INTERVIEW: Steve Albini – “There’s No Silver Lining”

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If you don’t know who Steve Albini is, then you’re reading the wrong feature. One of the most respected and revered figures in alternative music, Steve Albini has a CV that speaks for itself, having produced at least three of the most important records of the last few decades (The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, Nirvana’s In Utero and The Breeders’ Pod), not to mention the peerless music he has made with his bands Big Black and Shellac. But also as important as any of the above is his mindset. In an industry that is morally bankrupt to its core, his fierce integrity (Albini takes a flat fee and zero royalties from the records he produces) makes him one of the last men standing.

I had the pleasure of chatting by phone with Steve at Electrical Audio, the recording studio he owns and operates in his hometown of Chicago. Always fascinating and frank in interviews, he had plenty of opinions to share on a diverse array of topics.

I was thinking about how nowadays there seems to be a lack of artists able to subvert the mainstream from within. Can you think of any productive troublemakers?
It sounds like you’re looking for someone in the pop music sphere who is somehow…laudable. Yeah…no.

I guess for the sake of comparison I’d use Devo as a kind of yardstick.
Devo were an overtly experimental abstract art project. They arrived at their pop music exposure during a period when the mainstream music industry was actively trying to co-opt what it saw as a blooming new wave of underground music, so y’know, they struck while the iron was hot and they happened to shape Devo into a band that had public and commercial appeal.

Devo was an inspirational band to me and then at a point they became sort of a conventional pop band and their appeal dissipated almost completely at that point. There are a lot of people who are interesting at the start of their careers when there’s nothing at stake and then once they realise that they have a career they become much more predictable and unbearable for all the reasons that pop music is unbearable. I think the nearest thing to a conventional pop star who has maintained the germ of what made him brilliant in the first place is probably Nick Cave.

Do you find you’re having to delegate more energy to find artists to get excited about?
Bearing in mind what I do for a living, I am exposed to a constant stream of new music and I’m introduced not just to the music that I’m recording in the studio but to all the music that those people rate and bring with them as influences. So I feel like I’m in a uniquely good position to be exposed to new and interesting stuff and in addition to that, in my circle of friends there are a lot of people who are embedded in the music community, whether they’re working with or for labels of they’re involved in concert promos or what sort of thing so in my circle of friends are other people who are conduits for new stuff.

I don’t get out nearly as much as I should as an audience member, it used to be that in my twenties I would see three or four shows a week but also in my twenties there would be three or four shows a week that I wanted to see. Now it’s rare for me to go out and see live music, maybe once a month I’ll get out. I find that troublesome in terms of my connection to the scene and to the active culture, but as long as I am aggressive about finding other things of interest in my spare time I feel like it’s enough live music exposure.

And does that sort of aggression come fairly easily?
Yes and no. I am fatigued by listening because my job requires me to be an active, attentive listener most days. Then when the day is done I’m not super-excited about putting on more music and listening real hard, so it does require a little bit of active attention on my part to be exposed to new music.

Do you find it’s getting easier or harder to do what you do?
What I do as a recording engineer and as a studio owner, the principle thing that makes it hard is that it’s very hard to make money. In order to maintain a studio that’s capable of excellent work, the initial investment is extraordinary, the maintenance is extraordinary, the staff costs are extraordinary, just the amount of money that I have to generate and spend every month is just… stomach-churning. And that’s the problem, the problem is that I have to make so much fucking money all the time in order to keep things afloat.

The processes are pretty well under control, there was a brief interruption in the supply of analogue tape which made me very uncomfortable and very nervous, then several companies sprang up to supply the niche market of analogue tape engineers. So for the moment at least, that’s not on my mind. The economic pressure on studios comes from the fact that the digitisation of studio practices has made it very, very easy to do some kind of recording with essentially no investment.

You can buy a laptop and it comes with a sound recording program on it, or you can get free or very inexpensive sound recording software, and guitar shops have reasonably quality recording equipment available for amateurs now. And for the matter of a few hundred dollars you can set up some kind of recording scenario in your home and increasingly that’s how music is being made, it’s not being made in professional studios like the one that I own, it’s being made in a semi-professional or amateur environment. Increasingly, music is more and more electronic and more and more being made in a non-professional environment and that means that the few remaining studios have less and less client base to draw from.

I think the studio that I run is kind of insulated from that because the majority of our clientele is independent bands and independent labels whose roster includes bands that perform live in the studio, so recording that is kind of our bread and butter. That’s what we’ve always done so our calendar has remained full through this whole sea change in the industry but I do feel like we’ve kind of dodged a bullet in that regard, because if we’ve had to draw from the general studio client base that a lot of our peers have then we would have suffered the same way they did. A lot of them relied on major-label business, for example, and the major-label business model of going into conventional studios has eventually disappeared.

In the same way that record-pressing plants had to shift their capacity from doing volume pressing for major labels to small press runs for independent labels and independent artists, and then over time that increased capacity created a kind of resurgence of interest in vinyl and that created a demand for more volume from all labels so that the pressing plants had to ramp up capacity and even new pressing plants are being ordered, which is stunning to me but I think it’s great. I expect there to be some kind of a cycling back toward acoustic recording of live performances, away from laptop simulacra but I can’t count on that so what we have to do is maintain our client base. We have to maintain our relationship with our clients so we have to deliver 110 percent every time.

Do you find that’s exhausting?
The amount of work is consistent with that I’ve done my whole career. I’ve worked weeks on end, 10 or 12-hour days my entire working life so nothing really changed in that regard. I’m getting older and I get fatigued easier and I find that I have other outside obligations that I have to concern myself with, like my physical health, my wife’s health, maintaining our home. Earlier this year I was on my bicycle and I got hit by a car and I broke my collarbone, so the last two weeks I’ve been having to do everything one-handed and it’s a drag. It’s a kind of unavoidable thing but in the span of a few seconds I fucked up my whole summer and now I made my working life a lot harder.

Shellac are touring the UK, do you have any news you can share regarding any new recordings?
We’re working on new material the way we always do, at our own glacial pace, but we don’t have any plans for a new record. Our touring and our record releases have never been coordinated in any fashion, at the beginning of each year we sort of plot out the following year. Like, “okay, we should do a trip in the Spring and it looks like we can go to Europe again in these days so let’s do that and then let’s go someplace in the summer, where do you wanna go? And then do you wanna go someplace in the fall? It’s really no more involved than that. We hadn’t played a number of dates in the UK in a very long time, and so we just figured “let’s play Ireland and Scotland and England and see how that goes”.

Do you notice anything in particular about live audiences in the UK and Ireland that stands out compared to European or American audiences?
I feel like the local nightlife culture is getting much much more specialised and individualised. I think that has to do with the way the social organisation is done much more last minute so people don’t plan things weeks or months in advance, they will start a happening that evening or they will stay in a group of texts from their friends and everybody will make plans at the last minute so I feel that there’s a degree of spontaneity that I think is charming, where there will be nothing going on and then suddenly the street corner will be covered with people or things will become popular in a span of days, like a certain bar where something interesting happens on Wednesday night and then on Thursday night it’s fucking rammed, that sort of thing I think is charming and interesting.

I don’t know how it affects a band whose schedule is set months in advance but I do notice that happening in different ways at different cites and I think also, like, the sort of social organisation of the nightlife depends a lot on particular figures or particular kinds of ringleaders for certain activities. Like, this guy gets particularly good drugs or this guy knows where the best late-night food is so that circle of friends will have a ringleader and I think that the kind of immediacy of interaction through things like cell phones and social media and stuff, I feel like that amplifies that sort of ringleader mode. And again, I have no idea what the implications are for a rock band of 50-year old men but I have noticed that that’s how nightlife organises itself now.

If you had to read the tea leaves and try and guess how the culture in the US will react to the current political climate, what would you say?
There are two things that are diametrically opposed to each other and I literally think that all options are possible right now. We could literally have a civil war, and I’m not speaking in hyperbole here, I think it’s literally possible that there could end up being an authoritarian, essentially fascist government that establishes a kind of martial law and that there could be an insurgency against it.

There could also just be a desertion, people could just end up fleeing the US to all of the kinder, gentler countries. That’s totally viable, and again that could happen. I also think it’s possible that the resurgent left could make the kinds of political inroads that the kind of establishment right made, and they could do that by winning local elections, winning court cases to reverse gerrymandering, getting more fair and accurate representation at a state level, changing state houses, gradually changing the make-up of both houses of Congress. I think that is certainly a possible outcome and at the time of the last election, the progressive socialist wing of the Democratic party was invigorated by the Bernie Sanders campaign, and the Democratic Party establishment has made an active choice to ignore that community, the groundswell of enthusiasm of more suit and tie politicians and the ranks of the suit and tie politicians in the democratic party are nowhere near as competent or as progressive as they were in the 1970s, for example, or the 1980s.

There’s nobody with iron-clad progressive bona fide credentials that the suit-and-tie wing of the party can point to. So I think it’s quite possible that the democratic party will need to be restructured fundamentally into a more progressive, more nearly-socialist party in order for it to be competitive against the tactical advantages that the Republican Party has.

With all of the gerrymandering, with all the courts being packed with Republican appointees, with the Supreme court packed with Republican appointees, at the moment it just looks incredibly difficult to overcome the institutional advantages that the Republicans and the right wing of that party have. It looks incredibly difficult to overcome that without reshaping the Democratic party to take advantage of the energy of the progressive left, the socialists.

And I don’t see that happening, so I think it will either have to happen over a long period of time, just taking over local and state offices, reshape state courts, reshape state houses, reshape Governor’s offices in the States and then from the bottom up gradually take over the country. I see the progressive ideals as resonating with the American much more so than the smash-and-grab politics of the right, which is where they engineer some kind of tactical advantage like surprising the vote or gerrymandering the courts and then while they’re briefly in power, they smash and grab and do as much damage as they can, gradually those advantages that they have are reformed away in the way that the Jim Crow South had to concede and allow black people to vote, the right will eventually have to concede certain aspects of society to the progressive mindset.

I think that will happen. It won’t happen quickly, not without a fundamental change in the democratic party, and I don’t see that happening. That is only one possible outcome. I do think it’s possible that we end up living in this Franco or Batista-style dictatorship here, I think it’s totally feasible and I think that not preparing for that as a possibility is naive.

The argument against that has always been that ‘even establishment Republicans won’t allow true fascism to take over the Republican party’, but they’re absolutely content to let a plutocracy take over the Republican party, I think there’s been absolutely no push back against anything that Trump has done, the fact that he is just installing his family in the government and making himself richer at every turn and that he is using political power to make himself and his family richer. I mean, the Republicans might cluck about it but as long as it enables them to maintain their strategic advantages then they’re not going to do anything about it at all. There’s not a single principled Republican.

There is no Republican resistance to a plutocracy and an eventual dictatorship, there’s none, so I think it’s perfectly reasonable to prepare for that as a possibility. That’s the political side of things, on the social side of things I think that the popularity and acceptance of things like Black Lives Matter and the gradual shift in local politics towards a more progressive agenda, especially in California, liberalisation of drug laws and sentencing laws, all of those are happening on a local and state level, even if they’re not being encouraged at a state level, and I think that those tides are going to continue to rise. We are gradually inching towards a more progressive, more inclusive society on a local level.

Can you see that discontent invigorating music?
No, there’s no silver lining. It’s obstacle after obstacle, it’s hardship after hardship, fear and terror and a general feeling of helplessness. I’ve heard people say “oh, it’s going to make culture so much more interesting when they have this big bully to fight against”. If that were true, it wouldn’t be worth it. And it’s not true, because people have so much to deal with in their own lives that the music might make reference to it but that’s all it can be. If your daily drama is more fantastic and more terrifying than anything someone can invent, then art referencing it can only be a lesser version of it.

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