Monday, June 01, 2009


I've been a fan of Steve Albini's music since about 1988, when I heard Big Black's Atomizer and Songs About Fucking while still in high school. I liked the Rapeman album Two Nuns And A Pack Mule OK, though I thought the cover of ZZ Top's "Just Got Paid" was the best thing on it; the Budd EP was better. It took me a while to get into Shellac, though now I'd call myself a "moderate appreciator," far from a diehard. Still, I've long admired the guy's individualism and work ethic, so when the chance to interview him for the SF Weekly came up, I jumped at the chance. When the feature for which this interview provided the raw material runs, I'll post a link; in the meantime, here is a very, very slightly edited transcript of our complete 28-minute conversation from Sunday evening.

How does the apparent slow-motion collapse of the record industry affect your business at Electrical Audio?
Well, mercifully it isn’t. We’re at an odd fulcrum in the industry, where we get quite a bit of work from independent bands spending their own money or independent labels, putting out small-scale records, and a very small amount of money from big labels putting out big-scale records. So we haven’t really been affected by the collapse of the bigger, mainstream music industry. Because the street-level music scene is doing fine. It’s really only the big, industrial-scale music industry that’s not doing so well. You may have noticed that there’s no shortage of bands playing gigs, bands are burning up Facebook and MySpace promoting themselves, there’s no shortage of interest in music, there’s just a downturn in the sale of physical CDs and that’s what affects the mainstream music industry the most. As far as all the other aspects of being in a band, they’re still going great guns. People still wanna play, people still wanna do shows, they still wanna record their bands.

Do you still maintain the positions laid out in your Baffler essay “The Problem With Music”?
Well, yeah. All the anecdotal evidence stuff is in support of a principle, a main thesis, which is that the record industry – and that’s probably the best thing to call it, the record industry, rather than the music business – exists to serve its own agenda, and the bands are merely one of many tools that they can use to pursue that agenda. So the bands are not going to be treated deferentially in any case. The bands are going to be expected to cooperate or be destroyed. So yeah, I feel basically the same way. The delicious irony is that bands are doing better than ever, and big record labels are doing worse than ever. You’ll note that I just used the expression ‘delicious irony.’ I wish I could make it sound as evil as it is.

I took a two-year engineering course, finishing in ’06, and it struck me that the guy I did my in-studio work with was an old-school guy who’d been around since the ’70s, and he still had the mindset of a time when producing and engineering was an aristocracy of sorts. As a freelance writer I've been hustling for work my entire career, gig by gig, but he had the attitude that bands coming to the studio were supplicants in a way. Do you feel that’s a mindset that’s dying out?
Well, yeah, to be honest the sort of elite position of being a recording engineer, working in a studio, sort of evaporated a long time ago. The people that ran studios tried to persist with that mentality for a while, until they realized that it wasn’t in their business interests to alienate their clientele, and now they tend to be more cooperative. But I come from the opposite end of the spectrum. I started as a musician, a guy in a band, and whenever I or my friends would go into a studio to work with these professional engineers, we were always treated in a sort of a dismissive fashion, as though we didn’t really know what we were doing. And that inspired the idea in me that an engineer should be subservient to the bands that he’s recording. That is, he should be working to their agenda, rather than trying to fit them into his mental image of how a band should behave. The analogy that I can make is if you go to the barber to get your hair cut, you should be able to tell the barber how you want your hair cut. Of course, the barber is the professional and he’s doing the cutting, but he should be doing it to suit you. And when a band comes in the studio, I think of them in precisely the same light. They should tell me how they want their record to come out. I have to do the technical execution, of course, but it should be to serve their image of themselves and their perception of what their record should be.

Do you ever have to talk bands out of making their record sound like your back catalog, or anything like that?
The thing is, if you have an honest conversation with a band before you get too far into making a record, you can discern what it is about – if there are records that they’re emulating, and I’m using that in the Greek sense of being inspired by something but still trying to surpass it in some way – you can discern what aspects of those records they like, and which aspects they think are applicable to their music. So you can by doing a little forensic investigation on their music and an honest conversation, you can usually figure out what they’re actually asking for when they ask to sound like the Jesus Lizard or Nirvana or whatever. And it’s normally something quantifiable.

How much involvement do you have with mastering?
Ordinarily, not a lot. If I’m asked to oversee the mastering and I have the time and it doesn’t interfere with anything else, then I’m happy to. Ordinarily the bands and the label take care of their own mastering. Obviously, I have recommendations I can make, but I feel like that’s not my area of expertise, other than having some experience with different mastering places and occasionally sitting in on mastering sessions myself. I feel like, you know, there are often practical reasons for doing things in certain ways, as well, like a record label may have a long relationship with a certain mastering facility where they get a good price and they get fast turnaround or whatever. And so lobbying to use somebody else for whatever finicky technical reasons might be throwing a monkey wrench into their usual working method, and I don’t want to upset the applecart.

Right, but what I’m curious about is the scenario where, if there’s no chance your music is gonna get played on the radio, why go for a big, blaring radio mix? Radio stations have their own compressors anyway, on the off chance that they’re gonna play something.
That’s been a smokescreen for a very long time, people saying that they can make something sound better on radio. That’s pure nonsense. There’s no standard approach to radio compression, there’s no standard broadcast processing, so there’s nothing that anyone can do that will make a piece of music survive that processing better. Anyone who says that he can do that is lying. He’s not just lying, he’s sort of ignoring the obvious technical truth that all radio stations do their processing differently, so what’s suitable or what’s optimized for one radio station will be inappropriate for another one. And also, what about the poor sucker who buys the record and listens to it at home? Those are the people I’m most concerned about anyway. I’d like the people who buy the record – once tricked into buying it by hearing it on the radio, I’d like the person who listens to it at home to have a good experience.

That’s what I think, is you should offer a dynamic mix that sounds good on a home stereo, and let radio be a problem for radio station people to solve.
There’s some probability that a record will get played on the radio. That’s a relatively low probability. But there’s an absolute certainty that some people are gonna buy it, and take it home and listen to it. And more importantly, there’s a 100 percent certainty that the band themselves will have that record in their legacy, and they should be able to be proud of it. they should be happy with the way it sounds when it’s all finished. If they’re not, then somebody dropped the ball along the way. And I don’t see the point in trying to add some sort of compensatory awfulness at the mastering stage to try to compensate for something that was awful to begin with. I feel like the mastering should probably be a pretty transparent process, unless there are fundamental problems. And if there are fundamental problems, they ought to be addressed in another way.

Have you ever recorded anything that you wouldn’t describe as falling under the umbrella of rock music?
Oh, sure, all the time.

How does your approach translate to non-rock music, like a small jazz group?
Basically the same. Essentially anyone, any band or any performance ensemble that has as the focus of its aesthetic the performance of the music rather than let’s say an intellectual construction of the music after the fact, I’m quite comfortable working with. And I don’t really care what the performance is, whether it’s improvisational music, electronic music, rock music, acoustic music, it doesn’t matter. As long as the heartbeat of the music is a live performance, I can do fine with it.

What’s the best-engineered major label or mainstream record you’ve heard recently? Have you heard anything that impressed you?
Recently, no, but I quite like the sound quality – it’s a nostalgic sound, but I quite like the sound of the Dap-Kings records, the Dap-Tone label and the – what’s that English singer, that woman’s name?

Amy Winehouse.
Amy Winehouse. I think those records sound great. They’re real simple, the musicians sound like they can kick ass, and the presentation is really uncluttered and allows you to hear everything that’s going on. I quite like the way those records sound. But I haven’t heard anything recently where I would say – the thing is, there’s a level of competence that once things are being done competently, there’s only so much more you can do, from an engineering standpoint. And in a lot of cases, engineers get credit for records that sound good because of things they had no control over, like a good arrangement or a sonically interesting ensemble or something like that. So I tend not to hear the engineering as a separate entity from the record except in those cases like – and I suppose it might be kind of an imposing sound, but those Dap-Tone records, it might be that it’s just such a nice change of pace from hearing all the computerized stuff, that might be why I like it.

I’ve seen you talk about authenticity in interviews, but I’m not totally convinced there’s any such thing in a performance-based art form… [1]
I don’t actually know what you’re talking about, so I’ll agree with you at this point, because I don’t know what you’re making reference to.

Just in terms of Shellac’s music, I think I saw you were talking about something relating to authenticity of expression…
I don’t remember saying anything like that, but I’ll try to come up with something now, and I’ll say that the people that are there to see you play should be getting a legitimate glimpse into your creative impulse, rather than you just doing a bunch of show business for them to distract them or amuse them. I kind of feel that what happens onstage within the band should be genuine, that is, it should be being done for its own sake rather than for effect. That’s as close as I can come. I don’t really know where the authenticity thing came from, but that might be what I was talking about.

I think that was the gist of it, yeah, but it resonated in my head because I remembered a conversation I had with David Thomas of Pere Ubu about how he views the person he is onstage versus the person he is in real life.
Well, he has quite an affected manner onstage, so I can see him thinking of it as a performance in a theatrical sense.

Exactly. He feels there’s no point in the singer or songwriter attempting to convey their real self in song or anything like that.
Well, inadvertently, he’s done that. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t value an honest interchange, and that’s revealed something about himself. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t place a high value on a legitimate exchange in that environment, and that tells us a little something about David Thomas. It’s unavoidable that you’ll give up some information, some glimpse into your soul, whenever you do something in public. But from the point of my satisfaction, I don’t like to be bullshitted and I don’t like bullshitting other people.

I’ve also read an interview where both you and Bob Weston seemed to state that lyrics were somewhat important…
Well, only in the sense that you don’t wanna be stuck out in front of a bunch of people saying a bunch of bullshit. It matters, but it also doesn’t have to be cast in stone. The content of a song is a lot more important to me than the magic word selection is. I kinda feel like if you can get the idea across and the idea is sound, then the text has done its job, and I don’t put too much emphasis on the specific choice of words or the formal considerations. I actually thought about that; I was wondering if there was a legal construct in play. This occurred to me the other night – we played some shows overseas, and it occurred to me because we had to fill out these forms. In order to get paid, they insisted that we fill out these forms saying what the title of the song was, who wrote the song, and who held copyright on it and all that kind of stuff. It seemed ridiculous, of course, but more importantly I wondered – there are certain songs where there’s a large improvisation element to those songs. So you can’t really say that we played the song that goes by that title on the record, for example. Because we played different notes, I sang different words, it was a different length, the arrangement was different, you know…literally every thing about it was substantially different, but we still think of it as the same song. So is that the same song from a legal standpoint, or is it another song with the same title? It’s kind of an interesting concept – this whole absurd thing that the music business has focused on about owning the intellectual property of the music. That whole thing has created this bizarre conundrums. What’s the plural of conundrum? Conundra?

Maybe the principle should be, if you play a 45-minute John Coltrane version of “My Favorite Things” for Rodgers and Hammerstein, let’s say, and they don’t recognize it, they shouldn’t get paid. [2]
I just think this concept of getting paid over and over for something you do once is fucking insane. And that’s what it boils down to. The music business is kind of hung up on this model where you do something once, and if it’s a hit you get paid over and over again. And it’s fucking ridiculous. If somebody builds a fence and that fence lasts a hundred years, he doesn’t get more money, you know? It’s absolutely absurd, this notion that you should get paid more and more just because whatever came off the top of your head was durable. And there are all these bizarre legal constructions that are propping that up, so I’m quite satisfied that the Internet and its lust for content has defeated all those mechanisms. It actually makes me quite happy.

Getting back to my question about lyrics, though, I was curious because you seemed to be interested in them, but then you’re somewhat well known for keeping vocals pretty low in the mix.
Yeah, a generalization like that doesn’t mean anything to me, because I’m working at the behest of the bands, and an awful lot of the bands I work with have singers who are modest and don’t want to be front and center. So they tend not to have the vocals that loud, at their discretion. Then occasionally you work with people who are quite comfortable with their singing and quite happy to have the vocals quite loud, so then you end up with the vocals loud on a record. I really don’t have a perspective on how loud or quiet the vocals should be on a record. I think anyone who gives me credit for a decision like that has obviously never been in the room when those decisions were being made.

Well, I was speaking of your own records, though.
I tend to feel like the vocals on our records are at an appropriate level for the music. The lyrics matter, but they don’t matter more than the music, and there’s certainly a lot more going on than singing. So from my perspective, I feel like the vocals are at an appropriate level. I mean, obviously if we wanted them louder we would have made them louder. We’re not in a position where someone else is in control of that.

I remember having a conversation about this specific issue with Eugene Robinson, and he was saying he had a theory about your approach to recording vocals.
What was his theory?

It was that you didn’t like the human voice because a guitar or another instrument, when you tune it properly you can play the note and that’s the note, but vocals can go wrong in a lot of different ways, so you’re distrustful of vocals.
Well, Eugene Robinson is a hell of a fighter, but I can’t agree with him there. I think what makes vocals interesting is that they aren’t played like an instrument. But I would never wanna disagree with him while in the same room with him, so let’s pretend he got it right. In case I cross paths with him again soon, let’s pretend he got it right.

When I turned in the piece I did on him for The Wire, he emailed me and said ‘You know, your conclusion was completely wrong,’ and I wound up having to deliver copies of the issue to him in person. But it all went well, because his mom and sister were standing right there.
So he couldn’t force submission on you right at the moment.

I do like the homoerotic aspect of mixed martial arts fighting, where the goal is to make someone else submit. I think there’s something extraordinarily jail-rapish about that that I find quite charming, that these macho dudes see that as a worthwhile life goal, forcing submission on another oily dude.

My final question is, there were seven years between 1000 Hurts and Excellent Italian Greyhound, but you guys were playing songs from the Greyhound record for a few years in between. Are you currently playing any new songs on tour that are gonna be recorded later?
Yeah. I mean, we haven’t recorded anything yet, so who knows what’ll happen in the meantime, but we’re always playing current material when we play live. Sometimes it’s stuff we’re playing because dissatisfied with it and we’re trying to work it out, and sometimes it’s stuff we’re really excited about. So we’re playing it because we enjoy playing it. The songs we’re playing now that haven’t been recorded are probably a mixed bag of those things. It goes back to our perception of the music as a malleable or a dynamic thing. When you make a recording of something, you’re taking sort of a snapshot of its development. And for us, a song’s development doesn’t have to stop just because a snapshot was taken of it. And so the songs that maintain our interest over a long period of time tend to be the songs we have a lot of performance flexibility with. If we get a better idea for the lyrics than we’ve been using, we can use the new ones, you know? If we get a better idea for an ending than we’ve been using, then we can use a new ending. And part of the reason we play stuff a lot before we record it is, we want to make sure we’re not making some mistaken choice just for the expedience of getting something recorded. We want to make sure that the stuff we’re playing holds up.

And how much does audience response weigh into that?
I’m gonna say not at all.

No big crowd-pleasing moves?
Nah, it’s nice when you’re playing and there are people paying attention to you, there’s something gratifying about that, but I have to say that our music is almost 100 percent selfish. What we’re playing and why we’re playing it is to suit ourselves, and we’re happiest with it when the three of us really get into it. If other people get involved, that’s nice. Like I said, it’s flattering and it does give you a nice warm feeling of appreciation or validation or whatever. But we often play songs that other people hate, so.


[1] Albini did not actually use the word "authenticity" in the interview I was thinking of; you can read it here.

[2] I am well aware that Rodgers and Hammerstein (not to mention John Coltrane) are dead; this is a purely hypothetical example.


Addison Lande said...

you're a pretty obnoxious interviewer.

Addison Lande said...

but i gotta say it's an interesting interview.

Anonymous said...

I dunno I thought the interviewer did a fine job and yeah it was a good read thanks for posting