Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records
John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance
Algonquin Books, 294 pp.
The oral history Please Kill Me has to be the seminal document of punk music. Compiled from hundreds of interviews with punk legends, also-rans and hangers-on, it portrayed the culture as it was lived, in all of its glorious contradiction and ruin, rather than crystallizing it in a finely argued academic context.
With Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, whose arrival coincides with the internationally revered, Durham-based indie label's 20th anniversary, North Carolina (not to mention the last two decades of indie rock as a whole) gets a Please Kill Me of its own, with Durham and Chapel Hill standing in for Los Angeles and New York, Jon Wurster instead of Johnny Thunders—and much, much less sex and drugs.
Our Noise improves on Please Kill Me with sharp, concise summary passages by John Cook, a freelance reporter and longtime Merge fan, which provide useful context for the interviews. A wealth of pictures—candid photos, magazine covers, flyers, postcards and more—flesh out the narrative. For longtime locals, it's like walking down Franklin Street on a sunny afternoon: There's Ron Liberti, former Pipe frontman and ubiquitous screen-printer; there's Local 506 owner Glenn Boothe; there's Orange County Social Club owner Trish Megisian. If you've so much as attended an indie rock show in Chapel Hill, all the familiar faces and places make you feel like a part of the story, not a bystander.
Merge was born of necessity, in the late '80s. There was plenty of weird young music burgeoning in North Carolina, but it needed a lightning rod. Mac McCaughan had recently moved back to Chapel Hill after studying for a time at Columbia University, and began playing in a number of short-lived bands. He worked at Pepper's Pizza with the intense, gothy Laura Ballance, whom Mac (and, we learn, everyone else in town) had a crush on. Ballance had never played music, but McCaughan lured her into a number of his bands, including Quit Shovin', Metal Pitcher and Chunk, as a bass player. They started dating. One of their first projects together was a box set of 7" singles by local bands. They had no inkling that they were laying the groundwork for, at least so far, the rest of their lives. Chunk became Superchunk, the beloved indie rock band that flirted with (and mercifully avoided) a Nirvana-style sudden ascent to fame, and the singles box begat Merge Records, which would go from releasing local vinyl to blockbuster albums by Spoon and The Arcade Fire.
The book is remarkably candid; it thoroughly examines interpersonal and financial problems, not just triumphs. Because of the candor, we believe the portrayal of Merge as a genuinely noble label, with an uncommon blend of ethics, frugality and business savvy. They worked without contracts for a long time, splitting profits with bands on handshake agreements. This came to an end after the band ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead reneged on its two-record oral contract with Merge, selling their second, Source Tags and Codes, to Interscope. Trail of Dead's story illustrates the advantages of working with Merge, rather than a major label. The record sold 123,000 copies, which would have easily earned them profits and continued support at Merge. But Interscope was disappointed and failed to push Trail of Dead's subsequent albums, effectively tanking its career.
If the major labels were sirens, then Merge was a mast to which young musicians could lash themselves, sailing right by their blandishments. They saved a number of pocket-scene weirdoes from selling out at a time when it was actually possible for them to do so: the early-'90s alternative-rock gold rush. In fact, Merge as we know it could only have happened in this context, just before the Internet changed music and the music industry forever. Merge built its empire on freaky, isolated bands—Butterglory, Neutral Milk Hotel, East River Pipe—that felt forced to imagine and invent alternatives to the mainstream. But kids in backwater towns no longer need obscure 7" singles, zines and college radio to save their lives, now that everything from Bulgarian folk to dubstep is available at a keystroke.
Because Merge and Superchunk straddled this transition in the music industry and were so central to the developing culture of indie rock, the book winds up being about much more than one label or one band. It's a timeline of a culture evolving too rapidly for many to keep up, a storm Merge and Superchunk both weathered by engaging with the industry when necessary and pulling back when not, hype flowing around them like a river. It's a snapshot of the hardworking, sober climate of indie-era bands, who, unlike their counterparts in Please Kill Me, couldn't afford to be decadently wasted in the absence of deep-pocketed major labels to keep them afloat. But most of all, it's about people. The personalities of Superchunk's members, which shine through the interviews so clearly, each have something intractable about them—McCaughan's get-it-done spirit, Ballance's terse prudence, Jim Wilbur's sharp-elbowed sarcasm, Jon Wurster's mild hauteur—a revelation that makes this success story intelligible. It's about young people growing up, changing, finding adult selves—the section dealing with McCaughan and Ballance's breakup is especially forthcoming, marking a pivot for both of them as they make gradual compromises so that their core values can survive.
Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance appear at The Regulator Bookshop Tuesday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m., and at Quail Ridge Books & Music Thursday, Sept. 17, at 7:30 p.m. For more on Merge—lots more—read "Merge Records turns 20," our multistory cover package from July on Merge's 20th-anniversary celebration.