Chris Murphy at murderecords office on Barrington St. in Halifax, circa 1995. Photo by Catherine Stockhausen.

Canadian Labels: “We Were Releasing Music by Friends” — 30 Years of Sloan’s murderecords

Label: murderecords
Headquarters: Halifax (1992-1998), Toronto (present)
Year founded: 1992
Founders: Sloan band members Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, and Andrew Scott
Current owners/partners: Sloan
Notable artists: Sloan, Eric’s Trip, Thrush Hermit, Super Friendz, The Inbreds Hardship Post, Local Rabbits, jale, Pony Da Look, Will Currie & The Country French 

Thirty years ago, just when Halifax-based pop group Sloan signed a major deal with Geffen Records, Jay Ferguson (guitar), Chris Murphy (bass), Patrick Pentland (guitar), and Andrew Scott (drums) decided to start their own label, murderecords.

The band, which formed in 1991, was in the process of recording their debut album Smeared. Wanting to get some music out independently while they waited for the U.S. release of the album, they invented murderecords and released their Peppermint EP in the summer of 1992.

Chris Murphy at murderecords office on Barrington St. in Halifax, circa 1995. Photo by Catherine Stockhausen.

With their indie artist-run label, the band set out to shine a spotlight on music made in Canada’s East Coast, working with acts that included Eric’s Trip, Thrush Hermit, Super Friendz, The Inbreds, Hardship Post, and jale. And it worked — soon, the media was calling the Maritimes “Seattle of the North.”

The label had busy periods and idle periods, taking a backseat while they focused on Sloan and touring, but through it all, the acts they collected and the music released on murderecords became an important part of Canadian music history.

Karen Bliss spoke with Ferguson for NMC Amplify’s series on Canadian indie labels.

Sloan (left to right): Chris Murphy, Andrew Scott, Patrick Pentland, and Jay Ferguson. Photo by Lisa Mark.

At what stage in Sloan’s career did you start murderecords?

The sessions for the EP [Peppermint] and Smeared were all one. We started it in 1992, mainly as an avenue to release something independently before our debut album came out on a major label in America. That was going to take a little while. We were receiving some money after signing to Geffen as we’d sold them the record that we’d made in Halifax. We then thought we could use some of those funds to start a record label to release an EP.

murderecords is an interesting choice of name. How did you settle on that?

We were discussing it and Andrew, who is probably the least hands-on person with murderecords, he came up with the name.

“Murder,” as in “let’s kill it, let’s do well”?

I have no idea. Our logo is a bunch of M’s that look like crows, and the collective term for crows is a murder of crows. So that kind of play on words. I don’t know what was first, the chicken or the egg?

Did you have an A&R mandate?

Not really. The idea was to take some of the money that we were earning from Geffen and put it back into a business, that being murderecords. The mandate would be just releasing records or artists from Nova Scotia or the Maritimes.

After the Peppermint EP, the next one was the Peter EP by Eric’s Trip from New Brunswick. And then Hack by Hardship Post — they were from Newfoundland and moved to Halifax, and then Thrush Hermit, who are also from Halifax. And Joel Plaskett, that’s where he began. So the idea originally was documenting our community.

Over time, we ended up releasing a one-off single or some albums by artists outside of our community, such as some Zumpano from Vancouver. We released a 7″ single by them, and then also Local Rabbits from Montreal; we released a couple of albums and singles by them as well. Those are the anomalies. We kept it, generally, as artists from the East Coast, mainly because we thought there was such good stuff out there that just never was getting the attention from anywhere else, not even Canada, let alone the United States.

Members of Thrush Hermit and Sloan with Halifax arts reporter Stephen Cooke in a photo shoot for the “Stinkin’ Rich” 7″ single. Photo by Catherine Stockhausen.

You basically launched the band at the same time as the label. What were each of your roles in order to sustain a business?

There wasn’t an office or anything for a long time. It was mainly being run out of a side room at Chip Sutherland’s law office at one point. But then, eventually, we hired Colin MacKenzie and he became the label manager because Sloan was busy touring and things like that. Peter Rowan helped in the early days as well, while he was still managing Sloan.

So the four of you weren’t sitting at a kitchen table stuffing envelopes with Eric Trip CDs?

There was a little bit of that when we got in office, and when murderecords became even busier, which would’ve been the year that Sloan took off. At the end of 1994, Sloan was basically broken up, but we still had some shows to play in 1995, and then by the end of 1995, we became a band again and started recording again. But the majority of that year, 1995, we had a proper business office and we even had one before that, and a lot of the time it was Chris and I cutting up boxes on the floor and stuffing 7″ singles into mailers and answering fan-mail.

It wasn’t so much about going out and finding new acts. All these bands were friends of ours, all the way up to The Super Friendz. So we were releasing music by friends.

Your appeal as a label was trust, because you were friends?

I think trust. Also, I don’t know what other option they would’ve had at the time. We were also not doing long-term contracts. It was more like, “Let’s put out this one thing and if you get a better offer from someone else, you’re welcome to go.” It maybe wasn’t a win-win situation for murderecords because we didn’t retain all those bands that went on to Sub Pop or labels in the United States. But we didn’t have the infrastructure to offer them, “Hey, we’re gonna sign you for three albums and you’re gonna stay here with us.” I don’t think we would want to bind anybody to that because it was just a homespun operation.

So they were our friends, and happy to do business with us. Usually, we would take bands from murderecords on tour with us, so there’d be a touring opportunity to play in front of a lot of people in those early years for sure. And just by the association, maybe they would get a bit of attention as well.

And there’s probably a lot of bands who might not have wanted to be on murderecords because they didn’t want the Sloan association, or the Sloan junior association, which I think ended up with a band like Thrush Hermit after a while.

But those would be the reasons why they would want to do it; we were friends, it was a small community, we knew them all well, and they knew they weren’t going to get ripped off.

The Inbreds and Super Friendz in Halifax. Photo by Catherine Stockhausen.

Over 30 years, there was a time when you didn’t have any of those acts and it was just Sloan releases. What happened there?

murderecords was very busy up until 1996, 1997, and into 1998. But by 1997 or so, Chris and I had already moved to Toronto, individually. Our band didn’t collectively move here. And then Patrick moved here in 1998. Sloan was getting very busy. One Chord To Another [1996] really took off in a major way, which is the third Sloan record and the first Sloan album on murderecords. And then Navy Blues came out in 1998. Sloan was busy touring and making music. And we lived in a different city by that point.

Not that the excitement had worn off, but I was just more excited working on Sloan than murderecords. We had been running murderecords for about five years at that point. Colin was doing a good job and we had a friend there, Marc Brown, who eventually moved away. And a lot of the bands that we were also working with in the community in Halifax had broken up and there was a new wave of bands. We had moved away and we didn’t know a lot of those bands. So, murderecords basically became a home for Sloan.

About 10 years later, you kickstarted it again with a couple of releases. Why return to that knowing what you had already gone through and how much work it is?

That one was instigated less from us and more from Lisa Zbitnew, who was the president of BMG at the time. And at that time, Sloan on murderecords was distributed by BMG in Canada. During the 2000s, there was a renaissance of interest in Canadian music on an international level, whether you start with the Hidden Cameras and then go to Broken Social Scene, and, of course, Leslie Feist and onto Arcade Fire and Death from Above. And so many of these bands were on an international stage.

So Lisa approached Chip, our manager, “Would you ever think of us funding murderecords to start up again and giving us an indie label within BMG to go and find some new acts, in order to release through BMG?” We had a good relationship with Lisa. She was very good to our band, and she was offering some money to us to kickstart murderecords. We thought of it as an opportunity to try that again.

We found a couple of bands, one that I really liked called Will Currie & The Country French who were teenagers, but super musical and great players. Will Currie was a great songwriter. And there was a band that Chris really liked that his girlfriend (and current wife) was in, called Pony Da Look, who were great songwriters and made a very unusual record. So, we released those two records. There were a couple other projects on the back burner that we were going to release, but then there was a label merger between BMG and Sony. After that happened, the funding for murderecords went away.

Chris Murphy and Jay Ferguson assembling “Sloan Bootleg – Australia 1999” vinyl at Jay’s house in 2012. Photo courtesy of Sloan.

What happened with the label since and where does murderecords stand now?

murderecords, as it stands right now, is just an umbrella for Sloan to release our own music. We had a new record that came out, Steady [2022]. It’s on Universal, via murderecords.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve spent a lot of time doing Sloan reissues of B-sides and rarities. Also, we’ve been doing individual box sets for older albums. We started with Twice Removed. We did one for One Chord To Another and for Navy Blues. We released an album of hardcore punk covers [This One’s An Original]. We released Christmas singles [2016’s “Kids Come Back Again at Christmas” and “December 25”]. So murderecords right now affords us a platform for us to keep releasing new Sloan music, but also archival Sloan releases, as well by other artists.

There was a band called Flashing Lights, which was Matt Murphy’s band after The Super Friendz, but when he started Flashing Lights, they were not on murderecords. So Chris had the idea, “It’s too bad the first Flashing Lights record [1999’s Where The Change Is], which was out of print, never came out on vinyl.” It’s a fantastic record. He thought it’d be great to put that on murderecords and reissue it on vinyl. So that was like a pet project of Chris’s this past summer, and there’s other little projects woven into this Sloan archival series as well. That’s where it stands right now.

To celebrate your 30th, you held a “garage sale” in Toronto. How did that come about?

We were rehearsing up on Geary Avenue before the studio closed and we had another room there that was mainly a storage room. We knew we had some things kicking around, but we did find boxes of Super Friendz’ Slide Show, their second album, on vinyl. We have an online store and we could have simply put them there to sell. Then we thought we should take them, along with the remaining Flashing Lights vinyl LPs, which had sold out in a couple of days online, some vintage Sloan posters and promotional beach balls, murderecords CDs, and more, and sell them at a pop-up garage sale. We also discovered the remaining complete contents of about 30 Twice Removed deluxe box sets, but without the outer boxes. So, we decided to print limited edition Twice Removed tote bags, place the contents inside, and sell those.

It was more of a fun clearing-house for deep fans who might enjoy digging through some of that stuff and picking up some remaining copies of rare vinyl. We thought it would be a fun event to host, and it was successful enough that I think we’ll do it again next summer!

Chris Murphy, Mike Nelson, and Jay Ferguson at the murderecords garage sale in Toronto in June 2022. Photo by Aly Vitunski.