Perfect Sound Forever

Shellac interview

Steve Albini interview by Billy Hell
(April 2005)

Shellac are one of the greatest rock bands the planet Earth has ever thrown up. Seriously.

Steve Albini might be known to depressive kids in hoodies as "that guy who recorded the last Nirvana album," but his guitar playing in Shellac, Rapeman and Big Black is some of the most vicious and original since Wire set a standard for art-punk onslaught. Bassist Bob Weston played in the often comedic and drastically under-rated Volcano Suns, and when not recording other bands can often be found in Mission of Burma and Rachel's. Holding his sticks upside down and flailing away like a demonic cartoon beast, Todd Stanford Trainer has evolved into one of the most compelling and original drummers around.

I was lucky enough to witness eight Shellac gigs in 2004, and after the fifth performance, on the second of four nights at London's Scala, I asked them a few questions. Earlier, Bob took questions from the crowd, whilst Steve tuned up, a regular comedy feature of Shellac gigs. I asked him what his favorite Fall album is, and he replied that he liked The Real New Fall Album a lot.

PSF: You seemed a hell of a lot more aggressive at the start of tonight's gig than you were the last couple of nights.

Steve Albini: I don't really know what I'm doing when I'm up there, so...

PSF: Aggression is a good thing to have in a band who kick ass!

SA: I want what we're doing to make sense. I've never liked bands that play cutesy music with cute subject matter, who then try to imbue it with some energy that doesn't really come across. I much prefer a band who seem like they're thinking the way their music is implying, rather than putting on a stage persona. I like to feel that when I'm watching a band, that what I'm watching on stage is genuine, that's all. That's literally the only thing that matters to me.

PSF: It's nice if the crowd reacts in a way that is appropriate...

SA: If I'm in a crowd I agree with you, but when I'm on stage I don't really pay too much attention to the crowd. I feel kind of funny saying that because we're obviously playing in front of people, but I don't really care. I think it's kind of selfish of me, but I feel that when the three of us are playing, we're playing for the three of us. The audience almost seems to disappear. If Bob and Todd like what we're playing, I don't really care if everyone else hates it. It doesn't bother me at all.

PSF: A lot of Shellac songs have a dynamic that instills aggression in some fans, but very soon after that there's always a drop down, to a quieter or weirder section that dissipates all that rowdiness and leaves the mosh pit floundering. When these guys go crazy and start pushing everyone around, it's hilarious because they're dominated by the music, which is structured in a way that doesn't let them keep up the shoving for more than a minute or so. For example, nearly everything might drop out and leave just Todd hitting a cymbal. Do you ever consider that when writing songs?

SA: No, it's more a matter of us structuring any particular song to a shape we have in mind. We're trying to execute it. We're trying to make sure it moves properly from one thing to another. In a lot of our songs something is stated and then it's implied, or it's stated and then it disappears and it comes back later. The pacing of a song is more important than what we're actually playing. The actual notes we play are not so important. I have to say we don't give any consideration to the audience when writing songs. Every now and again, we'll realize we've played three boring songs in a row and get self-conscious about it and make sure we don't play another boring song we'll play something more exciting but it's always something that we feel like playing. So it's like we're boring ourselves rather than being terribly concerned about anyone else.

PSF: Certain songs lead into others, don't they? "The End of Radio" to "My Black Ass"?

SA: Two or three of those links have developed, and a couple of them have changed as well. You do things a certain way for a while when you get little things on your mind, then you get tired of it and change things around.

PSF: How did the emergency amps work out? [Shellac's amps and drum kit had been held up by US customs and only arrived in time for the second London gig]

SA: They were alright, but I didn't really care for 'em.

PSF: The bass seemed dramatically heavier tonight.

SA: It's just a matter of physical comfort. Todd has drums of very specific sizes which are set up in a very specific way, and when there's a rented kit, it won't necessarily even go there. Its like if you were a piano player and suddenly had to play on a piano that's three feet too long and a foot and a half higher it's exactly that difficult. Bob and I have these amps that are set up the way we like them so that it's something we don't have to worry about.

PSF: Would you say you were perfectionist?

SA: Not really, no.

PSF: Not even in terms of getting your records sounding great?

SA: Kind of, but it's more a matter of if you have a choice between doing something the way you like and the way you don't like, you're going to do it the way that you like! It's the same with our amplifiers. If you have a preference, why not indulge that preference?

PSF: How do you feel in retrospect about the sound of your albums? To me it seemed that 1000 Hurts went back to the sound of Action Park, whereas Terraform sounded as if you might've spent a little too long, maybe a little too labored, and lost some energy?

SA: Yeah, I agree, but I also have to say that if we hadn't been happy with Terraform we wouldn't have bothered putting it out. We were able to work a lot faster on 1000 Hurts and even though it takes us a long time to work quickly, I think the more time we spend on recording, the more it gets tweaked and managed and ends up sounding kind of freakish.

PSF: Bob said you'd recorded eight tracks instrumentally that now just need the vocals added.

SA: A couple of them are actually completely finished. A couple of the eight are not going to fly. We'll end up redoing them in some way, or giving up on them. So we're about halfway towards an album.

PSF: What are the titles of the unreleased songs you've been playing at the gigs? I've been referring to two of my favorites as "Farewell Transmission" and "Born Unadorned."

SA: The second of those is "Be Prepared" and the first is "The End of Radio." There's one called "Lulabelle" that we played last night.

PSF: That's the really quiet one where drunk people get to shout stupid stuff and spoil the atmosphere. Did that song evolve from an improvisation in "Billiard Player Song?"

SA: Sort of we had little bits and pieces. You might come up with a ten-second idea and play it until it becomes a complete song, or throw it in places. So sometimes in the middle of a song we'll play something that we're working on. It gives us an excuse to play it and be comfortable without being too concerned about it being finished.

PSF: There's also the song about the dead people where Bob shouts, "Hang on!" off mike towards the end.

SA: I think that's called "Hang On."

PSF: That could be one of the weirdest lyrics you've written. It seems like science fiction, but also mythical and primitive.

SA: We haven't played that one in a long time. We started playing it before the war and it has all these violent images of a bunch of people dying, and their ghosts taking revenge, and all this sort of stuff. It seemed uncomfortable to do that, with this unintentional political content.

PSF: Was there an idea there of an ancient belief that when people die they become a star up in the sky?

SA: That's kind of stolen. There's a band from Kentucky called Rising Shotgun, and they had a song about this bank robber and they were describing all the violence in his relationship with his wife, or whatever, and they sang, "The stars were bullet holes to something brighter." I tried to steal that image in a way that wouldn't be apparent. I combined it with a whole bunch of myths. Well, not myths, so much, as prehistoric understanding of what stars are. There is a persistent belief in ghosts, which is baffling. Twenty-first century and people still believe in ghosts!

PSF: You don't, obviously.

SA: Nah, fuck that! I think it's pretty amazing that two people on opposite sides of the world can look up and see the same thing. One guy looks up at the sky and then eight hours later another guy on the other side of the world looks up and sees exactly the same thing. They have no connection to each other, they don't know each other, but they've accidentally shared this moment. I think that's a really beautiful thing.

PSF: Do you think Shellac will keep going until the year 2025?

SA: I don't know, couldn't tell ya! I'd like it to. The older we get, the more complicated our lives get and the more difficult it becomes for us to find any time whatsoever to deal with the band. By the same token, the more cumbersome our lives are, the more important it is that we get to do it now and again.

PSF: It's a shame Shellac takes so long to make records. I worry that one of you might die before you finish the next one. John Peel died what if one of you died?

Bob Weston: We could cobble it together!

SA: Yeah, we could fake it.

PSF: Who's the most replaceable member of Shellac?

SA: OK, so in the Shellac death pool, who do you think is going to go first?

BW: Maybe I'll flip a coin...Steve's the one who's already had a heart attack, so he's most likely to die!

SA: Todd, you don't eat enough, so your heart might explode one of these days.

BW: I have genetic heart disease.

SA: But I've already had a heart attack.

Todd Trainer: I'm sure I had a heart attack in Scotland.

SA: You need to eat more!

PSF: Have you really had a heart attack?

SA: Yes, I had a heart attack when I was twenty-five. I had a viral infection of the pericardium.

BW: He had some worms in his heart.

SA: I had the dropsy! I had consumption!

BW: We slipped some pills in his food, and it cleared right up.

TT: If Steve goes first, Bob and I are in for some royalties.

PSF: No way! Steve's wife will take them all!

BW: He doesn't have a wife.

SA: You can't be married against your will. I've told her that a thousand times!

BW: Maybe you can have a kid against your will?

PSF: Back to the year 2025 what do you think music will be like? Do you think there will be any interesting changes?

SA: I haven't heard any drastic changes in music in a long time. There are a lot of fads that are riding on technological developments.

PSF: Some people might think you're being kind of Luddite.

SA: Some people are fucking idiots! I don't think anyone who genuinely knows me would think I'm opposed to technology.

[Bob finds a bugle and plays it]

PSF: I'm going to have to make an MP3 of this for the Shellac Soulseek bootleggers!

SA: We played a show in Louisville and the bugler from the Churchill Downs racetrack started the show playing that bugle call. He came out in his racing skins, in his silks.

BW: He had on the whole red shirt, white pants, big black boots.

SA: He had this yard long bugle. It was fantastic! He's the guy who blows the Kentucky Derby every year. Have you ever seen some of these guys who blow trumpets every day for decades? Their lips end up looking like a fucking doormat!

PSF: Have you sustained any bodily damage from playing guitar?

SA: I don't think so, aside from these blisters.

BW: I have a lower back problem. Maybe it's from wearing that heavy bass? I don't wear it very often though.

PSF: You've had a lot of guitar strap failure problems recently.

SA: This is two straps tied together because both of them broke the other night. I have to go find another guitar strap tomorrow.

BW: The thing about playing these shows is we'll be playing a week of shows and my fingertips will get all destroyed and then after a week they'll be nice and hard and ready to play, and then the tour's over. I should just get some sandpaper the week before and rub my finger for a week.

SA: I always feel bad for Todd. We didn't have time to rehearse before we came over here and we have to jump right into this heavy schedule and Todd gets these giant blood blisters on his hands. He has to play with these incredibly painful blisters for the rest of the trip. If there was anything we could do...if someone could come up with a way to save that problem they would make a million dollars!

PSF: Maybe by the year 2025?

SA: In the year 2025!

TT: Rehearsal.

SA: Hey, I'm with you there. I'm totally down with the rehearsal concept, it's just practically it doesn't work out that often.

TT: True.

Bill Skibbe [Shellac soundman]: Everyone in 2025 will play V-drums, virtual drums.

PSF: Maybe everything will go the other way, back to being more primitive.

BS: I don't think so. In the future all music will sound like it does when you walk into a guitar centre. It'll be hell on earth!

SA: In the future all music will sound like ring-tones.

PSF: But that's a two way process because ring-tones can recall more information and be programmed to sound like non-ring-tone sounds.

SA: OK, when you hear ring-tones now, that's what music in the future will sound like.

PSF: I think we're already there with some of it.

SA: I guess we're in the future then!

PSF: You often improvise lyrics when you play "The Billiard Player Song" and recently you've been focusing on old people. In 2025 you'll all be old. Will you be playing billiards?

SA: I hope so!

PSF: Why are you singing about old people?

SA: I think old people are really cool. I like being around old people. I like talking to them. My grandmother is dying.

I had a chance to go to California where I spent three or four days just sitting in a hospital talking with my grandmother. She said some ballsy smart shit that I would never have expected her to have said. It was one of the most enjoyable weeks of my life.

I had almost exactly the same experience when my grandfather was dying. I went out to California and I spent a week hanging out with my grandfather who was one of the coolest motherfuckers I ever met. Take as your starting point for a conversation with an old person that at one point he was a young person like you just as wild, just as crazy, fucked as many women and had as many radical thoughts as you did, lived through it, grew out of it and absorbed that into his life and conducted his whole life as an adult and raised a family and went through his whole working life absorbing similar knowledge along the way.

If you can have a genuine conversation with an old person, you will end up infinitely more enriched than you will talking to some pipsqueak art student who thinks that he's the only person who knows how things should be. Old people are fucking cool, I really like 'em.

PSF: So you're looking forward to being old?

SA: I'm already old and I'm having a blast!

PSF: How old are you?

SA: 42

BW: 39

TT: 41

BS: 32

PSF: What was "Song Against Itself" all about? What gave you the idea of a song against itself?

BW: It's about this bicycle we saw. We played a show in San Francisco the same day as a weird bicycle rodeo. Who was it put on by?

SA: The Cyclo Drum. They're a bunch of bicycle messengers and sort of bicycle terrorists.

BW: They're these crazy loft-living bicycle messengers in San Francisco. They put on a bike rodeo where they would wear clown suits and built these wacky bikes. Some were like three-storey high bikes, and on some they would jump over ramps with flames, very low tech. One bicycle was made from two bicycles welded together in opposite directions and so the two people get on and they would try to ride it in opposite directions, but they couldn't, and that was called the Bicycle Against Itself. Who dares ride the Bicycle Against Itself?

SA: There was an announcer running round like a circus director all the time, like, "Coming up, we have the four man margarita mixer!" They had a bicycle powered margarita mixer, it was these blenders on a table. They had a flame throwing bicycle: "And tonight the Aerial Lighting Bicycle of Death!" and "Who dares ride the Bicycle Against Itself?"

PSF: So that just became "Song Against Itself?"

BW: Yeah, I guess, but I don't quite remember. There was something else mixed in there to sort of not make a lot of sense!

PSF: The other song you sang on 1000 Hurts was "Shoe Song" which had that reference to Slint's "Good Moring Captain" in the chorus, "I miss you!"

BW: Yeah, that was a little shout out to my friends at the end. It was a quote.

PSF: Why is it called "The Shoe Song?"

BW: It's kind of personal and I don't really want to give it away. It had something to do with a girl, and I heard her shoe fall on the floor when we were rolling around on a bed, and that gave me the signal that things were going to happen!

SA: Wow, I didn't know that. Suddenly I like that song a lot more! Dirty!

BW: Usually when I write lyrics its like about three different things mashed together that don't have much to do with each other, so it doesn't really make much sense. We're not really trying to say anything.

PSF: Do you still feel the same way about the song "Spoke," that it isn't going to be recorded?

BW: No, it'll be on the next record. We recorded it.

PSF: I shouted for that song right at the end of your headline set at All Tomorrow's Parties in April 2004, and you played it.

BW: Not because you shouted for it.

PSF: I know.

BW: We're anti- requests.

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