The Hard Golden Tone of Shellac: An Interview with Steve Albini

MICROPHONE CONNOISSEUR and billiardsman Steve Albini has recorded albums for the Pixies, Nirvana, the Jesus Lizard, and PJ Harvey. He doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, so he’s lost work for commenting pointedly on sleaze in the music business. In the high-quality ultramodern band Shellac, he plays guitar and sings, Todd Trainer plays drums, and fellow recording ace Bob Weston plays the bass.*

Did you quit playing guitar after Big Black or Rapeman broke up?

No, I just didn’t have any reason to keep on it, because I wasn’t in a band. I found an excuse every year or so to do something informally with someone else. Not having a band, your skills slip pretty dramatically. It took me a long time to get back in the groove.

Did Shellac begin informally?

Very informally. It was just me and Todd, and we would get together and play every two or three months. A friend of mine called Camilo Gonzales played bass with us for a while.

What’s the story with the first Shellac album?

It’s pretty good, I like it a lot. It’s called Shellac at Action Park.

You’re putting out vinyl a few months earlier than CDs, is that right?

Yes, In my opinion vinyl is absolutely a better and more permanent format for music. We’re spending a fortune having very high quality mastering, metalwork, pressing, very thick records being made. You would think that sounding better, being more permanent, durable and prettier, and being cheaper would be enough reason to buy vinyl rather than CD. But I think if we make it a really special item, that will kick enough people in the ass.

I’m not sure that people are more interested in quality than convenience.

That’s true, but people that are serious about music and enjoy it on a more involved level than just throwing something on while they do they do the dishes, they will gravitate towards vinyl records.

Is it hard to keep perspective recording with two engineers in the band?

The studio is really just a glorified rehearsal space for us. There’s no attempt on our part to sculpt a new personality for the band, we’re just basically documenting what we’re doing at the moment.

What have you learned from the bands you’ve worked with in the studio?

I’ve come to appreciate how distinct a personal vision can be, even if the music it’s reflected in is quite mundane. I’ve also learned that it’s very easy to be overwhelmed by your music. Watching bands socially, in the studio, I see them torture themselves over the tiniest, most insignificant decision. Their world shrinks in the studio. I’ve learned things to do, I’ve learned things not to do, and I’ve learned to appreciate things that I wouldn’t have appreciated otherwise.

How do you feel about being a singer?

I don’t really consider myself a singer. I consider myself a vocalist in a rock band, which is a far cry from being a singer. The vocals provide an immediately identifiable human element. I’ve always figured as long as the vocals provide a convincing emotional footing, the literal meaning of the words is trivial. I think Jon Spencer from the Blues Explosion is a really astounding vocalist at times. You get a clear picture of his enthusiasm for what he’s doing.

How does Shellac relate to mainstream “alternative” music?

If by that you mean shit like Stone Temple Pilots, and Candlebox, and Smashing Pumpkins — that kind of crap? That means nothing to me. Smashing Pumpkins don’t have anything to do with me or the way I live.

Here’s a question: If the Jon Spencer band is so great, then why aren’t they as well-loved as Candlebox?

Oh, I think they’re more well-loved than Candlebox. I think Candlebox’s fans hold them very loosely, there just happen to be an awful lot of them at the moment. In five years time, you’ll have as hard a time finding a Candlebox fan as you would finding a die-hard Huey Lewis fan, or a Quarterflash devotee. You do remember what a huge success Vanilla Ice was?

Unbeatable.

Now, you could turn America upside-down and shake it, and not find a Vanilla Ice fan. I still run into people who are rabid fans of something as obscure as MX-80, or the Suicide Commandos. The fact that a band can be quite popular temporarily has nothing whatsoever to do with their ultimate importance.

It seems like Shellac has taken really tentative steps to get to the level you’re at now.

Our steps so far have been very measured. It’s not a matter of us having a battle plan, I just think it’s more noble to do something you’re capable of than to stumble into something just because you think you can get away with it. Given the notoriety of the people that are in this band, we could probably coast on our reputations without having to deliver for a while. But I don’t consider swindling people in that manner honorable. We’ve tried to be a good band that is worth the attention that people might give us.

I thought you might be hesitant to enter the music business world again.

Hmm… Not really. I always dealt with those people fairly well. Some of those people are not worth your time, and you just write them off and get it over with. Some of those people are actually human beings, and you identify those people as fast as you can and stick to them. Our job is to figure out who is who.

What will make the next year a good one for Shellac?

We don’t actually have any goals, which is one of the reasons we have survived and are all still on very good terms. We just have a methodology that we execute. I guess a good year would be one where we didn’t violate any of our intentions: Nobody intentionally or inadvertently suffered for us being around or intentionally or inadvertently took advantage of us.

© Ian ChristeWarp, 1994

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