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