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A co-author of the forthcoming Merge Records book talks Merge and his process

Questioning Merge 

click to enlarge John Cook - PHOTO BY ADAM PANTOZZI
  • Photo by Adam Pantozzi
  • John Cook

Former Chicago Tribune reporter and current Gawker contributor John Cook first saw Superchunk play in Madison, Wis., in 1994, where he "immediately fell in love and bought every one of their records the next day." His fandom led to a friendship with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, and now a creative collaboration on a book about Merge Records entitled Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small.

Mixing oral history with narrative interludes, Cook plots the Merge path through its most important bands and developments, rather than attempting the impossible (and boring) task of compiling a comprehensive timeline or encyclopedic retrospective. Along the way, Cook weaves a wealth of parallel stories: the career arc of Superchunk, the crazy interactions between major labels and indie bands in the '90s, the challenges to alternative music as it became the mainstream.

Most intriguingly, Cook draws out intimate personal stories from all of his subjects, including McCaughan and Ballance, who began Superchunk and Merge as a couple and have kept both going long after breaking up. The pair has never been perfect, and Our Noise is refreshingly candid about their missteps and shortcomings. But it also paints a picture of a record label that has persisted and thrived due much more to good decisions than luck of the draw.

Download the first chapter of the book (PDF, 2.8 MB)

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How did you collaborate with Mac and Laura?

JOHN COOK: Well, the book was initially going to be credited to "Mac and Laura, with John Cook." The problem is that Mac and Laura have very different voices, and we couldn't have them speak in a "we" voice. So that made it necessary for their voices be in the oral history, and for me to write the narration, along with doing about 75 interviews and cobbling it all together. But Mac and Laura still did a huge amount of work, gathering images and helping track people down for interviews. For instance, we tried to get Jeff Mangum [of Neutral Milk Hotel], and that was a sustained effort over a long period of time. Eventually, we could only get one email from him to use for the book. For his perfectly understandable reasons, he didn't see fit to talk.

Were there any topics that were off limits?

There weren't any parameters set about what to talk about. It was pretty clear early on that Mac and Laura aren't calculating types about anything like this. They clearly didn't have any conversations beforehand. At one point, they each gave me different answers about how long they had dated. [Laughs.]

The book seems as much a history of Superchunk as a history of Merge.

There was initially going to be just a chapter on Superchunk, but I realized soon that it couldn't be that way. There was so much to talk about with them, and most of it fell in with the arc of how the label progressed and the way things were at the time—the things all bands dealt with, the way majors and indies were interacting, things like that.

Many Merge bands dealt with majors, and it almost never went well.

Well, it wasn't a surprise to hear about bands not having a good time with major labels. It's a tired story in a lot of ways. What surprised me was the waste and stupidity. It was shocking that the major labels were devoting the kind of resources to it that they were. You had Michael Eisner of Disney meeting with Seaweed. But then again, the bands knew better, and they did it, anyway. Take Spoon: You can't go into it more clear-eyed than they did. Spoon did all the right things, took all the right precautions, and still got screwed.

So it was a pretty radical move for Superchunk to return to Merge after being on a big indie like Matador?

It was huge in context of what was going on in those days because Matador was the coolest label on the planet. So for them to say, "We'll do our own thing," was definitely radical. But if you think about what they wanted to achieve—to find a way to make music that they wanted to make, and make enough money to live on, in a way that was the least stressful and most fun way to do it—it was the natural choice. And they ended up making more money that way. Not that that's what they were going for, but that was an added benefit of doing it the way they wanted to do it.

It's interesting that as Merge has gotten bigger, Superchunk's popularity has leveled off. Why do you think that happened?

I don't know, and I don't think they do, either. To see the sales numbers go down from record to record after Indoor Living was kind of shocking. I think they grew up as a band quickly, from the whole Muppet rock thing to something more musically sophisticated. They were so grown up about the way they handled everything. There was not much for the music press to latch onto. They weren't about anger and darkness, and in most cases of big bands, there's always drama going on. The best line in the book is Jim Wilbur talking about how they didn't have an attitude. They didn't do drugs. They didn't have the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. As he said, "We didn't wear scarves." That was Mac's suggestion for an alternate title for the book.

Mac and Laura seem to have never made a big mistake with Merge.

Well, that's because they never tried to do anything big. The successes that they've had were not the consequences of an attempt to do something huge. There was a little bit of luck and a lot of keeping their heads down and making the right choices. It's not like [The Magnetic Fields'] 69 Love Songs was an example of putting it all on one record and having it come up gold. If that had not become the success it did, they still would've made some money off of it because they went about it conservatively.

One mistake was not doing contracts because there were some big records that they lost because of that. They didn't get Source Tags and Codes, the Trail of Dead record. At the time, it wasn't a mistake because there was so little money at stake in most of what they were doing in the '90s. But once they started getting into situations like The Magnetic Fields or The Arcade Fire, they needed to protect themselves. As Laura pointed out, they suddenly had families and employees to worry about. So that could be looked at as a mistake. But other than that ... they never went into debt, you know? That's Laura. She is preternaturally conservative when it comes to money, and adverse to debt.

Was it tempting to make the book a Merge encyclopedia?

Well, that's a frustration about doing something like this. We always wanted to do a chapter on each band, but as we got into it, the book got way longer than had initially been envisioned. So I couldn't do a Crooked Fingers chapter, or a Rock*A*Teens chapter, or an M. Ward chapter. Ultimately, it made sense to concentrate on a few particular stories and use them separately to tell a different part of the Merge records arc. We could use The Arcade Fire chapter to talk about radio, and use the Spoon chapter to talk about this aspect of the record business, etc. But at least in the photos there is evidence of all those other bands.

In the book, you argue that Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields is not the jerk he often seems to be. But, c'mon, he is a jerk, right?

[Laughs.] Well, I was extremely nervous to talk to him for this book because he has this reputation of being a horrible person to interview. My goal was to get people to talk as much as possible, and Stephin doesn't do that. He says what he wants to say and then stops speaking. But when I interviewed him, he was friendly and nice. He's got a very healthy sense of his own talent, and I think that comes across in the book. He's not self-deprecating, at least not about his music. He's a shy guy who's found a way to live that doesn't require him to engage in some of the traditional social niceties that people usually find helpful. This is honest. I'm not trying to kiss his ass. I went into it thinking he was going to be a dick, and he wasn't.

The flipside of him to me is Britt Daniels. He and Spoon had a lot more struggles than I realized, including thinking at one point that the band was history.

Oh yeah, he totally thought it was over and done with. They got whipsawed in the worst way. And each time, they actually made the right choices. They didn't sign to Geffen early on. They signed to Matador. That's what they should've done, but then Matador didn't do a great job with that record. He did everything right in terms of viewing Elektra with the proper amount of suspicion, and yet that still blew up on him. For a long time, they just couldn't win. He and his bandmates are the kind of people who benefit from having people who aren't total dicks running their label. They like it when Mac or Laura e-mail them to say, "Hey, how's the tour going?" Britt would say, very earnestly, that Mac and Laura saved his life by putting out his records.

Did you get the sense that Matt Suggs of Butterglory is bitter, since the success other great Merge bands found never happened for him?

I don't think he's bitter. I'm bitter because I think he's an amazing musician and songwriter, and it angers me that he's not at least doing it for a living. But he's not bitter. What made it clear for me was when he talked about how it's hard sleeping on people's floors. At some point, you don't want to do that anymore, and you just want to sit at home. The older you get, if you're not in a position where you're making a living off of it, it can be really difficult. It's not fun to talk to him and hear him say, "I don't know if I'll ever make another record again." He needs to make more because they will be really good, and the world needs more good records.

How do you think Merge will survive?

I don't know. Touch and Go stopping distribution was a huge shock, an eye opener. Merge has been successful by keeping costs low and not doing stupid things and focusing on the music, and they learned that from Touch and Go. So for Touch and Go to scale back so dramatically was a scary thing for them to see, I think. Laura's probably worried about how they've had to get bigger, which she never wanted because all the sudden they're supporting employees and have all this infrastructure they have to fund. So the fear is, what if they go through a long period of selling just 5,000 copies of each record again? But I think they take it one day at a time, and they make decisions based on the facts at hand.

Ultimately, I think they're positioned well. Even if only 3 percent of the Arcade Fire fans know what Merge is and care about it, there is still a very loyal base that follow the label because people who care about music decide what records to release. So, if anybody is situated to survive the trauma that's going on right now, it's Merge. I mean, 2007, a year that was probably the worst year for the major labels, was Merge's best year ever. So they're not just surviving the collapse of the business, they're thriving in it.

Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small hits bookshelves through Algonquin Paperbacks on September 15. It's also available at this week's XX Merge celebration in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Algonquin recently unveiled an impressive Web site for the book at www.ournoisethebook.com.

  • A co-author of the forthcoming Merge Records book talks Merge and his process

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