Tonight (Oct 23) at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, Merge Records co-founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance will appear along with author John Cook to celebrate the release of “Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records”. In addition to a reading and signing, Mac and Laura will be performing songs written by Merge artists such as: Superchunk, Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel and Spoon.
I literally couldn’t put down my copy of “Our Noise” once I started it (just ask my wife and co-workers), so I was really pleased when author John Cook agreed to do a little Q&A with me for this site. Check out the results of our exchange (otherwise known as an email interview) below.
Bumpershine: The XX Merge Festival in Chapel Hill, NC and the Score music compilations seemed liked natural reactions to Merge’s 20th Anniversary, but a book is a little bit unexpected, how did the idea for “Our Noise” come about? How did you become involved with the project?
John Cook: I’ve been an obsessive Superchunk fan since I first saw them, sound unheard as it were, at a show in Madison Wisconsin in 1994. It was one of those things where you didn’t realize that you’ve been missing this music all your life, and I went out and bought every Superchunk record I could lay hands on the next day. Through that, I bought the 1994 five-year anniversary Merge comp–mostly, as I recall, to get the unreleased Superchunk track. And that just opened me up to the rest of Merge’s roster and I fell in love. In 2003, I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, and I really thought that the Portastatic record Summer of the Shark was noteworthy as a classy and moving way of dealing with, or interpreting, or processing the post-9/11 world musically. So I wrote a long story about that record, comparing it favorably to Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising and looking at how songwriters approach tragedy, and what was right about Mac’s approach and objectionable, to me at least, about Springsteen’s. I interviewed Mac for that story, which was the first time I met him, and he ended up liking the piece and asked me to write the press bio for the next Portastatic record, Bright Ideas, a year later. Which was a very cool thing for me. So that’s how I got to know Merge a little. Totally separately, I used to work at a magazine called Brill’s Content for a guy named David Kuhn, who’s a very New York-magazine kind of guy, not at all–even remotely–indie rock. And it turns out that totally randomly, David’s partner is close friends with Mac’s wife Andrea. One day I was talking to David about music, and he says, “Have you ever heard of Mac from Superband? I just had Thanksgiving dinner with him.” Which is kind of like finding out that your high school math teacher is friends with David Lee Roth or something–absolutely incongruous. Anyway, David is now a literary agent, and he’d been bothering Mac and Laura to write a book for a while, and the 20th anniversary seemed like the perfect time. Mac and Laura told him they were into it but couldn’t do it themselves, and since they all knew me as someone who knew and loved the label and had worked with them before, they gave me a call.
There are a lot of photos in the book, and not just band shots, but show flyers, invoices, personal letters, early cassette and record covers and various other Merge esoterica. Did it all come from various different sources or was there one pack rat who had the bulk of the material? It seems like identifying it and cataloging it may have been a fairly difficult task, was it? Is there anything you couldn’t track down, that you really wanted to have included in the book?
JC: Stephin Merritt mapped out every song on 69 Love Songs in a big wall-sized chart with genre, meter, tempo, key, and variety of love that the song dealt with. I really wanted that, but couldn’t lay hands on it. It wasn’t too hard gathering all the photos and artifacts–I just asked everyone I talked to for the book to look through the attic/basement/hard drive. There were some cases where we had blind spots–not enough good photos of the Arcade Fire, for instance–and had to frantically track stuff down. Cataloging it all and making decisions about what should go where, and tracking down who owned what photo for permissions and who took it for credits–that was a bear. We used Flickr to organize it all, and had about 1,000 images up there, and Mac and Laura and Jim Wilbur and Jon Wurster and some other folks went in and commented on them to offer caption info, etc.
How many people did you up interviewing in total for this book? When you’re conducting so many interviews with so many different people, I would assume that sometimes you get different versions of the same story, were there ever any situations where it was difficult to determine what was the more accurate account of events? What did you do in those cases?
JC: I think I ended up with around 75 interviews. There really weren’t many instances of memories clashing–mostly it was just using details that one person recalled to jog the memories of other folks. A lot of it was lost to the mists of time. We spent a lot of time and back-and-forth, for instance, trying to determine when, precisely, Superchunk met with Danny Goldberg and who was there. There were some points where Mac or Laura questioned someone else’s recollections, but we actually kept them in because we wanted people to be able to tell their own stories in their own voices–nothing really factual or serious. But there was one case where Ed Roche of Touch and Go said Mac wrote him a particular e-mail, and Mac said he didn’t really remember sending that e-mail, but Ed insisted that he had so we kept it in.
At least one chapter in this book is devoted to the careers of: Arcade Fire, Spoon, Magnetic Fields, Superchunk, Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop and Butterglory, were there any other Merge artists who you considered profiling? How did you make the decision on who to ultimately include in this book, was there some back and forth between you, Mac and Laura? Who had the ultimate say?
JC: It obviously sucks that there are a lot of great bands who didn’t get that treatment. We talked about a wider array of profiles–M. Ward, The Clientele, and others. But as I was getting into it I was writing longer than we had originally envisioned the book, and it just was getting unwieldy and I ended up focusing in on the more in-depth stories rather than trying to do shorter, lighter treatments to fit it in. Mac and Laura had the ultimate say, in consultation with our editor at Algonquin. It just ended up coming down to how much story you have and how much space you have. But the bands that we did focus on, I think, all told part of the story of Merge as a whole, and advanced the narrative we were trying to build. So the Spoon story, for instance, had a lot about the short-sighted stupidity of the major-label system in the ’90s, and the Lambchop story allowed us to talk about Merge’s small-scale, personal belief in its bands even when the payoff isn’t huge in terms of sales. So each little story that we picked to tell helped us add it up into a bigger arc of the label.
Read the rest of the interview after the jump.
The structure of this book is a series of quotes from personal interviews woven together into a cohesive narrative with some exposition by you to connect the dots, was it always the plan to write the book that way? Was there ever a point where you wished you had it written it in a more conventional fashion? (In my mind, I can imagine you with a million note cards scattered all over the floor trying to make some sense of them all.)
JC: It was hard to make sense of everything. The original idea out of the gate was to have it be a conventional narrative, memoir-style, written by Mac and Laura, telling their stories. That went out the window almost immediately because they needed to have two voices because they’re two very different people with very different perspectives, and the way they interact is pretty much the engine of the story. So there could be no “we” in the book, it had to be Mac says this, Laura says that. So that decision led naturally to the oral history approach, because you couldn’t really have Mac and Laura in their own words and them conventional quotes from everyone else. The chapters on the specific bands were originally written conventionally, like magazine stories, but we went back and changed them to oral histories because that was working so well for the rest of the book and had a real sense of immediacy that Mac and Laura liked. When I went into it, I thought that the oral history format was sort of a compromise to the fact that I was working with Mac and Laura on this and it was the only way to make that work logically, and that if it were just me writing my own book about Merge I would have done it as a conventional narrative. But I actually really came to enjoy letting people speak for themselves, and having this multitude of voices in a pastiche and the jigaw-puzzle challenge of putting them together into a coherent story.
I guess if there’s one voice that seems most conspicuously absent in this book, it’s that of Jeff Mangum. Was it difficult to write the Neutral Milk Hotel chapter without his input? Was there anyone else that you wished you could have interviewed for this book, that you weren’t able to?
JC: I definitely wished Jeff would have sat down with me, and it definitely makes it a harder story to tell without him. But I understand why he didn’t–it’s his past, and he didn’t feel like revisiting it, so that’s his decision. We thought for a while that he was going to, but I think the more he thought about it, the less he liked the idea of talking about the old days, or glorifying them somehow. Which I totally get. There were a couple other people I couldn’t connect with, but no one really central that I was missing. I never hooked up with Brian Paulson, who produced Foolish and some other Superchunk and Merge Records. I would have liked to talk to him. I was really glad that I got Ron Laffitte to talk–he’d never discussed his past with Spoon publicly before.
I wasn’t familiar with Matt Suggs, Butterglory, and White Whale before reading “Our Noise”, but after reading that chapter, I became intrigued with him and his bands. Were there any bands that were a real revelation to you while doing the research for this book?
JC: I already knew the Merge bands really well, musically speaking, so there were no revelations there. Actually, I had never listened to Wwax or the Slushpuppies, two of Mac’s pre-Chunk bands. So I laid hands on that stuff. Erectus Monotone I hadn’t listened to very much, and it was awesome to see them play at the XX festival. There was definitely a sense of going back to some very old music that laid the foundations for a lot of these bands and reacquainting myself with stuff I hadn’t listened to in years–the Minutemen, Minor Threat, Black Flag, Bad Brains. That was sort of a re-education.
Dan Kennedy and Joshua Ferris wrote little interstitial pieces within this book, how did they become involved with the project?
JC: They had both worked with Kathy Pories, our editor at Algonquin, and she came up with the idea of including little appreciations in there, which I thought worked really well. But asking Ryan Adams to do the intro was my idea!
There are so many great stories in this book, like Arcade Fire nearly signing to another label before eventually going to Merge, the surprise success of the Magnetic Fields’ “69 Love Songs” and the now iconic status of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”, can you share one of your favorite Merge stories that maybe never made it to print?
JC: Well, there was the story of Jim Wilbur pooping underneath the stage at a Superchunk show in Jackson, Mississippi, but I could never get Mac and Laura to actually tell it to me. Whoops. I probably shouldn’t have said anything about that.
In your opinion, do labels matter more or less today than when Merge started? Can you tell me some of your other favorite labels?
JC: I don’t know that I’m the best guy to answer that question, because as I get older I’m losing my old acquisitive nature when it comes to new music, and I kind of get comfortable with what’s already in my collection. I think indie labels on the whole definitely matter more than they used to, because they’re able to accomplish more than they used to. I think Sonic Youth going to Matador from Geffen is a good example of that–it used to be that a place like Geffen had the resources to make it worth the downside of dealing with a major corporation for a band like Sonic Youth. But now a place like Matador can do just as well if not better than Geffen, because there’s better access to distribution and fewer major-label chokeholds over the press, plus you get to work with people you like. I don’t see that dynamic changing any time soon. And labels generally do matter more now–at least the ones that take advantage of the current media environment, which is this constant unending swirl of music coming at you from so many directions. And labels like Merge that take a curatorial approach, picking out and recommending the stuff that’s rewarding and worth your time, or mouse clicks, or money, can really become essential. Other labels? There are other labels than Merge?