The Story of Merge Records
The Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small
By John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance
Algonquin Books, 189 pp. $18.95
I will confess, I am one of the people mentioned in the book that would dryly and uninterestingly confess to the band, label owners and true believers involved that I was never really all that into Superchunk. I had friends for whom Superchunk was the be all-end all band, the true indie band that didn't screw it all up with politics and delusions. Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance formed Superchunk and in 1989, the label that would bear them aloft, Merge Records.
Merge Records, I did and do care a lot about. They were one of the few labels that could always be counted on to suss out the good stuff, to extract the meaningful music from the merely hopeful and present these fragile orchids in the right mix of light and shadow so that they may thrive. If you care about off-the-radar rock at all, you owe some thanks to Merge records. But does it make a good story?
Ultimately, yes. If Our Noise just chronicled the slow buildup of Superchunk and the label, eh, maybe not. But what comes with rise is a story about belief and action. If indie rock has a soul message, an undercurrent philosophical tenet, it is that believing something should exist is enough to justify the work it takes to make it exist, even when the players involved make that existence difficult.
My favorite chapters here are about the unlikely Merge "success" stories. The label decided to embrace the terrible business decision of releasing 69 Love Songs by then cult band Magnetic Fields as an encyclopedic boxed set because it maintained the integrity of the work, and it paid off, put the band in the bigger spotlight, got the label some better office space. Stephin Merritt, the dour genius behind Magnetic Fields approached the deal with the incalcitrant blasé that makes his songs so goddamn true, at one point threatening to halt the deal because he didn't like the cheap DIY-looking logo the label used. But ultimately, he relented, and 69 Love Songs allowed Magnetic Fields and Merritt the springboard to move on to bigger and better things.
The story of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum and the cathartic conception and birth of their landmark record In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is an inspiring story of belief. The musicians involved are presented as Lost Boys, crafting fragile magic in the hidden pockets of redneck America. Mac and Laura are seen as missionaries for putting out this difficult record. Even other member of Superchunk thought it was a terrible idea, but history proved this record would be bigger and more important than anyone anticipated. So much so that Magnum has retreated into relative hiding ever since.
Mac and Laura posit themselves as humble heroes in this book, exhibiting a sly smugness about maintaining their integrity in the face of business. It's a standard indie rock posture to act like you don't care about the thing you care most about. The reason I put "successes" in quotes is because in this game, success means something different than it does in other parts of the business world, even in the music business world. Success is a matter of making an unlikely thing and then making that unlikely thing work and making your life one where you can repeat itwithout becoming yourself unmade. Spoon and Arcade Fire are two of those successes that transcended the obscurity barrier, Lambchop and, in some ways, Superchunk stand as successes that await the world's recognition, but they and your next favorite band all benefit from the ongoing faith of the people profiled in this lovely and unexpectedly inspiring book.
Photo of Laura Ballance and photgrapher Christian Lantry from the Superchunk website.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com