August 22, 2006

The guy who invented fire: Shellac’s Steve Albini on horse meat, recording and a new album.

ShellacSteve Albini is the owner of Electrical Audio Recording in Chicago and a talented studio engineer. He’s made many (many) records for huge, influential bands, and many (many) records for hard working never-heard-of-them bands. He plays guitar and sings in the punk group Shellac, who are gearing up to travel the U.S. with the Sicilian band Uzeda for 16 shows starting Aug. 25. This interview was conducted by phone around 11 p.m. on a Monday evening. Although he had just completed a session that day in Chicago, Steve was generous enough to talk for an hour about making records with friends and eating a horse. LEO: So, I’m gonna tape this conversation, OK?Steve Albini: Well, that’s technically illegal. LEO: Not if you’re our current Administration. SA: No. It’s still illegal to tape a phone conversation. LEO: Even if you tell the person?SA: If I give you express permission that you can tape it.LEO: May I record this phone call? SA: (laughs) I’ll tell you later. I like being able to hold something over you.LEO: The rate that this micro-cassette plays back is either radically slower or faster, so …SA: So it means that our conversation might be amusing! LEO: I’d like to talk with you about the Uzeda recording that’s just about to come out. I wanted to ask you about your experience in Senigallia (on the eastern Coast of Italy). SA: I ate like a fuckin’ king! (laughs) LEO: Was the desire to record there because it was easier to bring one person there (as opposed to bringing four people to Chicago)?SA: The studio is run by David Lenci — Uzeda’s old soundman — and because of that they felt immediately comfortable there. I’d met him years before when Uzeda was touring (the U.S.) and we all got along really well. Everyone was friends for a relatively long period of time. It was just a natural thing.LEO: Sure. SA: Seriously: I ate more species of mammal than I think I could ever imagine. I had wild boar, rabbits and lamb, and horse … it was incredible. All of it — every stitch of it — incredible. LEO: Now, I would think that — being on the coast — you would have eaten more “non-mammal” life. SA: Yeah, there’s an awful lot of fish there, but I can’t eat fish — I have an allergy to, I think, the iodine in fish. I can’t eat any kind of fish but I’ll eat literally any other thing on the planet.LEO: (laughs) I’ve never known these facts. SA: I have to tell you, the number one vittle — the number one victual of the entire trip was Bresaola, which is a cured loin. It’s normally made in America (and sometimes in Italy) of beef loin, but the number-one-super-cool-traditional one is made of smoked horse loin. So I had smoked horse loin Bresaola — incredible. The texture was like, if shoe leather was made out of butter, and it tasted like solidified campfire. (We talk briefly about the traditional Italian Easter meal Cavazzone, which is really delicious and can be made vegetarian, if you wondered. Then we switched to the recording of Uzeda’s new album Stella.)LEO: I was wondering if you had a more relaxed or a more fun time not being in the middle of the rest of your life. Do you like recording stuff when you get to go off and just concentrate on it?SA: Um, I don’t normally enjoy going to other studios to record, especially when it’s a really short session with budget pressure, because, more often than not, the shit’s broke … it don’t work. And I have to spend a lot of my energy making it so shit’s not broke anymore. And that shit wears me out.The time is tight because I have to book myself fairly conservatively — I don’t have any extra days off when I go someplace. So, there’s only so much time and if we can’t get the studio working in the amount of time we have available, then the band doesn’t get a record. And that sucks hard. But when I show up and I don’t know anything about your studio, you can either spend all day every day teaching me what things do and don’t work or you can put up with me bitching at you about shit not working. (laughs)LEO: You have to have someone there at every move ... SA: Even that — that sounds like that would be a solution, but imagine trying to write an English sentence and you had to describe in words how to move the pencil to form every letter to somebody else. It’s just torture. LEO: So was your experience in Italy unlike that?SA: In this case, David and his partner are very thorough about the maintenance of their studio — everything in their studio worked great. I didn’t have anything to worry about — it was awesome. But that is an unusual circumstance.LEO: How long did you guys take to make Stella? SA: I think we were there for seven or eight days, something like that. But it was more vacation-like than it was recording-session like, because it was idyllic surroundings, and there’s fuckin’ smoked horse on the table (laughs) — and you’re there with the coolest people on earth.LEO: Y’know, I was thinking about … People create records now that seem inhumanely perfect, but it’s really by the recording process. SA: Well, there are a couple different aesthetics towards making records. One of them is that all records are pieces of music concrete — you know, they’re made out of the detritus of this session — they’re not meant to represent the band in any direct way, they’re pieces of art that you evaluate against a certain universal standard. (The talk goes off — no apparent reason — on why so much CGI sucks in movies then returns to record making.)LEO: In listening to records, I try not to sit there and pick it apart too much.SA: Part of it — I don’t want to make it into a generational thing, but it’s hard to deny — Uzeda is older than their audience. So they probably have had an experience — which is similar to my experience — with getting a record that is a direct artifact. Where you feel like you’re having a direct relationship with the people that made the record. Like, I feel like I’m listening to this band’s aesthetic — I’m listening to what they think music should sound like, this is what they’re into, you know? I feel like I’m being communicated with in some legitimate way. Whereas a lot people don’t even buy records now, they just listen to these captured songs and sound moments in the abstract. To me, that feels like an incomplete experience. It’s an incomplete experience of the culture of bands. I dunno, I’m talking out of my ass again.LEO: No, I know what you mean: The feeling like you’re getting a document or something that has captured a moment, as opposed to something that has been created —SA: That’s just whipped up to “impress you.” LEO: Recording technology allows so much freedom, but it frequently puts the process of getting it all in this hypothetically-perfect way over performance — the genuine emotion of the experience. Your approach has always been to capture recordings that have, I dunno, “a lot of life in them.”SA: Well, I make a starting assumption that the band already like their own music and they’re capable of playing it, and that seems like something that doesn’t even warrant saying, but a lot of records are not made with those presumptions, they’re made with the presumption that “by the time this is all over there will be a record made out of it” and somewhere along the way, someone will say “that’s cool” about it. But “exactly why and to serve what end?” isn’t really expressed in a lot of ways. UZEDA’s fine new album Stella was released Aug. 22 by Touch & Go Records, who celebrates its 25th anniversary in September.Steve Albini Interview — Part Two (In the meantime we’ve talked about how technology is changing how music is recorded and distributed. Also, the idea of musicians mutating into media figures, the Internet or something being a culprit, and then ...)SA: My take on it has been: Technology has allowed a lot of things to happen, and one of the things that it’s allowed is almost every art form to become a computer assisted version. There’s the sort of “meta-fiction” Web page story puzzle thing that happens now — you’ll read stuff online and then you fight your way through these puzzles and mazes. There’s been a bunch of these if you know what I’m talking about.LEO: A little bit …SA: And then there are these other kinds of fiction, where there are asides and references, instead of being footnoted or highlighted, they are hot links to other sites, all that kind of stuff. Those things are possible, they’re not necessary, and the same way that kind of hyper-involved meta-fiction that’s available on the Internet hasn’t replaced books, I don’t think it’s necessary to replace traditional performance aspects with computer-assisted performance aspects. And I don’t even think it’s a very interesting idea. It’s such an obvious idea that it doesn’t engage me by thinking about it. I suppose if you’re not involved with making music it seems like a crazy abstraction that will really blow your mind, but in all honesty it’s the kind of thing that suggests itself from the notion that computers exist to record music — suddenly all this other stuff suggests itself and I see no reason to actually pursue this experiment because I grasp it. What can’t be replaced or faked or simulated is the difference between somebody that’s really into what they’re doing and somebody who’s just nudging files around on the computer.Listening to a band in performance do something that blows their mind and blows your mind is a different experience from a computer simulation of a band blowing my mind. It’s quite easy to assemble a computer program or a computer file that does a credible mimic of The Ramones — you probably couldn’t tell them apart in any sort of empirical fashion — but no one will very be excited to form a band by listening to a program like that, and if you’re actually paying attention, it won’t give you the same effect whatsoever because there’s everything other than the sound that’s incorporated into the music — I mean the sound is part of it, but not all of it.LEO: Sure ...SA: And everything but the sound is impossible to capture.LEO: It’s funny, what things “sound like” — there’s almost no record that can perfectly capture what it is to be in the room and watch people play, because you know you’re participating in it in some way. You’re making a change, either by your lack of interest or by being incredibly into it, and that’s something that makes me a little crazy. I’ve found it difficult — kind of impossible — to capture any “perfect” document of music. So I have to think of it as “this is the version we’re doing on that day” — and we try to do it our best — as long as it has some guts to it. But I like that there’s no “one” version of a song or one perfect version of any performance. You could say that with any of the larger works of classical music where you’ve got maybe 500 recordings of the Goldberg Variations, and you’ll genuinely have some difference in each one. That’s a subtlety that maybe people don’t want to get into all the time, but still ...SA: Another thing that I find kinda weird with a lot of music that is made according to these “templates” — as long as every thing is in time, as long as everything is in tune, as long as we get to the chorus before thirty seconds have passed ... whatever (laughs). As long as we do all these things, it will be good. As though those programmatic things ever cross anyone’s minds when they’re listening to a record. I’ve never in my life listened to a record and thought, “I would have liked that except that it sped up there.” That’s never, not once, crossed my mind.LEO: If the emotions of the person — at the moment they did it — made them go in a direction, then you’ve got something that will never be repeated again — you get some sense of urgency. It doesn’t seem like that’s going away. It just takes people realizing some of the difference, or finding a reason to appreciate it. When someone reads this article, they might say, “Uzeda made their record in seven days?” I mean, you may get through some fairly normal things in a week, but you don’t think, “This is going to be some indelible marker.” But for a band that plays all the time, that has commitment like Uzeda or you guys. OK, there are great bands that take a year to make a record, not to diminish that, but —SA: I would diminish that pretty quickly. If you stack up all the records on the left side of your desk that mean a lot to you, and then move to pile on the right side of your desk those records that took more than a couple of weeks to make, taken from the first pile, it wouldn’t be more than a couple.LEO: Well, I like a lot of stuff that’s one dude sitting in a dark room making weird sounds, so ... (laughs)SA: So never mind.LEO: My taste may be suspect on this one, but I do know what you mean, and especially with records that are in any way about live performance, I think it’s a really terrible thing when it’s the 15th — or the 50th — take.SA: I mean, applying all these bizarre standards to Shellac — they should be played to a metronome — all that kind of stuff, where did that shit come from? When’s the last time somebody went to a show and counted out the beats in the minute to find out if they’d stayed the same tempo for the whole song? It’s like people don’t trust themselves to be able to trust themselves whether they like something or not so they work in a type of subtractive process — “well, if there’s a note that’s out of time, that’s bad, get rid of it; if there’s a note that’s out of tune get rid of it.” And it’s almost like they’re focusing the majority of their energy on things that don’t have any effect, you know? I don’t care if it’s in tune or in time. LEO: Well, the performances people seem to remember with some kind of excitement, it’s like when someone comes in on a completely fucked up note — you know, when they’re just human about it. You know they’re a great guitar player from other things or you’ve seen them, and then you’re like, “Oh my god, even they mess up.” They got turned around and ate a lyric. There’s one thing on that last Breeders record — there’s this amazing moment where one of the vocal takes gets screwed up, and you just hear Kim Deal say “fuck it” and go on.SA: Right. Exactly.LEO: To me, that’s incredibly exciting to listen to. SA: Isn’t that weird that that would be rare? When a band’s onstage shit like that happens every night. Why on earth is that a rare thing Shellac? That it would be documented in some way?LEO: The whole notion of the “museum treatment” of music. To me, it’s more interesting if I can tell it’s human beings — there’s stuff that’s unconscious — I really believe this — if the chorus has been “cut and pasted” — just knowing it happens all the time. SA: There’s a little experiment I’ve been wanting to try but I haven’t done it yet. I’m pretty sure I’m right. Every record store has a dime bin or a “free” bin — the records no one wants and they can’t sell them. I want to postulate that, if you picked a record at random from that dime bin and put it on, that there would be nothing wrong with it, you know? Every beat would be in time, every note would be in tune — all the songs would be plenty loud.LEO: (laughs)SA: You wouldn’t be able to find a thing wrong with it — and that’s how firmly I believe that that shit is immaterial. I think the least successful records on the planet are probably flawless (laughs). When I say successful I mean records that nobody gives a shit about. I’m not saying that they didn’t achieve what they were going for, I’m saying what they were going for was meaningless.LEO: To some people it might even seem like an audacious thing to think that a record has meaning. They might just think that they’re just fun, or ...SA: Some people just have a perspective on music that prevents them from thinking of it as anything other than just pure trivial entertainment.LEO: (laughs) You know, grinding it out year after year with “consistency” doesn’t yield creative freedom to a lot of artists. Most of the people that continue to make music seem to have a lot of interest, where you can tell they are still involved. I just don’t think it can be cranked out under artificial circumstances. I can’t explain why I like a band like Yo La Tengo, except I feel like they still like doing it. You can tell these people care about it still. I constantly look for that trait in music, whatever genre it is, you know? If I feel like the person is communicating something that hasn’t been completely diluted. There’s lots of stuff — maybe I don’t even like it — but you can tell the person is legit about it. You can tell when you see a band, you say “this isn’t my taste at all,” but this person really loves doing it. OK, so I should ask you: What’s happening with the new Shellac record? You all have finished the record? SAL: It’s finished, it’s in production, it’s been mastered, it’s got a cover. We’re just waiting for everything to get made and glued together. LEO: Will it be early next year?SA: I don’t know. I don’t have any clue until the shit happens for real. If you ask a record company person how long it takes to put a record into production they’ll say “we need five months,” but having done it myself a while ago, I know you can put a record together in a couple of weeks if you need to — it’s just a matter of getting everything coordinated so all the parts end up where they’re supposed to be.LEO: You guys tend to have a leaning toward the time-intensive packaging especially.SA: When I think about our records — well, I have a pretty big record collection, I don’t want to be ashamed, I don’t want Uriah Heep to put our record to shame.LEO: I just got the title for this article ...SA: It’s like, you could pick up any record that was made in the ’70s and the covers were substantial — they looked good: the printing was good quality, you know. The records were flat, everything about those records that were made when records were all there was, everything about them was taken seriously. I like the idea that when we make a record we’re making it with the same sense of commitment to quality. The record covers aren’t going to be crappy, the record themselves are gonna be made well, we’re gonna spend the extra dollar and go ahead and have the good pressings done. I like thinking that we’re — it’s not just show business, our affection for records. We’re actually committed to them as a format.LEO: People pay attention to it for sure. I know you guys have never claimed any prophetic insight. I dunno, maybe you would. But now all these record people are like, let’s make all this special extra stuff to get people’s attention since everyone thinks things are so disposable. With you all — it’s so clearly not viewed that way.SA: I just think people have different uses for music. There are some people for whom music is not that much of, they don’t focus a lot of their attention on it, it’s just an amusement for them, you know? And for those people, I think shit like iPods and stuff are fantastic — it allows them to have music wherever. OK, the sound quality isn’t the best. So what? You know, it allows them to have music in their lives in a way that’s meaningful for them, and I think that’s totally fuckin’ cool. And then there are people like me who have built up kind of a library of music, that music isn’t just sound, it’s a part of your life. You know, going to the record collection and pulling out the record that you want to hear is a lot more satisfying because it’s involving you physically and intellectually, and it brings you back to the moment that you bought that record — there’s a lot involved, which I like as an experience and I think is valuable. I just feel like, for some people records are perfect. And for some people shit like iPods and CDs are perfect, and I’m not passing judgment on that and saying that music should mean more to these people — that it should consume more of their attention — I don’t think that’s the case at all. I just think some people are susceptible to music in a way that makes it really important to them, and for those people I think it’s important to have something that’s durable and substantial. LEO: It seems to tie into the culture around music. It seems a little more polarized now. I mean, my parents put on a record — that was the format that they had. It’s like, my dad wasn’t super deep into music but he would make a real point that the record player was in really good shape.SA: Right ...LEO: Good receiver. He was real technically minded, that side of it, the engineering side. What’s interesting now, the whole culture of record store — people who it’s a big part of their life, that feels more like my culture, unlike the Best Buys or iPod culture, the “I want music whenever I want it however I want it.” Music is a tool, an entertainment.SA: Our relationship to music is different than someone who listens passively to music. We’re in bands, all our friends are in bands. We see live music a lot. I don’t think there’s any thing on earth that elevates that experience over the “commonplace” use of music for some other people. I think they’re entitled to enjoy that music however they want, but I think not to recognize the difference in the way that they treat music is ignoring the obvious. I think Best Buy, solely because relatively low prices and relatively wide selection, is fantastic. But I don’t choose to shop there and I don’t like the business model of Best Buy. But as a resource for someone living in Bumfuck Egypt? Whose entire exposure to this culture’s gonna be that bin in Best Buy? I’m totally fuckin’ glad it’s there. You know, I grew up in Montana. I happened to grow up in a college town in Montana, which meant that I had a pretty good record store at my disposal. If I had grown up 40 miles away in Montana, I would not have known what the inside of a record store looked like.LEO: It’s a weird thing, there was a pretty significant controversy in the independent music world recently with indie stores feeling rejected when the bigger indie labels chose to sell to Best Buy, cause smaller stores can’t compete with the prices that Best Buy has. So it’s really complicated. But there’s never gonna be a perfect scenario for people to find music. Maybe that kid that finds it at Best Buy, maybe that’s the only place they have it available, they don’t have a computer or any of that stuff. If they really love music they might turn in to the person that’s gonna be at the small record store. Who knows?(We talk a little more about the controversy about indie titles being sold at Best Buy, then move into some basic ideas about albums in general)SA: I like the durability of good records. It’s amazing. It may take 20 years, but good records eventually get noticed. I think that’s fucking cool. As opposed to something just being on a Web page somewhere, and that page stops being hosted, you know, that’s it — done and gone. You know, I like that a record can be sitting under the sofa and then someday the youngest nephew is crawling around under there and he finds it and that wakes someone up to Rasputin’s Stash or something.LEO: (laughs) Is Rasputin’s Stash the name of a band?SA: Oh yeah. They were like a party funk band, half-assed psychedelic.LEO: I was thinking about the idea of things “staying in print” — still existing — that is a whole other culture. It really takes someone that cares about it.SA: That’s one of the most awesome things about Touch & Go Shellac, that he’s committed to making his records available for eternity. How great is that?LEO: It’s really great, almost shockingly rare. I look for records all the time that are out of print — from like 2001, you know? It’s one of the things that I find really rough. I try to talk to people about it when they’re weighing the concepts of how to do their business — who they get involved with, who owns their music — if you just do some basic things to take care of yourself. Things that you and Corey [Rusk, owner of Touch & Go) have always said, with a little bit of being careful and thinking ahead you don’t have to let someone take over all of your work.SA: Yeah. Let’s say you’re in a band and you’re going to be in a business relationship with record label. What do you have that you can use in that relationship? You have the music and that’s it. There’s no margin in giving up that which makes you viable. There’s no margin in saying “we don’t really need the music, we can do without it, you can have it, just put our records out and give us some money every now and again.”LEO: Thinking about 10 years ahead — in certain parts of your life that just seems unbelievably far.SA: So far ahead. There’s no meaningful activity that far off.LEO: I’m just glad that there were opportunities. Just even a Dischord or Touch & Go existing — just existing to offer you the contrast — cause someone can sell a very modest amount of records, but for 20 years.SA: That’s the thing. You can sell a million records — you only need to sell them in one year if you spend all the money in one year. LEO: If there’s a little bit of, I don’t want to say it’s greed, that sounds like an accusation. SA: It’s a very charged word ...LEO: Maybe it’s the sense of opportunity and getting swept up in all of it for a young band — do they think, “I’m gonna do this for the rest of my life”; “Didn’t I get into a band expressly to have the freedom to do whatever I want?” … When you find out someone’s willing to stay the course, I mean, 25 years — I’m doubting that.SA: Very few things in my life are gonna last that long.LEO: Yeah, when you start something you never know what’s possible, on that 25th anniversary poster [for the Touch & Go show in September] there are over 300 records. It’s just an unbelievable accomplishment. Corey was saying, when he started it he’d eat a pumpkin pie for dinner every night for like six months! Cause they were 10 for $5 at Walgreens. SA: Yeah, you could get them right after Halloween. They were dirt cheap. Oh, right after Thanksgiving, I’m sorry.LEO: Yeah, with a freezer full of pumpkin pies, you too can ...SA: And turkey at 9 cents a pound.LEO: (laughs) Well, man, I certainly got more than my expected 700 words (make that 5,065 words —Ed.), so I’ll only pick the very best ones. I’ll have to give you extra special props for doing this in the middle of the night.SA: Don’t sweat it. I finished with work and didn’t have anything better to do.HOT LINKS:Electrical Audio: www.electrical.com/index.phpTouch & Go Records: www.tgrec.com/Uzeda: www.tgrec.com/bands/band.php?id=84Shellac: www.tgrec.com/bands/band.php?id=22Contact the writer at LEObeat@LEOweekly.com