For those who’ve never heard the name of Steve Albini, it would be difficult to explain who this guy is. Like billions of other questions, there are many answers to it: Analogue recording engineer, founder of the legendary Electrical Audio studios. The founder of Big Black – the notorious noise-rock act of the ’80s.
I discovered Steve Albini through Big Black and immediately fell in love with what he has been doing ever since. This is the frenetic energy of such releases as “Racer X” and “Songs About Fucking”, monotonous meditation of Shellac-songs or any of his numerous recordings with bands. Albini is the one who’d always preferred the term “recording engineer” to the more abstract “producer.” Since Steve has started recording bands in the late ’70s, he hasn’t stopped recording dozens of albums every year. His approach is simple – listening to music trying to capture its soul.
Dan Volohov talks to Steve Albini about his composers’ work and minimalism in music, about the transition from Big Black to Shellac and festival shows, about the first musical discoveries and digital recording indie-labels and punk-rock, building Electrical Audio and the recent releases.
This year, Touch And Go records released your newest album, a collection of instrumental tracks recorded as a soundtrack for “Girl on the Third Floor” – a horror movie that came out in 2019. How can you characterize your approach working with these musicians and how it felt to step from certain standardized musical forms and move to the direction where you have cinematic images and plot-lines in the core of everything?
SA: Yes, it was an experiment. I’ve never done a soundtrack before, so it seemed like an interesting project, just from a creative standpoint. I’ve never worked in that kind of collaborative way. The other people on the album: Tim Midgett and Alison Chesley, are old friends. Alison puts out music under the name “Helen Money,” and Helen Money has toured with my band Shellac many times in Europe and America so, I was familiar with her. She has a very experimental style and mostly plays electric cello. The possibility of using familiar instruments like classic, familiar acoustic instruments, or a very abstract sound is there at all times with her.
I’ve known Tim Midgett for 30-35 years. He and I come from the same town in Montana – Missoula. We met each other in music in the late ’80s. He has a solo project called “Mint Mile,” but before that, he was in the band – Silkworm, with whom I did many albums with and he was also in the band called The Bottomless Pit. He’s just an excellent general musician, and he has a very open mind about what is or is not valid as a musical statement. He has a great appreciation of dub-reggae, so I thought he would be a good person to have for the more abstract electronic elements that occur throughout the record.
The music is very collaborative one of us would come with a motif, and we’d play through the motif and decide what sort of dynamics would get involved – That was basically it. The director is Travis Stevens; he gave us a summary of the film and said: “I’m gonna need about this much music.” – so we wrote and recorded a batch of material that was roughly 30 minutes of music, and we sent it to him. He was able to find the music within that that he could use in the film, and then, he sent us another list of cues associated with a rough cut of the film, saying: “Ok! We need music here, here and here!” – this is the scene in the movie. This is what’s happening, what I need to be in this duration.” So, for that second round of recordings, we were performing along with the film. We watched the movie while we were playing the cues that were meant to appear in those moments of the film.
That was also an interesting process that I had never done before. I understand that all cinematic orchestras were often done in this way. There’s usually a film projection, and the conductor is watching the film while he is conducting the orchestra. He would max the tempo to the action in the movie and that sort of thing – the whole process was gratifying for me. I really love working with these people – Tim and Alison are great musicians and very easy to work with. The amount of work was way more than I expected. We ended up recording something like 90 minutes worth of music, and in the end, there isn’t that much of the music used in the film because films don’t need much of the music carpeting everywhere.
But we were happy enough with a lot of the music, so we wanted to release it as an album. We approached Touch, And Go Records and Touch And Go, who are also old friends, said: “Yeah, sure! We will put out the record! No problem!”. So, it’s an unusual project for me and everyone involved. I’m pleased with the results, but it’s also a product of me working with excellent people.
To a point, you’ve always been exploring minimalistic musical tendencies, whether this is a drum-machine you used all through Big Black albums or some of Shellac’s songs built on a repetition of individual parts and chord-progressions. Is it important for you to limit yourself?
SA: No, I just don’t see a small number of things as being limitations. Like if you think of a chess-board, there are only so many kinds of pieces. There are kings, queens, rooks, bishops, knights, and pawns -that’s it! That’s all there is on the whole chess-board, and the chess-board is relatively small, but if you were to play every possible game of chess, it would require more time than the universe has existed. A small number of things in permutation can create an enormous number of possible outcomes so, I don’t see it as a limitation to work with a small number of elements.
I think part of my creative impulse, part of what drives me to make things, is to take a set of materials and utilize that set of materials to the greatest extent possible. I understand the impulse to expand your palette and have more things available to you in a kind of luxurious way. To work with more sounds, more people, more elements…I just don’t have that instinct. The bands I’ve been in have been limited to three people in the room, and those three people make all the decisions, make all the music, and do everything! It’s the same mentality at play with everything that I do that’s a creative enterprise. You sort of define the parameters within which you’re working. You make some choices at the beginning of the project, and then you pursue those with an open mind and maximum flexibility. In a way, I think it’s kind of a cop-out to add extra stuff whenever you get bored.
I think that says something about your personality rather than saying something about the limitations of your palette. I just don’t have the maximalist ambitions like a lot of people do. I don’t need more than a certain amount to live on; I don’t need a house bigger than will comfortably hold my wife and me. I don’t need more food than I’m hungry, for I don’t need excess in my life. It just doesn’t feel right that I have more than I need for any action or any enterprise. I want to make the best use of whatever I’ve got, but I don’t feel the ambition or sort of yearning for more. More doesn’t ever seem to be an answer to a problem. If there’s a problem, you should confront the issue. You shouldn’t try to overwhelm the problem by having more around it.
At the beginning of your career, you used to record your friends and friends’ friends, and so on, which were basically punk-artists you used to interact with being a part of this scene. And later on during the very first years of your career. What did you feel stepping outside of this particular circle of artists and exploring something more in-depth in terms of stylistics?
SA: My initial client base, if you will, was my friends and my peers in the underground music scene, and as I developed skills in a studio and I became comfortable with different music, I started to realize that the problems that musicians have in the studio are nearly universal. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re working on – if the bass-drum is too loud, it’s too loud ( laughter )! If there’s an irritating sound distracting from the music flow, then that can be a problem. And also, I started to recognize that every kind of music has some kind of soul. That’s a clumsy word to use, but every kind of music – if you drill down into it, there’s some meaning behind that music.
A lot of it is trivial Pop-music…You have these really crass motivations for success ambitions. You have very simplistic themes of “good times” and partying, boy meets girl – just trivial shit! But for almost any authentic kind of music behind it, there’s a reason people are driven to make this music. There’s something about this relationship between people making the music and their genuine and unique music. Suppose you can convince yourself to take all kinds of music seriously. In that case, even music that doesn’t appeal to you as a fan or as an audience-member but you take it seriously, and you listen to the cues about what the element of soul is in that music, like what’s the motivation behind this music, why people are driven to this? – then, you become sympathetic to anyone.
I regularly work on music that if you said: “Pick up a record to play!” I would basically never find one of those records and play them for fun. I regularly work on music that’s not made for me as a listener. However, I can still become a sympathetic partner to the people working on that record, I can start to hear that music the way they do, and I can start appreciating things about it and what they appreciate and begin to anticipate the requirements and the disappointments of their problems in the studio. I think that’s just the function of being exposed to many different kinds of music and working in different environments, and meeting many different types of people. You become a more broad-minded person, just by default.
If you’re gonna spend a week in a room with these people, you have to get along with them. So you have to start accommodating with them; you have to begin empathizing and sympathizing with them. And start listening to things from their perspective. The more you do that, the more rounded person you become, the more open-minded you become, the more generous with your expectations you become. I think it had been a perfect learning process for me, to have to confront many different kinds of people, many different kinds of music. I appreciate that it’s been a benefit. I understand that it has made me a better, more open-minded person. It allowed me to meet and become friends with people I would never cross path any other way.
Since there’s interaction within the artists, it’s also possible to say that bands take something from you and your attitude and approach to work. In the end, that’s why all these records are precise and very characteristic sounding. What do you bring to their music, not just as their engineer and the person setting up the situation, but as a musician and an individual with a specific type of attitude, mindset?
SA: Well, in the beginning, at first, the one thing I have is experience and competence. If someone comes into the studio regardless of the kind of music they want to make; I have the technical ability and knowledge to make a satisfying accurate recording of what they’re doing in a studio. That’s no small thing. There’s a critical perspective that I bring a certain energy to a project or something like that = I think that’s nonsense. I believe the most important thing is just people knowing they’re going to a professional. Someone who’s not gonna make clumsy mistakes of their music. I think that’s the number one thing. Most music is now being recording in a semi-professional way. Many things are being recorded in an informal environment with semi-professional tools by people who don’t have a lot of experience and are kind of figuring out things as they go. There’s no shame in it. That’s how I learned and trained, as well. There’s a big gap between your skills and abilities in the first year on the job and your 30th year.
After doing this work for an extended period, you develop a lot of problem-solving techniques, and you develop the ability to cut problems off before they become problems. You learn things like time management and how to make sure that the record stays under budget and make sure that you don’t run out of time in the studio. You don’t get distracted by sidelines that are ultimately destructive because they derail the project. All of that is just a product of experience, and I have a shit load of experience!
If you ask me what do I bring to a session, I think the first thing is just raw competence. Doing the job without it being a mystery to me, like nothing that happens in the studio, is baffling. And secondary to that – I think, when people come to the studio, they quickly realize that they’re making the decisions that it’s their record, they are in charge. Over time, I think, it gives people confidence in their choices because they see the progress. Like we make these decisions to this point, and the record is sounding good, that means that we’re making good decisions, and we’re good at it.
Whereas if I’d come into the studio like a supervisor like an all-powerful Wizard Of Oz and say: “This is the guitar, you should play,” “At this moment we shall have violins” – if I did that sort of stuff, then I’m kind of stealing the authorship of the music from the band. I would be imposing my esthetics on music and me as a fan and as a listener. My tastes are kind of trashy. The music I like is ugly, music I listen to for invigoration, the music that animates me and excites me – a lot of it is awful, in categorical terms. It’s ugly, it’s dissonant, and that’s not an esthetic that’s appropriate for most of the records I work on as an engineer.
Most of the time, I try to make a record to suit a band that wants a pleasing experience, and they have expectations that they want to be satisfied, and that’s at odds with my tastes as a listener. My preference as a listener is to be surprised and confronted with music that’s undeniable in some way. It would be a mistake if I tried to make records like that using other people as puppets. Manipulating the studio’s scenario trying to make a record to suit me is not fair to the people who are coming to the studio to make a record with their own music. So, I try very hard to keep my tastes and aesthetics out of the studio’s decision-making process. It’s almost a completely sympathetic practice.
You have to learn what the expectations of your clients are. Learn what they’re listening for, learn what they want, what they like, and then, you have to satisfy them. What I want in a song or a piece of music is unimportant; it’s trivial! It shouldn’t even be a part of consideration!
Back in the days, punk-rock albums were made just in a moment. There are lots of punk-rock records that, despite all the minuses on the recording, sound great. Being a person who’s started a career in the punk-rock environment, what brought you to explore the nature of sounds, their characters, the matter of physics and acoustics?
SA: Before I was a musician, before I was a punk – I was a nerd. So, these things have always fascinated me. The physics of sound and light and sound behavior in a room and the electronic behavior of a signal in a wire. All that stuff I find just profoundly fascinating. When we were building the studio, I had to read some acoustics and design literature. I found that stuff fascinating, as well. Learning what problems can be built-in into a room – if you’re building a recording space with specific dimensions and you’re not careful, you can build a problem into that room.
I wanted to avoid that kind of problem. So, I had to educate myself about construction materials, construction techniques, and architectural acoustics. I could not implement a lot of this stuff in the studio, but a lot of it ultimately saved us from having bad-sounding rooms and an uncomfortable listening environment. Like – we’re in the control room of studio “A” right now, at Electrical Audio, and some of the acoustic features in the studio were made out of necessity. Like: “Ok! When we’d build this room, we’re gonna have a geometric problem unless we do something to confront that geometric problem.”
We could build the solution to this geometric problem. One example – there’s a pillar behind me, and that pillar serves no architectural function, but on the symmetrical side of the room, there’s a pillar here, which is a structural pillar. This pillar is a part of a line of pillars that holds up the second floor of the building so, this pillar had to stay there. And if that pillar wouldn’t have stayed there, it would affect the stereo-image in a listening position if we only had one pillar. We had to put another symmetrical pillar on the other side, so the stereo-image in the control room would be consistent.
And in the same way that there are hard-surfaces on that side of the room, they are kept below ear level so, they don’t reflect sound in the listening position. And we have the same hard-surfaces on this side of the room, below ear level. So, if there’s a secondary effect – it’s gonna be symmetrical from the listening position. I made use of all this nerdy stuff while we were building the studio, but I would have been happy reading it for no reason other than because it was interesting.
Initially, you discovered punk-rock with The Ramones. Simultaneously, in the late ’70s, punk-rock became an explosion that opened the doors for people like you. Who wanted to explore punk by putting out a fanzine or a record label or recording some of these bands. Simultaneously, musically it didn’t last long, and those things were integrated into different musical tendencies. When was the moment when you understood that punk-rock is something beyond just the music?
SA: Well, initially, I was charmed by The Ramones, and I was interested in The Ramones to the exclusion of all other music. So, I started finding out what I could find out about The Ramones, and then, in the process, I stumbled across the greater punk and experimental music scene. Very quickly, I discovered a lot of radical thinking and radical experimentation in music. All of it seemed incredible to me. The first punk-record I bought was The Ramones album; the second punk-record I bought was another Ramones album. Then, shortly after that, I was buying records by Public Image Ltd and Tuxedomoon, Throbbing Gristle, and Cabaret Voltaire. Some of it was associated with punk, but some of it was just weird music, just weirdos making music contemporaneous with punk-music, and all of it was just incredibly stimulating to me.
When you listen to a record on headphones, you’re holding the record cover in your hands, and you are scanning through the credits to see if you could find things, and you see the same names appearing again and again. You’d see certain people would get thanked in the credits. And those people would be thanked in other records. Then you go to the record store, find the record you’ve never seen before, and they’re thanking this guy that’s associated with these other records that you really love. So that’s an excuse to buy the record. “Ok, maybe this is a part of the same scene!” – and the whole thing being done kind of blind its kind of doing the entire thing by brail. Because there was very little literature, very little information about a lot of this music, and I was kind in a remote place, I was in Missoula, Montana, which is not an urban center but it’s a college town and like any college-towns people come there from elsewhere.
And then, they sort of sluff off their belongings once they get there so people would show up in town, with their record-collections from wherever and then, they would sell their records when they needed weed-money or whatever. And then a second-hand record store would have these fantastic records in it! That was how I learned about music! That was my education in punk-music – the second-hand accumulation of the records other people didn’t want anymore.
Speaking about your remarkable drum-recording-technique, you said once that it happened to appear on some of the recordings you did because it suited the band – from an esthetical point of view. Simultaneously, there are many recordings where those aspects are really dictated by the way it’s recorded. When you listen to Red by King Crimson or Metal Box by PiL, hearing these aspects –guitar sound on the forefront or a bass-guitar- could sound differently in a live setting. When you are working on something, what usually defines the stresses you make on the recording?
SA: The very first step is to have a conversation with the band. You talk to the band about what music they like, what music they emulate, and some of their favorite records. “Ok, you came to the studio, and you chose me…What are you looking for? What are your expectations ?” and it sounds cold-blooded, but you have to take the temperature of everybody in the room and find out what they want. That’s the first part of the job to have a conversation with the band, find out what they like and what they don’t like and want to try. At the very beginning, it’s essential to give them agency, to provide them with power to dictate how they want their record done.
When I say like: “What kind of overall sound you imagine for the record? Can you name another record that’s an archetype for what you’re shooting for? Or do you have any examples you could play me? Of some of your favorite music, you think captures the sound of the band well.” – and if you start from a position of a listener: “I’m asking you to tell me what you want out of your record! And I’m listening! So I can execute it!” – then, from the very beginning, bands feel like they’re in control of their session.
From that point on, it becomes easier and more comfortable and easier for them. Because they see that they can say: “I would like some echo, please!” [snaps fingers]. And then I provide them with echo. Or – “That guitar sound doesn’t sound aggressive enough.” – “Ok, I’ll show you some other options!”. Whatever they’re looking for, my role is to make it happen. I try very hard not to say “No” and try very hard not to prejudice myself about what something should sound like.
Occasionally, I listen to something thinking: “Ok! That’s very satisfying sounding! I like that a lot!” and then, within the band, there would be an adverse reaction to it. It could be something about mix balance, like having a bass-guitar really prominent because it’s playing the riff that’s sort of driving the music or whatever. So that might suit me for the moment, but in the band, they may have had a whole conversation about: “Tony’s acting on the fucking bass again!” ( laughs ). That could be an entire thing!
So, it’s essential for me not to prejudice myself about what the music is supposed to sound like. The first part of the job is to ask that question: “What do you want ?”. It’s kind of like you to go to the barber, and you tell your barber how you want your hair to get cut. When you go to the barbershop, you sit down and say to the barber what kind of hair you want. You don’t sit down saying: “You know what? Whatever you like! Any color! Any side! Any shape! Go nuts!” that’s not just how people live their lives in any other way. I don’t see the reason to defeat the same kind of agency in the studio.
Some of the most notable works of yours were made in the late 80’s-early ’90s. The records most of the people know you for are any of The Jesus Lizard albums, or “Surfer Rosa” or “Rid Of Me” or “In Utero,” all of which reached a certain point of cultural significance. With “In Utero,” how do you feel when you still could make it culturally significant and important despite all the changes and all the problems you had to face during your work with this band?
SA: Well, it’s satisfying to work on something that has a long life-span and enriches many people’s lives. That’s really the only way I can describe it. I don’t feel the kind of pride that I would if it were my bands’ record because it’s not my music. Anytime you work on something that becomes historical, you feel fortunate to be a participant in a big moment. That’s true with a lot of the records you mention. Like: I happen to be the person working on a record, I’m not responsible for their greatness. The way I would describe it: Any attention I get for those great records is reflected light from the people who were at the core of that music, people whose music is what people are resonating with. And it’s not a small thing that I happen to begin my professional career during the period when many outstanding records were being made. In the circle of peers, my circle of friends – there were some of the brightest lights of that era -Some of the smartest best people just happen to have my phone number.
You’d started Big Black basically by yourself and ended up collaborating with different people. Santiago Durango, Jeff Pezzati, Dave Riley… While your lineup with Shellac hasn’t been changing since you got together for the first time. At that point, was it essential for you to have a specific type of organics within your colleagues?
SA: It sort of goes back to the conversation we had on minimalism or necessity. Once the three of us: me, Bob, and Todd were playing in Shellac – the band just felt complete. Before that, Todd Trainer and I had been playing…Just the two of us. We’ve been playing, writing some of these songs, and getting some of the band’s ideas together. And it seemed unsatisfying; it seemed incomplete. We never discussed it; we never said: “We should have a bass-player!” – between us, we realized that it felt slightly unfinished when there were just two of us working on it. And then we started playing with Bob – it was an instant decision. It wasn’t like we tried him out. It was more like we had a conversation with him and: “Oh, yeah! He’s definitely the right guy!”
And how much did your musical sensibility change at that point, after you’d already become an engineer and started exploring those things on a deeper level? How was it to form Shellac having that experience?
SA: The primary mindset I had when Shellac started was that I’d been in a band before that, that only lasted for about a year and broke up some kind of acrimoniously, but in a way, we felt we had a lot of business unfinished, and it felt like it was an unsatisfying way for a band to end. When Big Black ended, I felt like we had a good 4-5 years. As a band, we’d been all over the world; we’d put out a bunch of records. I felt we’d been a very productive band during our time together. I was super proud of how we behaved like a band and the music we made – I have no reservations about that or whatsoever.
When we decided to end, it was a conscious decision. “Ok! We’re gonna stop at this point! We’d do one more record and one more tour, and then we are done!” – and it was a satisfying way to end a band. The next band that I was in didn’t go so smoothly. It was slightly uncomfortable at every moment, and when it broke up, it felt like a failure. On a personal level, I did not want to become a kind of lifer in the music scene where you’re in a band – that band breaks up, you immediately start another band – that band goes for a bit, breaks up, start another band…Always sort of dabbling in things and not seriously committing to anything just bouncing from one project to another and not committing myself to anything and not taking myself any seriously at that, to that degree.
I didn’t want that to be my life, so; I made a conscious decision not to start another band until and unless the urge would kind of overwhelmed me. It took a couple of years before Todd and I started playing together. It seemed like it was worth pursuing as a band. Once we completed the band with Bob, I just remained satisfied with that band. There hasn’t been a moment of dissatisfaction within the band except for the last year where we haven’t been able to do anything because of the global pandemic. Everything about the band, everything about Shellac, has been extremely satisfying. We can go everywhere in the world and play whenever we want. We can record at will, and we can release records at will whenever we want to. There’s someone’s waiting who’ll put the record out for us. And all of that is very gratifying and very satisfying.
The process of work within Shellac is based on your joint efforts bringing different ideas together and mixing them. How can you describe your songwriting practices, and what defines these borders of compositional structures?
SA: I have to say – it’s completely unspoken! Within the band, we haven’t talked about why we’re making that kind of music we do. Some things feel complete after a minute and a half, and some things you want to luxuriate in them for a while. I honestly can’t articulate it from an academic standpoint. Even in a practical way, we make each decision by itself. Every change in a song, every decision about a song, we’d probably talked about that decision, and it probably came to the surface after many conversations, and then we settled on something. It’s not a case where somebody writes a song and says: “Ok! This is how the song goes! We do this; we do this, we do this! And then we do this, and that’s finished!” – we’ve never operated in that way. It’s always been songs written as a collaborative process through a rehearsal.
Somebody would come in with a germ of an idea. Like: “Ok! I have this riff!’ and then, maybe we can hook this riff up with this riff on to Bob’s riff from 7 years ago and try that in combination.” Or “Remember you had this idea on each of us playing one note and a riff, and eventually it synthesizes as a complete riff? Maybe we can try that ?” – these are all just experimental methods that we execute in a practice-room and from that emerges structure. And from that emerges all the decisions about the music. I wish I could say we could have some kind of name for the process or some kind of formal practice, but we just don’t. We get together when we can; we play what we can remember. Bob has some recordings of our previous rehearsals, and often, we’ll have fragmentary pieces of music recorded that we want to refer to. We go back to those and chase up some old ghosts and work on it for a while, but none of it is planned according to a program.
What helps you understand that the piece of music you’re working on started getting its own identity, becoming an actual song?
SA: It’s literally just we will play it, and somebody would say: “Yeah, that sounds good!” – and sometimes we’ll work on something, and one person would be really adamant about it: “Oh, yeah! That’s super-great! I really love that!” and the other two people would be like, “That’s nothing! That’s garbage! Fuck it!”. We always try to indulge this enthusiasm. My rule of thumb is if somebody is super-passionate in favor of something. That implies that there’s some kernel of greatness in there we should pursue, and that trumps any neutrality or minor neutrality. Like if I don’t like something because it reminds me of ska-music. Todd is into it because it excites him, then I’m happy to try to navigate to a point where it doesn’t have that connotation with me. I’m just fabricating stuff right now, just making it up to satisfy an example.
By the time you founded Shellac, different artists from the underground scene had got massive recognition. I’m not even talking about Nirvana. But The Jesus Lizard started getting recognized; Neurosis got clips broadcasted on TV. And festivals began bringing more and more underground bands – like Shellac. How did it feel when you started playing festivals after years of a purely underground experience?
SA: There was a cultural change in the world of festivals that was welcomed. We played a couple of festivals we were asked to play in the beginning, and the experience was not great. The way the people were treated, the way the audience was treated, wasn’t sympathetic. They were just kind of exploiting the audience. They weren’t providing them with a good experience – a place to stay, reasonable food options, that kind of stuff.
A festival seemed like a way to exploit people who’d put up with pretty terrible conditions to see music. So, we kind of flatly said: “We’re not playing festivals anymore. We tried it a couple of times – it was a shit-show, and we’re not playing any festivals”. Then, we got approached by All Tomorrow’s Parties about playing at the festival of theirs. We said: “Sorry, we don’t do festivals!” – and they said: “Well, this one is different! Look into it, see what we’re talking about, talk to some people who’d been to our festivals and get back to us!” – so we talked to some of the people who’d been to some of their festivals. And they said: “Yeah, they’re different! It’s curated. It’s not just a cattle-call for any kind of pop-music shit! You have someone who’s esthetically directing and curating the experience. Someone is vouching for all this music.”
The punters, the people who’re paying for everything, are treated better, get a place to stay, and the experience is more fraternal and more communal. Like you have bands and punters all staying at the same place, they all are mixing in a pub and on the street, and in the courtyard. It’s a much more social environment. It’s not some tents in a field, and then musicians are staying in a five-star hotel in town. It’s not that kind of divided experience. It’s a more familiar experience so; we tried that. We played one of the first ATP festivals, and it was better! It was different! The music was better, and the way people were treated was better – everything about it was better.
By doing things that way, All Tomorrow’s Parties changed the festival-game because their festivals were big and successful by using this model; other festivals started following it soon. So, you began to have these more curated festivals where instead of being a random sort of acts, you’d have one person or a couple of people choosing their favorite music to present to people, and that’s a much better program because everything that happens on stage is something, someone is personally vouching for. Like: “I’m the guy that chose this band! I think they’re great, and this is why…” – so that’s a better experience.
Just this sort of communal or social aspect of it was much, much better. From then, we started playing more of these curated festivals, and now, there are some, even relatively large, festivals that I think are quite nice, and the punters are treated well. There are suitable housing and food options for everybody, and there’s a less exploitive mentality.
There’re some shitty ones as well! Like there are some festivals where you’re not allowed to bring in a bottle of water. You have to buy this 6-dollar bottle of water from the vendor – that sort of shit is just ridiculous. Some festivals operate that way, and we won’t work with those people; we won’t play at those festivals. But the festivals that run on a more collaborative model where there’s a better framework to people who’re coming to have a good experience, curated festivals where the audience is well taken care of – we’d consider playing those festivals. Some of the people working on these larger festivals are veterans of this underground punk-scene you’re describing. They appreciate these models of efficiency, social, and care-taking aspect of their job, and I think that’s been a good influence. The underground punk-scene has been a good influence on the music scene as a whole.
The Problem With The Music was written more than 20 years ago. Lots of things have changed. At the same time, just like back in the days, we have indie-labels. As a certain organized structure opposed to major-labels within their bureaucracy. But everybody could hire a manager, a publicist, having some sort of label-type-of-backing and pressing vinyl with their own money. How do you think there’s still a place for such type of organization as indie-labels?
SA: Oh, absolutely! Now, if you’d look at the entirety of the underground and independent music scene, the record labels who wanted to operate on a corporate model – they either sold out and became a part of a larger corporate label, or they realized they weren’t capable of it and they disappeared. The labels that have survived are the ones that have a deep connection to the music scene on social, personal, and artistic levels.
You have labels like Thrill Jockey and Touch And Go and Drag City – just to name some labels from Chicago, they have long-term relationships with their bands. They have esthetic consistency, which means that they have an audience that they’re serving. It’s a niche market for specialty music serving the audience that’s eager to support it. What doesn’t happen – you don’t just have a general record-label. Like the old major-labels when they’d put out classical music, and they’d have a pop-division, and they’d have a dance-division that doesn’t exist anymore. Or if it exists, it exists in one or two major-corporations that are still making records. So, the record-labels that have survived are the ones who’re doing something particular. They’re dealing with a core group of people on an artistic level, which translates to a core-audience on a support level. So, you have these specialty labels that become kind of trustworthy for their audience – I think it’s a great thing.
How much has multitrack recording changed the architecture of a recording process for you?
SA: Well, simultaneous with working at my home studio, I worked in professional studios. Working in a multitrack environment was nothing new to me. There has been an explosion of multi-tracking in the digital era wherein you’d typically have a 24-track machine as the largest machines you’d see in an analog session. The session would be 24-tracks or fewer, but in a digital environment, people have literally infinite tracks available. I rarely work on a session that involves any digital stuff or whatsoever. All my sessions are analog sessions from beginning to end, but I’m asked to work on something that started as a digital project elsewhere once in a while. And so, I will have to organize a digital session to translate it into an analog environment.
In those situations, you sometimes have just a lot of duplication and unnecessary information just because there are no limitations. So instead of having one master-tape for a guitar solo, you might have 30 options for the guitar solo, and the decision on which guitar solo you’re using hasn’t been done yet. That’s just one dilemma you can have in that environment, in that setting, or it’s a very similar thing that can happen with vocals.
Someone would do 10 or 12 vocal performances to edit together the master-tape with all the parts they like, but there’s a kind of safety in keeping all these original performances. Whereas in the analog domain, if you did something like that – you would make a composite master vocal take and then erase the source material so you could use those tracks for something else. So, it’s a different series of problems I’m confronting now because the digital sessions are organized to make maximum use of the computer. The analog sessions have to be organized to make maximum use of the limited resource of analog tape-space.
At the beginning of your career, you used to work closely with Ian Burgess – the engineer on some of the Big Black recordings. Lots of people notice that to a point, you used to be Ian’s pupil. What did you learn from him?
SA: Ian had a really collaborative attitude. I had seen some other engineers who’d be kind of resistant to the ideas from the band. Like the engineer would sort of feel he had everything under control. If the band was making suggestions about the sound, the engineer would feel slightly offended or defensive about something and say “No!” sometimes. Ian was absolutely not like that.
You come up with the craziest idea, and he’d be: “Right! Let’s go do it!” An example that Jeff Pezzati gave me when he described Ian as a joke he said they wanted to take an amplifier and put it in an aquarium and fill the aquarium with marbles and then mic the amplifier with the marbles surrounding it. Ian didn’t say “No!” – his first question was: “Do you know where we can get an aquarium?” – he’d instantly start working on whatever crazy idea you had, and he was happy to try it out – that influenced me tremendously. Also, he had tremendous enthusiasm for the band. When he was working on a record, it was very easy to mistake him for one of the band-members – he behaved and acted like he was in the band. This was his project, and he was super-proud of it.
He was working almost in a way a band adopted him as another member, and I’m incapable of doing that, but I admired that in him. It seemed like a very generous way to approach the music. Just as soon as you’re in the studio with the band, that band is the best in the world, and every single thing they do is fantastic! That’s kind of a buoyancy that I could never muster, but it was great to see.
For some artists, songwriting and composing is a permanent activity – like when you have a day-job or any daily routine. So being in this recording process most of your time, what drives you to get back and start writing the newest Shellac material?
SA: My relationship with my band has always been like a hobby or a past time. So, before I worked as a recording engineer, I had other jobs, and while I was doing those other jobs, in the back of my mind, I would have some idea for the band, something that I wanted to do musically and then in my free time, I would work on these ideas. It’s precisely the same now! My creative mind is always boiling things over in the background while I’m doing the other stuff. I can be in the middle of doing some totally mundane task, and while I’m doing this mundane task somewhere off in the back of my mind, wheels are turning that are working on some project the band has got planned.
Just the other day, I saw something on the street I wanted to take a picture of because I thought: “Yeah, that would be the great art-element for a Shellac-record! It would be nice to be able to put that in one of our packages.” – I missed it! I didn’t have my camera so I couldn’t take a picture of it at the moment. Little things happen all the time that are part of my relationship with the band. It doesn’t require any formal structure – It’s just always going. There’s always something ticking over in the back of my head about what kind of music we’re trying to make, what kind of statement we’re trying to make, what kind of image we’re trying to create.
There was one of your shows; I used to see. It was probably in Spain. You were playing just in front of the audience. Literally face to face, and the kids were accompanying Todd playing the drums, making it not only a gig but the whole collaborative experience for both listeners and you, as members of Shellac. What do you feel in such moments?
SA: One of the things that most excited me about the punk-scene and the underground music scene was that you would see the same hundred people at every show. Like, at one show, these four people would be on stage playing in a band. At the next show, these four people would be in the crowd with you, watching four other people from the crowd on stage.
At the next show, one of those four guys might be the guy handing out flyers for another gig in front of the show. And one of these four guys would be the guy taking the dollar at the front-door – cover charge. I was really animated by the idea that everybody was working on the same project. Like: “WE ALL ARE DOING THIS THING!” – it’s not like there are ten bands in competition with each other to try to become a successful band. These are a hundred people who all wanted the awesome things to happen. So they all are willing to do anything. Everybody was up for whatever’s necessary: “You need an artwork for your record ? – I can do this! I can do the artwork!” or “You need to borrow the bass-amplifier ? Let me call a friend of mine! He has a bass-amplifier you can borrow!”.
One perfect example was the band – Naked Raygun in Chicago. They were one of the earliest punk-bands; they were very inspirational for me. And the band all lived in this small-house behind another house – it’s called “coach house” in Chicago. A hundred years ago, there used to be servants living in a small coach house, behind the big stately homes where the rich people lived. So Naked Raygun lived in this little coach house. And that little coach house had a basement. So, they set up a practice space in the basement of that coach house.
For five or six years, they lived in that coach house – every band in Chicago would practice in the basement of Naked Raygun’s coach house ( laughter )! They had a schedule, a calendar up on a refrigerator. It was like: “Ok! Rights Of The Accused is practicing on Monday; Big Black is practicing on Tuesday. And Naked Raygun is practicing on Wednesday and Thursday.” – the idea wasn’t that they have a practice-space for their band.
The idea was that all of us now have a practice space in the basement of our house. And I love that relationship, feeling: “We all at the same gig!” – it’s not like my band is performing for an audience. It’s all of us, all couple of hundreds of us, we are all here in the same room, all having the same gig. That’s the feeling I strive for, that’s the feeling that animates me, that makes me want to keep doing it is this direct connection with all of these people, and we all are here for the same reason. It’s not like, “I’m here to make money from you by having you look at me, doing a funny dance.” That’s not a relationship. The relationship is, “All of us are here because we all want the awesome gig to happen!”