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Fifteen Candles: The Music Scholar on Merge Records

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Merge Records celebrates its 15th birthday this July. Dusted's Ben Tausig tracked down The Music Scholar to put Merge's accomplishments in perspective.

Fifteen Candles: The Music Scholar on Merge Records

Dusted: How did you first hear about Merge Records?

The Music Scholar: I think it was 1989 or so. I was running my store Heliocentric Music (“The Store That Educates”) and I ordered a few copies of Samm Bennet and Chunk's Menace To The Game album. The distributor screwed up and sent me several copies of a single by a North Carolina group called Chunk. I can't say I was that impressed. It put me in mind of what Devoto, Diggle and Shelley might have sounded like before they started to get a grasp on songwriting and performing (take a listen to the pre-"Spiral Scratch" demos and then think where they might have been about six months before that). Not terrible, just nothing that I hadn't heard a million times ten years before when I was hanging out at Max's and CB's as a teenager and fanzine writer (mine was called The Gift - first issue featured lengthy Cale interview).

D: At one point Merge released only 7"s. Why was this so, and did you notice a significant change when they began putting out CDs?

TMS: Most people didn't have the guts to put out full-on albums back then. I very much bucked that trend when I released a five CD-set of German industrial pioneer Frondheim Bunvled's more overlooked material on my Heliocentric label. And this was in 1988!

They started putting out CDs because that was the trend by that point. See, someone does something because everybody else does it. Of course there are exceptions to that rule - most notably me. When CDs started catching on I went the other way. A lot has been made of the period (most of the '90s) when I listened to nothing but Air Mixes (pure recorded silence) on vintage 1950s reel to reel tape.

D: Have you seen any of the presumably defunct Merge bands live? Neutral Milk Hotel? Polvo? If so, what were your impressions?

TMS: During that period I would venture out every now and then to see bands that people would recommend to me. I’d be lying if I said I was knocked out by many of them.

Neutral Milk Hotel I did see once. I thought they were OK musically, but I was a little turned off by the unimaginative look sported by the band's tuba player. An Amish beard and suspenders? I dressed like that back in junior high school (this was when I was writing a still-unpublished book of essays on Beefheart)!

Polvo reminded me too much of that awful mid-period Sonic Youth pop drivel. I tip my hat to Kim, Thurston and Lee (I will not mention the Crucifucks drummer – Sclavunos is the only SY skinsman in my book) for hanging in there but they really lost me when I heard “Teenage Riot” – I remember thinking that there must have been a problem at the pressing plant and they put a Sonic Youth label on New Monkees album. I'm actually being a little too kind there – I was gone by Evol.

D: What was Superchunk like before Mac, before they recorded?

TMS: I’ve heard some of the stuff they recorded before the band got together. There's a bootleg that we sold for a while called Before The First Part that featured some pre-Superchunk performances by various members. I only listened to it once and I recall the best track being a sea shanty sung a capella by the band's guitar player at age 8. Not required listening by any means but semi-interesting in the same way as Van Morrison's Bang Records contractual obligation album.

D: What explains Superchunk's brief burst of popularity in Belgium, in the mid-90s?

TMS: Lack of taste?

D: Have you been personally acquainted with, or played in, any Merge bands?

TMS: Good god, no! Although I did once do a reading at an art space in Soho where I was accompanied by two people (the promoter set this up without my knowledge –he thought people wouldn't be able to take me talking about free jazz trombone pioneer Grachan Moncur III without some sort of device to make it go down easier) who told me they were in a band called The Ladybug Transistor. I told them I had never heard of them but if they were half as good as the mid-'60s French garage band Les Transistors, I would probably like them. Their blank stares are forever etched in my mind.

D: Were you invited to the 15th anniversary celebration?

TMS: I seriously doubt if I will be. I’ve not been on the best of terms with them since I compared Merge to the Buddha/Kama Sutra labels in an article I wrote for Ege Bamyasi back in 1998. I didn't mean it as an all-out slam - Buddha/KS did in fact release a couple Beefheart albums and, of course, Metal Machine Music - but they took offense to my comparing Superchunk to “a more forgettable 1910 Fruitgum Company,” and Lambchop to “Floyd Cramer at his most disposable.” My taking them to task for what I saw as the overuse of the word “amazing” in advertisements for their records didn't help matters.

Hey, what do I care? I just ordered the new Matching Mole and Soft Machine box sets and they should be arriving on the 29th. I’ll be in aural bliss while those jerks are standing there nodding their heads to Camera Obscura and Spoon!

Links of Interest:
Merge Records
Stereolaffs (The Music Scholar's home)

By Ben Tausig

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