For the Gawker Book Club's second installment, we get literal: our own John Cook and Merge Records co-founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance are discussing Our Noise, a history of one of the labels that defined 90s indie rock.
In the 20 years since Mac and Laura started Merge Records in Laura's Chapel Hill, N.C., bedroom, they went from releasing 7-inches by the Fuckers to launching the Arcade Fire and Spoon to Billboard Top Ten debuts, all while shepherding their own band, Superchunk, through a legendary 20-year-career in indie rock. Our Noise is an oral history of the label — with chapters devoted to the Arcade Fire, Spoon, Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, the Magnetic Fields, and Matt Suggs — that traces Merge's rise from a DIY project devoted to documenting the Chapel Hill and Raleigh, N.C., music scenes, through the great Seattle bonanza that became grunge, to its current perch as one of the few bright spots in a foundering record business.
Below is a brief, edited excerpt from Chapter Four, which deals with Superchunk and Merge's navigation of the Year Punk Broke—this passage recounts the efforts of Atlantic Records' Danny Goldberg to sign the band. The introduction and first chapter can be found here, and the book's web site, featuring videos, quotes from the book, and a Merge timeline, can be found here. Mac, Laura, and I will be here in the comments at 1 p.m., to take questions from you and from Hugo Lindgren, the deputy editor of New York magazine and long-time Merge and Superchunk fan. Please chime in.
Excerpt from Chapter Four of Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records:
In early 1992, Superchunk opened for Hole at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles.
Jon Wurster (drummer for Superchunk): Courtney Love was nuts. Hole only played for a little while and then just stopped. Backstage, she went up to Laura and said, "I hear you're the hot new rock chick" or something.
Laura: I just ran away and went to the merch table. "I'm not going back there anymore! It's scary!" And Perry Farrell was backstage hanging out with Courtney. Yeah, that was a scene.
Mac: While we were in L.A., Danny Goldberg called us and asked for a meeting.
Andrew Webster was traveling with Superchunk as a roadie at the time.
Andrew Webster: It was impressive. It was everything you thought a record label was going to be. It was shiny, in a big building with a nice view over L.A. It was a very cultured environment. You felt like you were at a five-star Hilton somewhere.
Mac: At one point, the secretary buzzed in and goes, "Danny, Bonnie Raitt is on the phone." And Danny says, "Tell her I'm in a meeting with Superchunk." I was like, really? She really called? It would be normal if she called, I guess. But did the secretary really tell her he was in a meeting with Superchunk? Would Bonnie Raitt have any idea who Superchunk was?
Jim Wilbur (guitar player for Superchunk): It was comical. He said, "I'm gonna make you the center of my world! We don't even have to put the Atlantic logo on the records! I want to use you to look cool. All I want is to be associated with you, and not be a dick." He actually said that.
Jon Wurster: At one point, Mac had to go to the bathroom or something, and Danny left the room, too. Like, I'm not going to talk to you. It was kind of insulting.
Mac: No money was ever even mentioned. It was just implied that there was a lot of it. Part of the thing that people would always offer was, you can still have all that stuff on your own label too. Or maybe we could buy your label. Like it wasn't just the band that's interesting, but the label also. But none of these things ever got to the point of a deal memo even. It was more like, "Hey, anything's possible."
Andrew Webster: That same day, we also met with Danny's wife, Rosemary Carroll, who was a lawyer for a lot of bands. Which was funny, because her take on the whole industry play was totally different from his. Danny was quite anxious to get them all signed and tucked away. She was a little bit more reticent and a little more encouraging to forget about the money, because the money would go away.
Mac: The old Good Cop Bad Cop routine!
Jim Wilbur: She said, "You know, I love my husband. But I don't necessarily think that you should sign with him."
Andrew Webster: She told a story about fIREHOSE. They knew that Sony was trying to get rid of cassettes, and so they wrote into their contract specifically that Sony had to produce cassettes of their albums. None of this all-CD bullshit. And when the album came out, Sony pressed however many cassettes they needed to fulfill that contractual obligation. But they neglected to press vinyl, which no one thought would go the way of the dodo. It was sort of an object lesson—you can't control this process as much as you think you can. You can't outguess these jokers. You do the best you can, and take the things you can get. But don't expect you're going to outwit an industry designed to get their own best out of this.
Jim Wilbur: We left the meeting with Danny, and went and sat in the van. There was horrible flooding in California at the time, and there was this deluge of rain pouring down on us. And Mac said, "Well, there's pros and cons to be considered here."
Mac: Those guys are all real good talkers, so sometimes you start thinking, "Oh, maybe he's right. It could be really cool." We listened to what he was saying. We didn't just say, "Fuck you!" But if you think about it long enough, where are the examples of a band like us being happy, or successful, on a major label? Hüsker Dü signed to Warner Bros., and I thought the records got worse. And then they broke up. Maybe they would have made the same records on SST, but it's easy to look at it and say, That's what happens when you work with a major label. Same with the Replacements. I like Tim, but those Sire records got progressively worse. Is that because they were on a major label? I don't know. You can never really pin it on something, but it always seems to happen. If our records are going to sell less and less, I'd rather have them sell less and less in a creative situation—a cool situation—than a depressing one where it's just a job to do. There's all this money, but that's only appealing to people who don't know how it works.
Laura: Or for people who don't see a future.
Jon Wurster: I think it was obvious we weren't going to. I'm the only person in the band who's ever been on a major label. And I know how awful it can be. It can be really good if the stars are in your favor and everything kind of falls into place, and somehow you connect with one song that everyone else connects with. But that's two percent of the people who sign to major labels. I had already experienced the worst of it, and I didn't really want to do that again.
Jim Wilbur: We talked about it for twenty minutes, and said, "You know, I don't think it's worth it." And the meeting was done. It was like, Okay we're not signing to a major.