Looking at Steve Albini’s resume as a recording engineer isn’t just impressive. It’s intimidating. It isn’t so much that Albini’s Electrial Audio studios in Chicago has been home to a staggering number of recordings as it is the fact that the quality of those bands and artists is damn near untouchable. In addition to his engineering work, Albini’s role as guitarist/vocalist for Shellac, whose six full-length Dude Incredible is set to be released next month, is as vital a component to his creative perspective as anything else. While the clout that inherently comes along with Albini’s history both as a recording engineer and as a musician is undeniable, the man himself is as removed from the adornment that might naturally come along with such a track record as he is during the recording process itself. It’s a point of distinction for Albini and one that’s immediately apparent in talking to him. For all the sound bytes and abrasive notoriety we’re provided in the way of a media caricature, Albini’s perspective is daringly simple and exacting: respect the music and respect the people who make it. SfB recently spoke with Albini about his career, the new Shellac album, and more in this special feature interview.
You’ve got the upcoming Shellac album, Dude Incredible, set to be released next month, Steve. Looking at the amount of work you do in the studio both as an engineer and as a musician, do you ever see those roles or perspectives intersect from a creative standpoint?
Well, being an engineer is in almost every respect completely different from being a musician in the same studio working on your own music. When I’m working for another band as an engineer, I’m 100% responsible to them and making them satisfied with their music, so my tastes and my expectations don’t really enter into it very much. Left to my own devices, there may be some things that I will do as a sort of a standard practice just to get in the ballpark, but any significant decision – the responsibility is the band’s. Everything from how loud should the bass guitar be to “should we do another take” to “should I double the vocals.” Whatever it is. It doesn’t matter what the decision is.
Whatever the production decision is or whatever the musical decision is, that’s their responsibility, and my job purely is to facilitate. Now, there is an element of creativity in the sense of problem-solving where someone says “Well, I don’t like the way this sounds for this reason,” and I have to try to figure out a way to solve that problem, but it’s not a creative enterprise, largely. It’s technical. It has to do mainly with managing resources like time and money, the studio resources, physically setting things up so everybody can see each other, making sure there’s open lines of communications, making sure the headphones don’t crap out. It’s a million little chores that all are being done in service of letting the band get on with their business.
When I’m in the studio, and I’m working on something as part of a band, as part of Shellac, for us it’s a purely creative exercise. I tend not to worry about any of the technical aspects like whether there’s distortion or what the relative levels of signals are or anything like that. We try to get that stuff set up at the beginning of session so everything is working correctly, and then we can just play like normal. Being in a band is a completely different frame of mind from being in the chair as an engineer, because when I’m in the band I feel like whatever I wanna do, I get to do. Whereas whenever I’m working for another band as an engineer, I feel like my desires at the moment and my tastes and my expectations don’t really mean that much.
They might be one data point on a plot of where the record is going, but it’s totally overwhelmed by the mean of the curve which is what the band as a group wanna get done. Having said that, I feel a degree of complete freedom when I’m in the band when we’re working on something.A long time ago when Shellac started we kind of set ourselves up with some core operating principles that we’ve clung to. Not strictly, because we’re interested in following rules as it were, but because those seemed like the things that we wanted to explore in-depth within the band. If I had to enumerate them those would be: simplicity of practice, minimalism in terms of composition and arrangement and the structure of the band, and we were committing to each other, the three of us in the band, in a way that allowed any of the three of us basically to do anything and the other two would go with it.
Is that sense of removal from an engineering standpoint something you see as a rarity with how music at large is produced today?
It’s hard to know because I’m not in the studio when all those other records are being made. It’s hard to know what conversations are had and what creative decisions are being made, but if you just listen to the results, you can kind of deduce that the production aesthetic on most records is not based on any kind of a naturalistic approach. It’s not based on a realistic or on a non-invasive kind of representation. You hear a lot of music where every element seems to have been individually, specifically synthesized and then assembled together into a pastiche, and I’m not just talking about pop music here, although pop music is by far the most obvious example. Hip-hop and pop and R&B music – that’s where this aesthetic is plainly obvious, but it does seem like that is the case where even hard rock records and heavy metal records, there’s a kind of abstraction that’s presumed when a band goes into a studio.
To me, that is indicative of some kind of interference being run on the part of the engineer or the producer in the studio. If you go see a show, there’s an organic sound to any rock band. There’s a really interesting quote from Brian Eno from maybe twenty, thirty years ago where he said you can play orchestral recordings from different orchestras around the world, and you wouldn’t be able to identify which is which, or you could play instrumental jazz from combos of many different eras, and you wouldn’t necessarily be able to identify who was playing just from the sound of their music, just the tonal character of the music, but you could play thirty seconds of a Led Zeppelin song or thirty seconds of an AC/DC song or the Rolling Stones or any one of a hundred bands, just a very brief second, and sometimes it only takes a second or two, but you could instantly tell who you were listening to. Even if it’s a piece of music you’ve never heard before, you can identify the character of the band in the sound that that band organically makes.
So, for my money, that’s the whole show. That’s the business for a rock band is their distinctive fingerprint. I’m not interested in manipulating that. I’m not interested in taking that away from them. I want them to own that. In the same way that you can listen to a few seconds of Kraftwerk and know that you’re listening to Kraftwerk, I want whatever Jimmy and the Fucksticks or whoever it is in the studio right now, I want someone who wants to know what Jimmy and the Fucksticks sound like to be able to listen to their record and to be able to tell what they sound like. My perspective is one that sort of comes from a naturalistic representation of something that does exist that is the organic sound of the band. That does exist, and you can demonstrate that pretty easily by doing experiments like we’ve described.
So when I hear contemporary record production where the drumming has all been quantized and the pitch has been corrected where instead of having a singer you have thirty layers of abstracted vocals sounds that are a simulacrum of a singing presence, and instead of having a rhythm section you have a bunch of mechanical stuff with signifiers of a rhythm section in it, I feel like I’m being prevented from hearing something. I feel like I’m being held at arm’s length from what the band is actually on about, and that, to me, as a listener I find that frustrating. Now, there is every possibility that in some of these cases someone in the band said to the producer or the engineer: “I got in this band by accident, and I hate our music. Can you completely change it for me?” [Laughs] It’s conceivable that that happens, but the chances are that that isn’t true for every single band and every single record.
I feel like that kind of super abstracted fabricated sound, I feel like that should be rare. If you respect the social organization of a band and the value of the band as an entity, then fabricating something to replace the organic sound of the band, to me, seems insulting. It seems like you’re being insulting toward that band when you do that. When you say “Your actual drummer is not good enough, and I know because I’m a professional. Now here, let me replace him with this computerized version of your drummer.” Or when someone says “I realize that you’ve been playing out of that amplifier for ten years, and it’s integral to the way you play and what you sound like, but I have a plug-in that can do that and more.” That sort of thing grates at me as a listener when I feel like I’m not getting a chance to hear the record or the band whose record I bought.
I mean, their name is on the cover, and I’m being prevented from hearing that. Part of where my reservation to use heavy-handed production techniques comes from is a pure respect for the band as a social entity, and I give them credit for making decisions along the way that are as important to them as the decisions my band makes. Like I said, a long time ago we established some core ideas that we wanted to commit to and keeping current with those ideas has been rather important to us as a band. I think other bands are probably making decisions like that which are as important to them, and so I would like to respect them. There are certain ideas that seem really strong, and we expressed those as part of our identity, and so we wanna explore those ideas in detail and in-depth.
I’m very interested in seeing what the range of possibilities of three people with three instruments is. I don’t feel limited by not having another guitar player or an orchestra or a bugle or something. The three of us have a lot at our disposal with our three instruments. Let’s see how much we can get out of these three instruments. In a compositional sense, a lot of the time we will spend our energy removing parts of our music until we get the thing boiled down to that part of it that’s most important to us. Once we’ve identified that, it allows us to not lose that important part regardless of however else the idea might mutate. And that’s the way I would express it. Certain ideas just resonate with us really strongly, and we have committed to them in the same way you would commit to a relationship or to a job or to anything that is part of your identity like “I am this person. I wake up in the morning, and I do this thing because that’s what I wanna do with my life. I’m committed to that as a career.” It’s not just a routine, but it becomes a routine because you’ve committed to it.
What do you see as the kind of initial catalyst for you to have that perspective on your work both as an engineer and as a musician where the common thread is respect? Was it a resistance in a way to what you’d experienced yourself?
I know for a fact that my method as an engineer is informed by my experiences as a musician and my experiences watching my friends in studio sessions where their engineers were dismissive of them or their ideas or their identity and thought they had it figured it out. I saw that in action and it bothered me, and I sort of committed to not do that to other people. So that’s definitely true. I saw other engineers behaving in a way that was not respectful to the band and their identity, and I bristled at it, and I didn’t wanna behave that way. That’s part of it. Then as a musician, as a band member, as a fan of music, I was aware of a tendency among musicians that once they got to a certain degree of competence they’d try to force eclecticism on themselves where once they became competent playing in one style of music, they would move on to something else and try to get more merit badges.
“Yes, now I can paly this African drumbeat,” or “Yes, now I can play this diminished chord,” or “Yes, now I can sing this close harmony,” or whatever. This sort of grabbing at ornamental elements or signifiers and incorporating them into a style as a way of validating themselves as musicians, I saw that as a pretty common mode of behavior. That seemed to me to be less satisfying, or seemed like it must be less satisfying than putting a stake in the ground and saying “I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna burrow into this with all of my energy and get as deep into this as I possibly can.” I feel like exhausting something in that way is difficult, whereas it’s relatively easy to become superficially proficient at a lot of things.
I have a friend who, as sort of a party piece, he has the orchestral backing for the tenor solo “Nessun Dorma”. He has it on his iPhone, and he can play the music off his phone, and he can do a credible impression of an operatic tenor because he’s grasped the little signifying traits of that particular solo, and he can execute those little signifiers. Now, if he were to try to sing a repertoire as a tenor, he would fail miserably. But that one piece he can knock that out. I feel like people have that degree of facility with a lot of different styles of music or a lot of different elements of music. To me it’s all exactly the same as that party piece that my friend can execute. He does it knowingly. He knows that it’s comic when he does it, but it seems like that’s very much part of the identity for a lot of musicians is to be able to do things that sort of validate them by being accomplishments like “I can play this complicated time signature” or “I can play this solo that we all know note-for-note.” Things like that. You could call them merit badge moments, and I’m just not interested in that. I wanna cling to the small number of ideas that my band has identified with for itself, and I wanna worry those ideas to pieces like the way a dog will chew a bone down to dust.
Is the social media age or the sense of immediacy that’s come along with it something you see as partially culpable for that creative superficiality?
Sort of. I have a very specific context for the Internet. I remember when the Internet was purely academic. Like literally nobody but professors used email. [Laughs] Then when the sort of nerdier elements of culture started grabbing onto things like message boards and mailing lists and things like that, I saw it grow as a tool for sharing mania, sharing enthusiasm. So I tend to view Internet interactions as being more legitimate and being more representative of a genuine mania or a genuine enthusiasm for something than a lot of people do. A lot of people are quite cynical about the superficial aspect of the Internet and how it allows you to click on something, fail to grasp it, but have seen it.
That’s kind of the way that most people deal with stuff on the Internet. They see something, it registers on a superficial level, they don’t grasp it, but they have seen it. But I’ve seen more utility of the Internet culture as a means of people driving their very specific interests and satisfying their very specific interests. You can understand that somebody might find a tune or a song that they like by an artist from some obscure idiom that they’ve never been exposed to, and then they go down a YouTube rabbit hole, and over the course of an evening they give themselves an introductory education in an entire style of music or a culture or an ethnicity that they would have previously never been exposed to. I feel like that’s great. I feel like that gives people a shot at expanding themselves at growing and learning that didn’t exist before.
I grew up in a small town. I grew up in Missoula, Montana, so the number of people that were into music at all was relatively small, and those that shared my tastes in music were vanishingly small. So you really did have to have somebody who would stumble onto something and then turn you onto it in turn in order to find out about something new, and whenever you found out about something new, the first thing that you’d do would be to alert your like-minded friends about it. The Internet allows that to happen instantly and globally, which means there’s probably some kid in Kuala Lumpur who is right now finding out about the Studio One Jamaica records or the Boston Hardcore scene or something like that, so there’s no shortage of opportunities for people to discover shit that they would never have run into previously, and I think that’s great.
The thing that I really think is a misrepresentation of the Internet is I’ve heard people complain about people being on their iPhones or wrapped up in the Internet or whatever and suggesting that that is taking them out of society in a way or taking them away from real interaction, but the thing is when people are on their iPhone or interacting with other people on the Internet, they’re not avoiding real interaction. They are interacting with people. They’re using the Internet as the conduit to have a real interaction with a real person. It’s not being done face-to-face and that seems offensive to some people. I’ve just seen so much more value in those kinds of interactions than I have drawbacks.
That’s definitely not a popular notion at least from the perspective of many in the music industry.
Yeah, there’s a thing now where people who used to make a living in music are now bitchy about how the Internet has taken away their living or whatever. I just don’t think anybody necessarily has an organic right to make a living doing something like music. That’s gonna be a rare thing for somebody to have enough of an audience where making music is gonna be a principle pastime or a principle occupation.
Looking at the artists and bands you’ve worked with, there’s definitely a common thread in the sense that so many of them have been gamechangers for music in one way or another, with the most obvious example being Nirvana. Do you see music and the music culture now being just as conducive for the kind of paradigm shift we saw in the early 90s or is it simply too homogenized at this point?
The thing is there’s always been shitty music. There was bubblegum music in the 60s right alongside the psychedelic and hard rock music of the time. There’s always bullshit music, and there’s always a subculture of strong-headed musicians that want to make music of substance, and I don’t think that there’s anything special about any particular era that makes it more pure in a sense. I was around during a very creative period in the 80s, and that’s a poorly documented and poorly understood musical era. I feel like the 80s are poorly represented in popular culture as being all about Prince and Madonna and shit like that, the sort of pop music of the era, when the underground music of the era, to me, was epochal.
Bands like Killdozer and Sonic Youth and Swans, The Birthday Party, and other bands of the 80s that were really breaking the mold for what being in a band was like, I feel like a lot of that music was and is overlooked. It seems like whenever there’s a discussion of popular music it goes from the Beatles to psychedelia to punk rock to Nirvana. And there’s this fifteen year period there where there was an awful lot of creative invention, and it doesn’t really get talked about that much. Having lived through that and seeing how inventive people could be, left to their own devices, I feel like that could be possible in any era. Every now and again, I stumble across a band that blows my mind now, and it could even be older musicians who have taken on a contemporary inspiration, but I think there’s no reason why this current era should be any less productive than any other era in music.
What part of that process or part of that history as an engineer so far do you find yourself placing the most value on just in retrospect?
The fact that I’ve been able to work on so many awesome bands’ records is really all down to them deigning to work with me, so I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my client list in that I’ve gotten to work with some absolutely astonishing musicians. I don’t mean musicians like dudes who can play. I mean I’ve gotten to work on people whose music and cultural significance is remarkable, and I don’t take that for granted. I know that that comes as a gift from them to me. The fact that you are aware of me as an engineer is down to the quality of the people that I have been able to work with as clients. I’m humbled by it. A band like Neurosis that I’ve made half a dozen records with, they’re a completely established identity, and the fact that they’ve come back to me again and again, and we’ve established a working relationship and a friendship – that’s more rewarding to me than having made a decent record or two with them.
The records? Yes, I’m glad we made the records. I’m more glad that we remained friends, and that our relationship has survived a long enough time for that friendship to be meaningful to both of us. I guess what I feel more than anything else about my relationship with all of these bands is gratitude. I feel like they have enabled me to have a career, and they have gratified me with their friendship and their patronage. There’s a kind of dirty secret about this business of being a recording engineer or running a studio, and basically that is that everybody feels like he’s a fraud. Everybody feels like he’s still figuring it out and doesn’t really deserve to be making a living at it. [Laughs] And I feel that way sometimes even still. I’ve been doing it for thirty fucking years now, and I still every now and again think that sooner or later somebody’s gonna find out. They’re gonna catch on, they’re gonna figure me out, and figure out that I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. When I get to work on quality records with bands that I admire and respect, I feel like I’ve staved that off for another day. That’s one more day that they didn’t figure me out, and I didn’t lose everything. [Laughs]
Thanks to Steve for his time.
Interview by http://www.steelforbrains.com/