Superchunk’s Laura Ballance In 1998: ‘The Music Industry Is Nuts Right Now’
With the music-business climate perhaps more rotten than ever, there’s a growing tendency to romanticize the past. But it’s easy to forget the challenges faced by indie-rock bands and labels prior to the dawn of the Internet. Or, in the case of Merge Records, prior to the dawn of the Arcade Fire.
Merge co-founder Laura Ballance – also the career-long bass player for Superchunk – detailed some of those struggles in an conversation she shared with me way back in early 1998. From nine-hour-plus car rides to less-than-packed audiences, the band – which was arguably in its heyday – wasn’t finding life any easier as it toured behind 1997’s Indoor Living.
On the day before her 30th birthday, the ever-candid Ballance revealed some of her grievances. She also talked about her fascination with alligators, her fear that her nipples would show during the band’s performance on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” and her hatred of Los Angeles.
With Superchunk returning to late-night TV for the first time in 16 years on Monday (“Late Night With Jimmy Fallon”), and with the 21-year-old band hitting the road in two days (first show: Durham, North Carolina), here’s a look back at the long-out-of-print interview. The piece has been retooled a bit and is now finally online.
(For an interview conducted three years later – with Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan – check out “Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan And Laura Ballance Open Up About Shutting Up, Running Merge And More“)
When I asked Laura Ballance whether being the original bassist of Superchunk and the co-founder of Merge Records makes her feel like a Rock Star, she responded, “No, I don’t. Not at all.”
Her remark came as no surprise. After all, despite her indie repute, she doesn’t seem like a rock star at all.
February 21, 1998
Outside a movie theater in Iowa City, Ms. Ballance and I talk about normal things. The weather has improved significantly, hasn’t it? A “Titanic” crowd exits the theater, and we watch the blockbuster’s most recent witnesses file out.
“People don’t exactly look too teary-eyed,” Ballance says. I respond with a startling statistic that may explain why the film didn’t seem to jerk too many: 75 percent of current “Titantic” viewers have already seen the movie.
Has Ballance? Of course she has; after all, she’s a normal person, right? I ask her what she thought about it. She gives the standard response: “I loved it.”
“It’s really weird that it’s this warm,” Ballance notes, changing the subject. “I was expecting to pull out the long underwear on this trip.”
Superchunk have only been on the road for two weeks, but they’re already exhausted, Ballance admits. Earlier in the afternoon, the bandmembers were practically catatonic as they hauled their equipment into Gabe’s, where they play tonight (with Neutral Milk Hotel opening).
But after a nine-hour road trip, who can blame them? Being in a band for almost a decade ain’t easy, especially when you’re still taking long car trips instead of flights.
“We’ve graduated to having a separate truck from the equipment, though, which is good,” she says. “There’s more room in the van for all our junk.”
She adds optimistically that, despite the tiring trek, “It’s fun to drive.”
Though the band has etched itself forever into the minds of most indie-rock fans – they’ve done Lollapalooza and appeared on Conan O’Brien – it’s still tough. Luckily, only a week and a half remain on the tour. It began in their hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and will progress elsewhere after tonight. Hopefully, Ballance and the others will make it through with some energy to spare.
Tonight’s performance will have particular sentimental value for Ballance. At midnight, the bassist – the youngest member of the band – will turn 30.
“30?” I ask, adjusting my vision.
Ballance responds: “I don’t feel that old. I guess your perspective changes when you turn 30. I can’t look at people anymore and tell how old they are. I feel like someone who looks like me could be in college. I still get carded all the time. Actually, it’s been like eight years since this has happened, but my mother [still] got carded. I think I’ll get carded for a while.”
Describing Superchunk’s most recent tour, Ballance seems only mildly satisfied. “I’ve been a little bit disappointed with attendance. I think generally, the music industry is nuts right now. There’s too many bands, there’s too many record labels. I think people are tired of going to shows. I think there’s been a general loss of innocence. People have gotten kind of jaded.”
Elaborating, Ballance recounts: “Some kid called me a ‘fucking rock star’ the other night. He climbed up on the stage while we were playing and was standing right by my amp; he was in my way. I said, ‘Back up, get off the stage,’ and he took offense that I wasn’t willing to share the space with him.”
That incident was unusual, as the ever-frank Ballance admits that Superchunk shows tend to be rather “uneventful, in general.” That’s an interesting revelation for a band that is typically dubbed unruly or anxious. Says Ballance: “I think it’s just ’cause we’re such normal, low-key people. We really don’t get into situations where weird things happen.”
Ballance details one recent exception: “The first part of the tour was in Florida, and we stopped at this place called Gatorama. Saw some alligators. There’s something like 300 alligators there. It’s interesting to me how sedentary they are. They don’t look like they would ever do anything. They don’t look scary when they’re sitting there, really. They just look like rocks. And their mouths are really weird. One of them opened up its mouth like it was yawning or something, and its teeth looked like dog’s teeth. I thought they’d be smaller and more pointy, but they’re more like big dog’s teeth or a cat’s teeth or whatever. I didn’t expect that from a reptile.”
That adventure in Florida was hardly Superchunk’s most exotic. They’ve played Japan, Norway, the Czech Republic and Majorca, “which is an island off the coast of Spain,” she says. “These people flew us over to do just one show, and we hung out on the beaches for four days.”
In August, the band heads to Brazil with Shellac; they’ve worked with Steve Albini in the past. Even though Superchunk have a stronger reputation in the U.S. than Shellac do, “I think that we should open, because Shellac is bigger than us down there,” Ballance says.
She seems to enjoy opening for other bands, even if Superchunk rarely do so anymore. “The pressure’s not all on you. If the show fails, it’s not your fault.”
That said, Ballance isn’t too crazy about being on bills with too many other bands. “Generally, I don’t like doing festivals too much,” she reveals. “It’s just such a madhouse. [But] we did [Lollapalooza] for a couple of weeks the year that Sonic Youth and Hole were co-headlining , and it was pretty fun. It was a daytime-rock-show kinda thing. [We were] stuck there from 10 in the morning until 10 at night. I’ve never been so tan in my life.”
Superchunk’s appearance on Conan was equally memorable for Ballance. “It was scary. I was terrified. I was shaking. And it’s so cold in the studios – it’s like 50 degrees or something. It’s probably not actually 50, but you can see your breath when you’re not under the light. We had to stand there and wait 10 minutes before they were ready. I was just like, ‘Oh, God, I’m going to have visible nipples … it’s gonna suck.
“What always happens with those things is your friends come, and they yell for you when you come out. Whatever.”
On this tour, Superchunk are playing “five or six songs from the new record, and then seven or eight older songs,” according to Ballance. “I think we tend to assume that people are familiar with our whole body of work, so when we do the [older] songs, we think that everybody will know them. [But] they might not.”
The new record in question is called Indoor Living. Ballance states that all Superchunk albums “are different. If you put [Indoor Living] next to [1995’s] Here’s Where the Strings Come In, it’s not radically different. But if you put it next to [1991’s] No Pocky for Kitty, it’s really different.”
Living has brought a new challenge for the band: duplicating electronic sounds in concert. Though singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan plays the synthesizers featured on the album, their guitar tech is operating them on tour. “Mac needs to be playing the guitar,” Ballance insists.
She chuckles with amusement when I point out an apparent paradox with Indoor Living: Despite its title, the album artwork features photos that depict outdoor scenes. “Wow, I didn’t notice that,” she says, attributing it to a coincidence. “We don’t take pictures inside,” she says, adding that they used “cheap cameras.” “Most of those pictures are from our last couple of years of touring.”
We move on to Merge and its roster. She calls Verbena one of the label’s anchors and recommends their 1996 EP, Pilot Park. She isn’t too crazy about the recent turn they’ve taken, though. “They used to be kinda cute and poppy. And then, when they made [the 1997 album] Souls for Sale, for some reason they decided they wanted to be rawk [she growls]: Southern, heavy, weird.”
Ballance attributes Verbena’s reputation to their recent signing with Capitol. “They made their intentions clear to begin with,” she remarks cryptically.
As for other artists on the Merge roster, Ballance identifies Seaweed as the newest addition. “They haven’t put out a record in three years, so I think a lot of people think that they’ve broken up. They’re friends of ours from way back.
“I don’t know if I’d like them as a band if I wasn’t friends with them,” she says candidly – and then quickly retracts her claim. “But I love them. I love that band. I was just trying to think, if I didn’t know them personally, what I’d think.”
Another new band Merge boasts are the Rock*a*Teens, who have a new album “coming out in March or April. They’re a band from Atlanta. They’re kinda garage-y. The guy who sings [Chris Lopez] sounds like Nick Cave sometimes. But it’s more energetic than anything Nick Cave has done in a long time.”
As we discuss a band that isn’t on the Merge roster – Sebadoh – Ballance gulps when I tell her about some recent Lou Barlow news that has shaken the indie-rock world. “I didn’t know he moved to L.A.,” she says. “Yikes. That’s scary.”
Ballance doesn’t dream of leaving Chapel Hill, which is also where Merge is based. She says she’s never had the urge to pack up and leave, as Barlow did on very short notice. “Especially not to L.A.,” she quips. “I can’t imagine [living there]. I hate L.A.”
This revelation comes as no surprise. Though Ballance’s flashy blue pocketbook separates herself from the boring folk milling around Iowa City, all in all, her appearance is controlled and downplayed.
As we wrap up the interview, her tour pal Claire arrives with a bag of goodies.
“What did you get?” Laura asks.
“Secret stuff,” replies Claire, who teasingly pokes at the bag.
After a few minutes of silence, she says, “Here’s part of your birthday present,” and hands Ballance a small bottle of generic body oil she found at the nearby Osco.
Ballance lets out the same tamed laugh she has used over the course of our conversation.
“She turns 30 tomorrow,” Claire mentions to me. I tell her I know.
Claire looks back at Laura, and the two of them crack grins.
Looking into the bag of bargain-item “finds,” Claire asks Laura, “Do you want the rest of your birthday presents now?”
Midnight is only a few hours away.
Originally published in The Creature in early 1998.
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