When he graduated from Walter M. Williams High in Burlington in 1984, Chuck Morrison says he wrote in a friend’s yearbook that he would “one day run a major record label or compete with them.”
What for some might have been an idle boast was practically a mission statement for Morrison. The 39-year-old founder of Charlotte-based MoRisen Records may not be there yet, but his track record suggests you bet against his chances at your own risk. At the very least, with a growing profile and roster, and two buzzed-about June releases– Elevator Action’s Society, Secret and the self-titled debut from The Sammies–MoRisen is poised to become the state’s next name-brand independent label.
“I think he’s the next great North Carolina label,” says ex-Mammoth Records boss Jay Faires, with whom Morrison has a publishing deal at Lion’s Gate Music. “Chuck’s got a bright future ahead of him, and more importantly, so do a lot of those bands.”
Morrison is an affable, soft-spoken father of two who is quick to laugh or show empathy. With his skinny designer glasses, penchant for dark clothes and spiky hair, he looks like a hipster (or Matt Sharp’s doppelganger) but exhibits none of the condescension or cynicism that plagues the ilk. Growing up in Burlington, Morrison was weaned on the eclectic play lists of Elon College’s WSOE radio station, drawn to early R.E.M. and the Vapors. He later earned a journalism degree at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, then found himself managing the band Granger, an offshoot of Dillon Fence, from 1995 to 1996.
Morrison says he didn’t have a clue what he was doing, but armed with a Billboard Music Guide and demo cassettes, he set out to secure the band a deal. Granger did receive offers from both Atlantic and Elektra, but ultimately signed with New York City’s Shanachie, where the band put out its lone record before fizzling out.
“We probably should have signed with someone else,” Morrison says. “Shanachie was mostly a world music label and were just getting into rock. They didn’t know what to do with the record. It wasn’t in their niche. But you live and learn.”
Morrison stepped away from the music industry after Granger and put his business skills to work elsewhere. In 1998, he saw an opportunity in the just-about-to-blossom NASCAR sport, and patented a computer mouse shaped like a stock car to sell through his newly formed HiREV Company. He got NASCAR licensing from the sports’ best-known drivers and within an 18-month stretch went from manufacturing them in a Concord garage and selling them on QVC to supplying big box retailers from HiREV’s 17,000-square-foot warehouse. From a business standpoint it was an invaluable education. But Morrison’s dream deferred was still calling, and in 2002, he sold his interest in the company to start MoRisen.
“It was fun, but I had to go to too many races and spend too many weekends doing something I wasn’t that passionate about,” he says. “This business is a little more emotional than a computer mouse.”
From the beginning, Morrison took a regional approach to his nascent label. His first release was a compilation split between Triangle bands and Charlotte acts. It featured cuts from soon-to-be MoRisen mates Jennyanykind, Snatches of Pink, Marat, Elevator Action, The Talk and The Alternative Champs (the first two are no longer with MoRisen). The label continued to grow through 2005, putting out three or four releases a year and slowly increasing its profile. But a spurt of activity over the last 18 months signaled a real leap forward.
Morrison got MoRisen bands their own showcase at the 2005 CMJ industry cluster-fuck in New York and landed three of them on the cover of CMJ’s New Music Report. Two of the five records MoRisen released in 2005–The Talk’s The Sinners of Daughters and the Alternative Champs’ Welcome to Fort Awesome–charted for CMJ, and Sinners was named one of the Top 10 Records of 2005 by The Big Takeover. At this year’s South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, the MoRisen showcase marked the first time in the festival’s history that three bands from Charlotte–Elevator Action, The Talk and The Sammies–played in the same year.
Morrison also signed a distribution deal with KOCH, the biggest independent distributor in the United States, and another with Gordeon Music in Germany for radio and publicity abroad. He also entered a publishing pact with Lions Gate–Faires is president of the film company’s music division–that paid instant dividends. Since inking the deal, MoRisen bands have landed over 30 track placements in TV shows, films and DVDs.
“Chuck’s ahead of the curve on this,” says Faires. “What we offer is a place to start developing an artist on a platform and get some leverage off the marketing dollars that our company spends. As traditional radio has tightened up, it’s probably even more important.”
Of course all the film scores, TV placements and radio play won’t help if listeners don’t like what they’re hearing. To broker against this, Morrison toes the line of being as involved as he can in the record-making process without being intrusive. Morrison tries to put his bands with the right producers in the right studios, assists with sequencing records, finds regional artists and photographers for album art, books tours, and recently took on the additional role of full-time, in-house publicist after relying on outside PR for three years.
“The bands develop into whatever they are themselves, but you have to pay attention to the branding aspect of it,” says Morrison, who along with two interns and his wife–former Bellglide front woman Slappy Gregory–comprise the MoRisen staff. “Not to manipulate anybody, but just to protect them and guard their careers as much as you can.”
That’s one reason Morrison brought producers like Triangle veteran Brian Paulson (Beck, Wilco, The Rosebuds) on board for Sinners and the next Talk record. John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Son Volt) oversaw Elevator Action’s two releases and The Sammies’ debut.
“Chuck’s got a great instinct for what makes an artist an artist and what makes a record special,” Agnello says. “He’s got a talent for finding talent.”
Morrison insists, however, that “the best A&R comes from the guys in the bands.” It was The Talk who brought Morrison’s attention to The Sammies, self-described “simple country boys” from Wadesboro who play a blistering blend of rock that’s just as likely to recall Bowie or the Kinks as it is Mooney Suzuki or the MC5. Morrison says he’s never seen a band work a room like this quartet of early 20-somethings, and warns against mistaking their “aw shucks” manners and genuine politeness for naiveté.
“They’re dumb as foxes,” he laughs.
Morrison’s hands-on approach has worked because it’s not based solely on sales figures and units moved. Take The Talk’s recent aborted tour with post-punk icons The Fall. At 1:45 a.m. on a Monday morning, Morrison got a call from Justin Williams, The Talk’s lead singer, informing him that their 24-date tour was effectively over after just four sparsely attended Southwest shows. Mercurial Fall front man Mark Smith had pissed off three of his bandmates and their tour manager to the extent that they were all flying back to Britain the next day. Williams learned about it between sets in Phoenix and, in a fit of pique, ran onstage and nailed Smith with a banana peel.
Over the next few days Morrison fielded calls from journalists wanting to know the inside skinny, wondered how seriously to take the death threats from enraged Fall fans that Williams was receiving at The Talk’s MySpace Site, and tried to rescue the remaining dates. The Talk even agreed to be Smith’s back-up band when The Fall’s label, Narnack Records, offered the slot. Narnack denies they ever made the offer, but it was not to be in any case because labelmates The Cairo Gang filled in.
“It was probably the craziest week I’ve had yet,” says Morrison. “It cost me a bunch of money, and we sure as hell didn’t play in front of the people I needed The Talk to play in front of in New York, L.A. and Chicago. But it’s history now. I’m proud of The Talk for hanging in there and agreeing to back him up. We’ll get ’em next time.”
In the interim, Morrison will do his share of consoling, cajoling and encouraging for all his other acts.
“I’m a shrink, a father figure and an advice giver, but I don’t mind at all,” he says. “I don’t let that cloud anything, but I care about my acts. They’re my friends, too. I don’t just look at them and see X number of sales and X number of shows. Sometimes it’s harder than others. Sometimes I want to say ‘Fuck you’ to them and do, hang up the phone or yell at each other. But it’s like brothers and sisters, five minutes later we’re fine.”
It’s a sentiment that echoes with MoRisen’s bands, whether they’re veterans of the music industry or peach-fuzzed newcomers. Mike Mitschele, front man and ringleader of the Alternative Champs’ musical circus, cut his teeth with Jolene in the 1990s and remembers all too well that band’s major label woes at Sire.
“I know at any point I can pick up the phone and get Chuck on the line and get an answer to any question I have,” says Mitschele. “I might have been able to leave a voice mail or talk to an assistant at Sire, but I would never have been able to get Seymour Stein on the phone.”
Says Gymmy Thunderbird of The Sammies: “We signed with MoRisen because they give us the freedom to do what we do best, and that is write our songs. Chuck is one of our best friends. We hang out on a regular basis, and because of that we all feel like family. We had
a handful of offers [from other labels], some big, some small, but none as appealing as what we got.”
Now MoRisen seems poised to take another step forward: The Sammies debut (out June 27) has already received airplay at influential radio stations KCRW in Los Angeles and KEXP in Seattle, and Creative Loafing Charlotte called Society, Secret MoRisen’s “most accomplished disc so far.” The Talk has the opening slot on a June tour with one of San Francisco’s hottest exports, Birdmonster, a role The Sammies will fill on an East Coast swing in August.
Morrison isn’t standing pat, either. He has his eyes on three or four up-and-coming bands from Georgia to California. When asked where he sees MoRisen in a few years, he mentions stalwart indie labels like Saddle Creek, but stays regional when asked whom he admires most.
“I felt like Mammoth was the label for the region, even though they had bands from all over,” Morrison says. “Merge is the same way. They represent a lot of how I’d like for us to be seen. It’d be a nice compliment to be compared with them.”
The Sammies and Elevator Action play at Local 506 in Chapel Hill on Saturday, June 24.