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The Authorized History of Merge Records

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

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

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.

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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.

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