Steve Albini on Shellac, Big Black, All Tomorrow's Parties and loving your dayjob

Steve Albini interview transcript

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Steve Albini Interview

A complete transcript of The List's interview with Shellac's Steve Albini recorded on 19 September 2008

Shellac are a singular force in rock music. They have an aesthetic all their own and a attitude and vision which, while not unique, is a delight to behold. Three men making music for the sheer hell of it, with no financial or social imperative. This comes across in the cheerily odd and sporadic live shows and their even more sporadic studio recordings.

As someone who has followed Albini’s adventures on record, onstage and in print for almost 20 years I was prepared for at least some fireworks. However, here, in a half hour before heading out of town on a recording job, Albini proved himself a serious, but sincere interviewee. Polite, and never presumptuous, it was novel to speak to someone from a band who felt obliged to explain who his fellow band members Bob and Todd were in our conversation. Perhaps the experience of speaking to too many soundbite hungry hacks who couldn’t even manage all the way down that Wikipedia entry had become wearing over the years. That’s not to say the vitriol of yore is gone, it just had little occasion to surface this time round.

You've got a Halloween show going on again this year in London, will we see, maybe not a reprise of the '98 one with the Pistols, but something like it?

You know, since it's gonna be out of town we're not going to have a lot of costume resources at our disposal. I suspect we will probably just play a normal show- I hope that's not too disappointing!

One of the posters said come dressed as one of the bands – you could potentially be facing a whole crowd of Steve Albinis.

Yeah, but considering how non descript we look I don't think that will be a... Actually I think I'd kinda like to see someone attempt to look like Todd [Trainer, Shellac drummer], I think that would be would be worth seeing. [laughs]

Some skillful hair engineering I guess?

Yeah, um, that will probably take a team of specialists.

So you just got back from All Tomorrow's Parties, how did that go?

Ah it was fine. We're old hands at the All Tomorrow's Parties scene, we've played a lot of those festivals. I have a lot of respect for the way Barry who organises the festival; I think he does a terrific job. And there's always a great selection of bands, the crowds are always manageable and everybody is sort of treated reasonably. I think they're really great.

It seems peculiar that it’s sort of taken someone so long to organise a festival that’s good and works.

Well, I mean, All Tomorrow's Parties has been going ten years or so and he really did sort of establish the new standard for how festivals should be run, by having curated festivals where there's an interesting and sort of sympathetic fleet of bands and the audience are not, you know, just treated like cattle. So he really did totally change the whole game. And now I've noticed that other festivals are starting to behave like All Tomorrow's Parties, like their starting to have more interesting and coordinating schedules of bands, the pace of the festivals are a lot more reasonable, the staging and the accommodation are a lot nicer. So I think All Tomorrow's Parties are responsible for the rebirth of the festival paradigm you know.

Yeah, cos in the UK now the whole festival idea has kind of reached saturation point where I think this year there was maybe half a dozen events that just never happened because I think the bubble had finally burst.

Well, yeah, I mean the old model of festivals of just getting a random selection of bands and just putting them in a field someplace and just having a bunch of tent stages – that was doomed, that was a cash cow for a long time, and the All Tomorrow's Parties style of curated parties, you know nice accommodation and a good set of bands and stuff, that put an end to that. Yeah it really did kill that off which I'm grateful for.

There is the other side to the kind of ATP adventures, the whole Don't Look Back series, I guess looking at the stuff especially that was on in New York it seems that it's a certain kind of thing that worked really well there. Had you even been approached in the context of that?

Yeah, we've been asked to do that but the way we conduct our band is pretty specific to our band you know we're always improvised our sets and we've always enjoyed doing that. And to not do that once would make us uncomfortable. To suddenly know after this song we're gonna have to play that song and playing a certain selection of music, you know we've never done that before ever and doing that now would just make it really uncomfortable. And I also like the idea that the live shows are not intended to be like the albums. I understand, I think it's an interesting gimmick and I don't necessarily fault anyone for wanting to see any one or the other of them, but for us it's just not appropriate for the way we always viewed the band. We’ve always thought of the band sort of conducting itself in fairly specific ways and we don’t want to change that just for one gimmick show.

You’ve been working as Shellac now since what 1990, 1991, do you feel you’ve reached your potential, are you getting out of it what you hoped, what you aspired to?

Well, I mean Shellac for us has always been a process and as long as we still enjoy the process we’re gonna carry on and I have to say we have really enjoyed that process. And I feel we’ve only made good records and played shows that we can be proud of. And you know we didn’t really have an ambition when the band started, we wanted to do things in a way that we could feel good about it, and hold our heads up, and you know, I think we’ve done that. So as I said as long as we can carry on doing that then we’ll keep going.

It wouldn’t be unnatural to think in ten, fifteen years time you could still be doing it if it still fit?

Yeah, I mean that seems perfectly reasonable. At one point I told Bob [Weston, Shellac bassist] I would put an outside limit of 100 years on it, I said I couldn’t commit to anything beyond 100 years.

That’s as ambitious as you could ever hope to be…

Yeah I mean we don’t have ambitions specifically, I think our first ambition was for the band to survive long enough to play a couple of shows and once we’d done that it’s just sort of careered under its own momentum. We honestly don’t have any goals or ambitions.

Taking it back in a way to when you first started the band, you’re not looking beyond just getting something together?

Yeah and for us the place of the band in our lives has been consistently the same, the emphasis we put on the band as our sole creative outlook, it’s remained completely consistent

So there’s no hankering to feel like 'we could do more, we could try and ...'

I suspect what you’re thinking about it on some commercial level like could we be more popular …

No, not necessarily on a commercial level, more in a sense that you guys have got so many other commitments, it’s a case of are you thinking, I’d really like the chance to go and sit and get the chance to get together more and write and put stuff our more often.

I don’t think the frequency of it really bothers any of us. I think we’re happy that everything that we do is worth doing and not all bands can say that and we’ve never done anything other than for a specific reason … not all bands can say that either, and get tied up in obligations for a record or a show or whatever. Eventually they’re obliged to do something that they’ve sort of tied themselves to, like oh we’ve got to put our another record this year, and we’ve never been in that position, and if I have my way we never will be. So every single thing that we do is something we specifically want to do. And I feel good about that, I feel good about that being a way to conduct the band.

I guess also if you’re not, labouring over the songs, but not playing 100 shows of the same songs you’re not like ‘I’m getting sick of playing this’?

Yeah. One thing is, we improvise the set list every night, there might be a weeks worth of shows where every single night we feel like playing one particular song so we’ll play that song every night for a week and then it’s peaked for whatever reason and we’ll skip it for a few years, you know, and other songs come up on a spur of the moment, maybe we’re just having a conversation about a particular song or something else will trigger the memory of it, and we’ll be like ‘hey why don’t we play that one? We haven’t played that one in then years. Let’s play that one.’

I guess there’s a impetus from bands going on constant tours to keep things fresh, so if you can keep things fresh by doing it …

Our band has never been, its never been our job, and I suppose if your band was you’re job you’d eventually come to resent it in a way, you know. Everybody resents his job. Like, I have a job, I’m a recording engineer, I have a studio, and I love my job, it’s a great job, but I resent it. I resent the fact that I have to get up every morning and do it, and you know there are times when I would really rather not. But I can’t say that about the band, I can’t say that there’s ever been a moment where the band was itching to do something and I thought ‘Oh, if only I didn’t have to do this’. It’s a band you know, I feel like that’s a really fantastic position to be in.

Absolutely. Another thing that’s always been exciting about Shellac is the attention to detail, and the quality control, especially in regards to the fidelity and the packaging. I can tell you’re the sort of people who a fans of quality packaging, was that the kind of thing that starts early on when you’re growing up?

Well, sort of, I mean I guess part of it is we’re people take records seriously, and you know because we all own a lot of records, you know if you go to a record shop and you pull a record out, and one of the things that can make you like a record or bring a record to mind is something nice about the packaging you know, if it’s got a nice cover ‘oh yeah I remember that’. You know like some records that have a little gimmick built into the sleeves, and that sort of stuff, I always loved stuff like that. It was awesome. I guess what it boils down to is because we all own a lot of records we don’t want our own records to be put to shame. You know like I don’t want Uriah Heap upstaging my band.

I guess if you put one record out and it works then - I guess the first two Shellac singles, is a perfect example of this - its like you get something that seem great and you want to take it that bit further each time. I always had a perverse thrill out of going into a record shop and seeing how music space that box with 1000 Hurts took up on the shelves.

Well, as regards that package in particular, Bob and I being recording engineers, we liked the idea of packaging a record so it was like a reel of tape, you know the thing we handle everyday, seemed like such a cool thing. We liked that style of artwork, and you know liked that physical size, the whole thing.

And as more music become consumed digitally, in units and less like records, it stops feeling like something real. As the digital age kind of trundles on, when you do end up with a bunch of MP3’s in a folder on a desktop, it stops feeling tangible as opposed, I don’t know, opening a gatefold sleeve or something.

Yeah, I mean, I have to admit I still haven’t done that, I don’t own an iPod so I don’t have that relationship to music, but I see what you’re getting at, which is that you know when music is no longer a physical object then you don’t have those other associations with it. But I think there will always be people who want the physical record. Bob runs a mastering studio in Chicago now, so he deals with pressing plants quite frequently, and his conversations with the pressing plants recently have been are that all the pressing plants that he knows have been working at near capacity. There are more vinyl records being pressed now than there had been in the last ten years. And I think that bodes well for people like me who like to buy records but more importantly I think it establishes that even though there is a nice easy convenient affordable download method for music, there will always be people who want a physical hi-fi version of a record and for those people there will always be bands like us who think that there are records worth having for them as their own thing rather than having for a vehicle to experience the sound.

I used to think it was a generational thing, you know, I grew up on vinyl therefore I’m still excited by vinyl, but then you know I meet 15 year old kids who understand they joy, equally ones who find an iPod is the most handy way and its all about convenience …

Yeah, an iPod is a tremendous convenience tool, there’s no doubt about it, if all I was interested in was convenience with respect to music then I’m sure that I would have an iPod. But when I sit down to listen to a record I’m sort of sat down to listen to it intentionally, I’m not listening to it just as background music, and I’ll admit I’m unusual in that respect because I, because my job puts me in the position of having to listen to music all day everyday so I’m less likely to want to have a blanket of music surrounding me while I’m going about my business. Having said that, in the office here at Electrical Audio, the guys have a turntable, a record player and an amplifier, you know they’re playing records all day everyday, constantly DJing for themselves, which I think, is a more normal relationship with music, to want to have background music going on. My relationship with music is sort of forced by circumstances to be more concentrating concentrated.

I suppose in that situation if things are in the background then technically there’s something wrong as it’s supposed to be kind of the focal point. How much of a job is being in the studio, I know you said there are commitments, but proportionally how much do you think that, it does seem to be an amazing thing to do …

Yeah, it’s the perfect job, I get to see people realising their life’s ambition everyday, that’s a fantastic thing but itself. The job, the work, is quite gratifying on its own too but it also has these sort of meta implications that I also like, that I also appreciate. But still I’m going to say that it sucks, it’s about a 6 at sucking because it requires quite a few hours from me every day and that by itself can be tiring.

I guess not every band is the best band you’ve ever heard?

Yeah that doesn’t really matter, when you’re working on a project pretty much all bands are the same, good bands, bad bands, you know there are problems to solve, various different things, different concerns to satisfy, problems come up, there’s quite a bit about each band that makes them quite similar in that regard. So it doesn’t really matter if I like the music or not.

So in a sense it’s actually about the process not the band.

Yeah and in a sense I think its almost unprofessional for me to form an opinion about whether I like the music or not, the people whose job that is is the people who go to the store to buy it, those are the people who get to have an opinion about whether they like it or not. My job is to try and satisfy the technical requirements, make sure the band get the experience they want while they’re making the record.

Are you surprised that you ended up with a studio, looking back when you started Big Black in the early 80s, did that seem like something you might end up doing?

It never occurred to me for a minute that it would be my job. Not until I actually quit my straight job and I had freelance work on the calendar that would keep me busy for three or four months and that I could afford to quit my job. That’s when it occurred to me that I could do it.

So when did you actually quit?

I’d say ’89 maybe.

So you were still working all the way through Big Black?

Yeah.

For someone who’s in a band for that long, its kind of assumed that you’re able to survive financially off it?

Maybe if I’d been more mercenary about it I could have, it would have been a meagre living, a really meagre existence, I’d have to do things I wouldn’t be comfortable doing from an ethical standpoint.

It also harks back to the idea, you know you were saying about the commitment issues.

Right, I mean my band means too much for me for me to ever resent it, I won’t allow anyone to put me in that position of resenting my band. I insist that it remain a hobby for that reason. If it becomes anymore than a hobby and it becomes something that I rely on then my frame of mind and my livelihood are all tied in with the success of the band. At the moment there’s no reason for me to be concerned if my band is unpopular, it’s not going to make my life any worse.

As far as the studio goes, how far has it reached its potential as far as you getting it to sound and the equipment, is it an endless process?

There are always marginal improvements to make and we try to make them when we can, if I had to make every record at Electrical Audio I’d be happy. As it works out I make most records at Electrical Audio, I don’t feel like the studio is a limitation in that sense, if anything I feel like I drop the ball more than the studio does.

Are there anytime when you end up in another studio and think ‘shit, I wish I was back in Chicago’?

Sure most of the time yeah, and almost all studios, how ever well set up they are or how ever they are organised, because I didn’t set them up and I didn’t organise them there’ll be things I would have done differently and I’d prefer to have my way. So no matter how satisfactory a studio is on a technical level I can always find a reason why I would prefer to be at home at Electrical.

I guess a studio is like anything you do creatively it’s a reflection of yourself, although there’s a lot of technicalities involved its still a reflection of you as a person and what choices you make.

Well there’s that, but also studios are designed to serve a certain clientele, and if the core clientele for a studio is say advertising jingles, voiceover work that kind of stuff then the studio is physically not going to be set up as well for rock bands, for a live performance ensemble. If the studio’s core clientele is orchestral work or whatever, then again they’re not going to have a performance space set up for a live rock band. If a studio is set up for electronic music and stuff done out of a control room they may not have any performance space whatsoever. So it’s not necessarily the case that one studio or another is good or bad, it’s just the appropriateness for the particular music that you’re working on at the moment, that’s what matters.

It’s that great thing, like you said of seeing people’s life ambition come together, that must be hugely gratifying, especially as you saw it yourself when you did it yourself setting out.

Oh, it’s fantastic. Its like Christmas Day, like your seeing kids open their presents. Its very much like that when the guys in a band have written a song and they want the song to kick ass, and they play a hard set and they really feel like they’ve accomplished. Seeing that level of satisfaction in someone else is really rewarding.

One last thing. The Time Out Chicago thing [Albini was interviewed and photographed with 39 other influential Chicagoans who the magazine had felt had made a contribution to the city’s culture over the publication’s 40 year life span - the likes of Jerry Springer, Jesse Jackson Jr and Billy Corgan were among the 40] that seemed like a kind of surreal photo shoot and that fantastic thing of you humping Jay Ryan’s leg in the big group shot was tremendous. Was that as odd an experience as it looked?

Yeah it was a little strange. As it turned out I knew quite a few of the people in that picture, there was a weird sort of cultural scaling that happens where some of those people are quite powerful and influential, and people who weren’t part of that world wouldn’t know who they were. And then there are other people who are kind of marginal, so the fact that Jay Ryan [genius artist, illustrator who also provided the artwork for Shellac’s 2007 album Excellent Italian Greyhound] and I who have known each other for the better part of twenty years, are in a picture with world famous people and incredibly powerful politicians is kind of hilarious, you know.

I guess that’s the nature of trying to draw all human nature together in one big bundle of people. It looked funny anyways and I was kind of spooked because I thought for a minute you had a Helloween t-shirt.

God, no!

Shellac play ABC, Glasgow, Sun 2 Nov.

Shellac

Steve Albini's uncompromising alternative rock outfit makes another welcome visit.

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