge they want to check it out.
The tagline for Come Hear North Carolina is “The roots of American music run deep in North Carolina. This year we tell that story.” I would love for you to reflect on that idea as it relates to the universe of music that y’all have been working in: North Carolina’s indie music scene. What is unique about it? What is special about it from your perspective?
Mac: When I was in high school listening to college radio around here, I was hearing bands that were from North Carolina that had been making independent music and putting out records since the 70s. These were bands that were still around at the time like The dB’s, Let’s Active, Corrosions of Conformity. You could even go back to the bands that those people had been in before like Sneakers in Winston-Salem. It was really cool because you’re like, “Wow these are bands that people have heard of all over the world, but they’re from North Carolina and they’ve been doing this for a long time already.” It was cool to know that there already was this foundation or history of people making the kind of music that you were into right in North Carolina.
There were a couple of compilations that came out on Dolphin Records – like Mondo Montage – and they were more like pop records. Maybe you would call it college rock or indie music, but there was something southern about it, and there was something North Carolina about it. It wasn’t twangy necessarily. Even if you couldn’t put your finger on what it was, there was something unique about it which gave you a feeling of, “this is something to be proud of.”
What has made North Carolina a good place for Merge to be?
Laura: North Carolina has always been a good place for Merge to be. If you think about trying to be in a band, or trying to run a record label from inception when you have no resources....it’s best to live somewhere where the rent is cheap and supplies are cheap and people have free time because they don’t have to work all the time so that they can be in a band. They have time to be in a band and rehearse and do all of the hanging out that you have to do if you’re going to be in a band. Early on when we started Superchunk, people were like, “Why didn’t you move to New York City?” I was like, “Why would we do that?” We’d have to rent rehearsal space, haul our amps and our guitars to the rehearsal space and work our butts off to be able to afford to pay rent. This was a great place to incubate that kind of lifestyle with a whole bunch of other people who could do the same thing.
Mac: I also think that North Carolina’s a super interesting place to make music and be in a community of artists because the politics here are…I’ll just say interesting for lack of a better word. There were a lot of punk bands protesting Ronald Reagan in the 80s. In North Carolina, in particular, we had Jesse Helms as our Senator, so punk bands around here had a lot to talk about.
Laura: It’s true.
Mac: So, I think it was a great place to be to see how progressive people can live and express themselves and try to change things when maybe the overarching politics are regressive. You look around and there are people in all fields really working to try to make things better in North Carolina. I think it’s very inspiring for us as artists running a business to partake in that…to partake in the thing that we’ve seen other people do in the past.
Laura: On top of that, there are a lot of good universities in North Carolina. Usually, those are surrounded by or attended by people who are open-minded. Usually, there are college radio stations and music venues near the universities, and those were essential to growing a punk rock or indie music scene.
Mac: And of course, record stores.
How can North Carolina better support the music business?
Laura: Healthcare would be a great support to artists and would enable a lot of people to worry less and make more art.
Mac: And I think that this kind of initiative is important in terms of talking about the arts in North Carolina to the rest of the country…but also I think raising awareness so that people who live here see what they have and see how valuable it is. As artists and as people who’ve been artists in North Carolina for a long time, it’s a great place to make music and be in a band and make art. But I think that at a certain point it’s easy to do when you’re in your 20s when you can have another job…but if you want people to keep growing and keep doing what they’re doing it is important to provide things that would allow people to have a life…like health care. I think that would be huge.
*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.