Whether at the helm of some of the key albums of the last 20 five years (take Nirvana‘s In Utero, Pixies‘ Surfer Rosa and PJ Harvey‘s ‘Rid Of Me’ as a small sample), leading his influential bands Big Black and Shellac to the forefront of underground rock or debating a series of music industry hot topics, Steve Albini is consistently portrayed by the media as an uncompromising, opinionated curmudgeon with a tongue as vicious as his work rate is prodigious. With the Shellac curated ATP Nightmare Before Christmas taking place at the end of next month (29 November – 2 December) at Camber Sands we caught up with him to discover a humble, smart and good-humoured contradiction to that common perception who was as happy to discuss Amanda Palmer as he is the legacy he doesn’t much care about…
How the devil are you?
“I’m in great shape. What’s up?”
It’s been 20 years since Shellac started. Are you filled with pride and joy?
“It’s kind of cool. We’ve never had any goals as a band. We just wanted to pursue a process and when you see things that way you’re not as aware of milestones. We could have played our 3000th show and not had a champagne moment. A lot of people get into a band and by default it becomes their career. Everybody resents his job. I have a great job running this recording studio [EA Studios in Chicago] but I resent the intrusion of my job into my life, you know?”
Makes sense. So the band serves the members rather than the other way around?
“Yeah. A lot of bands feel like it’s a means to an end, This is how we’re going to get famous, and for us the band is its own satisfying enterprise. It’s not a tool for anything else. Shellac is all it needs to be.”
Do you still enjoy it?
“I love every minute with Bob [Weston, bassist] and Todd [Trainer, drummer]. I hear pity stories from bands about being on tour or how making a record has been such a drag, so challenging and difficult. That sounds like nonsense. That sounds like pure bullshit. Being on tour is awesome. The only way I could ever see it being a drag is if you do it too much. Like they say – picture the most beautiful, sexy woman on Earth and there’s some guy who’s tired of her bullshit.”
Shellac gigs are still a rare thing though…
“We’re not monks though. We play five or so weeks a year. It’s quite an indulgence for a hobby. Over time we’ve played in a lot of different places. It’s like anything else – you don’t need to fuck all the women in one night.”
Looking ahead to the upcoming All Tomorrow’s Parties – how did you end-up picking the line up?
“When I was in Big Black we’d played festivals and they just sucked. They were no fun as a patron because you are not being treated well and the acoustics were bad. The atmosphere at a festival was a rotten one. It wasn’t a celebration of music – it was a means of extracting money from an audience. So Shellac decide to not play any festivals. We were approached about playing ATP – we said no. Then we got talked into it. Bob had an extended conversation with dudes in Mogwai and they convinced him. We played one and we had a good time. Patrons were treated better, all the bands are being vouched for by someone whose taste you could have an opinion about and the bands and the audience all live together in the same holiday camp environment. It’s great. They asked us to curate, we did it. Since then every time ATP has proposed something we’ve tried to do it.”
One thing ATP gets accused of with their Don’t Look Back shows, when acts play a classic album in its entirety, is retro-fetishism and feeding into cultural nostalgia. You’ve turned down offers to reform Big Black and Rapeman – will you continue to resist and is there a problem with retroism?
“When I saw The Stooges play Fun House it was legitimately one of the best musical experiences of my life. If I had some philosophical objection to it prior to that I can’t maintain that objection with a straight face having seen it happen. When it’s awesome it is so awesome it’s worth it, whatever inertia caused to the development of culture, it’s worth it on a personal level for me. Seeing Television play Marquee Moon? John Cale performing Paris 1919 with a rock band and a chamber orchestra? Fucking awesome, you know? My bands are not into doing it. It doesn’t make sense for Shellac to do it – we’re still grinding it out. It doesn’t make sense for the other bands I’ve been in as I think it would be overstating the case that my bands were as significant as those bands I’ve mentioned.”
As a public figure in that scene, does it change the way people come to your work at all? Does it make you uncomfortable to be put in the spotlight?
“What makes me uncomfortable is you saying the words, public figure, That made me uncomfortable.” [laughs]
“People in my life and my business – if I disappoint one of those people I feel terrible. If I do something for those people that helps them out then I feel great, right? What if some person I’ve never met types up and posts about me? I could not give a shit what those people say. They have nothing to do with my life. If someone in the media is portraying a position of mine and it’s nonsense I try to straighten ’em out. I’ll assume you’re making reference to Amanda Palmer [Albini was recently quoted calling Palmer an “idiot” after she initially didn’t pay some of her guest musicians, which was contrasted with the large fan investment she raised via Kickstarter]?”
“Yeah you were, come on.”
“Oh alright. But what it boils down to is this: I was unaware of the existence of an Amanda Palmer until something came up on the forum of the studio message boards, so I briefly acquainted myself with the controversy and then I spouted off about it. And then that became a topic of discussion in the greater music media, which kind of blows my mind, but it did. So I felt obliged to deal with that. And dealing with that took up way too much of my energy.”
It escalated quickly
“Yeah, so I mean I tired to explain myself to the point where people won’t misunderstand what I’ve said but if someone is determined to misunderstand something then there’s not much you can do to straighten them out.”
Why do you think it is that some sections of the media want to portray you in this very negative light? What have you done to piss these people off?
“A lot of people who are trying to make a name for themselves or trying to get their stuff read. They want to have some kind of controversy to draw people into it. If they can manufacture a controversy out of something that’s not controversial then that’s like a win for them. They’ve done something. And so in a couple of instances I’ve said things off the cuff or with less consideration than I probably should have that created an opportunity to paint something as a controversy. There’s no drama without conflict so…”
If you end up having the legacy: the guy who made records for Nirvana or Pixies, is that something you’d be comfortable with?
“Sure. It doesn’t particularly concern me who remembers me. I just want to do a good job for people I’m working with. You do a good job for people and you leave a good memory for people and from a professional standpoint that’s what I’m trying to do. Trying to make sure they get their money’s worth and if they have bad experiences in the music scene then I’m not one of them you know?”
Steve it’s been an honour.
“That’s very flattering, thank you.”