Steve Albini on 20 years of Shellac, handling hecklers, and AC/DC's brilliance

Steve Albini on 20 years of Shellac, handling hecklers, and AC/DC's brilliance
Courtesy of Shellac

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It has already been 20 years since Shellac came together in Chicago in 1992 as an informal collaboration between engineer and guitarist Steve Albini (ex-Just Ducky, Big Black, Rapeman) and Minneapolis-based drummer Todd Trainer (ex-Rifle Sport, Brick Layer Cake). Shellac was fully formed when Albini invited bassist Bob Weston (ex-Sorry, Volcano Suns) to move to Chicago and employed him as an engineer at his studio.

Ahead of Shellac's 20th anniversary show at First Avenue on Saturday, Gimme Noise caught up with the outspoken Albini -- whose career as an audio engineer, has brought him together with Sparklehorse, Nirvana, The Stooges, the Pixies, PJ Harvey, Cheap Trick, The Jesus Lizard and many more. We got the details on sticking for two decades, his current recording projects, and how it feels to grab a heckler by the ears and scream at them. 

Gimme Noise: How does it feel to have your 20th Anniversary coming up and celebrate that at First Avenue?

Steve Albini: What's nice about it is it doesn't feel like 20 years. It seems like we got together to start playing and have enjoyed it -- so it doesn't feel like time has ever passed. It still feels like when we first started playing together, that is, that we like each other, and the way we play together as a band and we do it for its own sake. We do it because we enjoy it. We never had any real goals that we wanted to accomplish. It's just turned out that we lasted a long time.

I think one of the reasons we've lasted a long time is because we didn't have expectations placed on us by other people or by ourselves about the band or the behavior or the longevity or the output of the band. We've just carried on playing together in a way that is satisfying for its own sake.

GN: How does a band can go on for 20 years and keep it enjoyable?

SA: I think a lot of bands build up a head of steam when they get started, and then they develop a catalog of material and then they make a career out of it. They end up having to play the old songs people expect to hear, and they feel obliged to work on new material to keep things fresh. We've just always played what appeals to us. And that means for long periods of time, we didn't have anything new to work on. But the structure of our relationship of us with our music is that the older songs are open for discussion - we can decide to play them differently now, even though we've played them the same way for a long time. If we come up with a better idea, we can incorporate it. I think the fact we haven't made a career out of it and have kept it as a pastime and something we refuse to put categorical boundaries on is something that has allowed us to keep going for a long period of time quite comfortably.

GN: How does your engineering work come into play, if at all, with your playing live?

SA: My engineering work and being in a band are both outgrowths of my primary relationship with music, which is that I am a fan of it. If you play a show that's a crappy show on the surface, like if it's a venue that is inappropriate for you or a dead audience or a town that doesn't respond well to your music, or you have an off night of performance... there can be things about it that you appreciate, from the standpoint as a part of the cornucopia of experience of being in a band. It doesn't have to be a great show for it to be enjoyable, or learn something from it or for you to have some interesting experiences.

I'll give you an example. Last year we played two shows in Brooklyn at a place called the Bell House. The first night we played a great set, we were really on the ball, we were moving very nimbly from song to song, the audience was responding really well. As a matter of execution, we played well. We really enjoyed that first show. For the second show things were going well, and then there was this particular asshole who imposed himself on the show by, in every quiet moment he'd open his yap and start nagging at me about something. Initially I made a little joke about it, then I tried to ignore it, I pointed him out to try to embarrass him and shut him up. At one point I walked over to the side of the stage and tried to explain I didn't want him to impose himself on all the people in the room like that. And that didn't really take hold.

So eventually about the 20th or 30th interruption that he made, I grabbed him by the ears and I screamed into his face for a solid minute and a half, about how I didn't want him to do what he was doing and how he was making me really angry and it had been going on for a very long time. I didn't threaten him with physical violence but I'm sure that was the inference that he made and he didn't bother us for the rest of the show. Now that put a weird mental state on everybody in the room because it was unavoidable that that was happening.

And when I think of those two shows - the first show was a great show. The next show was more memorable to me because of the ugliness of that dude's interaction with us and with everyone in the room, right? So as part of the life experience of being a musician, having an incident like that, I think enriches that life experience. Its not fun, its not good, its like having a scar, there's nothing to celebrate about it, but I think it's a worthwhile experience. On the whole I'd rather have experiences like that occasionally and leave things open the possibility that things like that could happen in the future than have things always run like clockwork and be otherwise unmemorable.

So I'm saying, we can enjoy even the shitty parts of being a band and that's part of why we can stick together for so long.


GN: You came out of a supportive scene in Chicago in the '80s. Do bands still help each other out like that?

SA: I discovered as I started traveling, touring with bands that there were a lot of cities like that. I think you can describe the 1980s music scene as an assortment of vibrant local music scenes, each one of which was quite distinct and productive. As people from each of those scenes began interacting and cross-pollinating, then a network developed where one band from one town would be recommended to a band from another town an then that would create an opportunity to have shows and a place to crash when you hit town or collaboration partners for a tour. The network of people kept widening for every participant until eventually everybody had a pocket phone book of numbers from coast to coast that would allow them to book a tour or find places to stay or find a show if they were going to town. That camaraderie was critical to the development of the music scene in the 1980s.

And that extended into the 1990s. Because the people who were involved, such as myself, Bob Weston and Todd Trainer, a lot of the people involved in the 1980s underground carried on working through their adult lives. I still have very close friendships that I made during the 1980s on the basis of somebody saying, "Oh you need a show in Michigan, call Corey." Things like that. I still have great friendships that began that way.

GN: You've worked with so many stellar artists over your career, the Pixies, PJ Harvey, Nirvana, and The Jesus Lizard -- any favorite experiences?

SA: Almost all my experience in music is a continuum for me. It's not that different making a record with a band like the Jesus Lizard than it is going to dinner with them or on tour with them. That's true for almost everybody involved in the music scene. You're involved with them on a technical level in the studio, but the reason you're involved is larger than that. It's a social enterprise and everybody feels like we're pulling for the same team. The friendships I've made over the years are, as an engineer, much more valuable than the musical output is. And granted, the musical output can be really great sometimes. But to me, I still see it as an extension of my involvement with this group of comrades, this underground music scene that is incredibly fertile.

GN: Who are you working with now?

SA: For the next couple weeks, I'm focusing on these shows. But after that I'll be working with some old friends. They're called Man or Astroman; they've reformed and are making a new record. There's a woman, Nina Nastasia, who's playing one of the shows with us on this weekend. I'm going to be doing a record for Bellini, who are playing with us in Minneapolis. I'm excited about all those records.

GN: What was it like doing the John Peel sessions? Did you have the chance to meet him?

SA: I did meet John Peel, but not during those sessions. I did get to meet him a couple of times. I've had dinner with him. We became sort of friendly and I respected him tremendously. I think his attitude about music is inspirationally humble in that he would - anything anybody wanted to do musically, he would give it a listen. And he would take it seriously. And that's the kind of generosity I simply cannot muster. I respect him tremendously for that. He was unique in broadcasting and in the world of music. When he died, he left a really big hole.

GN: Over the past 20 years performing, do you feel the music industry evolved positively or negatively?

SA: There's always been a spectrum of styles, and from my perspective the intent of the people playing is much, much more important than the particular style of music. I've heard good and bad iterations of many kinds of music. The music is essentially a window into the souls of the people who are making it. The music can sound like a lot of things and still be an open window. I still get to learn about what the people who are making the music are like. And I think that's music's most important function. There's a lot of nostalgia around, people saying, "Oh, music was better then." I don't think that's necessarily true. There were different kinds of music that were popular, trendy, more or less heard. But the stylistic aspect really doesn't matter to me that much.

GN: It seems as though are more bands playing harder rock than we've heard in the past decade -- louder, more in the vein of the Cows and Helmet and the Melvins.

SA: Depending on your peer group I'm sure you could find people who are tired of hard rock because the heavy metal scene and more aggressive parts of the music scene, that type of music has never really faded. The style of music isn't really why people like it or don't like it. It's something deeper than that. There's no shortage of bands that attempted to sound like the Clash or the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. From an academic standpoint, you could say they sounded very similar but they weren't as good as those bands. And the same can be said of all the bands that tried to sound like AC/DC. AC/DC seemed to be a fairly simple band from a conceptual level and an execution level. It seemed like anybody should be able to do that. But everybody who tries just makes a fool of themselves. And the only band that's like that, that's any good, is AC/DC.

So what I'm saying is: whether it's quiet or loud or fast or aggressive or slow - the superficial aspects aren't predictive. They can't tell you if you're going to like something or not.

GN: Has your oft-angry songwriting viewpoint changed over time?

SA: The perspective of a given song is fixed in that song. But we as human beings don't necessarily subscribe to everything that happens in a song any more than a filmmaker would endorse what happens in a movie or a writer would endorse what happens in a novel. Hopefully the songs will have content that will keep people thinking about them after they are over. I think the goal in music is to make something happen in the listener's head or while you're in the performance of it, have things happen in your head. So for us that's much more important than what a song is about. That the experience of performing it and hearing it is rewarding.

Shellac - 20th Anniversary Show w/ Bellini and Stnnng, 18+,  $12, 6:30 p.m., Saturday, September 1 at  First Avenue Mainroom.

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