Back when I had customized earplugs, was music editor at the Patriot Ledger, and saw bands almost nightly at the Middle East in Cambridge, Mass., I had three favorite record labels: Touch and Go, Matador, and Merge. Touch and Go is gone as of this year, but Matador and Merge live on, bless their indie hearts.
Over the years, the music scene became less important to me. Though I can’t keep up with much from afar, I do still like to watch. So how lucky am I that I moved to Mergeville six years ago, and could partake of some of its 20th anniversary merriment.
What a treat all indie music lovers in North Carolina are enjoying as our hometown heroes Merge Records celebrates its two decades (!) and the release of the book “Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small.” If you or anyone you know cares about music, bands, touring, recording, this book is a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at that crazy life.
Because the label is based in downtown Durham (after moving from nearby Chapel Hill), founders and principles Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance have been gracing our area with fantastic readings/performances at local bookstores. Mac and Laura started as bandmates in Superchunk, and continued that while starting Merge in Laura’s bedroom. They’re both married (to others) and have children, so they don’t live the rock-and-roll life but are still very much involved in recording all sorts of indie bands.
Merge’s biggest names are Arcade Fire, Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Spoon, and their own Superchunk, but they’ve hand their hands in so much great music in the past two decades. During the reading we attended, at our wonderful Regulator Bookshop, they performed a bit and read passages from the book. While they played a couple Superchunk songs, acoustically, Mac also graciously covered pieces from two Merge artists, Matt Suggs and Lambchop, and read book passages about both. All “book readings” should be this lively! Oh, yeah, and there was free beer, too. Good beer.
I should mention that “Our Noise” was written by John Cook, a reporter for Gawker, and published by our other local hero, Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill. The 290-page book includes narrative, interviews with Merge artists and Mac and Laura, and fun photos of musicians, shows, and Merge ephemera. It’s a great read for anyone caring about American rock music from the ground up and a record label that hasn’t sold itself, or its artists, out. Here’s to another two decades!