Steve Albini: In Depth Interview
In a suburban wooden bungalow in Evanston, Chicago something amiss is going on.
The clipped lawn and the plastic grass on the porch give little away. The quiet street reeks of hometown America. The neighbors are blissfully unaware of what goes on in this cellar but they are suspicious. There is something going o down there.
Entering the house you are entering a very different world from the one that they can comprehend- piles of records and fanzines, not much furniture, a very hairy cat and not much sign of domestic bliss. In the back room there is a recording console and downstairs, in the cellar, is usually a band of freaks recording some of the heaviest and most dislocated music put to tape. Cutting up the corpse of rock music in mangled and psychotic ways, the walls of the cellar are covered in the blood of Trad Rock.
It is here that Steve Albini, the ex Big Black lynchpin, has been recording bands, putting his controlled noise imprint onto a new generation of rock music. I’m here with my band the Membranes working on my third album, ‘Kiss Ass Godhead’. Steve has a pile of my old fanzines from Blackpool- which is a shock since we didn’t even get them out of the north of England and is quick and affable to work with. In a break in the sessions he plays some stuff by other bands he’s been working with like Slint and settles down for an interview about his post Big Black direction that is inevitably already mired in controversy.
When noise terror gods Big Black finally imploded last year, it was the inevitable end point for the Chicago based trio’s intense workout. In a few short years together they had redesigned rock leaving a much-copied template.
The unbelievable noise generated by the band and their gradual rise to flavour of the month left a bad taste in the operatives’ mouths. The three-piece split leaving guitar-abuser and “singer” Steve Albini free to produce a ragbag collection of combos while simultaneously welding together a new upgraded model of his fearsome vehicle with the ex-Scratch Acid rhythm section of David Sims on bass and Rey Washem on drums. Swerving the incessant brutal power of Big Black’s drum machine driven noise, they discovered sound and space and utlised Albini’s honed down brilliant recording ear for a whole new dynamic sound.
The group then carelessly saddled themselves with the moniker Rapeman which is causing them a whole heap of trouble in the UK.
Albini himself is a hyperactive cranefly from hell, spit-buzzin’ with an internal energy that keeps him locked in the studios for days on end without sleep. At the time of interview he was putting together parts of the upcoming Rapeman LP in his cellar studio and at other locations in Chicago. Two tracks culled from these sessions have already been released into America’s Midwest heartland as an almost anonymous 7-inch single, ”Hated Chinee b/w Marmoset’
Big Black at their implosion were set to take the world. Rapeman seem like a deliberate step back from this very non punk rock notion of mainstream success. It may have already backfired.
“We wanted to sneak out a low key single and try to deflate this pompous idea of being in a supergroup. I wanted people to buy the record on its own merits ” the only problem is that collector scum have got hold of it already and are charging ridiculous prices.”
The single, a two-track advert for band, grinds away in a Big Black style but there is a greater emphasis on the rhythmic, melodic undercurrents than ever before. The drums create a space and dynamic that wasn’t available with the avalanche of the beats that the drum machine provided in Big Black. The tense stretched out nature of the songs gives them a different sort of power but worry not, that dark hum of evil still surrounds the music. The key is the drums, recorded by Albini, which have a raw power that is very striking.
This is no surprise as Rey Washem is using the biggest sticks since Zep’s Bonzo took his hammer to the gods, pumping the snare with a pair of regular oak trees that literally rip the skins apart every few songs. Yet this brute force does not impede the man’s skill and dexterity. He’s reaching out for a new distinctive style of rock drumming and he’s bang on course for smashing his way in there.
His partner is David Sims, a musically fluent and gifted bass player, and the pair are well versed in musicology, as Albini proudly points out.
“Rey can watch a cartoon on TV, write down the backing music and score it for a string section. Rey and David got into the punk rock thing first and then started learning about musical theory afterwards, whereas I was excited about the about the punk thing, but don’t really give a shit about music.”
THE TWO-track single is a fine introduction to the band, the typically Albini trouble making titled ”ËHated Chinee’ is an abstraction on the life of a Chinese immigrant worker, pre-1940 slaving on railway construction.
‘They were not treated like human beings. The immigrant laws prevented their wives from joining them, so all they had to do was to get stoned and masturbate a lot. At the time the idea was that you could kill a Chinaman but not a human being,” Albini chillingly adds, a stark reminder of how close the US had moved towards an embarrassing South African-style apartheid situation in the mid nineteenth century
The other track, ”Marmoset’, concerns a certain member of the band’s failed attempt at oral sex in the Nocturnal Animals section of Chicago Zoo- a cavernous place, dimly-lit with deserted winding corridors and tiny cages where the animals shuffle around. Needless to say the escapade was an alcohol-induced failure.
Does this band member know what you have been writing about him?
“Yes, I know,” chuckles Albini, adding, “and I certainly have not been back in that capacity since.”
If the story is about Albini then the alcoholic escapade is not typical of him. Noticing that this human stick insect rarely imbibes alcohol, I ask if this is because the demon drink dries up the creative juices that race through his bloodstream.
“I found that when I got drunk I was being totally obnoxious and going up to people and telling them exactly what I thought of them. This caused problems ”â most people drink so that they become less self-conscious, but as I am not self-conscious to start with then the alcohol tends to have a different and more exaggerated effect.”
Listening to tracks from the forthcomingÃÂ Budd EP you can’t help but notice that whereas Big Black’s brutal treatment of guitar, bass and drums took rock a step further into a dark abyss of a new type of wall of sound, Rapeman tend to stand back a little, utilising the sound for whatever they want to say. Only Albini’s guitar sound links the formidable trios aurally.
“That’s because I am a bit of a guitar cripple. I’m limited to making noises, I get no joy from playing a lot of little notes. It’s more satisfying for all of us to have the guitar jumping off in all directions, sounding like a blender, making cool little exploding sounds. It certainly keeps my interest up more.”
This is the key to Albini’s sound. Bored of the rock staple of chugging barre chords and weedly solos he has invented a whole new lexicon for himself. Taking the Gang Of Four and the UK post punk bands as his cue he has mercilessly stretched out the sound to its extreme. Utilising two plectrums in Big Black for that shattering glass guitar sound, Albini understands that controlling the raw electric power of a guitar is far more interesting than learning a set of scales and a tired old language.
This new found subtlety is best explored in the EP’s lead track, ”ËBudd’, a slow, live eight-minute crawl that reeks of sadness and compassion: a brilliant staccato snare drum punctuates the pain-ridden guitar riff which perfectly complements Albini’s tense, hoarse, half-spoken, half-whispered vocal.
“‘Budd’ is a song about two people, one of whom was Budd Dwyer, the treasurer in Philadelphia who blew his brains out on live TV after he had been caught embezzling state funds.”
Albini has a charming video of this incident which he happily puts on in his front room for anyone dropping by. The video details the soon-to-be retired Dwyer calmly reads out a press statement absolving himself from all responsibility.
The tension mounts as he reaches inside a brown paper bag as if rooting for his sandwiches instead of groping around for the cold metal. Producing a gun, he places it into his mouth and, despite horrified screams from the onlooking press, he blows his brains out live on TV, slumping to the floor with a torrent of blood running from his nose.
“By blowing his brains out he still got a state funeral and pension as well as several other benefits that he would have lost had he been busted. He also got to be shown on nationwide TV reading out a little defence of his actions that he had written for himself.”
Beats getting a lawyer, cheaper too!
“I tied this together in a song with another Budd, a Budd that used to live in this house before I bought it. When I first moved in here there was a period when I felt very bad about living here, I felt like some sort of intruder and it was this that I tried to document.
“Budd had lived here for years. It was kinda sad the way he had lived out his life, his home was his own little piece of America. He had his own collection of personalized can-openers and comedy coffee cups. He brought his children up here, they left him and then his wife died, leaving him alone.
“The first time I moved in here I felt like a complete squirt, a 25-year-old kid with poop in his diapers who turned the place into a gross punk rock dungeon, which is how my neighbours envisage it.”
You can imagine the neighbours’ drop jawed expressions if they could survey the front room, littered with tour stained bodies half asleep inbetween recordings or gigs, as likely as no , as likely as not belonging to the freaked-out muthas in the Butthole Surfers or some tawdry English punk rock outfit. They all snooze away beneath the “Elvis In Vegas” tea towels that adorn the walls, oblivious to the huge stuffed cat (the one Albini sang about in the Big Black song, ”Kitty Empire’) that snarls from the top of the TV set, they may notice the gynecologist’s kit that spills out from beneath the settee, or the comedy porn movies which include the classic Santa Claus indulging in fellatio with his favourite dwarf assistant.
“Specific things made me feel really awful, like just after we moved in a bunch of friends came round and we were rummaging through Budd’s stuff laughing at it, a bunch of little squirts poking away through this man’s life and laughing at it””
While Albini’s raw nerve is exposed in this grinding avalanche of sound that is pared back just enough to give us a glimpse of humanity, the other tracks on the EP are in the more relentless Big Black mould. The remaining up tempo spurts of violence muscling their way around the grooves include the demon seed of ”Super Pussy’, again a live cut, where the band’s fascination with comic book personae takes on a three dimensional role.
“If superheroes really existed smashing their way through windows and zapping things up with laser beams, then there would have to be pretty broad spectrum of characters to balance things out, so we thought this drug addict, cannibal, lesbian character with a lustful, kick ass attitude would be interesting.” He smirks, adding,
“I have a really good friend who is a hell-raising, beer-drinking lesbian. We go out and get lustful at the same type of women, she has the same sort of character as ”Super Pussy’.”
Another live track is ”Log Bass’, which definitely benefits from the crackle of performance.
“There’s no balls to the stuff in the studio. I like the live material better. It’s played faster when the band’s jumping up and down getting off on the song. ”Log Bass’ is about a small town mayor in Indiana who was interviewed on The David LettermanShow. Apparently, the mayor was also an Elvis Presley impersonator who would drive to gigs in his pick up truck dressed in a cheapo homemade Elvis costume.
“One night, on the way to a gig, he was called out (on one of his civic duties!) to unblock drains. This he did dressed in his Elvis get up, pulling out from the drains what he termed a log bass, ”Bass’ as in the fish and ”Log’ as in poop. From this stupid story we added a few of our own, like the Aztec birth ritual where the father takes his newly arrived offspring and holds it up to the sun, just like the Elvis mayor holding up his log bass.”
The only studio track is ”Dutch Courage’, which seems to be about Albini’s roommate’s alcohol-induced trouble making lust for life more than anything else. The room mate also has his own band called Urge Overkill and plans to work with Steve on some tracks in the future.
The most contentious thing about Rapeman is obviously the ugly moniker which is causing a shit storm of anger in the UK where the post punk landscape is markedly more political than in the USA.
The name was picked up from an obscure sicko Japanese comics mag, where the ”hero’ rapes women who have ”misbehaved’. This seems to be one of those lurid Japanese comics that mix rock’n’roll, porn and gory violence in a perverse quest for visual kicks.
Although Rapeman’s nom de plume remains strangely acceptable in the USA, the more politically-charged UK atmosphere is already buzzing with anger.
“I was asked by Paul Smith (the band’s UK label manager) to prepare a statement explaining the motives behind the naming of the group. It was for record pressers and people at the company who felt uncomfortable handling the name of the band, and although I was loathe to do it, I sent one off anyway, and of course it made no difference. In the UK we seem to be having some difficulties with getting the records pressed and distributed.
“It’s only the people in the company that seem to be annoyed. Her Majesty’s Government have had no difficulties in issuing work permits to a group of this name. Anyone who does not want to be involved with the record, I have no gripe with, and anyone who wants to object, then go ahead, make a stink.”
Is the group name not in some sense trivialising rape by reducing it to a crass showbiz level?
“That’s obviously stupid. I mean, were Joy Division glorifying Nazism with their name, or are Napalm Death, who by the way are excellent, an endorsement of the use of Napalm upon people? Rape is a feminist issue, it’s an offensive crime, and no one except for a total dork is pro-rape.”
Albini likes these debates. Big Black often toyed with the liberals winding them up mercilessly reflecting ugliness back at people- it’s a dark and dangerous game and one that has been deployed since punk rock accelerated the shock value of rock music. Both sides are of course right, it’s great to see that anyone still really cares about anything to protest about the band’s name and you can sense exactly the kind of thinking that Albini is enjoying here.
Now that the Rapeman machine is finally out and running. Albini’s production work is going to have to rest for a few months, and in some cases this is a great relief to the man.
“I liked working with Pixies and I admit that the record is OK. But the problem is that there are now bands who try to imitate them and want me to produce them, total morons, gushing on about how good Pixies are. I get no satisfaction from ”pussy’ bands.”
Albini’s recent production work includes some devilish stuff with New York art garage renegades Pussy Galore who have amped up their garage scuzz in Steve’s cellar.
Another band that has seen the Albini touch is an oddball act called Slint, who sound like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon put through a liquidizer. Marvelous stuff, and another example of the stripped down, stark post hardcore world that Albini sits in the centre of creating a whole new dynamic in rock music where space can be as lethal as noise.
Rapeman are to tour Europe in October and will also, by then, be ready to unleash their debut LP.
“The LP will either be called ZZ Top’s First Album or Tres Motherf***ers”, smiles Albini. “It’s an obscure Texan joke hatched by David and Rey and I very much doubt whether anyone else could understand it. It relates to ZZ Top’s best album,Tres Hombres, which features a gatefold sleeve showing a spread of Mexican food.
“We may go for the gatefold as well with a photo of a barbecue in my back garden,” he explains, being a battle-hardened veteran of the barbie that aroused the wrath of his neighbours and sent bemused policeman round to scold the dressing-gowned gourmet.
The unlikely key figure at the heart of the punk rock noise laughs from behind the wire-rimmed frames that cling to his scalpel thin face.
“I hope people react to my music in the way that I reacted to my favourite records, getting excited and jumping up and down. It’s all very big-eyed and punk-rock-inspired. I like playing a guitar, I like being in a band and like exploring specific types of sound.
“The other guys in the band have a different approach, though, in that they are trying to create something totally powerful and new within the punk rock framework.”
Rapeman have already shown that they’re twitching with potential, the name will kill them but they have already push the sonic boundaries forward creating new territory to explore as Albini’s cellar creaks to another brilliantly recorded slab of sound.