The Authorized History of Merge Records

Interview: Gawker scribe John Cook on falling for, and documenting, Superchunk’s little indie label that could.

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In the summer of 1989, Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance road-tripped with a crew of friends all the way from Durham, North Carolina, to Seattle, where a young record label called Sub Pop was holding its first “Lamefest,” and a little-known act named Nirvana would open for one of their favorite bands, Mudhoney. Mac’s dad’s van caught fire en route, so they drove home from the festival in a rental car, without their friends. Heavy with passion for the music, and having not found a record label to support their own band, Superchunk, they passed their long hours on the road talking about the label they would create themselves. And the highway would make its way into the name of their new business: Merge Records. 

Five years later, journalist John Cook—who at one point did a stint with Mother Jones and currently writes for Gawker—found himself at a Superchunk show, where he fell in love with the band’s high energy stage presence, its addictive music, and the label it created. The result? Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small. The new book, out this week from Algonquin Paperbacks, meticulously documents every thought and action that have gotten Merge—which now boasts more than 350 releases from about 70 bands—to the ripe old age of 20. Structured as a compilation of interviews, Our Noise gives fly-on-the-wall insight into the characters and influences that helped shape the influential indie label. Exclusive old photos and early liner art for artists like Arcade Fire and Spoon impart a sense of coziness and friendship with Mac, Laura, and Merge, making the book a meaningful read for all who can appreciate the joys and hardships of what began as, and still is, a labor of love. I caught up with Cook last week to get the inside, inside story.

Mother Jones: What about that first show inspired you?

John Cook: It was in Madison, Wisconsin. I had never heard of Superchunk but some friends of mine were going. I don’t think anybody I was there with was particularly interested in Superchunk. I don’t really know why we were there. But halfway through the show, my friends were like, “All right, we’re gonna go somewhere else,” and I was like “All right…I’ll see you guys later,” and I just stayed there alone. Aside from just the songs, which were amazing, it was the energy that they had—this sort of controlled chaos. I remember vividly thinking that this was music that had been lacking in my life. All the bouncing around; there was an intensity when they performed that was not angry or unhinged. You could just tell they’re really happy to be up there, they’re doing what they enjoy, which is really compelling to me. And Mac’s voice was the sort of adolescent… struggling to stay within the lines, which was also really compelling to me. I went out the next day and bought everything at the record store that had Superchunk on it.

MJ: Do they run their record label the way they perform?

JC: No. There are a lot of moments in Merge’s history when there’s been some serious urgency. When they’re getting hit with records that were huge that they weren’t expecting and they’re freaking out trying to make sure the records get in the stores. But generally speaking, they’re very Southern about the way they do things. Slow and considered, and without a lot of hoopla or noise—and Superchunk is fast and noisy, which is one of the great things about them.

MJ: How did the book come about?

JC: In 2003, a Portastatic record came out called Summer of the SharkPortastatic is Mac’s side project. It was this amazing record that really moved me quite a bit; it basically dealt with what it felt like after 9/11, and it did it in a way that I found really subtle and satisfying and true. I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune at the time, and I wanted to do a story looking at what I felt to be this record’s accomplishment, and compare it with some other attempts to deal with the aftermath musically—namely Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, which I found really bombastic and over the top and really not true. So I did a comparison, and I talked to Mac for that story, and I was really excited about that. A year later when the next Portastatic record, Bright Ideas, came out, he called me and asked me to write his press bio. I was completely over the moon at that, and so I did that and again got to know more about him. Then, totally randomly… (My former boss had started a literary agency. He’s a very New York magazine guy, not the kind of guy that you’d expect to be versed in the ways of North Carolina indie rock.) I’m talking to him one day and he says, “You know, I know this guy Mac from Superband…” and I asked, “How do you know Mac?” and he says, “Oh, I was having Thanksgiving dinner with him, because I’m friends with Mac’s wife.” It was a totally random connection. He felt the story of Merge was really interesting, and wanted to do a book. Mac and Laura were interested, but didn’t really want to do it on their own.

MJ: How long did it take?

JC: It was basically done in one summer. It was sort of a hair-raising race to the finish, the reason being we wanted it to come out in time for Merge’s 20th, which was in July of 2009, and the pub date was September, but we rushed it ahead enough to actually get 200 copies shipped directly from the printer in China to the Merge festival in July so it could be for sale there.

MJ: Was anyone really hard to track down?

JC: [Neutral Milk Hotel frontman] Jeff Mangum was tough. He wasn’t tough to track down, but he in the end decided he didn’t want to do an interview. I wanted to talk to Sylvia Rhone, [formerly] of Electra, and she wouldn’t talk. I was really glad to get Ron Laffitte, the guy who dropped Spoon. He had never spoken about that before, so I was happy that I could convince him to talk. Chuck Garrison, the original Superchunk drummer, was another one. In the end, for reasons I can’t really figure out, he decided that he really didn’t trust that he would get a fair interview. But it was easier than it would have been if the book hadn’t been Mac and Laura’s project too. All their friends and the bands were eager to talk. And there was nothing that anybody said about them in the book that they wanted out of the book; they would object by saying that’s not true or that’s not fair, but they were willing to have those voices in the book because that’s what it is: a record of what people were thinking and feeling and doing at the time, and they honored that.

MJ: Any great stories that, for one reason or another, didn’t make the book?

JC: Mac has a cheeky habit of referring to bands as “the so-and-so band”—”Hi, we’re the Superchunk band” or “I can’t wait to hear the next record from the Spoon group.” It’s just a little joke, and DeWitt Burton, a Superchunk roadie, picked up the trick himself. So DeWitt became chief equipment manager for R.E.M. and went to a party with the band once at Bono’s hotel room in L.A., and introduced himself to Bono by saying, “I’m the roadie for the R.E.M. group.” Bono said, “the R.E.M. group?” And DeWitt goes, “Yeah, the R.E.M. group. Like you’re in the U2 band.” And Bono bowled over laughing, and thought that was the funniest thing he’d heard, and told DeWitt that he had to get R.E.M. to name their next record “The R.E.M. Group.” I found that story hilarious—this little verbal meme that Mac started goes viral and ends up in a hotel room with Bono.

MJ: How did doing the book alter your idea of the music industry?

JC: I went into it with a sense that the major label record business is not one that is concerned with art or quality, but there’s an assumption that people who are dealing with millions and millions of dollars at least have some kind of minimum level of basic understanding of business and competence, and they didn’t. It was breathtaking, the idea of Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney, taking time to sit down with the members of Seaweed to sign them—there was just something so out of whack about that. 

MJ: How do you think all the new ways people get their music has changed things?

JC: It used to be that there was enough mass communication, mass media, invading every corner of your life every day that you couldn’t avoid the new Britney Spears song, even if you didn’t actively seek out that kind of stuff. There are fewer and fewer unavoidable songs because it’s all mixed now and it all depends on people seeking it out. When I was falling in love with music, it was a very stark line between the mainstream and the underground. When you identified with a band like the Ramones, you were making a choice that was oppositional to this other thing, which was MTV and whatever was on the radio. You had your mainstream radio and then you had your little 99.1 in DC, on the left of the dial that played different music. That line has completely been obliterated. There’s no real sense of the mainstream and the underground anymore, musically. When Arcade Fire is on Saturday Night Live, it’s a great leveler. The other thing is that the Internet is awash in music. It takes a lot of time and effort to find new bands that you like and to spend time with the records. I think that’s one of the reasons that places like Merge have the advantage, because there’s a curatorial aspect to what they do. They’ve got taste and a track record for finding music that’s worth your time, and worth your investment. In this new environment, places like Merge are returning to that role, which I think is a kind of competitive advantage.

MJ: Do you think Mac and Laura sort of see the label as a child of their own, and if it were, what do you think they’d be most proud of, and what values do you think they’d want to instill?

JC: I think Laura looks at it that way. She has, for all of her adult life, tended to and cared for Merge, so I think she takes a motherly approach. I think Mac thinks of it more as—not to belittle it—but like a plaything. In terms of values, it’s just the music. They’re just fans of these bands; that’s the bottom line. They love these records and they’re kind of uninterested in the notion of their own triumphs. I don’t want to paint them as completely egoless people or anything, but they never set out to create a label that was going to be around and releasing No. 2 records 20 years later. And I think that is, in the end, why they wound up accomplishing it. There were a lot of labels that did have that idea and didn’t succeed. Sub Pop wanted to be huge and they wound up going bankrupt because they spent money that they didn’t have; they were leveraging because they thought they were taking this chance at the big time. And Matador, same thing. Matador never went bankrupt, but in the end they made a series of deals with major labels in order to get money and scale because they wanted to be huge. And they’ve said that those probably weren’t the best decisions. Mac and Laura just wanted to release a Lambchop record. The kind of success that they were actually working for, and working very hard for, was to find beautiful records and give those records the best life that they could get—as cheaply as they could do it.

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