Not knowing Steve Albini’s name is a forgivable shortcoming. Most of IMPOSE’s readership was in preschool when Albini founded the iconic Big Black, the Chicago-based pioneers of noiserock, in 1982. With the original punk movement dead, hardcore punk reaching the point of self-parody, and punk-lite genres such as post-punk and new wave in full swing, Albini assembled Big Black with Jeff Pezzati (later replaced by Dave Riley) on bass, Santiago Durango on guitar, and himself as vocalist, guitarist and drum machine programmer.
Big Black’s goal was to retain punk sensibilities while bringing the music and the message (if there was one) in a faster, harder, more innovative and still more aggressive direction. Above all, the band insisted on staying fiercely original and independent. LPs such as 1986’s Atomizer and 1987’s Songs About Fucking are brilliant and challenging, with each track impelled forward by Riley’s grinding bass, guitar playing that Durango described as “not so much playing guitars but assembling noises created by guitars,” and a drum machine whose human equivalent would need to be jacked up on a half a pound of cocaine to get through one song. Meanwhile, Albini’s lyrics covered such light fare as child abuse, corruption, ritual-degradation, self-destruction and good old-fashioned pyromania. Albini — notorious for reveling in confrontation — insisted that he hardly subscribed to his those lyrics, but the songs came across with a degree of sincerity that frightened many of those who had never heard him interviewed. And whenever major labels called, Albini would neither get excited nor tell them to get lost — he would simply hang up the phone.
Big Black disbanded, decidedly at their peak, when Durango enrolled in law school in 1987. Albini’s groups since include the short-lived Rapeman (named after a Japanese comic book about a superhero who rapes people as his profession), and Shellac, a math/noiserock outfit that survives to this day. It has been over twenty years since Big Black disappeared, but the same can hardly be said of Albini himself.
Since 1985, Albini has become one of indie music’s most prolific producers, with his name behind hundreds of projects, including the Pixies’ first LP, Surfer Rosa, Nirvana’s In Utero, half of the Jesus Lizard’s discography, and various records and tracks for the likes of Bush, Cheap Trick, P.J. Harvey, The Breeders and even Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Since 1997, he has owned and operated Chicago’s Electrical Audio, a recording company built, as he says, entirely by punk rockers. It’s an enterprise he considers his crowning achievement.
Steve Albini, now 45, is everything that a true punk who grew up in the late 70s and early 80s could have hoped to be in 2008. Though not his sole passion, music is still his life, off which he makes a comfortable living. A former writer for underground magazines such as Matter and Forced Exposure, he avoids mainstream music media — from MTV to Rolling Stone to Pitchfork — like the plague. And though he has good friends, enjoys traveling, plays a wicked game of 7-card stud and business is good at Electrical, he is still unafraid to render strong opinions concerning the music industry, past and present; he was there before you and, given the fact that he hasn't done drugs or intentionally gotten drunk since 1984, he'll probably be there after you too. IMPOSE sat down with Albini, the nicest guy ever to hate the bands you love, earlier this week.
IMPOSE: So, last summer you identified yourself on an internet poker forum and openly answered questions about your past and current projects, and the music industry in general. Why a poker site?
Steve Albini: I was there every day, reading stuff on that site, and they had a bit of a tradition where, in a different poker strategy forum, people with a lot of experience in a particular discipline would make themselves available for what's called “The Well” which is basically an open question forum named after this eastern European parable. A guy goes to a village and needs to know how to get from one place to another. They say, “Just go to the well and speak your question into the well. Any day but Tuesday, you can go to the well, ask a question and it'll be answered.” So he goes to the well and he asks how to get from this village to the next village and a voice comes up from the well and tells him how to get there. He says, “Wow, that's really remarkable. Why does that work every day except Tuesday?” They say, “Well, Tuesday's your day in the well.”
So they have this thing called the Well where people will ask questions of different people with particular and specific experiences. One of them was Ask A Guy Who's Been In Porn Movies, one was Ask A Homosexual, one was Ask A Tax Lawyer, and things like that. People just allow themselves to be asked sort of natural curiosity questions, but they come in unfiltered so they're quite enlightening.
I: Back when you were with Big Black, you were pretty notorious for being substance free. Was there a story behind that?
SA: Around about the time I turned 21, I realized that I didn't like being drunk and I didn't like being high, so that was sort of the end of it for me — I just didn't enjoy being in that state. When I'm in Italy I'll have wine with dinner, because the wine is really good there, and I'll discover before I go to bed that I'm a little, as [H.L.] Mencken would say, “stewed”, and that's usually the moment that I pick to make a call home to [girlfriend] Heather and talk to her for a little while. I'm in Italy a couple times a year either on tour or making records. But other than Italy I don't really find any good reasons to drink. I used to smoke tobacco, but I gave that up after I buried my dad. He died of lung cancer, which was pretty horrible. That'll wake you up in a hurry.
I: I actually read that once, when Dave Riley was drunk, he smashed up Roland [the drum machine] at a concert.
SA: Didn't happen.
SA: I don't remember anything like that ever happening
I: So, if Santiago Durango hadn’t gone off to law school, and Riley had stayed more sober, would you have wanted Big Black to stay together?
SA: Well, we probably would have carried on, but I think we kind of reached a natural stopping point for that band. I felt like we had only made good records until that point, we had only played good shows to that point, and we had just gotten to a point where our audience was large enough that we could identify elements of it that we didn’t like. I don’t think we would have had the insight to end it without Santiago leaving.
I: What would you think is the difference between your personality in 1988 and 2008?
SA: I think I’m a little calmer now. I’m not as annoyed by things that don’t directly affect me. I remember taking almost personal offence at terrible music being thrust at me. I suppose I still do when I’m in those situations, but I’ve figured out how to remove myself from the influence of mass-market culture almost completely. Basically, I’m not exposed to it anymore, so I find it pretty harmless. I haven’t seen a sitcom in forever, probably since I was in college. I would occasionally have MTV on up to the late 80s, and there would be horrible music on it and I realized after a while that there was just no point.
I: You say “not as annoyed.”
SA: Well, like I said, it’s a matter of nuisance, rather than of real irritation. It’s a momentary nuisance if I’m at someone’s house and they happen to play a record that I hate. It doesn’t really affect me that much. And also, the fellowship of being with somebody that you like makes the background soundtrack kind of immaterial. “Fellowship.” That sounds so gay.
I: Lords of the Rings gay?
SA: I was thinking more like, bible-campish.
I: What do you consider “horrible music?” Like, what would be some of the first bands that come to mind?
SA: I just don’t even think about bad music anymore. It just doesn’t even register. It sounds like I’m ducking your question, but in all honesty I just don’t pay any attention anymore to things that don’t appeal to me. I think that might be why I’m not as annoyed by things as I used to be — I’m now quite effective at completely shutting them out.
I: How are things going with Shellac?
SA: This spring, we’re actually gonna have a fairly active touring schedule. We’re going to be playing Eastern Europe, then South America, then Spain, then France. I’m kind of excited about all these shows. We’re going to be playing, like, 6 weeks of shows in a three-month period, which for us is an enormous amount.
I: Small venues?
SA: All types. We’ve never played South America before, so the shows coming together are literally all different types. Some are big standard venues, some are small, local places.
I: What do you think of the Chicago music scene right now?
SA: Well, generally, it’s a terrific time to be in a band. There are so many things available to bands that weren’t available, say, ten years ago: the ease of self-promotion with online communities like MySpace, Facebook, and all those things, and the ease of recording and manufacturing your own CD is kind of incredible. Chicago, historically, has always had a very supportive and sort of communal feeling. Bands, generally, are quite helpful and supportive of each other. That doesn’t seem to have changed at all. Things that have changed are, there are fewer venues now then there were ten years ago, mainly to do with the political situation in Chicago more than anything else.
I: Can you think of any local bands, or bands that are Chicago-based that you like these days?
SA: I like Bear Claw, this band the Bitter Tears, I like the Bottomless Pit. Not much else is really jumping to mind. I like Pelican.
I: Do you go to shows a lot in Chicago?
SA: Try to. I end up going to a few a month, but not that many.
I: Got a favorite venue here?
SA: Well, the ones that existed 10 years ago that are still doing gigs are still decent places to see bands. I still like the Schubas [Tavern]. I never had much affection for the Empty Bottle or Metro. I don't like the way those places are run and, on a personal level, I don't like the people that run them, so I have very little interest in going to those places. In general, when my band tries to find a place to play, for example, it's kind of tough. We end up having to find some kind of non-music venue and book it for the night and turn it into a place where we can have a show.
I: What's so good about Schubas?
SA: It's just a nice, low-key place. The music room is separate from the bar, so there's less chatter. A lot of the venues in Chicago, the bar is the attraction and the band has to put up with the bar crowd. That was the thing that always bugged me about going to shows at the Empty Bottle until I finally just gave up; there was this constant braying of the meat-market crowd there, especially if you were there to see a band that wasn't super-loud or overwhelming stage presence, it was incredible distracting, really annoying, and really disrespecting to the band.
I: See anything good recently?
SA: Shannon Wright on Friday night at Schubas. Fuckin’ awesome. She was incredible. She was an absolute wonder. Incredible guitar player, incredible singer, super-amazing performer, and her band was great. She’s got a new band and they’re fantastic.
I: Moving on — what do you think of the NYC music scene right now?
SA: I really don’t know anything about it.
I: For example, DFA records is based in New York.
I: You sound like you’re not a fan.
SA: I have to admit it seems kind of gimmicky to me. It seems like it’s kind of nostalgic for a style of music that didn’t exist as a style, so much as an abstract category back in the day. When someone says “dance-punk,” my natural assumption is that you’re talking about bands that were in the punk scene but had sort of dance rhythms. That wasn’t a specific category at the time — there were just some bands who happened to incorporate stuff like that, and that it’s been retroactively defined as a category is sort of creepy to me.
I: I suppose the broader genre would be “electronic.”
SA: Well that’s a whole other kettle of fish. “Electronic” music used to mean music that was made out of electronic elements, and by that I mean, electronic circuits. Now electronic music is meant to mean music that is made with computers, by and large. That music generally has no effect on me, and when it does, it annoys me. The synthesized aspect of it doesn’t bother me in the slightest; what bothers me is that it’s so simplistic and so mundane. The lack of inventiveness, not the tools that are used.
I: Is there any music that you don't have any involvement in either producing/recording or engineering that you really like listening to today?
SA: Hell yeah. There's a guitar player named Jack Rose. There's some acoustic music that I think is just incredible. Just recently I've been listening to this CD I got — there was an old time preacher-gospel singer named Washington Phillips. I'd heard his music a little bit over the years, and a friend of mine gave me a CD compilation of his stuff and it's just heartbreaking, and really amazing. He's got the most beautiful, fragile voice. He plays on this sort of novelty instrument, a keyboard called a dolceola. It has this really ghostly sound, and it's just totally captivating. My girlfriend got me into soul music, certainly more than I ever have been, Bill Withers in particular. I've always been a big fan of Willie Nelson, ACDC, ZZ Top, Crazy Horse, awesome individual personalities, and bands that are kind of unique. It can be a lot of different things at any moment.
I: Noiserock was pioneered by groups like Big Black, Throbbing Gristle, Flipper, Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers — what do you think of what noise has become today?
SA: Some of them are incredible, and some of them seem like they’re doing some kind of mimickry. Lightning Bolt, every time I’ve seen them, were amazing, totally, inspirationally great. Certain other bands, like Wolf Eyes — when you see something that isn’t really understood by people that they’re doing it in front of, that always appealed to me. It sort of indicates that there’s something beyond the sound.
I: Which noiserock bands do you mean when you say “mimickry?”
SA: I’d prefer not to say, not out of decorum’s sense. I get the impression that a lot of these bands are doing what they’re doing for the moment, and may not have settled on an actual idiom. Sooner or later, they may wake up and do something, and they’ll be as embarrassed at what they used to do as they’re supposed to be. That’s actually a pretty normal progression for bands — to start out doing something that’s slavishly imitative of something they like, then gravitate towards their own stuff and it ends up being a lot better, or at the very least, more distinctive. I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of — it happens to lots of bands. I know when Big Black first started, a lot of the stuff I was doing sounds a lot like the bands I was listening to at the time. A lot of the first Big Black record [the Lungs EP] sounds like the Cure, Killing Joke and Cabaret Voltaire. It wasn’t until it became a three-piece band and there was actual dialogue in terms of the music that it got really good. Lightning Bolt has a mania about them that is exactly what I like about my favorite bands. There’s a craziness about their performance and their aesthetic that seems genuine. It doesn’t seem like it’s showbiz — it seems like they’re super duper excited about being in their own band. How can you not be charmed by that?
I: You were quoted in Our Band Could Be Your Life saying, “I am now quite happy to be breaking up. Things are getting much too big and uncontrollable. All along we've wanted to keep our hands on everything, so nothing happened that we didn't want to. With international multi-format/multi-territorial shit, that's proving elusive. I prefer to cut it off rather than have it turn into another Gross Rock Spectacle.” Unless a band’s sole goal is to become “popular” or “commercially successful,” do bands with rising popularity always encounter a point where there’s a tradeoff between the music and “the industry”? Can a mainstream band be good?
SA: I don’t know. It hasn’t happened in so long that I’m tempted to say that it’s impossible, but I don’t know that for certain. I suppose it would be possible for a mainstream pop band to be good, but I can’t think of the last time it happened. It’s like an earthquake in the New Madrid Fault in the Midwest — it’s inevitable, but it hasn’t happened in hundreds and hundreds of years.
I: Well, what were bands that definitely combined popularity with quality?
SA: Well, Led Zeppelin, ACDC. They weren’t my favorite band of all time, but I think the Beatles were a quality band, and all those were enormously popular. Led Zeppelin was popular despite being pretty well hated by the critical elite of the music industry. I have some respect for Nirvana, and they were enormously popular. I’m not the biggest fan of theirs, but I think that their music was genuine.
I: Do you think In Utero was their best album?
SA: I think it was a pretty good record. I’m not that familiar with Nirvana’s stuff. I mean, obviously I listened to In Utero a lot while we were making it; I haven’t listened to it a whole lot since then. I didn’t listen to their music particularly before I started working on that record, so I’m not that familiar with their catalogue. Of it that I have been exposed to, I think it’s genuine. I really don’t have any qualms with it.
I: How about Radiohead, as a band that’s commercially huge and critically popular.
SA: I’ve only heard a little of them, and it doesn’t mean anything to me. It doesn’t speak to me in any way. I see that band as very much in the mold of bands like R.E.M. and U2 — they have a very specific audience that is slavishly devoted to them, and I would put Wilco in the same category. They have an audience that adores them, and that their music clearly speaks to. All these people are not faking it; they’re actually rapt by this music, and it speaks to them in some way that is a legitimate aesthetic and artistic experience for everyone involved. I don’t have that gene. I’m colorblind to it. It doesn’t speak to me at all. I can’t tell the difference, honestly, between one of their songs and the next, and I’m speaking about all those bands. From an earlier generation, you could say the Grateful Dead or Rush or any of the number of bands that have a slavishly devoted audience, their music speaks to the people that like it in a very direct way that it doesn’t speak to me. I don’t see that necessarily as a failing on my part, but I accept that there’s something genuine about that music that I just don’t get. It’s like a beautiful poem written in Farsi. How would I know? Is Farsi even a written language? Is it a dialect?
I: I honestly don’t know either.
SA: Well there you go.
I: Are there any musical genres that you consider to be flat-out bad?
SA: I basically hate dance music, and I don’t mean music of traditional dances like folk music, I mean music made since the disco era for the purpose of dancing drives me insane. When I’m forced to endure that music, it’s about the only music that actually irritates me. It’s anti-functional noise, and such a misnomer as well. If you think of the incredible capabilities of the human body, like what the human body can do, and what dance as an art form can be, and then you try to imagine music that is that broad in scope, that would be appropriate to call “dance music” — it just seems ridiculous that it should be so narrowly constrained. When someone speaks of dance music now, they’re not speaking of music that would inspire dance; they’re speaking of music that is suitable for dancing. I detest camp most of the time, and dance music seems like it’s all camp, as weird or as tough or as crazy as it is.
The fact that ska is still going blows my mind. During the original ska era — the pre-reggae era of popular music in Jamaica — a lot of that music is amazing, and very wide-ranging. It’s an incredible body of work. There’s a lot of shit on there that is not genre-specific at all; it’s just amazing music. And then in the ska-revival of the late 70s and early 80s, a few of the stylistic elements of that were grafted onto the sort of punk rock, d.i.y.-band aesthetic, and a couple of interesting things came out of that. The first Specials album is a masterpiece, and the Specials single “The Boiler” is an amazing single. There are a few really good things happening. The rest of it: pure crap. Just monkey-see-monkey-do crap, and the fact that that has survived, that mimicking this crap and abstracting it as another excuse for guys in the bass brand from high school to be in a rock band, I find it mind-blowing that that survived this long.
I: Do you like where rock music is going these days?
SA: I don’t think there’s a direction to it. A few people are always doing stuff that’s individually inspired and amazing, and then there are a few people that have been carrying on for years and are still doing awesome stuff. Every now and then you’ll stumble across a band you haven’t seen in ten years, and you’ll be like, “Fuck me; Lungfish are actually still great.” Or you’ll stumble across a band that has gotten to where they are now through some circuitous route and what they’re doing now is amazing. It’s not where they’ve started out, but it’s amazing. I don’t think there’s a direction to rock music in general.
I: Just have time to touch on a few last things, word by word.
SA: I liked being in that band. I felt bad that we broke up when we did. It seemed like we were getting underway, and I don’t think the name made any difference. To the three of us in the band, it made no difference whatsoever. To the people that weren’t gonna like us anyway, it might have mattered in that they wouldn’t have complained if we had a trivial name. They wouldn’t have had anything to say about it.
SA: A serious pastime of mine, like billiards or cooking. I find it incredibly stimulating. I like the fact that it’s a game I could have been playing a hundred years ago and it would be basically the same game. I think that aspect of it appeals to me the same way baseball and chess kind of appeal to me. I don’t pay chess, but I admire chess because it’s a very durable game, and has been the same for a long time. It’s kind of interesting to think of the way the game would be played between the modern or historical era. The skill set doesn’t change, and the game doesn’t change. Just the perspective on it is what changes, really.
I: Sonic Youth
SA: Durable. Very durable band. Seems like they've been around forever.
I: Electrical Audio
SA: Probably the defining enterprise of my adult life. I’ve done more, spent more and worked harder on this than anything else in my life. Virtually everyone that worked here building the place were punk rockers, or people I knew through punk means.
I: I got out of a book that you enthusiastically proclaimed that this was a place built by punk rock. I’m guessing you didn’t change your mind.
SA: Hell no.