Steve Albini’s Passion Project: Famed producer talks about Shellac, Spotify and the political climate

Mar 4, 2020 at 11:14 am
Steve Albini

How do you come up with questions for one of the most interesting characters in the history of indie rock? It’s no small feat with Steve Albini, who has been at the vanguard of music as a punk provocateur in bands such as Big Black and Rapeman and as an engineer with credits that include Nirvana, Slint and The Pixies. Since 1992, Albini has also performed in Shellac, a power trio playing a sold-out show at Zanzabar on Monday. The band tours and releases albums at their own leisure, privileging friendship and experience beyond any of the accoutrements to the music industry. We caught up with Albini to talk about Louisville, Spotify and the political climate.

LEO: Why Louisville? Steve Albini: We haven’t been there in a while, and we’re starting to feel bad about it. I mean, that’s honestly it. We have a lot of friends in Louisville. We haven’t been there in a while. And our touring decisions don’t really have a lot of logic behind that. They’re almost all based on, you know, whims like that. Like, we haven’t hung out in Louisville in a while. Let’s just add that one.

That’s why I asked. Like, it doesn’t seem like there’s any real rhyme or reason other than, ‘Fuck it, let’s just do this.’ Yeah. I mean, we’re lucky in that we don’t do the band as a career. So, we’re immune to any kind of career impulses or pressures like, you know — like we don’t have a record label that’s upset that we haven’t toured in a while, or that we know if we have put out a record, we don’t need to tour to promote it. We just put out a record whenever we feel like putting out a record, you know, and the touring is the same way. We never have to do a bad tour, and, like, we’re never going to go someplace and have bad shows where nobody wants to see us. We only ever go places where people want to see us, and we only ever book shows that we think we can do well at.

I had no idea that you had stuff on Spotify. I was a little surprised by that. You’re telling me that. And I believe you. Yeah. I don’t have Spotify on my phone, so I don’t know anything about Spotify. So, Spotify is like one of the distribution mechanisms that record labels use. I don’t have a strong opinion about it, except that I think it’s probably doomed.

I hope so. I grew up with, like, you know, listening to your music and being influenced by, like, Touch and Go and Dischord and stuff like that. So, if it’s not like, you know, an egalitarian thing that’s for artists, then fuck it. Yeah. I mean, that’s a perfectly reasonable position. The thing is that if that’s how people listen to music and you abdicate from that platform, then you’re saying that you don’t get those people to listen to your music. I think that’s fine if that’s what you want to do. But, we’ve just never been fussy about it. Like our dealings with our record label are completely above board. One of their biggest buyers was Walmart for a while. You know, Walmart is a fucking atrocious company. And, I don’t particularly want to do business with them, but that’s where people buy records. And, so it just gets to be enormously complicated to have to police every moment of your existence in order to prevent any kind of, you know, secondary or tertiary association with people that you don’t agree with.

I know you’ve famously recorded some local bands. On any level, has any Louisville music rubbed off on you? Well, yeah. I mean, Louisville is a unique spot, and the community of musicians there is incredibly tight and incredibly diverse. Like, you have everything from like straight-up fucking metal bands like Maurice or Coliseum. You know, bands that are just straight-up like a metal band, and then you also have these like freak scene abstract people, like, I was just down in Louisville for the anniversary of Brett Ralph’s record store. He has a record store, Surface Noise. He had me down. He invited me down there to celebrate their anniversary. And I picked up a 12-inch there, right, by a guy who goes by the name Base. I had no idea who he was. But that record was fucking fantastic. It was like this, you know, really brutal, very simplistic but a very brutal electronic noise record of the type that really intrigued me in the ‘80s, but in a style that has basically been abandoned now. And I was just really invigorated by listening to that music. Like, yeah, this scratches the exact same itch that things that like Throbbing Gristle or SPK or Factrix or those bands did back in the early ‘80s. And I hadn’t heard anybody even trying to make music like that in a very long time. I thought it was fantastic.

Does the current political climate seep into your music at all? It’s inescapable. We’re at the dawning of fascism in this country, and it’s inescapable that that’s going to be it. You know, it affects your mood. Like, I can’t take a dump without thinking about how horrible things are. Like, there’s just no part of life that is unaffected by the fact that we are seeing the dawning of a fascist regime. You can’t ignore that.

Shellac Monday, March 9 Zanzabar 2100 S. Preston St. 8 p.m. Sold out