Freelance reporter Cook and Merge cofounders McCaughan and Ballance trace the history of the North Carolina-based record label that started in a bedroom and now releases some of indie rock's biggest names. The story is composed as a book-long conversation between McCaughan and Ballance (also founding members of Superchunk, hailed as the next Nirvana in the 1990s and one of Merge's first major hits) and myriad other voices from the music industry. Started in 1989 in Chapel Hill, Merge always put music and musicians first, with McCaughan and Ballance hand-stuffing the label's first seven-inch releases and eschewing contracts in an effort to keep things friendly. In a prime example of its dedication to artistic vision over pure profit, Merge took a gamble on Stephin Merritt and Magnetic Fields's ambitious three-disc opus, 69 Love Songs, when any major label would have balked. That record made numerous top 10 lists in 1999 and has sold more than 150,000 copies. While some of the label's artists may be beyond the scope of the casual music fan, bands like Magnetic Fields, Spoon and Arcade Fire demonstrate how vital Merge is to the indie rock landscape. (Sept. 15)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Smallby John Cook
Merge Records defies everything you’ve heard about the music business. Started by two twenty-year-old musicians, Merge is a lesson in how to make and market great music on a human scale. The fact that the company is prospering in a failing industry is something of a miracle. Yet two of their bands made the Billboard Top 10 list; more than 1 million
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Merge Records defies everything you’ve heard about the music business. Started by two twenty-year-old musicians, Merge is a lesson in how to make and market great music on a human scale. The fact that the company is prospering in a failing industry is something of a miracle. Yet two of their bands made the Billboard Top 10 list; more than 1 million copies of Arcade Fire's Neon Bible have been sold; Spoon has appeared on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show; and the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs is a contemporary classic.
In celebration of their twentieth anniversary, founders Mac and Laura offer first-person accountswith the help of their colleagues and Merge artistsof their work, their lives, and the culture of making music. Our Noise also tells the behind-the-scenes stories of Arcade Fire, Spoon, the Magnetic Fields, Superchunk, Lambchop, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Butterglory. Hundreds of personal photos of the bands, along with album cover art, concert posters, and other memorabilia are included.
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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OUR NOISETHE STORY OF MERGE RECORDS, THE INDIE LABEL THAT GOT BIG AND STAYED SMALL
By John Cook Mac McCaughan Laura Ballance
Algonquin Books of Chapel HillCopyright © 2009 Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance
All right reserved.
IntroductionYour Noise-My Noise!!! by Ryan Adams
All my favorite records and your records crackle like summertime crackles like fried eggs stove-side or accidental fireworks backyard heavy in North Carolina on the coast-mid-day it gets so hot even inside, in the cool, the blazing waves of electric orange light pant like a litter of starving dogs just outside the gate-yeah, sometimes you just need comics or records to get you through until the dust settles and the damp evening can cool your brains down enough to see past your own stupid face. That was me. Me looking at my first 7-inch record. I was all "what" and "huh," you know....
Merge 7-inch singles came packaged like candy. They also looked a little like comics, which was good because I liked both and I liked girls so much they scared me so it all seemed like the perfect distraction, at least to me, and surely to my grandmother, who would patiently listen with me on our portable record player in the wood-paneled kitchen while she baked this or that cake or whatever-she liked how much cymbal crashing was going on-somehow overlooking the melodic weirdness or angst, how forgiving and awesome those moments-in fact before I had money for records she would write the checks and mail them for each PO-boxed 7-inch I desired in exchange for however many times the lawn got mowed but I did that anyway so really she funded my habit, embarrassingly, and MY GOD at first they were so pretty I could do nothing less than just marvel at each one-SO BEAUTIFUL-Erectus Monotone-"CATHODE GUMSHOE"-probably the best THE BEST record I own besides this super-duper warped-ass copy of Greg Sage's "Straight Ahead" but whatever, right? Exactly.
I used to think to myself, WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? WHO ARE THEY and ARE THEY REAL? Also, CAN THEY ACTUALLY BE North Carolinian? I loved PURE so so much too. The "Ballard" EP is insanely classic stuff. I hunted forever for these people and their stories. I wanted to be inside that dream. I was having such an awful time growing up in the coastal lurch of Onslow County. I started making plans in my mind, in school, for taking off on the weekends for shows (my brother was in Raleigh attending college and would bring me news of bands in Chapel Hill and Raleigh and FLYERS-HELL YES!!! All over my room!!!) and I got closer and closer to these people making this mysterious candy with the petroleum shiny insides. And at my best, I would try and be as engaging as the Merge music candy packages all the way down to the little notes xeroxed on colored paper inside. I loved those fucking Mac notes. It was later I realized it was the same Mac as the guy in WWAX. NO WAY-
EVERYBODY had their crushes on Laura. I mean, guys did. And ALL THOSE GIRLS they loved Mac. And you know, they were these sophisticated weirdos living in Chapel Hill, that "pretty" college town. I eventually left home (long story) and I lived in Raleigh and, well, we were supposed to be "working class" musicians or something-we were supposed to have issues with the Chapel Hill scene. It was totally unspoken but it was all right there-written on the faces of all our local musicians and I think I saw a lot of envy by the time I got to Raleigh. I mean, I came late. I crawled from the wreckage of the crystal coast-the graveyard of the Atlantic, all water-logged and salt heavy-tears in my eyes. I just wanted to SEE all this music get made. I ended up making just a little myself. Most of it as a way to understand this music I loved and just how much went into making it. The rest happened the way night comes, the way a reed bends in the humidity and how dust gathers where you can't reach it.
Merge singles never worked like that. I mean, I still look at them and think, "what exactly is this" or I think, "God-what if everyone could have the experience of living in a place so isolated from everywhere and KNOW this came from only a few hours away." I mean, it was a dream. A hot dream.
I first heard Mac sing when I stopped by a friend's house, a guy that lived a block from me in my neighborhood nightmare 1980s mall theme-park world, to record more of his badass mail-order FLIPSIDE magazine-sponsored singles. I was over to get a few cassette burnoffs of a few Japanese thrash bands and the new Seaweed. Gosh I loved Seaweed. And there was this single. My pal said, "Hey man, I got this and it's a bit melodic for my taste but I think you would really love this."
It was WWAX, "Pumpkin"/ "Inntown." I took the single home and busted it out on my Barbie-themed little record player (now covered in thrasher magazine stickers) ... I probably stared holes through the universe trying to understand how much I loved it. I actually CARRIED IT TO SCHOOL hahahahaha, a record, a 45-rpm single, in my backpack to ensure nothing NOTHING would ever ever ever happen to it.
When I finally made my first record, as in my first real album for a real major label (a no-no where I come from, at least the scene I had come from), I named the first song after that song-the very song that made me want to make any music at all, really.
So the bands envied Superchunk (of course) because Superchunk were effortlessly great. They weren't trying to be anyone. So ALL these bands started little 7-inch companies and "didn't try" the way Superchunk didn't have to and a whole scene of, well, just posers trying not to pose happened. All you needed was a RAT pedal and an attitude.
And all the guys, the guitar guys, the band guys, they would basically all line up at SChunk shows and pretend not to drool over themselves at how badass Laura was. I mean, I used to listen to conversations about Mac and Laura at our local AWFUL-I mean terrible-coffee house; people saying things like, "They went to college, totally left the state" and "Really?" and "Yeah like in New York." HAHA-wtf? People were afraid of that. Strangely, an entire scene was nourished in this little GIGANTIC beautiful little time and I saw some of the most amazing bands (POLVO, SEAM, ERECTUS MONOTONE, FINGER, BREADWINNER), shows, and records come out as my whole world developed before me like a little series of Polaroids if they made sugary noise and rattled into the sparkling cloudless night sky-I was, and they all seemed to be, hovering just there-and everything felt clean and just rang for an entire four years.
When I left North Carolina Superchunk and Merge had become names muttered easily after Chapel Hill or the Triangle (three cities of colleges, three scenes, people called it that-too much breaded food, not enough coffee) and I left with a crate of records and a boxed heart bowed with electric guitar cable static and radio frequency shards.
I am really lucky to write this. I remember the day I sauntered up to Mac. I was seventeen years old. He sat on the edge of the stage at a Dinosaur Jr. / Finger concert at the Cat's Cradle. I was seriously starstruck but so young and totally naive as to how to appropriately talk to someone who represented so much to me. I walked up, introduced myself, and slowly but surely asked him a million questions. I admired his industriousness, his nobility, and his pure shining poetic heart-and he had the coolest band, the coolest girlfriend and business partner-Mac was someone I could learn from. And I got lucky. He answered them all right there as I asked. I was blown away, and just lucky.
Merge, Mac, and Laura are still out there answering all my questions about following your gut and making things new with each turn and following the muse all the way. Over the years I keep running into Merge bands in New York City, even sometimes seeing Mac here and there, hell even last year at RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL, I mean, wow, for the Arcade Fire-who more or less blew my entire mind in THE SAME WAY, man, that seeing Polvo and Seam at the older Cat's Cradle had when Mac was on drums. There he was again-that guy-and he just had nothing but nice things to say and a big hello. Hell he even answered a few more of my nagging "How did ya's."
People just never know how much that really means to you when you just love what someone does.
Merge rolls non-hostile.
I am really thankful for each new treasure they come around with. I love how unpretentious their whole scene is, how they rescued so many Homestead Records bands from obscurity-how they put out the HONOR ROLE CD even though they probably knew that record mattered only to a handful of heart-weary fans like me. Damn, man.
Also I am super lucky they didn't beat me up for stealing their album title "Come Pick Me Up."
I will always be a sucker for Merge and I will be that guy in the front row at the shows with all the questions, beaming-inspired-over the moon-with this little bee in my hat, knowing that something so great, greater than my imagination, like a perfect teenage dream shining so bright and so hard so easily, could come from my home state where everything moves at a pace slower than afternoon naps with a face full of orange ride maze hot yellow light.
Rock on, Merge! Happy 20th. Keep it coming!
Excerpted from OUR NOISE by John Cook Mac McCaughan Laura Ballance Copyright © 2009 by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Laura Ballance plays bass in Superchunk and formed with Mac the Merge Records label. She lives in Durham with her husband and daughter.
John Cook is a reporter for Gawker Media and has worked for Radar magazine and the Chicago Tribune.
Mac McCaughan plays in Superchunk and Portastatic (guitar and vocals), and founded, with Laura Ballance, the Merge Records label in 1989. He lives in Chapel Hill with his wife and children.
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