Since the early 1990s, Steve Albini has been one of the loudest voices in the music industry.
Born in California, Albini grew up mostly in Montana. He moved to Evanston in 1980 to attend Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, where he earned a degree in Journalism and has lived in the Chicago area ever since. He has engineered records since about 1981 — approximately 2,000 and counting, from little known punk bands to rock legends like “Nirvana,” “The Pixies,” “The Stooges,” “Cheap Trick,” Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and more. Always working on a word-of-mouth basis, Albini has gained worldwide acclaim for his engineering methods. (He doesn’t call himself a producer for reasons he discusses in the interview).
He has also has been a member of three bands — “Big Black,” “Rapeman” and “Shellac,” the latter which recently released their fifth album, “Dude Incredible,” on Touch and Go Records.
Despite his reputation as a sound engineer, and the fact that he’s been in three bands, he may be most well known for his strong opinions on the state of the music industry.
Albini wrote what has been described as a seminal essay on the conduct of major record labels for a journal called “The Baffler” in 1994. That essay, in which Albini was severely critical of the way the major labels treated musicians, has been cited dozens of times over the years by the music press and Albini, never one to shy away from expressing his opinion, has gained the reputation of an outspoken critic of the mainstream music business and been described by some as the biggest curmudgeon in music.
The Chicago Ambassador found Albini to be quite the opposite. While he admits to having mellowed as he’s entered middle age (he’s now 52), we sat down with him at his North Side studio — Electrical Audio — and were able to uncover a side of him that is usually ignored.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) You’ve always been fiercely independent and have never seemed to worry about expressing your opinion. You also have a very definite sense of what is right and wrong when it comes to the music industry. What shaped that for you?
ALBINI) My principle experience of music is being a fan and secondary to that, I was in a band. Through being in a band, you learn the way the band ecosystem operates. If bands are competitive with each other, the ecosystem ends up being very cannibalistic and eats its own children and it sort of dies out. If the band scene is more collaborative and more cooperative, it can sustain itself for a very long time and that’s what we had in Chicago. I saw that in the very beginnings of the punk rock scene. Bands were constantly helping each other out. Naked Raygun had a coach house that they were renting and there was a basement in that house that was suitable for practicing, so every punk band practiced in there. They had a weekly schedule like bowling leagues. So, every band in Chicago would rehearse in that basement and that house became a focal point for the scene. Wax Trax record store. Jim and Danny (Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher) went out of their way to welcome in bands from out of town, they would put them up, they would organize shows for them. They would bring bands in from overseas. Then that sort of fostered an identity of Chicago as a music city, and that helped when bands from Chicago were touring because other places had heard about the music scene in Chicago. Bands would routinely lend each other equipment, sometimes band members, sometimes songs. There were so many ways all the musicians interwove into one big carpet of a community. So for me, that seemed like the obvious, most responsible, most honorable way to conduct yourself, is to be part of this fraternal network. To cooperate with other people, to help other people out, to highlight the things you thought were good, to make opportunities for people. So, when I was first exposed to the mainstream music business, long after being enculturated into the punk rock, sort of do-it-yourself fraternal community, I was exposed to the behavior of the mainstream music scene, where everything is trying to gain an advantage on everyone else. Your lawyer is trying to write a contract that fucks me, my lawyer is trying to write a contract that fucks you, we meet somewhere in the middle where we are both a little bit fucked and then eventually we’ll ignore the contract and sue each other. That sort of thing. So, that just seemed stupid and wrong and counter-productive and nothing has ever changed my mind about that. For 30 years I’ve been hearing from people who worked in the mainstream music industry and that methodology. I’ve been hearing that the way I do things is amateurish or is unprofessional because I don’t have contracts with people. I just deal with people that I trust, I do everything on a first name basis. If you book time in the studio, I don’t require that you send a deposit. The reason that I don’t is because I trust you. If I don’t trust you, then we’ll have a few more conversations until I do trust you, or I’m not going to do the session. So, the conventional way of doing things, which is to sort of lock things down as tightly as possible using prescribed procedures and legalistic thinking — not only does that not appeal to me, it seems like it organically fails. All of the people in business that operate that way have collapsed and are no longer making records whereas my friends and I who are all cooperative and collaborative, we are still here. We are still making records every day.
CA) You’ve kind of become this barometer amongst the rock writers. When there’s a new issue or development in the industry they seem to come to you for an opinion.
ALIBINI) I understand what you’re saying, but generally they don’t come to me. What happens is they wait for me to tweet something or wait for me to say something in some other venue, or they wait for somebody else to quote me and they just copy and paste that. That’s what passes for music journalism these days, finding things on social media and reprinting them. I do a lot of interviews, but people don’t often call me for a spot quote about something. If somebody that I worked with, or somebody famous dies, there’s this weird journalistic tradition of having people annunciate the value of people that just died. So I’ll occasionally get calls like that, but other than that, journalists just write what they are going to write.
CA) That’s pretty depressing.
ALBINI) I understand, I went to journalism school. I have a great respect for the history and tradition of journalism as a important social and political force and it depresses me tremendously to see that it has deteriorated to just pulling quotes and cut-and-paste jobs. It bugs me but that’s the environment that it is right now. It’s still possible to do good journalism however. There are some really great online journals. I really like “McSweeney’s,” I think that’s a great read. I think a lot of the stuff “Rolling Stone” has done online has been great — the perspectives. Their reporting has left something to be desired but their think pieces are generally pretty well argued. There’s a magazine called “Jacobin,” it’s pretty political but it’s a lot of pretty well reasoned essays on contemporary topics.
CA) It seems like there’s a pack mentality with the music press. What do you think when you’re called “the biggest curmudgeon in music” and things like that?
ALBINI) That’s not me. I’ve said this before but I think it’s appropriate: I’ve never met Sylvester Stallone. I don’t know anything about him. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has ever met Sylvester Stallone. But I kinda think he’s an asshole. I think that it’s completely understandable that other people would have an opinion about me without ever having met me or interacted with me and it would be presumptuous of me to try to squash that experience for that person. That somebody is probably having a high old time right now thinking about what an asshole I am. It’s probably really brightening his day, and that’s fine with me. In the same way that every now and again I will muse about what a prick Sylvester Stallone must be. It lightens my day, thinking no matter how bad things are, at least I’m not Sylvester Stallone — he’s a real prick. So I’m fine with that. I think it’s totally understandable that people who have never met me, who have formed an opinion based on very small and sometimes incorrect depictions. They have scant information; they want to form an opinion. I’m fine with letting them form an opinion.
CA) Do you think you’ve mellowed over the years?
ALBINI) I know for a fact that I have mellowed because there are specific things that used to enrage me that now I just don’t give a shit about. It has a lot to do with being older and recognizing how many of my problems are much bigger than my taste.
CA) Does your wife (Second City Manager and film director Heather Whinna) ever give you static over some comments that you might have made somewhere?
ALBINI) She kicks me under the table pretty regularly when we are in public. I appreciate that other people have more developed social graces than I do. I appreciate that other people are more tactful than I am. There’s not just social utility, but there’s also a greater good by having people be civil to each other. I think that’s an honorable perspective. Sometimes I have felt like what I wanted to say was funny enough that it didn’t matter if I was being rude or I felt that there was some greater point to be made by being blunt. I have caught myself in that error several times and I have apologized for it several times. I’m not the most tactful person but also I don’t have a burning desire to like you for superficial reasons. I prefer that somebody knows what type of a person I am and form an opinion of me than someone be neutral about me because I have said and done nothing to provoke any thought.
CA) It seems that the way you have set up your business, you don’t really have to answer to anybody or kiss anyone’s ass.
ALBINI) Well, no one does really. People think they do. But they think they do because they engineer situations where they are beholden to people who require coddling. I’ve just never allowed people like that to have any authority over me. If you work for somebody and that guy is a bastard and he wants you to kowtow to him or you’re going to lose your job if you don’t, I totally understand that. In a lot of cases it would be worth losing that job in order to find a job where you don’t have to do that. I’ve just always engineered my environment to be one where, if I’m not in charge, which is not really important to me…I don’t have a strong need to be in charge. But if I’m not in charge, at least I know that everyone involved in the enterprise is on equal footing. The bands that I’ve been in and the relationships I’ve had with record labels, the people who work here at the studio, we’re all one – it’s not like there’s a capo di tutti capi who controls how everyone behaves. We have a culture of a working method in the studio and everyone participates in that culture.
CA) A lot of people read about the curmudgeon stuff, and may not know that you have, along with your wife, raised money for needy families in Chicago around Christmas time for years now. You’ve raised more than a million dollars in 12 years. How did that start?
ALBINI) You asked if I’ve mellowed over the years, and Heather has been directly responsible for me being a better person in this regard at least. On her own, she used to go to the post office and get — at the post office they used to collect letters that were addressed to Santa Claus in a big bin. You could go to the post office and look through these letters that were addressed to Santa Claus and do something nice for somebody that wrote a letter.
CA) There was some sort of controversy?
ALBINI) The postal service stopped doing that. After more than 100 years, they stopped allowing people to go through those letters in a truly bizarre bit of paranoia. Apparently, someone who was either a criminal or resembled a criminal was going through the letters to Santa at one specific post office and that created a terror that went through the entire postal system and eventually led to shutting down that system. I think the fear was that a sex pervert would look at letters and find addresses of children and then somehow a crime would occur after that. I think that was the fear, and that fear shut down that program. Absolutely inexplicable. It started with Heather going to the post office and picking out a letter or two and us using our money to do something nice for a family that had written a letter. She works at The Second City. The people at The Second City, as an experiment, they had done a 24-hour improv show where they kept the stage open for 24 hours and done improv and raised money for a charity. They decided, let’s use the 24-hour show to raise money for Heather’s thing. That’s how the 24-hour show started raising money for letters to Santa. It’s gotten bigger and bigger every year and it’s now to the point that world-famous celebrities fly in from all over to help raise money and that money goes directly into the hands of some of the neediest people in the city. Now we work with aid organizations. We used to work with Jane Adams’ Hull House and now we are working with an organization called the Onward Neighborhood House and they solicit letters from their clients and families in need and those letters make their way to Heather and she goes through them and figures out which families we can help. If they have specific needs that they ask for in their letter, we try to satisfy those needs. And we also make sure that each household gets a significant enough amount of money so that they can change the trajectory of their whole family. That they can move out of the shit-hole that they are living in, they can buy a vehicle. There was one family for example that had to leave one of their children in Mexico because they couldn’t afford to get him over. We gave them enough money that not only would they be able to bring him over, but they would also be able to improve the whole standing of their entire family. People have been able to move out of abusive or dangerous living arrangements. People have been able to finish education, to take care of pressing medical needs. A lot of things have changed in a lot of people’s lives because of the efforts that Heather started.
CA) You attended Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Was journalism a childhood passion of yours?
ALBINI) I worked on the high school newspaper and that kind of excited me about it. I developed a sort of pantheon of personal heroes in journalism. Guys that wrote really well about mundane stuff. I really liked guys like Ring Lardner but I also liked guys in the newspaper tradition who used newspaper journalism as a means of covering more than the news, like H.L. Mencken and people like that. That was sort of what I wanted to do. In the tradition of journalism, I wanted to find out what happened and tell people about it.
CA) You wrote for some music fanzines, correct?
ALBINI) Yeah, after college I wrote for some music fanzines. I did all the stuff – at the time, if you were involved in the underground music scene, you did a lot of things. If you could draw, then you would do flyers, if you were a photographer you would take pictures of the bands. If you could write, you’d write for fanzines. If you had contacts in the bar scene, you would try to open up venues. If you had any skills on a sales or promotional level, you might start working as a promoter.
CA) How did you determine that you would stick with music instead of journalism?
ALBINI) When I got out of college, I got a job as a photograph retoucher. That job paid really well so I just carried on doing that as a straight job and I worked on music on evenings and weekends. In addition to that I started cultivating a modest clientele of freelance engineering gigs. And then eventually I had enough engineering work where I could afford to quit my job and work full-time as a freelance engineer.
CA) That was around 1987?
ALBINI) Somewhere in there, yes.
CA) You first engineered for a band in 1981 or 1980?
ALBINI) The first session that I ever did was a demo session in 1978. But the first thing that I ever did that made it onto a record was the “Big Black” record in 1981.
CA) Because it was your band, did you do it out of necessity?
ALBINI) I just borrowed some equipment and recorded it in my apartment. Having done that, I had some technical acuity so I would do the same things for other bands. I would help other bands record demos. You do a few demos and eventually one of them becomes a record and then all of a sudden you’re a guy who’s made records and you can start making records for other people.
CA) You ended up just liking it?
ALBINI) It’s equal parts me being suited to the work and that I like doing it. And also, there was a need. In every musical community, there’s a need for people to do that sort of thing. And Chicago had a couple. There was a guy named Tim Powell who now runs Metro Mobile which is a mobile recording studio. He started out with just a panel truck and a 4-track tape machine and he would record all the punk bands at their practice space or at gigs or in his garage or whatever. And then there was a guy named Iain Burgess who was an English ex-pat and he was involved with a lot of the early new wave and punk bands here in Chicago. He recorded “Naked Raygun” and “The Effigies” and all the good bands. He eventually moved to France and opened a studio there called Black Box, which is a terrific studio. He died a few years ago but the studio is still going.
So every community had somebody like me, who was like a friend who could do recordings for the bands. In Madison there was Butch Vig and Steve Marker at Smart Studios. In Minneapolis there was Brian Paulson. In every town, there was someone who would make themselves available to record bands.
CA) In the early days, you knew a lot of the bands you recorded. Have you ever had to solicit bands?
ALBINI) I’ve never been comfortable doing that, so I’m glad that I have never had to. I would not be comfortable going up to a band and saying ‘Hey, let me work on your record.’ That would make me feel like I was putting them on the spot. If they didn’t want me to, it would be awkward, because now here I was confronting them. I was now in their face about it. Like a guy asking a girl to dance. It’s not in my nature to do something like that so I wouldn’t have done it.
CA) You do have some bands on your wish list to work with?
ALBINI) Obviously there are bands that I’ve been a fan of my whole life that I’d love to get a chance to work with. I can’t really complain though. I’ve gotten to make record with The Stooges and Cheap Trick. Quite a few of my personal heroes, I’ve gotten the chance to work with, so I have no complaints whatsoever. I do think I would do a good job on certain bands that are longstanding idols of mine.
CA) I’ve read that you’d love to work with Neil Young, Willie Nelson.
ALBINI) Sure, yes. I’m sure they could find my phone number.
CA) What would you define as a good song or a good band?
ALBINI) Well, the bands that excite me are the bands that surprise me. At any point in musical development, bands will either be emulating their heroes or doing stuff that’s spontaneous and intuitively theirs and therefore original or they will be resting on their haunches and waiting for their next inspiration. What appeals to me is a band that surprises me and sometimes it could be a band that you thought had gone through its whole life cycle and has petered out and is trailing off into the sunset of their career and then they will surprise you. Like, every three or four records Neil Young uncorks a real stormer, just incredible. There are people who have been in the music scene a long time and you think you understand them and then they put themselves in a new context and they are incredible again. A good example would be, in Chicago there’s this band called D. Rider, “Dead Rider.” It’s Todd Rittmann and Thymme Jones and some others. Todd Rittman’s been in bands since the 80s and the same with Thymme Jones. They’ve been around and in the music scene for a very long time. You kind of know what they’re up to, and then this band comes out and not only is it unlike what they used to do, it’s unlike things that you think they might have been inspired by. Just striking, really original, really terrific band. So, it’s people that have reinvigorated themselves when put in a new context.
CA) Do you lose any respect for someone who is a fan of a band you just despise?
ALBINI) No, not at all. Music means different things to different people. For some people, they just want to have something on that’s sort of background music. So for them, getting all amped up about a pop song is the highlight of their day. If it’s some cute sing-along thing that they can sing along with and feel like they are enjoying that music in its idiom, that’s fine. I don’t listen to music like that, I don’t like music like that, but I understand somebody who would. Some of my good friends are die-hard “Rush” fans. I don’t get it, but I’m fine with it. I’m glad they found something that they’re into.
CA) You never call yourself a producer. It seems like there’s a negative meaning to that word to you.
ALBINI) Well, there’s a specific definition for producer. In the old label hierarchy, producer was the guy that made the record for the record label. The producer was responsible for basically all of the artistic decisions on the record: who was going to sing, what the instrumentation was going to be, what the arrangements were going to be like. Everything from top to bottom was the responsibility of the producer. I certainly don’t fit in that role. Once the pop music era turned into the singer-songwriter and self-contained band era in the 60s and 70s, then the producers were more responsible for the creative decisions but not the musical decisions. They wouldn’t be responsible for writing the songs or writing the lyrics, or approving them. But they would be responsible for all the other decisions like the arrangements. I certainly don’t do that either. Basically all I do is the engineering part. If a band wants to play their song slow or fast, if they want to have a tambourine on it or not have a tambourine, if they want it to sound boomy and bassy or crisp and bright, that’s all fine. I don’t have a position on any of those topics. My job is just to facilitate their production. The way that I make records, the bands themselves are their own producers. In every case, I answer to the band. I don’t answer to the label, I don’t answer to the manager, I don’t answer to the lawyer, I answer to the band. If the band wants to make the record in a certain way, I’m here to help, that’s what it boils down to.
CA) And it’s no skin off your nose, because you are not taking any royalties.
ALBINI) I don’t take royalties as a matter of principle. I also think that they are a corrupting influence. I think they are not an appropriate way to compensate somebody in my capacity. If you are a songwriter and a musician and you sing and perform your own song, every time somebody buys one of your songs you should get your royalty. I’m not saying that royalties are inherently wrong, I’m just saying when I work on a record for a couple of weeks, if I’m paid for those couple of weeks, we’re good. It’s exactly the same if you hired someone to paint your house. You don’t have to keep paying them just because the paint didn’t fall off.
CA) You ever think about how much money you could have made over the years if you had taken royalties?
ALBINI) Well, there are two equations. One is if I had taken a royalty on all of these records, how much money would that have been. That’s one equation. And the other equation is, what other part of my life would I have not had by virtue of taking royalties. For example, I know there are records that I got to work on principally because I wasn’t being paid a royalty. Because it was a bargain to work with me, the band chose to work with me rather than someone else. So, that’s work that wouldn’t have been able to do if I had been taking royalties all along. There’s a significant part of my work history that would have just evaporated. The other thing is that I have been actively supportive of the underground music scene by making myself available and helping bands out as much as I can. As soon as I become a ‘professional’ and ensnared in the professional ranks where royalties and contracts are the norm, I would be shutting out a portion of my clientele as well and those are the people who I think make the most interesting music and the people that I’m proudest to be associated with. So, on the one hand, yes, I could have made a lot of money from certain specific records if they had agreed to do them with me and if they had agreed to pay me a substantial royalty. I could have made a lot of money from those couple of records. I’m pretty sure that I would have missed out on the most important part of my career by doing that and I don’t think that would have been a worthwhile trade-off. In round numbers, we’re talking about $6 to $8 million, but that’s very round numbers. I also don’t feel like anyone has taken $6 to $8 million from me.
CA) You’re not begging for money on a corner.
ALBINI) It’s rough to run this, a recording studio is a rough business. It’s really hard to make a living, just because almost everything that you can do in the studio, there’s a means to do it cheaply or for free in the digital paradigm. So, to convince people to come into a recording studio and spend money to work in an acoustic space with trained engineers and good microphones and that sort of stuff, you really have to deliver value for the money that they spend.
CA) It’s very cut-and-dried. Your rates are right on your website.
ALBINI) Yes. I’ve never felt like I was underpaid. I never finished a session and somebody wrote the check at the end of it and I never felt like I wasn’t getting enough. I think that principle of contentment is as important as this capitalist notion of trying to maximize value or income or whatever.
CA) And from everything I’ve ever read, you’ve always been willing to work with anyone.
ALBINI) Basically if they legitimately want me to work on the record, then I’m down to do it. Every once in awhile I’ll get an inquiry from a management company or something where somebody has a wild hair up his ass about me working on a record with a totally inappropriate artist but you can sniff that out, you can tell it’s not a serious inquiry.
CA) What do you mean?
ALBINI) Like, if you get an inquiry from a manager and he says ‘I represent this artist and we’re looking for a producer and your name came up.’ That’s the sort of language that you get. It’s not the same as ‘We really want to come into Electrical Audio and make a record, is Steve available?’ That’s the sort of language from somebody that I know is definitely interested in making a record here and that I’d be happy to work on their record. The ‘and your name came up,’ those types of conversations typically go nowhere because those people want to be massaged into making a decision. They want me to pitch to them and I’m unwilling to pitch.
CA) It’s interesting that for a lot of your work, you get no credit for. What determines whether you get a credit or not?
ALBINI) I have no preference. I tell bands that I have a slight preference not to be mentioned just because I feel it puts them in an awkward position because they are going to get asked about it and I don’t think they should have to answer for me and what dumb things I put on Facebook. So, I have a slight preference to not be mentioned but it’s their record and I understand somebody wanting to thank someone for working on their record, so I don’t feel strongly about it one way or the other.
CA) You talked about retouching photos as one of your “straight jobs” early in your career. Is photography a passion of yours?
ALBINI) When I was in high school I took pictures a lot, I had a dark room at home. But I haven’t spent five minutes in a darkroom since I left high school.
CA) Outside of music, you’re an avid poker player and you cook. Do you still have the cooking blog?
ALBINI) I haven’t updated the blog in over a year, but I still cook every day. The cooking blog was set up by my wife as a sort of repository of all the pictures she was taking of the dinners I was making, and then I would write a paragraph about it. Then it got to the point where I was writing longer things, and then people started noticing it and then I felt a weird obligation to write on it and it got tiring. Basically, it was supposed to be a modest thing between me and my wife and maybe a couple of our friends, and it became this thing where other people where paying attention to it, people that I didn’t even know. I enjoyed writing about what I cooked for Heather, so I probably will occasionally put something on it, but it’s not a regular thing.
CA) You seem like you have a definite need to be heard, whether it’s on the blog or wanting to be a journalist when you were younger.
ALBINI) I wouldn’t characterize it that way. I have a lot of creative output and I have outlets for it. I genuinely don’t care if anybody else is listening. When the band is practicing and writing songs, other people never come into the conversation. It’s the three of us. We’re trying to make a record that we’re into, we’re trying to write songs that we are into. If we want to do a show that kicks ass, it’s because the three of us want to kick ass. That’s exclusively it. All of these things are very selfish. When I’m writing something on the cooking blog, I hope Heather reads it, I hope she likes it. I don’t give a shit about anybody else. When I make dinner for Heather, I hope she eats it and I hope she likes it.
CA) Isn’t that the gist of your advice to bands — to not pay attention to the outside, kind of like ‘follow your heart?’
ALBINI) I feel like people are the most interesting when they are the most genuine. Like when you listen to a piece of music that really touches you. What touches you about it is not the notes and the chords and progression and the key, and all the technical details. What touches you about it is that you can tell that there’s a person on the other side of that song who has something to say and you’re interacting with that person. It’s the same with any great art. One of my favorite painters is Mark Rothko. A couple years ago, I saw an exhibition in London and it was the paintings that he was doing at the end of his life, which were all just opaque, black. His thing was that he would paint these very rich, very dense color fields and the one that he was doing towards the end of his life, you felt like you were looking into pure despair. There’s even one painting where there’s this really intense layering of pigment and then varnish and then pigment and then carbon pigment, and oil paint, and you can see that there’s this undulating mass that was worked on really, really intently at the center of the frame. And then at the bottom, there was like this smear of three fingers like ‘oh, fuck it.’ And you can tell that’s the moment where he gave up. You can feel he was working on this thing, trying to purge himself of this heaviness. He had gone over and over this one little area trying to make it resonate with this overwhelming feeling that he had and you could see that he just stopped at one point and sort of turned his back on this thing. And very shortly after that series of paintings, he killed himself. So, that as profound an artistic experience that I can have, looking at one of Mark Rothko’s paintings and thinking about the act of him painting and then thinking about the resolution in his life, like ‘how do I get out of this? I guess I just fucking bleed myself to death.’
CA) I think it’s interesting that you seem to have two sides. A lot of artists are lousy business people and business people are usually not artists.
ALBINI) Well, I’m a terrible businessman from a capitalist standpoint. My business has been at a break-even, survival level for years. I’m not making a bunch of money. I’m not successful in Warren Buffet terms.
CA) You’ve survived, and you have this technical ability and the other side where you’re an artist. It seems kind of rare, most people are one or the other. What do you identify more with?
ALBINI) Wow. (pause). I think my principal identity is that I’m a recording engineer. My principle joy in music though is playing with Shellac, with my band. But my most regular joy is hanging out with my wife and cooking dinner. So, if I had to identify myself as one thing, I’d say I’m a recording engineer. If somebody said, ‘What do you do creatively?’ I’d say I’m in a band. If someone said ‘What’s the most important part of your day?’ I’d say hanging out with Heather, making dinner.
CA) What would you say is the best part of your job?
ALBINI) The satisfaction of seeing other people achieve something. Like when I’m working in the studio with a band and they like their own record and you can tell that they are really getting off on their own accomplishment, it’s like watching kids open presents on Christmas. You just feel so great that somebody’s been able to have that experience and that you helped them do it.
CA) Are there major differences between working with a new, unknown band versus an established band?
ALBINI) The more established bands generally have stronger opinions because they have an identity that’s been reinforced, either internally within the band or through some level of success so those sessions tend to go quite smoothly. But bands that are just starting out, I think they appreciate the experience on a very personal level more. For example, you see people posting shit on Instagram saying ‘We’re arriving at the studio!’ and ‘we just walked through the front door,’ ‘we just put our guitars on’ and things like that.
CA) Probably because they’ve been pinching pennies to afford to record with their band.
ALBINI) Sure, and that’s the way I’ve always approached music as well. I’ve always had a straight job while being a working musician. My bread and butter gig has never been playing in a band. I don’t think I would have the same relationship to music if if had been. If I had to make a living, if I had to knock out the rent by playing 20 shows a month or that sort of thing, I probably wouldn’t have the same sort of relationship to music than I have.
CA) You’ve never had to rely on making money from “Shellac” to survive, because you have this studio and business. Do you think you could have if you weren’t working full-time here?
ALBINI) Yeah. We could make a meager living off of “Shellac” but it would be a meager living and I don’t want to do it. I like the band too much to ever resent it the way I resent my job sometimes.
CA) What do you think of the increased popularity of vinyl records over the years?
ALBINI) I think some of it is novelty, but that doesn’t bother me. There was a retro-craze in guitar amplifiers and guitars for a while and that sustained itself and people realized that a lot of these old amplifiers and guitars were really well built and sounded great and were very useful. So that sustained that perspective. It may have started with a little bit of novelty, but the fact that those tools work well made sure that it endured. I feel the same way about the vinyl resurgence. When people have collections of records that they can play on a hi-fi at home, they get to have an experience with music that’s actually a really nice experience. So, I don’t think it should surprise anybody that it sustains itself because when you’re at home listening to records on a hi-fi it sounds much nicer than if you’re listening to ear buds on an el train.
CA) You’ve said a lot about MP3 and so-called piracy in other places and I am not interested in that so much, but I am curious about your opinion of audiences picking and choosing songs rather than buying a whole album?
ALBINI) Yeah, that doesn’t bother me. It does change the relationship. I’ve always thought of music in terms of albums. You go to a record store to buy an album. Occasionally you’d buy a single if you were curious about a band and wanted an introduction to a band. In the punk rock arena, bands couldn’t afford to put out albums, so they’d put out singles. There’s a particular utility to singles and EPs but I’ve always thought of rock music being in an album format, so I guess it’s a shame that it’s not seen as much in an album format, but also it doesn’t bother me at all.
CA) You’ve also said that because people are sharing more digital song files, bands are getting more exposure and that’s a good thing for the band.
ALBINI) Within the industry, people use the term “exposure” because they are always thinking in terms of marketing and promotional terms. I don’t think of it that way. I think of it as establishing a relationship between a band and an audience. And now, that relationship can be supremely efficient. A band can appeal directly to their audience and say ‘hey, we want to make an album, we don’t have enough money, can you guys help us out on this Kickstarter?’
CA) That was my next question. Do you think the fans feel more of a sense of ownership when they help a band through a crowdsourcing campaign?
ALBINI) Definitely audiences feel more connected to the bands that they like because they can have direct interaction. Like, if you’re following your favorite band on Twitter and they respond to your Tweet, then you’ve just had a direct interaction with someone in a manner that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, literally unthinkable that somebody out of the blue could get ahold of Peter Frampton and say ‘nice work with the Talk Box’ and he would come back with ‘yeah, thanks it’s hard on my teeth’ or whatever. It doesn’t matter what it is, that would have been unthinkable. And now, it’s ordinary, it’s commonplace. And that is, from a cultural and artistic standpoint, I think that is more healthy for music and the artistic community than it could be considered a drawback.
CA) Do you think the future of the music industry is looking bright?
ALBINI) It’s obvious that bands and their audiences will weather whatever scenario the technological universe is in. The bands and their audiences will be fine, because one way or another, the audience will find the music and find a way to support it, and one way or another the bands will conduct themselves in a way that allows that to continue. The previous notion of the music industry, where you had big corporations that found all the talent, recorded all the music and then manufactured all the records and sold them to all the retail outlets, that’s gone for good. I don’t mourn that at all. I think that was a pile of shit from top to bottom. I think it was a poor substitute for the kind of thing that bands were doing on a personal level and independent labels were doing in the underground and it does not bother me at all that that has collapsed. It’s taken a lot of money out of the game. So now, people who used to spend a quarter-million or half-million (dollars) on a record are spending $10,000 or $15,000 making an album. But I also don’t see that as a bad thing. That kind of efficiency is where people like me have always operated. So, I’ve always seen that as a goal in and of itself. Being efficient in your endeavors is good, full stop. Like, recycling materials. Making sure you don’t waste things that cost resources. Making sure that you don’t waste people, you don’t waste the efforts of people to do meaningless stuff. I think that efficiency is good for itself.
CA) What would you tell a group of 17-year-old guys playing in their garage right now? Any advice for them?
ALBINI) The principle advice is the same advice I’ve always given, which is don’t listen to other people. Find people that think like you do and burrow into that mania so that you have a thing that is uniquely yours. If I’m going to like your band or anyone is going like your band it’s because that band expresses something uniquely yours that’s genuine and different from what other people are doing. That’s what people respond to. People identify with bands, they react to them, they respond to them, they’re startled by them. Whatever it is, it’s because there’s something unique and genuine about them. So if you’re three guys in a garage and you’re trying to figure out what you’re doing, don’t look for outside influence. Figure it out yourselves. Talk about the things that most excite you about music, talk about the things that turn you on when you see it in other people and figure out if there’s a thing about you that’s like that and just burrow into that thing. To me, the people that are the most inspirational are the people who have a core set of ideas that no one else would bother defending but they would defend until their last tooth. Like Kim Deal from “The Breeders,” the last couple of years she’s been putting out these solo singles, the Kim Deal Solo Series.
CA) Did you work on those?
ALBINI) I’ve worked on some of them, it doesn’t matter. Those records are beautiful. Every single one of them is this little, unique, crystalized perfect idea. Working with Kim in the studio on a Breeders record or on her solo records can be tiring, because she has this monomania about what she’s trying to do. She will not quit until it is exactly, precisely the way she wants it to be. And if she changes her mind along the way, she changes her mind. It’s not a big deal. But she will not suffer anything that isn’t exactly the way she likes it. And when you listen to those records, you can hear the absolute purity of her ideas. There’s no dilution, there’s no filter. No other person has run interference between you and Kim Deal when you’re listening to those singles. Those records are magical.