Books

Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small by John Cook

Despite some generous editorializing, Our Noise is as engaging (and human) a music industry tale as you're ever going to read.


Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small

Publisher: Algonquin
Length: 320 pages
Author: John Cook (with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance)
Price: $19.95
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2009-09
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There is a certain innocence contained in Our Noise that simply cannot be faked.

In short, it's the story of a group of kids in North Carolina that simply got together and made some music; nothing more, and nothing less. Some of them knew how to write songs, some couldn't even play an instrument, but friends (and friends of friends) inevitably got wrapped up into Mac McCaughan's crazy world of off-kilter rock, all of them forming bands and making singles that had no potential to get played on any radio station whatsoever.

Then again, making "hits" wasn't the point: they were making music for fun, and Merge Records -- which distributed all of the 7" singles from all these side-projects -- was a label that was born more out of necessity than anything else: when a small group of those North Carolina bands decided to release a bunch of their songs together in a cheaply-made box set called evil I do not... (featuring the likes of the Angels of Epistemology, Wwax, and the Slushpuppies -- the latter of which was McCaughan's first band), they formed a small one-off label called Palindrome Productions. Shortly thereafter, Mac's friend (and later Superchunk bassist) Laura Ballance got in on the act as well and, with little fanfare, Merge Records was born.

Our Noise is an oral history of Merge Records, featuring interviews from its founders (McCaughan and Ballance), it's numerous signees (featuring members of Lambchop, Spoon, the Arcade Fire, and more), and various admirers and business partners (like Dischord Records founder/Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye). Author John Cook alternates his chapters between recounting the history of the Merge label and then profiling one particular band. In a short amount of time, the main players are firmly established: Mac is a svengali-like figure, gathering likeminded rock types around him while being in it primarily just for the music; Laura -- by contrast -- has a knack for the business side of things, capable of keeping people on budget even during the most dire of times.

What's most fascinating, however, is the ebb and flow between Merge and Superchunk. After writing a ridiculously catchy rock stunner called "Slack Motherfucker", Superchunk's profile gradually grew, initially through the rabid early-'90s zine culture but also by larger mainstream outlets, as well. Our Noise goes to great lengths to establish the importance that Nirvana's Nevermind had on the music industry, pushing alternative rock into the mainstream and giving a platform for lesser-known indie rock acts like, well, Superchunk. "Slack Motherfucker" lead to bigger-selling albums, magazine cover features (from the likes of NME, no less), and an increased awareness (and bank) for all of Merge's signees.

Though "signee" is still a loose term. Part of what makes the Merge story so charming is simply the fact that for the longest time, Mac and Laura tried to be the label made up entirely of friends, often getting acts to "sign" to the label through the simple act of oral agreement, less they become to "business-like" in the eyes of their peers. Such naïve, optimistic behavior wound up getting the better of Merge in the long-run, however, as the buzz-band... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead wound up jumping to a major shortly after their first Merge release -- and leaving Mac and Laura in a position where they positively could not do anything to legally stop them.

It's these simple up-and-down stories that wind up making Our Noise a fascinating read, both from the perspective of how the music industry has changed to how art simply gets made. No better story exemplifies this than when Mac & Laura wound up stumbling into a relationship together... only to break up later on.

After getting their Superchunk records distributed through Matador through several years (the story of how labels like Matador, Touch & Go, and Sub Pop had unofficially "banded together" is another great historical footnote as well), Mac and Laura decided to move Superchunk operations entirely to Merge just in time for 1994's Foolish, which is commonly known as Mac's "break-up album".

Mac goes to great lengths to make the reader understand that Foolish wasn't about his breakup with Laura, but also concedes that no matter what he says, that's how people will interpret it (no doubt helped by the cover art -- a self-portrait of Laura looking outward with a dead bunny hanging on the wall behind her). Laura wound up turning off her earpiece during the subsequent tour because Mac's lyrics would make her cry. Then the irony hit: it became one of Superchunk's best-selling releases.

This leads to what is easily the greatest strength of Our Noise: you don't have to be familiar with Superchunk, the label, or even any of the bands on the label to enjoy the stories told within. You don't have to know Britt Daniel's personal history to relate to how he wound up getting major-label cash to become an alternative rock star, only to suffer from terrible reviews and downright depressing sales figures when all was said and done.

Elektra Records manager Ron Laffitte wound up coming to the band's rescue, getting them taken care of while Daniel and drummer Jim Eno wound up recording A Series of Sneaks, an acclaimed classic-rock throwback album that -- despite stellar critical notices -- still got not promotional push from the label as promised by Laffitte. The group got dropped, the band felt betrayed, and Daniel and co. responded to the whole situation by releasing a 7" on Saddle Creek called "The Agony of Laffitte".

Though intended as a bit of a bitter kiss-off, that little song is what ultimately gave the group the publicity they had long been missing out on (multiple media outlets using it as an example for those "what's wrong with the music industry today" pieces). They eventually got picked up by Merge -- a label that giddily supported them through the thick and thin -- all leading up to when 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga came out, where -- lo and behold -- it debuted in the Top Ten of the Billboard album chart.

Though there's nothing wrong with Merge taking some time out to celebrate its 20th anniversary of existence, the one main drawback of Our Noise lies in the fact that it sometimes can be a bit too self-congratulatory. A description of former Butterglory frontman Matt Suggs' solo disc Golden Days Before They End goes on the heavy editorial bent by saying that it's "as visceral and punishing a document of a failed relationship as Blood on the Tracks", a statement that gets lost in its own sense of grandeur. Instead of mentioning how a positive Pitchfork notice wound up raising the profile of the Arcade Fire's 2004 debut full-length Funeral, Cook goes one extreme step further by re-publishing the review in its entirety within Our Noise, a self-serving pat on the back that is both excessive and unnecessary, especially considering that the historical Merge photos, faxes, pull-quotes, and handwritten newsletters displayed through the pages prove far more intriguing.

Yet even with a few editorial misgivings, Our Noise really takes hold because what's contained within meshes perfectly with its title: it is truly our noise, something that is not defined by any one artist, album, or song. The Merge Records "scene" is not as much a fad or style as much as it is a community, established by a series of artists, labels, and friends that come together to celebrate the very best music that they've ever heard. Perhaps no better line sums up the feeling than this quote from Jenny Toomey about the "outsider scene" that some perceive indie-rock to be:

"There's a great line in a Destroyer song: 'Formative years wasted / In love with our peers, we tasted / Life with the stars.' I couldn't have found language more clear about that whole idea of what we ere doing. The twenty people who understand what you're talking about are the twenty most important people in the world. Maybe that's the difference between professional culture and outsider culture. Our antennae were tuned very specifically for like minds, as opposed to sending out a single to convert people. There are some kinds of art that are trying to find their peers, and there are other kinds that are trying to make peers."

For still being in the game after putting out two decades worth of classic albums (including such standard-bearers as the Magnetic Fields' 99 Love Songs and Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea), it's obvious that Merge -- with its success and its struggles -- is still wanting nothing more than to make some peers of its own. In our rushed digital age of today, there's something profoundly sweet about such a simple sentiment.

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