Merge Recs’ Book Bash Yields Coolness!


Tantalizing tidbit
about a forthcoming new Superchunk album, too…


By Fred Mills


“It may be their noise, but it’s our – Amerindie, USA-
story. Happy birthday to us.” Thus writes the BLURT reviewer (in the new issue
of the magazine), of the just-published history of Chapel
Hill’s Merge Records Our
(Algonquin Books). The label celebrated its 20th birthday
this year, and to cap what has been a crazy ’09 (the multi-night festival,
Merge XX, was one of the summer’s high points), the book arrived in stores a
couple of weeks ago. It’s a story of the label and the people behind it, of
course, but as our review points out, it’s also “a series of snapshots
(frequently literally; there are more than 300 images reproduced), that
chronicle an entire musical milieu via microcosm, an alternate alt-rock history
in which the good guys won and the Matchbox 20s, the Third Eye Blinds and the
Limp Bizkits never even happened.” Hats off to author John Cook who assembled a
superb oral history for the project.


Merge/Superchunk founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance
also collaborated with Cook to give the book a definitive stamp of authority,
and since its publication the pair has been doing a series of book signings at
independent shops. Friday night (Oct. 2) they turned up at Asheville, NC,
at Malaprop’s Bookstore Cafe and the place was jammed with well-wishers, Merge
and ‘chunk fans, and book lovers of all stripes.


McCaughan and Ballance first strapped on acoustic guitar and
electric bass, respectively to do a Superchunk song, then the pair took turns
reading a couple of passages from Our
Mac handled a section about early Merge band Butterglory, while
Laura read the part about a somewhat star-crossed trip to the Northwest they
undertook in which their van caught on fire (and burned up, leaving them
temporarily stranded in the middle of nowhere until they could arrange a
rental) en route to Seattle, where they got to observe firsthand the office
operations of Sub Pop and the proverbial lightbulb went on over their heads:
“We could do this, too.”


Next, Mac did covers of Spoon and Magnetic Fields tunes,
subsequently reading a passage from the book about Magnetic Fields and talking
a bit about the peculiarities of that band’s Stephin Merritt. Prefacing a
passage about the career vicissitudes that Spoon has endured, Laura observed,
“I think this illustrates the indignities that bands have to go through.” 


Another Superchunk song followed, then it was time to take
questions and comments. One thing they disclosed was that they’ve been working
on new material for a proposed Superchunk album, and the hope is that it will
see release sometime in 2010.


A query came from the audience about what’s the role of an
indie label in 2009 when all the traditional roles and rules have been upended
– Pearl Jam striking a deal with Target, Radiohead deploying a radical new
commercial model, etc. – and Mac pointed out that with so much going on and so
much music out there, Merge’s role is “as a filter” with people trusting Merge
to find good music and bands trusting
Merge to do a good job. Another question about the perennial “what is indie?”
issue prompted them to suggest that the term might not be all that relevant any
more other than as shorthand, Laura adding that when they started out, what
they were doing was called “college rock” – nowadays, a meaningless term.


And of the genesis of the book? Our Noise almost didn’t happen, amid the stress and clutter of
running the label and preparing for the 20th anniversary events. Mac
noted that he felt, initially, that it wasn’t even that particularly a dramatic
tale worth telling, but when author Cook presented the additional context of
how it was also a story of the record industry and some of the changes that had
been occurring over the past two decades, it all clicked for him.


I’m glad it did, as Our
is one of the best music books I’ve taken in all year, and I don’t
hand that sort of praise out lightly. For anyone with a vested interest in the
indie milieu (regardless of the relative relevance of the term “indie”), it
should be at the top of your reading list. Buy a couple of copies, for that
matter – it’ll make a great Christmas gift for someone you love.


Go to the book’s official website,, for some
visual treats. You can also get info about an online chat with Mac, Laura and
John Cook, moderated by Michael Azerrad, that will take place next Monday, Oct.





[Photos by Fred Mills and Michael Traister,]




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