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[interview] Steve Albini of Shellac talks capitalism, bad behavior and how most things suck



In honor of Labor Day, here's our complete interview with arguably the hardest working man in indie rock, Steve Albini.  In this week's Phoenix I featured Shellac and their bizarre touring routine (which brings them to the Middle East Downstairs tonight), but below is the full transcript of my talk with Mr. Albini, as he muses on longevity, bad behavior, and capitalism in rock and roll:
 
 
Daniel Brockman: Hey Steve!  So it took seven years after 1000 Hurts until you guys released Excellent Italian Greyhound in 2007.  Is there a new album in the works?

Steve Albini: Uh, no-- I mean, we’re still basically working at the same pace we always have.  We have some unrecorded songs that we’re probably going to record.  I don’t know how those sessions are going to go and if we’ll have enough to warrant a record.  So basically, the same as always: get together every few weeks and play, and a couple times a year we organize some shows, and every now and again we make a record.

At this point, you guys have been around almost two decades; do you ever listen back to your albums over the years and find them emblematic of the period during which they were recorded?
 
Hmm.  There’s some strange little performance quirks that creep into the songs over time, and every now and again, like if we review an older lp recording of a song, we’ll be surprised that there’s a thing in there that we usually do that we didn’t do when it was recorded.  Like a song has grown an extra set of balls in the interim.  And I think that that’s actually a good thing because it means that we’re still sort of invigorated by all our songs, the ones that we’re still playing still have the potential to change and retain our interest.

Are those the songs that become kind of the warhorses of your live set?
 
You know, there are certain songs that we stretch out a lot more when we play them, sometimes.  It’s weird, which particular songs that that is has changed over time.  There was a song called “The Billiard Player Song” that we would play a lot, and it seemed like the middle part of that song, which is quite short on the record, would sometimes become like a significant fraction of the set.  But for some reason, which I can’t explain, we just haven’t felt inclined to play that song at all in the last year, and so other songs have had their little expressionist bits stretched out.  It seems like we have a compulsion to fiddle around with the way we play the songs so that they have at least the potential to maintain our current interests.

You know, there’s something to be said for, like, if a band writes awesome songs and they just knock ‘em out, and they’re 100% reliable in that regard, there’s something to be said for that, in that you were not necessarily expecting a new experience every time you hear Cheap Trick play one of their awesome songs.  You just want to hear them do it and have it be awesome.  And I respect that, but I also don’t think that our music lends itself to that.  I think that our music is much more characterized by the individual performance than by the formal nature of the song, or whatever.  So it seems like we could do a good or bad version of our songs, whereas it seems like Cheap Trick songs are all awesome, and they’re awesome, and they never have a bad show.

Do you feel that fans that come to a Shellac show expecting “the hits” are misunderstanding things?
 
No, I feel like it’s totally natural if you’re into a band and you’ve listened to their recordings a lot and you want to hear certain things, I totally understand that.  From a fan perspective, I’ve often been the same way.  When I finally got to see the Stooges, for example, there were certain songs that I really wanted to see them play.  So I totally understand that.  But I think that we’ve been around long enough that everybody sort of gets the way that the band operates, which is that as flattered as we are that people have come to see us, we’re basically doing it for ourselves.  We’re basically going to do what we’re inclined to do, and I feel that we’re granted an awful lot of leeway by our audiences.  Every now and again, we run into an environment that’s-- well, not necessarily judgmental or hostile, but isn’t down with that program.  But it’s pretty rare for us, it seems like we can get away with murder!

You started off with Big Black in the 80’s, and then moved on to Rapeman before starting Shellac.  And it’s interesting because your bands are always kind of pegged as “confrontational”-- do you see it that way?
 
I feel like there’s been a thread of continuity in that frame of mind, the way that those bands all operated was according to their own internal logic.  To be confrontational implies that you’re taking particular note of the way people are orienting themselves, and you’re charging against that.  And I don’t necessarily feel like those bands did that.  I’m also not too concerned that other people think of stuff that I do and bands that I’m in.  Another way of putting it is that none of those bands made concessions to show business or what might be expected of them.  And I feel that even during the punk and hardcore era, a lot of bands were making those concessions, an awful lot of bands, and of course it got much worse when things got more commercialized in the 90’s.  But I feel like there were a lot of bands that were doing things in one particular way or another based on what expectations were held up for them or some imagined notions of propriety.

It’s interesting that you mention the commerciality of the 90s, because it seems like when you get into the ground rules of Shellac-- and you are a band with ground rules-- a lot of that seems to have been laid out in the early 90s.  And not just your equipment fetishism, but the ethical rules and such.
 
Well, we do behave slightly different now than we did then-- in the beginning, we were inspired a lot by bands like Fugazi and The Ex and other sort of-- I don’t know how to describe it, but other bands who wanted to be accessible to everyone.  We wanted our shows to be a bargain, we wanted the opportunity to play basically anywhere, we wanted everything to be open access to everybody.  And I feel like we’ve held fairly true to that.  The economics of touring have changed really dramatically, and we used to be proud that we could pull shows off for 5 or 6 dollars.  Now, the carrying costs of being on the road and some of the insane costs of putting shows on in certain venues means that the ticket prices have crept up.  That’s one thing in particular that bothers-- well, I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say it bothers me, but one thing in particular that has not gone unnoticed within the band is that it now costs more to see us than it used to.   I have some regret about that.  But we’re still operating the same way in so far as our internal consistency goes.  We’re still just trying to cover costs and be fair to the promoters and the people that help us out, and we still try to keep things small and manageable.  It’s just that when I see how much it costs to see just your average regular band now, it kind of bothers me that things have gotten so expensive.  So there’s that.

When we first started, we didn’t really have a touring methodology, so we tried a bunch of things.  And one of the things we decided on early was-- well, we tried playing a couple of festivals and they were horrible experiences, so we said “No festivals, just skip them.”  And then All Tomorrow’s Parties came on and they really had to twist our arm and convince us that it was a totally different experience.  And as it turns out, it is a totally different experience from the way festivals were organized before All Tomorrow’s Parties, and I think that ATP has completely changed the landscape of the larger festivals.  And there are now quite a few very well run curated festivals around the world where the patrons and the fans are treated very well, and the slate of artists are all working in sympathy rather than just being, like, the big pop names and the big hyped names.  And there are festivals around the world that never could have existed without All Tomorrow’s Parties showing that it could be done logistically and profitably.  So that experience kind of changed our experience on festivals, and now we if we’re offered something we have to figure it out, like, “Is this one of those weird corporate kind of things where it’s sponsored by somebody and it’s going to suck, or is it something that’s being done by a community of musicians and it’s going to be awesome?”  So it’s gotten more complicated because we now have to consider things that we originally were comfortable just writing off entirely.

For a Shellac fan, it isn’t easy to see you guys-- you aren’t going to just come through town every year, and you don’t put out records very often.  And that kind of has built a mystique-- the supply is low, which makes the demand somewhat high.  I think it’s been 8 years since you’ve been to Boston, for example.  Is that just part of the band’s aesthetic?
 
There are a hundred things that overlap on that.  The most significant one is that everyone in the band has regular jobs and regular lives, which means that our touring options are going to be short-term and small scale.  So we have to figure out, you know, if we have two weeks to tour in the fall, where should that be?  Do we go to Italy and put on 20 lbs?  Do we go through the South, and, uh, suffer the South?  So we have to make very crude choices on what to do with our time, so there are many places on Earth that we don’t get to very often.  We enjoy playing Boston, we always have good shows there, although it’s hard to do a show there.  The Middle East is pretty much the only friendly venue for us-- meaning not corporate-controlled and that doesn’t have a bunch of insane curtailment policies in place that prevent you from behaving like a normal band.

So, you know, our options are limited on both ends.  But also, I feel like a lot of bands tour so much that they come to resent it.  And then they’re capable of throwing off perfunctory shows-- whereas we tour so little that it’s a total fucking blast for us.  So we’re less inclined to do a throw-off not-give-a-shit show because we know that we have so few shows on our schedule, so we’re trying to make them all count.  So I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything wrong with being reserved with how much you play.  The thinking is that bands want to play for as many people and as big an audience as possible, and that kind of thinking is used to justify all kinds of boorish behavior and all kinds of pandering.  And I said that I didn’t necessarily better when you lay it on with a ladle and spattered every potential person with your band.  I know from my own existence as a fan that the bands that I have loved the most and the longest were bands that I found on my own, not bands that were sprayed at me.  So I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything wrong with doing your thing and letting your natural audience find you.  Whereas for a while, during this commercialization period in the 90s, a lot of bands were just trying to do as many catwalks and Calvin Klein ads and covers of Spin and shit as possible to get people to pay attention to their band.  And I just feel like there are very few bands that can survive that kind of wheat-paste fascist-poster style.

It seems like a lot of bands are like Pinocchio: they feel that if they don’t do enough stuff, they won’t graduate to being a “real band.”  It seems like for you guys, you have day jobs and whatnot so you don’t deal with that.  Does that seem accurate?
 
You know, we don’t really discuss it that much.  We’ve known each other for so long that a lot of things about our tastes and our personalities are unspoken.  And between us, we all know what things are going to drive the other ones insane.  Like there are small things that get under our skin and they’re as much a part of our band make-up as the way we conduct ourselves in business or the kind of instruments we play.

Like, there was this thing for a while which is still sort of lingering but not as prevalent as it used to be where people, completely unaffiliated with a show, would design, print up, and sell a poster, ostensibly promoting but really just referencing a show that they were completely uninvolved with.  And that poster because a separate commercialization of the event.  And every time that would happen to us, and it happened a few times, one of us would make it known to the dude who had set up outside the gate to sell posters of the gig that that was a parasitic behavior and that that was no different than any other kind of gross commercial culture capitalism.  Trying to find something with its own cachet of popularity, creating something outside with no relation with it and trying to capitalize on it.  Now, we’ve had very good poster artists as friends do posters for our shows.  I’m not opposed to having nice posters at shows, I think it’s very cool that this culture has developed of gig posters, I think it’s an interesting facet of the music scene and band culture.  What I don’t like is people opportunistically grafting themselves into that culture.  That’s the sort of thing that if you asked us, when we formed the band “What is your opinion of show posters?” I don’t think we would have had an opinion of it.

Like, I don’t give a shit if our music appears in some student film or some independent thing or whatever.  It doesn’t offend me or bother me, and I don’t necessarily think that I need to be paid for it or anything.  but if someone asks my permission, suddenly I have to take it seriously, see the movie, see if I want to be associated with it or not.  And now I need to make a decision about it-- and most things suck, so most of the time my decision is going to be “no”, right?  But the only reason the guy had us say “no” was because he asked us!  If he had just put the fucking song in his film or skateboard video or whatever, we probably would have never found out about it, nothing bad would have happened to us, and we never would have cared.

It seems like you guys set out in an unspoken way to not participate in a capitalistic band system.  Lots of bands have tried that, but those wishes always butted up against the problem of scale when faced with trying to make things bigger.  Do you think that by your band’s not participating or associating, this is how you’ve been able to keep this Shellac thing not capitalistic?
 
That’s a total reasonable read on it.  The way that we would probably describe it is that we want to keep all of our relationships on the personal and human level: every single one of them.  The relationship with the audience should be a normal regular human interaction, it shouldn’t be primarily a business transaction.  The people who book shows for us, the venues, the people that work with us, the sound guys, whatever: all of those relationships, to us, are normal regular human relationships that you would have with your friends or your barber or your cousins.

For us, that’s the way we want to conduct ourselves.  It’s not necessarily that it’s anti-capitalist, although it works out that way.  It’s not necessarily that it is pro-community, although it works out that way, and I’m fine with it.  To be really active within the community of musicians requires more effort than I’m willing to bring to bear on my existence.  But I think the very least I can do is be square with everybody, to be honorable.  And a lot of bands conduct themselves that way all the time, it’s just that when the scale gets bigger and the stakes get bigger, a lot of people can find either a rationale for behaving differently, or there are people that they find themselves allied with, either within the business or within the band, who don’t think that it’s within the band’s best interests to behave that way.  So they succumb to some kind of pressure.

We’ve just never been in that position, we’ve always, all of us, agreed that the best way to do things is to treat people like people at every stage.  And all the trappings of the music business, show business that have been applied to the rock band thing, they’re all artificial, they’re all alien.  You know, when bands get together in their early stages and everyone’s helping each other out, sharing equipment, it’s all done very fraternally and no one’s in competition with anybody.  The only reason that that changes is that someone makes a conscious decision to change.  And we just never made that kind of a conscious choice.

By the same token, though, it seems like in the rock and roll world, “Hey, that’s rock and roll” is a catch-all excuse to excuse all sorts of behavior.  A band trashes things, or a band member treats people badly or acts in an outrageously egotistical manner, and it’s like “Hey, that’s rock and roll!”
 
Right!

People would forgive anyone for that-- in the black metal world even murder can be forgiven.
 
Right.  On a personal level, you run into people like that every once in a while, who do bad things and go “Hey, that’s me, that’s the way I am!”  Like you know, they don’t justify the behavior on its own merits, it’s more like “I have chosen to behave like this because I have chosen to behave like this, and everyone else has to deal with it.”  I dunno, I guess I’ve known enough musicians who were nice, normal rational people not to have any presumption that they were going to act like assholes just because they’re musicians or because they’re in bands.  But yeah, you do see people use that as a justification.  And I think it says more about people making that justification than the people who are subject to that sort of behavior.

I think it’s the cultural thing, the cultural box that people put musicians in.
 
Right, most people have never been in a band, so they don’t know what it’s like.  So if some journalist tells them that if you’re in a band, you’re going to behave like a crazy sex-mad drug freak, well the general public would have no reason not to believe that.  So the lore of the misbehaving musician gets canonized because it’s reported by people who aren’t in bands about experiences that they haven’t actually had or observed and it’s reported to people who have no frame of reference by which to evaluate it, so they buy it.  And every now and again, you find musicians who have grown up in that vacuum of experience, and when they finally migrate into the actual music scene, they presume to behave that way because they believe that that’s the correct method, and they’ve been taught, academically, that that’s the way rock stars should behave.

But people who came up through punk rock did not experience music that way.  They experienced the music primarily as fans and the general cultural perceptions of what bands were like didn’t enter into it, because each band had to create its own method.  And I don’t want to put too much emphasis on it, but I think the fact that the three of us in Shellac had experiences in the actual punk rock era, both seeing bands and knowing bands and being in bands before it had become a caricature, I think it tempers our behavior a lot.  The three of us know that playing a show is mostly about the show, not the party afterward.

You and Bob Weston are both engineers as your day job-- do you think part of your world view in terms of this stuff was shaped by that role, i having to babysit rockers at their most vulnerable moments?
 
A little bit.  But I also feel like, because I’m around bands every day, because they are my normal clientele, I have a pretty realistic perspective on how bands behave.  And it’s pretty rare that bands actually behave like the petulant crybabies that they are often presumed to be.  It happens, once in a great while, but it’s not an everday thing.  The every day thing getting on to the task of making a record, taking it seriously, trying to be careful about their decisions, and trying to do everything they can to make a record that lives up to their expectations.  So all the externalities and extra-musical stuff is vanishingly small as a fraction of the experience of being around bands, in my experience.  But because that’s the part that’s more apparent to a music fan or someone in the general public, the behind-the-scenes stuff is always presumed to be hijinks with groupies and snorting cocaine off of coffee tables and abdomens.  And the amount of that that I’ve seen in the 30 years that I’ve been making records has been a really trivial amount,
relative to the amount of actual hard work, dedication and sincere effort in service of art.

Now, maybe in certain circles, it’s a bigger fraction; but again, I attribute a lot of my experiences to having come up in punk rock.  I mean, sure, there was a lot of crazy mayhem and drug abuse and all that kind of stuff; but it wasn’t necessarily associated with being in a band.  It was associated with a lifestyle thing, and the misbehavior of the era.

You have a very recognizable and singular guitar style in Shellac-- but your playing and sound have definitely evolved since the early 90’s, with many moments that are not as caustic or as discordant as early Shellac, or Big Black.  Do you ever work on music and think “This riff is cool, or this song is cool, but it won’t work for Shellac”?
 
Well, I basically don’t work on music except for Shellac.  I’ll fiddle around with things absent-mindedly.  But Shellac is literally my sole creative musical interest.  Between the three of us, we’ve never defined any parameters or anything that we wouldn’t be willing to do.  It’s just that, you know, when we get together to work on stuff, we tend to zero in fairly quickly on things that we agree are worth pursuing.

The direct answer to your question is “No”.  I don’t ever think “I’d like to play this, but it’s not worthwhile for Shellac.”  Basically, if, as a band, we decide that we want to play something, then that qualifies for Shellac. And I’m not interested in playing music apart from Shellac.

When you guys formed, did you have an inkling that it would be that way 17 years later?  Did you think at your first rehearsal “This is it”?
 
With us, at least, we didn’t set a goal, like “Alright, we’d like to do this” and accomplish it.  What we do is we get started on something and try to come up with a process or a method that we’re comfortable with and that’s satisfying on its own.  And whatever happens, whatever the result of that is, whatever music we end up, whatever shows we play, is satisfying because the way we got there was satisfying.

And that works on every scale.  On the very small scale of “These are my skills as a guitarist and this is what I’ve come up with, so this is what I’m going to play.”  And that works on every level.  And if you asked us when we started playing together “do you still think you’ll be playing in 20 years”, I don’t know what we would have said.  But if you asked us now “Do you think you’ll still be playing in 20 years”, I would say “Well, the odds are yes.”  It’s a much higher probability that we’ll make it to 40 years together, having made it this far, than, in our first couple months of playing together, making it to 15 or 20 years.

So I don’t have any expectation or goal in that regard, but it seems like the way we’re doing things is satisfying to us, and I see no reason to stop.

I remember reading an old interview with you where the interviewer was questioning you on your band’s minimalism, and whether you felt limited by it.  And you said something to the effect that you didn’t feel that you had come anywhere near exhausting the possibilities inherent in the guitar/bass/drums format.  Do you still feel that that is true, for you and Shellac?
 
I’ve never felt limited by the format of the band, I never felt like there was anything that we couldn’t do.  Maybe that’s a failure of my imagination, but I’m not going to expend any energy trying to find ways to be dissatisfied with my band.  It’s like looking for flaws in your wife: what’s the point?  I’m 100% content, why would I start trying to figure out what would be better otherwise.

I guess that goes against the concept of the unhappy artist, that you are supposed to be unhappy in order to make art of merit.  That being unsatisfied is the fulcrum that makes art happens.
 
The simplest way to explain how the band operates is that when we get in a room together and start playing, we will start gravitating towards things that we like and don’t like.  And sometimes there will be some discussion, like “Oh, I liked that thing you did earlier when you did that” and then we get feedback within the band.  But I think it’s kind of important that there’s nobody in the band that feels in charge.  Because there’s no one person that has to answer to everything, I think it gives us a little more freedom to do things that might be individually embarrassing.  You know?  Like you don’t necessarily think that anyone else has to take responsibility for it, and you don’t ever feel like you’ve been told to do something.  So you’re not doing anything under protest of any kind.  And I know that there are some bands that there will be a big brouhaha about some decision and then one guy says “Fine, it’s a decision, whatever, I’ll put up with it.”  And we just don’t operate that way.  There’s a consensus about stuff, or we don’t do it.  Sometimes the consensus made can be “Well, in this bit, everybody can do whatever the hell they want, and nobody else should have any opinion about it.”

I guess otherwise, the band’s music results in this inner tumult.  Much great music comes from that, but they are miserable doing it and it doesn’t last long.
 
Every now and again you see a band and you think “Wow, these guys have a concept for their band, and they’re gonna burn through that concept within a year, and then they’re gonna have to look for a new concept for the next record, you know?”  And when you see that, it seems like such a closed system.  Like “Wow, this is the new Gary Numan, I guess!”

When I was younger I was really into a band that was really threatening onstage, and I remember finally talking to a member of the band and being like “Wow, you guys are so threatening and intimidating onstage” and he said “Oh, that’s because we all hate each other”!
 
I dunno, man, I couldn’t imagine being in a band where I didn’t enjoy myself every second.  I would just find another band!  It’s not like being in a band is so rewarding financially or culturally or in terms of status or whatever.  Basically the only reason to do it is because it’s awesome.  The only reason to be in a band is because being in a band is great!  You get to hang out with people you like and you get to do creative stuff and play shows and travel.  Being in a band is essentially its own reward, and I can’t fathom it any other way.

I guess for most people in bands that get somewhere, the band becomes a job, and sometimes people work jobs they don’t like.
 
Yeah, and if I was in a job I didn’t like and I had other job options, I would quit that job and take another one.  And if you’re in a band you don’t like-- the number of bands available is unlimited.  You can basically start a new band any time you want.  So, no reason to stay in a shitty band.
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