Rank Your Records: Laura Ballance Ruthlessly Rates Superchunk’s Ten Albums

The band's run in the 1990s was unparalleled: seven full-lengths, two compilations, and a handful of indie rock's greatest anthem.

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Apr 20 2017, 6:41pm

In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

No band embodies indie rock more than Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Superchunk. They formed in 1989 just as the foundation was being laid for a new decade that saw them among others start a musical revolution. Although Superchunk wasn't the best-selling or most influential band of their generation, they were arguably the most consistent and managed to be so by evolving with each album—which was not always a popular move with indie rock fans. Superchunk was also fiercely DIY without ramming the ideal down any throats (Hi, Fugazi!). Along with starting the band, vocalist/guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance launched Merge Records, originally to release seven-inch singles by the band and friends. But success eventually came, and over the years, the label became one of the most prominent of its kind, catapulting artists such as Neutral Milk Hotel, Arcade Fire, Spoon, the Magnetic Fields, and Destroyer to great heights.

Superchunk is not Merge's most celebrated band, but they deserve to be. Their run in the 1990s was unparalleled: seven full-lengths, two compilations, and a handful of indie rock's greatest anthems ("Slack Motherfucker," "Precision Auto," "Hyper Enough"). Merge has spent the last few years reacquainting old fans and finding new ones with a gradual reissue series of the entire Superchunk catalog. The latest is the band's 2003 compilation, Cup of Sand, which is out on Record Store Day (April 22). It's an unusual entry, considering not every full-length has received one yet. Even Ballance doesn't know why they chose it.

"It was out of print. That is always one of the reasons why we reissue things," she says over the phone from the Merge office. "We have slowly been going through the catalog and reissuing things. It came out in 2003, so it's the 14th anniversary? Which is a very important number. [Laughs] I don't know. It was just the next one that came up. Sometimes there is no logic to what we do, I have to admit."

The 14th anniversary of a compilation that doesn't actually qualify for the Rank Your Records series might seem like an odd time to do one, but Ballance, who is now only a recording member of Superchunk, was game, despite the challenge.

"It's hard!" she says. "The other day after we set up this interview I decided that I'd go through the records in advance and try to rank them, because I knew I'd have a hard time. Some of it is arbitrary. I had to choose between three that I like the least, and it would be just because I'm sick of one song."

10. Superchunk (1990)

Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Laura Ballance: I have a couple of reasons. One of them being, when I listen to that album, which is never, unless I have to listen to it because we're reissuing it and I have to listen to a test pressing, I think, "Oh my God, I can't believe we let this fly." But we were doing it on the cheap. We recorded it in a couple of days at Duck Kee Studios in Raleigh. There are so many mistakes and flubs and weird-sounding things going on that we wouldn't keep on a record now. That said, I don't care that much about perfection, even today. If we're recording and one of my bass parts isn't perfect and no one notices, I won't say anything. [Laughs] Punk rock is not perfection, and in my mind I want to be a punk rocker, still. Also, if I never hear "Slack Motherfucker" again in my life I will be a happy camper. I am so over that song. It's so stupid and juvenile. And when I look at all of the songs on that record, there are five songs that we continued to play live throughout the years. I guess that's not bad.

Merge Records existed but you released the album on Matador. Why was that?
We were a seven-inch label. We had put out some cassettes and some seven-inches, and we just didn't have the resources to put out an album. And we didn't have any distribution system at that time. I would mail seven-inches to ten distributors around the US and then I would call them to see how many they'd want. It didn't feel like we could put out an album ourselves. Plus, [Matador co-founder] Gerard Cosloy and Mac had become friends. Gerard was running Homestead Records and we had a lot of respect for what he was doing. So we figured, if he wants to do it that's awesome.

9. I Hate Music (2013)

Most musicians tend to put their most recent recording towards the top, not the bottom.
That's really bad, isn't it? It's likely because I have such a lack of familiarity with it. I recorded it and I don't have a relationship at all beyond that. I don't love recording. It's not my favorite thing about being in a band. I much prefer playing live, even though I don't do that anyone. I guess I have such negative feelings around it. When I think of it, I think of our friend Dave dying. And a lot of it to me feels like it was about that. I guess partially that association is to blame.

You decided not to tour for this album. Did that feel weird for you to see the band play with Jason Narducy on bass?
I think it would be weird but it wasn't. I waited for years… I should have quit playing live a long time ago because my ears had been bothering me for a while. I kept trying to talk the band into being less loud but it wasn't working. I was afraid of giving up doing this thing that I really enjoyed, but also I was afraid it would be some death knell for the band if I stopped, like they would feel they couldn't do it without me. But we really lucked out that Jason was willing to do it. I guess I was also afraid that I would feel really sad about them playing without me. I would feel left behind and heartbroken. And I went to the first show they played without me—because I figured I should, even though I didn't really want to [Laughs]—and it was great! I'm so grateful to be free of that responsibility, because honestly I did it for 25 years. I've paid my dues. It was never my teenage dream. I think it is for a lot of people, and I'm done with it and I'm okay with that. I realize that now.

Will this be the final Superchunk album?
No. I don't think so.

8. Here's to Shutting Up (2001)

It was the last we recorded before we quit for a while. Also, when we recorded it, I hated the process. It felt like I wasn't that psyched about hanging out with everybody in the band, there was too much drinking going on, which made me uncomfortable. We were sleeping at the studio and I felt like most nights I would go to bed and everyone else would stay up late drinking. So I'd wake up in the morning and have nothing to do for a couple of hours while everybody was still sleeping. I think a lot of it is part of the reason why we had to take a break. There was this resentment building up between us. But we didn't decide to take the break until after we did all of the touring for this record.

Also, the album came out right after September 11. We had a really rigorous touring schedule set up where we had no time off. Then we went to Europe, came back, had three days off and started a six-week US tour. Nobody was going out. Everybody was depressed. This record was way less fun to play than the records before that. I don't know, I think for me, I had already felt this waning for Superchunk. We weren't at our peak anymore. There weren't as many people coming to the shows and it felt like people were less interested. And then this. We made a record that wasn't as punky, less energetic, and more keyboard-y. It was less fun to play. It was not a happy time.

Mac said he wanted to "blow out people's expectations of Superchunk." Was that something everyone was on board with?
To a degree. I think Mac, more than anybody, wanted to do different things that involved different instruments. He was bored of doing the same thing. I mean, it's never healthy to do the same thing. People will get sick of that.

You guys toured with the Get Up Kids, which was weird in my opinion. What was that like?
I didn't like it. At all. I never listened to the Get Up Kids. I agreed to do it because other people wanted to do it. To me, it was depressing and made me feel washed up to go and open for a band that much our junior. And it's demoralizing as hell! I'm not sure people think about this when they're doing it, of course, but there are kids in the front saving their spot for the Get Up Kids. Like, they were literally looking as bored as possible, leaning on their elbows giving us looks that I took as, "Please die, so I can see the band I like." Or they'd put their head down and pretend to sleep. We were playing and I was thinking, "Fuck this! Why am I doing this? Get me out of here! This sucks!" So there are a lot of bad associations for me with that record.

7. Indoor Living (1997)

It felt like an in-between album, like it wasn't definite to me. It felt like we were morphing and going back and forth between different styles. Also when I look at it, I think there were two, maybe three songs I enjoyed playing. I don't love it. [ Whispers] And I'm sorry to say it but I don't like the record cover. Mac made it! Mac painted that. [Laughs]

When we get to this middle period, it's hard for me to remember specific things, like what the touring was like for Indoor Living versus Come Pick Me Up. It all sort of blends together. But I remember being on this long, dreadful tour and when we played in Los Angeles I fell asleep while we were playing. I can't remember which song it was from the album, but it was long and slow, and I was so tired from the long drives, not getting enough sleep, the depressing turnouts for our shows, and I was standing there, and it was like nodding off while you're driving. Like I kept playing, and I don't think anybody noticed, but I had to lift my head back up real quick because I almost fell down. [Laughs] That is what I think about when I think of playing songs from Indoor Living.

In John Cook's book, Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, I thought it was funny how Christof Ellinghaus from your European label City Slang said he thought Mac's backing vocals were sung by a girl.
That's funny. People often say things about Mac's voice, especially on earlier records.

6. Majesty Shredding (2010)

This is where it gets harder. I like Majesty Shredding. It was fun to record it and it was fun to play the songs. There were some songs on it that we had written years before that wound up on this album, because we did the Leaves In The Gutter EP. It felt sort of like a return to early Superchunk. I'm more of a fan of the more straightforward Superchunk.

This one came after a nine-year break. Was there any discussion about what you wanted the band to sound like?
Yeah, we had consciously decided that we wanted it to be fun, and fun to play. I wanted to make an album like that, and not an album like Indoor Living again, ever. To keep me awake! Though I don't have to worry about this anymore.

In the interviews for this album, you showed some hesitancy to get back into touring mode. Did having families change the way you could be in a band?
For sure. When we put out Majesty Shredding, we had Merge and we had families, so we were no longer going out in a van for six weeks. That just was not gonna happen. We were also elder grown-ups, so our bodies just wouldn't put up with that anymore. In 2010, my daughter was six years old and I think the longest we were out of town was for ten days. That was as much as I could handle.

Were you surprised at how well received the album was?
I was… I felt the critical response was good. But I was also shocked at the difference in the record industry. I should not have been shocked, because I am in the record industry, but based on the amount of attention we were getting, it seemed like things were going really well. Had that record, with that amount of attention, come out in 1997 or 2000 even, it would have sold 60,000 copies, and this sold, maybe, 20,000. And I just thought, "Damn, things have changed. Nobody is buying records anymore." There is no way we could have done better, as far as the amount of press.

5. Come Pick Me Up (1999)

I really enjoyed recording Come Pick Me Up with Jim O'Rourke. It was really fun and interesting. I feel like he brought a lot to the process. We also did it in Chicago, and I like Chicago a lot, and I like my friends in Chicago. I developed some good relationships with people in Chicago because Touch & Go, which used to manufacture and distribute Merge.

What made you record at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio?
I think it was just an easy place for Jim to work and we had wanted to try out that studio. It was fairly new at the time, and we had recorded No Pocky For Kitty with Steve. Jim was so overworked. That poor guy. We would work long hours, like 10:00 AM to midnight. And he would go home to mix somebody else's record, while writing arrangements for string sections for our record, and then come back to the studio and we'd start again. I don't know if he slept at all.

He was also probably working on Eureka or something else of his own. Did he push you guys out of your comfort zone?
Yeah, definitely. But I think also we were on board with it. I think Mac was into that idea, and it was something he was maybe trying to do with Indoor Living. I think Jim made it better, for me. Bringing in different kinds of sounds can be annoying or a downer. [Laughs] I can admit I have hearing damage. I have tinnitus and hyperacusis. So all loud noises hurt my right ear. But I feel like a lot of musicians cannot admit they have hearing problems. There are some, especially guitar players, who have hearing damage in this range that makes them think for anything to sound right all of the high-end has to be turned right up. There are a few musicians who have this and their records reflect that. It's hard to say no to a lot of these guys because they know best. You can't tell them what their records need to sound like. Their ears tell them it needs more high-end. I think having a producer with a firmer hand keeps things from going in that direction. Jim was able to keep things in a range that sounds better. I feel like when Mac puts keyboards on a record, I'd describe the tone as scratchy? And it bothers me. It makes my stomach hurt a bit. And I like how Come Pick Me Up sounds.

One thing I will say is at this point I felt comfortable with my instrument. I could play and write songs without feeling uncertain. Before we started the band, I had never played an instrument. I was sort of thrown into it and just making it up as I went along.

The liner notes lists Jim's nickname as "Hard Rock." What was that about?
I have no idea. I can't remember. There must have been some joke. He told a lot of stories and maybe it came out of one of those. He was a character.

4. No Pocky For Kitty (1991)

Again, this is where it gets hard, but the records that are left are all the records we did between 1991 and 1995, which I consider our prime era. With No Pocky For Kitty I was uncertain about my ability. We were playing shows and I was getting better, but I still thought, "What am I doing?" To me there are some songs on here that aren't great. I remember we were writing some of them while we were touring. We were on such an accelerated schedule. We had to write some songs to put on this record.

You spent three days with Steve Albini in the studio at the end of your tour. And according to the liner notes it was "produced with eyes closed by Laura, who sat in the right chair."
Right. I felt that was a jab at me. Clearly, I didn't produce it. Maybe I was asleep? I don't know. Recording that one was also tough and a strange time because my friend Wendy had been on tour with us and she had a breakdown. She was manic depressive, and we didn't realize that when she came on tour with us. I felt terrible about this, but we had to put her on a plane to fly her home. We just dropped her off at the airport. I can't believe we didn't even walk her to the plane. The whole thing cast this mood over the recording of this album because I was just worried about her. We recorded this thing in all of just three days at a pretty fancy recording studio that Steve used on off-hours to make punk rock records. There were a lot of memories from recording this album, because Steve is such a funny character. I felt totally intimidated by him.

Did he ask you to buy him root beer and Pepperidge Farms Chessmen cookies?
I think it was his request when we went out to get snacks. Or he brought them in himself. I can't remember. Because it's hard for me to imagine we would go out and buy snacks because we were so on a shoestring budget.

You released this a month after Nirvana released Nevermind. Did that help at all?
Yeah, indie rock was big. And Nirvana was a part of that. There was this wave of interest in this kind of music, driven by Nirvana but also but the stuff before that too. This grunge wave from Sub Pop and how big Mudhoney were.

3. Foolish (1994)

I find this is often the fan favorite.
It might be. I feel like that is because it's such an emotionally vulnerable record, lyrically. It's a break-up record. I think I may have put it higher up on my list, but it was so painful for me. So I can't put it as number one because I remember being so upset at the time recording and touring it.

Was the band in jeopardy after you and Mac broke up?
It's possible, but we didn't talk about it. When Mac and I broke up, we had discussed what we were gonna do. We decided to tough it out because it felt like we needed to keep Merge and Superchunk going. They were important. But touring for Foolish was so hard. Listening to those words every night and feeling so mute. I didn't get to say anything, and here he was saying everything. I would be up there jumping up and down with tears streaming down my face. I would try and angle his amp away from me when he wasn't looking.

Was your painting on the album cover a commentary on your break up?
In some ways, I'm sure I was inspired by the subject matter of the record, but maybe more subconsciously. Unfortunately, whenever it would come time to making art for a Superchunk record it wasn't like I had a lot of time to make art. So it would be this one-off effort and not a practiced one. [Laughs] I was sort of inspired by this American Music Club album, it may have been Mercury, that had a photograph of a woman I really liked. I thought I would do a portrait too, and I was conveniently the only person available. I had just watched Pets Or Meat, the Michael Moore movie, and that's where the rabbit came from because I felt it needed something more. So it was really stupid.

So much has been read into that cover.
Right. And I knew they would. But at least consciously the process was not probably what people think it was.

You mixed Foolish with Steve Albini. Apparently you tried to teach him how to breathe fire?
Yes. It's not something you can try many times. Even though you're not swallowing anything, you kinda get drunk by absorption and it gives you a headache really fast. That I picked up from John Reis and his girlfriend at the time. I loved it because it was this weird, freakish thing that I could try to do. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. I was at this point in my life where I liked feeling tough. And it felt pretty tough. I would use 151-proof rum, whatever it was called. I don't know why it exists.

When was the last time you breathed fire?
Umm… jeez… maybe 1996 [Laughs] I think I may still have a bottle of that stuff in my liquor cabinet that has no purpose. Maybe I should flambé some bananas or something.

2. Here's Where the Strings Come In (1995)

I like most of the songs on this record. Again, I think it was a record I felt good about the whole process and feeling confident in what I was doing. We took more time to do it. We did it with Wally Gagel, who I think has a really good ear for drums. I feel like Wally had a good influence on how it sounded coming out of the mixing process. He made it sound really good.

You wrote the songs in a cinderblock house owned by a Squirrel Nut Zipper?
That's funny, I forgot about that. Yeah, Stacy [Guess], who was in the Squirrel Nut Zippers at the time. We would go out there to rehearse. I don't know how that happened. [Laughs] Why were we there? I guess it was big enough to make noise in. Whenever I think about that place, I remember how beautiful it was outside, and how cold and dark it was inside. Outside it was a big grassy area, this field of long grass. And on the other side of the driveway was a forest.

Was the album cover shot there?
No. It was shot in my front yard in Chapel Hill with a Polaroid.

This was also around the time that Merge became a full-time job. You quit your job at Kinko's?
Yes. I hated working at Kinko's. It made me so sleepy. It was so boring. It was fun because it was a social thing to do. A lot of people came in there. I sort of enjoyed the weird world of copy machines and learning how they worked and being able to unjam them. I like that sort of mechanical stuff and understanding how things work. I'm kind of geeky that way.

This seemed like a big record for Superchunk.
Yeah, it was. It was our biggest-selling record at the time. I'm not sure where they all rank at this point, but that one sold more when it came out than any other one, before or since.

"Hyper Enough" was a proper anthem, and you guys actually hired a radio promoter to work it. What was that experience like?
Yeah, we did a special mix of it to send to radio. I think it was a little ambitious but it was worth a try. I don't think it paid off, and I think the record was gonna sell what it did without that. The radio promotion didn't affect sales, because it didn't really get played on the radio, except maybe some specialty shows. Part of the reason this record is so high is because there are a lot of good songs on it that I still like a lot.

Do you still have any of the "Hyper Enough" coffee cups you sent to radio stations?
Yes. I'm hoarding two of them. I have them on a shelf in my office. I took them out of use so they didn't get broken.

I feel like "Hyper Enough" trumped "Slack Motherfucker" as Superchunk's signature song.
Exactly! I can still stand to hear "Hyper Enough." I can't stand "Slack Motherfucker," though. "Slack Motherfucker" is stupid. [Laughs] "Hyper Enough" is a little more advanced.

1. On the Mouth (1993)

So why is this your favorite?
Well, there are a lot of songs that I really like and liked playing live. I feel like it was our first record where we knew what we were doing and locked together as a band.

This was the first album with Jon Wurster on drums. What did he bring to the band that was missing?
Well, he was easier to get along with than Chuck Garrison. So touring got more fun. You didn't have to walk on pins and needles so that you didn't make someone grumpy. Chuck is a great drummer, and he had a swing that was great. Jon is a more precise drummer. He's worked hard on that. He is a career drummer and serious about it. I always felt like he was sending me signals. He has a language while he's playing that helps everyone in the band and keeps us all together. So he brought that. I feel like it's our first album where we're an actual band, like we know the songs.

John Reis produced the album. What made you hire him?
Well, we were big fans of both Rocket From The Crypt and Drive Like Jehu and his first band, Pitchfork. And we toured with him, so we'd gotten to know him. Honestly, I have a lot of guilty feelings around John's involvement with this record. He came and acted as the producer, but I don't think we ever paid him for coming to the studio for however long. At the end, when we were trying to leave town and we were trying to get him to his ride that was taking him back to San Diego, and at some point he was like, "I'll just get out of the van. I'll see you guys later!" [Laughs] And I remember going, "Oh my God, he's so sick of us and so mad at us right now!" I've never talked to him about. I thought he and Mac must have worked something out. I have weird feelings about it.

If I ever talk to him again I'll ask, "Did Superchunk ever pay you for producing On The Mouth"?
We didn't! I know we didn't. Maybe we brought him food and fed him while he was with us, but I don't think we paid him anything.

I read that there was a weird collection of pornography at the studio.
There was. It was interesting. Some pornography was watched. But it was such weird stuff. Like, "Oh God, this one has eels! We gotta see what the hell this is!" It was more out of curiosity than it was to get turned on.

Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.