Fire Fighting: Steve Albini Interviewed

When Neil Macdonald phoned Steve Albini for some quotes on the anniversary of Rapeman's Two Nuns And A Pack Mule, he got a lot more than he was expecting... The Big Black/Shellac frontman talks reformations, forest fires and poker tournaments

This year may see the twentieth anniversary of Nirvana’s In Utero but we thought it would be pretty fucked up if this was the only way Steve Albini got mentioned in depth in a Quietus feature this year. Because as everyone knows, Rapeman’s Two Nuns And A Pack Mule – which is now celebrating its quarter of a century anniversary – is the superior album anyway…

Steven Frank ‘Steve’ Albini has, in his time, recorded somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 albums,

made by mainly unheard of bands, while the music he made with Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac is as vicious as it is humorous and as confrontational as it is intriguing. Tales of backwater America, hate, insecurity and need have never been set to music as eloquently as this.

There wasn’t much time between the end of Big Black and the beginning of Rapeman. You’d planned for Big Black to split, so had you been in touch with David (Sims) and Rey (Washam) about doing a new band pretty early on?

Steve Albini: Rey and I had talked about it, talked about trying to play music after Big Black split up. Rey actually moved up to Chicago to give it a try. A few months later we tried to find a bass player locally, and a few months into that effort he suggested that we call David Sims. David Sims was available so he moved up to Chicago and we carried on from there. It sounds insane to just pack up and move to another city and try to start a band, but it didn’t seem like there was much other option, really.

David was a fan of Big Black anyway.

SA: Yeah, Rey and David had played together for years, in Scratch Acid, so they were familiar with each other. And as is true in any relationship, there are always some unresolved tensions, but I think he figured he knew what Rey was about. Maybe he was looking for something new as well, I’m not really sure.

Were all the songs new, and made as a band? I take it there was nothing there that any of you individuals had brought to Rapeman.

SA: Not that I know of. Not that I can recall. Rey and I worked some stuff out on our own, and made a demo tape of some of those songs, and sent that tape to David to acquaint him with what was going to be on the agenda, and he was into it. Even the stuff we had worked out before Dave showed up, all that stuff was reworked pretty extensively. Not very much of it stayed constant. Dave really did complete the band.

Was it an expensive record to make?

SA: From our standpoint it was. We did three recordings in total, which was the first single- ‘Hated Chinee’ and ‘Marmoset’- and that was recorded very quickly, that was recorded in one day. Then we did an entire EP session. We had half a dozen songs that we were going to record and release as an EP, and we did an entire studio recording session of that, over a couple of days, and then a couple of days mixing, and in the end we weren’t happy with any of it so the bulk of that was abandoned. Then we did a live recording, partly because Rey had this conception that the way we played as a unit live was better than working out stuff minutely in the studio, and partly because we knew there was a really good live recording facility in town. A guy named Tim Powell owned a mobile truck called Metro Mobile Recording, and he had done a lot of location recording in the city, and everything I’d heard had sounded really good so we thought we’d give that a shot. We had a live recording session at a club called Exit in Chicago, so the EP that was originally intended to be recorded in the studio was recorded as part of a gig. That was released as the Budd EP. Then the Two Nuns And A Pack Mule album was several different sessions at several different studios. Part of it was recorded by an engineer that Rey and Dave knew from Texas named Kerry Crafton. He came up and we did the first session that way, then we did another set of sessions on our own at a place called Studiomedia in Evanston. The third session, if I’m not mistaken, we did with Iain Burgess at Chicago Recording Company. So from our standpoint it was a fairly expensive record. Six or seven thousand dollars all together, which at the time was quite a lot to spend on an independent album.

And then there was the sleeve. That must have added to the cost…

SA: Not really. The die-cutting was not that big of an expense, but something that very few bands did. I mean, it was an expense, but it wasn’t crazy, so we did it as a novelty. We’d done die-cutting on the Budd EP as well, and it seemed like an interesting theme to carry over.

And the label were happy with that?

SA: Yeah. At the time we were working with Touch And Go in the US, and Touch And Go as a label is remarkably co-operative. Basically anything that the band wants to do, if they think the record can sustain it, they’ll let them do it. In the UK we were working with a label called Blast First who at the time were being underwritten by Mute Records, and Mute had a bunch of money because they were Depeche Mode’s label. Mute had been underwriting a couple of other subsidiary labels, basically with an open-wallet policy. It seemed like no expense would be too extravagant for them, if they wanted to do it.

Tell me about Blast First re-issuing records without your permission.

SA: It’s kind of complicated, in that my relationship with Paul Smith who runs Blast First kind of broke down over a Big Black bootleg that he had done. He had originally done the bootleg with our blessing, under the precondition that we weren’t trying to milk the audience; we just wanted to put out a live record and we wanted to stop the inevitable bootlegging of the band by putting out a very high quality live record. And that was The Sound Of Impact. The record was intended to come out as a limited run, to cover its costs and nothing else. Just put the record out, sell as many copies as necessary to cover the cost of making it, and that’s it. Right?


SA: A second run of that record was done, and started showing up in stores, with some very slight manufacturing differences that allowed me to tell that these copies were not part of the initial run. So I confronted Paul Smith about it, and he told me a story about someone at the pressing plant deciding – because he was a fan of the band – that the world needed more of the record, and pressed up another edition. That story didn’t sit well with me, and it seemed completely incredible. Previously to that, there had been a problem with the band Sonic Youth, where he had done a bootleg for Sonic Youth under similar circumstances where it was obvious that they were going to get bootlegged anyway, so he thought, "Let’s cut them off at the pass, and do a really nice bootleg, get it out there and you guys can make a little money."

The band kind of went along with it at first, then decided better – decided against it – but Paul went ahead and made this edition and released it, and the band found out about it and the band got mad about it and they almost broke off their relationship with him. This had happened a couple years previous to this thing with the Big Black record, and I knew about it, and he knew that I knew about it. So the story that this second edition was done by somebody at the pressing plant seemed completely incredible. So I asked him to put me in touch with this kid who he claims was a big Big Black fan, and he claims did this edition of the record all on his own. I said "Just let me talk to this guy, and it’s all over; if it’s somebody else then I have no complaint with you. I’ll verify the story then we can move on". And that effort went on for a couple of years, literally a couple of years, during which time Big Black ended, and the posthumous record came out and the Rapeman record came out, and ultimately he was just never able to produce this other person. And it ended our relationship. I said, "I can’t deal with someone who’s bullshitting me, and this seems like bullshit, so I guess we’re done". The problem with just ending the relationship there is that, at the time, the Rapeman record was still un-recouped. Meaning we had been given an advance from Blast First, and the bulk of that money was spent just relocating Rey and Dave from Texas to Chicago, and not spent on the record itself. But regardless, the money was spent, so the Rapeman record hadn’t yet recouped at the point where our relationship broke down to the extent that we weren’t going to be working together anymore. We haven’t spoken about it, but it seems to me like it would be callous of me to reissue the record without clearing the books with Blast First, despite whatever my feelings might be about any duplicity on Blast First’s part regarding the Big Black record. I wouldn’t want to reissue their record and do a new, worldwide edition of the record. That record hasn’t been available in the UK since Blast First ran out of them, I don’t think that they’ve bothered to reprint them, although they would certainly be within their rights to do so. It’s been available continuously in the US, and so if we were to reissue it and make it available in the UK it would be through Touch And Go, and I would be self-conscious about doing that without clearing the books with Blast First, and I honestly don’t know how much money we owed them. There’s potentially a prohibitive debt there, I really don’t know.

Songs About Fucking was always intended to be released after Big Black split, right?

SA: We intended to release it as soon as possible. but as it turned out, that was going to be shortly after we broke up.

But you announced before you’d even started making it that you were going to start making your last album.

SA: That sounds about right.

So did you know what was going to happen with the record?

SA: No. I mean, the band was on kind of an upward trajectory in terms of its popularity. We were playing bigger shows and we were selling more records, but in all honestly that wasn’t something we were one hundred percent comfortable with. A lot of bands go through that, where they start out with a very small, self-identified fan base that is all people that you would want to hang out with because they latch on to your stuff early, and they’re all the people who think like you do. And then as the band gets bigger, you start having people show up to the shows who aren’t really of the same mindset, they’re just there for a night out, you know? It’s disconcerting to see people at your shows that you feel like you have very little kinship with, and that you feel are actually apathetical to your perspective, and people that would probably be hostile to you in a neutral setting. It can be disconcerting attracting an audience of people that you’re not comfortable spending time with. We were managing that reasonably well. We weren’t playing a lot of shows, but we were playing often enough to keep our sea legs without touring constantly or anything.

Is it not more of an issue now, seeing people in the crowd that would never care for what you did thirty years ago, now that the underground is mainstream?

SA: Well I think part of it now is that Shellac is not as constant a presence in the music scene as Big Black was. Big Black was touring a lot, putting out records every year, things like that. And so it makes sense that Big Black would have been seen as more of a ‘regular participant’, as it were, in the music scene. Whereas Shellac now is quite episodic. We’ll tour a couple of times a year tops, maybe six weeks a year worth of touring, which is enough to keep us satisfied in our ambitions for touring or whatever, but not enough for us to be a constant presence. We put records out very sporadically, we’ll work on a record in the background for sometimes a couple of years, then finally book some studio time then do a recording then we’ll sit on it for six months or a year, then come back to it and finish it then sit on that for six months or a year. So it takes us a very long time to make a record, and that’s just owing to the place of the band in our lives. For none of us is it our premier enterprise. It means a lot to us, being in Shellac is the single best thing that I get to do every year, but on a day-to-day business level, I’ve got bills to pay, I have responsibilities I have to uphold. So I don’t get to spend that much time with the band. Big Black was, while not really a full-time occupation, taking up much more of my time. Much more of all of our time. We would go to Europe several times a year, we would do several tours of the US a year, and I feel like that if you’re constantly beating the drum trying to get people in, then you’re going to invite in a much wider audience than if you just play once in a while and put out records once in a while. The people that stick with you then, are the people that are really into what you’re doing and not just a fickle temporary audience.

Why did Rapeman split up? There’s been a lot written about it, none of which I’m too inclined to believe.

SA: Almost everything that’s been written about it is by people who have never bothered to talk to us. This is actually one of the very few times somebody’s asked me why the band broke up. As I mentioned, Rey and Dave had been playing together for many years, and the tensions between the two of them had never really been resolved from when Scratch Acid was going. Rey is an astonishing musician who has a very low opinion of himself, so he lives in a state of constant frustration and he feels like he’s always falling short of his expectations for himself as a musician. When you’re in a band with a guy like that, it seems as though the band is always disappointing to him, like the band is always falling short. So we were working and overworking and reworking material in an effort to satisfy reservations that probably were imaginary. To solve problems that were probably imaginary. We were working on the band constantly, rehearsing every day; we’d waste a lot of money on recording sessions where we’d done complete sessions and then have Rey say, "That’s all crap, I don’t want to put any of that out". That kind of thing. I’m sure I was no peach either. I had just been in this band that a lot of people had been touting as being a really good band and so I probably had a pretty big head and thought I could do no wrong, so I’m sure I came up with a bunch of ideas that I kind of hammered through without being diplomatic or democratic enough. I think it boiled down to the three of us deciding to be in a band without having been friends first. So then the band became our only rationale for putting up with each other, and eventually that just wore too thin and we just didn’t want to spend time with each other anymore. That was it.

What does Rey do now, does he still play?

Yeah, the band Scratch Acid did some reunion shows a couple of years ago. After Rapeman he played drums in a number of different bands; he played drums for Tad, who were a band from Seattle, then he played with Helios Creed which is a side project of the guitar player from Chrome and then he played in Ministry for a few years. I think that – kind of predictably, given the Ministry setting – he developed some personal problems, and laid low for a while, then he kind of came out of his shell and went through rehab for a while and got sober. Then he started working on the Scratch Acid reunion, and he really threw himself into that. Those reunion shows were astonishing. They were as good as the band was in their heyday. Since then I don’t know if he’s done that much musically, but he always seems to have some kind of musical project to work on. Like there was a kind of prog-jazz band that he was in for a while called Euripides Pants, they put out a couple of records and played around Austin, Texas, where he’s from. Just recently I know he ran a Kickstarter thing to fund a short film he’d written. I think that film got made. I haven’t actually seen the film but probably, like most things like that, it takes a while to complete it once the filming is done.

How did the band that became Shellac come about?

SA: I started playing the Travis Bean [guitar] when I started playing with Todd, when Shellac first started. Todd Trainer and I started playing together really informally after we had gotten to know each other over the years. We were in bands that shared bills together a lot, and we had socially become quite friendly. Then a mutual friend of ours named Pete Conway did a solo project under the name Flour, and Flour did a couple of tours of the US. He put together a backing band to play their music behind him, and Todd and I were both in that. I played bass and he played drums, and we really enjoyed playing together. In the breaks immediately before and after these Flour sessions, rehearsals and tours, Todd and I started playing together. Informally at first, and then we started to develop a vocabulary for songs. Before too long, maybe about a total of a calendar year, we decided that we wanted to start a band. The two of us. And that was the beginning of Shellac. We carried on like that, just me and him playing together, with either me going up to Minneapolis and playing in his rehearsal space or him coming down to Chicago and playing in my rehearsal space for about a year. We invited in a couple of different bass players to play along with us, and it didn’t really settle until Bob Weston joined.

You knew Bob anyway.

SA: Yeah. Both of us had known Bob through the Volcano Suns. I had recorded the Volcano Suns and we had stayed friendly. Bob was an electrical engineer, and he knew about electronics, so when I had trouble in my studio I would call him for advice. He had helped fix some stuff in my studio, and we had made a semi-rational plan of when the Volcano Suns broke up and he didn’t have anything to do, I’d suggested that he come out to Chicago. I had a project where it was gonna be rebuilding my studio. The recording studio in my house was going to be renovated from 8-track to 24-track, and I thought he would be a good person to help with that renovation, because he was familiar with all the ins and outs of studio wiring and all that stuff. The plan was that he was going to come out and help with that, and he could play bass with me and Todd and we would see if we got along in that manner as well. I mean, I knew we’d get along as friends, I just wanted to see if he would fit in as a bass player. And that worked out about as well as could be expected.

As a bass player and also as a master of ceremonies at Shellac shows.

SA: Yeah. Now I can’t even conceive of the band without the three of us. I can’t conceive of the band with any person replacing any of us.

Big Black had a line-up change.

SA: Dave Riley replaced Jeff Pezzati, and he was a great musician and he fitted in the band really well; he contributed a lot. If the band had carried on longer, I don’t know if we would have stayed with the same line-up. Santiago [Durango] and I got on tremendously well, and to me, he was a really important collaborator. Because we’d already replaced the bass player once, I don’t think that was out of the question. When Santiago decided he couldn’t play anymore, because he was going to go off to law school, that was really the end of the line for me. I just couldn’t imagine playing that music without Santiago. It was a natural conclusion to the band.

Steve Davis, the British snooker player, challenges you to a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. He thinks you should both put down your most precious records as a stake.

SA: Wow, OK. My suspicion is that the records that are most precious to me wouldn’t be that precious to Steve Davis. I know he’s a big prog rock fan. I suppose I could come up with something that would be equivalent stakes, yeah.

Do you ever play online poker?

SA: Well, it’s difficult from the US. Two years ago there was a crackdown by the US Department Of Justice, and they essentially made it impossible to play online poker from the US. There are very few sites that are US-facing, meaning that they will accept US customers, and those sites all have a very poor reputation for paying out. That is, you can request your money from them and it takes months and comes through a very circuitous route, so it’s awkward to play. I used to play online, I played on Full Tilt primarily, and primarily the mixed games, that is not Hold ‘Em games. Hold ‘Em is not my best game. Seven Card Stud High Low and Razz, those are by far my best games. So I’m already spotting Steve Davis a couple of balls by playing Hold ‘Em rather than Stud, but fair enough.

California’s on fire just now, and the BBC are talking about tens of thousands of people having their drinking water poisoned as a result. Since immolation seems to fascinate you, what are your thoughts?

SA: Well, it’s actually been a very bad fire season. There have been a lot of fires in the Northwest as well as California. The fire management now is much advanced from what it was thirty or forty years ago, so they can do more in terms of predicting the behaviour of the fire, but what’s most likely gonna happen is that they’re just gonna feed a portion of the wilderness to the fire and let the fire burn and the residential parts are going to be protected by fire dams. They’re gonna bulldoze out sections of wood so they get a firebreak large enough to contain the fire when it gets local, and then just hose the hell out of everything on the other side of it, and use airdrops of retardant to try to make the surrounding ares fireproof. The effectiveness depends upon how furious the fire is by the time it gets to the firebreak.

Is there anything that can be done to stop it happening in the first place?

SA: You have to understand that a certain section of Forestry assumes that the forest will burn now and again. There are plant species that only germinate after they’ve been burned, the fire is a natural cleansing mechanism for the forest. The dead wood and the brush and the fauna on the forest floor builds up to a certain point where a fire is inevitable. What the problem is, is that for the longest time the Forestry had a policy of just stopping forest fires, and what happened then was that the fuel base built up to such an incredible level that whenever there was a forest fire, it would just be an inferno. So Fire Management now has what I think is a much more sensible policy, of letting a certain amount of forest fire burn naturally on a natural timescale. That is, don’t suppress fires all the time, let them run their course. That way the ecosystem that has developed over eons, which includes fire, will be allowed to operate naturally. The problem is that there are inhabited areas that are parts of these forests, and you can’t just say, "Well, you built your house in a forest, you have to let it burn." That’s where it’s problematic. The fine-tuning of the system of keeping just the houses from burning, and letting the forest burn… That system hasn’t been worked out completely yet.

What do you think of this culture of bands playing one-album tours, playing the same record from start to finish every night?

SA: I don’t have a general take on it. A band I hate playing a record I don’t give a shit about, well, I’m not inclined to get excited about that. But also, it’s their band, they can do what they want. I have seen a couple of these tours: just two days ago I saw the Breeders doing Last Splash. That was a band that only existed for a short duration, that version of the band only existed for the duration of that album, so seeing that band play that record now is probably the most legitimate live experience of those songs that you’re gonna see. And it was great. I have seen bands play albums live that were never played live, where the music was never played live on stage ever, then the band was reconstituted to play that tour. Like Slint, for example. By the time the Slint album Spiderland was released, that band had already broken up, and only a very small amount of that material had ever been played on stage. So the only way you would ever see that music played by that band would be on one of these reconstituted album tours. Television hadn’t played in years, then they reformed to tour and play Marquee Moon and it was fucking awesome. The Stooges hadn’t played in years and they reformed to play Fun House and it was awesome. I can’t really have a general opinion of it, other than ‘if it’s a good band playing a good record, it’s probably gonna be good’.

Why did Bill Withers turn down your request to play ATP? Do you know if he listens to your music?

SA: Oh, I’d be stunned if he listened to very much music at all, other than music that he’s working on personally. He tends to keep to his own agenda. There was quite an illuminating documentary film called Still Bill made about the life of Bill Withers, and in it, it shows him in the present day, still working on music. Not feverishly, but still working on music quite frequently, with different collaborators. He’s just not doing it for public consumption. I’m kind of charmed by that, I think that there’s something quite noble about pursuing your muse for its own sake, rather than wanting to be part of the public struggle for attention

Is there a nobility in him having collaborators, if he’s only making the music for himself? He must know that people would see it as an honour to work with Bill Withers.

SA: Well, in the film, the people that it shows him collaborating with are all friends and family members and small-scale hobbyists. Not world famous celebrities going in to do a session with Bill Withers, nothing like that. My suspicion is that those people just think of him as Bill. Their friend.

When you’re recording a band, to what extent do you do what you’re asked? Like, if somebody asked you to make their band sound like something that they just do not sound like, would you try anyway?

SA: Yeah, absolutely. When the band goes into the studio, they get to try to make the record that they want to make. Like when you go to the barber, you should get your hair cut the way you want. Your barber might have an opinion, your barber might show you some other options out of a book or whatever, but in the end, if you want him to give you a zig-zag mohawk with a swastika in the side, that’s what he’s paid for. That’s what the money’s for.

Was it fun recording The Wedding Present? That seemed like an odd match when it happened.

SA: We got along good. We did a number of sessions; we did an EP and an album, then many years later David [Gedge] reconstituted the band and I did another album with him and that version of the band. Yeah, I got along with all those guys well. They were from a slightly different musical perspective than I was, but that’s something that I eventually became very comfortable with. Now, I would say, the vast majority of the bands that I record are bands that are not necessarily idiomatically similar to the music that I make.

Who did you record Clare Grogan with, I heard you worked with her…

SA: Haha! There was a band that were briefly signed to Mute called Rosa Mota, and I did an album with them. When they were trying to put the record together they had said to the people at Mute, "It’s a fantasy of ours to have Clare Grogan sing on this song", and one of them said "Well, I know Clare, I can call her and she’ll come and do it". So they were really ecstatic about it.

Can you listen to your own music?

SA: Only if there’s something that we’re working on at the moment, like Shellac has finished a new album this year and so in the last six months I’ve been listening to that stuff kind of a lot. Partly analytically, to see if we’ve made all the right steps in the mix, to see if there’s anything we need to do in mastering, now that the mastering’s done just listening to it to see if there’s anything in the mastering that needs improved, once the test pressings are in you listen to the test pressings to listen for manufacturing problems, then I’d be surprised if I put the record on much after that for the rest of my life.

Any idea when we might hear this record?

SA: Test pressings are in and we’re working on the cover artwork. I can’t give you a firm, hard and fast date for when it will be in the stores, but it’s underway.

Can you listen to another person’s music that you’ve recorded for entertainment?

SA: Sometimes, yeah. There are some sessions that you do where you are working on a band that you’re not familiar with prior to the session, and they do stuff that surprises you, and it’s not really appropriate to make the session grind to a halt so that you can investigate, and listen to their music as a fan. So I would do that after the fact. But yeah, I listen to stuff that I’ve recorded for amusement pretty regularly.

Joe Foster, who recorded The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, told me that the best sounding vinyl is clear vinyl. Do you agree?

SA: There’s a theoretical point there, which is that polyvinyl chloride is colourless, so if you’re adding something to it to colour it, then you’re changing the chemistry of it slightly, and that has potential to make it sound not as good by having inclusions. Like if it’s carbon black then there can be little granules of graphite or whatever. The biggest problem is that presses are set up to run black vinyl regularly, and if you have to clear the presses of the black vinyl, then put in the clear vinyl, then the presses have to come up to temperature from cold, and until they’re operating at a stabilised temperature the pressings will not be filled properly. That is, you’ll get much more surface noise. So, coloured vinyl typically sounds noisier than black vinyl because it has to be run in a special production run, during which the presses have not quite gotten up to temperature. So you end up with poor in-fill. In-fill meaning the vinyl doesn’t penetrate all the way into the back of the stamper, and you end up with more ticks and pops, and more surface noise. So while it’s conceivable that clear vinyl would sound better were all records made out of clear vinyl, when you make an edition of a record on clear vinyl – interrupting a normal production run of black vinyl – you’re creating opportunities for that record to sound worse. So it’s sort of a theoretical point. If all records were made out of clear vinyl, then it’s possible that there would be slightly less surface noise on those records. But they’re not. And so if records are made specially out of clear vinyl, there’s a real good chance that your records will be noisier than the black records that were made the day before.

What products do you currently use and endorse? Still big on Nutter Butter?

SA: Well, Nutter Butter cookies are unreal. They’re absolutely fantastic cookies. You give me a pot of coffee and a family pack of Nutter Butters and that family pack is doomed.

Shellac play ATP’s End Of An Era Part Two, Camber Sands, November 29 – December 1

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