Why I covered Superchunk’s Cool for our Ottawa tribute to Merge’s 25th

Merge 25 Ottawa tribute is a compilation put together by a bunch of friends and Merge Records enthusiasts from Canada’s capital to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the iconic label. Thanks to Ben Wilson for the great idea and for lovingly pulling it all together. I chose Superchunk’s Cool because it was the first Merge song I ever heard. Here’s my personal story:

Superchunk Cool 7
My Cool 7″ purchased one cold winter night

It was the winter of ’91 or ’92. I remember it was winter because I chose to spend my evening playing hockey. I was living in Montreal attending Concordia University and hockey seemed pretty much like the only thing to do on a cold Tuesday night.

Like me, my pal Colin was living at the university residence and approached me about going downtown to Les Foufounes to see a new band he read about called Superchunk.

I’ll be honest, it took some convincing. But I had recently turned down seeing pre-Nevermind Nirvana at the same venue, so you might say I was a bit skittish about repeating that life-regretting move. In those days, the cover at Foufs on Tuesdays was a dollar and they affectionately called it ‘Loonie Tuesdays’. So for a starving student, the price was right for the gamble. More on that later.

I put down my hockey stick and hockey bag and followed Colin downtown, into that dark, Montreal winter evening.

(Oh! I should remind you and provide some context here: Remember, there was no internet in those days. No ‘Let’s stream some Superchunk on YouTube before the show’. These decisions were truly a leap of faith based on word of mouth from someone who read a magazine article or heard a track on a local college station. It’s the way we rolled back then, Dear Reader. But of course if we could have, Superchunk would’ve looked and sounded like this:)

Ah, those life changing shows

What followed was nothing short of what you could call an epiphany. Superchunk were touring ‘No Pocky‘ and I watched their entire set with my mouth agape. Their pogoing energy, their volume, their corduroys, their clever catchy songs all hooked me almost immediately. And oh, that feedback. It was an elixir for my young senses.

Not only did Superchunk strike a chord that would last a lifetime that night, they injected a sort of confidence in me because they were doing exactly what I believed my own young band was trying to do at the time. It was a justification of sorts and my excitement and enthusiasm for making music was taken to a brand new high.

I bought two records that night. No Pocky For Kitty and the 45 of Cool b/w Fishing. When I got back to residence I put on the 7″ first (I had a turntable in my dorm room, natch!). I was in awe. What I saw that evening translated SO well to vinyl. I practically wore out that record in the days, weeks, months and years to come. I officially became Superchunk obsessed and pined to know more…and to see them perform again.

No pocky signatures!
No Pocky Mac!
I got Laura, Jim and Mac to sign No Pocky. Nerd, I know.

Discovering Merge the label

In those pre-internet days it was comparatively difficult to connect with people and it was even harder to research your favourite bands. Over time I learned about Merge, the label that Mac and Laura ran together to primarily release their own records. As The Stand GT (the aforementioned young band) began to tour in earnest, we started to hear more about the label and the band and also began to realize just how much people admired this e’merging’ imprint.

(I remember meeting a band from Halifax called Merge who were worried about the conflict of their chosen name. They swore they were in touch with Laura who gave them permission to keep using it. How cool! They said she was really nice and even offered to release a 7″ for them! Wow, was I envious! Or gullible. Not sure which applies in this case.)

On The Mouth

When Superchunk came back to Montreal for the On The Mouth tour, I approached Laura and gave her The Stand GT’s ‘Blur Your Cool’ cassette (*a-hem* a record that I think stands up to this day). Nothing ever came of that, though soon after I did start a nice little collection of official Merge rejection postcards. Despite them being actual ‘rejections’ it felt like the Merge folks always took the time to acknowledge our recordings. And for a young band with an artist finding his way, that meant an awful lot to me and I wore those acknowledgements as a badge of honour.

postcards from Merge
Kind (though form letter) words from Merge HQ

Merge, of course, continued to grow and release amazing records across a wide spectrum of genres. My early faves were singles from the John Reis camp like Rocket From the Crypt’s Pigeon Eater and Drive Like Jehu’s Bullet Train to Vegas. It wasn’t all loud rock though and gorgeous records from the likes of Richard Buckner, Lambchop, M. Ward and the Radar Brothers began to appear as well.

A peek behind the curtain

In 2004 some friends and I attended the 15th anniversary party the label put together down in North Carolina. The trip was an incredible peek into the world in which Merge existed and was operating. Not only did we get to see all of our fave artists perform in intimate venues like the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, we got a first hand glimpse at the small and vibrant community that was Merge.

What struck me then and has stuck with me was that very real sense of community we all strive for. It also made me realize community starts at home. Merge wasn’t doing anything different than any of my friends with local labels were doing. It was all DIY and all about good people, shared experiences and of course, great music.

merge 15 pass
My prized Merge 15 pass

Indie rock in the global village

Since then, the world has gotten even smaller. We now have friends from Ottawa who releases records on Merge. The label has become a global music force without ever ‘selling out’ and staying as true to their roots and vision as possible. They continue to be a huge inspiration for many independent artists and I feel lucky to have been able to follow their example for many years during my own winding indie music career.

My cover of Cool is a tribute of sorts to Mac, Laura, Jon and Jim. I enjoyed reworking it into something I thought would be an interesting take on such a raucous classic. My pals Kaiser and Morgan did a great job on the vocal accompaniment and I think the result sits quite nicely along my Ottawa pals and their own heartfelt tributes.

Never have I felt such a heavy weight while putting together a cover song, though. It was powerful to pause and acknowledge the influence, the passage of time, the nostalgia and the renewed realization of what this music has meant to me.

Plus, it was damn fun:

Finally, a word to my pal, longtime collaborator and brother Bandeeto Colin:

I guess you were on to something that night when you made me put down my hockey bag and follow you downtown Montreal and onto a journey that continues today.

I thank you for that, pal. The ‘Superchunk for a buck’ story never gets old.

Superchunk in Spin
Spin (or was it Alternative Press?!) article that told Colin to tell me to ‘follow the light……….’

UPDATE: After writing this post I came across a wonderful piece by Laura Snapes written for NME. It’s a terrific read and I feel really synchs nicely with my thoughts above. Cheers!

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