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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

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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