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

Categories: Q&A
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.

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