Superchunk’s What a Time To Be Alive kicks off with a charging rush. “There’s a crooked line that runs through every crease in this map,” singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan seethes, singing over a frenzied “Running on Empty” beat from drummer Jon Wurster, power chords from guitarist Jim Wilbur, and Laura Ballance’s steady, pounding bass. “We can’t pretend to be surprised/Oh, what a time to be alive,” McCaughan sings, dazed at the start of the Trump Era.
What a Time To Be Alive is a protest record, through and through. But its polemics are complicated and exploratory, making space not only for rage and stridency but for emotional reckoning (“Lost My Brain”) empathy, and self-care (“Bad Choices”). And most helpful of all, Superchunk manages to write about an idealism that feels rooted in reality, a winnable fight, fortified by joy and hope. “Break the glass/don’t use the door/this is what the hammer’s for,” McCaughan sings, a sly grin seemingly audible. This is no time for reservation.
For Ballance, who co-founded Merge Records with McCaughan in 1989, the record was a welcome return to form — written and recorded quickly, fueled by an energy that she recalled from the band’s early days in Chapel Hill, in the final days of the Reagan administration. Ballance ceased touring with Superchunk in 2013 due to complications from hyperacusis, a hearing disorder, but her contributions on the record are essential. She adds a gritty edge to the sleek “Erasure” and propels the rallying, Chelsea Manning-evoking “I Got Cut.”
Speaking to AD via phone from North Carolina, Ballance explained the album’s creation and discussed the importance of community.
Aquarium Drunkard: Superchunk has pretty much always been a high-energy band, but this record particularly rages. There’s an urgency that’s bracing. How did it feel playing these faster, heavier songs?
Laura Ballance: It felt great. It’s how I prefer to play, you know? It’s like playing in the band I first joined, the band we first started. Obviously, we don’t stay the same our entire lives [but the record is driven by the] sentiment that made me want to start a band, you know? Having something beyond your personal relationships to fuel your songwriting…It’s a lot more fulfilling, I gotta say.
AD: I can’t imagine that any decent person would ever prefer that things are shitty in the world to make a great album.
Laura Ballance: No.
AD: But at the same time, these songs make it clear there’s something galvanizing about a fight. I think that it maybe got, for me personally, a little too easy in the last decade or so to sort of assume that things were on a good path, when the truth was that none of the problems that we’re facing now just started, you know?
Laura Ballance: Yeah.
AD: I think that there’s been something about the cold water shock of this current moment and this current climate to remind me how much there still is to fight against and how there has continued to be things to fight against. None of this just started. Did it felt similar to you guys making this album?
Laura Ballance: Wait, what was the question? [Laughs] I’m sorry.
AD: [Laughs] I don’t know that I’m doing a great job asking one. You mentioned that What A Time To Be Alive reminded you of the band’s early days. What were those days like?
Laura Ballance: I think it was less political then. It was much more just youthful angst.
AD: Did the band have any discussions about resisting the urge to get political with a new record?
Laura Ballance: With this record? No. Not at all.
AD: It felt like the natural thing to do?
Laura Ballance: Yes, and…like you said, you could write a record like this at any time. I could have in the last ten years.
Laura Ballance: But it wasn’t so in our face, was it? You can’t ignore it anymore. I don’t know, I hate for every discussion of this record to just be about politics, but that’s pretty much, outside of my personal life, it’s sort of all that I think about anymore. [Laughs] It’s like, politics and how it’s affecting all of our lives and how it’s affecting the future and how we deal with the environment, which is our biggest fucking problem, but nobody wants to deal with it. And that didn’t just start. That’s been going on since the ’70s…the hippies were yelling about it, and Jimmy Carter was talking about it, you know? Now, we’re blaming it on Trump for not dealing with it, but this started 50 years ago.
AD: So one of the things that I think is really interesting about this record is that you are examining the relationship between nostalgia and the future with this album. That’s sort of crystalized on “Reagan Youth,” which looks back on the hardcore scene, but also, to some degree, touches on the political era that gave birth to that scene. It examines how the Reagan era captured a large portion of our country’s imagination in ways we’re seeing emerge presently. But I feel like this record also deals with the way nostalgia can turn into a toxic impulse, while at the same time, embracing some nostalgic elements. That’s just such an interesting and cool complication. Was that something that was in your minds as you guys were putting this record together?
Laura Ballance: It wasn’t in mind. I can’t say what was in Mac’s head when he was writing the lyrics.
AD: What is your relationship with the lyrics like typically? I don’t imagine that you’re sitting around living with a lot of discomfort about them. As a musician, do they feel close to you?
Laura Ballance: I think that — and obviously this isn’t the case with all bands–as a band, we tend to be likeminded people. We have similar feelings about what’s going on right now. Some of us are more politically active than others, but none of us like what’s happening and none of us would argue against any of the sentiments being expressed in the lyrics. But yeah, we don’t sit around and discuss lyrics. When we’re writing the record and playing, you know, recording the record, it’s not like we’re sitting around talking about the politics and how mad we are. We’re just making a record, you know? [Laughs]
AD: [Laughs] Right.
Laura Ballance: [But] there is an energy to it that we all felt. It was definitely there. The way we recorded this record–it felt intense and purposeful in a way that it hasn’t really felt to me in a while. It felt like the way we recorded it, it was sort of like going back to the way we recorded the first three or four records, where it was fast, you know? It’s maybe not as sloppy as the first couple [laughs] but just as quickly executed. We weren’t looking for perfection. We were looking for spirit.
AD: I think this record has a lot of that. There’s a lot of guests on this record. Sabrina Ellis from A Giant Dog and Katie Crutchfield from Waxahatchee, Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, David Bazan of Pedro the Lion, who is one of my all-time favorite songwriters. Having all these people on here really evokes a sense of community and spirit.
Laura Ballance: Absolutely, yeah. I’m so honored that all these people decided to accept our invitation to be on the record. They’re all, obviously, people we really like. A lot of them happen to be on Merge, which makes it easy. But I don’t know, it’s a good way to expose people who like Superchunk to other bands that we like, but also to reach across to others…the fans of these other artists are not necessarily people who would listen to Superchunk, so hopefully it’s a way to reach across boundaries… I mean, having Stephin Merritt and Katie Crutchfield on the same song together, you know, it’s, like, it’s kind of crazy. [Laughs] That they even agreed to be on our record at all blew my mind, honestly.
AD: That sense of community extends to your label. Merge puts out records every year, multiple albums, that end up being my favorite things, you know? Mountain Goats, William Tyler, Destroyer, Hiss Golden Messenger, the Clientele…as a listener, it feels like a community.
Laura Ballance: I love hearing you say that because you know, it does. We try to work with artists that we want to be friends with. I consider every fan of our bands, hopefully, someone that I would want to hang out with. And you are part of the community, you know? If you are supporting these artists, being a fan of them and going to see them and listening to their records, we’re all in it together.
AD: Merge tends to put out records that differ from each other stylistically. A Heather McEntire, record sounds different than that Escape-ism record; the Magnetic Fields sound different than Hollie Cook. Is there a thread that connects the things that you put out that runs deeper than aesthetics?
Laura Ballance: I mean, not that I can define or put my finger on. It’s just music I like. I don’t just listen to funk albums or just listen to country albums or just listen to punk rock records. I don’t define myself by one genre, so why would our record label be defined by one genre? Anyone who I’ve ever known who only listens to one kind of music, like, “I’m only into death metal and that’s it,” they are usually not someone I want to hang out with. [Laughs] Most people aren’t like that and we aren’t either, and so, you know, our record label shouldn’t be that way, either. I don’t know. But I cannot tell you what exactly ties them all together, other than it being mindful music made by mindful people.
AD: There’s an ethic to that. Embracing a lot of different kinds of things is a strength; diversity is a strength, and that applies artistically and socially and so many different ways. “Listen to more than one kind of music,” is in its own way a powerful thing as much as it is a simple and natural thing.
Laura Ballance: Yeah.
AD: I love the album cover. You and Mac made it together?
Laura Ballance: Yes. He started it, he had an idea for it. So I was, like, “Yeah, go for it. It’s my turn, but I guess you’re taking it”–
Laura Ballance: [Laughs] –and he started, and he does this skull, and then he was like, “Listen, I was wondering if you would mind doing some flowers to go with it… you know, we could collaborate on this,” and I was like, “Okay, I can do that.” And so it’s as simple as that, really. And it is the first time we’ve ever collaborated [visually]. It was fun and it’s a different experience, for sure, to not have all that pressure on just one person to come up with this weird visual representation of how people are going to think about your record
AD: Had you previously alternated on the album art?
Laura Ballance: Uh huh, yeah.
AD: So this time, it was an entirely different experience.
Laura Ballance: Yeah. And you know, I have to say, since I am not touring with the band, my attitude towards the band has changed a little bit. I’m a lot less controlling about it. I don’t know…if I were still touring and everything, I might’ve been more like, “We have to get in a fight about this, because it’s my turn.” [Laughs] But since I’m not touring, it’s sort of like I’ve stepped down a little. I’ve stepped back. I still care about it very much, but I’m also slightly less emotionally engaged in the band as a big part of my life, you know? And I’m giving up some control of it by not being there for every step of promoting the record, you know? And so, it was easier for me to be like, “Yeah, go ahead, that’s fine. It’s, you know, it’s more your thing than mine right now.”
AD: Obviously you’re a huge part of this album — you’re an elemental part of the record — but does being removed from the band on the road offer you a perspective that you didn’t have in the past about the records?
Laura Ballance: It gives me a different perspective because I’m one step further away. You can see things maybe a little more clearly when you’re not so in the thick of it.
AD: It sounds like the making of this record was such a fast-paced sort of a whirlwind. You tore through it and made this really cool thing. What are you feeling now that it’s out there? I wonder if it’s like an amplified version of what every musician feels when they make something and then put it out into the world. It’s not just theirs anymore.
Laura Ballance: It’s funny, it goes both directions. I feel like, in a weird way, I’m making it and then abandoning it because I’m not going to be the one playing it every night. So I’m a step removed in that way. And it makes me sort of sad, too…because in a way, I’m missing out on the experience of playing it for people, which is so–it’s so fun. It’s so fulfilling to do that. And also, you know, these other guys in my band are going to go out and do this part without me…I’m left behind, kind of. But it’s a relief, too, to not have to do it and to not be exposing my ears to more noise than I can handle. So I don’t know, there’s a lot of conflict about it.
AD: Are you planning on doing any shows for this record?
Laura Ballance: No…I’m not. I’ve tried. I’ve done a few things since I decided not to [Laughs] I did a TV appearance; I played one song at a thing that [Superchunk drummer] Jon [Wurster] and Tom Scharpling do–
AD: The Best Show?
Laura Ballance: The Best Show. They did a tour and here in Durham, we played with our old drummer Chuck [Garrison]. We played “Slack Motherfucker,” and afterward I was like, “Oh my god, that was a mistake.” [Laughs] Like, all it took was one song, and I was like, “Oh no…” That set me back, like, six months in terms of my recovery. So, you know, I don’t think I can do it anymore. It’s too bad.
AD: I’m sure there’s a painfulness associated with that, but I really do appreciate you taking care of yourself, too, because what you do through Merge means a lot to so many other people. As a band and as a label, I love what you do. Independent people making independent art. It’s a notion that is under existential threat constantly.
Laura Ballance: No kidding! [Laughs]
AD: It’s an endangered idea, but you do such a good job fighting against that tide and it’s appreciated.
Laura Ballance: Thank you. words/j woodbury
Further Reading: Unbelievable Things: The Story Of Superchunk’s Indoor Living