Q&A: Steve Albini Is Not an Asshole But Sylvester Stallone Might Be
Presenting your All Tomorrow's Parties NY House band. . .
In the early 2000's, the shits 'n' giggles folks at snarkier-than-thou Chunklet Magazine plopped recording engineer god and Shellac guitarorrist Steve Albini on its cover, screaming: Is This Guy The Biggest Asshole In Rock? That infamous issue still resonates on his rep today--and he could care less. But brutal honesty and outspokenness shouldn't equal a-hole-dom, and fact is, Albini's one of the good guys. His cutthroat, drum machine-anchored postpunk band from the 80s, Big Black, revolutionized the Industrial music blueprint with their album Songs About Fucking then formed the eloquently-named Rapeman. (Offensive? Nah.)
Yet there stands Albini--not the crusty grump he's been painted as--but staunch arbiter of independent rock ethos. The Chicago mainstay (along with his Shellac mates, bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer) has always gone econo: nominal ticket prices, handpicked venues, zero corporate involvement, records made on the cheap and positively no handouts. Not only does Shellac schedule shows in the morning so the pre-teen set and fans with night gigs can attend, but Albini has been known to play Santa at Christmastime in the Windy City, giving cash and presents to the needy.
Now, and after a lengthy absence, Albini and his long-running minimalist rock trio are bringing their do-gooder deeds to our 'hood, gearing up for their 'house band' slot and serious poker playing All Tomorrow's Parties and a Brooklyn gig on September 7 at the Bell House. I hit up Albini on the phone at his Electrical Audio studio to talk ATP, poker, a new Shellac record, his wife's online feud with journalist Jessica Hopper, stalkers, and Rocky Balboa, himself.
That Chunklet "Assholes In Rock" issue came out years ago and it's still talked about. Has public perception ever bothered you?
I feel like people are allowed to have whatever opinion they want of other people. I don't know him at all, and have no reason to think this, but I kind of think Sylvester Stallone is an asshole. I don't even know why I think that. I think that's a perfectly legitimate part of human experience to have the prejudices against people you've never met or don't know anything about. That doesn't mean Stallone should give a shit. In the case of people disliking me from a distance, I certainly don't give a shit. But I'm not going to begrudge somebody the option of thinking that I'm a dick for some salacious reason.
Shellac's been known to play shows before noon. Are you are a morning person?
Oh no, not at all. But what I like about doing the morning shows is typically the way we do it is we set it up so we can play a venue in the evening then the same venue in the morning so we don't have to load the van. Everything is locked up safe overnight. We still get on the road the next day relatively early to make it to the next gig but we've been able to play another show. The audience you see at the morning shows is quite different--it's a lot of people whose work or personal lives prevent them from going to shows at night and those people are particularly grateful for doing shows they can see. I like talking to those people because they have pretty weird jobs. Also, little kids come to the morning shows, 10 and 12 year-olds who can't go out at midnight. You get a completely different response from an audience that's got 12-year-old kids than you do one that's all jaded partiers.
Jesus Lizard reformed and played last year's ATP NY. Were you for or against it?
In the truest sense, if you are in a band and decide with the other members that you want to start playing again, then nobody else in the world really has anything to say about it--fuck all those people. In the case of the Jesus Lizard, I know it had been floated several times they'd get back together and play some shows. I think they chose to do it at a time when they were being appreciated by a whole new generation of fans. I saw them play in the reconstituted version and they were as good on any night in their original heyday. That was quite satisfying to me to see this band could reanimate itself and still be at 100%.
The spate of bands reforming to play in front of a new audience thing - there's certain scenarios where it comes off as being profiteering or desperate. But in the case of the Jesus Lizard and Slint, it seems like a very genuine nod to appreciation for an audience that took a while to catch up to them. For example, Mission of Burma got back together and have been much more active than they were during their original inning. I can only see that as a good thing. As far as my bands are concerned, we did a lot of things and were appreciated to a pretty gratifying degree when we were around. I don't feel like there's any unfinished business.
At ATP, Shellac has been billed as 'House Band.' What's the story behind that?
It's a little bit of an inside joke. When the band first started, we had a couple of experiences with music festivals, which were not very pleasant. So as a policy, we weren't going to play them. ATP then approached us and asked us if we'd play. We said 'no, we don't do festivals.' They had to do a lot of convincing. Eventually, they did talk us into it and we had a great time. ATP did change the festival game worldwide by offering a different kind of experience, both for the bands that play and the people that come see the bands. So, we've modified our policy of not playing festivals except anything ATP asks us to do. We've played every time they've asked us whenever it was physically possible for us to play. We've jokingly referred to ourselves as the house band and I think [fest mastermind] Barry [Hogan] is just getting that as a convenient way of describing that we've played ATP maybe 300 times.
At this point in Shellac's lifeline, where does the money figure in?
It doesn't. We all have jobs and don't need to use the band to sustain ourselves. We don't give a shit how much we get paid. We just want to play interesting shows and want to enjoy ourselves. Part of that is knowing the places we are playing are a good experience for the people that come to see it. We like to feel we are having a genuine interaction with the audience and they are being treated civilly or decently on our behalf. So we tend not to play corporate venues, keep the ticket prices below par and try to make sure the venues have decent sightlines and sound systems.