From “Hyper Enough” to Hyperacusis: Superchunk’s Laura Ballance
Superchunk’s latest album, I Hate Music (Merge), just debuted this week, but it’s a bittersweet milestone marred by some unfortunate news. When the band takes the stage in support of the new record, the steady, sportive pogo of bassist Laura Ballance will be missing. The musician and co-founder of Merge Records has been suffering from hyperacusis—a condition characterized by oversensitivity to certain frequency ranges of sound and ringing in the ears—which has regrettably worsened after the last few tours. However, Ballance insists that she isn’t leaving the band and hopes to, at some point down the road, rejoin her counterparts there.
A recent press release further hits the point home: “When you’re 20, lazy co-workers and romantic missteps number among your biggest worries; two decades later, life’s bigger questions knock louder and louder, demanding answers.” For now, one answer is for Ballance to put her ears first and let Jason Narducy (formerly of Verbow) step in as Superchunk’s live bassist. Ballance was kind enough to reminisce about the ’90s, share her thoughts on new media and drive home the importance of wearing earplugs in this interview with Boxx Magazine contributor Jim Keller.
Jim Keller: Let’s start from the beginning. A question we’ve been meaning to ask. What can you tell us about the concept behind the legendary video for “Hyper Enough,” which shows the band in rather dysfunctional shape?
Laura Ballance: The director, Norwood “Chip” Cheek, came up with it as far as I can recall. Maybe our friend Joe Ventura was involved, too. It’s really hard for me to remember. We made it in 1995 after all, which was 18 years ago. We had been touring pretty much nonstop for a few years, and as you might imagine, there was occasionally some internal tension, which maybe Norwood picked up on. The video represents a kind of exaggerated vision of that, complete with battling egos, mutual irritation, minor violence and group therapy. I think we shot it all in one day in an old railroad warehouse in Carrboro, North Carolina. It was pretty fun.
JK: Moving forward then, what can we expect from the new record, I Hate Music
LB: It’s gonna rock your socks off! It’s also very emotional. Sad, yet celebratory. I think this record has a clarity to it that might be different.
JK: Do you feel strange not being able to perform these songs on the next tour?
LB: I do. I also feel sad, but I know it is the best for me and my ears. I have a bit of tinnitus, which does not bother me that much, but what’s worse is the hyperacusis. If I am subjected to loud noises my right ear makes this loud and painful static noise—and it really does not have to be that loud. It can be people who just talk loudly. After I made my announcement on the Superchunk website that I was not going to tour, people came out of the woodwork to tell me their stories. Someone also sent me a link to this article, which really stuck with me. I am very fortunate that my hyperacusis is not as bad as some of what is described in the article. Hyperacusis has led some people to suicide, others to change their lives so that they don’t face the risk of any sudden sounds. They live carpeted lives with paper plates and plastic utensils, because those plates and utensils that we all take for granted are far too loud. It is good reinforcement of my decision. I do not want to do anything to make it worse.
JK: What will you do with your time off?
LB: I hope it leads to me taking some time to make art, take some classes and spend more time with my daughter, but it will probably mean I spend more time in the office.
JK: The ’90s were chock-full of lesser known indie rock acts, which created a secret club of sorts for its fans. Now that all music is online and readily available, how different is the recording, promoting and touring process in terms of marketing and finding an audience for your music?
LB: I feel like the finding of the audience and marketing is a lot easier now, the actual getting them to buy it part is a lot harder. I feel like we are better known than we ever have been, yet sell a third of the records. When I was a younger music fan, I really enjoyed the secret club aspect. I liked being a part of something that really, truly felt like a small subculture and a secret. As a teenager it felt really important to be a part of something that said, “I am not like you.”
JK: In the ’90s, one could buy your record, go home, leaf through the liner notes, scout out magazine articles and catch videos on “120 Minutes,” thereby developing a real bond with your music. Do you think that fans are able to make such bonds with artists today?
LB: If they choose to. If you choose to be obsessive about a band these days you can easily find out a lot more about them than you used to be able to with the Internet. The problem is that it is very easy to get distracted and forget about some band that you were really into about two seconds ago.
JK: Mac [McCaughan, singer/guitarist] did an album trailer this time around. Can you comment on this new form of media?
LB: It’s fun, right? I think people are interested to see different sorts of media than just music videos. I can’t figure out the current lyric video phenomenon though. I think the original idea was that they were karaoke videos that were really cheap and easy to make and show you the words to a song so you can sing along, but they have morphed right back into being regular videos that include lyrics. I think the album trailer is a good opportunity to say something about an artist or record that you really can’t in a music video. I guess it’s like the evolution of the EPK [electronic press kit] into something shorter in form. For example, check out this amazing trailer for William Tyler. It feels like a documentary, but also a beautiful art film. It’s one of the best ones I have seen lately, and yes, it happens that we [Merge] put out his record.
JK: Has being the only woman in the band had an influence on the inner dynamics of Superchunk?
LB: I feel strongly that being a woman in a band is just like being a man in a band, and it’s natural and good for men and women to be in bands together. I have been a person in a band for the last 24 years. I have no idea how Superchunk would have been different had I been a man instead of a woman. I could only guess. What do guys do when there are no women around? I hope it’s not gross! But seriously, I think they would have done the same things that they did with me there. They were around me enough. I was pretty much one of the guys, so my influence on the inner dynamics probably has had more to do with my personality than my gender.
JK: If you could be in an all-female band today (and still be in Superchunk, of course), who would be in it?
LB: I hesitate to name an all-female band lineup because I would no doubt leave out some people who really ought to be in my band, who I love dearly, but also because I am kind of against the idea of deliberate gender segregation in a band. It’s fun to think about though. I would want to get Julia Cafritz [Pussy Galore, Free Kitten] involved for sure. And I would want multiple drummers. And maybe I would like to learn how to play drums and be one of them.
JK: Who are some of the women musicians (or bands) that you’re listening to now?
LB: I have been enjoying Grass Widow (who remind me a bit of Quixotic), Hospitality, Eleanor Friedberger, Thee Oh Sees, Mount Moriah and Mikal Cronin. They all have the good fortune of having at least one woman in the band. I would like to see more of that.
JK: What message do you have for readers who are thinking about becoming musicians?
LB: Do it! Performing in front of people is really rewarding. Making music together with other people feels really good, too. It’s magic. Also, to everyone, not just musicians, I say: Protect your hearing. Always carry earplugs and wear them if your surroundings feel loud. Even wear them whenever you are on an airplane. That engine noise can mess you up.