The Formidable Laura Ballance: Superchunk Bassist And Merge Co-founder On Punk And The Paranormal

Aug 19, 2019

Credit Courtesy Merge Records

As a kid, Laura Ballance was most comfortable slipping into the background. Her introverted nature gave her plenty of space to think and create on her own. As a teenager, she found punk through a music video of Adam and the Ants, and the “otherness” they expressed spoke directly to her.

Ballance went on to explore the punk scene in Atlanta and later embedded herself in North Carolina’s music community. She took up bass as one of the founding members of what would soon become a scene-shaping and genre-defining group: Superchunk.

Along with bandmate Mac McCaughan, Ballance established a record label to release music created by the band and their friends. That label, Merge Records, turned 30 this year, and is responsible for signing scores of acclaimed artists, including Arcade Fire, The Mountain Goats, Hiss Golden Messenger. Host Frank Stasio speaks with Ballance about her musical career, the secret to the longevity of Merge, and about a childhood that was steeped in the paranormal.

Interview Highlights

On her upbringing:

My first memories are of moving to Goldsboro. And my parents were kind of like, I don't know, half hippies. And they eloped. Theirs was a forbidden love. I feel like my childhood was kind of chaotic. And a lot of it has to do with possibly my mother's side of the family was pretty dramatic. My father's side of the family was very cut and dry.

On the presence of the supernatural in her childhood:

Every time we'd go to visit my grandparents in Charlotte, after dinner, they've had some drinks, and they'd get out the Ouija board. And all of us kids would still be around as it started. And you know, we'd watch them. And there would be these dramatic exchanges with various spirits from the other side. And there was also a house spirit that protected them supposedly. His name was Cristoff. And we would sometimes think that we saw him outside the windows, like we could see him looking in. I don't know if that was just an overactive imagination on the part of us kids, but definitely things happened in that house.

On discovering punk and exploring “otherness”:

While I was in Atlanta, I got into punk rock. And I think that punk rock appealed to me, because it seemed to be an embodiment of the otherness that I felt. I felt like I didn't fit in anywhere. I wasn't normal. Even though I wanted desperately to be normal … In middle school I remember looking at the preppy kids with their Izod shirts and their Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and just being like: Why can't I be like them?

On the Chapel Hill music scene in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s:

It felt like a pretty tight knit and small community. I guess for me when I first moved to Chapel Hill in '86, some of the first people I met were Dexter Romweber and [Chris "Crow" Smith] who drummed for him in the Flat Duo Jets. And the guys from Zen Frisbee. They were all sort of like — you know I don't mean this in a bad way at all — like sort of smelly hippies. Yeah, but punk rock hippies. And it was very friendly and sweet. The Cat’s Cradle is 50 this year ... It's been in Chapel Hill as a place that local bands could play for a long time. But also [a place] that bands from around the country could stop and enrich the culture of Chapel Hill and inspire local bands to play.

On how touring took a toll on her body:

It was hard on my back, but also mostly hard on my ears. I, from early on, felt that it was too loud. [And I would] often spend downtime between songs trying to figure out how to push Mac's amp so it wasn't angled towards me as much. Or maybe I would walk over there and turn the volume down a little bit if he wasn't looking.