John Cook, Mac McCaughan, Laura Ballance: Our Noise – the Story of Merge Records

Three quick endorsements of Our Noise:

  • I read every word within a 24-hour span
  • I’ve already purchased some Merge recordings I hadn’t previously heard
  • The palpable enthusiasm of Ryan Adam’s (slightly incoherent) intro almost makes me want to hear what he’s been up to lately

The structure of Our Noise is pretty genius: there’s a little bit of connective text to provide context and occasional fact-correction, but mostly the story is told in interview snippets. Mac and Laura’s voices are augmented by those of other Merge recording artists, associates (like Touch & Go’s Cory Rusk), friends, and peers. Alternating chapters switch between advancing the overall Merge (and Superchunk) timeline and highlighting some of Merge’s more prominent bands, like Spoon, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The Arcade Fire. Sometimes this is slightly confusing, as when the money The Magnetic Field’s Sixty-Nine Love Songs eventually makes discussed much earlier than its place in the overall chronology. It perhaps shortchanges the bands not selected for the individual chapter profiles, with Archers of Loaf arguably the most significant. But it effectively breaks up the potential monotony of “then we did another tour. then we put out some more records,” and enlivens the book by letting different voices ascend and recede in prominence.

Our Noise is richly illustrated, not only with photos of band members on- and off-stage, but also with flyers, album art, set lists and correspondence, and no less than 4 pictures of “The Magnetic Fields” misspelled in various ways on marquees and such.

Quibbles: A complete list of Merge releases through April 2009 is the sole appendix. It’s handy, but a short bio of each interviewee would have been very useful, as would an index. (Interviewees are often described in a parenthetical note the first time they appear: “Aaron Stauffer (Seaweed).” But if you forget which band Stauffer was in and he has another comment a few chapters later, it can take some flipping around to find the first reference.) I noticed a handful of copy-editing errors, but none that were confusing and not enough to detract from my enjoyment.

Our Noise is much more narrowly focused than Azerrad’s Our Band Could be Your Life, Option magazine’s (terribly titled) We Rock So You Don’t Have To or Punk Planet‘s We Owe You Nothing (what is it with the third-person plural, anyway?). Andersen and Jenkin’s Dance of Days is largely, but not entirely the story of DisChord, Minor Threat and Fugazi; it’s also the story of Positive Force. So perhaps it’s not fair to compare Our Noise to those books, but I think it may be the most satisfying of them to read cover-to-cover uninterrupted. It makes me want to stand up and cheer. And read a similarly structured book about DisChord, Simple Machines, SST, or TeenBeat, for a start. And go back in time and get serious about playing music much earlier.

needs more demons? nuh-uh.

Published by therealsummervillain

likes: equality, making things easier to use, biking, jangle, distortion, monogamy dislikes: bigotry, policies that jeopardize people, lack of transparency

2 thoughts on “John Cook, Mac McCaughan, Laura Ballance: Our Noise – the Story of Merge Records

  1. I keep thinking of things I forgot to mention. Like: many of the individual band’s stories are funny (Stephin Merritt’s wit is a dangerous weapon) and/or poignant, and there are a few journalistic coups: Spoon re-started their career with the newsworthy vilification of their former A&R man on the “The Agony of Laffitte” single; Our Noise has a little bit of Ron Lafitte’s take on the debacle.

    Also the book makes a compelling case that despite some records with big sales numbers (especially The Arcade Fire), Merge is much closer kin to DIY/shoestring-budget labels than major-distributed labels like Sub-Pop and Matador. The parallels to DisChord are particularly striking, with Mac playing Ian (enthusiastic, expansive) and Laura as Jeff Nelson (a little more pragmatic and cautious about releases that might not meet expectations of the label).


  2. It’ a good book and Merge has put out some great music. I thought the book was put together quite well, a good read. And I loved Ryan Adams’ intro, didn’t think it was incoherent at all.


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