Steve Albini on 20 years of Shellac, handling hecklers, and AC/DC’s brilliance

From City Pages:

It has already been 20 years since Shellac came together in Chicago in 1992 as an informal collaboration between engineer and guitarist Steve Albini (ex-Just Ducky, Big Black, Rapeman) and Minneapolis-based drummer Todd Trainer (ex-Rifle Sport, Brick Layer Cake). Shellac was fully formed when Albini invited bassist Bob Weston (ex-Sorry, Volcano Suns) to move to Chicago and employed him as an engineer at his studio.

Ahead of Shellac’s 20th anniversary show at First Avenue on Saturday, Gimme Noise caught up with the outspoken Albini — whose career as an audio engineer, has brought him together with Sparklehorse, Nirvana, The Stooges, the Pixies, PJ Harvey, Cheap Trick, The Jesus Lizard and many more. We got the details on sticking for two decades, his current recording projects, and how it feels to grab a heckler by the ears and scream at them.

GN: How does your engineering work come into play, if at all, with your playing live?

SA: My engineering work and being in a band are both outgrowths of my primary relationship with music, which is that I am a fan of it. If you play a show that’s a crappy show on the surface, like if it’s a venue that is inappropriate for you or a dead audience or a town that doesn’t respond well to your music, or you have an off night of performance… there can be things about it that you appreciate, from the standpoint as a part of the cornucopia of experience of being in a band. It doesn’t have to be a great show for it to be enjoyable, or learn something from it or for you to have some interesting experiences.

I’ll give you an example. Last year we played two shows in Brooklyn at a place called the Bell House. The first night we played a great set, we were really on the ball, we were moving very nimbly from song to song, the audience was responding really well. As a matter of execution, we played well. We really enjoyed that first show. For the second show things were going well, and then there was this particular asshole who imposed himself on the show by, in every quiet moment he’d open his yap and start nagging at me about something. Initially I made a little joke about it, then I tried to ignore it, I pointed him out to try to embarrass him and shut him up. At one point I walked over to the side of the stage and tried to explain I didn’t want him to impose himself on all the people in the room like that. And that didn’t really take hold.

So eventually about the 20th or 30th interruption that he made, I grabbed him by the ears and I screamed into his face for a solid minute and a half, about how I didn’t want him to do what he was doing and how he was making me really angry and it had been going on for a very long time. I didn’t threaten him with physical violence but I’m sure that was the inference that he made and he didn’t bother us for the rest of the show. Now that put a weird mental state on everybody in the room because it was unavoidable that that was happening.

And when I think of those two shows – the first show was a great show. The next show was more memorable to me because of the ugliness of that dude’s interaction with us and with everyone in the room, right? So as part of the life experience of being a musician, having an incident like that, I think enriches that life experience. Its not fun, its not good, its like having a scar, there’s nothing to celebrate about it, but I think it’s a worthwhile experience. On the whole I’d rather have experiences like that occasionally and leave things open the possibility that things like that could happen in the future than have things always run like clockwork and be otherwise unmemorable.

So I’m saying, we can enjoy even the shitty parts of being a band and that’s part of why we can stick together for so long.

GN: Over the past 20 years performing, do you feel the music industry evolved positively or negatively?

SA: There’s always been a spectrum of styles, and from my perspective the intent of the people playing is much, much more important than the particular style of music. I’ve heard good and bad iterations of many kinds of music. The music is essentially a window into the souls of the people who are making it. The music can sound like a lot of things and still be an open window. I still get to learn about what the people who are making the music are like. And I think that’s music’s most important function. There’s a lot of nostalgia around, people saying, “Oh, music was better then.” I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There were different kinds of music that were popular, trendy, more or less heard. But the stylistic aspect really doesn’t matter to me that much.

GN: It seems as though are more bands playing harder rock than we’ve heard in the past decade — louder, more in the vein of the Cows and Helmet and the Melvins.

SA: Depending on your peer group I’m sure you could find people who are tired of hard rock because the heavy metal scene and more aggressive parts of the music scene, that type of music has never really faded. The style of music isn’t really why people like it or don’t like it. It’s something deeper than that. There’s no shortage of bands that attempted to sound like the Clash or the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. From an academic standpoint, you could say they sounded very similar but they weren’t as good as those bands. And the same can be said of all the bands that tried to sound like AC/DC. AC/DC seemed to be a fairly simple band from a conceptual level and an execution level. It seemed like anybody should be able to do that. But everybody who tries just makes a fool of themselves. And the only band that’s like that, that’s any good, is AC/DC.

So what I’m saying is: whether it’s quiet or loud or fast or aggressive or slow – the superficial aspects aren’t predictive. They can’t tell you if you’re going to like something or not.

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