Steve Albini: “I realised that other people’s opinions of me had no power over me… I still don’t give a sh*t if I get judged”
On the night before Nirvana were due to begin recording their third album, In Utero, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl received an intriguing proposition. Chosen to record what was arguably the most anticipated rock album of the decade because of his sterling work with The Breeders, Jesus Lizard, Pixies and more, Steve Albini offered to work on the album for free if any one of the trio beat him in a game of pool. If Steve won, however, Nirvana would have to double his fee.
“We were paying him $100,000,” Dave Grohl later recalled. “Anyone who’s got the stones to gamble something that large must be amazing, so everyone said no. Plus he had his own stick. We didn’t want to fuck around with that.”
Steve laughs when the story is brought up now.
“I did that with every band I worked with, and no-one ever took me up on the offer,” he reveals. “It’s not like I’m a particularly good pool player, but I have an equal chance of winning in a fair game. Ultimately, it wasn’t going to make that much difference to my life if I got double the money for the session or worked for free. But I guess Nirvana were a little more risk-averse than I was.”
The anecdote speaks to the 59-year-old’s reputation as a fearless, unconventional maverick within the music industry. Even before he started Big Black, the fiercely independent, punishingly aggressive punk rock trio which brought him global recognition in the underground alternative music community, Steve’s name was already synonymous with uncompromised integrity and brutal honesty, due to his work as a fanzine writer, college DJ and punk rock promoter. In laying out Big Black’s modus operandi in the liner notes to their posthumous live album Pigpile – “Avoid people who appeal to our vanity or ambition (they always have an angle). Operate as much as possible apart from the ‘music scene’. Take no shit from anyone in the process” – Steve shed light upon the unyielding moral principles which have informed his life’s work across four decades, both as a hugely influential musician, with Big Black, the controversial Rapeman, and his current collective Shellac, and as a highly-regarded studio technician, whose CV includes high-profile recordings with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, PJ Harvey, Iggy & The Stooges, Bush, Manic Street Preachers and literally hundreds of punk bands. Speaking today from his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, Steve is in typically no-nonsense form…
Before punk rock entered your life, what music were you listening to?
“I was very young, so I didn’t have that much interest in music. My folks had a record collection that was mainly singer-songwriters from the folk revival of the 1960s, so people such as Pete Seeger and The Weavers and a singer called Hedy West who my mom was friends with, plus Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. My brother had a typical male adolescent record collection – Alice Cooper, The Who – and when he left for college I inherited those, but I didn’t really listen to music much until I started getting obsessive about punk.”
The Ramones provided your punk rock epiphany, didn’t they?
“Yeah, they were a real catalyst for me. I didn’t know anything about music except what leaked out of the popular consciousness, so when this band appeared, fully-formed, that played directly into the obsessions of me and my dorky friends – horror films and trash culture, general adolescent misbehaviour and transgressive thoughts – I took to them like a fish to water. It was inescapable that this would be the band and the scene for me. Rock music at the time had a lot of pageantry and pomp attached, and a lot of it struck me as affected nonsense. Then the Ramones appeared, dressed like me and my friends, with no robes or smoke machines, and that seemed so much more powerful.”
Do you remember your first time performing on a stage?
“As soon as I got into punk, I put a band together with my friends. We played some house parties, and did one show at a club, and one show at a high school. They were, predictably, all disastrous. But one thing that I discovered that I think is unusual is that I had no stage anxiety. Coincidentally, around the same time I also realised that other people’s opinions of me had no power over me. As long as what I was doing was honourable in my own mind, then I could do it comfortably, and if other people didn’t get it or didn’t agree with it, that was okay – that didn’t have any effect on me. That’s carried through to this day, because I still don’t give a shit if I get judged.”
You started Big Black as a one-man bedroom project while studying at university. You once claimed that this was because you couldn’t find like-minded musicians “who didn’t blow out of a pig’s asshole”…
“(Laughs) Yeah, plus I was impatient. I’d played in a couple of other bands, but I was only somewhat satisfied with that level of participation, and I wanted to have a band that had its own unique set of ideas. I made a demo tape that was just me and a drum machine, and circulated that, and it didn’t get a lot of interest, but when I pressed it up as a record [1982’s Lungs EP] it became a successful calling card, and I was able to put the band together. It was a genuine collaborative band from that point on.”
Given that you were at college, was Big Black quite a part-time concern initially?
“Making music in a band is still a part-time thing for me. My occupation now is as an engineer working on other people’s records, and operating a recording studio, but I devote as much spare time as I have to the band I’m in, and it was the same back then. I’d either be working with my band, or acting as a local promoter putting shows on, or I’d be contributing to fanzines, or doing artwork and illustrations for my friends. I’m not trying to say I was some incredible polymath, that’s just the way that everyone behaved in the scene at that time. None of the people I met in the music scene in Chicago had any aspirations of being professional musicians. Every one of them was involved in music because we were fans, and we wanted our scene to be incredible. I had no ambitions to be a mogul, I didn’t ever imagine that music could be a career. Many years later, when I did start to meet people with ambitions towards careers in music, it was clear that they were awful people. Their mercenary approach to music was corrupting, and they usually made terrible music.”
There’s a romanticism now attached to the U.S. underground music scene of the 1980s, particularly since the publication of Michael Azerrad’s classic text Our Band Could Be Your Life. As a key participant in that community, is it a time you look back on fondly?
“I do, actually. I think everyone looks back fondly on the period where they formed their identity, and that’s definitely when I developed my notion of self. But I also think that was a genuinely unique and productive period for music. A lot of amazing music was made then by people I consider friends and peers, and until Michael Azerrad’s book came out, a lot of it was undocumented. What all those bands took from punk rock was the idea that you didn’t have to play in a pre-ordained style, the fundamental take-away for us was that we were fucking freaks and we could revel in that. Every town had its own group of weirdos, and every group of weirdos was different, and that was the most invigorating thing to me.”
As a fanzine writer, you had a reputation as a scathing critic. Did that ever earn you a slap in the mouth when you toured with Big Black and met people whose records you’d crucified?
“(Laughs) Well, I think everybody had fairly tough skin at that point. The first review of a Big Black record, by a guy called Steve Bjorklund, was hateful, and he later became a good friend of mine. In our community we all recognised that everyone would be throwing elbows, but the rationale behind it was that we all wanted everything to be awesome. If someone was doing something terrible, you had to tell them. Not that we ever listened to what anyone told us, regardless of how much they hated us.”
What ultimately brought Big Black to a halt?
“Our guitar player Santiago [Durango] wanted to go to law school. He was a hero of mine. He was in Naked Raygun when I started out, and they were my favourite band. I considered him indispensable in Big Black, so I couldn’t imagine carrying on without him. After we made that decision, it became clear that it was the right time to quit, because we started to see all these meatheads latching onto the band. Also there were people who’d adopted a superficial appreciation of Big Black as a hallmark of their cleverness, and they were precisely the kind of people we hoped would never like our band. We wanted to remain forever alien to the cognoscenti.”
Your next band, Rapeman, attracted a different type of attention, largely based on the name…
“Yes, and a lot of that at the time I bristled at. The name of the band was obviously an inexcusable, indefensible mistake, but at the time I was deaf to those criticisms. There’s nothing I can do to make up for that former perspective that I had, other than to say that I was wrong. I was in a privileged position in that I was a dude surrounded by other dudes who were keen to encourage each other to do transgressive things, and it seemed like there was a boundary that people would not go beyond, and I decided to go beyond that. Apart from the name of the band, I’m quite proud of everything that Rapeman did. We made good music and we operated in a way that was fair and generous to everyone we dealt with, but I regret choosing that name.”
Between Rapeman’s dissolution in 1989 and the formation of Shellac in 1992, you recorded albums for the likes of Jesus Lizard, The Breeders, Tad, The Wedding Present and more. Was that a deliberate attempt to step away from the spotlight, such as it was at the time?
“Well, I still had a straight job at that point, but I’d been recording my friends’ bands since I was a teenager, and I could see that I had enough recording work on my calendar to support myself for the next six months, so I thought I’d give up my job and give it a shot. I didn’t see myself as a producer like Phil Spector or Quincy Jones, but I picked the brains of people like Iain Burgess and John Loder, who were generous with their time and advice. The whole time
I thought I might need to go back to my old job, or find another one, but here we are, 30 years later.”
Working with Nirvana, did Kurt Cobain seem like a special talent?
“Well, I didn’t try to become a bosom buddy of his, because I knew that everyone around him was trying to weasel their way into his world parasitically, and I wanted him to know that he didn’t have to worry about that with me. So I never pressed him for any personal intimacy. But I got to see him at work, and I saw that he was extremely serious about his music, and his passion was genuine. I think that’s what people responded to, because he had a distinctive voice. I grew to respect him as an artist and as a person.”
The fall-out over the recording of In Utero – with R.E.M. producer Scott Litt controversially drafted in to sweeten Steve’s typically abrasive mix – saw you demonised somewhat by the corporate record industry…
“There was a backlash for sure after the publicity around that record. I was persona non grata with the big record labels, and I had a rough financial year after the release of that record, because my work with artists on those labels all dried up. But I reverted to working with underground bands.”
These days you could hardly be more in demand as a recording engineer. So what’s the compulsion to keep making your own music with Shellac?
“Exactly the same as it was when I was a teenager. I’m super into playing with Bob [Weston, bass] and Todd [Trainer, drums]. I love travelling, playing shows, writing songs and making records. That’s the most satisfying thing that I get to do as a creative outlet. I do it in the margins of my life, but I would miss it tremendously if I didn’t get to.”
If punk rock had a democratising effect on music, with artists seizing the means of production, do you see the digital revolution in music as a somewhat analogous situation?
“It’s not really analogous, because everything we were doing in punk was combatting the insular nature of the industry as a whole. The regular record business made sure that people like us never got a look in, so we weren’t trying to make a parallel universe. We were trying to make those kind of obstacles irrelevant, to operate as if they had no control over us. If you’re a brilliant artist who makes music in your basement now, you can find an audience, and I can’t see that as anything but a good thing. I know it’s been destructive to the record business, and it’s had a catastrophic effect on recording studios, but I can’t form an opinion of the technological advances which doesn’t include it being awesome in some ways. We struggled against barriers for so long, that it seems petty to complain about the lack of barriers now.”
You have a reputation as a thorn in the side of the mainstream music industry, and yet the way you operate is fair and moral, what with your affordability and refusal to take royalty points on albums you record…
“I think that reputation is partly because people ascribe judgements to me that I’m not making. I can be critical of the system of the music industry without being critical of artists who finds themselves entrapped in it. My sympathy is always with the artist. But I don’t get a say in what other people think of me. I’m comfortable with that.”
Away from music, you have a formidable reputation as a poker player. What buzz do you get out of that?
“I play poker for money. It’s a fascinating game, and it stimulates my brain, but if I didn’t make money from it, I wouldn’t do it. It’s become a significant part of my income, and I rely on it as part of my livelihood. I don’t do it for amusement.”
It’s been five years since the last Shellac album, 2014’s Dude Incredible. Is there any hint of new music?
“We’ve been recording, off and on. We work at a slow pace, but we’re still plugging away and there will be new music eventually.”
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