CVLT Nation interviews musician and producer STEVE ALBINI
Photos: Marco Zanin
Shellac, the American post-hardcore band from Chicago, is on tour around Europe. I talked with Steve Albini, musician and producer, about his band, how to become a great sound engineer and the future of music.
You’re on tour with Shellac around Europe. How’s it going?
Steve: It’s great. This is a short trip we’re doing. We did a longer tour in May and June, and there were some additional shows that we were offered in this period. At the beginning of July, I was in a bicycle accident and I broke my collarbone, so we weren’t certain that we were going to be able to do these shows. But we have done three shows already and it’s been OK.
Are you OK?
Well, it hurts, but I’m able to play. I’m pleased that we didn’t have to cancel the shows.
What’s it like playing in Europe compared to playing in the USA?
European shows, especially those that are funded by an arts council or an organization, have more support, generally speaking. By that I mean there’s more money available for fees, the accommodations are nicer, the backstage is nicer, things like that. In America, the shows are typically in bars, which have to turn a profit so, relatively speaking, the ticket prices are higher and it’s a little bit less physically comfortable. Touring in Europe is quite a bit more comfortable as a musician than touring in the US.
Do you think maybe it’s easier in your country, or Europe is nicer because it’s something new?
The difference is just that in the US, being in a band is like any other small business. There’s a very strong capitalist mentality, and in Europe there is more public funding and support for the arts. Music, dance, theater, visual art, film… things like that all have some degree of public support in Europe, so it makes life easier for artists. That’s the biggest difference between the two. In the US, whatever you’re doing has to make money; in Europe, there is some support for art just because it’s a good idea to have art.
Your last album, Dude Incredible, was from 2014, right? Are you thinking about recording something new?
We have new material that we’re working on but we don’t have enough for an album. And we don’t have any time pressure. I’m sure there will be another album eventually, but it’s not going to be soon. Not in the next year, but eventually I’m sure we will do another album.
At Action Park was released in 1994. Do you think anything has changed musically speaking in your way of being a musician?
Very small steps of evolution have occurred within the band. As we’ve matured and gotten more comfortable playing we’ve made very small changes in our interaction within the band. The rest of the music business has changed a lot, but we don’t really interact with the rest of the music business. So I don’t really care. So, the external music business has changed a lot; internally, within the band it’s changed very little.
What about age? Or a new perspective?
Yeah… Partly, you begin a band with a core set of ideas, and when you first start working on them, they’re very loosely shaped. The more you work on those ideas, the more you solidify them into very specific things. So, in the beginning, you make a lot of mistakes, but you have many more experiments. And the more you mature into those ideas, you have to look for things that are new as opposed to trying any direction. You have to make a conscience decision to try new things.
You’re also an important figure in the world of recording. How does being a musician influence your career as a sounds engineer?
Well, the biggest influence is that, because I am a musician in a band, I am naturally sympathetic to other musicians in bands. When I’m working for a band in the studio, I have had a lot of the same experiences that they’ve had: like when the amplifier craps out at the last minute, or something goes wrong, or you have to drive all night to a gig and then no one shows up and it’s cancelled but you drove all night anyway… I’ve had these same experiences so I’m sympathetic to the band. I think a lot of engineers come into recording without that experience, without having been part of the culture of musicians and so they’re ignorant to some of the pressure and problems. So I think that’s the biggest influence. Other small things are, for example, I’m familiar with some trends in live music, but I think those are very small details.
What do you like about being a musician and what do you like about being a sound engineer?
Being a musician, playing live music with Bob and Todd is the most fun that I get to have in my life. It’s pure pleasure for me. It’s exercising the creative impulse, which is a natural drive that we all have. Everyone has this drive to express the creative impulse, so it’s extremely satisfying. Nothing I do in the studio as an engineer will ever be as satisfying as playing in a band with Bob and Todd. Having said that, playing in a band is not my profession. So if we have a bad show or if we don’t make enough money on a certain tour, it’s not the end of the world. If I had to rely on the band as my profession, as my income to pay my mortgage, then there would be another layer of pressure and stress. I feel that stress all the time in my job as an engineer, that stress and pressure of having to make money, but I don’t feel that pressure in the band as a musician. I feel like literally no pressure in the band.
What pushes you to keep going? Have you ever thought about quitting?
I think the reason that I want to be in a band is the same as always: I want to play with Bob and Todd and I want to express this creative drive, this creative impulse. So that’s why I want to keep doing it. If that ever goes away, then maybe I’ll quit.
And as a sound engineer?
As a sound engineer… that’s just my profession. I’m just going to keep working until I can’t work anymore.
You work with a lot of bands. Do you think that the music scene has changed from the 80’s when you started?
Yes, in small and subtle ways. In the 1980’s, there was the beginning of a sort of specialization of music. There were people who were into punk and there was the beginning of the grunge idea, the experimental music idea, the resurgence of heavy metal. All of these things were happening simultaneously. And then each of those became a kind of school of thought. You had metal bands and you had experimental bands, you had grunge bands and you had punk bands. Now, I see much less specialization in bands. You see a band and three of the members will be really into super abstract metal, and one of the guys will be really into electronic music, and then after a few years they’ve all really gotten into some acoustic folk music. There’s much less tribalism where metal guys are only interested in metal. That doesn’t happen so much anymore. Metal guys can have influences and experiences with a lot of different kinds of music. The same thing with electronic music: for a while electronic music was pure noise, and then it became just dance music. If you said, “electronic music” in the 1970’s or early 1980’s you were talking about pure noise music. Then in the late 80’s and 90s’ if you said, “electronic music,” some of it would be dance music and some of it would be experimental music. And in the 2000’s, if you say “electronic music,” you’re basically talking about dance music. And now that is starting to expand to where people who were into dance music are now discovering a more experimental approach, or a noisier approach, or a more rock-band approach, and people who are in rock bands are starting to incorporate these experimental and electronic techniques. So, I have seen things change, but the changes have been good, because they make things less territorial for the musicians. People who were into punk rock when it was new were hostile towards other kinds of music. People who were into heavy metal were hostile towards other kinds of music. And now I think that everybody recognizes that there’s a thread of idea in all kinds of music, and if you find that idea you can find something valuable. So I think these changes have all been good.
I read that you prefer an analogue approach to recording. Why is that so, in the era of technology?
There is one fundamental problem with digital recording, and I can contrast it with analogue recording. At the end of an analogue session, you have a master tape that has all of the recordings from the session on it. And you can put that tape on a shelf in a closet and come back in a hundred years and put that tape in a machine and the session will come back to life. You don’t need any special computer hardware, you don’t need any licenses, any authorizations. Everything is self-contained in the master tape. This archival aspect of analogue recording is the most important aspect for me, because a lot of the music that I work on is not going to being popular right away. Some of it may find an audience in 10 to 50 years, and for me the most important thing is that I conduct my sessions in a way where the material will survive. And there is no digital equivalent to a master tape. There is no digital technology that will preserve recordings in a historical timeframe, like for 100 or 200 years. There’s no digital method of preserving music for that period. So my obligation to my clients is to make their music outlive them. That’s the fundamental problem with digital recording. There are a lot of practical things about digital recording that make it attractive. There are a lot tricks you can do with the sound, you have a lot more flexibility, there are obvious procedural advantages to digital recording. But in the analogue domain, if your working methods are sensitive to the limitations of analogue recording, it doesn’t need to be any more cumbersome. It doesn’t need to take any more time or be any more trouble.
What’s the secret to creating the right sound for the right band?
For me, it has been a long process of removing my ego, removing the concept of authorship. When I hear a band playing their music, my job is to render that music onto the tape. My job is not to interpret that music in a way that I prefer it. Doing that requires a big technical vocabulary, like you need to be able to accommodate all kinds of different sound, all kinds of different playing styles, different intensity, and that involves all aspects of engineering. My starting point is to have no influence, no effect on the recording. But it’s very difficult to have no influence and no effect; it requires all of my skill to avoid making any kind of a problem.
What your favorite record that you’ve worked on?
I don’t have any particular favorite record. There are people I have worked on records with where the relationship with the person has become a very special one. So, for me, those are the precious sessions. I’ve done many sessions with a singer named Nina Nastasia and she and I have become great friends. I love her music and I love working on her records, but I consider her family.
And what is your favorite record? Maybe from your childhood or when you were a teenager…
Well, the record that changed me as a person was the first Ramones album. I didn’t care about music as a teenager and then I heard that album and suddenly music was the most important thing in my life. So that record changed me. I think if I had to pick a favorite record, like one record that I would listen to for life, it would probably be the Stooges’ Fun House.
Looking back at your career, as a sound engineer or musician, would you change anything if you could go back?
Yeah, I have small reservations about certain things, but mostly they’re reservations about ideas we’ve pursued that were mistakes, time wasted, things like that. Nothing big. In general, I feel like I have been treated very well by the universe. I feel like the universe has been very kind to me. I have been in three bands as an adult and all three of those bands got to make records and tour and I’m very proud of my experiences in all three of them. The band I’m in now I have been in for 25 years, which is kind of ridiculous but also extremely satisfying. For me and Todd and Bob to have played together for 25 years feels like some kind of an award, like we were rewarded for being good people by being allowed to play in this band for so long. I cannot imagine being in another band. So for me, I think that Shellac is probably the band I’m going to be in for the rest of my life.
What bands have you been listening to lately? Are there any new bands that you like?
Just today, a friend of mine introduced me to a band and I really liked them. They’re called Patois Counselors. They have one single out and it’s very energetic. A friend of mine turned me on to this band and I really like them. There’s a band from Athens, Georgia called Motherfucker that I really like, and then there are people whose music I’ve been listening to for years and years that I still really love. Shannon Wright is a singer and guitar player and I think her music is just inspirational. She put out a new album last year and I think it’s absolutely amazing.
You are from Chicago. What is the music scene in your city right now?
Well, the music scene in Chicago has always had many fingers. There’s the jazz scene, the experimental scene, the rock scene and the informal house party scene. All of those go through periods of excitement and dullness. A couple of years ago there was a big inflation in the house parties and there were a lot of shows in houses and a lot of underground bands playing sort of illegal shows. Then that kind of died off, and now a lot of bands are doing recording projects and then going off on tour, not playing so much in Chicago. But everything is cyclical, it’s a very exciting scene, a lot of musicians, a lot of young people.
… and in the USA?
I can’t speak about the US generally. It’s almost now like there’s a local music scene, like people within a few miles of each other. And then the Internet makes the whole rest of the world a music scene. So the most influential people might be the people within a few miles of each other, and then the second most influential people might be thousands of miles away.
You taught some master classes about recording. Do you have any tips for young sound engineers starting to approach this work?
For me, the most important thing was to experiment all the time. Every idea that you have in your head, every single idea about how to do some recording thing, try it. And record the results and listen critically and make decisions about what these experiments mean. Before I made a record, before a recording session became an official release, I had done hundreds and hundreds of experimental recordings; just my friends and me fucking around on the tape machine, my friends’ bands doing demo tape recordings of their songs. I think it’s important to spend a lot of time experimenting.
What do you think is necessary for the music scene to be fair in this time where electro music is taking over the classic way to play.
I think that every time there’s a technological development, it influences the culture. So, when record players became possible, then live music suffered because discothèques opened and there were dance clubs where you would play records rather than live bands. Then when drum machines came in there was a change in the culture and people were complaining that music was too synthetic because of drum machines. And then when sampling came in people were complaining that the music was too synthetic because of sampling. And now there’s all this powerful synthesis and people are saying well the electro music is kind of taking over. There’s always some new technological development and it always gets incorporated into the scene, the background of the music scene. As long as people want to create music with their friends, there is going to be a live music scene. I don’t think we need to worry about a direction for it. I think the direction takes care of itself.