Laura Ballance: Merge Records CEO, Superchunk Bassist and #1 Badass
Laura Ballance and I both used the word “badass” during our interview—”I say that a lot,” she mentioned, right before letting out her contagious burst of a laugh.
In my opinion, Ballance encompasses the true meaning of the word. In the summer of 1989, despite feeling terrified, she picked up a bass and with her then-boyfriend, Mac McCaughan, formed the seminal ‘90s indie rock band Superchunk. Ballance and McCaughan went on to start Merge Records that same summer, completely unaware of how the DIY project would blossom into one the most respected independent labels of the last 26 years, providing a home for acts like The Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Wild Flag, and more recently, Waxahatchee. When Ballance and McCaughan split up, she didn’t back down from the band or label in defiance of those who thought she should, and also because she had worked too hard for it.
In 2013, Ballance announced that she would no longer be touring with Superchunk due to hyperacusis, a hearing condition of oversensitivity to certain frequency and volume ranges of sound, but she continues to hold down the fort at Merge Records. When we spoke on the phone from her office in Durham, North Carolina, we talked about touring in the ‘90s, running a record label, and the power of Superchunk fans.
You’ve mentioned that early on you hadn’t considered playing music, but Mac encouraged you to play despite feeling nervous. What was it like the first time you played bass live?
It was terrifying! I was still in college and I was trying to fit in this other life in which we ran a record label and a band and I had a job. The periphery of my vision would go black and I could just see down the middle. I’d feel this weird tingling sensation in my body, and I couldn’t see, I could barely breathe [laughs].
Do you remember when playing the bass felt easier for you?
It started to get better when we [Superchunk] did our first tour. We called it the “Wet Behind the Ears” tour because we were all totally kids, and newbies, and didn’t know what we were doing. It was us, Seaweed, and Geek. We were all rooting for each other, which made it less scary. Aaron Stauffer from Seaweed would give me pep talks. “I want you to at least put your foot on the monitor or I’m going to come up there and knock you over!” He was joking, obviously, but it made me think, “I’m not here to deliver a perfect performance. I’m here to have fun.” I still feel like my focus is more about the performance than delivering a musically perfect product, and having fun and jumping around, or delivering something emotional.
You’ve mentioned that early on in Superchunk you played with Hole, and Courtney Love came up to you backstage and called you the “hot new chick.” That got me thinking about what the interactions between women musicians were like back then. Did you feel like it was competitive?
Courtney, by nature, is a competitive person. At that time, she looked at other women as competition rather than cohorts. That could also be me and how I felt insecure and threatened by her. Coming up and having these women that I admired suddenly playing at the same clubs or shows as me… I felt like, “What am I doing here? This is crazy! We’re going to play with Sonic Youth?” [Laughs] For the most part it felt like other women were supportive and happy to see more women playing in bands. Like Versus! Oh my god, Fontaine Toups! Such a badass, and greatest vocalist and bass player. We actually played a lot of shows with Versus and it was very comfortable and easy. Maybe because they started at the same time as us, rather than Kim Gordon. It felt harder to talk to people like that.
Besides Kim Gordon, were there other musicians you looked up to?
Kim Deal, Exene Cervenka, and Julie Cafritz from Pussy Galore were huge inspirations. I was really drawn to these ladies who you wouldn’t want to get in a fight with in an alley. Not that I could ever fight anybody [laughs], but they are tough and I’m sure they don’t whine about anything! One time we played a show with—oh crud—that band that was really popular in the early ‘90s with Billy Corgan. Oh shit…what were they called?
Yes! Smashing Pumpkins. It was at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. It was a pain in the ass playing at that club. You had to walk through the room you were going to play in, through a restaurant, and move your gear into a gross basement. D’arcy [Wretzky, of Smashing Pumpkins] complained about carrying the amp down the stairs, and I remember thinking, “God, how dare she complain! She’s not tough!” [Laughs]
Did you feel like if you complained, it would feed into this idea of you being inferior to men?
Yes. I felt like I had to be stronger than any man. They could whine, but I wasn’t going to whine.
In Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records someone mentions that they figured “the bass player chick would quit” when you and Mac broke up. With unsupportive sentiments like that, what made you stay?
It felt like Merge and Superchunk were bigger than the relationship. It was valuable to me and had become a part of my identity. Mac and I agreed that we should try, and I’m glad we did. It was unpleasant, not just for us but for Jim and Jon who had to put up with occasional bickering or tears. It’s really interesting to think about what would have happened if I had stepped away. My role in the band was not only bass player, but also den mother, accountant, bookkeeper, tour manager, and merch seller. There were big shoes to fill if I left, and I don’t know that they could have done it.
Foolish was written and released shortly after the breakup. You painted a portrait of yourself for the cover, and I always thought that was so badass since Mac wrote that album—and correct me if I’m wrong—about you and the relationship.
I felt like it was completely about me, and it was rough. It was hard to do that tour. There were times where I would be crying while I was playing and I’d try to keep my hair in front of my face so no one would see me.
That’s really intense.
It really was, but it was also cathartic. While I was crying I was jumping up and down, and mad [laughs].
Did it feel powerful to make the cover a painting of yourself?
I guess so. Obviously, it was pretty deliberate. Frida Kahlo inspired me—taking yourself as your muse and expressing something through your own space and surroundings.
When did you realize that Merge would be a bigger label than expected?
It was a gradual realization, really. Mac and I worked at it for the first 10 years without paying ourselves a dime. Once I realized we could pay ourselves, it felt more solid. For a long time, Superchunk was the biggest band on Merge and really helped build it, but also made it feel like less of a serious label since it was our band. Once 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields became a sensation, it felt more real and legitimate.
What I’ve always liked about Merge is how consistent and relevant it’s always been, even though the breadth of bands signed has always been so diverse. I’m wondering what you look for in a band, aside from music, that makes you want to sign them.
We are definitely attracted to people who are self-sufficient, resourceful, and think about growing like we did—slowly and patiently. You should be in a band because you’re driven to make music or to perform music, and you get to hang out with your friends and your band and have a good time.
We’ve never stuck to one genre. Our musical taste is diverse, as I think most people’s is. We work with bands that we think sound good, and hopefully bands that we can be friends with. That’s a really important part to me, but as the label gets bigger, it’s much harder for me to feel connected with every band like I used to. Plus, being in a band is such a busy thing. I think if you feel like your band is your career, it’s harder to be friends with your label. I hope something that we provide is a good platform for the record, but also a better sense of sympathy than some records labels. We’ve done it. We know it’s hard and demanding and you have to be tough…and sometimes you don’t feel tough.
That’s what’s so great about Merge—you and Mac are aware of how amazing being in a band can be, but also how draining and hard it is, too. You’ve lived this. You’re not some unsympathetic record executives.
There are the things that make you feel kind of gross, you know? There were plenty of shows where I didn’t feel like playing but I still had to perform. It’s a strange construct to think about people getting up on stage and people paying to watch them. People don’t feel like they can do it themselves, they feel like they have to listen to it and there’s a distance that is sort of sad.
Now that you’ve stopped touring with Superchunk due to your hyperacusis, how are you feeling about that loss? Have you gone to see them play without you?
I saw them one time. I volunteered to bartend while they were playing, so I had a distraction. I was afraid it would make me cry and I would feel left behind. But…it was totally fine. I should have [quit] 10 years earlier than I did, so I was more emotionally prepared for it than I realized. Part of what kept me from quitting was that I knew so many people loved Superchunk, and I didn’t want to take it away from them. People become really attached to certain things about your band, or records, or seeing you play. It’s so beautiful and so sweet. Superchunk, or any band, doesn’t belong to just the people in the band—it belongs to the fans, too. When you’re playing, if they’re into it, they’re adding something to the show. They’re feeding you when you’re playing. They’re a part of it.