It is hard to imagine someone lovingly crafting an oral history of EMI or Capitol Records, or any major label, for that matter. But with Merge Records it makes perfect sense. The label is staunchly independent, run by two people from an actual band, and ihas released some of the most beloved indie rock albums of the last 15 years. Major labels are often the target of derision, but Merge has long been a target of devotion.
Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small, written by Gawker’s John Cook with help from label founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance, aims to provide the definitive Merge story through extensive interviews with the bands and people involved. For the most part, it more than succeeds, providing an all-telling story of the label complete with band profiles, uncomfortable confessions and a smattering of pictures.
Our Noise, out on Sept. 15 on Algonquin Books, starts at the beginning, as in when young McCaughan started a band called Chunk (later changed to Superchunk) with his girlfriend Ballance and two friends during the summers between going to school in New York. When it became clear that no label would be interested in releasing Superchunk’s albums, McCaughan and Ballance decided to start their own label to release their records. The result was Merge. After a few years of releasing albums by their friends (like Polvo) and putting their own band’s full-lengths out on Matador, McCaughan and Ballance (and Superchunk) left Matador and got serious about Merge, taking on projects they loved while making sure the bands got paid fairly. Eventually, it morphed into the powerhouse of cool cachet it is today.
Our Noise’s greatest strength is how forthcoming all the bands are with the details of their careers and how they came to Merge (minus Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, of course, who declined to be interviewed for the section on his band). We find out how close Arcade Fire were to releasing their albums on Alien8 (very close), how Spoon ended up on Merge after getting dicked around by Elektra (it sucked), how much the pressure of creating a follow-up to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has affected Mangum (a lot), and how Merge was the only label crazy enough to release Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs (everyone was sure they would fail, but it was their first big hit album — they couldn’t keep it in stores for a good while).
Ballance and McCaughan are especially forthcoming, detailing how they do business in Merge (Ballance handles the nuts and bolts, McCaughan the crazy ideas) and how Superchunk has been on the verge of breaking up multiple times. (Their mid-’90s breakup could have led to a splintering of the band and the label.) No detail is spared — Ballance’s anger at McCaughan’s controlling, McCaughan’s jealousy, the messy nature of the later tours and business meetings. Which isn’t that surprising, I suppose, considering they aired their grievances with each other on their 1994 album, Foolish.
Our Noise falters a bit in its later chapters, when it essentially serves as a PSA about how great it is to be on Merge as opposed to how shitty it is being on a major label (who we’re told will invariably screw you over). Major labels have gotten a lot of things wrong, and Merge is one of the best labels going right now, but it feels tacked on for a chapter to hammer in that point when it is made in more salient (and less gloating) ways earlier in the book (especially with the story of Spoon).
However, those concerns don’t prevent Our Noise from being a highly enjoyable read that provides the inner workings of one of the most venerated labels in music today. Our Noise is an essential item for the library of anyone who cares about indie rock.