Laura Ballance | photo by John Vettese for WXPN
What Can YOU Make? Laura Ballance on 30 years of Merge Records and Superchunk
It’s a year of anniversaries for Laura Ballance. 2019 marks three decades since the Durham, North Carolina bassist and businesswoman co-founded both the celebrated indie-punk four-piece Superchunk, as well as the equally revered independent label Merge Records.
During its first decade and a half, Merge expanded from a home for short-run 7″ and cassette releases documenting the scene around North Carolina’s storied “triangle” — the fertile creative grounds bound by Durham, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh — and grew into the label that put out some of the most iconic indie releases of the 90s and 00s, including Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeoplane Over The Sea and Arcade Fire’s Funeral. In tandem, Superchunk’s music grew from busted-knuckle bruisers “What Do I” and “Slack Motherfucker” and into more sophisticated sounds, like the gentle synth tapestries on “Late-Century Dream” from 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up, and the cascading anthem “Learned To Surf” from 2010’s Majesty Shredding.
Every entity — artist and business alike — experiences growth and evolution. Sometimes a different perspective emerges upon looking back in the rearview. For Merge’s 30th year, a festival in Carrboro and Durham took place this summer, while a vinyl subscription series has been ongoing. For Superchunk, a different anniversary is in its sights: the 25th anniversary of 1994’s Foolish, widely considered to be the band’s breakout. The band released a new acoustic revisit of that album in May, and their tour in support of it comes to World Cafe Live this Tuesday.
Although Ballance will not be on hand for the show — she stepped down from the live configuration of Superchunk in 2013 due to her hearing condition hyperacusis — she still holds down day-to-day operations at Merge HQ, and we caught up with her via phone to chat about the parallels between the label and the band, and how the spirit of forging one’s own way can still be found in the scene today.
The Key: What would you say made the scene in Chapel Hill / Durham unique as compared to what you experienced growing up in Atlanta and elsewhere in the past? Do you think teenage you saw it as a place you’d want to remain?
Laura Ballance: I had gone to high school in Raleigh for one year before I went to UNC, so when I first found out that I had to move from Atlanta to Raleigh, I was pretty horrified. I felt like it was not going to be the same as living in a big city. It’s not going to be as cool! [laughs] What turned out to be really great about it was that it was a smaller scene, and it felt more cohesive as a result. There were fewer factions, and more like all kinds of different people who really had to stick together in order to have a cohesive scene, or enough critical mass to have people to come out to shows, to have people to hang out with.
It felt also like it inspired and fostered a lot more creativity from everyone, the smaller town punk rock scene, as opposed to the Atlanta one, in my perception of it. The difference may be from within me, more than the scene itself. Cause it all depends on where you are in your life, as to what you get out of your surroundings. But yeah, it felt more productive. It felt like there were all these cool and creative people here who had lots of time and energy for creating things, whether it was art or being in bands, or whatever. And part of that may have also been that it was cheaper to live here than in Atlanta; people weren’t focused on working all the time.
TK: From the musician angle of things, and leading into the founding of the label…this is late 80s, very much pre-internet. And maybe this is an oversimplification, but the music industry was either major city, major label driven, or DIY fanzine culture driven. How accessible did you find either of those paths?
LB: The major label thing just never even occurred to me as a possibility. I think there were some artists from here from around that time who became major label artists, but it just didn’t seem likely or appealing. And it was more of a fanzine culture. But it was even more insular than that. Thinking about sending something to Maximumrockandroll, or whatever, you might get your 7” reviewed in there. But then it didn’t really, like, it wasn’t going to make a huge difference in your life. [laughs] So everything was more like what can you make, what can you do with your hands to help you feel like your creative needs are being met.
I remember this band Zen Frisbee from Chapel Hill – they were a band and they played pretty frequently, but also they had little fanzine photocopied comic book things that one of the guys in the band would draw. He’d have them, and would be handing them out at every show. I can’t even remember if he sold them, but you could get them, and they were always hilarious. They usually had reference to some hilarious local controversy or argument between two random people who are in bands. Some rivalry, you know? And it was like, that felt really like “oooh, this is crazy! He put that in the zine!” It seems really quaint now, compared to the shit that goes on in the internet.
TK: It seems almost like a New Yorker cartoon, the topicalness of it, but focused very specifically on the Chapel Hill indie scene.
LB: Yes! It was all hyper-local and insular.
TK: Okay, so it’s summer-ish of 1989, you’ve met Mac, and his old bands Bricks and Wwax – as well as this new band you were both playing in, Chunk, later Superchunk – needed a place to release their music. Was the decision to start the label that simple?
LB: I mean, everything’s more complicated than what’s easy to describe in two minutes. But preceding that, there had been a group of artists from around the Triangle, mainly a lot of bands from Raleigh, and they had decided to put out a box set of 7”’s together. It was all hand-assembled and hand-silk screened on 7”-size tape boxes. So we stuffed all the 7”s in there. Wayne Taylor, who was in Wwax with Mac, had started a printing press with some friends called Barefoot Press. They printed up these beautiful books that went inside.
So they had figured out that they could do this. That it was not impossible to have 7”’s printed and pressed. If you make 500 of something, you could sell it. So we had participated in that, and had that as an example of, you know, this is something you could do, and people will buy that. And it would be even easier if it was just one 7” and not all this more complicated package and more expensive thing for people to buy.
TK: Was that pretty much the extent of your experience of the business side of things, or did you have other experience you brought to the “let’s start a label” idea?
LB: As a young child, I liked making little animal sculptures out of sculpey very much. And I would make a bunch of them and I would try to sell them to my relatives. [laughs]
TK: Cool! Sales experience right there.
LB: And I tried to calculate, okay, how much do I spend on the sculpy, what will the market bear, how much can I sell this sell this sea lion for? Really, we had worked at Pepper’s Pizza, and Kinko’s. We hadn’t really had any businesses of our own prior to that, certainly not the finances of a record label. But it’s all cash in, cash out. I think I’ve always had kind of a natural financial conservatism. I don’t know if that’s the right term for it, but I’ve always had a good sense of how to manage money, and that came naturally to me, and all the drudgery that comes with running a business. Okay, you call the distributor, you get an order from them, you make an invoice, then you pack the order, you send it to them, you follow up and you try to get them to pay you. That sort of stuff is like, yeah, of course. That’s what’s I’m going to have to do. It didn’t feel like I’m going to have to intern somewhere to learn that.
TK: In an interview you did in She Shreds earlier this year, you talked about your role in Superchunk going well beyond playing bass. The quote you had was that you were the “den mother, accountant, bookkeeper, tour manager, and merch seller.” Do you think your experience running the label lent itself more to the band, or vice versa?
LB: I was doing them both simultaneously. We started both aroud the same time, and I guess they fed each other. Especially in the beginning, the complications of running the label were pretty straightforward compared to the band. With the band, there’s more expenses, there’s more variables, there’s more recepits to keep track of. It occurred to us pretty early on that we were going to have to incorporate, and that’s partly thanks to Mac’s dad, who’s a lawyer. He pushed us towards doing that pretty early. And that means, of course, also you’re going to have to do taxes. You’re going to have to keep track of all your recepits, do your books, and everything should zero out.
That really appealed to the anal side of me. And it came pretty naturally. But I have to say, now, as Merge grew, of course, Merge became much more complicated than Superchunk. But having had the experience of touring so much with Superchunk and getting to learn that side of it, was very beneficial to running Merge. It also makes understand a lot more what it’s like being a band on Merge.
TK: Understanding what your artists are going through.
LB: Right, since we are both.
TK: Up until the early to mid 90s, most of the stuff coming out on Merge was on cassette or 7”. Can you contrast the positives and drawbacks of being the singles label that Merge was with the more album-oriented label it became?
LB: When you’re a singles label, the stakes are much lower. It all felt just like fun. I think at the time, there were fewer bands, fewer record labels – it was much easier to press up 500 7”s and sell them. It was not a problem at all. Occasionally you’d get burnt by some distributor going out of business or deciding not to pay their bills, but it wasn’t the end of the world.
When you start putting our full length records, you get more involved in financial risk, and disappointment – someone’s life’s work not doing what they hoped it would do – and so, there’s a lot of freedom in being a 7” label that you don’t have when you’re putting out albums. And that’s why we kept putting out 7”’s for a long time. We don’t do it as much as we used to. It used to be that doing the 7” was just this fun thing, we could put out a random 7” be everybody and it would do fine, it would cover its expenses, and it was just a cool way to expose fans of Merge to things we like.
But there’s also great things about putting out full-length records. You get to develop a deeper relationship with the artist. We tend to be very committed to artists and keep putting their records out forever. And you get to try to come up with different creative ways of exposing them to more people. When it works, it’s really gratifying. And it feels like an honor that somebody is trusting you with their album and letting you put it out. There are so many great artists we’ve been lucky enough to work with, and it feels really good that they thought we could do it.
TK: It seems like Superchunk experienced a similar evolution: its first releases were 7”s and EPs, and the longer it was a band, it evolved both in terms of format and sonically as well.
LB: For sure. But there’s also the thing, that if you stay the same, you can become irrelevant. You have to evolve and respond to what’s going on in the world around you. Definitely, Superchunk as a band has evolved, and has gone through different phases in our sound and whatnot. I’d say the same for Merge, but also, the way you sell music has changed enormously over the last 30 years, and it not only takes adapting to new formats, it takes being willing to try different angles to try to get people’s attention. Especially these days. It’s like you have to be much more creative about how you’re going to launch a record. It used to be you do the same thing every time, and that was fine, and now it’s like you have to start a circus to get people’s attention.
Superchunk plays an acoustic set at World Cafe Live on Tuesday, November 5th; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar. For more on Merge Records, visit the label’s website.