Merge Records' Laura Ballance & Mac McCaughan

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

BY Vish KhannaPublished Sep 26, 2009

North Carolina's Merge Records celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and nothing brings its historic accomplishments home like Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records. While other indie and major labels have faltered, Merge is more successful than ever thanks to the visionary taste of its founders, Superchunk band-mates, Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan. Co-authored by Ballance and McCaughan, Our Noise is an oral history profiling the label's ascent via perspectives from some of its best-known bands (Arcade Fire, Spoon, Magnetic Fields, etc.). "Our friend John Cook wrote up a proposal and we went with it," McCaughan says of the book. "I had a little bit of a feeling of 'Who's gonna wanna read this?' It's not a terribly dramatic, rags-to-riches story."

That said, Our Noise is starkly personal, revealing triumphs and heartbreaks alike. "There are things about it that feel a little awkward I think, to be revealing in a book," Ballance says. "Some aspects of Mac and my relationship and our breaking up. That's a relatively short portion of the book but when I read it the first time, I thought 'Oh no! Do we have to get into this?'"

What are you up to?
Mac: I'm currently working on score music for a short film made by a visual artist ― who can't be revealed until it's done ― as well as promoting a book we wrote about the history of Merge called Our Noise. We're doing some in-stores where we read from the book and play some songs by Superchunk but also covers by other bands in the book.
Laura: There's a Clean record coming out. A Clientelle record coming out. Also Lou Barlow. We're going to re-issue 69 Love Songs [by Magnetic Fields] on vinyl. I'm not sure when that's coming out though; we keep having to shift the release date because it's a mess. Crazy. Occasionally Superchunk get together and play shows and, as a result of that, we've been working on some new songs together.
Mac: We're working on it slowly but surely, one song at a time.
Laura: As for me, construction and art. Our basement is in the midst of a crazy overhaul. And in my head I am planning my next round of ceramic creatures.

What are your current fixations?
Laura: Pork. I like to get pork directly from this one particular farmer who also sells cheese, so she feeds whey to the pigs and it's the most freaking delicious pork ever. I like also to get the odd bits and figure out what to do with them. It took me a long time to decide what to do with the ear.
Mac: I don't always have time to watch it, but there is some good TV out there right now. We try to fit it into the last hour before we go to bed; Mad Men, Weeds, 30 Rock, and, more recently, Hung are all pretty great. Art-wise I've been reading a book about the contemporary art market called The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, which is fun. There was a show at the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill recently of works by Aldwyth, a 73-yr old collage artist and sculptor from South Carolina. Her stuff is obsessive and beautiful.

Why do you live where you do?
Laura: We're close to the beach and the mountains. It's beautiful. The living is easy. There are a lot of nice people here. And good music.
Mac: Yeah, it's green, it's quiet, it's small but there's a lot of art happening around here. A lot of good food too!

Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
Laura: This is kind of silly, but ever since I saw No Country for Old Men I think of it often. It has altered my mind in that it's stuck in there. I don't know what that says about me. Probably that in seeing only one movie a year and watching no television I have become too easily impressionable.
Mac: Exile On Main Street by the Rolling Stones, Infinity Net paintings by Yayoi Kusama, and poems by Robert Creeley.

What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
Laura: Recently at XX Merge, Lambchop played one of the most moving shows I have ever had the honour of attending. Everyone in the room, the band and the crowd, got totally swept up in the moment. It was really emotional. There were grown men crying at the end of it.
Mac: There's too many to just name one! Corrosion of Conformity at CBGB in 1985 for the overwhelming power in the room; Dinosaur at Maxwell's in 1987 for the same reason; the Minutemen at St. Joseph's Church in Durham, 1984 ― it just blew my mind about what a "hardcore" band was capable of. And yeah, Lambchop at XX Merge Festival this past summer.

What have been your career highs and lows?
Laura: A lot of the rock shows I've played have been total highs. They can be so, so fun when the energy between the band and the crowd is flowing back and forth. It's the high that keeps me out there playing rock shows, even though half the time I claim to be sick of it and over it. A low? One time we played this show in Cary I think, with Dynamic Truths, and I was in the middle of final exams in college. I hadn't been able to practice and my head was so full of school stuff that I couldn't remember any songs. We played this horrible set where I just wanted to melt into the ground the whole time.
Mac: Yeah, I try not to keep track of the lows! But my career high is the fact that I get to make music and run a record label for a living.

What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
Laura: Oh, I can't remember. I try to forget mean things, and do a pretty good job of it.
Mac: [Superchunk's] Jim Wilbur's always mouthing cruelties to me during our sets, but none are publishable in a family magazine.

What should everyone shut up about?
Laura: Socialism.
Mac: Uh, everything. Especially on airplanes. Silence is underrated.

What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
Mac: I like my ability to occasionally get our daughter to school by 8:15. I most dislike my inability to make time to exercise as much as I should.
Laura: I dislike my horrible memory. I have a great deal of empathy, which can be positive, but it can also be a bad thing, as it makes me cry when I watch things like horse races.

What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Laura: Making biscuits, hanging out with my family, doing some gardening, making something with my hands, and going to bed early.
Mac: Sleeping late and then reading the entire New York Times with coffee. Then taking a nap after all that reading.

What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Laura: Don't hang out with those boys.

What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
Laura: If someone were really, really mean I might kick them out of my band, or my bed. Have I? Probably!
Mac: If a band member got everyone else in the band arrested by trying to bring something illegal over the US/Canadian border ― drugs, porn, hip-hop bootlegs ― we'd have to let them go. Luckily this hasn't happened. Yet.

What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Laura: Maples. Puffins, or birds that look like puffins. I also think of Howard Bilerman, donuts, and frozen orange juice.
Mac: Lake Louise.

What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
Laura: I think it was the LP of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtrack. Or the Black Stallion soundtrack. Pretty cool, eh?
Mac: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy by Elton John. Gatefold sleeve with the booklet!

What was your most memorable day job?
Laura: Working at the Glass Oven Bakery at Lenox Square in Atlanta in 1983. I was goth and serving rum balls made of spoiled cheesecake to unsuspecting ladies. It was strange.
Mac: It was either the all-night shift at Kinko's or repairing drawings in the Columbia Architecture Library.

How do you spoil yourself?
Laura: I eat too much fat.
Mac: Buying records.

If I wasn't playing music I would be...
Mac: I've been doing it so long, I don't really know how to answer this.
Laura: A carpenter or an artist. I hope.

What do you fear most?
Laura: Embarrassment. But I am embarrassed quite frequently, so one would hope I am getting over it.
Mac: Something happening to my family or something happening to me while I'm away on tour.

What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Laura: My husband.
Mac: Knowing that this questionnaire is almost done. I'm lighting candles...

What has been your strangest celebrity encounter? (Perhaps you are the celebrity here; perhaps someone else.)
Laura: Back in the early '90s, we played a show in L.A. I think it was with Sonic Youth, and Courtney Love and Perry Farrell were back stage. I went back there at some point and Courtney said something along the lines of "So, I hear you're the next hot rock chick." And it frightened me to be spoken to by her, especially in this way, as it felt like she was trying to pit us against one another, so I ran away and refused to go back stage any more that night.
Mac: I guess maybe meeting LL Cool J in the Cancun Airport at 6 a.m. He thought my camera attachment for my PalmPilot was cool. This was obviously ten years ago.

Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Mac: Having the Springsteens over would be fun. I don't know what we'd serve but I know that my wife, not me, would need to cook!
Laura: I dunno who it'd be but I'd like my dinner guest to be alive for sure, as they would not eat or talk much if they were dead.

What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Laura: She actually seems to be pretty pleased with what I am up to!
Mac: Yeah, she's into the rock.

What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
Mac: I really wouldn't want to ruin a good song for others by having it associated with a funeral.
Laura: I know it'd be nice if it were more uplifting, but I wouldn't mind hearing "Tar the Roofs" by the Radar Brothers, as I was laid to rest.

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