Interview: Steve Albini and Bob Weston of Shellac talk to Louder Than War’s Zülal Kalkandelen.
Photo: John Robb.
Legendary musician Steve Albini has been active in the music scene since about 1978 and is a man of many talents: He has recorded thousands albums and has a very prolific career as the frontman of the great punk / hardcore / noise bands Big Black, Rapeman, and Shellac. Of those three, only Shellac remains active. Over 20 years together, the Chicago based math-rockers [Comprising Steve Albini (guitar / vocals), Bob Weston (bass guitar / vocals) and Todd Trainer (drums)] have released only six albums – one of those was only released to direct friends of the band.
Steve Albini is one of the harshest voices in music. He has become a legend in the international independent music scene by respecting the opinions of the artists he records, and doing business ethically. Though he has worked for almost all of the major labels, he hated their business model. It’s now 22 years since he penned his seminal essay for the literary magazine, The Baffler. It was titled “The Problem With Music,” and detailed how the entire music business was set up to profit from the product, except for the artists who actually conceived and made it.
Before Shellac’s eagerly awaited Istanbul gig tomorrow, I got to ask some questions to Albini and Weston, starting with…
I’d like to ask you a few questions on your glittering career in record production while I have the chance. It is estimated that you have engineered the recording of thousands albums, mostly by obscure musicians and bands. Is there any album session you look back on with the fondest memories?
SA: I honestly don’t know how many records I’ve worked on, I’ve never kept track of them. It’s got to be a couple thousand by now. I’ve been doing it for more than 30 years and a lot of those years I’ve been really busy.
What do you look for in a band and their sound before deciding on working with them?
SA: I’m not very selective. If a band wants me to work on their record, I’d need an exceptional reason to say no. I don’t think my job requires me to be a music critic, and it would be rude of me to be passing judgment on all the bands I work with. I prefer to let the band make the kind of record they want, with me helping them do it.
The music world celebrated the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s “In Utero” in 2013. You produced the album and took the band’s sound into a new direction. What do you feel was the most important ingredient in the working relationship you had with them?
SA: I didn’t really attempt to influence them, I just tried to record the band in a natural, flattering manner. I had essentially no input in the music and I’m content with that, since they understood their music better than anybody else, they were the best people to make decisions about it.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to any young and aspiring engineer in today’s industry?
SA: It sounds like a platitude but it’s true. You should make yourself available to people who think like you do, unreservedly and without expectation. If you become valuable to that community of musicians then they will become your clients and you’ll be a participant in helping something grow and survive.
Now I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about your view on today’s music industry. I agree with your belief that the major label dominated industry was inefficient and exploited musicians. I also believe that the new digital way has brought some very important issues regarding artists benefits. Last year you said, “The single best thing that has happened in my lifetime in music, after punk rock, is being able to share music, globally for free. That’s such an incredible development.” But I think the most important aspect of sharing is consent. And if there’s no consent, it’s not sharing. What’s your take on it?
SA: Consent is a luxury, an indulgence, not a necessity. If you present your music to the public, then people have the option of sharing it with each other. This is a technological state of affairs, not an ethical question. If you don’t want people to share your music with each other, you need to keep it to yourself. If you turn on your porch light, people passing by can take advantage of the light without paying your electric bill. If you spray your music all over the listening public, some people will hear it without paying you for the privilege. That’s the bargain you strike when you release music into the world.
I am not saying the old way was better, there are many positive things about the new digital way. The internet revolution took down some of the world’s largest companies, but at the same time it has created the new ones such as Yahoo, Spotify, Apple, Google etc. and now these devilishly big corporations control everything and exploit musicians and they don’t treat all labels equally. How can we talk about the democratization of the music industry under these circumstances?
SA: These corporations don’t control me, they don’t control my access to other people and their art. They hardly matter to me at all, except for when they facilitate my finding things of interest. I reject your premise. The internet provides a bounty of alternatives if you don’t want to use any specific service or site. In all likelihood, if you put music up anywhere on the internet, the rest of the internet will be able to find it, since it was designed to provide access to everything for everyone. We can all find things even in obscure corners of the internet with minimal effort. How can anyone honestly argue that one corporation or another is controlling this access? Tell me something they prevent me from finding and I might listen to that argument.
The whole digital system is being powered by the creativity of the musician but where is the musician benefiting from this activity? Free doesn’t pay the bills. The U.S. Department of Labor says, there are 41 % of fewer paid musicians since 1999. Considering that live performance is the most expensive way to deliver music to an audience and that gig prices have escalated, how is an independent musician going to make a living?
SA: Musicians want a chance to be heard, to find an audience and from there possibly a career. The internet provides access to an audience – a world-wide audience – with much less effort, expense and infrastructure than was ever needed before. Anybody on earth can upload a song or a video and be heard around the world in a matter of minutes. That is incredible. If some of those people become fans, then you have the beginnings of a lifelong relationship with them, and there will be countless ways for them to participate in your career. They can directly fund your efforts through crowd-funding, they can buy records and concert tickets and T-shirts, they can make your music valuable for synchronization or licensing… It’s no longer the case that the music business equates to selling parcels of music. The music business is now about bands and their audiences growing together in a direct relationship of respect and appreciation. It’s truly a fantastic time to be in a band.
There are also some unintended consequences of the internet revolution. In the documentary “Unsound”, which reveals the dramatic collapse of the music industry, Brett Gurewitz asks, “You’ve got democratization; anybody can be published; anyone can make a record, anyone can make a movie. But at the same time the value of music and books and movies has been massively diminished. If something I create isn’t my property, what is?” What do we say?
SA: People complaining about the current state of affairs are clinging to an obsolete idea – that music is scarce and needs to be paid for every time it’s heard. Music is now ubiquitous and nobody needs to pay to listen to it. If that reality offends those used to the old system, it’s not the fault of the rest of the world, it’s their fault that they didn’t adjust their expectations. When the weather changes you have two options, you can dress for the weather or you can curse at it. I think dressing appropriately is more prudent.
What I believe is the work of the creator should have a value. That’s why I see the Apple/U2 collaboration as another step towards the devaluation of music. What did you make of it?
SA: Well I believe I deserve to be paid just for waking up in the morning, but nobody else agrees, so I have to go to work. A thing is only valuable if someone is willing to pay for it. People who like music are willing to pay for records – physical vinyl records – and that’s about it. If nobody will pay for something, then it isn’t worth anything. Believing to the contrary doesn’t change that.
You call Tidal a “budget version of Pono” and say that it wouldn’t make a significant impact on the market. So what do you feel could or should be done to improve the modern-day state of the music industry?
SA: A big improvement would be if people stopped complaining about it and adjusted their behavior to take advantage of the changing landscape.
Shellac gave a concert in 2008 in Istanbul. But unfortunately, I wasn’t at the country at that time, so I missed it. I hear that it was a great concert. What memories do you have from that gig?
SA: You live in a magical city. I could wander in it for years. I remember the anachronism of cigarette girls promoting a certain brand of cigarettes by giving away samples. That’s the sort of thing that underscores how time moves at a different pace where you live.
Thank you very much for your time. I’m looking forward to the gig!
SA: We love Istanbul. I can’t wait.
BOB WESTON: “IF OTHER PEOPLE DIDN’T LIKE OUR MUSIC, WE WOULD NOT CHANGE.”
Over the years, you have compiled a long list of albums to your credit. What are your recording highlights?
BW: Establishing long working relationships and friendships with bands whose members and music I have an affinity for, such as (but not limited to): Six Finger Satellite, Polvo, Sebadoh, Archers of Loaf, Rachel’s, The Shipping News, June of 44, Rodan, Arcwelder, many Ken Vandermark projects, Oxes, White Octave, The Regrets, John Vanderslice, JF Muck, Hurl, The Cocktails, Pony/Speed King/LCD Soundsystem/James Murphy…
You’ve been recording with Shellac for more than 20 years. How does a band can go on for more than two decades and keep it enjoyable?
BW: We don’t tour for long or often. We don’t practice often. So, based on the amount of time we’ve spent together practicing, recording, and touring, I’d say our band is similar to a more full-time band that’s 6 or 7 years old. Every time we get together, it’s fun and new since we haven’t played together in months. That keeps things fresh and exciting.
Shellac is composed of 3 musicians, and with as dynamic and nontraditional as the band is, I’ve always wondered about the creative process. Does one person just suggest a foundation and everyone else find complementary pieces?
BW: One person will have a base riff or a concept. Then all 3 of us flesh out the other parts and we arrange the song together. Base riffs from different members can end up in the same song.
What’s the most positive change that has occurred in your music-making process during making “Dude Incredible”?
BW: I can’t think of any changes to our music making process! We’ve been doing it the same way for over 20 years. What changes are the types of music or art or life that interest us as time passes, and so that affects the music that we write (our influences and inspirations).
You did serve as assistant when Albini recorded “In Utero” by Nirvana. What memories do you have from recording that album?
BW: I remember it all. It was a fun time. For part of the session I had a very bad flu and was coughing constantly with a high fever. Steve and the band probably weren’t very excited about that. Dave is the loudest drummer I’ve ever heard play.
Steve Albini once said that “We’re playing for the three of us. If Bob and Todd like what we’re playing, I don’t really care if everyone else hates it.” Is it the same for you?
BW: Yes. It is gratifying when other people like the music as well. But if they didn’t, we would not change.
Could you give us your favourite bass lines?
BW: Clint Conley: “Peking Spring”, Graham Maby “Got the Time”, David Simms “Nub”, Lou Barlow “Raisans”, Jason Noble “Books on Trains”…
What one thing do you think is the most destructive thing inhibiting modern music?
BW: People playing music who don’t feel a true desperate need to make music. People playing music without that driving need and desire. I see too many bands who look like they would rather be somewhere else when performing. It’s not important to them. I wonder why they are onstage wasting their time and my time.