Indie Rock Makes People Old (Happy 20th Merge Records!)

The older I get, the easier I find it to take pot shots at labels whose discographies I only enjoy about 20% of the time. However, that’s just the grouch in me. But even with all their releases that I really don’t dig, god fucking bless Merge Records for making it to their 20th anniversary!

To me, Merge started out as a further south cousin of Simple Machines which were both spawned from this burst of indie energy in the years before punk broke (and then ruined everything….at least for a while). The early singles were always beautifully printed and the music (dare I say) had a real regional feel to it. You know, back when music had a regional feel. And what did that region from southern Virginia to the Triangle consist of? Pure. Erectus Monotone. Breadwinner. Honor Role. Wwax. Polvo. And let’s not forget Merge Records founders own band, Chunk who quickly became Superchunk and, well, the rest is history.

As an aside, the Merge newsletter inserts were always included in each 7" record and it lent a glimpse to this kid in York, Pennsylvania a glimpse as to what they were into. Mac always wrote of shows or band or tours that were coming up and well, those sorts of things MATTERED to kids that were isolated (like I was) and wanting to be tipped off to what was out there turning people on their ears. God, it feels like those pre-internet days were a thousand years away, don’t it?

I’ve been lucky enough to know the folks from Merge pretty much since the beginning of Chunklet and even before that. The first time Jon Wurster performed with Superchunk was at Max’s on Broadway in Fells Point, Baltimore. I spent a good 10 minutes talking with him about Philly (which he’d just exchanged for the environs of Chapel Hill) and then spent the rest of the evening making small talk with Pen Rollings who was selling t-shirts and records for them.

Merge was the first label EVER to advertise in Chunklet. I was living on Reed Street in east Athens and my (then) girlfriend picked up the phone and said "It’s Mac from Merge Records." My 23-year old self flipped out. I talked with Mac for about five minutes about Athens, and upon asking who the best band in Athens was, I’m 99% sure I said The Olivia Tremor Control. Ironically, Mac and Laura’s involvement with Georgia would start shortly thereafter as they put out records by Neutral Milk Hotel and the Rock*A*Teens. And you know what? Good for them. They had the ear to put those records out regardless of money with the knowledge that they were putting out quality releases. And that ear has served them well.

A year after that first phone call, I went to the Merge 5th anniversary at the Cat’s Cradle in Carboro. I seem to recollect that Polvo, Superchunk and the Archers of Loaf were particularly good (I drank quite a bit back then) as were Odes, Labradford and Air Miami. I even recollect having quite a startling moment with Tabitha Sorren which I’ve recounted more times than I care to count (you really should read this). But ah, those were the days. The Cat’s Cradle was oppressively hot, but hey, it’s late July in the South, right? What do you expect?

The next five years saw more involvement with Merge. I booked a club in Atlanta and put on my fair share of shows with their acts. I continued to have Merge support Chunklet in the issues during this time which, honestly, I still appreciate more than they could possibly imagine.

The girl I dated at the time of the Merge 10th Anniversary went up to the Cat’s Cradle with me as we were punished with yet another hot weekend. The Rock*A*Teens, Superchunk, Spent, some New Zealand dudes…..I seem to recollect the Olivia Tremor Control played, too. I also recollect the Neutral Milk Hotel kids lurking around (sans Jeff) thinking "Man, maybe they’ll kick it out too." No such luck.

It was around this time that my affinity for Merge tended to drift. Not for any other reason than I was starting to take them for granted which, I hate to say, is entirely my fault. Even though I kinda shrugged at a great majority of what they were putting out, I never would turn my back on them. I mean, they’re one of the last true mothership indies out there. Am I right?

I always have exchanged the random email with Mac or Spott (Merge’s manager) over the years on any one of a number of topics from design and packaging to records and, uh, Honor Role. You know, nerd shit.

And you know what? I can’t believe it’s taken me until the tenth paragraph to mention the superb reissues by Big Dipper and Volcano Suns that Merge have put out. I mean, there’s still plenty of masterpieces to get back in print (Butterglove, hello!) but man, the flawless mastering and faithful design and packaging are just, well, FLAWLESS! And you can bet your sweet bippy that those Arcade Fire and Spoon records are offering a bit of cushion for these to be released. So we should offer them heavy hitters on Merge a bit of thanks for that.

My hat tips to Merge (yet again) for their 20th anniversary box set that has been slowly arriving at my mailbox for the past few months. 12 CDs, a book, various other crap (a poster comes to mind) and an armload of various mp3 downloads ranging from a live Superchunk set , a collection of the early Merge singles and the entire Wwax discography. Cool! The curatorial angle of the monthly CDs is something I’m pretty luke warm on, though. Nothing new or special and some of it just seems kinda, well, not well thought out by the curators. Sorry, but that’s how it looks. Zach did a great love letter to Arcade Fire in last month’s series, so who knows? It might improve.

I’d love to spend a week at the Cat’s Cradle, but I blew it and didn’t buy tickets in time. But man, going to see bands that I loved back at Merge’s inception would be reason enough to go: Pure, Versus, Pipe, Spent, Guv’ner & Erectus Monotone. Holy crap! Think there might be a Pen Rollings sighting?! And then there’s the new schoolers: Rosebuds, Radar Bros., Clientele, Richard Buckner and Chris Lopez (Rock*A*Teens/Tenement Halls) performing acoustic. Wow. And then! There’s the old schoolers that have found homes on Merge: Lou Barlow and American Music Club. Good god! But with that is a bunch of stuff that would drive me insane which, in the spirit of celebrating Merge, I’ll refrain from mentioning. And then there’s the stifling heat of the Cat’s Cradle which I don’t think I’m willing to endure. Hopefully I can see Pure and Erectus Monotone play in Raleigh or somewhere around. Who knows?

When you have labels like Southern and Touch & Go reel it back, it makes you acknowledge that putting out records in 2009 is much more of a challenge now than it was in 1989 and that is a massive understatement. And of course, the golden ears that Mac and Laura possess are an enormous part of what has kept them so successful. So god bless their ears, while I’m at it. And with the Merge 20th Anniversary Week fast approaching, I thought I’d send out Chunklet’s love and well wishes to a label that really has kept it real for 20 years.

NOTE: I’m including this video about the Chapel Hill scene because it’s pretty damned funny and includes a heavy amount of Spott footage before he went to work for Merge. But man, it’s like he’s been dipped in formaldehyde since then because he hasn’t aged one bit. Bastard.