Steve Albini – corrosive singer, explosive guitarist, electrifying performer and one of the most highly regarded audio engineers in the world – talks to Foggy Notions about the first Shellac album in seven years, John Peel and last year’s Big Black reunion.
“Steve Albini is a really important figure in modern American culture. Besides being a remarkable human being, he’s one of the last true artisans in this field and he’s created an environment that allows him do what he does best. Real recording studios are going under left and right, and Electrical Audio kind of strikes me as being American rock ‘n’ roll’s last stand.” – John Biz, Singer
The name Steve Albini is synonymous for an unrelenting dedication to one’s craft, a steadfast belief in the original ethics of independent music, and some of the most singular guitar music made in the last twenty-five years. While best known for recording Nirvana, Pixies and PJ Harvey, Albini has worked with over a thousand bands. He has also re-defined minimal guitar rock in three wildly different sounding bands; Big Black, Rapeman, and his current trio, Shellac.
The first Albini fronted band were Big Black, one of the most exciting American acts of the 1980s. Big Black begun as an Albini solo project with the aim of recruiting more band members, recording demos in his college dorm room between journalism lectures in Northeastern University in Illinois. These primitive demos were released by fledgling punk label Ruthless Records as an EP called Lungs. Albini has since maintained that Lungs is his one artistic regret and he can’t bear to listen to it.
The vinyl release included an unusual variety of inserts such as condoms, dollar bills, razor blades, concert tickets and various other oddities, starting a penchant for elaborate packaging that continues to this day. The forthcoming Shellac album, Excellent Italian Greyhound, is finally scheduled for release this June and boasts some of the best Albini related packaging and artwork yet, but more of that later.
Big Black exposed the dirty and degrading secrets of Middle America while sounding like no one else on earth. Albini layered sheets of minimal guitar scrapes over a drum machine credited as Roland as if it was an actual person. Dave Riley on bass and Dave Santiago on guitar added a peculiar skeletal funk sound to these dark and dysfunctional tales about teenagers looking for kicks in abattoir (‘Cables’), arson (‘Kerosene’) and a child sex-ring (‘Jordan, Minnesota’). They sounded futuristic and foreboding, or in Albini’s words, “three goofballs playing a slightly bent version of rock music.”
Some listeners considered the lyrics to be sexist and racist, not realizing that they were intended as social commentary, Albini responded to these accusations by making his lyrics even more offensive. He said that he found irritating “squares” easy, but he took specific delight in offending “hipsters”.
Rapeman, for blatantly obvious reasons, were a much more controversial outfit. Albini, David Wm. Sims and Rey Washam (both formerly of Scratch Acid) had a brief career, forming in 1987 and disbanding 1989. They released a single album, Two Nuns and a Pack of Mule, and the Budd EP named after the US politician Budd Dwyer who committed suicide by shooting himself on live television.
Albini has said that Rapeman was no more offensive a name than the Sex Pistols. I asked him a few years ago if he still considered it to have been an appropriate band name. “Sure,” he replied. “I gather you don’t, or you wouldn’t be asking the question. There have been better names and worse ones, like Men Without Hats, but it’s still just a band name and I can’t get worked up about it.”
Virtually anywhere Rapeman played, they were met by pickets and staff in pressing plants refused to handle their records. One of the few English shows that went ahead without a protest was opening for Sonic Youth in London. In playful revenge for christening a track “Kim Gordon’s Panties”, Steve was tied up in guitar wires and kicked around the stage for the last ten minutes of Sonic Youth’s set.
Albini is caricatured as a skinny bespeckled agent provocateur – cantankerous, controversial and hyper-opinionated. He once wrote a hilarious letter to the Chicago Reader taking task with a review of the best albums of 1993 by a writer named Bill Wyman. It concluded:
Artists who survive on hype are often critic’s pets. They don’t, however, make timeless, classic music that survives trends and inspires generations of fans and other artists. There are artists in Chicago doing just that, but you don’t write about them. You save your zeal instead for this year’s promo fixtures. Shame on your lazy head. Clip your year-end column and put it away for ten years. See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you reread it.
Clearly, he is an unconventional character, but it must be said in the experience of Foggy Notions, he is easy-going, forthcoming and giving with his time. And he doesn’t care what you or I think of him. Not one bit.
The first time I interviewed Albini, after the release of Shellac’s debut album At Action Park in 1994, I asked him if he was in any way concerned that some people might not give his new venture a chance because of his notoriety. “It is a professional hazard of being a loud mouth and straightforward with my opinions,” he answered. “I could be extremely modest and try to preserve an artificial camaraderie with a bunch of people, but it would be futile. If you are really honest with people you’re never at a loss for words. That could be the single biggest reason that people have trouble with me as a personality. They don’t like any of their notions to be challenged. If someone asks me what I think, I’m not too shy to tell him. Most folks are much more judgemental and spiteful than I am. They just don’t have that side of their character made public. It is a matter of tempering an unconventional attitude to music with a little straightforward plain English.”
He once elaborated about his thorny public persona, “The people I deal with on a personal level – like the people I deal with every day – they’re actually interacting with me on a real basis, and they know what I’m like and they can evaluate me as a real person. And those people couldn’t give a shit about a public image, because they’re actually talking to me and they have to contend with me as an individual. People that I’m never going to meet? They can think what they like about me, and I don’t care. Really, I honestly don’t care.”
Albini describes this realization as one of the most liberating experiences of his life. He mightn’t care what people think about him, but he cares a hell of a lot about music. He’s been an incredibly proactive person. When he got fed up with the lack of good, cheap studios to record in, he founded his own rather than bitch about it. Electrical Audio on Belmont Avenue in Chicago is a two studio self-designed facility that was built with architectural assistance from his Shellac band-mate Bob Weston. The larger of the two studios, Studio A, has three highly regarded performance rooms called Centre Field, Alcatraz and Kentucky.
Shellac are perhaps his most exciting project yet. The trio formed in early 1992 with Bob Weston on bass, also of the Volcano Suns and Mission of Burma, and Todd Trainer on drums. Weston and Trainer are credited as “mass” and “time” respectively on At Action Park, while Albini is credited as “velocity”. Albini further explored his ferocious scraping guitar sound, which he describes as “freaky, clanky and annoying”. The raw sound of the record was breathtaking. Listening to it on good quality headphones is literally like being a fly on the wall in Electrical Audio for its recording.
Uniquely, Shellac have never been marketed or promoted in any way. Not a single advert has ever been placed for any of their records. They gave away a CD of their third album 1,000 Hurts (2000) with every vinyl copy so the buyer effectively got two formats for the price of one, although this wasn’t publicized whatsoever. Their US and European distributors, Touch and Go and Southern, have never issued a press release, let alone an advance promotional copy of any of their records. In a day and age when everyone hears virtually everything long before the official release date thanks to online leaks and MySpace, it makes the imminent arrival of Excellent Italian Greyhound a real event.
“Shellac is a hobby for all of us,” Albini explains. “In saying that, we take it very seriously. It’s the single most important thing that all of three of us do. We don’t rely on Shellac as a means of earning a living, so we have a lot of freedom. We can do literally whatever we want with this band. It’s extremely liberating to know that you don’t have any obligations, responsibilities or pressure on you. We can treat the band as pure pleasure and as something to be enjoyed.”
Albini once said back in the Big Black days, “I would shoot myself in the face if I didn’t have some way to blow off steam. And because I don’t like sports, and because I don’t like disco dancing, and because I don’t take drugs, and because I don’t drink, and I don’t beat my head into the floor, and I don’t have a wife to beat, I have Big Black.”
Similarly, Shellac has become so much a part of him since 1992 he can’t imagine life without it. “I’d go crazy,” he admits. “Personally, I’d go out of my mind if I didn’t have Shellac. Now, I don’t want to paint a picture of a tortured artist where I’m compelled to do this. It’s quite simply a total fucking blast to hang out with Todd and Bob and play. It’s the ideal way to release the pressure of all the things that we’re obligated to do. We’ve been together for thirteen or fourteen years, so we’re all supremely comfortable working around each other and we can all anticipate each other. Shellac has the best kind of band relationship and there is a not a single thing about it that is annoying.”
Shellac don’t have to worry too much about sales, if at all, as their lovingly packaged records are snapped up in independent record stores all over the world. Despite not releasing any material for nearly seven years, a considerable anticipation is generating about the impending release of Excellent Italian Greyhound.
“We work slowly so there is an unintentional suspense that builds up before a record comes out,” Albini says. “We finished the record a year ago in May, so it has taken us that long just to get our shit together to have it ready for release. There are always institutional lags when you release a record. It gets administratively complex and it tends to drag it out. But it’s never our intention to put out a record for a certain season or market. We literally don’t care how long it takes, as is implied by how long it did actually take. As long as its eventually available, we don’t mind.”
The Excellent Italian Greyhound in question is also a real-life barking mutt. “Todd has a little Italian greyhound dog called Uffizi” Steve reveals. “As a pet way of thanking him and saying “good dog” he started saying “Excellent Italian Greyhound” to compliment him whenever he did something good. So it has become a slang thing to say about anything good within the band. Whenever anything choice happens, we’d compliment it by saying “Excellent Italian Greyhound”. The Italian greyhound breed is a separate breed from normal full-sized greyhounds, which used to be best known as the pets of choice for royalty. It’s a little tiny dog. I don’t think it could race. It could race other little tiny dogs I suppose, but not officially on dog tracks.”
Keeping true to the high packaging standards of previous Shellac records, Excellent Italian Greyhound will come with a free print by Chicago based poster artist Jay Ryan, who published a retrospective book in 2005 entitled 100 Posters, 134 Squirrels: A Decade of Hot Dogs, Large Mammals, and Independent Rock: The Handcrafted Art of Jay Ryan.
“Jay Ryan is a friend of ours,” Steve reveals. “We asked him to do an interpretive drawing of Uffizi leading an army of Italian greyhounds. So he drew it up and printed it in his shop as an original screen print and it comes as an external cover when you buy the record. Everybody who buys the record gets an original Jay Ryan screen print. If you buy his stuff as display art it’s getting quite expensive because he is becoming a collectible artist. I like the idea that everyone who buys the album ends up owning an original piece of Jay Ryan art almost by accident.”
On the sleeve notes for the final Big Black album, Songs About Fucking, Albini wrote, “The future belongs to the analog loyalists. Fuck digital”. Virtually every Shellac CD has included the statement, “This recording is meant to be listened to on vinyl.” While vinyl and analog still has its committed champions, digital music is omnipresent. At a lecture at Middle State Tennessee University in 2004 Albini declared, “I don’t use digital recording because it’s inappropriate for the work that I do. I do permanent recording of records that are intended to last forever. They are the history of the band I am working for at the moment, and it is vitally important to them.”
But Shellac are devising their own way of negotiating the digital music conundrum. “We’ll make the record available for download,” Albini confirms. “We’ve had some discussions within the band and there are some political problems in being associated with iTunes that we can’t get past. Our stuff won’t be available on iTunes, but it will be made available for electronic download. In all honesty, the only reason we’re going to do it is because everyone has an iPod now. Bob and Todd have iPods. Our girlfriends have iPods. We’ve been watching this proliferation of iPods and we thought we really should make our record available to be played on them.
“I’m not happy about the idea of the compressed audio format because the sound of our records is important to us, but we will go an extra step and make a high quality electronic version available. If people prefer to download the record rather than go to a store, or if they’re an invalid or a teenager, they’ll be able to get a hi-fi experience from a downloadable format and we’ll make that available from the Touch & Go website. With iTunes, everybody’s material is available from one place. As a music fan, I find that an interesting development, but seeing the way in which big companies take advantage of the eagerness of bands and artists to disseminate their material, I don’t feel like participating in that kind of monopoly. It wouldn’t be keeping with how the band has always conducted itself.”
Has the analog loving Steve succumbed to owning an iPod? “I don’t but my girlfriend does,” he answers. “She brings it with her in the car when we go places. I think iPods are amazing. People can load so much crap on there. They can fill it up with so much music that they don’t know anything about and discover it later like it’s a radio programme. I also really like the Ricky Gervais podcasts Bob has been playing in the van. They’re incredible.”
Many of the tracks on Excellent Italian Greyhound have been performed at live shows in recent years. At a session for the late John Peel at Maida Vale studios in 2004, Albini dedicated the session and “the rest of our careers” to Peel, a committed champion and fan of Albini’s music since the teenage Albini sent Peel an early pre-Big Black demo.
“John Peel was a totally selfless individual,” Albini declares. “He was unquestionably someone whose behaviour was worth emulating. He had an incredibly generous spirit and was constantly generous with his time and generous with his resources. Just look at the way that he’d welcome people into his home as one tiny example. I’ll always be in awe of the manner in which he could make time for literally anyone.”
Albini has very fond memories of Peel, both as a fan and fellow delegate at conventions. “I was with him in public at few conferences both of us were invited to,” Albini says. “We’d go out to dinner and he’d be stopped three or four times on the street by people. Some people just wanted to thank him for being John Peel, others wanted things from him, such as to listen to their record or do a session or whatever. But no matter who it was and no matter where it was, he always took the time to out listen to them and appreciate their enthusiasm. If he took a CD or a demo, he was guaranteed to listen to it. He’d also probably send them a letter explaining what he liked or didn’t like about it, or share an anecdote that the music brought to mind.
“When I was a teenager, I was in a band and we sent our first record to John Peel. We didn’t have any expectation whatsoever that he’d listen it, but he took the time to send me a postcard thanking me for sending him the record. He relayed to me an anecdote about the town I was living in from his own life as he’d been in Evanston, Illinois on a journalistic assignment when he lived in the States. He said that he liked the record and he’d played certain tracks on his show. It’s an immeasurably gratifying thing for someone who sees John Peel as a definitive personality to receive that kind of acknowledgement and encouragement. He’d be interested in your band for no other reason apart from the fact that you sent him a record. Now, you hope people in the public eye would behave in that fashion, but most people don’t, even if they intend to. They can’t follow through on it because it takes so much time and energy.
“I probably receive one tenth of one per cent of the mail John received and I don’t respond to it,” Albini says. “People write to me to say something nice. I appreciate it and it’s a pleasant little moment for me, but I don’t always take the time to write back to those people. I don’t acknowledge every single thing that’s sent to me. I really feel that he lived a life of excellence by example. When he died it was very hard for me to conceive the music scene without him.”
The opening track on Excellent Italian Greyhound is ‘The End of Radio’, a nine minute song stop/start epic that was also played at the Maida Vale session. Todd drifts in and out of time, ferociously pounding his kit, Bob plays three rumbling chords that are oddly catchy and Steve rants about John Peel and Martina Navratilova while makes his trademark scratchy guitar noises.
“We’ve been playing that song for a very long time,” Steve explains. “A lot of songs we write have extemporary lyrics. We had an opportunity to say nice things about John Peel on his show, so we did. Our session was one of the last ones he booked before he died. I don’t think the version on the record has those lyrics. To be honest, I can’t really remember at the moment. If I listen to it right now I’m sure it would sound somewhat familiar.”
Shellac are giving no consideration to how Excellent Italian Greyhound will perform compared to previous records. “I think it’s obvious at this stage after being around for this duration that our music is not necessarily for general consumption,” Albini thinks. “It’s for people who are already familiar with us. It’s like when the Fall put out another record. Either you’re absolutely guaranteed to buy it, or you’re absolutely guaranteed not to give a shit. But I don’t mean to put us in the same category as the Fall.”
Steve may be reluctant to compare Shellac to the Fall, perhaps because Mark E. Smith would have knocked out six albums in the length of time it took between 1,000 Hurts and Excellent Italian Greyhound. However, Steve has been an extraordinarily prolific and highly respected recording engineer. He disapproves of the term producer and once remarked, “When I think of a producer, I think of one of those industry losers with a beard and a pony tail sitting in a chair telling the band what to do.”
In Foggy Notions Number 96, Joanna Newsom waxed lyrical about working with Steve Albini on her groundbreaking album Ys. “I was of the opinion, and definitely remain of the opinion, that Steve’s pretty much the best producer in the world. I know it’s a huge statement, but I honestly think it could be said of him. He has an incredible, magical touch…It’s incredible what he can capture, you know, the spirit, the immediacy and the intimacy…Steve had to get a really good harp and vocal recording in order to sufficiently lay the foundation, to reference the sound and feel.”
“I spent a couple of days purely recording Joanna’s voice and the harp,” Steve reveals. “Say if Joanna was to sit down in your own sitting room and start singing and playing – that’s what I was responsible for. She is a such a total badass on that instrument. It’s hard to imagine anyone making a big cumbersome and delicate instrument like a harp totally kick ass, but she owns that thing.”
After Steve completed the core recordings, Jim O’Rourke and Van Dyke Parks continued working on the album, a procedure that differed from other assignments. “Yeah, it was an unusual situation compared to other jobs I’ve done, but Van Dyke was there for the entire recording process,” he replies. “I got to meet him and he was constantly communicating in quite a bit of detail about how he was going to proceed with the record. I know Jim O’Rourke for a hundred years, so it’s not like there was this nameless and faceless bunch of people prepping around in the background. It wasn’t a Mariah Carey record, just a small core group of people contributing in their specialty areas.”
It’s a tribute to Steve’s versatility as an engineer that another recent assignment was overseeing the recording of first Stooges’ album since Raw Power in 1973. “A dream come true is the only way I could possibly describe that job,” he enthuses. “The Stooges were an enormously important band for me, so getting a chance to work with them on a record is the kind of thing you always fantasized about, but you never imagine would actually happen, or every morning for a few weeks you answer the door to, ‘Hey Steve, it’s Iggy.'”
Previously, Steve has said that he’d love to work with AC/DC. Is there anyone else he’d to get in the studio with? “Well, I’ve had a pretty good run in terms of working with awesome and inspirational people,” he answers. “I would feel like a fool placing any more demands on my fate at this point. I’ve been able to make records in the studio with people who are my heroes. How awesome is that? I still find it slightly surreal. I’d say to my girlfriend, ‘Remember that time I made a Stooges record?’ It doesn’t seem possible, but it was immensely flattering and rewarding. If anyone out there has the opportunity to hang out and work with your heroes, I’d thoroughly recommend it.”
But perhaps this is a just reward for constantly working so hard and remaining so dedicated and focused. “Yeah, but so what?”’ he replies. “I feel like you ought to. It’s nothing to be proud of. It’s like saying your lungs keep working. Of course I work a lot. I work a lot because I have bills to pay and obligations to meet. I provide a resource for people. It’s not a point of pride. It’s just natural circumstances.”
I’m guessing that Steve is not exactly the vacation or career-break type. “Yes, because there is an opportunity cost,” he replies. “Whenever I’m away from the studio it’s money not being earned. I can’t really make excuses to my employees about their pay cheques. I can’t tell the electric company to hold off on billing me for a couple of weeks because I’m on vacation. Taking extended vacations is a luxury I’d like to be able to afford, primarily so my girlfriend and I can go somewhere cool and hang out with each other, but it doesn’t happen very often.”
Albini had an opportunity to revisit Big Black’s sound and fury when he briefly reunited with Santiago Durango and Jeff Pezzati to play four songs at the Touch and Go Records 25th anniversary celebration in September 2006. “I know what you’re all thinking… ‘what was all the fuss about?'” Albini remarked onstage. He also said that this reunion would never have happened unless it was Touch and Go’s anniversary, calling the label “the most important thing to happen in music in my lifetime.”
“The whole weekend was awesome,” Steve says. “I can’t think of a better way to say it really. It was incredible to see all these amazing bands who really inspired me all re-constituted and completely kicking ass again. Seeing the Digits, Scratch Acid, the Reproach and Killdozer back in full flight was extraordinary. It validated my memory of having all those amazing experiences at those gigs. When it’s all the past tense, you can’t help but doubt yourself a bit. You begin to ask yourself if those gigs were really that good. Seeing Killdozer again after such a long break completely validated my enthusiasm. The fact that all those people would do all that, with absolutely no remuneration and just to say thank you, gives you some idea how important it is to those people and to culture generally.
“Touch and Go is a cultural foundation stone for a lot of people. When I was an ignorant teenager, I put a few records out on my own. I went with a record label whom I ended up getting into a disagreement with, but as soon as Big Black found Touch and Go, I’ve never needed to go anywhere else. We have the best situation possible – we work with awesome people who are doing it for the right reasons. They treat us and everyone else like kings.”
Would Big Black ever again become a touring and recording entity? “Oh, hell no!” he replies. “We did that one event as a way of saying thank you to Touch and Go and all our peers who made it possible to have those awesome experiences as a band. The only function of the band at that point was to say thanks.”
This May, the All Tommorrow’s Parties festival line-up has been selected by the fans rather than the usual procedure of being curated by an individual artist. Shellac, who curated the event in 2002, have got the nod. “It’s very flattering,” Albini acknowledges. “I like all the ATP festivals. They’re unique in that it’s physically comfortable for everybody attending and it doesn’t have the exploitative qualities that other festivals do. You don’t feel that fans are being taken advantage of in any particular way. Curating it was an exhausting experience, but it was really great. We took responsibility for all the administrative dealings with all the bands. There were a lot of bands, so there was a lot of hassle. I don’t mean that the bands were demanding, it’s just that coordinating that many people and schedules is a total pain in the cock.”
Despite all the underground acclaim from ATP to John Biz and accolades hailing Albini as one of the most important figures in alternative music, he refuses to accept his work or his music is particularly special.
“I don’t consider myself to be unique,” he says. “There is a thread of continuity among the people who devote their whole lives to this. They contribute enthusiasm, knowledge, common sense, and a decent work ethic. It’s nice that there are still unselfish people in the game. I try to live that way.”