The modest, mild origins of perhaps the only complete Merge collection | Music Feature | Indy Week

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The modest, mild origins of perhaps the only complete Merge collection



When Superchunk walks onto the stage of Cat's Cradle Thursday night to celebrate Merge Records, the label the band has anchored now for a quarter-century, Will Spears won't be the only fan in the crowd who has attended almost all of Superchunk's hundreds of North Carolina shows since 1990.

But there is one distinction he might share with just the label's founders, as far as he or anyone at Merge can discern: He owns every recording in every available format that the local label-gone-large has released, from MRG 001—Winterspring, a cassette from co-founder Mac McCaughan's Bricks—to MRG 522, a caustic single by Chapel Hill trio Flesh Wounds, released in May.

  • Illustration by JP Trostle

Spears stores this bulk in an upstairs room of his Wilkesboro home. Framed promotional shots and show posters for many Merge bands line the enclave's walls. His closets are packed with a quarter-century's worth of Merge ephemera—too much, he admits, for his drywall and shelves to bear. He even has paintings by McCaughan and Superchunk bassist and Merge co-founder Laura Ballance.

But do not mistake Spears—a 44-year-old married father of two—with some sort of obsessive misfit collector. He's not operating out of a subterranean man-cave, lined floor-to-ceiling with rare vinyl, and he sports no Merge bumper sticker on his car. The term "avid," often applied to those who bring deep enthusiasm to some chosen pursuit, doesn't seem to fit Spears at all. He has a mild affect, measures his words carefully, and wears business-casual clothes. His enthusiasm is implicit, worn inside rather than outside. He's not a noisy guy, just a guy who loves a lot of noisy bands.

"It's clear that Merge is great music, that it's people who love music," he says in the upstairs sanctum. "As a music fan, I've always felt like I've got some role in supporting it, too. You want to keep it going. You want to reward people for committing themselves. I don't feel like a collector. I feel like a supporter."

Spears relates a story that has nothing and everything to do with how he became the only known Merge completist. As a kid, he and a friend gave each other one record every Christmas. One year, his friend requested Let's Active's Cypress, an album and act Spears didn't know.

"And we always had a deal," he remembers, "that you can listen to it and tape it before you give it. So I listened to it, taped it, fell in love."

Anyone's first listen to the haunting jangle of Mitch Easter and company qualifies as its own reward, but in Spears' case, the experience launched a bigger, life-altering epiphany. Suddenly, he realized, that music wasn't necessarily the domain of celebrity.

"It wasn't all Mick Jagger and John Lennon," he says. "I realized that real people made music."

Spears landed at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1989, the same year McCaughan and UNC classmate Ballance, along with guitarist Jack McCook and drummer Chuck "Chunk" Garrison, issued MRG 004, or "What Do I?," the first release by Superchunk.

He heard it and, again, was struck profoundly by the notion that people in his own world made music that moved him.

"Mac worked at Schoolkids, and I would see Laura in the grocery store," he remembers. "Jon Wurster was washing windows a couple of years later when he got there. Dexter Romweber was behind me in line at Taco Bell."

Spears' devotion grew, abetted in no small part by the air of approachability and inclusiveness that emanated from the enterprise. It was a feeling that came across, to borrow a phrase from Let's Active, "in little ways."

"In the old Merge records, there were always these little inserts where Mac would write about whatever releases are coming up next, but he would also write about things he was interested in," he says. "That's where I learned about The Clean and The Bats, Chris Knox and Honor Role and Magnetic Fields. I loved the records themselves, but there was always this thread that would lead to something else that turned up all these other possibilities."

Those possibilities now find expression, somewhere or other, on or in the walls, shelves, closets and nooks of the sunlight-filled Wilkesboro home Spears shares with his wife of almost two decades, Beckie, and two daughters, Clara and Emma. They live a few miles from Spears' childhood home.

Downstairs, the house's decorations proclaim that at least one person with an abiding love of rock lives here, from the set of Fab Four nesting dolls to an acrylic-on-plywood painting of The Clientele's The Violet Hour by Steve Keene. Sometimes the signs are less obvious, as with a jewel-toned landscape painting named Golden Hand Tree, hanging in an otherwise nondescript foyer. It's by The Clean's David Kilgour, a longtime Merge hero and, for the last decade, roster member.

That feeling escalates up the carpeted steps, into the pastel-painted place where the trove is kept. Eye-grabbing posters from Merge shows past help frame an impressionistic rendering of the label's black-and-white logo, painted by Clara when she was 6. (His daughters like indie rock, Spears clarifies, but they love Taylor Swift and Katy Perry.)

Spears stows his Merge singles in an unremarkable plastic bin, filed in individual sleeves in order of release. He mixes his CDs and LPs, alphabetically by artist, in with everything else in a set of floor-to-ceiling shelves. The sheer volume of Spears' collection forces him to regularly "cull out" many CDs from the wall. He removes them from their cases and slides them in envelopes, again stored alphabetically in a closet. But all proper Merge releases remain on the wall at all times, never to be culled.

"One of the good things about Merge," he says, "is that they don't do dramatically limited releases. If you're paying attention, it's easy to keep up.They don't make you work hard to be a fan."

For Spears, there was no single moment where he decided he would own everything Merge; for the most part, he's simply bought the records as they were issued. Only on rare occasions has he dealt with substantial eBay markups, when he needed to get his hands on two of the foundational cassette-only releases from WWAX and Bricks, both McCaughan bands.

He treasures the singles from the early days, but he says what unites them is a feeling more than a timeframe or sound. He holds up a 7-inch copy of Butterglory's "Alexander Bends."

"This record in particular was when I was living in Charlotte. That's where I moved after school," he explains. "I can remember just being at the record player and flipping it over and over and over again, and just listening, because it's got really short songs."

Spears pulls out another: "The version of 'Beautiful Things' [by New Zealand band the 3Ds] on this is different from the one on the album; it's got David Mitchell singing, and it's really nice. I love 'Figure 8,' the B-side of this," he says, pulling out Pipe's "Human Gutterball."

This could last for hours.

"But in terms of prized possessions, it would have to be the 7-inch singles and cassette releases—the Superchunk and Polvo ones," he says. "Being there during those years, that was a lot of fun."

Spears confesses that Merge is his primary interest outside of family, and his affinity for the label is unwavering. But he does not observe any label-centric orthodoxy. His favorite Superchunk record is the last one, not the decades-old classics. Last January, when he was running daily to prepare for the inaugural Merge 25K, he didn't listen to a single Merge tune. He listened only to Prince.

"I don't love everything Merge has put out," he confesses. "Up until a point, I loved everything. There were some things—Camera Obscura, for example—that I never cared for much. But I'm gonna get whatever Merge puts out, because I support Merge."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Everything at once." Correction: An earlier version of this piece switched the instruments of Chuck Garrison and Jack McCook.

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