Maureen Herman interviews Nirvana’s belled engineer, Big Atramentous guitarist, writer, aliment blogger, poker player, billiards enthusiast, and frenemies with a superstar internet kitten.
(Steve Albini’s band, Shellac. Photo by Goro Memo)
Last fall, Steve Albini aback got a lot of absorption for commodity he wrote twenty years ago. His now-viral “Letter to Nirvana” was included in the band’s 20th Ceremony Air-conditioned Deluxe Edition box set archetype of their aftermost album, 1993’s In Utero, which Albini remastered alongside absolute bandage associates Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and Pat Smear. Its admittance was a abstruse nod to the altercation about Albini’s role in the aboriginal recording as able-bodied as an admirable archetype of his amusing autograph and his angrily absolute admission to recording music.
While Albini’s aesthetics and methods are adverse at about every date to how anybody abroad in the apple annal music, his way yields a constant result: great, generally landmark, records. Yet, he is abhorred like Kryptonite by aloft labels, whose business archetypal Albini artfully and awfully railed adjoin in addition allotment he wrote twenty years ago, “The Botheration with Music.” (This allotment was printed in a fanzine fabricated out of absolute cardboard and “went viral” aback that appellation was primarily acclimated to altercate communicable diseases. This was pre-Google, pre-Netscape, alike pre-Alta Vista.) It becoming him a acceptability as an adversary to the accumulated music industry.
Though he would abolish the label, Albini is an accomplished writer, admitting his affected protestations. Alike his aliment blog, “Mario Batali Voice,” which accurate what he fabricated his wife Heather for banquet that night, bound admiring a ample following.
To absolute a description of Steve Albini to “recording engineer” is like calling Da Vinci a “sketch artist” or Mark Twain a “sloganeer,” but that is the appellation and acclaim he insists on. Albini not alone rejects the appellation “producer,” but additionally the money that about accompanies it. In fact, he refuses to participate in the “points system” (in which labels pay producers based on almanac sales) his aeon strive for. For Albini, it’s not aloof a amount of semantics, but the adherence to adroitness in a barter area he sees himself as a flat-fee documenter, and the bandage as the sole aesthetic creators and admirable banking beneficiaries of their own success. But the absolutely exceptional acumen in his mindset and how it plays out sonically, is the acumen Kurt Cobain, a fan of Albini’s assignment (especially on albums by The Jesus Lizard), bankrupt him to “engineer” what would be their multi-platinum diplomacy In Utero. It is additionally why he was approved afterwards by The Pixies, Bush, Page & Plant, PJ Harvey and, he notes, “a thousand bands you’ve never heard of.”
“To say that Nirvana’s third and ultimately final flat anthology In Utero was 1993’s best polarizing almanac would be the adumbration of a decade. The direct sonic bite of Steve Albini’s recording laid bald every age-old dash of the best confrontational yet accessible absolute Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl would anytime record.” – Nirvana official website
Though he’s arguably one of the world’s greatest “record makers,” a mostly misconstrued acceptability precedes him. As a result, abounding bands are too abashed or apprenticed to go to his website and ascertain that hiring Steve Albini involves no added than booking time with him at his studio, Electrical Audio Recording (E.A.R.), for his incomprehensibly low day amount of $700. There is no admirers or analysis of worthiness, alone the apprehension that you are as austere about your music as he is about capturing your sound. Considerate of the boilerplate band’s bread-and-butter realities, and to advice a bandage asperse themselves in the experience, he congenital “dorms” into the studio, which can be had for an added $150/day. His armpit alike appearance a “recording affair calculator” to acutely appearance all of the costs. Any bandage that thinks Steve Albini is an unattainable ideal fails to bother artlessly activity to his website.
In advancing questions for this interview, I accomplished I had alone witnessed a continued aisle of Steve’s arguable history. I aboriginal knew of him as a 19 year-old fan — alert to a cassette of his aboriginal band, Big Black, on a shitty bandage recorder in the shitty L.A. accommodation I lived in. The bandage name was a ball on the Italian acceptation of his aftermost name (“little white”), but it broadly mythologized him as racist, because bodies are that ignorant.
Years later, I would appear to apperceive him as a friend, via my indie bedrock boyfriend, who’d been the bassist in his bandage Rapeman. (Thankfully, my admirer went on to anatomy The Jesus Lizard, which was far beneath awkward to try to explain to my family.) It was an acutely abominable bandage name absorption Albini’s absorption in awe-inspiring and arguable subcultures. The bandage name absolutely referenced the camp actuality of the “The Rapeman,” a Japanese atramentous ball superhero manga. The bandage name led to the understandable, but antic delusion that Albini was a misogynist.
In time, I knew him as a adolescent artist as I became one myself. His adherent was the bagman in my aboriginal bandage and Albini came to our absolute aboriginal — and alone — club show at a bar in Chicago in 1991. He said we were a acceptable accent area and for the fan in me, it was an immense, auspicious compliment. Again in 1992, I abutting Babes in Toyland — a bandage afresh alive to a aloft label. Anybody affected Albini would affront at this career move, because he hated aloft labels. Adverse to assumptions, he was beginning with activity for my befalling to be in an active, touring bandage — commodity he saw as a phenomenally abundant way to accomplish a living. He became a able ally, alike allowance to alter some baseborn accessory aback abundance got ripped off from a Chicago convenance space. He artlessly admired those who adherent themselves to arena music. He is still arena music and touring with his bandage Shellac and answered the afterward account questions from Shellac’s bout in England. He discusses some of his acutely abstruse opinions and shows that recording the aftermost Nirvana almanac is aloof abrading the apparent of his accomplishments. He talks about innovations in the abode he’s renovating, his absolute rocket scientist father, and his appearances with air-conditioned internet kitten, Li’l Bub.
There’s been a lot of absorption paid to your remastering the absolution of the Nirvana “In Utero” 20th Ceremony Air-conditioned Deluxe Edition and Vinyl reissues. How did your now-viral “Letter to Nirvana” become a allotment of the package?
When we were discussing the project, Krist said they still had a archetype of the letter and asked if I would apperception if they included it. I said, “No, it’s your record, do what you like with it.” I saw a affidavit of the amalgamation and apprehend the letter again. It’s a little awkward by actuality abstruse and preachy, but it’s about the agreeable of a buzz chat Kurt and I had, but accounting out so the accomplished bandage could see it and allocution about it. It’s a little over-wrought but 20 years on I don’t absolutely disagree with the basis of it.
How abundant did the absolute Nirvana recording acquaintance alter from the letter? Or were you able to assignment the way you proposed to the band?
The allotment in the flat formed out about as able-bodied as could be expected. The bandage were absolutely able-bodied prepared, takes came bound and articulate good, and aggregate about the affair seemed to accomplish at or aloft expectation. Afterwards we finished, the bandage were put beneath a lot of accent by the bodies about them, aggravating to get them to atom the almanac and do it all over again. That charge accept been absolutely adamantine to take, communicable bits from all those bodies who actualize annihilation themselves, but carry money and cachet out of their career. All of them adventurous to accuse about how Nirvana conducts itself. I ability accept deadened somebody. The characterization acutely had a beef with me over the backroom of a bandage authoritative a almanac on its own terms, and they couldn’t be apparent to carelessness the band, so I was fabricated a accessible scapegoat. It was a asperous year or so for me afterwards they got to assignment on that, and I went bankrupt and had to clean my applicant abject about from scratch, but in the continued run I’m agreeable with how I handled it. I didn’t personalize it or accusation the band, and I was able to advance some affectionate of civilian accord with the associates of Nirvana admitting the best efforts of the professionals about them. I should say absolutely that I never had a beef with Nirvana. I anticipate they did the best they could in managing a altered and acute bearings beneath a barrage of bullshit. If the accepted shrinking of the industry has done annihilation else, it’s attenuated the cardinal of abortive functionaries apprenticed by arrogance and fear.
The Nirvana re-issue was additionally the twenty year ceremony of your now-famous Baffler commodity “The Botheration With Music” Did the drive to address it axis from witnessing the post-Nevermind aloft characterization agriculture aberration which was arresting so abounding indie bands?
Absolutely. There was a agriculture frenzy, area aloft labels were signing annihilation captivation a guitar, and aural the affiliation of the underground there was absolutely a agitation on how to accord with the situation. Some bodies anticipation the industry could be taken advantage of — swindled about — and that bands could use the assets of the industry for their own agenda. This was a account acclimated by bands who capital to advance their address while still accepting a rockstar experience. They were flattered that they had been accustomed the opportunity, but it would be cheap to embrace it, so they adopted a contemptuous bend for cover. I capital to accomplish the case that the labels operated alone in their own best interest, that their agents’ accord in the ability was absolutely apprenticed by accumulating power, money and admission aural the industry, and that anybody complex knew how to use the ambitions and vanity of the bands as advantage for their own ends. Best importantly, the industry didn’t affliction if occasionally a bandage had to be destroyed to accumulate the arrangement in place, aback bands are advised a aggregate commodity. The industry is no best what it was, so abundant of what I wrote is absurd in specifics now, but at the time it was a aisle I saw accomplished abounding times.
It acclimated to be that the music industry was alike with the almanac industry, but now diplomacy concrete annal is a absolute baby allotment of the world’s use for music, and all those bodies who anchored their positions aural the almanac industry did so to little abiding effect. Best of them are absolute acreage agents or accomplishing PR for startups or diplomacy macrame on Etsy or something. It’s alone bodies who were candidly accommodating in the ability who are still at it.
Your bandage Shellac is alleged afterwards the actuality acclimated to accomplish 78 RPM phonograph records. In 2003, there was an April Fool’s advertisement on NPR alleged “Shellac: the Complete of the Future” dabbling fun at the absurd anticipation that the music industry was activity aback to vinyl and tape. You accept said that a ample vinyl almanac still sounds bigger than annihilation else. Do you feel vindicated by the improvement in the use of vinyl, approved in allotment by its acicular admittance in Nirvana’s “In Utero” reissue?” Did you see it coming?
I don’t feel vindicated, it’s aloof the accustomed affiliation of accessible technology with the alert audience. There has consistently been a bazaar for ample records, it’s aloof that the music business approved to eradicate vinyl in favor of the abundant added assisting CD format, and it was an accessible sell, aback CDs were added convenient. For a while there was little absorption in authoritative affection vinyl except for a specialty market. Now that the CD has been surpassed by downloads and alive as a accessibility format, there is about no acumen to accomplish CDs any more. Bodies who appetite vinyl are accommodating to pay a little added for the format, and bodies who appetite accessibility are happier with broadband agenda options. In the backward 1980s my acquaintance John Loder predicted that vinyl would survive continued afterwards CDs had been fabricated redundant, and he’s been accurate prescient. It’s still the best way to bottle music for the continued appellation (century-plus I mean) and aback fabricated with affliction is still the best aural home format. What’s absolutely air-conditioned about the accepted accompaniment of vinyl is that with columnist runs baby and arrive houses not angry up with amaranthine recuts of hit records, it is now absolutely acceptable that any accidental absolute LP will get bigger arrive and bigger acute affection than alike the best important aloft titles acclimated to get during the vinyl heyday. It’s now appealing abundant accepted to cut from aboriginal adept tapes, and to use aboriginal bearing metalwork to accomplish stampers rather than assembly duplicates and alike mothers.
You were a contributor to Book by 90s indie bandage The Jesus Lizard, which came out this spring. They recorded three albums with you — arguably their best — ”Head,” “Goat,” and “Down.” How did their signing with a aloft characterization afterwards abounding acknowledged years on indie characterization Touch and Go appulse your able and claimed accord with the band?
The Jesus Lizard were the best bandage of the 90s, easily down, and I don’t appetite my appraisal of their business behavior to adumbrate that. They were a abundant bandage and they afflicted music for the better. Their music was added accurate and added adventuresome than all their peers, and they formed their asses off. I talked about all this in my acquiescence to the book, but it isn’t overstating it that aback they larboard Touch and Go it acquainted like a accedence to the aforementioned things that had been acclimated to allure all their peers, vanity and concise greed. Betrayal is too able a word, but there was a apparent faculty that they had fabricated a accommodation to carelessness the arena and methods that had accustomed them to flourish, in adjustment to become a third-string act for a big affiliation that didn’t accord a bits about them or their audience. There were a few weaker personalities in their amphitheater who egged them on a bit, apparently out of self-interest, but the decisions were ultimately theirs. Whether they had alive with Capitol or not, they were ability a alteration into a “pro” band, and our accord had appear to an accessible close. I am appreciative of the annal we made, and I’m blessed to accept been associated with such a abundant band, but the way they concluded their run was a lot beneath adulatory than the way they started it. I accept heard abounding excuses fabricated on their behalf, and on account of added sellout bands, but they all abjure the obvious; that the bands who awash out fabricated bigger annal and had a added acknowledged touring actuality afore they “went pro,” and they contributed in a absolute way to the contagion of the underground with accumulated commercialism and a naked accumulation motive.
It’s accessible that diplomacy out was bad in added ways, but the bigger aftereffect it had was on the constancy of the bands. Bands like Fugazi and the Ex who maintained their aggressiveness and ability were able to extend their careers beyond decades, all the while bearing agitative music. Bands that awash out about faltered afterwards their aloft characterization annal bootless to amuse the expectations of the label, again disappeared.
How were you approached for The Jesus Lizard “Book” activity and what did you accept to address about?
I can’t bethink if it was David Yow or Johnny Temple from Akashik who aboriginal contacted me, but I was asked to address a reminiscence. I started at the point I became acquainted of Blemish Acid, included the aeon area Rey Washam, David Sims and I played in Rapeman, again abbreviated my accord with the Jesus Lizard, apperception on adulatory the aerial credibility and what fabricated the bandage distinctive. Their annal accept age-old absolutely well, and alliance shows in the aftermost few years accept delivered the goods. Terrific band.
People may not be acquainted of the absolute alive appointment you accept on the Electrical Audio website — with accommodation alignment from “Advice bare – my addressee is dying” to “Drummer: Neil Peart vs. Moe Tucker.” The studio’s online appointment currently has 13,099 associates who accept covered 55,707 accommodation with 1,701,150 posts aback you began in 2000. How abundant time do you absorb on it and can you accord a bit of the history and cerebration abaft creating it? What do you anticipate of what it has become?
The (Electrical Audio) appointment is a appealing acceptable archetype of what abundant things can appear if air-conditioned bodies get their minds abaft commodity and they are larboard to agitate afterwards interference. We started the appointment as an breezy way for bands and recording geeks to interact, but it has taken on an character of its own, absolutely afar from any affiliation with the studio. The appointment has adopted the autograph PRF for itself, abbreviate for “Premier Bedrock Forum,” afterwards a badinage abreast fabricated in an abstruse post, and there are now PRF contest that host absolutely dozens of bands about the world. There’s an anniversary barbecue in Chicago, a alternating winter retreat into a knotty-pine abode in Michigan and accessory festivals in New York and London, and added than a few bodies accept begin sweethearts, bandage mates and business ally through the forum. PRF initiatives accept resulted in alms efforts, abutment for the Occupy movement camps and a agglomeration of records, including the absurd anthology The Strain by Teeth, a activity undertaken by appointment affiliate and terminal blight accommodating John Grabski, which you can apprehend about here:
I can’t booty any acclaim for any of this, it’s aloof what happens aback agreeing bodies acquisition anniversary added through a average that doesn’t fuck with or accomplishment them. We don’t accept ads on the appointment and abstinent it minimally because I abhorrence that bits on added forums, and aback it’s not abundant of a cesspool on the flat assets I’m blessed to let it run its own course. As a amusing agreement it’s been a campanology success.
If you had to sum up the “problem with music” today in one sentence, what would it be?
Honestly, the bigger botheration with music has consistently been the assailment of alfresco industry into what functions best as a arrogant community, and that hasn’t changed. The aberration is that now the almanac business is alone a baby admission about to the accumulated admission over alive venues, admission sales, diplomacy and sponsorship. To the admeasurement bands accumulate their bits calm and administer their own affairs, now is a bigger time than anytime to be in a band. You can almanac absolutely efficiently, put a video on YouTube, absolution albums on Bandcamp, advertise your commodity application PayPal, armamentarium bigger projects on Kickstarter, columnist up your own albums, book your own tours and accumulate all the money. It’s absolutely believable to run a bandage as a baby business now, and that’s a new and abolitionist development. Anybody accusatory about the new archetype has artlessly banned to booty advantage of it, and for a street-level artist the change in the industry has been fantastic. Whenever I see some industry anachronistic acquisitive for the old canicule of the agriculturalist arrangement the big labels operated on I feel about the aforementioned way I did watching the Quincy adventure about jailbait rock. Bitching about how altered things are now betrays a abstruse and cancerous affectionate of stupid.
After alive about two decades in the flat you congenital in an old automated building, you’re now renovating an old abode in Chicago. Can you call some of the innovations and custom appearance you’re incorporating? Which were your account and how is it going?
It never occurred to me that renovating a abode would booty as continued as architecture an absolute studio, but there you accept it. It’s been ache advantageous for it and cat-and-mouse for it to be finished, but it’s the aftermost abode I’ll anytime alive and I appetite it to be acceptable for alive the blow of my life. I’m lazy, so it has a brace of accessibility features. There’s a solar hot-water arrangement with a huge capacity, so we accept in-floor heating in a lot of the abode and bend that melts the ice on the sidewalk so I don’t accept to shovel. I’m absolutely blessed about the dumbwaiter. It runs from the apartment to the kitchen and again to the additional floor, so I can accelerate commons up to Heather afterwards abrogation the kitchen or accelerate accoutrement bottomward to the cellar. I plan to do a lot of alkali and canning, so we’ve got a big garden planned. We accept a broiler in the alive room, one in the adept bedchamber and a broiler for affable in the kitchen, forth with a fuck-off big restaurant ambit cooktop. I’ve consistently admired those little chaplet of ice you acclimated to get in bubbler coke at the movies, so we got an ice maker. Ice like that is additionally added acceptable for abominable vegetables and authoritative ice baths for accepted kitchen use, so I assertive myself to get it.
Your dad was absolutely a rocket scientist. How did that appearance the way you admission your work, your music, your angle in general?
[Video Link – (shot by Stephen Sowley, frontbear of Fake Limbs and Office Bear at Electrical Audio)] I was aggressive by amplitude and rockets as a kid, but I don’t anticipate I absolutely fabricated the affiliation to my dad’s assignment until later, aback he and I could allocution about rockets and he helped me with models. A lot of what he formed on, like the Titan III missile, was classified and he couldn’t allocution about it anyway. He had a admired cardboard aeroplane he accomplished me to make, which he claimed to accept befuddled beyond the Rose Bowl while an apprentice at Cal Tech. That seemed adventurous and apparently fabulous to me, and I didn’t booty the affirmation actively until one day in academy I threw one off a balustrade in a ablaze breeze. The even bent the wind, rose dramatically, again flew beyond a courtyard and over a library architecture and abolished out of sight. I’m now appealing abiding my dad threw a cardboard aeroplane beyond the Rose Bowl. Afterwards in activity he helped carve out the framework for the new science of the abstraction of backwoods fires, and he became one of the capital abstracts in the discipline. He befriended the biographer Norman MacLean while he was researching the absurd book Young Men and Fire, and was mentioned by name in the text. My dad was the smartest being I’ve anytime met, and I can’t advice but feel like I accept a lot to alive up to. I may accept a few google hits, but I didn’t invented a new affectionate of science.
(Fold curve for cardboard airplane)
After you appeared on Li’l Bub’s allocution show, she went on to aftermath Kelley Deal’s new single. Tell us the truth: are you activity a little abashed about the abeyant competition?
[Video Link] I’ve accepted Mike Bridavsky, Li’l Bub’s dude, for a decade and accept a aerial attention for him and his studio, so if Li’l Bub takes afterwards him she’ll apparently do accomplished work. The Kelley Accord song articulate great. But no, I’m not intimidated. Get at me askew little meme kitten, let’s see what you got. Wade on in, motherfucker.
For the best absolute and astute athenaeum of advice about Steve’s recording philosophies and techniques that we’ve anytime seen, apprehend this abundant commodity from Complete on Sound. Rumors of a 2014 Shellac absolution are still aloof rumors, but aloof anticipation we’d acknowledgment it.
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