The Elusive Steve Albini
Steve Albini is a hard man to track down. After weeks of trying to contact the Shellac vocalist/guitarist/producer through Electrical Audio, his studio in Chicago, I’m starting to think that this is a dead end. Oh, wait… “This is Steve,” says the nasal voice I’ve heard countless times on record. My mind goes blank, and all I manage is a simple introduction and a weak pitch. Would he mind answering some questions? “I don’t know how you got this number” he says, “but whoever gave it to you is cool by me.” Whew!
The reason I’m nervous is that Albini has a reputation for being one of the crankiest men in indie rock. The more I talk with him, however, the more he seems to loosen up – if only slightly. His answers are sometimes abrupt, and some of my questions just seem to die, but he’s not nearly as bad as his reputation. Despite (or maybe because of) his degree in journalism from Northwestern University, I get the feeling he has no great love for music journalists. But, really – who does? After all, how many stupid questions can one person answer? Let’s find out.
Shellac started as most bands do, by cobbling a line-up together between friends. After the break-up of Albini’s previous, infamous band Rapeman, he found himself casting about for another project. “I began playing with Todd [Trainer, drummer] – we’d get together and play songs and talk about music, and we eventually decided to start a band,” says Albini. “We thought about doing it with just the two of us for a while, and that didn’t work out.” Sparse to begin with, it’s hard to imagine a more stripped-down Shellac. Enter Bob Weston. “I knew Bob from [recording] an album [with his previous band] The Volcano Sons, and I thought he was a fine bass-player and a good guy,” he recalls. “He came out to Chicago and played with us for a while, and that finalized the line-up.”
With such notably disparate personalities in the band, how does each member fit into the whole? “Bob is fantastic with the organizational aspects of the band – getting working papers organized, shipping [gear when traveling],” says Albini of the band’s fiercely DIY ethic. “I do quite a bit of the booking for shows in the States – I’m the guy that contacts clubs and organizes the specifics of the shows.” He pauses for a second before adding: “[and] Todd brings style to the party; he has style and we don’t!”
Not the most prolific of bands, Excellent Italian Greyhound is their first album in seven years. “[Writing songs isn’t] a quick process,” concedes Albini, “but it’s a pretty painless process.” So, why the gap between records? “It takes us a long time to do anything, but when we do turn things in to the record company, we’re not a priority,” he says, “because we don’t make demands on them.” Echoing this, he sums up the band’s philosophy. “We’d like our band to never, ever be anyone’s bad time,” he intones. “Ever!”
So, what does this new record sound like compared to the last album? “It would be a mistake to expect the record to be a baffling wonderment of change” he says pointedly. “We’re pretty comfortable with what we do, and I suspect all of our records will be circling a locus.” Fair enough.
Shellac isn’t exactly known for their cheery outlook on life. As far as lyrics go, one can’t listen to “A Prayer To God” or “The Watch Song”, whose main characters are a vengeful cuckold and a violent man at the end of his rope, respectively, without wondering about their origin. Albini balks, at first, thinking I’m associating him with these songs personally. “The characters in the songs aren’t necessarily us,” he insists, “but [to me] it’s important to accept that I’m not immune to those feelings.” So, is there a little part of Steve Albini in these characters? “These are universal parts of the human condition: everybody behaves badly and well at times.”
As for the way the band behaves onstage, Albini has a personal goal. “I like it when I can’t tell what’s happening, and my eyeballs go white, and I don’t really feel like I’m in control of the situation,” he says. “I can admit to to actually aspiring to that state of mind.” So, is it the real Steve that we see on stage? “I think it’s true that some bands have a stage persona that they adopt, [but] we’re not like that – the people we are onstage are the people you’d meet on the street.” And, with that and a curt goodbye, he’s gone.
by Kevin Nelson
Originally published in Chord Magazine, June 2006