Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records

If only my own high school yearbook was this colourful and entertaining.

At the Merge Records’ 20th anniversary celebrations this past summer, the Magnetic Fields’ Claudia Gonson was constantly spotted in the Cat’s Cradle clutching her hot-off-the-press copy of Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, and getting all of her peers to sign it for her, like she had just shown up to her high school reunion. One of the label’s biggest “stars” was clearly also one of its biggest fans—though the same could be said of any Merge artist, all of whom are drawn to the label for its artistic pedigree, reputation for integrity and practicality.

Our Noise
is an oral history of the label’s two-decade ascent from a makeshift DIY operation that documented the local scene in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, North Carolina, into one of the most respected indie labels in the U.S., with several acknowledged classic albums in its catalogue and artists that sell hundreds of thousands of records.

At first glance, it appears to be assembled for fans, first and foremost: it’s visually rich, full of intimate photos and ephemera from ’90s indie rock era, and the level of trainspotting geekery can be a bit much when discussing the incestuous scene that birthed the label’s flagship band, Superchunk.

Yet as the book progresses, the story of Merge is a tale of not just luck and perseverance—although those are two large factors—but of a stubborn resilience to resist the ’90s “alternative rock” boom and all the accompanying false formulas for success. Said boom was no more than a bubble, and Merge’s most successful artists are those who were either a) burned by the buy-out of underground culture, and spat out by the major label system, or b) suspicious of the whole scam to begin with, or c) oblivious to it all in the first place.

And so the story of Merge is the story of a little label that could, but it’s also about the madness of the “alternative rock” glut and false promises made. It’s about cultivated, eclectic taste triumphing over cookie-cutting. It’s about the evolution of the indie industry from cut-and-paste word-of-mouth to instant buzz and media hype—and yet the value of personal relationships remains the most important link between any artist and their label.

Although it is certainly fawning, Our Noise is also an honest book. It deals frankly and openly with two key break-ups in the label’s history: the romantic one between co-owners Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance (who are credited as co-authors), and that between Merge and their mentor label—and distributor—Touch and Go, in the wake of Arcade Fire’s success.

In this conversation, former Chicago Tribune reporter John Cook talks about the process of assembling the book, the legacy of Merge Records, and the ubiquity of the phrase “this was before the Internet.”

John Cook

November 3, 2009

Phone interview from his New York City home

I’ve read a lot of interviews with Mac and Laura, and precious few with you.

Who wants to talk to me when they can talk to Mac and Laura?

I’ve talked to them before, but I’ve never talked to you. Have you felt like the silent third partner in this so far?

I’ve done a few interviews, but I do think that they’re the people who have accomplished something interesting and amazing and are the folks with a tale to tell. I’d rather read an interview with them than an interview with me.

But that’s why we have your book. And why I’m talking to you.

The book was supposed to be by Mac and Laura with John Cook, and they actually changed their mind late in the game and decided that because I did the writing and the work that they wanted my name to be first. We got into an argument about it, with me saying, who wants to read a book by John Cook? I think their attitude is that the person who did the work should get the credit. Although they did do a lot of work.

That’s amazing, because they come off as such pricks in print that I didn’t think they’d be that generous. [note: sarcasm]

(laughs) We had to work really hard to massage the image. You should see what got nixed.

So the initial concept was that you would be a ghostwriter of sorts? How did this begin?

My first contact with them was in 2003 when I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. I’d been a lifelong Superchunk fan since I first saw them in Madison, Wisconsin in 1994, when I was in college. I was the kind of guy who owns everything they’ve ever done, a completist. Through that process, I became a fan of the other Merge bands as well.

In 2002, Summer of the Shark by Portastatic [Mac McCaughan's solo project] came out, which I thought was a really amazing record. I thought it was an interesting story how to respond to tragedy and process those emotions musically. The big post-9/11 record at that point was Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, and a Steve Earle record with “John Walker Lindh’s Blues” on it. I thought both of those records sucked horribly, and that Summer of the Shark was a wonderful accomplishment, without any bombast. I did a story about that, comparing and assessing those records, and that was the first time I’d ever spoken to Mac.

A year later, when the next Portastatic record came out [Bright Ideas], he asked me to write the press bio. I was very excited and nervous about that. [Later on, a literary agent and mutual friend asked Mac and Laura to write a book about Merge; they didn’t want to do it themselves, and the agent recommended Cook.]

The initial concept was that it would a memoir-ish narrative about the story of Merge. When I flew down to North Carolina to talk to them about it, it became clear that wasn’t possible, because there was no “we.” It’s Mac and it’s Laura and they have very different voices; the contrast and tension between their voices and their personalities is one of the engines of Merge Records. You’d be doing them a disservice to collapse them into one voice.

I can’t think of any other book that’s written in first person plural. But why not a distant third person narrative, like every other book?

That would have been what I had done if I was writing the book about them. But they were on the author side of the ledger. It’s a much more direct, intimate and immediate feeling to do an oral history. As I was coming up with the first chapter, it wasn’t even immediately clear what format it would take. As we tried that out, we all became very comfortable with the idea of everyone speaking for themselves, and having clashing memories and ideas.

It makes it more colourful and at times controversial, like the guy who wonders why Superchunk didn’t just kick the chick bass player out of the band when she and the lead singer split up. Or the other two members of Superchunk saying they thought [Neutral Milk Hotel's] In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was a terrible record at the time, or that [Magnetic Fields'] 69 Love Songs was a really stupid idea.

Those are funny moments, so it works well to have those thoughts in there.

What you think the role of oral history is in music books now? With books like these, I wonder if there are many mass-market music books anymore, and if you might as well just cater to the niche fans and give them something very visual and detailed and speak directly to them as opposed to explaining everything to a general audience.

It was a conscious effort on our part to make it about more than just Merge. We didn’t want to do a fan book. We wanted to find a way for it to appeal to people who might not care about the music so much, but who are invested in the idea of independent culture.
My initial pitch to them was that the story of Merge Records is the counter-narrative to the story of the music business over that period of time, and the story of the collapse of the major labels. We tried to have that perspective in there, and to throw into relief the importance of what Mac and Laura have accomplished. We hoped this would interest people who are interested in art and how to produce it in a commercial environment. And you also just want to tell a good story, and take whatever facts you have at your disposal and fashion them into a yarn.

I don’t know how successful we were, but that was the hope. I wanted my dad to be able to read it and understand why it’s important. We tried to find stories that had larger relevance rather than personal histories.

There is certainly a lot of insider scene stuff, particularly in the early years, which is very specific to Carrboro and Chapel Hill. But as the book broadens, there is every possible narrative of the music industry in the ’90s—with the exception of the people who did have a good major label experience.

There are the people who signed horrible deals and found later refuge in Merge (Spoon); the story of Superchunk opening up a tour for a band with a big radio hit (Belly); the basement guy with some aspirations (Matt Suggs); the band like Lambchop who are surprised anything happens at all; the band like Neutral Milk Hotel that choose to retreat rather than engage at any level of success, even though it’s theirs for the taking.

There is a quote from Jenny Toomey in there: “The 20 people who understand what you’re talking about are the 20 most important people in the world.” I do think a lot of stuff in the book functions as a microcosm for what many artists experienced at the time.

It’s also a reminder of the idiocy that happens when people think there’s lots of money to be made. I love the stories about Matt Suggs realizing what he’s in for and returning a $10,000 cheque, or Lou Barlow’s initial indignation at being told by a record company exec that he “doesn’t have what it takes” before he realizes, “She’s right, I don’t.”

And then Danny Goldberg is indirectly quoted as saying to Superchunk, “I want to use you to look cool. I want to be associated with you and not be a dick.” I’m curious how your interview with him went.

He was very helpful. His position now is back in management. I had interviewed him before, under totally different and antagonistic circumstances. As a reporter, I covered the story of Air America radio when he was briefly running it, after they had this disastrous initial launch by this con man. [provides brief summary of the story] I was skeptical of anyone’s ability to right that ship, and I was reporting things going on there that he didn’t want reported. He seemed to remember that when I interviewed him for this book, but not with any clarity. That was a brief period of his life.

So now he’s a manager, and his take is that the current situation is that he would steer one of his bands to Merge or Matador or Sub Pop over a major label, and his rationale is that the majors no longer have the resources they once did. To the extent that major labels were stupid and horrible to deal with, they also had advantages—one of which was enormous amounts of money and staff to work your record. If you deployed that right, you could have success.

He was unapologetic, but also aware that the industry had changed. He blames the downfall solely on file-sharing, which is wrong and short-sighted and as if it has nothing to do with what he and his colleagues did at Atlantic or any other major label. And he said, “A lot of bands did horribly on major labels and a lot of bands did great on major labels. Nirvana seemed to do okay.” Which is a crazy thing to say: if your front man offs himself, then something’s gone wrong.

If you don’t read the last chapter of the Nirvana book, I’m sure you think it has a happy ending.

Exactly. The other thing he said that was not true was that In Utero sounded like Bleach, implying that Steve Albini was a hack. And whether you like the records or not—I don’t like them much myself—they do sound dramatically different. But we didn’t have a confrontational interview or anything.

One thing that comes through is their character and the character of people they choose to work with. I’m sure to some aspects of the industry, they come off as idealists—not necessarily in the Ian MacKaye mould, but they turned down a lot and they “sacrificed” opportunities to do things the way they wanted to do.

But it comes down to practicality over ideology. It’s not that they would reject Option X because corporations are inherently evil; it’s because it sounds like a really dumb idea that doesn’t suit our needs or goals.

That was a running theme. They are to some extent anti-corporate, but not in a reactionary or reflexive way. They’re not going to be throwing bricks through Starbucks’ window in the Battle of Seattle. And they’re not rude or angry or bitter. The anti-corporatism is based on the realities of what they’re aware of in their business.

It's hilarious to read [Magnetic Fields'] Stephin Merritt's unqualified disdain for the indie rock world. Where would Stephin Merritt be if he had never met [drummer/manager] Claudia Gonson?

She’s certainly his gateway to the real world in a lot of ways.

I didn’t know she had ever worked for Mercury Records—that was news to me.

It was to me, too. She just casually mentioned that during the interview. I had already gone through the period of the interview where we were talking about the differences between Merge and [Magnetic Fields' current label] Nonesuch and all that, and then I mentioned that I had interviewed Danny Goldberg. She said, “Oh, I used to work for him.” That was fortuitous.

It’s amazing to me the intimate detail with which people remember the minutiae of their life in their early 20s. Maybe it’s because it was such an exciting time with important stuff going on, but I don’t think I could do the same if I was being pressed about bands I played in or with or saw at that time.

They were as well, and I pressed them—hard. The way that happened was I’d talk to them and ask what bands of theirs came first, and they would have no clue. But then I’d interview Jonathan Neumann, the drummer of the Slushpuppies, and he’d have one little recollection, and then so would other people and bits start to coalesce. If there were two overlapping details, Mac would say, “Ah, I remember now!”

We used Google Docs to share all the interviews. I would put a transcription up on there and then Mac and Laura would put their notes in: this didn’t happen that way; I remember this. Then they would comment on each other’s comments, and it became like Rashomon or the way rabbinical texts develop, with debates happening in the margins of the text. With 75 or 80 interviews full of other people’s recollections, they were able to work off of those. The initial interviews were a little barren.

My one and only quibble is the lack of a cast of characters. I did get lost several times trying to recall who some of the minor players were.

We never really talked about that. I’ve seen that in other oral histories, but it’s useless to me because I don’t want to flip to the back. I would always try to look a few pages before and try to find the name. The idea of having them all in alphabetical order at either the beginning or end of the book seems less convenient to me. But we never talked about it, and I don’t like that system. Hopefully the narrative is carried forward whether or not you can remember who each person is.

The visual aspect—there are some very intimate photos, like the one with the caption that reads: “Laura after a good cry.”

We used Flickr to organize all the photos; we had about 1000 images. So all of Superchunk were commenting and dating and identifying them.

It’s also interesting how, for me at least, the aesthetic of early ’90s indie artwork doesn’t really hold up. It was cool at the time, but looking at pen scrawls being commemorated 20 years later hurts a bit.

I do, however, really like the Garbage Man gig poster that had a Superchunk press photo with swastikas drawn over Mac’s eyes. Garbage Man was the band of Scott Williams, who was Laura’s ex-boyfriend. It was part of this Raleigh-Chapel Hill rivalry thing. The caption was, “The joke’s on you, motherfucker.” [page 81]

It’s interesting to contrast the slow word-of-mouth way in which Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea became a classic, with the meteoric rise and canonization of Arcade Fire’s Funeral. This book captures a time where you start out doing cassettes and seven-inch singles, then you grow into this larger thing, and then by the time the book ends with Arcade Fire, almost everything is completely different. You have to wonder what young label owners today can learn from this book when there is almost an entirely new set of rules.

The phrase I heard the most often while working on this book, from everybody, was: “This was before the Internet.” The constant was that people would tell stories about the way things happened, but they would make no sense because people wouldn’t behave that way had they had email or cellphones. The idea of Superchunk going on tour and running a label in 1992, being gone for three months without a cellphone—it’s astonishing to imagine. Or Laura staying up all night so she could make calls to distributors and labels in Germany—this was clearly before email. It was a totally different environment, and I think it’s one that fostered the kind of community that really helped Merge and one of the reasons Merge had success: the community of people who are artists and who care about art.

The Corrosion of Conformity guys [the only prior indie success story in Raleigh-Chapel Hill], one of the reasons they were able to create this scene of like-minded people was that [drummer] Reed Mullen’s parents had an office, with either a Xerox or a mimeograph machine, and a phone that had unlimited long distance calling on it. So if you were 17 years old and you wanted to set up a tour, you’d go there and run off flyers and call clubs out of state without having to pay for it. So that drew people to that place and fostered a community.

Of course, there are new kinds of communities fostered by the Internet, and new ways of organizing and talking about things, but back then the technological barriers people had to overcome helped to keep people together. Back then, those relationships were more precious.
There are certain lessons that are universal: don’t be a dick, and don’t get into this because you want to achieve something—do it because you’re into it. Do it because you like the process of doing it, and because you’ll enjoy it even if you’ve failed five years into it. That’s the attitude that Mac and Laura took the entire time.


No comments: