Great Records Will Find An Audience: Steve Albini On Jason Molina

Lisa Lavery speaks to Steve Albini about the Songs:Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. frontman Jason Molina who sadly passed away last year

In our recent Reissues of the Year chart, a record made ten years ago by Songs:Ohia called The Magnolia Electric Co. was featured. It was the platform on which Jason Molina expressed some of his darkest, clearest thoughts. Jason Molina also died last year at the tender and alarming age of 39. He was a prolific, if troubled, troubadour, crafting songs since his teens, able to knock out an entire album of poetically ominous songs in a fortnight or while on the road, touring the Midwest. And when I say ‘prolific’, I mean it – he released and appeared on at least 30 recordings.

Songs:Ohia (later renamed Magnolia Electric Co.) were very much ‘of’ the Midwest, and they represent Molina as clearly embracing his cultural history. It is music from the Midwest and/or American life (in general) illuminating and illustrating the struggles of real people with real problems – the music quite rightly, uplifting; a means of escaping one’s quotidian life, even if only temporarily.

I spoke to Steve Albini recently, the engineer of The Magnolia Electric Co. [MEC], the final recording made under the Songs:Ohia moniker to talk to him about this record and what it means to him. (For an idea of the work ethic involved, first of all watch Josephine, a doc about the making of said album in 2009 also at Electrical with Albini. It’s a great documentary about the writing and recording of an album over the course of 2 weeks.) In the case of MEC, it was actually made in about six or seven days. Albini explains: "Nobody had really great expectations for sales, and it was a bigger undertaking than his other records had been so everybody was trying to keep the costs under control."

Where did you first become aware of Jason Molina?

Steve Albini: I had been aware of Jason from the beginning of Songs:Ohia and stuff, and my wife had actually written him a fan letter when she worked at a record store. She worked at a record store called Reckless Records in Chicago and she had written him a fan letter, and he had sent her some cassettes of some solo material, just him singing, his guitar, playing into a cassette recorder. So I was pretty familiar with his material and both my wife and I were big fans, and I think Jason is a unique talent, he really does have the ability to conjure up completed songs from nothing at the drop of a hat. So it was a chance to get to work with him in a full band setting, and had plenty of time to work on stuff. We had done a couple of other little short recording sessions together that hadn’t really amounted to that much, I think he had ended up using some of the material and not using some of it.

MEC is such a departure in style from Song:Ohia’s previous output. Musically, its predecessors such as Lioness or Ghost Tropic were sparse, bleak, minimal and congruent with the self examination and introspection fans had come to know and trust. MEC in comparison is all guns a’blazin, brash Midwest good & honest band action. More akin to Silkworm or Bonnie Prince Billy than Nina Nastasia in energy this time around. It must have been a surprise to find him set up with a big band and wanting to record an album like that?

SA: I trusted that he would be doing intelligently and that it wasn’t just a defensive manoeuvre, I think everybody involved in that session expected it to be something of an experiment to have that many people working on a record, and I think he gave everybody the freedom, the space and the confidence to excel and do something interesting. He didn’t try to manage the sessions on a microscopic level, like he didn’t tell people what to play, all the discussions about who was going to do what and where, that all seemed very organic and very open hearted."

Not to mention the couple of star turns…

SA: I think the two guest vocalists were a big surprise, Scout Niblett and Laurence Peters, I thought they both really stepped up to the plate and made very dramatically arresting contributions to the record, and I didn’t expect that before it happened. It was kind of interesting hearing Jason rocking out more, as it were, in a setting with a full band where the music wasn’t as sparse as you were used to hearing with his voice. But it seemed like he kept the tone, and the edge and the emotional intensity there. There was a kind of a micro trend there for a while for this earnest singer songwriter to have larger ensembles behind them, you know people like Will Oldham and Nina Nastasia had done records in that kind of a setting, and I think there was just a sort of a general interest in playing around with that sort of ensemble format, and I thought he did a great job. I thought the band sounded great, I thought everybody played well, everybody had contributed freely and delivered their best, I thought it was a terrific session.

Did you have any expectations of working with Jason?

SA: Jason was a complicated personality, you know, he was incredibly friendly, incredibly generous with his energy and his time and very accommodating and that sort of thing, and he was also very vicarious, he liked to be around people and liked to have a light mood and liked to have stories flow freely and stuff like that. By the same token he was a big bullshitter, you know, a lot of the things that he said were kind of fantastic and it seemed more like he wanted things to be kind of magical and awesome, and that he needed to sort of create fables for himself to inhabit in order to do that, then he was willing to do that. And you just sort of had to take that as part of the package.

There was never the tiniest ounce of malice in his behaviour, all of his problems reflected back on him, and any trouble that he caused he caused for himself, he didn’t put anybody else in an awkward situation ever, he didn’t make anybody else responsible for him or he didn’t create problems for other people through his own failings or his own eccentricities, it was all reflected back on him. So in a way it was very easy to overlook any sort of personality quirks or fantastic stories or inconsistencies in his behaviour or his thinking or his history or whatever, because none of it directly affecting anybody else, really, it wasn’t anybody else’s business if he wanted to think of himself of having had certain experience or having certain things that he could attach to his life story in conversation. None of those things really affected anybody else and so it was very easy to just accept that as part of Jason’s personal mythology.

During all the times that I worked with him in the studio, and that’s quite a lot of hours, he never made having a drink the focus of the evening, if he wanted to go get drunk he would go get drunk on his own, and typically when the sessions were concluded he and the band would decamp to a bar and they would stay up all night drinking and singing. It wasn’t a disruption on the sessions, his drinking. I know on the road it obviously had greater consequences because it wasn’t a structured environment and things could go off the rails pretty easily but I never had to deal with that, because I always had him in a safe environment and he was always at a place where nothing could go wrong.

I remember having a very warm feeling of camaraderie during the whole session, and that the whole session ended up to me feeling like a very comfortable, very fraternal, very pleasant experience. And it was nice to see that band really come into its own as a performing unit, the stage band developing a band identity as opposed to feeling like they were just playing the songs for Jason and that they really did feel like they were developing a band personality.

What are your feelings on the reissue of Songs:Ohia’s The Magnolica Electric Co. as part of the culture of the reissue/ re-release/ reformation phenomenon?

SA: There is one trajectory to that spate of reissuing records which has been underway, and it seems to me like there are several different motivations. There are some classic bands who have had a renewed interest in their music and their music is under the control of big corporate record companies, it’s purely a marketing potential to make a new edition of a record that is already well liked and has a captive audience. I have considerably less respect for that than I have for all of the independent bands, the smaller labels, who put records out on a shoestring whose releases garner a bit of attention and develop an audience and start to become rightfully hailed as classics.

This reverent treatment is befitting of a record that has earned its stripes, and has proven that it is a worthwhile, important record to a group of people. I think that’s totally noble and totally honourable. When a song gets used in a Volkswagen commercial so the record label hurries quick, presses up an anniversary edition of it to strike while the iron is hot, well that’s obviously a different motivation, and one less worthy of our respect.

Pretty clearly MEC is not a sales leader, it’s obviously being done as a labour of love by people who admire Jason and that record, and want to see it presented in a way that encapsulates, physically embodies, how important that record was to them… as long as the music remains available, eventually it will find its audience. Great records eventually find an audience that will appreciate them. It may take a long time and it may take several bounces through the collective psyche, but great records eventually find an audience.

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