Laura Ballance flops down on a couch in the lobby of Merge Records, the Durham-based record label she helped found in Chapel Hill nearly a quarter-century ago. Nearby, an employee combs through postal crates full of I Hate Music, the new album from Superchunk, the other indie rock institution that Ballance co-founded, in 1989.
The famous hair that imperiously hides her face when she plays bass with Superchunk hangs in pale streaks of silver and lavender. We talk about heading out for coffee, but Ballance declines.
"I can't have it after 10 a.m.," Ballance, now 45, warily says, "and it's hot outside."
Rather than venturing into the bright, blazing day, we go upstairs to Ballance's office—dim, cool, full of relics from a storied past. She points out a gas station jacket that members of the band Geek made for their "Wet Behind the Ears" tour with Seaweed and Superchunk in the early '90s. That trek was the seminal indie band's first string of consecutive dates.
"I still didn't feel confident at all then," she says, prompted by the sight of the jacket. In 1990, she was new to playing bass and performing on stages. The image of diffident power she now projects onstage grew out of what she characterizes as mortal terror. "It took years for that to change. I would keep my head down and look at my hands, trying to pretend there was nobody there—which often, there wasn't. Aaron [Stauffer] from Seaweed couldn't stand that I was so shy, and was good-naturedly like, 'Listen, I want to see a foot on the monitor!' I thought, 'OK, since it's just these people, I'm going to start trying.'"
Her effort had an impact. Whether pogoing on stage with Superchunk or leading one of the most successful independent record labels in the world, Ballance has become a veritable icon of indie rock. Her narrative, which finally brings her off the road this year, is one of self-empowerment and resolve, and it's inspired countless others—men and women alike—to try music, too.
Heather McEntire, leader of the Merge-signed band Mount Moriah, discovered Superchunk while she was a student at UNC-Wilmington. "I read about them," she remembers, "and how they had this lady bassist that looked tough, like she'd kick you in the teeth if she needed to, but was also the coolest one in the room, who would probably make you soup if you were sick."
In 2000, McEntire finally saw the band on campus in Wilmington, playing in the rain in a courtyard for a few dozen people. Ballance's persona projected power: "There she was, jumping around onstage and wearing the best boots you've ever seen. Laura and Merge were influential in my co-running my own label, Holidays for Quince, showing me it's possible to manage a business alongside a career in independent music."
Ballance has mixed feelings about her potential role model status.
"Woman pow-a!" she says, laughing. "The entire time I've been in the band, people have asked, 'What's it like being a woman in a band?' It's like being a man in a band. I just see myself as equal and never wanted to make a big deal out of it. But one of the things that makes me sad about not playing live anymore is that so many young women come up to thank me after shows, and I'm not going to be there for them anymore. My natural reaction used to be like, 'Me? Oh no, no.' But after awhile, I learned to be happy to do that for them."
Indeed, Ballance recently cut her workload in half. While she will continue to run Merge with Mac McCaughan—and, in theory, to record with Superchunk as a bassist—she will no longer tour with the band, depriving longtime fans of her melodic bass style, swinging locks and bobbing, wide-planted stance.
Ballance's public swagger as a performer is offset by a well-known aversion to scrutiny, a social nervousness. "There's a reason these things have been done from Mac's perspective more often than mine," she says of our interview. "I don't enjoy being in the spotlight."
She has a measured, careful way of speaking, punctuated by sudden loud laughs, and an alert way of listening, especially because of the hearing condition that prompted her retirement from touring—the main arena, besides running a successful label, where she developed her reputation for exemplary strength.
"That's what Laura exudes," offers bassist Maria Albani. The leader of the band Organos, Albani moved from Florida to North Carolina, in part because of her admiration of Ballance, now her neighbor in Durham. "She looks really fearless and energetic, like she's having so much fun. It makes you want to try it. When I first got to see her play, I knew I wanted to do that."
In high school, Ballance joined Raleigh's hardcore scene as a spectator and fan. After leaving for college at UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the first people Ballance met was Jonathan Neumann. He had played with Mac McCaughan in a high school band called Slushpuppies. When McCaughan spent a year off from Columbia in Chapel Hill during Ballance's sophomore year, they both worked at the newly opened Pepper's Pizza.
Ballance was oblivious of McCaughan's reputation as a rock 'n' roll guy in the local music scene, but they slowly became friends.
"Laura's a reserved person at first," McCaughan says. "I think it was hard to tell if you were getting along with Laura, because she was pretty shy." One of Ballance's housemates wanted to learn to play bass, so McCaughan volunteered to teach her. He wound up teaching Ballance instead. They wound up dating for several years and starting Superchunk.
"It was fun to learn," Ballance remembers, "but when the idea of playing in front of anybody came up, I was like, 'You've got to be kidding.'"
Luckily, in a late '80s indie scene still steeped in punk, not knowing how to play was practically a badge of honor: "That's just what punk rock was at the time," she says. "Now it's funny—it seems like indie rock has become this thing with a lot of really accomplished musicians who can play 15 different instruments and switch between every song."
Ballance warmed up in the house party band Quit Shovin' with McCaughan and Neumann. "Each of us had to play an instrument we didn't know how to play," she explains, "which for me was any instrument. I was basically having panic attacks up there. I would have tunnel vision and feel like I was hyperventilating. Mac kept me going—he's a determined guy."
Then there was the slightly more serious Metal Pitcher, which would go on to record Merge's first single. But it wasn't until the formation of Superchunk that Ballance tasted the joys and miseries of the touring life. She loved driving across the country and finding out what people, especially the "freaks" she identified with, were like in far-flung places. But she also felt the effects of being the only young woman in a band of young men.
"After a few tours," Ballance says, "I set forth the idea of bringing a woman merch person with us. There was too much guy-ness going on all the time. They were all really funny and constantly trying to outdo each other with wiseass cracks, which could get really irritating. There were times when I was like, 'You guys are a bunch of fucking mynah birds and I want to kill you—shut up!'"
That merch person wound up being Ballance's old high school friend, and Raleigh musician, Claire Ashby. "I wouldn't say [gender] was an issue," Ashby says of the local music scene at the time, "but I would say that it was fairly male-dominated. I admired and sort of automatically bonded with women who were making things happen, whether that meant playing music or putting out records or making T-shirts."
McCaughan and Ballance broke up after a few years of touring. To some extent, the reverberations continue, she thinks.
"It was very hard," Ballance remembers. "I think we went out for like six years, and it probably took at least another six to get normal. Sometimes I think we still get on each other's nerves in certain ways we wouldn't if we had never gone out—though then again, for as long as we've been working together, how could we not get on each other's nerves sometimes?"
Between 2001's Here's to Shutting Up and 2010's Majesty Shredding, Superchunk lived through a nine-year hiatus, playing occasionally and releasing sporadic singles and one-off tracks. When Majesty Shredding, their comeback of sorts, turned out to be one of their best and most-acclaimed albums, it seemed nothing could break the impregnable unit.
For Ballance, though, that's when the real trouble began.
"I should clarify that no doctor has told me I have hyperacusis," she says, qualifying her self-diagnosis. "My right ear in particular is very sensitive. If I'm exposed to loud sounds, it starts making this staticky noise, and it hurts." Combined with the ringing ears that are virtually mandatory for loud-rock musicians, this new condition caused her to finally consider the unthinkable: leaving Superchunk.
"I want to be able to hear my child," she says. Her daughter, Nina, is 9 years old.
On the Majesty Shredding tour, Ballance had already decided that she couldn't play small stages anymore. The sound was simply too concentrated. Even playing outdoors or on large stages proved infeasible. The problem came to a head when Superchunk played the Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin last year.
"It wasn't Mac's fault," Ballance concedes, "but his amp was set super loud, and I was in so much pain I couldn't even play. We came home and I was like, 'This idea that I had doesn't help me, and there's no predicting what's going to happen in a live situation.'"
For Ballance, even the prospect of continuing to record with Superchunk, which she wants to do, presents challenges now. She used to record her parts in the same room with drummer Jon Wurster, but for I Hate Music, she had to isolate herself in the control room of Durham studio Overdub Lane.
"When it came time to make the new record, everybody wanted to do that," McCaughan says. "But talking about booking shows for it, I assume Laura started imagining all the stages she would have to be on with rented gear that is harder to control. It sounds totally stressful to anticipate shows where you'll be in pain every night."
So they recruited bassist Jason Narducy, who had played with Wurster in the bands of indie rock statesmen Bob Mould and Robert Pollard. He'll take Ballance's parts on the road.
"We've only done one show without her, at a festival in Calgary, so far," McCaughan says. "Musically everything went fine, but it was definitely weird, with different people onstage and a different bass sound."
This weekend, Superchunk will celebrate the release of I Hate Music with a show at Cat's Cradle, the Chapel Hill venue they've played so many times before. McCaughan has asked Ballance if she wants to join Superchunk for the encore. But she won't be there.
"I'd have to talk to everybody about it, and it would be awful. I think it'll be awhile before I can go see them play without me," she says. "In a way, it's a relief. But in a way, it makes me want to cry. It's the end of an era, I guess. They already did one show without me, and I lived. But I'm scared to go see them play in Chapel Hill without me."
With a wry laugh, she adds, "And I'm good at staying away."
As a child, Ballance moved frequently, from North Carolina to Arkansas to Georgia, as her family followed her father's job as a personnel manager at Sears. Mostly she grew up in Atlanta, where she lived for about eight years. It was there, as a preteen, that she first started her lifelong identification with punk rock. She began attending a venue called the Metroplex, seeing punk shows every weekend when she had money and hanging out in the parking lot when she didn't.
In the mid-'80s, when Ballance was 16, her parents divorced. She moved with her mother and brother to Raleigh. Compared with Atlanta, it seemed like a backwater. "In Raleigh, I got hassled a lot more for the way I looked," Ballance said of the goth style she favored at the time. "I went to Enloe for one year, and when I walked down the hallway, girls who could have kicked my ass would make a show of flinging themselves out of my way."
Ashby remembers the style: "She looked like a goth superhero. She seemed very exotic, being from the big city of Atlanta, since Raleigh was akin to Mayberry at the time."
Indeed, Ballance found a music scene in North Carolina that was smaller and tighter than she was used to. She saw a lot of shows at the Brewery in Raleigh because Frank Heath's vitalization of Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill—a center-of-gravity shift in which Superchunk would play a large role—was still a few years away. In Raleigh, Ballance fell in with local hardcore institution Corrosion of Conformity, and the party house of drummer Reed Mullin became her new Metroplex. Even after moving to Chapel Hill to study anthropology at UNC, she drove back to Raleigh for shows, where the friends and the ethos she was used to reigned.
"It's funny, but I was never a big fan of hardcore," she admits. "I hung out with Corrosion of Conformity but didn't really listen to them. I just liked the community, which was accepting of people who weren't bubbly, who were socially different. It was for outsiders, and I felt like I couldn't fit in with regular people."
Suddenly she laughs at the memory of her teenage self. I asked where she thought that aspect of her personality had come from. There was a long pause.
"I don't know if I would have felt like this anyway," Ballance answers, beginning slowly. "Maybe I was always just an introvert. But when we lived in Little Rock, something really bad happened to my family.
"A man came in our house one night with a gun. He herded us around and shot at us and raped my mother. I was in the third grade, and I thought I was going to die. That's why we moved to Atlanta. After that, I think I was in shock for years. We lived, but over the years I've had times when I feel like I kind of did die, because mentally, I had given up. It changes your perspective on everything."
In a 25-year career, most musicians rack up a variety of credits. Ballance, though, has never picked up another instrument, started her own songwriting project or played with other musicians. She has only played bass for Superchunk, shaping herself into a precision motor that fits this particular machine.
"I don't really practice by myself," she confides. "I have never deliberately worked on virtuosity, and as a result, I do not have it."
Over the years, Ballance's bass playing developed, by McCaughan's reckoning, into a kind of idiosyncratic secret weapon for Superchunk.
"Laura looks very comfortable onstage," McCaughan says, "but that's different than wanting to be the only person onstage, or the front person. As the band went along, she got more comfortable, sang a lot of backups and jumped around while playing these kind of complicated bass lines. As the '90s went on, Laura's bass lines got better and better. I think she was really interested in not just doing what the guitars were doing. In some ways, she was writing more complicated lines than a traditional bass player."
"It would be generous to call it dedication," Ballance laughs, "but maybe the fact that I can only play bass in Superchunk gives us a certain unique sound. There was a period when I wanted to learn to play guitar. I would like to learn drums, trumpet, piano. But I never had much interest in playing with anybody else, and I'm so used to playing with these guys that it seems weird to think about."
The time constraints of touring with Superchunk and running Merge also narrowed down Ballance's focus. She likes to make visual art, for instance, from painting to sculpture, and has entered works in local shows at Pittsboro's Loom and Chapel Hill's Minus Sound Research. But she admits she's terrible at making time for herself to do it.
"Maybe now I can explore it more," she says, since she won't be on the road with Superchunk this fall. "I don't have plans for this free time yet, but I'm working on it. But you know, we've got an Arcade Fire record coming out, and Mac's going to be on tour."
McCaughan doesn't think touring without Ballance is going to be necessarily easy.
"Part of it is just the presence," McCaughan says of her legacy in Superchunk. "Fans of the band are used to seeing certain people onstage, and her bass lines are pretty unique, even though she didn't have a manifesto when she started playing bass. She did her own thing and molded that into a distinctive sound. That's something you can't really replace."
As for her own exit interview, Ballance is typically modest.
"A certain lack of expertise that kept us from being too slick?" she suggests, with her barking laugh. "I haven't really thought about it—I was hoping other people could think about that. I had no idea this would become my life for the next 25 years. Choosing to be in a band with these guys, it's like a marriage. But they're good people, or it wouldn't have worked like it has."
Correction: The name of bassist Jason Narducy was misspelled in the original version of this piece.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Life of Ballance."