Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan have been making art longer than they’ve been making music, and they’ve been making music for quite a while. The Chapel Hill, NC, music-scene figureheads first formed frazzly DIY rock band Superchunk in the late 1980s and have played together on and off ever since, most recently returning after a nine-year break with last fall’s Majesty Shredding LP. The two also founded and continue to run Merge Records, one of the most respected and successful independent labels in the country, home to acts like Arcade Fire, Spoon, She & Him and many, many others. Along with a rotating cast of supporting musicians, Superchunk has released nine full-length albums and a slew of 7-inch records and singles over the years, all of them sporting cover art created by one of the two bandleaders, who try to stay active in visual art despite their hectic careers and young families. I chatted with Ballance by phone and McCaughan by email about their evolving processes, artistic habits and the older works that make them cringe. –Rachael Maddux
Laura, tell me how you started doing visual art.
Laura Ballance: That’s hard to answer. I guess I have been doing visual art ever since I was a little kid, you know. I started drawing when I was a kid and I guess all kids do, mostly. And I never stopped. I always really enjoyed it and found it satisfying in some way to draw. I was drawing, mostly, as a kid and more recently as an adult I got more into sculpture. Actually, when I was a kid I made sculptures, too — I forgot. I used to make a lot of things out of Sculpey. [Laughs]
Mac, when did you start doing art? Was it before or after you started with music?
Mac McCaughan: Probably art first, in school and summer camps and that kind of thing, and then in college I took some printmaking classes with Nicholas Sperakis — mostly woodcut, but really it’s always just been a hobby. As with music, I think my desire to make art was driven by being a fan of art and certain artists, and in fact I think music and art have always gone hand in hand for me. Really, when you start a band and make a record, one of the most exciting things about that is that you’ll get to make the cover art! Didn’t stop me from making one of the ugliest record covers ever — the first Superchunk album — but still.
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Did you study art in school or have any formal training? Did you ever consider pursuing visual art as any sort of career?
Mac McCaughan: No, I don’t think I ever felt like I was driven to make art, or to have the reserves to create art, in the way that I was with music. I like doing it and I can sometimes make something that I’m happy to look at, but I’ve never dedicated the time to formal training or even just putting in the hours painting or whatever to get to a point where I could reliably execute something I’m picturing in my brain. Sometimes I can but not usually. The printmaking classes I took at Columbia with Sperakis were great because he’s great, and a character, but also it just puts you in a position to have to create stuff. In real life, unless art is your job, there are so many other things that take precedence. That’s why when I make art, it’s usually with a purpose — we need a record cover, etc.
Laura Ballance: The only lessons I have taken were ceramic classes that I took with a friend of mine. I happen to be friends with this woman who is — a trained ceramicist, I guess you could call her. And she makes some really amazing things and it inspired me to take some classes from her and while most of the classes were basic — how to throw a pot, where you like, build things out of slabs or whatever — I really enjoyed making things that don’t really have a practical use. They’re more like little creatures.
Laura, you two pretty much trade off album covers — you do a piece and Mac does a piece. I was wondering how you came to that arrangement.
Laura Ballance: Well, he did the first few record covers — I guess it was the first three, and he just did them, you know, and we didn’t really talk about it. Then at a certain point I was like, “Hey!” [laughs] “I can do it! I like to make things and I’d like to try it.” I have to say, though, I don’t know if — like, a lot of the album covers that have come out of my turn, I haven’t really liked that much in hindsight, you know? I do a painting and I’m like, “Oh God, what is this painting? I don’t know how this makes a good record cover.”
Mac, what was the first piece you did for the band?
Mac McCaughan: The first record cover art I did was for the box set Evil I Do Not, To Nod I Live that a couple bands I was in were part of — Wwax and the Slushpuppies — along with other bands from around here: Angels of Epistemology, the Black Girls and Egg. It was a woodcut. Other woodcuts appeared on a Wwax double 7-inch and some Superchunk T-shirts. There was some Xerox art made from photos I took, which was the cover of the first Chunk single, before we became Superchunk.
Of the covers that you’ve done, did you create any images specifically for an album cover?
Laura Ballance: Yes. Or, like, I did them knowing that we needed a record cover, and I finished them and was like, “Oh God, I don’t really have time to do another one, I guess I’m gonna use this one.” It’s kind of a lot — it’s weird, it’s a lot of pressure. I’m not very good — I guess because the amount of other things I have going on, between the band and the record label — I’m not very good about creating art all the time like I should, so that I have a lot of materials to choose from when it comes down to making a record cover. And actually, the Leaves in the Gutter EP, which has a few of my clay sculptures on it, is the first one that I really liked of the record covers that I’ve done. And those things I did not make especially to be on the record cover. I was able to choose something — I was like “Yeah, I like this, can we do this?” Also, it helps that we have a good designer in house here at Merge who can take images and make it all work.
Mac McCaughan: That kind of varies. Mostly I’ve made things for specific uses. Indoor Living, Summer of the Shark, Autumn Was a Lark, Majesty Shredding, Incidental Music, Here’s to Shutting Up, the 1,000 Pounds 7-inch — those were all painted specifically for those covers. I can’t actually remember if the woodcuts on No Pocky For Kitty and On The Mouth were made for those covers or already existed, though the subject matter makes it seem as though they were likely made for the covers. I’ve always taken a lot of photos with the idea in the back of my mind that they would make a good texture or image for a record cover. With Portastatic, early on I was more open than with Superchunk releases to using art by others, probably because with Superchunk, we’d have to get everyone to agree to the same piece! This time around with Superchunk we’ve involved other artists as well — Will Yackulic did the crazy art for the “Crossed Wires” single using a typewriter and who knows what else, and NC native Harrison Haynes, also of Les Savy Fav, did the collage on the Digging for Something sleeve.
When you were working on your own covers, did you sit down and try to tie in elements of the album to the image, or was it just kind of an image unrelated to the actual music?
Laura Ballance: It’s pretty unrelated. [But] when I was working on the album cover for Foolish — I guess that one is sort of related. That record came out a really long time ago, around when Mac and I broke up — we used to date, which I don’t recommend anyone do when they’re in a band with someone. Mac never talks about his lyrics, but I felt very strongly that [those songs were] all about me. And so that record cover is pretty much a self-portrait. And it’s not happy, you know? And it’s not a happy record. I feel like that one ties to the album more than some of the other ones do. Here’s Where the Strings Come In, which is the next one I did the cover for, is just — it felt, the way we recorded that record, felt more rich and densely layered to me than a lot of the records we’d done before, so when I was doing the art for that, I took photos specifically for the album cover. And I really like that one actually. I did it with these old Polaroid cameras and the colors are really rich and saturated, and the images felt to me like the record did. . . . I do like that one, but it’s funny, the two ones where I’ve done paintings, I don’t really like those.
Mac McCaughan: I think for the most part I’ve got a color scheme in mind that I associate with the record, and then go from there. Many of the images are quite tied, sometimes comically so, to the music — too literal, I guess, in some cases, but I try to at least abstract it away from the subject in some way.
Mac, Laura mentioned that she now doesn’t really care for some of the covers she did. In hindsight, are there any covers you wish you’d done something different for?
Mac McCaughan: Ha, yes. As I mentioned, our first album is really hideous — trying to cram too many images/colors/collage elements into one cover, in case it was the only record we ever got to make, I guess! No Pocky has some cool elements, but it’s also kind of ugly. The Mower painting is terrible! But you live and learn. In some cases, they could have been much worse, but working with designers like Marco at Matador and currently Maggie Fost here at Merge means that if I can get something to a certain point — like painting the vacuum tube for Majesty Shredding — then Maggie can help round out the concept. [For the Majesty Shredding cover] I had the tube and I knew what I wanted the font to be like, but Maggie had the idea of situating the tube in a photograph of some kind and we went from there.
Do you have studio space at your home?
Laura Ballance: I didn’t for a long time, but just recently we redid our basement and now I have the space. So I’ve been trying to get back into it, which is kind of hard—it’s like if you don’t practice, it’s hard to do it. It’s like exercise, I guess, in a way, where the longer it’s been since you’ve gone running, the harder it is to get up off your ass and do it.
Mac McCaughan: My music studio is a room in the basement — it’s pretty awesome having a room to make music in. For a while I was renting an office nearby to do that but having my studio back in the house is great. Making art usually happens at the dining room table, however! Kind of a pain, having to get everything out and then put it away so we can still have meals in between, but that’s what I do currently.
I’m wondering what kind of music you listen to while working, if you listen at all.
Laura Ballance: It’s pretty random. I may not listen to any music at all. It depends on where I am and what’s going on. But I wouldn’t say listening to music is a necessary part of my process, for me.
Mac McCaughan: I’ll listen to music or have a hockey game on. Recently been listening to the Syl Johnson box set on Numero Group, the Anthony Braxton mosaic box, [Hüsker Dü’s] Zen Arcade, those Nigeria Special CDs, the Hot Chip album, Ella Fitzgerald’s Twelve Nights in Hollywood, and Dexys Midnight Runners.
What are you working on right now? I know you’ve been on tour for a bit, but are you going to be able to settle back in and do some more?
Mac McCaughan: I made some paintings for a show here recently at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro of visual art by musicians. I wasn’t terribly happy with them, a couple were OK. I was painting headphones but trying to imagine that they were buildings in a Philip Guston painting. What I wanted to do was a couple sculptures that I conceptualized but didn’t have the time or wherewithal to get them together. Maybe I will at some point. It would also be great to just paint on a regular basis without an assignment, but I find it difficult to set aside the time to do that — maybe in 2011!
Laura Ballance: I hope so. I made another ceramic character, I guess, shortly before we left, maybe in October. And I really enjoy doing it and the 3-D aspect of it. But I’m trying to get back into painting again, too. I used to work primarily in watercolors but I’ve gotten out of practice with it, and I’ve found that I’m having to teach myself again what things are. I had a kid, too, and that really slowed me down. I tried to do a painting not so long ago and I was like, “Ugh!”
Laura, since you’ve had a child, do you find yourself thinking about it in a different way, working with this tiny person?
Laura Ballance: Yeah, definitely. She’s six and so she’s definitely drawing things and painting things and makes a lot of really beautiful drawings. I really enjoy that naïve style of drawing that kids have, where they represent things in the simplest way possible way — it’s just beautiful, you know? I find myself wishing I could go back to that. [Joan] Miro was someone who managed to retain that really childlike aspect of interpreting what he sees in his drawings and paintings, and I love him and I wish I could be more that way but I’m not. I’m not representational, I guess.
Tell me about your ceramic characters, like the one on the Leaves in the Gutter cover. Do you work on one big piece at a time?
Laura Ballance: Well, actually, because you have to let things sit for a while in between adding on parts, you have to let them harden a little or else the whole thing will just kind of flop over and it’s awful. So you do have to stop working on one piece for at least a few hours before you can add onto it, so it does facilitate — if you’re on a roll — starting multiple things at once. And I do that sometimes and, you know, make three or four things at a time, which is fun.
What do you do with them when you’re done? Do they decorate your home?
Laura Ballance: They do for a while, until someone asks me to do a show and then I put them in there and usually I don’t get them back. There’s some that I’m like, “Man, I should have kept that one.”
Well, if you put them on an album cover, then you kind of have them forever.
Laura Ballance: Yeah, that’s true. At least there’s a good picture of it somewhere.
At Grace’s request: Superchunk’s video for “Watery Hands,” one of their funniest music videos, featuring David Cross and Janeane Garofalo.