In the 25 years since its inception, Merge Records has managed to do the seemingly impossible: become a commercially successful, well-respected independent record label. Founded by Superchunk members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance in 1989, Merge has gone from pressing small batches of 7-inch singles to releasing Grammy-winning albums—all without losing its indie cred. McCaughan and Ballance have stayed grounded, taking chances on bands who might seem a little odd or outside the mainstream and only signing groups that they truly believe in. When asked what makes a Merge band, Ballance explains, “Mac and I have to both like them. They have to be willing to work hard, and be kind of self-reliant. They also have to be nice people that we’d be willing to hang out with, or could hang out with painlessly if we wanted to.”
The label has been celebrating its 25th anniversary since the beginning of the year, but the big shebang is a four-day festival happening July 23–26 in North Carolina. For Merge superfans, the lineup is nothing short of perfection, with performances from beloved bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, The Mountain Goats, Caribou, Wye Oak, Lambchop, and Superchunk themselves. To get in the mood for that blowout, we asked Ballance—who was in the thick of planning things from Merge’s Durham office—to reflect on 25 years of putting out amazing records and put together a 25-hour playlist, which we’ve kept in chronological order, since, according to Ballance, “you may get a sense of the evolution of the label over time.”
The A.V. Club: How did you choose the many, many albums that ended up on this Merge playlist?
Laura Ballance: Some were big milestones—if I were just picking the biggest milestones, I’d have picked fewer. Others were just personal favorites for me, or a situation where we’ve gotten to work with someone that we never imagined we’d work with. We knew them as someone that we listened to, but never someone that we thought we’d work with.
AVC: We’re kicking things off with the first Superchunk full-length released on Merge. What was the experience of putting that album out like?
LB: Touch And Go did a lot of the work in terms of pitching it to all the distributors and stores and stuff. When it first came out, I don’t think we did a whole lot to promote it. We were pretty underdeveloped as a label at that point, so we just sort of put it out there and relied on it to sell itself. We were also on tour a lot of the time so there wasn’t a whole lot we could do. We recorded it in like two days, and we were doing it as cheaply as we could. Things like that wouldn’t fly these days.
AVC: You followed that up quickly with Polvo’s debut LP. Did you approach the process any differently then?
LB: I can’t say we were much more experienced. We did it pretty much the same way. [Laughs.] “Oh, sure, we’ll put out a record!” Obviously we tried as much as we could—with all the 7-inches we’d done the same thing, we’d send it to all the zines we regularly got reviews in, and send it to a few radio stations, but that was about it.
AVC: What was it about Polvo that made you want to bring the band into the Merge fold?
LB: Well, they were a local band. They were part of our community, and they made really strange, interesting music that was different from most anything else we were hearing at the time. Yet it still had recognizable songs with hooks.
AVC: In Our Noise, the book about Merge that came out in 2009, you guys mention that Butterglory was the first band signed on the strength of a demo tape. What made the band special?
LB: At that point we weren’t getting a lot of demos in the mail. For the most part they were unappealing, or just a bad fit for us. But that one stuck. They’re a good band. It’s funny, if Butterglory sent their demo in the mail now, probably they wouldn’t wind up on the label. We get so many demos now, you can barely even listen to them all.
LB: We, together with Corey [Rusk] from Touch And Go, decided after we recorded Here’s Where The Strings Come In that it was the time to try and sell more records than we normally did by playing games we normally didn’t play. We spent more money in retail promotion than we ever had. “Hyper Enough” was on that record, and Corey talked to a friend of his who worked on commercial radio in L.A. She wanted to pitch it to radio stations, which wound up meaning we had to do a radio mix, and we did. In hindsight, I’m like, “What were we thinking?” There was no way this was gonna happen, we’re too scruffy. That record sold more when it was new than any Superchunk record did, partially because of these efforts, but it didn’t take off the way this campaign meant for it to. But it was an interesting experiment.
LB: This was our first foray into drum ’n’ bass. [Matt Elliott] sent us his records and they were really good. We’ve never just been attracted to one kind of genre of music. And I can’t say that in my life, I’ve listened to tons of drum ’n’ bass or tons of dance music, but it was just so good that we couldn’t deny.
AVC: Merge does tend to get pegged as the indie-rock label, but you put out all sorts of genres. It’s almost reductive.
LB: People have an inclination to want to be reductive. They want to be able to describe something as simply as possible. It’s the same thing as trying to describe a band; they want you to give them a one-sentence picture of what a band is going to sound like.
AVC: In Our Noise, Lambchop is described as “the quintessential Merge band,” aside from Superchunk. Do you still think that’s true?
LB: Definitely. They’ve been on the label longer than almost any other band. I think part of what makes Lambchop a quintessential Merge band is their weirdness, or the accidentalness of it all. Merge is accidental; we started a record label, and it actually worked out, which is sort of surprising. Lambchop was an outlet for Kurt Wagner—he was a carpenter, he worked installing floors, and in the evening to blow of steam he’d go to this bar with his friends and play with whoever wanted to get on stage. It somehow became a successful band that has sold a lot of records over its lifetime, and has been critically acclaimed and taken very seriously.
AVC: What made you want to add this album to your playlist?
LB: The band was getting more attention than they had previously, especially in Europe. Then NPR reviewed the record over here, and one week later, we got some retail reports and discovered it had really helped. People had gone out after hearing the review on NPR and had bought the record, which increased their sales by a third. It was pretty amazing.
LB: Brian McPherson, our lawyer at the time, somehow got to know Jeff [Mangum] and he sent us a cassette that Jeff had recorded. They were amazing. We wound up doing Neutral Milk Hotel’s first record, On Avery Island, which was successful. But when we heard In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, it really did seem like a refinement of his songwriting process. Aeroplane just feels like a concept record, you know? It tells a story somehow, an emotional story. It takes you through something that’s hard to describe. I think part of what makes that record appealing is the raw emotion that it conveys. It really moves people.
AVC: It’s kind of amazing how their fan base exploded in the 16 years since this album came out.
LB: It is. Especially when you consider how long they were inactive. They could’ve just disappeared, but it didn’t. And while they were hibernating, more and more of the world was discovering that record, and discovering the band. I don’t know, I feel like it was inevitable that Jeff had to come back.
AVC: Were you ever worried that he wouldn’t?
LB: He would sometimes toy with the idea of making another record, and we would get excited about the idea, but we knew better than to put any pressure on him. As with all artists, an artist can’t make a record on demand. With Jeff, we just had to have faith that he was making the right decision for him.
LB: I can’t remember exactly how we first came across The Rock*A*Teens, but it’s possible that Superchunk played with them somewhere. They put on such a good show. They’re another band, like Neutral Milk Hotel, where there’s a lot of raw emotion that comes across in their music. That to me is what makes them so appealing. The baring of the soul that happens… they’ve not had the same level of success as Neutral Milk Hotel, or Arcade Fire for that matter, who I think have a similar quality. And I think they’re somehow a little bit less approachable. Though I wouldn’t say Neutral Milk Hotel is super-approachable either. They were just so good that we really wanted to put out their record.
AVC: This is the second Lambchop record on your mix. Why’d you add this one?
LB: I think it’s the direction they went in. There’s a lot of sort of soul in that one, as in like, Marvin Gaye. And beautiful string arrangements. I just love it.
AVC: Is it hard to pick favorites with bands you’ve known and worked with for years?
LB: I shouldn’t say, because I’m always afraid I’m going to offend some band. I love them all! But you know, you sort of get favorites. Some stand up, and you come back to more and more than some others.
LB: This is a great example of Ladybug Transistor records, and the sound that they developed. I can’t say that there are a lot of bands that sound like them. I think that record was sort of their peak in terms of people’s interest in them. All of their records are good, but it’s a really good record. I wish they were better appreciated than they are.
AVC: Do you feel that way about a lot of Merge artists?
LB: I do, which is kind of a boring thing for me to say, because I’ll wind up saying it a lot! But Ladybug Transistor has this kind of retro, ’60s sound and vibe that’s different from a lot of the other records on our label.
AVC: Speaking of different, there’s this album. It was one of Merge’s biggest successes—what did you guys learn from that?
LB: Well, it was educational in terms of us learning that we had to try to position ourselves better if there was a sudden increase in demand for something. The problem with several of our records that really took us by surprise that way were that they were records that were not easy to manufacture quickly, because they had special elements to them. In the case of this Magnetic Fields record, it had this box, which didn’t get made at the regular place that we use that had 10-day turnaround. It took longer. Going forward, we tried—not to keep people from doing special packaging, but we did try to plan well and make extra. Within reason, because you don’t want to make too many, because then everyone’s going to lose money and that sucks. It’s tricky. We thought because it was three CDs, it was more expensive, that people would be more hesitant to buy it. But we were wrong.
AVC: It’s an unusual album, so it’s not like you could have known it would take off the way it did. Were you at all concerned because of the format, the 69 songs, and the like?
LB: I was definitely nervous. I thought it was kind of crazy for [Stephin Merritt] to want to do a record with 69 songs, and that he might alienate his fans by asking them to spend so much money all in one go. But he was right. He probably wasn’t even thinking, “Oh, this is going to sell a lot of records,” he was just thinking, “This is a concept, I want to do it.”
LB: We had been big fans of them for a long time. And again, Superchunk had done a lot of touring with them, we’d gotten to see them a lot, and they were so great. Teen Beat used to sell their records, and at some point Teen Beat became a less active record label, but Versus were still active and wanted to put out records, so they asked us. I put it on there, because it was one of those situations of like, this band we had been a fan of for a long time, and us getting to work with them.
AVC: You’ve name-checked The Clean as a big influence on Superchunk. What was it like to work with them as Merge artists?
LB: Well, they were so far away. Them in New Zealand and us here, our interaction at first was really minimal. We were very excited about it, we didn’t want to let them down in any way. We were in disbelief that we’d have the honor of putting their records out here, and get to introduce them to new people who maybe hadn’t heard them before.
AVC: Did you pursue them or was it the other way around?
LB: Superchunk had gone on tour down in New Zealand, and someone had taken us to the Flying Nun offices, which put out their records down there. And so we’d met them, and when we got back, it occurred to us that, you know, “Those records, they’re all imports. I wonder if we could release that here?” So we got in touch with them and they said yes. At first we were dealing more with Flying Nun than with the band.
LB: All of Spoon’s records are great. They write amazing pop songs. But I guess I have a lot of nostalgia around that record, partly because it’s the first one we did with them. For some reason, I always remember that, when they first sent the record, it had a different title. At one point they were going to call it French Lessons. Which I think is an equally awesome title. I have a really bad memory, and it always surprises me that I can remember what the album title almost was. Girls Can Tell is a good one too.
AVC: Spoon is one of the Merge bands that’s had mainstream success. Is it easy to balance working with bands like that and bands who maybe don’t see as much commercial success?
LB: Well, you need both extremes. You need the successful ones so you can afford to keep putting out the less mainstream ones. It’s easy to balance as long as your artists can keep a sense of reality and not expect that everyone should be selling the same amount of records.
LB: Imperial Teen is, again, different from anything we’d done before. There’s a sweet, clean pop sound to them. And you know, it’s the kind of music that could be hugely successful, but isn’t as successful as they deserve.
AVC: Does it frustrate you when that happens?
LB: Well, it is hard to say what makes a record successful or not. On was a pretty successful record. In a just world, it would’ve sold much more than it did. But that happens all the time, where there are so many records we put out that are so good but nobody notices. At least a good number of people noticed this Imperial Teen record.
AVC: This is the first Destroyer record Merge put out—what made you add it here?
LB: It’s so good. And yet again, Dan [Bejar] makes music that is so different from anything we had released before on Merge, but fits into the whole picture. He has a strange voice, a strange way of singing, a strange way of writing lyrics that makes him unique and interesting. He makes great records.
AVC: You’ve since released a few of his records. What’s it like to foster relationships with artists like that?
LB: I’m going to say it again—it makes me feel honored. It makes me feel like we’re so privileged to get to be a consistent part of this artist’s career, that they trust us to help develop their career, or be a host.
AVC: Why is M. Ward such an important artist for Merge?
LB: He’s important because we like him so much. We like his records so much. The addition of Matt to the label added another dimension to us as a label.
AVC: Was his not a style of music you guys had been focusing on prior to him coming on board?
LB: I don’t think so. I would say not, if I think about our history prior to that. I don’t think we had done anything quite like that.
AVC: This was obviously a huge hit for Merge, and the band’s big breakout. What was it like to be a part of that?
LB: We were caught by surprise. There was really a buzz on that band that, in hindsight, we should’ve recognized as something much bigger than we had ever dealt with before. It felt like kind of the beginning of the Internet making a band, and the power that the Internet has in facilitating more people being able to access a band.
AP: That really was the point when blogs like Pitchfork were on the rise, and it changed a lot of how music was discovered and consumed.
LB: Yeah, and it was embarrassing. We had such a hard time catching up to the demand. We kept having to reorder the record, so it was really frustrating. [Laughs.] We’d order it, like, “Oh, we need to make another 8,000. Oh crap, we haven’t gotten those yet, and we already have orders for another 20,000, I guess we need to make 25,000! Oh no!” We didn’t get it.
AVC: Teenage Fanclub got its start around the same time as Superchunk. What was it like to work with a contemporary?
LB: It was an honor. We both were young bands at the same time, and the same sort of silly young people. And at some point, our relationship changed, to the point where they were able to trust us to put out their records, which was very exciting and makes us feel lucky. We were really excited about it, because they’re such a great band.
AVC: This is one of the albums from Merge’s back catalog that’s being reissued this year; how did you decide which ones would make the cut?
LB: We have a big list of records we’ve wanted to reissue on vinyl, either because we’ve never put them out on vinyl in the first place, or because there was an era where we didn’t do vinyl, because people didn’t buy it. We partially chose which reissues we wanted to do based on bands that would be playing the Merge anniversary this year. It is also kind of random, because there’s so many we want to do, but we had to narrow it down.
LB: We don’t work with tons of foreign bands, partly because it’s difficult to promote bands from overseas, and partly because it’s so expensive for them to get over here and tour. Somehow we’ve always been able to make it work with The Clientele, probably because they’re such responsible, great people. They work hard to make it happen, and seem to be able to tour in a way where we don’t have to give them tons of money to get over here and do it. It’s a great record, and has one of the catchiest freaking songs on it I’ve ever heard, called “Bookshop Casanova.” Check it out.
LB: I have a hard time pinning Caribou down, but his music is really great. Given an opportunity to work with someone who writes songs like he does, we’d be idiots to say no. His songs are amazing, he’s a very hard-working person, and he’s so nice. He’s a pleasure to work with. It’s weirdly hard to predict who his fans will be. When I go to see him play in Carrboro, at the Cat’s Cradle, I’m always surprised at the people that I see there. There are dads, middle-aged people, and teenagers who are sucking on pacifiers.
LB: She writes amazing, beautiful songs, and has an amazing, beautiful voice. The production on the record is beautiful and amazing. We have so much respect for her, and we’re so happy to be able to work with her. She’s one of those people where she won’t tour. She did come over to do some interviews when this record first came out—she came and did a press day in New York, but for some reason she’s not comfortable performing live, which is too bad, because I’d love to see her sing these songs live.
AVC: This is the second Destroyer record you picked. What makes this one special?
LB: Kaputt is a leap for him and the attention he was getting. [Dan Bejar] made a really grand record that required more people on stage, and more people when he toured. It was a change for him in that he had to bring all these people on tour. And also, he was getting all this attention, which Dan is really conflicted about. On the one hand, he wants to sell records and he wants to live off of making records. He also wants to squat at the front of the stage where no one can see him while he’s singing, which is not the way a proper exhibitionist behaves.
AVC: You called this one “vastly under-appreciated.” How come?
LB: It’s a really fun pop record. A perfect summer record. Also, a lot of it to me seems like a great record for kids.
LB: If you listen to the lyrics, you can hear what he’s saying all the time; everything is well-enunciated and loud enough, and the songs are about dancing and which witch is which, and things like that. It’s really fun. It’d been released months earlier in Europe, and by the time we put it out everyone had written or talked about it. Plus the band name is un-Googleable. And these are things that, unfortunately, as a record label owner, you start to think about. I don’t want to think that way, but I do.
AVC: This is probably my favorite Merge release of all time.
LB: It’s so great. And again, I feel really privileged that we got to put it out. It’s too bad they broke up, but goddamn, that record. I feel like that record is going to live on. People are going to keep on buying that record, because you hear that record and you cannot resist.
AVC: It seemed like the hype surrounding the band almost overtook them, but the record was so good that it didn’t totally happen.
LB: Yeah, I agree. They overcame whatever supergroupness they had.
AVC: You signed Mary Timony’s new band, Ex Hex, to Merge. Was that because you’d worked with her on Wild Flag previously?
LB: It was completely related. Working with Wild Flag got us back in touch with Mary, and [after Wild Flag broke up] she sent us some songs that she’d been working on and they were great. We put out a 7-inch, and then she made some more songs and they were also great, so we were like, “Let’s put out an album, yay!”
LB: When Steve McDonald first got in touch with us, asking us if we might be interested in putting out a Redd Kross album, I was a little bit skeptical, because they hadn’t put out a record in so long. I had no idea what kind of record they would make. We were like, “Yeah, send it, we’ll check it out,” and it was great. I would daresay that it’s one of their greatest records.
AVC: They’re another band you’ve called an influence on Superchunk. What’s it like when these bands approach you guys?
LB: When bands like this think of us as the first label they’d like to put out their record, it makes me really proud. Or it makes me think we must have a good reputation among artists as a good label to work with. I’m so glad it’s worked out that way.
LB: This is so good, another classic in the making. It’s a timeless-sounding record, to me. It doesn’t register as being from now, but it doesn’t register as being from any particular time. It’s just good rock ’n’ roll.
AVC: How often do you put out records that you’d consider timeless?
LB: Not very often. I guess there are a few of them on this list, but it doesn’t happen that often. So often people’s records seem right for that moment, but not necessarily for all eternity.
LB: I think it’s a great record, but I think we messed up. Poor Stu. He turned in the record, and we said to him, “Stu, you mixed the vocals too low, this record would be so much better if you cleaned it up a little.” It took another year for him to finish the record after that. We should’ve just kept our mouths shut and put it out as it was, because it was great, and he came back with a different record, almost. Which is still a great record, but I think sometimes about how it would be funny to release the other record at some point down the line, and see what the reception would be like.
AVC: Sort of like a director’s cut. How often do you give input like that to your artists?
LB: We usually don’t give any feedback. Maybe we give them some input on sequence, or more likely on album or cover design, in that we’re like, “You need to have the name of your band on the album cover, people need to know what band it is.” But for the most part we’re very hands off.
AVC: This is an interesting choice. King Khan isn’t a band people might normally think of as a Merge band.
LB: Yeah. They just played here a week ago. I think this album is fantastic and really fun, but it helps a lot if you’ve seen them play. It gives you a sense of the characters and personalities in that band. The album stands on its own just great too. They write really great, super-catchy, sort of funk- and soul-inspired but also garage-y. It makes you want to dance.
AVC: This is the second Hospitality album Merge has released; why’d you pick this one in particular?
LB: Right now, I love this record more than their first record. I loved that first record, but this one, when they turned it in, I was just like, oh my God. This record has this arc to it. It really feels like it goes from beginning to end and the whole thing is a package, you know? It all goes together. It’s an album, not just a collection of songs stuck together. It’s hard for me to explain why, but it’s just a really impressive album to me. Really well-crafted, with a lot of thought put into it, and I think again, this one could be a classic. People will be discovering this record for a long time.
LB: I don’t feel like anyone’s paying attention to this album. At a label, that’s really frustrating. We’re doing everything we can to get it out there in front of people, but there’s a certain point at which you have to rely on people to listen and pay attention. If they don’t, there’s nothing more you can do to make them listen. And it makes me feel bad, because I feel like we’re letting the band down by not getting people to pay more attention. But like, John [Schmersal] has been working really hard to promote the record, but his time to do that is almost up. He’s also in Caribou, so when Caribou starts touring he’s going to be busy with that for a long time.
AP: So the takeaway here is that everyone should be listening to this Vertical Scratchers album.
LB: Yeah! I think so. And Hospitality.
AVC: This is definitely my favorite record of the year so far. It’s so different from Wye Oak’s earlier stuff—does it worry you when an artist makes this kind of bold departure?
LB: Before we actually got to hear the record, Jenn [Wasner] told us she wasn’t going to play guitar on the record. And just being told that made me a little nervous. Like, “Well, God, how are people going to react to that, people love how you play guitar.” But that said, we have so much faith in them as artists. Jenn and Andy [Stack] are impeccable artists; we had faith that they would make a good record no matter if they decided to play tambourines and xylophones instead of anything else. It would still be a great record if they made that decision. So we knew it would be good. And it is! It’s a great record. It sounds almost like top 40 music—the weird cousin of top 40 music.
AVC: You mentioned Hüsker Dü as an influence; so same question as before, what was it like working with Bob?
LB: It’s intimidating. Well, it was intimidating at first to start working with him. He’s an amazing person, and an amazing artist. He’s another person who, when he puts out a record or makes a record, he has a plan. He’s come up with the whole thing—not just gone and recorded a record and everything else is an afterthought. He’s been through this enough that he thinks through the entire picture. And you’ve gotta respect anybody who has come through 30 years or more of making music and like, is still so engaged in the process. I put this on the list, because it’s new, and probably fewer people have heard it. I think they need to hear it. It’s a really great record.