Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Steve Albini Interview

Emerging from the ashes of ‘80s hardcore, Big Black were a post-glacial reaction to corporate rock and an evolutionary step along the punk ladder. From these humble beginnings emerged Steve Albini, the snarling purist whose DIY ethos revolutionised the underground music scene. Outspoken and unapologetic, Albini soon gained notoriety for an unflinchingly hostile attitude towards the media, compounded by a defiant attitude in the face of criticism.

Never afraid to make enemies and always ready to speak his mind, Albini’s seismic blend of jackhammer drumming and buzz-saw guitars lay the groundwork for the ‘90s industrial scene. With over a thousand albums to his name from bands such as PJ Harvey, Bush and Nirvana, Albini stands as one of the most influential, yet anonymous producers in the history of rock. Following a brief sojourn with the controversially named Rapeman, Albini formed the indomitable Shellac: one of the co-curators of 2004's All Tomorrow’s Parties. RC decided to investigate the truth behind rock n’ roll’s maverick.

You studied journalism at college. What made you choose a career in music?

I couldn’t say I was pursuing a career in any sense. The whole time I was in school I was in bands, but to be honest it never really occurred to me that there was a job there. No one had any expectation that these bands would ever make their money, earn them a living; that they would ever be carried through life on punk-rock’s shoulders. However, that’s not the same as saying that it wasn’t important to everybody – it was deadly important.

So what inspired you to actually start making music? Was there any particular band that sparked you off?

The Ramones. I can say with quite a bit of confidence that if I’d never heard the Ramones I wouldn’t be involved in music at any level. I came to Chicago in 1980, and at that point the punk scene was kind of like a secret society. The bands that were around at the time were all perverse and amazing bands: the Effigies, Naked Raygun; really utterly unique bands, and I don’t just mean unique for the day, I mean unique. I can’t think of another band that behaved the way those bands behaved at the time, and in retrospect that’s what I liked about punk-rock, was that each and every band was a completely distinct package of behaviour.

How did Big Black start out?

During my spring break in ‘81 I recorded a couple of songs in my apartment. One of the people I distributed the cassette to was the manager for the band The Effigies. They were running a co-operative record label called Ruthless Records and offered to release the tape as the Lungs EP. The first rehearsals were done with Naked Raygun’s Geoff Pezzati on guitar and me playing bass, and we had a drum machine.
At the time it was kind of a novelty for any band to have a drum machine; they were either treated like very simplistic metronomes or they were used as a sort of imitation drummer, and all that just seemed totally retarded to me. The drum machine is an idiosyncratic instrument that’s got a lot of charisma and personality. Not taking it seriously as an instrument to me just seemed really… cheap.

The harsh guitars and relentless drum loops provided the backbone of Big Black’s sound. Was this a reaction to rock music in general?

Sort of. Everybody in the punk scene thought the mainstream audience were the stupidest people on earth, and we would have been saddened and offended if they had showed up to any of our gigs. Our fights were with the populist, ‘pop’ end of the new wave spectrum which I found really abhorrent. We didn’t really have any fights with Prince or Madonna. You end up getting in fights in your own neighbourhood, y’know? A 12 year-old kid doesn’t get on a bus and go try to assassinate the president, and the reason that he doesn’t is because that’s so far beyond his experience that he’s not even pissed off about it.

Big Black built up a huge cult following but split just before releasing what went on to become your most successful album: Songs about Fucking.

There was a practical reason for that. About a year prior to us breaking up, Santiago decided that he was going to go back to school. We scheduled everything so that it would finish by a certain date and the day after we got home from our final tour, Santiago showed up for his orientation for law school. I didn’t see any value in trying to replace him. Santiago was there from our first public performance, and I felt like he was really important for keeping my latent megalomania in check. We just figured well, that’s it, we did a good job. Big Black accomplished a lot and I was happy and proud of it.

‘Rapeman’ caused some controversy.

Ah screw that, who cares. Nobody cared about that. I mean sure, Rapeman is an ugly name; big deal, fucking get over it. And to my mom it’s no more offensive than ‘Sex Pistols’. The English music press made it seem like it was the most incredible thing in the world that somebody could name a band like that. They were drunk with power and they wanted to make a big deal out of it, whatever. It really broke my heart when we split up ‘cos I really loved playing that music, and I really loved playing with those guys.

You worked on the Pixies’ critically acclaimed debut album. How did that come about?

I was sent a demo that they had been selling around Boston which included their first EP Come on Pilgrim plus about a half dozen other songs, and I thought their music was fine. The number one goal was for them to get a record out of it that they liked, but the problem was that they didn’t express themselves very well in the studio. I enjoyed working on that record, but their music really didn’t make much of a dent on me. I’m not really that selective about who I work with and if it doesn’t seem like there’s a problem then I’m happy to do it.

How did you feel about the prospect of working with Nirvana after the success of Nevermind?

Well, I had been kind of insulated from the whole fracas about Nirvana becoming famous because I didn’t listen to the radio. So none of that stuff really percolated into my attention span, but I was aware of the fact that Nirvana had been part of the underground and then had sort of graduated into the big leagues. Then and now, I still think of bands that aspire to a mainstream level of success as being kind of vain and foolish. However, once I got to work with them I enjoyed their company, I respected them as a band and thought they made a great record.

Did you find yourself under any commercial pressure?

Oh I couldn’t give a shit about commercial pressure, none of that mattered to me. It mattered to all the flotsam and jetsam that were attracted to Nirvana, all the shit-box people that were there; their management people, their record label, their fucking hangers-on of all types. Now after the fact, Geffen’s Gary Gersh went out of his way to try to cause trouble. He was calling journalists and saying, “Yeah, this new Nirvana record is terrible and it’s all Steve Albini’s fault”. So I said, “Well Gary Gersh can go fuck himself.” And that started a big fracas with the record label.

Where any alterations made to the original recording?

Yeah, but I don’t think it had very much to do with that. After they finished the record the band were getting yammered at by everybody telling them how bad the record was and how they shouldn’t release it. It was a little bit uglier, a little bit darker. From the evidence, Kurt’s drug use had kicked back in and there was a lot of personal stuff tied up in the completion of that record.
It doesn’t surprise me that the record ended up changing a little bit, but to my ears it seemed unnecessary. It was like “Well, I’m afraid this won’t kick out of the radio hard enough, I’m afraid that it won’t sound enough like Boston,” or something. I don’t know what the fucking deal was.

What do you see as essential to a band?

I’m really only interested in music that surprises me. And what surprises me most is when I feel like I’m part of a genuine communicative or creative impulse from somebody else. What I like is to feel that the person making the music is being on the level with me; that they’re earnestly indulging a creative impulse, as opposed to just doing it for show.
I’m not really interested in the poetry of the expression. Music is way more than just the notes, y’know? It’s a conversation or it’s a gesture, and if you just repeat a gesture mechanically then it’s not an inspired gesture, it’s just a fucking pantomime. There are some movies that are better if they’re naturalistic, and there are some records that are better if they’re naturalistic.

What has been your most satisfying project to date?

Well, there are personal relationships that are formed from being involved in music that are immensely satisfying. For example there’s the band Silkworm who I’ve been making records with for a long time. We’re great friends, and our friendship wouldn’t have come about if I hadn’t been working on their records, and I think that’s what I take out of this job more than anything else.

In your essay The Problem with Music, (originally written for Chicago journal The Baffler) you detailed the duplicitous nature of the music industry. What advice would you offer to unsigned bands looking to make a career in music?

I wouldn’t presume to tell them what to do because everybody has to make their own mistakes, but they should be conscious of the way that the business operates. The people who’ve survived the longest and made the most durable and admirable careers have remained independent.
If you look at a woman like Annie DiFranco, okay, she’s not on the cover of Rolling Stone, but I guarantee you she makes more money off her records than Avril Lavigne makes off her 10 million. The same can be said of Fugazi and the Dischord record label. By keeping it close to your chest you can make sure nobody else fucks you, but more importantly you can make sure that nobody is fucked on your behalf.
Bands are encouraged to take this unrealistic view that they’re Robin Hood, taking money from this evil company. What the evil company is doing is placing a bet on them, and the bet is that they can make more money out of them, and if that doesn’t work they’ll make sure that the band is destroyed. So if your band means nothing to you, if you don’t care whether you’re paid fairly and you just wanna have this experience of being a rock star, then whatever. You pays your money, you takes your choice. So I don’t really have specific advice, but I have a perspective.

What is the future for Shellac? Are you working on any new material?

Shellac’s my band, and I’m happy to be in this band for the rest of my life. We’ve been recording over the course of the last year, but it takes us a long time to do anything. We spend a long time between sessions.
Watching you perform live, it seems like you guys are just having great fun. Would that apply to your attitude to music in general?
Yeah, I don’t do this for a living, I do it because it’s the most fun that I ever get to have. I can’t imagine why you’d do it otherwise. If you were just doing it to pay the rent, man there’s a lot of easier ways to make a living. And if you’re doing it because you want to be famous, go shoot somebody. You get famous right away that way.

If you would like to read an extended version of this interview, please email me at


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