Luna Kafé e-zine  Luna Kafé interview
flag US - Illinois - Full Moon 73 - 09/21/02

Steve Albini
- an interview with a Wizard of sound

albini-pic One of the most familiar names in rock music is the one of Steve Albini. For the past 20 years he's been keeping himself busy by making his own music (Shellac, Rapeman, Big Black to name a few), recording albums and earning a reputation as one of the best producers in the business. His work-rate is also second to none and few, if any can boast of a record as impressive as his. The likes of Nirvana, The Pixies, Slint, Low, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Mogwai, Palace, Neurosis, The Jesus Lizard, Bedhead, The New Year, Dianogah, The Ex, The Breeders, Jon Spencer Explosion, Sonna and Don Caballero have all benefitted from his Midas touch and created a unique sound that people will recognize for years to come. Although he has a reputation for being arrogant, Steve is a very polite and likable guy who's never afraid to say what he means - here's what he had to say to us.

Luna Kafé: When did you first get into recording and how?
Steve Albini: "As a hobby, in the late 1970s. I was in a band (Just Ducky), and we recorded ourselves a lot. In 1980, I moved to Chicago, and I recorded demo tapes for my friends' bands, and in 1981, the first Big Black record - the first thing I did that was an actual record."

Luna Kafé: Which recording engineers have had the most influence on you?
Steve Albini: "Iain Burgess, Bob Weston, John Loder, Peter Deimel, Alan Blumlein and Alan Lomax."

Luna Kafé: Electrical Audio was built by punk-rockers, is it a studio for people who operate in the same musical circuit as you do? What if a band like Limp Bizkit would call you and tell you that they would like to record at EA, what would your answer be?
Steve Albini: "When do you want to start?"

Luna Kafé: I've seen some pictures of you in an Electrical Audio-uniform, who's idea was it to have the staff of EA wear them? Though I find them rather neat, you remind me of a group of mechanics.
Steve Albini: "Bill Skibbe, one of the great men who built Electrical Audio, used to wear jumpsuits all the time. They are very practical. Someone (not me) decided we should invest in a bunch of them for everyone, and now I wear mine all the time. It has a lot of pockets, is durable and keeps my regular clothes from getting dirty and destroyed."

Luna Kafé: Most Icelandic bands and musicians have got hooked on digital recording equipment, I think ProTools is the most popular and I think that most studios are using it now, there is only one studio that still uses a tape-machine full time and it's probably the cheapest one. Are things heading in a similar direction inside the frame that you work in?
Steve Albini: "No. The trend you describe is driven by non-technical people wanting to get involved in recording without investing time and money in equipment and learning about it. Most small semi-professional studios are run this way, but not us. There is a lot of use of ProTools in professional studios, but this is mostly for the special effects it allows, not for sound quality. These special effects soon fall out of fashion, and I don't think this trend will define studios permanently. Do you remember when real drummers were told to sell their drum kits, because drum machines were going to "take over?" That same false prophesy is happening with regard to analog tape machines and ProTools now. It is a trend, and it will have some permanent impact, but it doesn't replace analog systems, which are more durable, sound better and are more flexible."

Luna Kafé: Why did you move to Chicago, was it to tend college or were you involved with any bands there at the time you arrived there?
Steve Albini: "I moved to Chicago in 1980 to go to college. I was in a punk band (Small Irregular Pieces of Aluminum), then an arty new-wave band (Stations), then I started Big Black."

Luna Kafé: What is it that you like so much about Chicago?
Steve Albini: "It is a city of manufacturing, so it is easy to get hardware, raw materials and other professional and construction requirements here. It is centrally located, so touring and communication are easy. I have been a lot of other places, and I can't imagine living anywhere else and doing as much work as I do."

Luna Kafé: Cities like Chicago, Washington DC, Olympia and Louisville seem to have a whole different outlook, music wise, than show business-cities like Los Angeles and New York. What do you think are the reasons for that?
Steve Albini: "The people here (and in the other cities you mention) are here for reasons associated with their lives in general (work, family, school, professional setting), rather than show business, so things like music, art and other creative pursuits tend to be done as passions and for camaraderie rather than as careers. Careerism brings with it an ugly insincerity and conservatism."

Luna Kafé: How is recording Shellac compared to recording other bands?
Steve Albini: "Easier. We are not novices, and we have a realistic expectation of what can happen in the studio, so we don't harbor fantasies about what "magic" will come to bear on our recordings."

albini-pic Luna Kafé: I once read an interview with you (don't remember where) and you were talking about Lollapalooza and how much you disliked that festival, but you said that if you were having a festival like that you'd pick bands like Slint, Fugazi, the Jesus Lizard and the Melvins to play there. Since Shellac is curating the next All Tomorrow's Parties-festival and you've already invited Fugazi to play and both Slint and the Jesus Lizard have broke up, would you think that the Melvins would fit into the line-up at ATP 2002?
Steve Albini: "I don't think I would have picked the Melvins, but they were examples (at the time, this has changed a bit) of bands who would be enlightening to the audience, rather than merely fitting into existing expectations. We have tried to use this as a guide in selecting bands for the ATP festival."

Luna Kafé: What does it mean to you being invited to curate an event like All Tomorrow's Parties?
Steve Albini: "It is an honor and a privilege that we hope to do justice to."

Luna Kafé: Your relationship with Corey Rusk and Touch and Go records has lasted quite a long time, what are the advantages of working with a guy like him?
Steve Albini: "He is honest, honorable and knowledgeable. He won't suggest bad ideas from ignorance or make demands from greed or unrealistic expectations. He treats the bands as friends, and that is all anyone could ever want. He is also a close personal friend of ours, and we can depend on him like sunrise."

Luna Kafé: Did you ever wanted to make Ruthless records a full time label? (Ruthless was a label that released Big Black and Naked Raygun among others)
Steve Albini: "No. It was a side-line effort, and that may explain why it wasn't successful. I didn't have the temperament or patience to follow through on it, and I stopped it before I created a string of disappointments."

Luna Kafé: On 1000 Hurts one can hear things that have never been heard on a Shellac record before, things like the radio on "QRJ", Todd's singing on "New Number Order" and a 'guitar solo' (I actually thought it was a distorted trumpet or something when I heard it first) on "Canaveral". Are you constantly trying to bend your idea of how rock and roll should sound?
Steve Albini: "We have no general conceptual thrust for the band, other than trying to make music that keeps our interest. When things are novel, they are probably things we have discovered by accident or investigation rather than by design."

Luna Kafé: Have you ever thought about adding some different instruments into your music, like trumpet for example? Bob's trumpet-playing that I've heard is really good, for example with Dianogah, Barry Black and Superchunk.
Steve Albini: "Our normal instrumentation has enough expressive range that I feel we are limiting it, rather than the other way around. It betrays hubris on the part of the artist to think his medium is limiting him, and I think we all recognize this. I don't think anyone has exhausted the range of sound possible in a conventional rock band, but people do become slaves to their own easiest techniques. Staying aware of what you're doing and trying to make use of all its possibilities is more rewarding than grabbing sounds at random and incorporating them as an easy means of adding variety. That said, I don't think it is impossible for us to use other instruments - we simply haven't wanted to."

Luna Kafé: You've been involved with the underground society for over twenty years now, is it a lot different now then it was when you started to get involve with it?
Steve Albini: "No. The mentality in the underground has been pretty consistent, though there are always people who are not in the underground by choice - people with grand expectations or dreams - and those people may express discomfort or make a disruptive attempt to become more significant than their natural place would allow. Me, I'm perfectly content to make music for its own sake and let audiences who are interested find out about it on their own."

Luna Kafé: What are your musical favorites at the moment?
Steve Albini: "Nina Nastasia, High Dependency Unit, the Southern Journey series of field recordings (Alan Lomax), Robbie Fulks, Bill Withers, Judd Judd, Dead Meadow, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, old Crazy Horse, Dead Moon... I could go on all night."

Luna Kafé: Do you have any advices for young recording engineers?
Steve Albini: "Read everything you can find about the technical side of recording, then experiment. Experiment in private first, so you don't make mistakes on other people's records. Doubt the conventional wisdom unless you can verify it with reason and experiment. Know what you're trying to do before you do it. Turning knobs at random isn't enlightening any more than throwing paint at a wall blindfolded will let you paint a nice picture."

Luna Kafé: ...and young bands (who have potentials)?
Steve Albini: "Find people who think like you and stick with them. Make only music you are passionate about. Work only with people you like and trust. Don't sign anything."

Luna Kafé: Are there any records that you've listened to and think "gee I wish that I had recorded this one"?
Steve Albini: "Not because I could have done better, but because I've never done anything this good: Crazy Horse's Zuma any early ZZ Top, AC/DC, Bill Withers, Patsy Cline's Crazy, Slint's Spiderland, The Pop Group's We Are Time, the Fall's Slates."

Luna Kafé: Do you still contribute some writing to fanzines like you did few years back, when you were writing for Forced Exposure?
Steve Albini: "Once in a while, but I don't have as much time on my hands, and I also don't think I deserve a platform any more. I'm busy doing my job, and being a loudmouth doesn't appeal to me as much as when I was younger and had the youthful delusion that I was smarter than everybody else."

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