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?
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?
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.