Small, mighty Merge snags Grammy

Staff WriterFebruary 15, 2011 

  • Founded: 1989 in Chapel Hill

    Co-founders: Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan, also founders of the band Superchunk

    Current home: Durham

    Number of employees: 14

    Musical acts with top 10 albums: Arcade Fire, Spoon, She & Him

  • The seven-piece indie-rock band formed in Montreal in 2003. Its breakthrough album was 2004's "Funeral," Merge's first to crack the Billboard 200 album-sales chart. Other Merge releases were 2006's "Neon Bible" and 2010's "The Suburbs." "The Suburbs" was Merge's first album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album-sales chart. On Sunday, it won the Grammy for album of the year, Merge's first Grammy. Arcade Fire is sometimes compared to U2, the Irish rock band.

Going into Sunday night's Grammy Awards ceremony, conventional wisdom was that Durham-based Merge Records would win one of the coveted music trophies - its first.

But almost no one could have predicted that it would play out as it did, with tiny Merge's band Arcade Fire walking away with the evening-ending grand prize: album of the year, over a field of heavyweight nominees including Eminem, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.

"It kind of felt like the world tilting a little bit," said Merge publicist Christina Rentz, who was in Los Angeles' Staples Center - but way up in the second level - for the big announcement.

Merge co-owners Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance were not in Los Angeles for the hoopla. Their band Superchunk is about to start a Japanese tour, and McCaughan was in Japan by Sunday. Ballance, meanwhile, turned her phone off and went to bed because she had a flight Monday morning.

That left Rentz and Merge retail director Jamie Beck to attend the ceremony on the company's behalf.

Arcade Fire, a Montreal indie-rock band, received critical acclaim for its third CD, "The Suburbs," released last year. In August, it became the first release from Merge to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album-sales chart.

Still, "The Suburbs" seemed like the longest of long shots to take the album of the year Grammy - especially after losing to Black Keys in the pre-telecast awards for best alternative album, which observers expected Arcade Fire to win. Things looked bleaker when Black Keys beat out Arcade Fire for another early award - best rock performance by a duo or group with vocals.

Less than five hours after that announcement, Arcade Fire took the stage to play on the CBS Grammy telecast after 11 p.m. The band was the last album-of-the-year nominee to perform before Barbra Streisand came out to present the award. She seemed almost puzzled as she called out the winner.

"When Barbra Streisand stuttered out their name, we just screamed at the top of our lungs," Rentz said. "We were up on the second level, and everybody around us was leaving - they had no idea who we were or the band was. We were completely stunned."

'Hopeful all the time'

Beck said she thought the band's end-of-the-show spot might bring good luck.

"Maybe I'm naive, but I'm hopeful all the time," Beck said. "We found out Arcade Fire was playing last, and I knew that the album-of-the-year winners are usually panting when they accept because they've just come offstage. So we had theories about them slipping in and surprising everybody."

The award was another coup for Merge, whose humble beginnings trace back 22 years, when it was run out of Ballance's Chapel Hill bedroom.

After a quick acceptance speech by front man Win Butler, Arcade Fire went back to its instruments and played a second song as a victory lap while the Grammy's show closing credits rolled.

And now, happiness

The band's after-party was a jubilant affair, with bassist Richard Parry declaring, "We robbed a bank!"

Rentz said she told the band that the best way to celebrate would be to play in North Carolina soon. "C'mon, guys, we'll have a barbecue for you!" she said.

Arcade Fire was headed to England on Monday for another awards show - the Brit Awards.

"I told them, 'Good luck topping this!'" Rentz said. "They just laughed and said, 'Don't worry. It won't.'"

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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