Laura Ballance Interview

photo via flickr by Marcelo Costa

I had already been thinking of asking Laura Ballance for an interview when I posted this question on the blog, and was answered by none other than the woman herself.

I’ve had more joy watching Superchunk shows than just about any other band. Their energy and tunes are infectious.  And Laura has a captivating stage presence, jumping around and dancing while playing her bass and singing.

In addition to being an amazing bass player, Laura is the co-founder and co-owner of Merge Records, the incredibly successful independent label that is home to such popular indie bands as She & Him, Arcade Fire, The Mountain Goats, and Wild Flag.

I asked Laura about her bass, about Merge, and about, well, life.

When did you begin playing and why?

I began to play in 1988 I think. I really did not want to as I was really introverted and the idea of playing in front of people did not appeal to me at all. I was convinced to by my boyfriend at the time, who needed a bass player for the new band he was starting. Actually, we maybe had not actually started dating yet! It was a ploy.

What was your first bass, and how did you get it?

The first bass I bought was a black Fender short scale. I think it was a Mustang. I bought it at a used instrument store in Chapel Hill, where I was living.

What equipment do you prefer now?  Which bass?  What amps, cables, pedals?  Why?  Has this changed over time?

I moved up to a full scale Fender Precision a little while after Superchunk started getting serious, because I thought it was wimpy to play a short scale. I got lucky and found one from 1977 that is the lightest one I have ever laid my hands on. I have owned a few others but they are way too heavy. I have no idea if the body is original. It is unusually light. My favorite amp is an Acoustic 370 from the 1970′s, two 15″ EV speakers in an ancient Ampeg cabinet (I bought this thing in 1990 probably, and it has stood by me ever since. It was probably also built in the 1970′s). I adore my rig, it sounds great. Overdriven. I can’t turn the Acoustic past 2.  I have a Hotcake distortion pedal custom built by Crowther Audio out of New Zealand. I found out about the Hotcake because Denise from the 3d’s used one, and I loved the way her bass sounded. Recently, when we have been touring, we have been flying a lot, so I had to come up with something that I could fly with or that could possibly be provided to me by a rental company. The gear I usually use is pretty much never rented out by anyone. So I hooked up with Orange Amps, and they have a very portable bass head called the “Terror Bass.” It’s tiny, and I have been putting it in a suitcase with my clothes, or in a road case, and Orange has been really great about providing me with a cabinet to play through. In some instances, it was not practical to fly with the Terror Bass, and they provided me with a head remotely as well.

You’re a musician.  You run one of the longest running, most successful independent record labels.  You have a family.  What is a typical day like for you?

My daughter gets up at 7 every morning, and so do we. I get to the office by 10 am and go back home by 6 pm. We play a little, have dinner, and get ready for bed. Running Merge is definitely a full time job. Squeezing the Superchunk tours in has been a little nuts. I try to not leave for more than 7 days at a time, so I am not away from the girl for too long.

I’ve read in several other interviews that you paint and sculpt.  Can you talk about that a little?

I have been drawing, painting, taking photos and sculpting since I was a kid. I really enjoy it. I don’t have time to do it as much as I would like. Typically, since we started Merge and Superchunk I only manage to produce something when I have a deadline. Like if I need to do an album cover or have an art show that I have been asked to participate in. My forms tend to be very organic and animal inspired. I also really like to use detritus to build things. As in, take what might be considered garbage to build something new. I went through a rat phase. I might still be in it. I did the covers for Foolish, Here’s Where the Strings Come In, Come Pick Me Up, Cup of Sand, the Late Century Dream Ep, the Leaves in the Gutter Ep, and a bunch of 7″s.

What are you working on right now?  And by “working on,” I mean almost anything.  Music?  Business?  Art?

Lately I am mostly trying to keep up with Merge while still doing Superchunk shows. I have some commitments to do some art shows, so I need to get back to making art soon.

Name one or two (or more!) artists (musicians, writers, visual artists) you find inspiring.  Why?

Recently these artists (among others) have been on my mind, I am not sure I can explain why: Joan Miro, Otto Dix, Akio Takamori, Leonard Foujita, Enrique Chagoya, Francisco Jose de Goya, Yellena James

I recently read “The Killing of Crazy Horse” followed by “In the Heart of the Sea” and now I am reading “Moby Dick” and I feel like these books have given me a lot of fodder for some new art.

Lately I am totally in love with Telekinesis. The new album is just fabulous and it’s so much fun, in spite of being a break up record. It makes me want to sing along and do harmonies.

Do you have any advice for young women who are just now learning an instrument and think they want to start a band?

Just jump in and do it if you want to. It can be a lot of fun. Don’t be afraid.

Has digital music changed how you do things at Merge?  And if so, how?

It has changed everything. The internet has changed everything about selling music, and people’s discovery of music. And it changes every day. We have to be very flexible and change with whatever new technology is developed or whatever new ways arise that people like to enjoy or discover music.

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