Superchunk's Laura Ballance on Merge, Bass, and Recording the New Record in the Face of Mounting Hearing Loss

For many of us of a certain age, Superchunk is a constant. Throughout the years and as our tastes have changed, the four-piece from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has always just been here. Over time, their solid records and ferocious live shows became a foundational part of our musical vocabulary—part of the indie rock ABCs that keep so many of us spending time in the practice room or the local dive venue, even as we’ve had to negotiate the demands of a 9-to-5 and parenting.

From their punk beginnings—collected on the excellent Tossing Seeds compilation—through the emotionally raw mid-20s breakup album Foolish, to the more sedate and expansive sounds of later records like Here’s To Shutting Up, Superchunk has grown up with us. Across every album, the band has maintained its classic pop hooks, loud guitars, independent spirit, and gently self-mocking sense of humor. Who else could get away with calling records Here’s Where The Strings Come In or I Hate Music?

Superchunk - What A Time To Be Alive

If Superchunk has been a constant in many of our musical lives, bassist Laura Ballance has been the band’s own anchoring foundation for more than 30 years. Her driving, distorted, melodic bass parts and tasteful playing have been a key element to the band’s sound since day one. And for so many shows, there she was—stage right, bouncing up and down through the entirety of their set, hammering away at her red Precision with seemingly indefatigable enthusiasm.

In the new millennium, a new Superchunk album feels like catching up for a beer with an old friend. You don’t get to see them as much as you’d like to, but whenever you do, you easily slide back into things because of that established familiarity. The band’s latest release, What A Time To Be Alive, does nothing to change this.

We had a chance to catch up with Laura to talk about her playing, her gear, and running a record label some three decades after Superchunk began.

I’ve read that you picked up the bass because Mac (McCaughan, Superchunk guitarist/vocalist) was starting a band and wanted you to play. What gear did you start out with?

I started out playing a black short-scale Fender Musicmaster bass through a Boss distortion pedal and a Crate CR-1 that I borrowed from Mac. I got the short-scale because I was convinced by someone that it would be easier to learn on.

I did not feel great about it, though. I felt like it was wimpy to play a short-scale, so I got rid of it as soon as I could get a regular scale. Mac bought it from me. I wish I still had it! I think I had the gender equivalent of a Napoleon Complex.

Superchunk - "Erasure"

Was it particularly intimidating to walk into a guitar store [as a female musician] at that time, or was there the sense—especially given the DIY approach of the music scene you were part of at the time—that everyone else was doing it, so you could too?

It was totally intimidating. I had no idea about anything. I had to trust the opinions of the people around me. All of the basses felt hard to play. I felt really embarrassed about diving into this thing that I knew nothing about.

I think, particularly because I am a woman, I felt like I had to try extra hard to know what I was talking about and doing, even though I didn’t. But, in general, I think that people were pretty supportive.

Who were the kind of people—bassists, especially—that you were listening to when you started playing? Who, if anyone, do you listen to still for inspiration?

Around when I started playing, I was probably listening to a lot of grunge and grunge inspirations, like Pussy Galore, Mudhoney, The Fluid, and Sonic Youth. I was also heavily into the Stooges, T. Rex, Adam and The Ants (kind of on the down-low, because they did not seem cool at the time), The Damned, The Cure, and New Order. Kim Gordon and Julie Cafritz were definitely idols of mine at that time. They seemed strong and loud, and that’s what I wanted to be.

I still would listen to any of those [players and bands] for bass inspiration, but also Flin Flon, Unrest, Yo La Tengo—really, I could go on forever.

Was there any particular reason you settled on the ’79 Precision Bass you’re most known for playing? I imagine a ‘70s Precision would have been heavy, rough on the shoulder, and hard to cram into a van.

1979 Fender Precision Bass

My ’79 Precision Bass is actually remarkably light for one of those. It’s the lightest P Bass I have ever lifted. I have no idea if the body is original. It has a strange candy apple kind of finish, which I imagine is not standard. This could be a sign that someone switched the body out. I’m really not a huge gear head still, so I don’t know how to tell.

I feel like it belonged to someone in a reggae band before me—I think that’s what the guy at the store where I got it said. Due to its relative lightness, I’m super committed to that bass. I have even gone so far as to say that if anything ever happens to it, I would quit playing. Turns out, something happened to my ears first, so now I hardly play anyway.

The bass rig fans most associate with you is the Acoustic 370 head and the Ampeg 2x15 cabinet. Were there any specific reasons that you settled on that combination?

I wound up with this rig because they were good-sounding things that I happened to stumble upon. I was using a Marshall head that someone loaned to me. Ugh, I did not like the way that thing sounded. It was so digital and transistor-y.

But I bought the Ampeg 2x15 cabinet from a guy who I worked at Kinkos with. I wish I knew more about the history of that thing, I have no idea how old it is. It’s built like a tank. I’ve had it for almost 30 years. It’s beat all to hell, but it’s not about to fall apart. It has no wheels, which was great in terms of fitting it into the van and not taking up a lot of extra space.

But because we would slide it in and out of the van on its side, all of the vinyl eventually peeled off that side and splinters started coming off of it. This enables you to see the excellent dovetail joints that have kept it solid. They don’t build them like that anymore. It also has about 50 clutch head screws in the back. Getting in there is a pain the butt. I have never thought to change them out.

The speakers that were in there originally were Altecs, but at some point I blew them out and after re-coning them a few times, I bought a pair of EVM 15B Series IIs that sounded really good and held up pretty well. I think one of them has kind of lost it a little bit, but I haven’t fixed it because of hardly playing.

At some point fairly early on, I came across an Acoustic 370 head that someone told me might be good, so I bought it—it wasn’t expensive. That head paired with my cabinet sounded pretty good. Those heads are so loud. I have never played with mine turned above about 3.5.

You’ve always used Orange heads and a Crowther Hot Cake for drive—was that a convenience thing, or did you have issues with the reliability of the 370 as it got older? I had an Acoustic 370 for a while that managed to catch fire a few times.

Generally, mine have been pretty dependable—until they weren’t. I made the mistake of taking mine with me to Europe one time and trying to run it on a power converter, and it blew up. I got it repaired, but it was never the same after that. I eventually acquired three more for backups. One of mine came from [Touch and Go Records main man] Corey Rusk. He used it when he played in The Necros. I think that’s the only one I have left that works properly.

And then we did a tour with the 3Ds and I couldn’t help but notice that the distortion that Denise Roughan had going was the best-sounding distortion pedal for a bass that I had heard. It was this homemade box that some guy in New Zealand had made. When we finally got to New Zealand, I got word to him that I wanted to buy one and thus got my first Paul Crowther Hot Cake.

I swear that every one of them sounded different. Mine wasn’t the same as Denise’s, but it was good. He may have figured out a way to standardize them a bit since, or he may have been making them all custom on purpose. I think I recall Denise saying hers was made specifically for her.

I had been using the Hot Cake for a long time. When we came back to touring in 2010, we were flying to a lot of shows and flying with my Acoustic head(s) wasn’t practical. I rented a few SVTs but I am not that good at quickly dialing up the right balance on those things, so I decided to try out the Orange Tiny Terror. It makes a fine carry on. It sounds good. It was easy to overdrive it and make it sound distorted without it having to be murderously loud. Plus Orange were being very friendly.

Funny you mention catching fire. One time when we were playing in Providence, Rhode Island, with the 3D’s one of Denise’s speakers caught on fire. That was nuts.

Superchunk - "What a Time to Be Alive"

Do you approach writing and recording differently now that, for you at least, you’re not going to have to play the songs live? I imagine band practice would be significantly quieter nowadays. You’ve said before that you prefer playing live to recording, but now that you no longer get to jump around on stage, is there much of a change in how you approach Superchunk as the bass player?

I definitely feel less engaged, unfortunately. It’s sad not to play live. I really can’t even practice with the entire band. Before we recorded this record I don’t think I rehearsed with Jon [Wurster, drummer] at all. And that is all about volume. I don’t play much at all anymore, so I definitely feel like my skills are declining. It’s harder for me to think of cool things to do. Protect your ears, kids—don’t get into the situation I am in now.

Do you still record with your old live rig?

I do, even though that one speaker is a little weird.

How do you find approaching music nearly 30 years after you started? With every new song, record, bass part, are you conscious of trying not to repeat yourself?

Not really. I don’t worry about it too much. Now that I play less often I don’t feel as confident and fluid as I did when we were touring machines. Back then I felt much better about my playing. There was that awesome thing where it felt really automatic and almost unconscious.

You previously described your role in the band as not only bassist but "den mother, accountant, book keeper, tour manager and merch seller." This of course extended to you starting your own label to release Superchunk’s music. How much of this was commitment to a do-it-yourself as an ethical approach—staying away from the gross aspects of the music industry and having control over your own art—versus simply doing it because no one else was going to do it for you?

You hit all the salient points there. Obviously, I am a bit of a control freak, so there’s that. If it needs doing and no one else jumps up or seems able to do something with what I deem the appropriate level of commitment, I tend to take it on. This is something I have been working on. Trying to let go a little.

We started the record label because yes, no one else was going to do it. There had been a few labels in the area here, but mostly they were very specific to a given scene or band and also, mostly, did not last.

Eventually Superchunk signed to Matador [for 1990’s self-titled album and 1993’s On the Mouth], and later we had "industry" interest but we turned that down, as it was easy to envision the predictable course that would take the band down… road to ruin, etc. So we decided not to go there. Better to forego the cash advance that presumably motivated some bands and have more say in our own operations. We knew if we stayed in control we would have greater longevity.


Now that Merge has essentially become your "career," do you feel that the independent structure of the label has allowed you to weather the upheavals that have happened in the music industry in the last 20 or so years?

Being independent and relatively small has allowed us to be fairly nimble and change with the tides. We are definitely not the most aggressive and forward-thinking among our peers. I think sometimes we can be overly cautious. Also, being a small indie, we will never win if things come down to a bidding war.

Is the "vinyl revival" we keep hearing about a reality for successful independent labels?

The vinyl revival is definitely a reality here in North America. It seems like it is maybe a little less of a thing in other territories. Vinyl is maybe about 55 percent of our physical sales now.

After so long playing bass in one band, and all the other things that are larger parts of your life since the start of Superchunk (label CEO, being an artist, being a mom), do you ever still pick up your bass and play just for fun?

I really don’t! That is sad. You know, I never figured out how to play in different styles. I feel like I owe it to myself to spend some time and try to figure that out. Next Superchunk record is gonna have funk bass!

What A Time To Be Alive is out now via Merge Records.

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