Who Cares What Steve Albini Thinks? You Probably Do.
Maureen Herman interviews Nirvana's notorious engineer, Big Black guitarist, writer, food blogger, poker player, billiards enthusiast, and frenemies with a superstar internet kitten.
(Steve Albini's band, Shellac. Photo by Goro Memo)
Last fall, Steve Albini suddenly got a lot of attention for something he wrote twenty years ago. His now-viral “Letter to Nirvana” was included in the band’s 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition box set reissue of their last album, 1993’s In Utero, which Albini remastered alongside surviving band members Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and Pat Smear. Its inclusion was a profound nod to the controversy around Albini’s role in the original recording as well as an exquisite example of his witty writing and his fiercely independent approach to recording music.
While Albini’s philosophy and methods are contrary at virtually every stage to how everyone else in the world records music, his way yields a consistent result: great, often landmark, records. Yet, he is avoided like Kryptonite by major labels, whose business model Albini artfully and notoriously railed against in another piece he wrote twenty years ago, “The Problem with Music.” (This piece was printed in a fanzine made out of actual paper and “went viral” when that term was primarily used to discuss contagious diseases. This was pre-Google, pre-Netscape, even pre-Alta Vista.) It earned him a reputation as an enemy to the corporate music industry.
Though he would dismiss the label, Albini is an excellent writer, despite his demure protestations. Even his food blog, “Mario Batali Voice,” which documented what he made his wife Heather for dinner that night, quickly attracted a large following.
To limit a description of Steve Albini to “recording engineer” is like calling Da Vinci a “sketch artist” or Mark Twain a “sloganeer,” but that is the title and credit he insists on. Albini not only rejects the title “producer,” but also the money that typically accompanies it. In fact, he refuses to participate in the “points system” (in which labels pay producers based on record sales) his peers strive for. For Albini, it's not just a matter of semantics, but the devotion to craftsmanship in a trade where he sees himself as a flat-fee documenter, and the band as the sole artistic creators and deserving financial beneficiaries of their own success. But the absolutely unheard-of distinction in his mindset and how it plays out sonically, is the reason Kurt Cobain, a fan of Albini’s work (especially on albums by The Jesus Lizard), tapped him to “engineer” what would be their multi-platinum selling In Utero. It is also why he was sought after by The Pixies, Bush, Page & Plant, PJ Harvey and, he notes, “a thousand bands you’ve never heard of.”
“To say that Nirvana's third and ultimately final studio album In Utero was 1993's most polarizing record would be the understatement of a decade. The unadorned sonic rawness of Steve Albini's recording laid bare every primal nuance of the most confrontational yet vulnerable material Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl would ever record.” - Nirvana official website
Though he’s arguably one of the world’s greatest “record makers,” a mostly misconstrued reputation precedes him. As a result, many bands are too intimidated or misinformed to go to his website and discover that hiring Steve Albini involves no more than booking time with him at his studio, Electrical Audio Recording (E.A.R.), for his incomprehensibly low day rate of $700. There is no audition or test of worthiness, only the expectation that you are as serious about your music as he is about capturing your sound. Considerate of the average band’s economic realities, and to help a band immerse themselves in the experience, he built “dorms” into the studio, which can be had for an extra $150/day. His site even features a “recording session calculator” to transparently show all of the costs. Any band that thinks Steve Albini is an unattainable ideal fails to bother simply going to his website.
In preparing questions for this interview, I realized I had personally witnessed a long trajectory of Steve’s controversial history. I first knew of him as a 19 year-old fan -- listening to a cassette of his first band, Big Black, on a shitty tape recorder in the shitty L.A. apartment I lived in. The band name was a play on the Italian meaning of his last name (“little white”), but it widely mythologized him as racist, because people are that ignorant.
Years later, I would come to know him as a friend, via my indie rock boyfriend, who’d been the bassist in his band Rapeman. (Thankfully, my boyfriend went on to form The Jesus Lizard, which was far less awkward to try to explain to my family.) It was an obviously shocking band name reflecting Albini’s interest in weird and controversial subcultures. The band name actually referenced the bizarre existence of the “The Rapeman,” a Japanese black comedy superhero manga. The band name led to the understandable, but ridiculous misconception that Albini was a misogynist.
In time, I knew him as a fellow musician as I became one myself. His girlfriend was the drummer in my first band and Albini came to our very first — and only — club show at a bar in Chicago in 1991. He said we were a good rhythm section and for the fan in me, it was an immense, encouraging compliment. Then in 1992, I joined Babes in Toyland — a band freshly signed to a major label. Everyone assumed Albini would sneer at this career move, considering he hated major labels. Contrary to assumptions, he was bursting with enthusiasm for my opportunity to be in an active, touring band — something he saw as a phenomenally great way to make a living. He became a professional ally, even helping to replace some stolen gear when mine got ripped off from a Chicago practice space. He simply respected those who devoted themselves to playing music. He is still playing music and touring with his band Shellac and answered the following interview questions from Shellac’s tour in England. He discusses some of his seemingly paradoxical opinions and shows that recording the last Nirvana record is just scratching the surface of his accomplishments. He talks about innovations in the house he’s renovating, his actual rocket scientist father, and his appearances with super internet kitten, Li’l Bub.
There’s been a lot of attention paid to your remastering the release of the Nirvana “In Utero” 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition and Vinyl reissues. How did your now-viral “Letter to Nirvana” become a part of the package?
When we were discussing the project, Krist said they still had a copy of the letter and asked if I would mind if they included it. I said, "No, it's your record, do what you like with it." I saw a proof of the package and read the letter again. It's a little embarrassing by being pedantic and preachy, but it's essentially the content of a phone conversation Kurt and I had, but written out so the whole band could see it and talk about it. It's a little over-wrought but 20 years on I don't really disagree with the gist of it.
How much did the actual Nirvana recording experience differ from the letter? Or were you able to work the way you proposed to the band?
The part in the studio worked out about as well as could be expected. The band were really well prepared, takes came quickly and sounded good, and everything about the session seemed to perform at or above expectation. After we finished, the band were put under a lot of stress by the people around them, trying to get them to scrap the record and do it all over again. That must have been really hard to take, catching shit from all those people who create nothing themselves, but siphon money and status out of their career. All of them presuming to complain about how Nirvana conducts itself. I might have strangled somebody. The label clearly had a beef with me over the politics of a band making a record on its own terms, and they couldn't be seen to disown the band, so I was made a public scapegoat. It was a rough year or so for me after they got to work on that, and I went broke and had to rebuild my client base essentially from scratch, but in the long run I'm content with how I handled it. I didn't personalize it or blame the band, and I was able to maintain some kind of civil relationship with the members of Nirvana despite the best efforts of the professionals around them. I should say unequivocally that I never had a beef with Nirvana. I think they did the best they could in managing a unique and extreme situation under a hailstorm of bullshit. If the current shrinking of the industry has done nothing else, it's thinned the number of useless functionaries driven by self-interest and fear.
The Nirvana re-issue was also the twenty year anniversary of your now-famous Baffler article “The Problem With Music” Did the drive to write it stem from witnessing the post-Nevermind major label feeding frenzy which was consuming so many indie bands?
Absolutely. There was a feeding frenzy, where major labels were signing anything holding a guitar, and within the community of the underground there was quite a debate on how to deal with the situation. Some people thought the industry could be taken advantage of — swindled essentially — and that bands could use the resources of the industry for their own agenda. This was a rationale used by bands who wanted to maintain their self-respect while still having a rockstar experience. They were flattered that they had been given the opportunity, but it would be unseemly to embrace it, so they adopted a cynical angle for cover. I wanted to make the case that the labels operated exclusively in their own best interest, that their agents' participation in the culture was purely driven by accumulating power, money and influence within the industry, and that everyone involved knew how to use the ambitions and vanity of the bands as leverage for their own ends. Most importantly, the industry didn't care if occasionally a band had to be destroyed to keep the system in place, since bands are considered a bulk commodity. The industry is no longer what it was, so much of what I wrote is meaningless in specifics now, but at the time it was a trajectory I saw executed many times.
It used to be that the music industry was synonymous with the record industry, but now selling physical records is a very small part of the world's use for music, and all those people who secured their positions within the record industry did so to little long-term effect. Most of them are real estate agents or doing PR for startups or selling macrame on Etsy or something. It's only people who were honestly participating in the culture who are still at it.
Your band Shellac is named after the substance used to make 78 RPM phonograph records. In 2003, there was an April Fool’s broadcast on NPR called “Shellac: the Sound of the Future" poking fun at the unlikely prospect that the music industry was going back to vinyl and tape. You have said that a well-made vinyl record still sounds better than anything else. Do you feel vindicated by the resurgence in the use of vinyl, demonstrated in part by its pointed inclusion in Nirvana’s “In Utero” reissue?” Did you see it coming?
I don't feel vindicated, it's just the natural integration of available technology with the listening audience. There has always been a market for well-made records, it's just that the music business tried to eradicate vinyl in favor of the much more profitable CD format, and it was an easy sell, since CDs were more convenient. For a while there was little interest in making quality vinyl except for a specialty market. Now that the CD has been surpassed by downloads and streaming as a convenience format, there is almost no reason to make CDs any more. People who want vinyl are willing to pay a little extra for the format, and people who want convenience are happier with broadband digital options. In the late 1980s my friend John Loder predicted that vinyl would survive long after CDs had been made redundant, and he's been proven prescient. It's still the best way to preserve music for the long term (century-plus I mean) and when made with care is still the best sounding home format. What's really cool about the current state of vinyl is that with press runs small and mastering houses not tied up with endless recuts of hit records, it is now quite likely that any random independent LP will get better mastering and better pressing quality than even the most important major titles used to get during the vinyl heyday. It's now pretty much standard to cut from original master tapes, and to use first generation metalwork to make stampers rather than production duplicates and duplicate mothers.
You were a contributor to Book by 90s indie band The Jesus Lizard, which came out this spring. They recorded three albums with you — arguably their best — ”Head,” “Goat,” and “Down.” How did their signing with a major label after many successful years on indie label Touch and Go impact your professional and personal relationship with the band?
The Jesus Lizard were the best band of the 90s, hands down, and I don't want my critique of their business behavior to overshadow that. They were a great band and they changed music for the better. Their music was more rigorous and more adventurous than all their peers, and they worked their asses off. I talked about all this in my submission to the book, but it isn't overstating it that when they left Touch and Go it felt like a capitulation to the same things that had been used to tempt all their peers, vanity and short-term greed. Betrayal is too strong a word, but there was a palpable sense that they had made a decision to abandon the scene and methods that had allowed them to flourish, in order to become a third-string act for a big corporation that didn't give a shit about them or their audience. There were a few weaker personalities in their circle who egged them on a bit, probably out of self-interest, but the decisions were ultimately theirs. Whether they had signed with Capitol or not, they were undergoing a metamorphosis into a "pro" band, and our relationship had come to an obvious close. I am proud of the records we made, and I'm happy to have been associated with such a great band, but the way they ended their run was a lot less flattering than the way they started it. I have heard many excuses made on their behalf, and on behalf of other sellout bands, but they all deny the obvious; that the bands who sold out made better records and had a more successful touring existence before they "went pro," and they contributed in a real way to the poisoning of the underground with corporate capitalism and a naked profit motive.
It's obvious that selling out was bad in other ways, but the biggest effect it had was on the longevity of the bands. Bands like Fugazi and the Ex who maintained their self-reliance and independence were able to extend their careers across decades, all the while producing exciting music. Bands that sold out typically faltered after their major label records failed to satisfy the expectations of the label, then disappeared.
How were you approached for The Jesus Lizard “Book” project and what did you choose to write about?
I can't remember if it was David Yow or Johnny Temple from Akashik who first contacted me, but I was asked to write a reminiscence. I started at the point I became aware of Scratch Acid, included the period where Rey Washam, David Sims and I played in Rapeman, then summarized my relationship with the Jesus Lizard, concentrating on celebrating the high points and what made the band distinctive. Their records have aged really well, and reunion shows in the last few years have delivered the goods. Terrific band.
People may not be aware of the very active forum you have on the Electrical Audio website — with topics ranging from “Advice needed - my tenant is dying” to “Drummer: Neil Peart vs. Moe Tucker.” The studio’s online forum currently has 13,099 members who have covered 55,707 topics with 1,701,150 posts since you began in 2000. How much time do you spend on it and can you give a bit of the history and thinking behind creating it? What do you think of what it has become?
The (Electrical Audio) forum is a pretty good example of what great things can happen if cool people get their minds behind something and they are left to ferment without interference. We started the forum as an informal way for bands and recording geeks to interact, but it has taken on an identity of its own, completely apart from any association with the studio. The forum has adopted the shorthand PRF for itself, short for "Premier Rock Forum," after a joking aside made in an obscure post, and there are now PRF events that host literally dozens of bands around the world. There's an annual barbecue in Chicago, a recurring winter retreat into a knotty-pine lodge in Michigan and satellite festivals in New York and London, and more than a few people have found sweethearts, band mates and business partners through the forum. PRF initiatives have resulted in charity efforts, support for the Occupy movement camps and a bunch of records, including the incredible album The Strain by Teeth, a project undertaken by forum member and terminal cancer patient John Grabski, which you can read about here:
I can't take any credit for any of this, it's just what happens when like-minded people find each other through a medium that doesn't fuck with or exploit them. We don't have ads on the forum and moderate it minimally because I hate that shit on other forums, and since it's not much of a drain on the studio resources I'm happy to let it run its own course. As a social experiment it's been a ringing success.
If you had to sum up the “problem with music” today in one sentence, what would it be?
Honestly, the biggest problem with music has always been the encroachment of outside industry into what functions best as a self-sufficient community, and that hasn't changed. The difference is that now the record business is only a small influence relative to the corporate influence over live venues, ticket sales, merchandising and sponsorship. To the extent bands keep their shit together and manage their own affairs, now is a better time than ever to be in a band. You can record really efficiently, put a video on YouTube, release albums on Bandcamp, sell your merchandise using PayPal, fund bigger projects on Kickstarter, press up your own albums, book your own tours and keep all the money. It's totally conceivable to run a band as a small business now, and that's a new and radical development. Anybody complaining about the new paradigm has simply refused to take advantage of it, and for a street-level musician the change in the industry has been fantastic. Whenever I see some industry dinosaur pining for the old days of the sharecropper system the big labels operated on I feel about the same way I did watching the Quincy episode about punk rock. Bitching about how different things are now betrays a profound and malignant kind of stupid.
After living almost two decades in the studio you built in an old industrial building, you’re now renovating an old house in Chicago. Can you describe some of the innovations and custom features you’re incorporating? Which were your ideas and how is it going?
It never occurred to me that renovating a house would take as long as building an entire studio, but there you have it. It's been torture paying for it and waiting for it to be finished, but it's the last place I'll ever live and I want it to be suitable for living the rest of my life. I'm lazy, so it has a couple of convenience features. There's a solar hot-water system with a huge capacity, so we have in-floor heating in a lot of the house and loop that melts the ice on the sidewalk so I don't have to shovel. I'm really happy about the dumbwaiter. It runs from the cellar to the kitchen and then to the second floor, so I can send meals up to Heather without leaving the kitchen or send provisions down to the cellar. I plan to do a lot of pickling and canning, so we've got a big garden planned. We have a fireplace in the living room, one in the master bedroom and a fireplace for cooking in the kitchen, along with a fuck-off big restaurant range cooktop. I've always loved those little beads of ice you used to get in fountain coke at the movies, so we got an ice maker. Ice like that is also more convenient for shocking vegetables and making ice baths for general kitchen use, so I convinced myself to get it.
Your dad was actually a rocket scientist. How did that shape the way you approach your work, your music, your perspective in general?
[Video Link - (shot by Stephen Sowley, frontbear of Fake Limbs and Office Bear at Electrical Audio)] I was inspired by space and rockets as a kid, but I don't think I really made the connection to my dad's work until later, when he and I could talk about rockets and he helped me with models. A lot of what he worked on, like the Titan III missile, was classified and he couldn't talk about it anyway. He had a favorite paper airplane he taught me to make, which he claimed to have thrown across the Rose Bowl while an undergrad at Cal Tech. That seemed audacious and probably fictional to me, and I didn't take the claim seriously until one day in college I threw one off a balcony in a light breeze. The plane caught the wind, rose dramatically, then flew across a courtyard and over a library building and disappeared out of sight. I'm now pretty sure my dad threw a paper airplane across the Rose Bowl. Later in life he helped carve out the framework for the new science of the study of forest fires, and he became one of the preeminent figures in the discipline. He befriended the writer Norman MacLean while he was researching the incredible book Young Men and Fire, and was mentioned by name in the text. My dad was the smartest person I've ever met, and I can't help but feel like I have a lot to live up to. I may have a few google hits, but I didn't invented a new kind of science.
(Fold lines for paper airplane)
After you appeared on Li’l Bub's talk show, she went on to produce Kelley Deal's new single. Tell us the truth: are you feeling a little intimidated about the potential competition?
[Video Link] I've known Mike Bridavsky, Li’l Bub's dude, for a decade and have a high regard for him and his studio, so if Li’l Bub takes after him she'll probably do fine work. The Kelley Deal song sounded great. But no, I'm not intimidated. Get at me deformed little meme kitten, let's see what you got. Wade on in, motherfucker.
For the most comprehensive and insightful repository of information about Steve’s recording philosophies and techniques that we've ever seen, read this great article from Sound on Sound. Rumors of a 2014 Shellac release are still just rumors, but just thought we'd mention it.
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