The Authorized History of Merge Records
Interview: Gawker scribe John Cook on falling for, and documenting, Superchunk's little indie label that could.
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.