Superchunk: Back with a Little Less (Laura) Ballance

superchunk_bandpageAfter nearly a decade-long hiatus leading up to 2010’s Majesty Shredding, indie-rock stalwarts Superchunk bounced back much quicker with their tenth release, I Hate Music, released in August.

The new album’s ominous title, I Hate Music doesn’t reflect any aging angst or irony. Music has long been an all-encompassing part of the band’s life. Besides playing in Superchunk, bassist Laura Ballance and lead singer Mac McCaughan, own Merge records, one of the most influential and successful independent record labels of all time. Instead, the title reflects the inability of music to stop life’s tragedies. The record is a tip of the hat and bowing of the head to friend and film production designer David Doernberg who passed away last year.

With a lyrical focus more mellowed and mature, McCaughan’s nasally nostalgic songs are often travelogues and reverent references to shows and people along the way. And while the subject matter may be heavy, the instrumentation is even heftier with towering guitars, searing solos and the powerful punishment of the drum kit that have long defined the Superchunk sound.

Though the album was an attempt for catharsic release of fallen friends, the recent tour has brought an added sadness for the band itself. After nearly 25 years, bassist and founder Laura Ballance will be sitting out her first ever shows due to hyperacusis, an oversensitivity of the eardrum related to hearing loss. We were lucky enough to catch up with Ballance shortly after the release to discuss the new record, her health, and the emotional pain of having to leave the band for the first time.

Is this an okay time to talk?

Yes, it is the time I have scheduled for you. I had to get off the phone with my mom.

Oh, I’m sorry about that. So, you’re at the Merge headquarters right now. What are you duties over there?

It’s funny, I don’t have an extremely defined role. That’s what happens when you’re an owner. I do everything from listening to bands to decide if they’re going to be on Merge, to accounting related stuff, to working on contracts to cleaning the toilet. It involves making decisions that employees can’t make. Also I take care of my employees.

I’m sorry to hear about your hearing loss. When that start happening or when did you notice it?

Well, that is a not so straightforward question because I started to notice my ears ringing ages ago, probably as soon as we started playing together, but I have noticed that my hearing is getting progressively worse. I noticed it more when we took our hiatus. That was a significantly long break. When we started recording Majesty Shredding we started touring again and I started to notice that my ears were making a lot of noise and I was getting tinnitus. Also, I realized that I was having an increasingly difficult time hearing people who are talking to me. Again, that has been going on for a long time too. I remember talking to Corey Rusk who still runs Touch and Go. He had a lot of hearing loss as well. He and his friend Claire and I were at a restaurant one time and we were all sort of looking at each other and thinking “this restaurant is too loud, I can’t hear you.” And this was probably 15 years ago. It’s something that people with hearing loss start to notice. If you’re in a place with a lot of background noise, it becomes nearly impossible. In those situations you learn how to do a lot of lip-reading and in those situations you find yourself shutting down because you can’t hear them. You learn to just talk to the person next to you and if that can’t happen you just have to sit there and eat your food. A couple of years ago I was at a rock show at the top of a parking deck. The band had finished playing and I had forgotten to bring my earplugs with me so I tried to keep my distance. After they were done I went up to them to say “great show” and they started playing again. I got caught in this really bad spot and during those few songs I noticed in my right ear—and it was instant damage—this weird sound that corresponded to noise. I think that’s when I got hyperacusis. After that if I was exposed to loud noises in my right ear I would start hearing that. And they didn’t have to even be that loud. I had a New Year’s Party at my house one time, and it was not a raucous party, I am a parent and it was just 12 people at my house talking loud. I thought, “oh my god I want to put earplugs in right now because this person is talking to loud.” And it hurt. It’s been a progressive thing.

How did you get through touring on the last round of shows?

I started out doing shows and at a certain point I said, “Hey guys, this is hurting me and I can’t do any more small-venue shows.” I felt like in the smaller venues all of that noise gets trapped and there’s nowhere to step away from it on stage. I hoped that that would help. It seemed like it was going okay for a while and we were just doing outdoor stages. Then we did Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, and it was no fault of Mac’s, but because we couldn’t sound check, the amps that Mac was using were turned up way too loud. Once we started playing I couldn’t hear anything. It was just so loud and I was just in so much pain I couldn’t play. I tried to run away and get behind the amps; it was just terrible. Then I realized, there’s no way you can predict when you’re going to get slammed. I realized that I want to be able to hear my daughter and hear my grandchildren. I am not doing the right things to make that happen. I feel like I love touring. I love playing in front of people. There are plusses and minuses of course, but it’s so fun and so gratifying and I love it so much more than recording. I love playing for people, but I’ve done it and I’ve done it for 25 years. I think I’ve fulfilled my promise.

Is this the first tour that you’ll be sitting out? Even in the transition between when you and Mac were dating and then not, you were still onstage, right?

Oh yeah.

Did this pose a challenge when it came to recording or is that easier because it’s a more controlled setting?

I had to change the way that I did things. Recently I would stand around in the same room as Jon so I could see him, but I’ve found that that is too loud and it’s too difficult as well. Even with earplugs in. You have headphones on to listen to the guitars. It was just too loud. I had to start recording in a separate room, which is a strange feeling because I’m so used to being in the same room and watching what he’s doing. Fortunately I found a way to look through a window to see him. But it is possible. You have more control when recording. You don’t always have control in a live setting.

What was the band’s reaction to you not being able to tour? Was there any question whether or not the band can be a band without you?

I don’t think so. I think they’ve been expecting me to do this for a while now. I’ve been complaining for so long and half-jokingly saying that they should replace me. And they’d say “No!”. I tried to present it in a way where I said I don’t think I can tour anymore, but I don’t want you to feel like you can’t. I don’t want to limit what they can do because I need to limit what I can do. That’s part of why I tried doing it as long as I did. I felt guilty that it would somehow infringe upon what they wanted to do.

Prior to Majesty Shredding, did you guys ever think you would record again? And if so, did you think Majesty Shredding would be a one-off? Or did you foresee another recording coming so quickly?

Well, we never broke up. We knew we wanted to keep playing. We knew once we had a break that we’d probably want to make records again. When we did Majesty Shredding it was very much of a “we’ll do this and see how it goes” situation. Who knows, maybe it’ll be another ten years before we make a record. We’ll see how it goes and see how much fun we have.

And it was gratifying enough to go at it again?

Yes, absolutely.

Taking that much time off, when you get back into the studio do you find yourselves writing songs differently? Are you still in different locations?

At this point, no, actually. I live in Durham. Jon might live in Carrboro—he might be out in the country toward Pittsboro. Mac lives in Chapel Hill and Jim Wilbur just moved to Asheville. Jon is away a lot because he plays drums with so many different bands. He’s gone away so much that it can be difficult to practice or to get together to record. We have to wait until he has time. I think it’s gotten a lot more straightforward in a funny way. There’s a lot less ego in a way. It’s kind of like “we’ve got to knock this out”. If anybody has any ideas, lay it on the line. Mac does most of the songwriting; he’s very driven. I haven’t felt that driven to make a new record like he has. He’s the one that keeps us going. He’ll record guitar parts and write lyrics and start writing bass parts and drum parts to his recordings. I think it’s what he does all night. Sometimes he’ll come in with this fully formed thing and I’ll say, “you played the bass part on here and some of it I’m okay with and some of it is not me and that’s not the way I’m going to play. But everyone is okay with that.

Will you tell me about the title of the record?

I Hate Music? Well we had a hard time naming the record. There wasn’t an obvious title. It’s a song lyric. It seemed, in our struggle to find a title, it seemed like the most fitting and something that would capture your attention. I assume you are aware that this record is very much about our friend Dave. If you listen to the lyrics in that song it’s always risky to interpret Mac’s lyrics, but it’s interpreting this frustration. Music has been this huge part of our lives and it’s so important to us, but really what is it worth? Music does have a lot of value, but it can’t physically change the reality of somebody dying. But music is really important to people. People need music.

Thinking back when the project was starting out, as far as Superchunk and Merge records, did you ever imagine the longevity that you’ve had?

No, I had no idea. When we first started I figured it would be something we would do for a few months and then I will graduate and struggle to find a job in archaeology. But it worked out in a way that nobody could have ever predicted. Seriously, anybody who says they’re starting a record label or a band, I would tell them “don’t count on it. Don’t quit your day job.”

If I remember correctly from the Merge book, you didn’t like playing live early on. Is that correct? What changed over time and how will you feel on this, the first tour where you are not in the band?

No, I didn’t. At first I didn’t like it. It terrified me. What changed was just repeated exposure to fear and standing in front of people and messing up and realizing that people don’t realize you mess up. Also, they don’t care too much when you do mess up. You survive. The more comfortable I got, the more I found it to be fun. It’s like a rollercoaster ride. It’s scary, but it’s fun. As far as them playing without me goes, I have been really worried that I was going to be really upset and sad about them playing without me. A couple of months ago they played in Calgary without me. It happened and I was fine. Then on Tuesday, release day, they—I have this “we”/”they” problem—they played a show at a really small bar in Durham. We gave out tickets at the local record stores that day and I went to one of the record stores and gave away tickets and reminded people that I wasn’t going to be playing. I had arranged in advance with the owner of the bar that I wanted to participate even though I wasn’t playing. There’s a drink I want to make. I want to bartend for an hour before they play. I went and I bartended and I was really busy and then they started playing and it was fine. I wasn’t upset and I was surprised. I felt liberated. I felt like I had done the right thing. This is good. They were LOUD. They were so loud. I thought it was a stage problem.

Do you have advice to anyone? Do you think that when you were growing up playing that there wasn’t much information out there and we have come to learn about hearing loss through music over recent years?

Well, I have always been pretty wimpy. I started wearing earplugs sooner than people I know. Still Mac and Jim don’t wear earplugs when they play. Mac starts with them in and pulls them out when they start to play and throws them on the ground. I think that people are still taking their ears for granted. Rock shows have gotten ridiculously loud. I don’t know why. People need to be wearing earplugs when they go to a rock show. After you’re in that environment for a while you start to feel like it’s not that bad, but it’s just that your ears have acclimated. They’re still getting damaged. My advice is that everyone wear earplugs to rock shows and no excuses. Don’t say it doesn’t sound as good. Who cares?! You want to be able to hear later. And don’t stand in front of the damn speaker.

Does your daughter like your music?

She does. When she’s gone to shows she wears those big earmuff headphones. She came to this show Tuesday and even with those headphones on she still said it was too loud and she went outside and watched from the window. And even out there her friend had her ears covered. It’s crazy. Yeah, protect your ears.

 

 

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Indians: Denmark’s Søren Løkke Juul

BG-1-3For Denmark’s Søren Løkke Juul and his band Indians, the process of getting a record deal was anything but typical. When 4AD contacted him about making an album he only had 2 songs ready to go.

After a decade of playing keyboards in various bands back in Copenhagen, Indians was Juul’s way of stepping out of the shadows and writing his own material. Once he signed to 4AD, Indians went from personal project to an official solo band.

On his debut, Somewhere Else, released this past January, Juul plays every instrument creating layered compositions that combine shimmering keys and delicate acoustic guitars with heavy-handed drum machines and pensive, reverbed vocals. It’s folk music set in a foreign territory of somber soundscapes and dreamy atmospherics. It’s electronic music with teasing tempos that toe the line of danceability, but rarely cross it.

I was lucky enough to to interview Juul twice this year—once in person at SXSW and once over the phone as he prepared for his recent US tour. Both interviews are included below.

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April 2013

So is this your first US Tour?

No it’s already like our third. The first time I was here was in April [2012] and I did a few shows in New York, a session in Seattle, then flew to Vancouver and opened for Beirut and then flew to LA and played four shows there.

How long have you been recording versus touring?

It was actually a mixed process because when 4AD contacted me I had only 2 or 3 songs. I didn’t even have an idea myself that I wanted to make a record. I was just spending my time making this music. It’s been a mixed process; every time I would make a new song I would send it over and get their opinion.

How did they find out about you?

Blogs, I think– music blogs and stuff like that. I had one song and it was very busy touring music blogs around the world.

Is English your first language?

No, it’s Danish.

Bands I know from Copenhagen all sing in English. Is that typical?

We have a lot of Danish bands singing in Danish, but to me its pretty natural for me to sing in English. I think the English language is easier to express yourself and I like traveling and I like the idea of sharing my music with people. If I was only singing in Danish, I think I would only be able to share with Danish people. Here’s an opportunity for sharing with people all around the world.

Did you play all of the instruments on the record?

Yes.

Do you tour on your own sometimes or do you always play as a band?

This tour is actually the first tour with the band. Last year I toured as support for other bands, so it was only possible if I figured out some kind of setup on my own. I would always prefer to bring a band though.

Is the band from Denmark?

No, Laurel is from Portland Oregon and Hillary is from New York. I had never met them, they were recommended to me by the label. I have two people I play with back in Europe as well.

So you said you made each song one-by-one. Do you think they link together at all or did the sporadic process change the mood from song to song?

It’s been a process of recording and telling stories about what’s happening in my life so it’s natural to tell stories like that. It’s not fiction. Writing song by song I was in a position to record each day and wake up early and spend all day in the studio.

I’ve seen you play 3 shows already at SXSW, how many are you playing overall?

I’ve played 7 and then I have one tomorrow. I don’t know though, this feels normal.

Does that make it hard with such a busy schedule? Do you find yourself worn out? Do you feel you have limited energy from show to show?

I’m not worn out before a show. Yesterday we had three shows and I was prepared for all of them. Of course I came home and I was very tired. In a situation like this with lots of bands and lots of noise and people, you don’t have a lot of time to worry about that and you don’t have much time to set up which can be very stressful. I feel like when you play a concert and you don’t have time for a soundcheck you just have to work with you got.

What’s the music scene in Copenhagen like?

It’s very good. There are lots of bands. More and more bands are making it out of there and I think it’s because people have been making independently for about ten years now. They don’t make music to get popular; they make music for a human need. That makes it real. There are a lot of bands in Denmark that make really good records because the whole music industry changed their position to make music for the music.

Have you thought about what next or how long before the next record?

I still write and I have an idea for the next record. I don’t think it’s going to be different process. I still want to do it myself, but I just need quiet time to make music. I have new songs ready and I have a lot of ideas of how I want the next thing to be. I hope to make a new one too, but I can’t promise anything before it’s there.

July 2013

Tonight. I basically go straight from the festival here in Denmark and fly to New York tonight.

Tell me again about being signed. You only had a few songs. Is that true?

Yes, yes it is. I think I only had two songs before 4AD contacted me and asked if I would be interested in making a whole album. I was like “Yes if you want to work with me then I will try.” First of all I was really surprised that a label like 4AD wanted to put out an act that never had done a record before. In the start it was a lot of pressure, but I had to forget about the pressure and do what I like to do and enjoy myself making music. I was really, really excited about the opportunity to work with 4AD.

How were people able to hear your songs before the record came out?

Basically there were not very many people who had heard the songs because I had made one song and made a small video for it and shared it on my Facebook page to get some response from my friends.

Were you performing live before the record came out or is the record what led you to take the project from a personal level to a performance setting?

I’ve been in different bands for ten years as a keyboard player, but I had never played an Indians concert before. The first show was in February last year and I remember I only had 8 songs to date to play at that show.

Where did the name Indians come from?

I think it’s about sharing and making music and it’s part of nature. We all need music. We are all born listening to the heartbeat in our mom’s stomach and that’s the first time we hear music. It’s so close to our nature and in a way it’s a celebration for Indians in general. We are all natives from somewhere and I think it’s beautiful to have a simple life so close to nature.

You seem to tour a lot in America. Do you perform as much in other parts of the world or do you feel like you have a bigger reception here?

I think that we have been touring a lot in the States, but things have been coming a lot in Europe too. America is a big country, so there’s a lot of work and opportunity when you go there. There are a lot of venues to cover.

When I saw you in Texas you had to women playing with you. Are you playing with the same band this time around?

Actually that was just for that tour. I’ve been playing with two guys in Denmark sometimes, but at the moment I am playing by myself without a band. It works really well, it’s easier to get around and it’s much cheaper.

How does the live show compare to the record? When you were playing as a trio there was a big sound and three people playing at once? Does playing solo make it hard to sound as big? Or do you even think about playing songs like on the record at all?

I think sometimes you have to change things. Sometimes things work really well on record and it doesn’t necessarily work out live. Sometimes you have to build different arrangements for the songs to keep it intense. It’s different.

So with you playing solo, what is the live setup like?

I’m looping stuff and I’m playing a synthesizer and a piano. So I’m pretty busy. It’s not like an acoustic show. It’s still a pretty epic sound live. I try to have as many elements on the record as possible when I play live.

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Have you had time to start thinking about or working on a new record?

I have some new songs and recently at a show in Denmark I was asked to play a longer set than normal so I played three new songs.

Do you have an idea when you might have a new record ready or is it too early to tell?

Hopefully within a year. I hope. I hope. I spend as much time as I can trying to figure out new stuff and writing new songs.

When you made your first record you made songs one-by-one. Do you think your songs will be different this time around? Are you approaching songwriting differently now that you have more experience playing solo? Have your experiences on the road made their way into your work?

I think it’s different because the story that I’m telling with that old record is a new story now. Now my new songs are about traveling around and the people I meet and places I have seen. My new songs are about what’s going on right now.