- Steve Albini »
It was an interesting experience to have a phone conversation with the infamous Steve Albini. To be honest with you, I was pretty nervous about the whole thing, as I’d heard reports about the guy ripping into fanzine journos for no apparent reason. So it was with great relief that I found the Shellac guitarist to be both cordial and eloquent.
1. All Tomorrow Parties.
What inspired Shellac to curate All Tomorrows Parties?
We were invited to play in 2000 (Mogwai curated ATP) and we were all immediately impressed with the unique nature of the festival. We had been apart of the European festival experience previously and we decided that we weren’t going to bother with them any more because they were a pain in the ass! They are no fun for the patrons and no fun for the band. It’s an unflattering and uncomfortable environment to see music in. So it actually took a lot of convincing on behalf of the foundation and Barry Hogan (key festival organiser) to convince us to play. When we did it really did change our perspective on how a festival can be.
The conventional festival is conducted in a way that tries to maximise the profits for the festival organisers. You know, they throw a slate of bands up without much concern for whether they are appropriate for them to play together or whether anyone wants to see them. There seems to be very little interest in the comfort of the patrons.
You’ve made no secret in the past for you dislike for some of the better known Music Festivals. What do you think makes ATP any different?
For the ticket buying public, everyone gets a chalet, which provides them a degree of genuine privacy. They can live more or less a normal life during the three days of the festival, that is they can sleep in a bed, wake up and fix themselves breakfast. The venues are proper ballrooms as opposed to tents in the middle of a field somewhere. So the acoustics are controlled so the presentation of the bands on stage is a lot more convincing. There’s less physical space to cover and also less people involved so there’s not a cattle herd mentality. And the fact that it’s a curated festival can’t be overstated. This means that you’re getting a genuine slice of tastes and a sort of milieu of the curators rather than getting a random assortment of the bands that are available. The curators, in this case Shellac, vouching for these bands. We’re saying that you should see these bands because they’re all great. I know because I like them all.
That’s obvious through the individual write-ups’ that Shellac gave each band on the ATP website. But what were the processes in choosing the line up for the show?
It was crude as it could possibly be. Between us we made a wish list of all the bands that we would want to have on the festival. The three of us nominated bands going around in sequence until we had a master list that feature far more bands than we could accommodate. We then started contacting the bands and we never made it to the bottom of our wish list. There are still loads of bands that we would have loved to invite but there wasn’t enough space for them.
It must have been a monster of a job to try and prioritise the acts into some shape or form.
If you mean the running order, it wasn’t that difficult. It was cumbersome at first because there were some people that shared duties with other bands. A band might not be able to play a certain time of the day because their bass player is doing something with another band, but once we got all the schedule conflicts sorted out, the running order didn’t seem to be much of a problem. In terms of actual priorities, they were all priorities. We genuinely love all these bands. There is not a single band on at this festival that is not worth you seeing. You know, this band Shellac is endorsing them. We’re saying “they’re great – you should go see them”.
Are there any bands that you, Bob, or Todd have not seen live before?
I haven’t seen David Lovering (ex Pixies drummer) do his science magic thing. I’ve heard a lot about it and I’ve seen pictures and I love stuff like that so I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be great. There are also a couple of odd ones. Like Flour for instance. He hasn’t done a live show in a couple of years. In fact, his last album was called Fourth and Final which kind of hints that he was through with music. I’m really excited to see what he does as it’s going to be a completely new set of songs. We are familiar with all these bands and we have very strong feelings for them.
Shellac have opted to be first on the bill on the second stage for each day of each weekend, what was the decision behind that?
A whole bunch of things come into play here. One of them is that we are not looking at the festival as a whole bunch of acts followed by a headliner. The whole day is worth everyone’s attention. So, by us getting up a starting the whole thing off in the early afternoon, we are making it plane that whatever your reasons for coming to the festival, there will be something of interest for you throughout the day. We’re also doing it as an act of solidarity with all the bands. In the festival environment there’s always that awkward first set of the day on the second stage for the poor band who won’t get an audience because they are playing so early. We wanted to put ourselves in that slot so none of the bands would feel palmed off onto the dog slot.
We are also doing it so we can get our performance out of the way so we can enjoy the rest of the day.
Will Shellac be playing any other shows in the UK?
No we’ll just be playing the festival. And after that I think we’re gonna take a breather.
Do you still use a sliding scale when determining the cost to charge bands?
It’s not exactly a sliding scale so much as a standard rate that is set up as inexpensively as I can manage that is what 90% of my clients get charged. Then there is the rare occasion that comes up every two or three years, where a band with a budget and funding from a big record label wants to make a record with me. From there I try to work out a fee on the spot. So it’s a reasonable disposition of the money where I’m not unnecessarily taxing them but still not being ignorant to the fact that they have more money play with than a starving underground band.
Has it ever been offered to you to take a royalty point for the album from the majors?
Yeah, it gets suggested occasionally but I have an ethical problem with royalties for producers or engineers. I think they are fundamentally wrong and they are a misapplication of the royalty system. I would much rather come up with a price.
It sounds like you might have a ball park figure or formula you use to ascertain how much you would charge a major?
No, it entirely depends on the budgets given by the record company. On a major label level, I’ve worked on bands that we’re given a budget of twenty thousand dollars. I’ve also work on records where the budget, if it could be expressed as such, would have been in the millions of dollars. I don’t have a specifically fixed price for those sorts of things. I need to find a reasonable dispersion of the money. So it’s like “O.K. we’re gonna spend this much money in the studio, this much money on catering," that sort of thing.
Mclusky’s album has just been released here and I see in Hot Press (Irelands rock press) that you are recording the Dublin band Berkley. How did these two bands capture your attention?
They called me on the phone.
As simple as that?
So they didn’t need to send demos or anything like that?
I think somebody from Too Pure, which is Mclusky’s Record label, sent me their previous record. But I would have been happy to do it based on a phone conversation. Berkley just called me up and they came over and did it.
And you welcome any bands to call you up if they have an interest in recording with you?
Sure, that sounds like the perfect way of doing it. I don’t see any point in it being any more melodramatic than that.
It seems that you’ve shied away from using Digital Technology in the past, would you consider yourself an analogue purist?
No. I don’t have a moral or ethical objection to digital technologies. I just don’t think they’re suitable for making records yet. They’re several different paradigms in the digital recording world. Digital Technology has manifested into Digital Tape recorders and they are probably the crudest of the systems. They’re basically just a mimic of an analogue tape recorder but using digital storage. They have all the disadvantages of analogue tape and all the disadvantages of digital recording, which is the fact that there is no permanent master. That is to say that there is nothing that you can put into a vault that you can take out in 25 years and play. But digital tape recorders are closer in that regard to Software platforms. Because of the storage methods and because the chemistry of the digital tape is not as stable as analogue tape, the digital recordings tend to go bad in storage, faster and more wholly than analogue recordings. That’s my principal complaint with digital tape recorders. Digital software recorders, things like Pro Tools and Logic, were not designed primarily as recording platforms, they were designed primarily for editing and manipulation of sound. And because that is perceived as being their principal function that is how they are most often used. They are almost always used for capturing an existing sound to manipulate it, edit it and screw around with it and then re-combine it with other sounds. As a result it is almost impossible to make a naturalistic recording using one of these digital platforms. The outcome is the recordings become representative of the particular platform, so what the artist or the recording engineer is trying to accomplish becomes moot because the platform he is working on only allows certain options, so those options will be imprinted on the master.
Because you work primarily with analogue audio facilities are you finding them becoming obsolete thus more expensive to maintain and is it now becoming a speciality knowledge to work in the realms of analogue?
It is true that there is a generation of people who make records that have never worked in a proper studio and who have never worked with proper tape machines. There is, I suppose, the beginnings of a division between the old school and the new school. Even the people who make records in their apartments who use desk top computers would acknowledge the fact that what they are doing is an imitation of what’s done in proper studios on proper equipment, so I don’t think that the role of the professional engineer is less important anymore. I do feel that there is an overwhelming push in the recording industry, that is the industry that makes the products that are used in recording, to move into software and away from hardware. That’s obviously because software is less expensive to manufacture and sell, but is a higher profit item that hardware is.
In England we are seeing a decline in Professional studios through lack of demand, and some equate it to the popularity of “the bedroom producer”. Do you think this has an adverse effect on Stateside Independent studios?
Oh absolutely. Big expensive recording studios are becoming bankrupt at an incredible rate. And I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing because I feel that big expensive recording studios are not always the highest expression of the art of a recording studio, and I say that having built a big expensive recording studio and being incredibly proud of it.
I don’t think that big and expensive is necessary in order for music to be made in a proper studio environment. However, I do feel a standard of quality has to be maintained and a level of professionalism which can only be maintained in a professional studio environment. I think the reason that people make records in their apartment is not because they think it’s the ideal place to make records but because it’s cheaper, easier and faster. I think sooner or later that they realise that cheap and easy aren’t the best criteria’s for making records.
Could you see Electric Audio studios going the same way as the big and expensive studios that are going bust?
No, because our client base has always been bands that small and independent so the fact the mainstream artists no longer spend they’re money in recording studios doesn’t really effect us. Because we only ever interact with mainstream artists in rare occasions anyway. Underground rock bands are now in a unique situation where they can get a better recording quality with better results for their independent recordings than major artists that are being saddle with semi-professional ad hoc production scenarios. And I think that that’s culturally a significant development. Whenever one of these studios goes broke, a young upstart goes a long and buys up all the equipment and opens a much less expensive much more artist friendly studio.
3. Bands and Policy, and Opinion
Shellac, Big Black and Rapeman have all been fiercely independent and you yourself have written an article on the negatives of the corporate music industry. Do you support the legal battle that Courtney Love is currently waging with her label?
Anyone who gets involved with a big record label and chooses to conduct business with them on their terms, whatever fights that they get into are their own fights. On a fundamental level, should the recording industry be fairer in compensating its artists and should it treat its artists with more respect? Absolutely! That’s unquestionable. Does this one particular case stand on its merits? You know. I have less confidence about that.
Would you hold a similar opinion in regards to Music Publishing deals?
Music publishing is a business abstraction that is a means to siphon more money out of a song by exploiting it in different ways. Some bands are comfortable with that, some aren’t, and it’s not for me to say which is more appropriate.
Industry aside, what’s your opinion on the current global interest of American Punk/Alternative bands, i.e. The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’s?
The Strokes fucking suck man. They’re a hype job.
So, not a big Strokes fan then?
It’s immaterial on whether I’m a Strokes fan or not, they are a hype job. They have purchased publicity, they have purchased media attention. They are not a band that has their own organic following. I would consider the Strokes a parasitic aberration. My point is that they are not a part of this American punk rock scene that you are talking about. The White Stripes have been around for years, they are more involved in the Roots, Garage rock underground. There are many different layers of the American punk scene, and I don’t think that it’s represented in the specific bands that you mentioned. When I think of the punk scene, I think of something that’s stylistically Punk sounding. That style has not necessarily received anymore attention in the last couple of years.
We are getting a huge influx of bands from the New York scene e.g. The LIARS and Radio 4 and the like coming over to Britain, is this a new scene do you think?
The specific bands that you are describing are not new so it’s hard for me to appreciate them as a new development. I am familiar with them but I don’t see it as a movement. I know that there is still a residual inclination on the part of the British music scene to see everything in terms of movements and the next big thing. That’s a residue of the former power of the music press. When the Melody Maker and Sounds and The NME defined music in terms of movements and created sensations along the lines of Blur and Elastica and Oasis. When those publications had power, they really did change the way that the British saw music. It made it that more difficult for music fans to appreciate bands by their unique entities. In America there has never been a publication with that kind of power and there has never been that perspective so generally speaking we take bands on their own terms.
Do you think that there is still much of an underground out there?
I have to say that the underground has stayed basically the same. Certain bands have temporarily gained popularity and then lost it, but in terms of it’s activity, the underground is as active as it has always been.
So what are some of the standout bands out there at the moment?
There’s a band called Lighting Bolt who are pretty amazing. Quite a few bands that we have invited to this festival I would consider highlights of the underground. In every town in America, there will be half a dozen bands that are of interest, and in every scene like that, there will always be a few bands in the process of breaking up and a few bands in the process of forming. That’s been the status quo for the last 20 years.
What was the reasoning behind Shellac releasing The CD in the same package as the Vinyl for 1000 Hz?
We came up with a good package so figured we could use it for everything. It’s obvious when you make a good looking album and take that artwork and shrink it down to the size of a CD it’s not going to look as good. But I think we are trying to make our lives a little easier. If we had to come up with different artwork for the album and the CD that’s twice as much work.
Can we expect a new Shellac album at any stage?
Sooner or later sure, I just don’t know when. When we’ve got time to work on it we do. We don’t have anybody waiting with baited breath to hear it. It’s not like we have schedule to keep. Sooner or later will come up with something.