Epitonic took a trip over to Electrical Audio to chat with recording engineer Steve Albini, who curated and headlined All Tomorrow's Parties' Nightmare Before Christmas Festival with his band Shellac this past weekend. The Electrical Audio staff were doing some plumbing, and Albini was called up to the artist apartment from the garden out back ("Hey, playboy! You've got an interview!") as Bitches Brew by Miles Davis was playing in another corner of the building. Albini was wearing his custom jumpsuit, and cats wandered in and out of the living room during the interview.
Photo by John Yingling
In a clip from the documentary Parallax Sounds, you mention that Chicago’s collaborative punk environment in the 80s was much different than other cities, which were more competitive. What do you think fostered that environment in Chicago?
Initially the punk scene in Chicago wasn’t canonized the way it was in other places. In Los Angeles and New York, the punk scene was kind of adopted by the fine arts crowd, or by the high-concept art community -- painters and sculptors and performers. People in the sort of intellectual circles in other cities adopted the punk scene as like a foster child. There were rich patrons in New York that were funding clubs and record labels and backing bands and stuff like that, and in LA punk music was sort of covered by the popular press, like the local media acknowledged it and some of the gigs that those punk bands played were big, popular gigs, and in Chicago it was much more guttural. I don’t know if guttural is an actual word even for that, but I mean it was much more underground. It was truly marginalized people, and there was a big overlap with the gay community because the gay community was similarly underground in Chicago. It wasn’t the sort of open, flamboyant, queer scene there was in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It was a few bars. One specific neighborhood had a few bars and the police would kind of leave it alone, but also if someone complained or something, they’d have no problem just rousting everybody and shutting down bars and arresting everyone in the building and that sort of stuff.
So, it was very much an outsider culture. Like, people who were totally marginalized. I think everyone involved probably felt what I felt, which was that it was an aspiration to be part of the mainstream culture and that we might be able to fit in with mainstream culture, that it was okay to be a freak and a weirdo on the outside, and that built a sort of a respect and comrade relationship. You’d run into any other freak or weirdo and you would think that maybe that was somebody that you could hang out and be a comrade in some way. I think that’s why Chicago was different from those other places. The punk scene was never cool. It wasn’t acknowledged by the rest of society, and because it was so insular and so underground everybody felt like they had to pitch in and help out or it was going to be destroyed in some way.
Were there key personalities in the Chicago punk scene?
There were, but in places in New York and Los Angeles there were sort of figureheads – this one band was like the champion band and these five guys were like the key players -- and in Chicago, there were a couple of locations more than players. Like Wax Trax Records, which was kind of a meeting place, and the place where all the cool records were. Over time Jim [Nash] and Dannie [Fletcher], the couple that ran Wax Trax, started doing promotion, like they started bringing bands in. They would contact a record label that they were getting records from and say “Hey, can we get this band to Chicago if they ever come to America,” and then they would talk a local club into booking them. So, they were active and they were instigators but they weren’t figureheads.
So a lot of people were contributing?
Yeah. There was a group house that Naked Raygun and all of their friends lived in. There was a coach house in Lincoln Park where those guys lived, and every band in Chicago would practice in the basement of that coach house because that was the only practice space that anyone knew of.
So, having all of these common meeting places really helped?
Yeah, I mean Chicago is a huge place, and the fact that it was localized into literally like a half dozen locations was kind of amazing. There were only a couple of bars. There was Oz, and Oz moved location from downtown to Broadway, which is sort of on the outskirts of the gay neighborhood. There was a place called O’Bonian’s, and there was a placed called the Artful Dodger, and then eventually there was the Lucky Number, which was a Ukrainian immigrant bar that got sort of taken over by the Wax Trax crowd by virtue of it being only two blocks away from Wax Trax.
Do you think the city still holds this quality?
Yes and no. In the 90s there was a very strong community of record labels in Chicago – Touch and Go, Drag City, Thrill Jockey, Kranky. A lot of these labels had key personnel [who] had worked at other iterations of these different record labels. That particular tier of the music scene, the tier where people were putting out records actively, that was really fraternal. Like, Touch and Go did manufacturing for a bunch of those other record labels, and a lot of the people that ran those record labels got their start by having worked at Touch and Go and seeing how Touch and Go did things and then breaking off and starting their own record label which maintained a relationship with Touch and Go and never ended up being adversarial. So, that continued right through to the point where Touch and Go stopped doing manufacturing and distribution and essentially stopped functioning as a record label.
I would say that any veterans of that era, like any people that were around during that era, and a lot of those would be people who were around in the 80s as well, a lot of those people would still have the same mentality that they had then, and they would still be up for doing more collaborative, more of the type that I was describing that was sort of a communal group effort. I think people would be up for that; the only thing is that at the moment there isn’t really a population of bands that are behaving that way. Then again, I’m nowhere nearly as ingrained in the live music scene as I was 10, 15 years ago. Just recently there was a spate of loft shows that were going on. There’s a website called Gonzo Chicago that documented a bunch of that. I actually feel like that was another iteration of the same mentality, despite the fact that none of those people had anything to do with the original punk movement [of Chicago]. It seems like that totally fits in with the tradition of bands chipping in and helping out. I don’t know what the status of that is now. I haven’t heard of any of those shows happening recently.
There are various house-venues around. Some of them closed down. The thing to me is that most of the bands don’t really stand out, which I guess is fairly typical of any large music scene.
I was having this discussion with somebody else the other day. In the 80s there was a pretty big crowd of bands that were trying to be sort of conformist punk rock or hardcore. Then there was, I would say an equal size contingent of bands that wanted to avoid that kind of stagnation as much as possible, but they wanted to maintain the intensity of the punk era. There were a lot of bands during that era, I think, that were really distinctive, really powerful, really unique. You know – Pussy Galore, Killdozer, Die Kreuzen, Swans, Sonic Youth, even like rock’n’roll bands like The Digits. When you hear that music now, it still sounds alien and awesome and fucked up and incredible. So I think there was a more fertile period, like you were saying, “I guess it’s always the case that there’s not that many interesting bands.” In the 80s and early 90s it seemed like there were a real lot of really interesting and really fucked up bands. It seemed like it was the first chance that bands like that had the chance to break out of a really local scene and start to get some attention and be able to build a following outside of their hometown. I think that made a big difference in the sustainability of a lot of those bands. Like, the reason we found out about those bands is that they were able to tour for the first time.
I think a lot of these bands that are doing it now are very casual about it. They’re not living for it. It might be more of a hobby.
I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. The perspective I get from seeing these bands like that coming through the studio, like young bands like that, it does seem like a lark to a lot of them. It doesn’t seem like something they’re driven to do.
Have you always felt confident in your musical successes, however you define success?
I guess I’ve never considered success. The way I’ve always looked at it is what the band is doing for its own sake, and if other people get involved and like it, that’s great, but the band is a pretty selfish enterprise. When my band does something, by definition it’s a success, because we did it. The main thing is that everybody has a creative impulse, and we’re satisfying our creative impulse with the band. If it wasn’t rewarding, we would stop. As long as it’s rewarding for us to do it, then I consider that a categorical success.
As far as the records that have sold well and the bands that I have worked with that have done well and the bands that I have been in that have been able to tour and survive and stuff like that, I guess I try not to think about it because I think that I might be subject to vanity (laughs). So, I try not to think about past accomplishments in any kind of a serious way. I’m much more apt to consider what I’m working on now, or what my peers and my friends are working on now.
Some people have confidence in that they think, “Okay, I’m going to do this and other people are going to like it and it’s going to be successful and I’m going to be a hit,” and that’s their headstrong confidence that they’ve got. I don’t have that. I feel like I know what I like, I know what kinds of things interest me and what I want to pursue, so I’m going to be able to pursue those things. So, I guess that’s confidence but it’s in a different domain.
As far as the studio goes, in terms of being an owner and manager of a business, are there times when you’ve doubted your capabilities?
Oh, all the time. There’s kind of a dirty secret about this particular profession – that is, being a recording engineer – and that is that almost nobody who does it for a living thinks that they know what they’re doing. Everybody feels like they’re kind of faking it a little bit. Like they’re kind of winging it in one way or another. Along the way you develop some specific skills that you can apply, but basically everybody feels like he’s not official. You can talk to somebody who’s made a hundred records, and he’ll still feel like there are things that he doesn’t know how to do, that he doesn’t get right. So yeah, I doubt myself all the time. The thing that I’ve got that a lot of other people in my position don’t have is that I’ve got a shitload of experience. I’ve made a lot of records. Whatever situation we’re in in the studio now, I’ve been in that situation a hundred times, and whatever problem we’re having now, I’ve had that problem a hundred times. I probably have a solution, but if it’s an intractable problem with no solution, I probably also know it’s an intractable problem with no solution. So, I have a lot of experience, and I kind of feel like that’s the one thing that you can’t learn from anybody else. The one that you can’t pick up along the way are just hours in the saddle. You just have to do it. You have to have that shit go wrong over and over again and force yourself to fix it over and over again and eventually that situation is solved.
On the first Slint album, Tweez, the recording credit says “Some Fuckin’ Derd Niffer”.
Yeah, a derd niffer is somebody who bats turds out of somebody else’s asshole with his nose.
Right. Did you choose that?
I didn’t. They were being funny.
And you just didn’t mind?
Oh no, it’s actually a preference of mine not to be credited on other peoples’ records. Especially considering the sort of chatty gossipy nature of publicity now, it could tend to be a distraction from what the band is doing, to have me be the center of attention about their record, and that just seems rude to me. I shouldn’t do that to another band. I shouldn’t make them answer for me. I feel like it’s a responsibility of mine to at least let them know you don’t have to put my name on your record. It’s totally fine if you don’t put my name on your record. Then, whatever attention they do get, presumably, will be more about what the bands about than what I’m doing.
Speaking of gossip, the way the media spins some of the things you write on the Electric Audio forum is interesting, to say the least. So, when you post on there, are you just trying to have a discussion?
Yeah, I mean it’s a discussion forum that has its own community. Like, thousands of members on there and it’s just a conversation among people who consider each other peers.
I feel like some publications take it as like a press release when you share your opinions on there.
One person says something and says that I posted it on my “blog,” which sounds like an official thing, like I composed a post for my blog and I’ve sent it out to the world. The other people aren’t looking at that. They’re not looking at the thing that I posted. They’re looking at the thing, which is in much wider distribution, which is the Pitchfork thing – or whatever it is. So, they just quote that. They just copy and paste that.
That’s not journalism, but the people that do that are feeding this fire that if they bothered to realize what they’re doing, if they realize, “Oh, this is just a message board for a fucking recording studio.” There are people that are talking about which is worse – analingus or egg nog. This isn’t a news source; this isn’t a blog or a public relations thing. This is just a bunch of assholes yapping at each other. Then, the cascade effect of one person misrepresenting it as something official is that everybody else looks at it as something that’s official. That’s the problem – that there’s no journalism being done anymore. None of those people called me on the phone or e-mailed me. One English newspaper e-mailed me and asked me some follow up questions, and I replied to that, and then what they printed in their thing got duplicated everywhere. If anybody cared, the fucking phone number is right there at the top of the [ElectricalAudio.com] page and I am always here. They could call that number and clear it all up right away, find out exactly what I thought. Nobody does that. Nobody’s interested in doing any actual journalism. They just want to copy and paste shit.
So, I find that really disheartening. I went to school, studied to be a journalist, and I have a degree in journalism. I never worked as a journalist after college, but I know what the traditions of journalism are and I know what the standards of journalism should be, and that doesn’t qualify as journalism. What it is, in a lot of cases, what they’re trying to do is get some interest going so they can get a comment thread going so they get people checking on the comment thread and just create hits. I don’t know if you have looked at our website, but our forums don’t have any advertising, and we have 12,000 members. We’ve been very careful about purging spambots and not allowing spambots to create profiles.
When you were writing for zines like Matter and Forced Exposure – I’ve never had a chance to read any of that – what kind of writing were you doing? Does it relate to the conversations you have on your forum?
Very similar, although some of it was more like coverage. I would interview a band and write a feature about a band, or there was a record coming out and I’d review a record. I had a column, and my column was just bullshit like I write for the forum. It was probably a little snottier.
What’s your vision for the future of recorded music?
I think that the sale of recorded music is going to be a very small part of the music industry from here on out. Bands are going to want to record themselves because they’re going to want to leave a legacy. The recordings from now on are going to be much, much more under control of the bands themselves. Like, a project of the band, to suit the interests of the band, for the band and their audience. So, the idea of having a record industry where some producer selects a band and selects songs and then it goes up the chain of command and then eventually you’ve got an approved thing that gets recorded, then that’s a formal release -- that’s not going to happen very much anymore. For mainstream pop stars and country artists, where it’s all about how pretty somebody is and what kind of pro songwriters they have and all that kind of stuff, I suppose that stuff is going to peter on for a while. That kind of pop music is going to linger for a while.
They’ll just pound it into your head.
But, I mean, it’s now super easy to remove that shit from your life. I haven’t listened to the fuckin’ radio in twenty years, you know? I have no idea of what’s popular now. I don’t care. I know Katy Perry and Lady Gaga were both really big for a while. Never heard a note of either of their music.
There’s this artist, Gotye, who had a number one single this year.
He had a number one single [months ago] and I finally heard it like two weeks ago.
I had a friend ask me how I managed to avoid it.
I don’t go places where they play shitty music (laughs).
I realized that I probably had heard it, riding my bike around and such.
I think mainstream, synthesized pop music is probably going to survive for a while, but the music business is no longer the record business. It’s now like bands have a website and they go on tour and they have a direct relationship with their audience, and I think that shows the music scene is going to progress from here on out. Recorded music is just going to be a tool that people use to introduce themselves. I think the physical artifact of records is still valuable to some people, and there are some record labels that do a good job making a nice package of a record. Like this company, Numero Group (picks up Light: On the South Side box set), they make these really amazing packages of stuff. It’s really, really amazing stuff. They’re beautiful records -- well made, well documented, nice packaging. They do a lot of reissue stuff but I think they have a couple of contemporary artists that are on the label as well. The Numero Group is doing great. Every year they sell more than they did previous year. A lot of their stuff is done on subscription. People are just like “I’ll buy one of everything.”
So I think physical record sales are going to be shit like that - really nice packaging, really special music. Nobody would bother doing it otherwise, and people will buy stuff like that, and then they’ll be people who have collections of all these really awesome records. I think that’s likely to continue, that’s likely to survive for a pretty long time, but the sort of mass-market record business -- it’s over. I’m fine with that, personally.
How do you see live music in the future, in terms of how it’s presented?
There are a couple different kinds of festivals. There’s the sponsored, subsidized, bullshit festival which is like (announcer voice) Red Bull and Sketchers bring you the Scion stage, featuring… and that shit is all bought and paid for. Every slot one very stage is the result of some booking agency sticking some band in there because they think the target audience for that festival is appropriate. That band may or may not be getting paid. The headliners are getting paid a shit ton, because otherwise they wouldn’t bother playing. They’re not playing to their own audience; they’re playing to this generic audience. So, in order to attract the headliners, the headliners get paid astonishingly well for those spots. As you go down the bill, bands start getting paid less and less, and then at the very bottom of the bill, that’s all payola. That’s all bought and paid for; those bands aren’t getting a fuckin’ penny. That’s one kind of festival. That’s your Lollapalooza, your Coachella, that kind of shit.
Coachella just keeps getting funnier and funnier.
Coachella is like the most inhuman experience. My wife and I were in California and a friend of ours was playing at Coachella, so she was like, “Okay, let’s go to Coachella,” and I’m like, “Fuck me, I don’t want to go stand in the sun in the desert for a day,” but we did it and it was horrible. It was torture. I don’t understand why anyone would put up with that. It was really nasty conditions. You were treated like cattle the entire time. It was really fuckin’ horrible. Five dollars for a bottle of water? In the fucking desert? That’s ridiculous. I hated everything about it. I also thought it sounded bad and all that, but our friend made a shit pile of money, so God bless her.
So, there’s that kind of festival, and then there are the sort of more carefully assembled, curated, artistic festivals, where you’ve got somebody behind the festival with an aesthetic sense putting together a really great gig, twenty really great gigs, one after the other. That’s things like Primavera Sound festival, which we’ve played every year for the past nine years, and All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP) festivals. All Tomorrow’s Parties completely changed the festival game with their concept of the residential festivals, where the bands are treated well and where the stages are curated, and where the patrons get suitable living accommodations and it’s not just like a fuckin’ field with some tents and go fuck yourself. They completely changed the festival game. They made it so that other festivals had to be decent to the artists, had to be decent to the audiences, or they would just completely take over. All Tomorrow’s Parties have single-handedly changed the festival game, and they created this other kind of festival, and now I think that other kind of festival is starting to become the norm. Where as shit like South by Southwest and Coachella and Lollapalooza – FUCK all of that stuff. I’ve never had anything to do with any of that, I never want anything to do with any of it. It’s creepy. It’s like trying to maintain this power structure hierarchy that we’ve been so successful in eradicating everywhere else in the music scene. They’re trying to create this bureaucratic infrastructure that bands have to participate in order for someone ordained to allow them to play. They have to submit a package and an application fee. Fuck that one hundred percent. There is nothing stupider on Earth than a band being asked to PAY for a rejection letter. That’s fuckin’ ridiculous.
How did your relationship with All Tomorow's Parties develop?
[Shellac] was asked to play ATP by Mogwai, and we said, “No, we don’t do festivals, they’re horrible.” They were persistent, basically. We talked to some people that dealt with the promoter – Barry Hogan, who’s like the guy who started ATP. We talked to Mogwai and some other people who had been involved previously. At that point it was called the Bowlie Weekender. It wasn’t called ATP. Then they changed the name to All Tomorrow’s Parties at some point. We talked to a bunch of people who had been involved and all of them were glowing. All of them were like, “It’s not like a festival; it’s awesome.” So, we gave it a shot and they were right. It turned out to be a really great experience.
One of the things that’s kind of true about me and our band is that when we find people we work with, we tend to stick with them. There’s a guy that we’ve used to organize shows for us in Europe that I’ve been working with since 1985. There’s a guy that we’ve used to organize shows specifically in Italy that I’ve been working with since like ‘93. We have a handshake deal with Touch and Go -- the only record label I’ve dealt with since...whenever, 1984. When we find people that we get along with and can work with, we tend to stick with them and not look for excuses to be unhappy. So, we’ve maintained a relationship with ATP and with Barry for a very long time, and I have to say he’s been nothing but great to us. I have nothing but good things to say about his intentions. Most of the time, he bites off more than he can chew and a lot of the time he ends up underwater. The fact that he’s been able to dig himself out of some of the holes he’s dug for himself kind of blows my mind that he’s been able to resurrect the company again and again after being like completely buried in debt for the majority of its existence. I think it’s kind of amazing, and I have a lot of respect for the way he thinks about ATP. The way he thinks about ATP is the kind of like the way I think about my band. It operates in a way that is kind of honorable, and I have a lot of respect for him.
I saw this panel where Chris Kaskie of Pitchfork was talking…
I don’t know that guy.
He’s like the President of the company.
It’s weird; I’m not actually that familiar with Pitchfork, except for every now and again they write something that causes us a lot of consternation, like when they copy something off our forum. So, other than that I don’t really know what Pitchfork is. It kind of bugs me that they’re king of a big deal and I don’t know what they are. Is it just like a music fan site?
Yeah, it started as a fan site and it developed. They have a lot of different content – album reviews, news, new tracks with blurbs, feature articles, interviews, and columns. The columns are probably the highlight of the site. The thing that gets me is, they rate albums by numbers and it’s like out of ten, it could be six point seven.
Which means that they didn’t even listen to it.
Yeah, it’s totally arbitrary.
It’s like three out of five stars -- didn’t even go, didn’t watch the movie. Ehh, give it three out of five. That’s fine (laughs).
They’re just another music website, but they do things a little differently. They generate a lot of their own content. Anyway, I was at this music industry panel and I had asked a question about Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusement (Shellac played there in the festival’s first incarnation in 2011), and Kaskie mentioned that he’d like to have Shellac play at Pitchfork. It sounded like his dream.
At Pitchfork? Fuck! They’ve never mentioned it, and the chances of us playing at some kind of sponsored, corporate scene like that are, like, less than zero. We don’t even want to play at Riot Fest, which is aesthetically an awful lot closer to what we’re at. There are things we want to get behind, and there are things we don’t want to get behind, and what I don’t want to get behind is the commodification of an underground culture. I don’t think it’s important that everybody on Earth have all this music sprayed at them. I think it’s totally fine for people to stumble across stuff on their own and take a shine to it or not. Having an authority tell you that this is good and this is bad doesn’t necessarily jive with the way I run.
I feel like Pitchfork is trying to tell you what’s good or bad, but I think that comes from them being part fan. I think people take them too seriously.
As soon as advertising and promotion gets into it and as soon as there are publicists positioning pieces and stuff it’s just like, well no, that’s not a fanzine, that’s a fuckin’ industry org and I’m not interested in that. The lineups that I’ve seen for Pitchfork Festival just make me fuckin’ cringe. I’m not that familiar with popular music, but if I can think of thirteen bands that I hate right now, ten of them will be at Pitchfork.