A Very Selfish Enterprise: The Strange World Of… Shellac

Speaking to JR Moores about 25 years of noise-rocking with Shellac, Steve Albini recalls avoiding publicity, bearing witness to the rise of Britpop and harbouring an irrational hatred of Billy Joel

All Shellac pictures by Maria Jefferis

Two’s company, three’s a minimalist rock trio. I think that’s how the saying goes, in indie muso circles at least. And you certainly won’t find a more powerful minimalist rock trio than Shellac this side of Uranus. Conceived as exactly that, the band was formed 25 years ago after the ex-Big Black and Rapeman singer/guitarist (and renowned recording engineer) Steve Albini and his erstwhile drummer buddy Todd Trainer had a blast playing together in the backing band for Pete Conway’s Flour project. Soon after, Bob Weston of Volcano Suns was welcomed into the fold and the rest is noise-rock history.

In some respects, the key to Shellac’s ongoing genius lies in the sheer skeletal simplicity of their sound. Take one bass, one guitar and one drum kit, sprinkle them with agitated vocals, and that’s your lot. Unhurried and unafraid of silence hanging in the air or pregnant pauses of the sonic variety, Shellac’s music is what might happen if you took Led Zeppelin’s hard-rock shtick, grated away all the flamboyant onanism, sacked the shrieking Tolkien-reading Aslan figure and replaced him with a bespectacled punk rocker who enjoys bar billiards. In other ways, Shellac’s deconstructivist numbers are shrewdly and meticulously complex, being based around structures and rhythmic backbones that have more in common with jazz, funk or dub than anything in the standard verse-chorus-verse tradition of pop, rock and punk music.

When Shellac began, Albini swapped the custom "Black Sled" guitar he’d used in his Big Black/Rapeman days for a Travis Bean TB500 which he feeds through a Harmonic Percolator pedal and strikes with copper plectrums to create those signature clattering riffs. Buttressing that racket are Weston’s chest-wobbling bass notes and Trainer’s harsh drumbeats (his distinctive breaks and fills sitting somewhere between Bonham at his cruellest and Ringo at his most absurdly liberated).

In contrast to the belligerence of their compositions, the trio’s concerts are disarmingly jolly events. These usually conclude with Albini and Weston disassembling Trainer’s kit as he heroically strives to keep playing. Before that, they’ll have dabbled in amateur choreography and, during the regular intermissions when Albini’s Travis Bean requires retuning, Weston will have fielded questions from the audience with the hilariously rapid comeback chutzpah of an experienced stand-up comedian. Ahead of Shellac’s appearance at this year’s OFF Festival, Albini helped navigate us through ten of his band’s noisy benchmarks.

1. From Hardcore Punk To Minimalist Rock

All three Shellac members had backgrounds in punk, most notably Steve Albini as leader of industrial-tinged hardcore button-pushers Big Black who split in 1987. The same year Shellac formed, Rancid released their first EP, Green Day were busy promoting Kerplunk and The Offspring had just signed to Epitaph Records. If that was what punk meant in 1992, it was time for the older generation to change tack.

Steve Albini: For all three of us, punk rock was part of our formative experience with music. I’m not sure who I stole this metaphor from, it’s definitely stolen, but punk was like a brilliant flash that was over in an instant but it dazzled everybody who saw it and it cast really long shadows. All of us were there being dazzled by it and we’re all walking in the shadows that were burned into the pavement.

Punk happened, it was done, and everybody who was influenced by punk carried on with their lives having been startled and changed by punk. Punk as an idiom, a style, a format for music is fucking trivial. At this stage, anyone whose conception of music is so stunted that they have to play in an idiom really doesn’t warrant serious consideration. But you can have been inspired by the things that devolved into a simplistic, idiomatic form and retain that inspiration without mimicking that form. I was baffled and thrilled by music like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Pere Ubu, Devo and all those contemporaneous, inspirational punk bands without wanting to try to mimic them.We came up with "minimalist rock trio" as a description of the band and I’m happy with that. We’ve committed to a relatively small core set of ideas that we’re going to pursue as a band and minimalism is one of them. The three of us playing as a trio is another one.

Do you have to restrict yourselves or rein yourselves in if things are getting beyond minimalism?

SA: No. It’s like if I were to say to you, "Do you have to restrain yourself from speaking Portuguese?" Our conception of the band is that it’s the three of us playing music that we derive from our own interests and I don’t feel that is in any way a limitation. I want to try to get the most out of the set of materials that we have. I feel that broadening our palate would be a cheat to make life easier on us like, "Well let’s just put a kalimba on it." The vocabulary of the band, being the three instruments, is a parameter that’s not a limitation just like the alphabet is not a limitation on the language of English.

2. ‘The Rude Gesture: A Pictorial History’ 7" (1993)

From the outset Shellac kept operations deliberately low-key. Their earliest music was released on 7"s with homemade covers, they performed in small atypical venues and refused to partake in any publicity. Their debut 7" showcased three mid-paced tracks of thundering guitar noise over which Albini snarled about fire and billiards. If early interviews are anything to go by, one of Shellac’s principal aims was to avoid acting anything like The Smashing Pumpkins.

SA: When we first started recording and doing stuff publicly in the 90s, it coincided with the beginnings of a feeding frenzy for underground bands. The greater entertainment industry had taken an interest in what had previously been an underground of experimental punk and post punk bands. On the part of a lot of bands from the underground there was an indulgence in that, where they were getting a public profile in a professional sense. They would have publicists and advertising and their record labels were doing promotions and journalists were being supplicated with free records and access to exclusive stuff. There was a branch of the underground that was playing along with this creeping professionalism and we wanted no part of that. From the beginning, we decided that we were just going to make records and put them out, and that was it. We weren’t going to do any act of promotion. We weren’t going to do any advances. We weren’t going to solicit interest from record labels, stores, journalists, media outlets or whatever. We were just going to go about our affairs as a band, play shows, make records and let people come across them as they would.

Part of it was the insult that all of us felt when stuff was being thrust at us. The "check out this hot new band" or "this is the record of the summer" kind of shit. It’s insulting and it makes me hate everyone involved. Whenever there’s active promotion on the part of somebody else, whenever I see somebody all dolled up for a fancy photograph and someone’s handing out flyers or whenever there’s active promotion for something like that, as an imposition on my day, I hate all those people and I want them to fail. I have a visceral reaction to advertising and promotion. There’s just something about salesmanship that grates on me on a very base level and I react very negatively towards it. I want those people to suffer and I want their enterprises to fail. Because of my feelings and the specific insult of having somebody tell you that you don’t know what music you like and that instead you should like this, we didn’t want to be a part of that. I didn’t want to trick anybody into buying our records. If you weren’t interested, we weren’t going to try to convince you. We’ve conducted ourselves that way ever since. I feel like it was the right decision then and I’ve been very happy with the way things have transpired in that we’ve never done anything embarrassing for attention and I don’t feel like anybody would have ever gotten into this band under false pretences.

3. ‘Uranus’ 7" (1993)

Shellac’s second 7" included ‘Wingwalker’ which remains a near constant presence in the band’s setlists. Performances of it will invariably see the band members stretch out their arms as wide as possible and pretend to be aeroplanes ("Look at me! Look at me! I’m a plane!"). Following this dance routine is a monologue delivered by Albini which he adapts from one gig to the next.

SA: We play ‘Wingwalker’ more often than we don’t play it, that’s for sure. It’s part of a group of songs that are in a different tuning so once we go into that tuning we have a limited menu of songs that we can play without having to return to conventional tuning. Typically what happens is we’ll decide we’re going to go into drop-D and we’ll play two or three of a group of five or six songs. ‘Wingwalker’ is one of those and we would probably play that more often than the other songs in that group.

The ‘Wingwalker’ monologue is improvised, although I’ll get into a loop where certain images or phrases will stick around for a while. If you were to see us three nights running there might be some consistency to the monologue part but over the 25-year arc of the band that monologue has been quite different, era to era. The setlist itself is improvised to a degree, let’s say half the set are songs that we’re most likely going to play because we like playing them at that point, and the other half is whatever anybody comes up with off the top of his head. Then there are sections of songs that are improvised and I’m not scrupulous about avoiding thinking about it but I don’t put any preparation into the extemporaneous parts. For example, apart from a few key phrases the whole of the text of ‘The End Of Radio’ is improvised, or extemporaneous. I don’t know the difference really between improvised and extemporaneous. My wife works for The Second City which is an improv comedy theatre in Chicago and I know a lot of people who are professional improvisers so I should know the difference between improvised and extemporaneous. I feel bad now that I don’t, like I’ve somehow insulted the life’s work of several of my very close friends. Apart from a few phrases ‘The End Of Radio’ is different every night. The intention is that it would be whatever is on my mind at the moment, relating to radio, publicity, personality, the exploitation of show business and how celebrity as a goal is corrupting. Whatever’s on my mind ends up creeping out.

4. At Action Park (1994)

Surpassing the potential of their early singles came Shellac’s debut LP. Abrasive, sardonic, humorous, beautifully packaged and with a drum sound to die for, At Action Park proved that Albini could mature without sacrificing potency or impact. The vinyl version was available several weeks before the CD, although Albini admits that was probably due to a manufacturing delay rather than an intentional policy to frustrate compact disc buyers. Here, the album’s chart success was thwarted by a certain outspoken Mancunian outfit.

SA: We were on tour in England when that album was released and we made it to number two in the Indie Chart. What surprised me was that number one was a band called Oasis who I was unfamiliar with because I was an American and Americans didn’t know anything about Oasis. While we were on tour, I saw a television interview with one of the brothers in Oasis. I don’t know which one. He was going on about how if he was a kid and he heard this band Oasis, they would be his favourite fucking band. They were so fucking exciting, he couldn’t believe how fucking incredible this band was. He was in the best fucking band there ever was and if he wasn’t in the band then Oasis would be his favourite band because they were so far ahead of everybody else and so much more powerful and exciting. I thought, "Fuck. If a dude in the band is going off about how they blow him away, I really want to hear this band."

Then they followed that interview with filmed footage of that band playing a bunch of songs in concert for twenty minutes or something and I’ll assume you know what Oasis sounds like. It was fucking horrible. It’s just the most trivial, whiny reiteration of the lowest denominator of English rock and pop clichés. Don’t get me wrong, bearing in mind my profession, I have heard worse music. But the dissonance between this guy’s enthusiasm for the band that he was describing in the interview, which sounded like a band I would fucking love, and then the actual [starts impersonating the signature Gallagher vocal bleat] "aah-eee-yaaaah" of it. The dissonance was just stunning. It was like a guy talking about how impressive this bodybuilder was and then out trots a toddler infant.

The more I was exposed to Oasis, the more I started to see that Oasis were part of the general celebrity culture rather than being specifically guys in a band. Maybe it doesn’t now but back then music had a different function in England. It was part of the general spectrum of celebrity. In America, rock bands and celebrities were two different things. Oasis didn’t resonate in the US because all we were exposed to was their music which was trivial. We didn’t have the luxury of the gossip, scandals and all that sort of stuff. 

5. The Futurist (1997)

An unofficial follow-up to At Action Park, Shellac’s next album contained instrumental tracks originally used in a performance by the Canadian contemporary dance group La La La Human Steps. Copies of the LP were given to the 779 individuals listed on the front cover. Second-hand editions are listed for sale on the Discogs website for around $500. Is it worth the investment?

SA: Wow. It’s a good record but when we made it we gave it away for free so it’s hard for me to consider it being worth that much as an artefact. I’m sure there are versions of it floating around online that you could listen to if you were curious. We made them to give to people who were either our personal friends or as a thank you to people who had been kind to the band or who we had worked with in some capacity and we wanted to recognise that relationship. In the same way that you might make an ashtray or a piece of furniture and give it to somebody as a gift, it was possible for us to make this record and give it away to people, so we did. Thinking about it in those terms, if I or the band gives somebody a gift, it’s really only special for that person and for anybody else it’s just a record. I understand from a fan’s standpoint of wanting to be a completist but the relationship implied by giving and receiving a gift is different from just hearing the music or owning a record.

You didn’t mind if people sold or got rid of the LPs?

SA: Not at all. We gave it to them. It’s theirs. They can do whatever they want with it. It’s quite feasible that we gave records to people who either didn’t like the record or just didn’t want to be bothered with something. Especially after hearing it can be sold for $500, I don’t understand why everybody hasn’t sold them.

6. Terraform (1998)

Shellac’s proper second full-length contained some of their finest material to date including ‘Canada’, ‘Copper’ and other ones not beginning with C. It wasn’t received quite as warmly as At Action Park, perhaps on account of its lumbering 12-minute opener ‘Didn’t We Deserve A Look At The Way You Really Are’.

SA: Within the band, it was received perfectly well. It goes without saying that it’s an unusual thing to start a record with a long, slow, boring song. While we were writing it, the working title for that song was ‘The Long, Slow, Boring Song’. I can’t speak for Bob and Todd but I wasn’t thinking about other people when I formed my opinion about whether or not we should start the record with that song. It would be unusual for any of us in the band to care what other people would think about our band, its music and its decisions. I can’t say that it has never happened but by and large our band is a very selfish enterprise. We do it for ourselves and we do it to suit ourselves.

The bulk of Terraform was done at Abbey Road. It’s a great studio. Since the 80s, I’d done quite a lot of records at Abbey Road. Their equipment is top-notch. They have a fantastic mic collection. The technical staff are absolutely stellar. As an engineer or as a musician, working there is just a terrific experience. It seemed like a natural thing to do. We were going to be on tour in England anyway and we were going to make a record so we might as well do a session at Abbey Road. We had a great time. Great result. Great session. I recommend it.

7. 1000 Hurts (2000)

"There are no 12-minute songs on this one," read the advance caveat for 1000 Hurts, "This record is more mean-spirited." Several of the album’s reviewers focussed on Albini’s return to hostile and sometimes unsettling lyrics. To an extent not seen since the Big Black days, critics assumed that the unsavoury characters and views inhabiting his songs were directly apropos to Albini’s own private life. ‘Canaveral’ is in fact "a cynical look at John F. Kennedy as a womaniser rather than him as a statesman". Another song is about squirrels.

SA: I remember that period and thinking we had somehow gone into a nasty cul-de-sac in the text of some of those songs. I have no idea why. There was no real personal turmoil in our lives or anything.

Have you seen any of the terrible acoustic covers of ‘Prayer To God’ that can be found on YouTube?

SA: Sadly, yes. The few seconds of each that I have been able to endure have not been rewarding. I feel slightly bad that there is an earnest interpretation of that song that I can’t get behind, even though there is another earnest interpretation of that song that I could get behind. I feel like there are dudes not getting it who think I am voicing their deepest thoughts when I am trying to expose a fundamental weakness in a male identity.

Are you aware of Frank Turner’s version?

SA: I don’t know who Frank Turner is.

He’s a sort of libertarian Billy Bragg figure from Hampshire with a fashionable beard.

SA: That sounds horrible. I like the actual socialist Billy Bragg. What’s his name? I’m going to Google this fucker after we’re done. However bad it is, whatever cringing I have to do when this is over, it’s on you.

He introduces his version by saying how much the song chimed with his own "situation in life" which makes you wonder if he’s one of those dudes who’s maybe not getting it.

SA: Everything you’ve said to me makes me think I want this guy to jump in well but I haven’t actually heard his music and I’m not familiar with him so I’m going to maintain the indifference of ignorance for now. 

8. Excellent Italian Greyhound (2007)

Shellac’s fourth album is their most experimental to date though perhaps "playful" would be the more appropriate term. It opens with the aforementioned ‘The End Of Radio’ (not quite as long as ‘Didn’t We Deserve…’ but still ambitious). There are moments of silence, spoken-word passages, a section where Bob Weston starts paying direct homage to Fugazi’s final album The Argument and the LP ends in fits of absurdly incoherent screaming.

SA: I remember feeling like we were much more light-hearted about the material and I remember being very happy with the photograph of Uffizi on that cover. Uffizi was Todd’s dog. He lived to be a geriatric Italian greyhound and he was Todd’s closest companion for fifteen or sixteen years before he died. He was genuinely a member of our extended family and definitely a member of Todd’s family. I was very pleased that he was immortalised on that cover. We’re basically a rock band but that’s leavened with a few experimental impulses which we indulge. There’s a saying in statistics that streaks are not predictable, they’re only accountable. You can look back on a string of results and say we flipped the coin a hundred times and we had seven in a row that were heads. You can only see that after it’s happened. You can’t predict it. The overall tone of any of our records is only discernible in hindsight. While we’re making them, we’re just pursuing whatever’s on our minds at the moment. When we put together a collection of songs to make a record, it develops a personality just from the grouping of songs that it happens to be. You can recognise that once it’s done but it’s not like we set out to make a more jovial record.

9. Dude Incredible (2014)

Albini says that, generally speaking, his favourite Shellac record tends to be the one they’ve recorded most recently. He’s particularly fond of the "novel playing" on Dude Incredible (no comma!) and the moment when all three band members sing in unison because that’s something they’d never attempted before. Far from being a concept album, Dude Incredible does contain a significant proportion of surveyor-themed material.

SA: That was part of a weird conversational loop that Bob and I got into, Todd much less so. I think Todd was a little baffled by the surveyor business. I read somewhere that most of the early patriots in the Revolutionary War period had been surveyors. George Washington, for example, had drawn maps of this new country they were living in. It occurred to me that maybe the most direct relationship you could have with a place was literally pacing it off, measuring it and drawing a map of it. That gives you an immediate first-hand appreciation of a place that you really can’t get otherwise.

There’s a stupid trend in American politics right now with people who have no experience with politics and no grasp of public service as a profession just deciding that they’re going to jump into it. There’s a senator called Ben Sasse who’s president of a university and he’s just, "Hey, I bet I could be a senator". Kid Rock is running for senate in Michigan. I wouldn’t let that motherfucker babysit, much less be a fucking senator. The obvious figurehead of this whole "I am an idiot, therefore I can be a politician" is Donald Trump. People think that ignorance of a profession is somehow qualifying for that profession. It’s utterly baffling. I like the idea that, whatever other qualifications they had, the people who set the groundwork for our country on a political basis had an immediate first-hand knowledge of the place they were talking about. They had walked up and down it, they had seen all of it, and they had drawn it out by hand. It would be awesome if it were a requirement for public office to have drawn a map of your constituency, forcing you to go into every alley and meet every person and draw out the boundaries so you knew where every pothole in the road was.

I also think as requirement for holding public office you should have to be able to demonstrate that you had taken psychedelic drugs at least once. Having a psychedelic experience ought to be a requirement for a college degree and it ought to be a requirement for holding public office. 

Have you had many psychedelic experiences?

SA: I wouldn’t say many. Enough. I don’t think it takes a lot. I also think it could be problematic, if you spend most of your time in the psychedelic world then you would probably stop being able to function in the cold light of day or whatever. But I do think that psychedelic experience was important for me in opening my mind up to appreciating things on a granular level and being willing to take seriously notions and ideas that other people might be dismissing.

Isn’t it punk rock to undertake something with no skills or experience?

SA: The consequences for failing at guitar are considerably less than the consequences for failing at governance. I have no qualms with expertise, especially when other people’s lives are on the line. I don’t think expertise is anything to scoff at. I was in a bicycle accident recently. I broke my collarbone. I know I have an excellent orthopaedic doctor because of his professional certifications and also because when I mention him to other orthopaedic doctors they all revere him and talk about how good he is. That gives me confidence in pursuing the therapy that he’s recommended. It gives me confidence in his assessment of my injury. When he says I can go on tour on Wednesday, I don’t think that he is talking bullshit like if it was somebody with no medical training who just looked at the lump in my chest and said, "Yeah, that’s probably all right, I would ice it, that’s what I would do." There should be no shame in knowing what you’re doing. I don’t understand denigrating people for being good at things.

10. The Steady Softening Of Steven Frank Albini

During his Big Black and Rapeman tenures, Albini was accused of racism, misogyny, misanthropy and being a retrogressive grumpypants on a fairly regular basis. That’s what’ll happen if you think it’s a good idea to name your band after an offensive Japanese comic book character called Rapeman. Before that, other indiscretions in his interviews, lyrics, zine writings and onstage patter fuelled the furore as well. Nowadays, the popular perception has Albini listed as a veritable white knight of indie rock. He sings about political resistance, reform and social decency and is wary of tracks like ‘Prayer To God’ being misinterpreted by boneheaded bros. Shellac, meanwhile, play fun and inclusive shows often with female and feminist acts in the support slot. Let’s refrain from saying he’s grown all cuddly but what exactly happened?

SA: Over the last thirty years or so, I have definitely become more enlightened about corners of the social spectrum that I had less exposure to as a young man. I’ve interacted with more poor people, more minorities and more sexual minorities. As you get more people from different backgrounds involved in your life, you get a broader perspective and you’re less cavalier about your opinions. I married a staunch feminist so I hear the feminist perspective on most things on a daily basis and I feel like that’s been good for me in helping my enlightenment. It’s a long process. I started out as a relatively ignorant, privileged white kid with minimal exposure to minorities. I grew up in Montana which is a monoculture, almost. It wasn’t until I came to Chicago and got involved in the music scene in a big city that I really had any diversity of any significance in my life. It’s taken me a long time but I feel like my perspective on things is more rational and more balanced now than it was. I probably shoot my mouth off slightly less than I did. I’m less certain of things now than I was when I was more ignorant.

In terms of other people’s perception of me, that’s their business. There are people who I have never met but, for whatever reason, I am certain that these people are jack-offs. I’ve never met Billy Joel, I don’t know the first thing about Billy Joel, but I’m absolutely convinced he’s an asshole. I can’t justify that opinion, that’s just what I think. He’s probably an asshole. But my opinion about Billy Joel isn’t going to affect him in the slightest. It should make no difference to him. It doesn’t really make any difference to me. In the same way, I am sure there are people out there who are completely convinced that I am an asshole, for whatever reason. They might even feel more justified than I feel about my presumptive opinion of Billy Joel.

I think I used Sylvester Stallone as an example previously. Sylvester Stallone is probably more of an asshole than Billy Joel. Even there, I don’t know those guys, I don’t know the first thing about either of them, but I was able to rank them into who was the biggest asshole. That was a very modest pleasure that I just got out of ranking Sylvester Stallone above Billy Joel as who was the worst asshole but it was a little diversion and of course other people should be free to form those kind of utterly ignorant opinions about me. If it lightens their load a bit and lets them get through the day a little easier to be able to go, "I bet that Albini guy is a real dick", I’m fine with that. It’s not going to affect me. That guy’s opinion isn’t going to affect any of the people I interact with on a daily basis so he’s welcome to it. Opinions about me are none of my business. Those are for other people and I don’t want to begin to care about it. So has the critical perspective on me shifted? I don’t know and I don’t want to care.

Shellac play OFF festival in Poland this weekend

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