John Cook is the author of Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, a history of the beloved indie label just in time for its 20th anniversary, assembled with the help of label (and Superchunk) co-founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance. Interspersed with enough old photos and flyers for a decent scrapbook are the stories of the label's journey from month-to-month bedroom enterprise to stable business and the bands it birthed—Spoon, Lambchop, The Magnetic Fields, and more. On the heels the book's release, The A.V. Club talked to Cook—who's also a writer with Gawker—about his involvement with Merge, where the label is headed, and why Fleetwood Mac just might be the future.
The A.V. Club: When did you first get involved with Merge?
John Cook: I saw Superchunk in Madison, Wis., in 1994. I'd never heard of them and randomly went to a show. The next day I bought every record by them and fell in love. Through them I discovered Merge and figured out they were running this label, and I started listening. Then, I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune in 2003 and the Portastatic record Summer Of The Shark came out. I wrote a piece about how the music was dealing with tragedy, and how musicians past have dealt with tragedy and made a comparison to [Bruce Springsteen's] The Rising as post-9/11 albums. For that story I talked to Mac, and I guess he liked it because about a year later, when the next Portastatic record came out, he asked me to write the press bio for it.
AVC: One of the things the book gets into is the idea of Merge—and indie labels in general—as a counter-example to the failing, large record industry. Do you think indies are more viable?
JC: I think there are parallels between Merge or Saddle Creek or any of the indies that are doing well right now, and the way rock 'n' roll started: People were close enough to the ground and small and nimble and flexible enough to catch something that was happening, and then they all got snapped up in short order. I think and hope we're seeing a kind of de-evolution in the music business from something conglomorate-controlled—manufacturing and delivery and product stream—to something that's more curatorial.
I saw in an interview recently that Mac said 70 percent of their sales are digital on some releases, which is an astonishing number. What they're selling you is their judgment and their sensibility. That's Atlantic [Records] in the '70s. I think we're returning to that model on a smaller scale. I don't think Merge-size labels are going to bring us the next Taylor Swift, but I do think there's a real leveling of the playing field between the majors and the indies. The next Nirvana moment will not be these cool bedroom labels run by freaks that then kick the artists upstairs to the big boys. It doesn't work like that anymore. The Arcade Fire isn't Nirvana, but it probably would have been in 1991.
AVC: Merge is one of the most prominent indie labels around? How have you seen that change as the label has gotten older?
JC: In terms of visibility and reputation, they're the biggest indie label around, or the biggest American indie. They're kind of like the grandpa and grandma of indie-rock. Because I'm a little bit younger than them, this is all associated with my youth and my sense of myself as a still relatively young person. Going through this, seeing all these bands and people grow up and become 40 and talk about things that happened 20 years ago, you start to realize that indie-rock's grown up. At one point I was talking to Bill Mooney, who owns Tannis Root, a Raleigh company that does indie-rock T-shirts [for bands like] Superchunk and Sonic Youth. His company grew up side-by-side with Merge. They're very successful, and they were talking about now getting orders for an extra-large Pavement T-shirt and a toddler Pavement T-shirt. Mommy and son Pavement T-shirts. And I'm still thinking of Pavement as this youthful thing.
AVC: Where do you think indie-rock in general is going right now?
JC: In terms of sonic changes, it's not an original idea, but the best analysis—I wish I could remember where I read it—is that there are only two records. There's [The Beach Boys'] Pet Sounds, and there's [Fleetwood Mac's] Tusk. I think that's true right now. Right now, we're probably at a Tusk moment. But honestly, I basically say that because I don't listen to much music. One of the things that shocked me doing this is how much fucking time these people spend listening to music. I literally don't understand how they find the actual time to spend with these records. Especially because I've got a backlog of 750 records that I have never listened to. Right now, I'm listening to All Things Must Pass [by George Harrison], because I never really spent much time with that record. I don't have time to go listen to Grizzly Bear or LCD Soundsystem. There are Elvis Presley records I've never listened to. I've lost that acquisitive impulse to find a new band. I think it's an age thing, where I've found enough music I like. I'm trying to think of the last band I'd never listened to before that I became a huge fan of. [Long pause.] Rilo Kiley, in 2003 or whatever. The other thing is, my acquisition of bands was always about going to a show, and I don't go to shows anymore for the same reason: I'm getting old, I don't have time anymore, I have a kid and all that stuff.