In the independent American rock music world, the 1990s buzzed with frantic activity from low-budget indie labels, fanzines, college radio stations, and hole-in-the-wall venues. Hundreds of indie bands performed numerous dirt-cheap tours conducted from beat-up vans. Some artists earned a bit of critical acclaim and even enjoyed a little bit of financial success. A few even made careers out of it.
For Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance — two bandmates in N.C. rock band Superchunk and the founders of independent label Merge Records — the brilliant success story is two-sided and quite unique.
A fine documentation of Merge Records comes this month with the forthcoming book Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small. Written by music journalist John Cook (a reporter for Gawker Media) with guidance from McCaughan and Ballance, who offer first-person accounts, the 320-page book is due on September 15 from Algonquin Books.
Merge celebrated its 20th anniversary in July with a week-long music festival in Carrboro and Chapel Hill (including four sold-shows at the famous Cat's Cradle venue).
Over the course of 14 chapters that meander in, out, and around the central timeline of Merge and Superchunk, Our Noise is a vibrant oral history and cool photo album that cover over 20 years of U.S. independent music.
Cook started the initial process quite a while ago. "The idea came up, and then there was the process of doing the proposal and sending that to publishers," he says. "We solidified the deal with Algonquin and started writing a year and half ago."
Nearly 80 hours of recorded interviews later, Our Noise morphed into a story about Superchunk story as much as the label.
"In the initial conception, Superchunk was simply going to be one of the band chapters, but it was just impossible to separate what Mac and Laura were doing with Superchunk from what they were doing with Merge," says Cook. "And it was hard to separate what Superchunk's relationship was to the record industry at large, and the role Merge played in how it distinguished itself. All those arcs were intertwined. Every other chapter that wasn't a band-specific chapter had to be about what was going on with Superchunk and Merge."
The first few chapters cover Merge's earliest releases — many of which were super-low-budget, hand-assembled seven-inches and LPs by weird local rock, punk, and experimental bands like Polvo, Versus, Pipe, Seaweed, American Music Club, and Pure. As the label's roster expanded and diversified in the late '90s and early 2000s, Merge released collections by such critics' darlings as Lambchop, The Magnetic Fields, The Music Tapes, The Arcade Fire, M. Ward, The Rosebuds, and Spoon, among others.
Our Noise carefully detours into little chapters on Merge artists from around North America, including Matt Suggs (from Kansas), Lambchop (from Tennessee), Neutral Milk Hotel (from Georgia), The Arcade Fire (from Canada), and Spoon (from Texas).
"There were certain bands that we were obviously going to pick, like The Arcade Fire and Spoon," says the author. "Lambchop and Butterglory told different stories, and were representative of things that Merge had accomplished. There were going to be more chapters. I didn't want to do little profiles or quick hits. I wanted to get as much in as I could."
Cook stayed focused on telling why and how the label became successful and stayed significant. Many of the testimonials and vignettes reflect what was happening in the rock underground across the country.
"Even though the band chapters were kind of narratively and chronologically distinct, they had to do the work of moving forward with the narrative as well," he says. "You had to hit certain things, or talk about radio in the Arcade Fire chapter ... the Spoon chapter carried a lot of weight in the book in terms of what the nuts and bolts are of working with a major label, and why that was an unfortunate experience in the end for a lot of bands at that level."
Indeed, Our Noise altogether points to a bigger picture and acknowledges the high levels of action and camaraderie that was happening within the underground rock networks of the late '80s, '90s, and 2000s — in very similar fashion to music critic and author Michael Azerrad's massive book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, which tells the stories of 13 influential American bands.
"The Azerrad book was a huge model," admits Cook. "Mac, Laura, and I all kind of talked about it. If you were to do the sort of '90s and 2000s version of Our Band Could Be Your Life, half the bands would probably be Merge bands. That was definitely a model and a book that we really loved."
The clusters of images and photos scattered from chapter to chapter enhance the stories and add life to the main timeline. Some of them — especially the more crumpled bits that look like they were retrieved from dusty drum cases, kitchen drawers, and old bulletin boards — tell peculiar tales of their own. Highlights include master release forms from the recording studios, hand-written press releases, gig flyers assembled at the Kinko's production table, Sharpie-decorated cassette tape covers, fuzzy snapshots from Superchunk's earliest road trips, and candid backstage and behind-the-scene snippets.
"It was virtually impossible to tell every band's story, but I am happy that there are a lot of images and photographs, so you can get a wider sense of what was on the label," says Cook.
Some of the most powerful and amusing quotes come from McCaughan's and Ballance's Superchunk bandmates, drummer Jon Wurster and guitarist Jim Wilbur, and many of their musician and roadie pals. Refreshingly, most of the side stories are devoid of the ugliest, most clichéd side of rock 'n' roll mischief.
"From the very get-go, Mac and Laura were so adult about the way they approached everything," says Cook. "It minimized the conflict. They were just interested in making music they wanted to make, listening to the music they wanted to listen to, and being able to pay the rent."