To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Merge Records, the North Carolina-based independent record label launched by Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, author John Cook retraces its story, how two 20-year-olds in an indie-rock band needed a place to put out records and decided to do it themselves. It’s not a wholly original tale—the DIY ethos is a cornerstone of the genre—but the label’s success through the years in releasing some of the most important rock records of the nineties and beyond is rather remarkable.
Cook tells the Merge story through in-depth interviews with McCaughan and Ballance, as well as discussions with the other members of Superchunk and several indie-rock figures, like Steve Albini and Touch & Go’s Corey Rusk, plus other musicians associated with the label. The oral-history-like structure of the book works to its advantage, as Cook basically allows the story to be told by those who lived it and only provides a basic structure, and chapter introductions, himself. A good portion of the first half revolves around Superchunk’s beginnings and the label’s founding, as the band gains steam and struggles with major-label offers and larger and larger tours. As important as this might be, unless you’re a big Superchunk fan it’ll leave you yawning, especially the small section devoted to inter-band romance and breakup. (Ugh.)
Far more interesting are the chapters that focus specifically on individual records and bands, the stories behind their relationship with Merge and the overall impact they had on the art form. Jeff Mangum, of Neutral Milk Hotel, is an eccentric and intriguing character, and the brief anecdote Robert Schneider tells of meeting him on the playground in second grade, Mangum desperately searching for someone to play Wiffle Ball with him, is priceless. Though Merge released Neutral Milk Hotel’s material, including the 1998 classic “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”—Mangum himself declined to be interviewed for the book, as he’s taken on a Salingeresque persona, all but disappearing from music since that record’s release.
A couple chapters later Cook and crew recount Merge’s history with Stephin Merritt and his Magnetic Fields, including the 1999 release of “69 Love Songs,” a commercial risk at the time that paid off considerably and still sells admirably, spiking, unsurprisingly, around Valentine’s Day each year. Stephin Merritt’s famously monotone and droll speech comes through in the interview he did for the book; most interesting is his distaste for the indie scene, which may come as a surprise to some.
In this century, Merge has kept itself relevant by releasing solid record after solid record, from Spoon to She & Him to Lampchop. Of course, there have been a few monumental Merge albums, like Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” and “Neon Bible.” While the label’s overall history may not be especially interesting, its survival through the dramatic shifts in the music industry certainly is, not to mention its proclivity for offering up an outstanding record every couple of years. Cook’s book is a fun read that offers a sufficient look at an important indie, and fans of the bands herein will be pleased and amused. (Tom Lynch)
“Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records”
By John Cook
Algonquin Books, 289 pages, $19.99