Very few artists have shaped my musical tastes more so than the sounds involving Steve Albini. From the early days, he pioneered the raw, dirty sound of Chicago's noise rock with bands like Rapeman and (most notably) Big Black. Their album, "Songs about Fucking," earned Big Black a permanent home in the annals of punk rock. His current band, Shellac, has taken the distinctive Albini sound to new levels, now with three full-length albums under their belts. With Bob Weston on bass and Todd Trainer on drums (currently injured while on tour, and slowly rehabilitating), Shellac offers a sonic, no-nonsense approach to record making.
When not on tour, Steve works as a recording engineer. His resume speaks louder than a fucking freight train. Steve has worked on albums such as the Pixies' "Surfer Rosa," Helmet's "Meantime," and Nirvana's "In Utero," and has also worked with Jon Spencer Blue Explosion, PJ Harvey, and Jesus Lizard (on several albums). Not to mention about 200 other records that you probably already own.
I got the chance to talk to Steve in between recording sessions at his studio, while currently on hiatus from a recently postponed tour due to Todd Trainer's injury.
LAB: I just wanted to start off with a couple of questions about the tour... is there a tentative time when you might get back on the road?
Steve Albini: We still don't know. Todd's still going through this regimen of exercise/painkiller therapy to try to square his back up. When the pain goes away, then we'll start to play again, and when he can play with the energy and stamina required for us to do a show then we'll try to do a show, and if that works then we'll try and do a tour, but it's a ways away yet.
LAB: Are you guys recording something today, or do you have a project you are working on?
SA: I'm just doing my job every day. At the moment, Bob is on vacation with his wife. They went to Italy on a little trip. And Todd has been trying to get his back in line - that's about it.
LAB: What's going on in your studio right now?
SA: There are bands coming in to make records. I'm a little bit uncomfortable talking about which bands are in the studio... I realize that it's a totally normal question, but I'm a little uncomfortable making the association between me and another band. I kinda feel like, if they want to do that, that's fine, but I'm a little uncomfortable doing it myself.
LAB: I wanted to get back to some of the old school stuff you used to do. What influenced you to want to start making music in the first place?
SA: Since I discovered punk rock, I've been a rabid music fan. Being in a band is just an extension of being a fan.
LAB: Right on. In the days of Big Black, why did you guys decide to go with the drum machine?
SA: Well, it was originally a convenience for me. I had trouble integrating myself into the pool of musicians in Chicago, so it was easier for me to get a drum machine than it was for me to find somebody else to play with. There were demos - and ultimately a record - that started getting around, and I was able to introduce myself to more people, then I was able to put together an actual, for real band. But it seemed like the drum machine had the potential to be a defining or distinctive element of the band. I'm glad I played in a band with a drum machine back in that period rather than now, because it was still possible to distinguish yourself from other bands at that point. I think there's an awful lot of cultural baggage associated with drum machines now that no one is really trying to subvert at all. There are standard modes of use that are being exploited now, whereas in the early '80's the device itself was fairly new, and you could come up with your own plan of attack for how to use it.
LAB: What model did you use? I remember reading all the old tour diaries and you always referred to Roland in third person, as a member of the band.
SA: Well, in the earliest days it was a Roland TR-606, then later on it was an EMU systems Drumulator.
LAB: I'm actually a big fan of Roland gear, and I think that I honestly got turned on to them through reading some of those old tour diaries. I kinda got into the Groove Box and screwed around with that thing.
SA: Yeah, the Groove Box has taken on a life of its own. It seems like there's only two ways to make records now - either by assembling samples of other previously successful records, or by doodling around on a Groove Box.
LAB: Do you prefer your production job, doing the studio engineering and things versus actually going out and gigging out, or is it a kind of give and take? How does that work out? Which would you rather do?
SA: My job is my job and my band is my band. Being in the band is a unique experience in my life; it's a purely creative endeavor, where I don't have to worry about anything. I don't have to worry about satisfying anybody who isn't in the band, you know? The three of us work really well together, and I have to say that playing in the band is genuinely the most fun, most exciting thing that I get to do. My girlfriend says that I should correct myself and say "next to being with my girlfriend." (laughter) Working in the studio with bands is a much, much more academic enterprise. Most of the time I'm trying to solve problems rather than trying to be creative.
LAB: Do you consider that a job? I know that it's a job, but do you consider it work?
SA: Oh yeah, sure. It's hard work. It takes all of my time and all of my energy. Most of the time it's tiring and sometimes it's exhausting.
LAB: I have a small studio, and I've done a lot of stuff where I know I'm not going to get paid anything - I did it a lot just to learn - but to me it never seemed like work. It was something I enjoyed doing, so I didn't mind doing it.
SA: Well, like you said, there was no one spending any money, and there were no expectations placed on you, so you didn't have to satisfy anybody - you could just fuck around and do whatever you want.
SA: We have six or eight bands a month coming in here; every one of them is spending what they consider to be a fortune, and every one of them wants results. You're on the spot pretty much all the time. There's a lot of pressure from expectation in that situation. There are also time constraints. The budgets that people are using to try to make records now are so unrealistically low that you end up having to do a week's worth of work in two days. It's taxing - it's very taxing.
LAB: Do you find that you have a lot of corporate interference with a lot of the bigger acts that come in, as opposed to working with smaller indie bands?
SA: We basically don't have bigger corporate acts come in here. We've had a couple in the last few years, but we've had literally hundreds of independent bands. That's our main clientele - the people that are normally here are independent rock bands.
LAB: I think I've read several places that you have a broad range of budgets with the various bands that come in, almost a sliding scale.
SA: In every circumstance, the band decides how much money they want to spend, and then that dictates everything else. If a band says, "Well, we want to spend $500," then you can make a record for $500 - just not much of a record. If the band's content with that, then great, but if they're not, then they'll just spend the rest of their lives being disappointed. You can't really underestimate the effect of the democratization of music in, say, the last 15 years. Because it's possible for anyone to make music now, everyone does. Because it's possible for anyone to make a recording, everyone does. Everybody's experience and exposure to recording now is not in a recording studio, but it's in a semi-professional environment or it's in an amateurish environment. So because everyone can do it, everyone thinks that it shouldn't cost anything, so it's like, "what do you mean your studio charges $600 a day? I have a friend who has a studio at his house and he doesn't charge anything." That sort of attitude has affected the business of running a studio to a degree that you couldn't calculate; it literally has changed everything. Its humbled quite a few studios, its bankrupted quite a few studios, in addition to lowering the general standards of recording. It's made it almost impossible for anyone who runs a studio to survive. I believe that this is a trend; I believe that this is a trend in the same way that using a drum machine instead of a drummer was a trend. And that it won't survive except in the trends of genre music. But in the interim, it's going to cause a lot of casualties - there's gonna be an awful lot of studios that get knocked out. The resource that the studio is will disappear.
LAB: Well, on the same token, it goes back to the old adage, "just because you have a hammer and nails doesn't mean you can build a house." The fact that all these people have home studios doesn't necessarily mean that they know what the fuck they are doing�
SA: It's also an insane notion that having equipment is all that is required. What makes a good recording studio is a flexible, good-sounding acoustic environment. Whoever wants to record can come into the studio and get the job done well. The only way to have that is to spend quite a bit of money building or buying a nice series of nice acoustic spaces. So the fact that someone has a laptop with a recording program on it doesn't mean anything other than that person has a laptop with a recording program on it. At the same time, I appreciate that every band now is getting a chance to do some recording, getting a chance to see what it's like to record and play back their stuff. The problem is, they're not really getting the experience of recording in a serious fashion. They're getting this sort of amateurish appreciation of it. That means that their expectations get lowered - their perception of how things are done are relegated to this low expectation world.
LAB: Well, the final product would obviously speak for itself. Upon playback, they would certainly realize that people do this professionally, make a living doing it for a reason. They are good at what they do�
SA: I don't necessarily think that the wheel needed to be reinvented. I feel like not every band should bother recording. Not everyone who owns a computer should be a recording engineer. Not every record made needs to be listened to. I'm just sensing the fatigue of the constant battering exposure of these mediocre records.
LAB: When you record, do you do it digitally or stick to analog?
SA: Our studio is an all-analog studio. There are a lot of practical reasons for that. Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with analog recording. It's still the best, most robust way of making a permanent recording.
LAB: With some of the major acts, or at least some of the larger bands that you have worked with, do you generally try and offer your input to help shape their sound, or do you just sit back and let them do their thing?
SA: I am basically there to solve problems and make their recording. I know what I'm doing, so I can prevent things from going wrong. That's my biggest asset.
LAB: I read an article you wrote called The Problem with Music. After I read it, I thought that you presented the problem really well. In retrospection, what in your opinion is the solution?
SA: If you don't want other people to siphon all of your money away, then you need to stay out of the mainstream music business. If you want to be an international celebrity, then you have to be part of the mainstream music business. Seems like that's your only choice. You can stay in the underground world, and kept control of your band's existence, or you can move in to the mainstream, accepting as part of that move that other people will take control of different aspects of your career and they will siphon money away from you. If you think you can outsmart that system, and do it in a way where you can be part of the mainstream and not be part of the mainstream, you're fooling yourself. If there were a simple, easy solution everyone would do it. You can be content with independent level success, which can be quite lucrative - and in the majority of cases, more beneficial to the band, both financially and aesthetically, than moving into the mainstream. You can make a living wage, you can sell a lot of records, you can tour the world, and your band can last for decades.
If you instead want to take a shot at being a superstar, then you have to move to the mainstream environment. You have to understand, when you do that, you are dooming your band. You are basically saying that your band will not survive the record deal. And the chances of your success are very, very small. If you don't care if your band breaks up, if you don't care if your music disappears, then buy a lottery ticket by all means, and get in line and try and be one of those bands that try and get a major label deal. But if your band means something to you beyond a tool for fame and money, then keeping control of it, keeping all of your cards close to your vest, is probably the best way to go about it.
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