Like home-grown tomatoes, longterm authenticity and music industry "space aliens"
Clambering over the sea wall, suddenly the sound of barking breaks over the rhythmic crash of lapping waves. Turning to watch a lady chase her two dogs into the surf, Steve Albini breaks out into a broad grin. “I love dogs,” he sighs wistfully, “I don’t think any other animal would be up for just heading into the woods and getting lost. Dogs are basically up for everything a human is but can just get there that little bit quicker.”
For a guy who’s notorious for being a hard case, this morning Albini is on charming form. Then again, I suppose Barcelona beach is a bit of a home from home for the Chicago native these days. Having played every edition of Primavera Sound since 2008, the festival just wouldn’t feel the same without his band cropping up somewhere (this year Primavera’s merch stall are selling T-shirts with the design ‘Shellac and 249 more’ on them). As we navigate the boulders, our conversation flips to Björk who played the main stage the night before. “If anything, she made me more of a fan,” he says as we dissect her headlining slot. “She doesn’t give a fuck about what anyone thinks, and I really respect that.”
Spend just ten minutes in his company and you’ll quickly see that the mythical version of Steve Albini and the real-life version of Steve Albini are about as far apart as you can get. As with all legends there’s a kernel of truth in there – he can be impressively outspoken and harshly blunt when he wants to be, but it comes more from the fact that the 55-year old cares passionately about music than him wanting to piss people off.
In spite of his work with Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac, Albini is arguably most famous for being the guy in the control room for ‘In Utero’, ‘Surfer Rosa’ and countless other alt. rock classics. For the past 40 years he’s been a staunch advocate and moral defender of DIY music and he’s happy to turn his fire on anything he perceives as bullshit, from Sonic Youth selling out to bands glad-handing suits at SXSW, and even joining Evelyn Morris of Listen to give a feminist critique of his own work. Put simply, Albini doesn’t respect images, artifice or anything that feels like music industry crap, and while he’s usually super polite, he’s never been afraid to call it as he sees it.
I’m pretty fond of the fact that I can make a meal for myself and my wife every night. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction. I love the fact that I can come home from the studio, walk through my garden and decide what I’m going to cook for the evening.
At first, having a garden seemed like a daunting thing to do in an urban environment, but as soon as you have space for a little patch of land it’s well worth it. Any plain ordinary tomato you can grow in your garden is infinitely better than one you bought in a store. The best tomatoes I’ve ever had have been ones that have been grown in someone’s garden. Just don’t fucking bother with beans. You need acres to grow a decent amount of beans.
Trust me, it’s made a massive difference. When I lived and worked at the studio weeks would go by without me ever leaving, but now I have some semblance of a daily schedule and it’s done wonders for my state of mind. I tend to get there when I get there and leave when the work is done – but now, at least, there’s a cyclic aspect to my life that wasn’t there previously.
When Shellac started in the early ’90s, it was also the peak frenzy of the exploitation of the underground music scene. Festivals just seemed tailor-made to exploit bands and fans. The prevailing attitude seemed to be ‘let’s get as many fucking idiots into a field, treat them like shit and best of all, they’ll see anything so we can put on any old bullshit and even do payola for the early spots.’
Consequently, we swore off festivals until we were asked to play All Tomorrow’s Parties by Mogwai. It was a completely different experience. Gone was the sheep-herding mentality – instead people enjoyed themselves in a normal way. It was orders of magnitude better than conventional festivals and pretty soon everyone else got the picture. Festivals like Primavera Sound treat people decently these days and have realised that if you care about the experience then people will keep coming back. You have to thank ATP for that.
A book could be written about how ATP set itself on fire, rebuilt itself and then set itself on fire again. I have no agenda towards them, but the way the company behaved in the last few years of its existence was inexcusable. All the good things the festival did in no way justifies the way it left a lot of people holding the bag, but for me, the negative effects of the fallout is slightly offset by the way that changed festival culture and created these amazing, unique experiences. I had the time of my life at some of those festivals, so it was a shame how it ended, but bravo for some pretty incredible experiences along the way.
It’s a necessary part of my income at this stage. It’s a game that exercises all parts of my brain and it’s one of the few things that I was doing years ago that I’m still doing and can imagine myself doing for the foreseeable future.
The key to poker is managing risk. It’s one of the very few games where the pieces on the board are money. There’s a misconception that poker is a card game that involves money – it’s actually a betting game that involves cards. The cards matter, but the betting is the most important aspect of the game. The funny thing is, it’s probably the only thing I do purely for money. Every other thing in my life I’m doing because I’ve chosen to spend my time doing it, but in Poker the reason you play is to win money.
I don’t think being ‘top dog’ is any kind of achievement; it’s a statistical quirk. Someone has to be the best at something and if it happens to this person or that person, that’s not significant. If you and I are doing something and you do it better than me, then I’m ecstatic for you. I don’t feel like you ‘owned’ me. Poker is the only thing I compete in and I try not to personalise it. It’s not about beating the other person, it’s more about me making the right decisions and doing things with my hands that are profitable rather than punish my opponents.
Music is a purely creative enterprise. It’s an expression of the creative impulse for everyone that’s doing it and it’s a means of communication with people who are listening to it and it’s very personal. The music that I admire the most is the music that gives me a moment of insight into someone else. That kind of music is valuable to me as it helps me to understand more about the world.
A friend of mine called Martin Bradstreet, who’s a terrific poker player and a terrific natural musician, once wrote an essay about how people who have balance in their lives aren’t good poker players because they aren’t driven. You need to be slightly obsessed because if you’re not willing to keep up and study you’ll always lose to the people who are.
All my own work has been made to satisfy a mania. It hasn’t been made to suit a market or fit an idiom. The audience wants to see you spilling your guts about something that makes you uniquely you, so if what you’re doing is nonsense or some bullshit that you think people will buy, then sooner or later, that will register with them as hollow. As soon as you’re labelled as a phoney, then your shot is gone, you’d better pray that you can make a living on cruise ships and bingo halls.
I’m pleased that it’s never even occurred to me to make a living out of playing in a band. In virtually all the bands I admire, that attitude is non-existent. It’s antithetical to the creative to worry about the bottom line. That’s why I admire people like Bjork and Nick Cave who do these things that are unwieldy and can be, in some cases, abhorrent and insulting. It’s the purity of their instinct that people react to, not the product. It feels genuine and that’s why people value it.
I’ve always seen being in a band as a fantastic experience that I get to have rather than about making money. If I’d had to rely on just the band to live, I’d either have to live a very meagre life or do a bunch of stupid things in an effort to increase the profitability of the band. I have some small regrets about the way I’ve conducted myself as a musician, but it’s always felt that at least in the moment all my decisions have been pure. I’m proud of every stick of music that I’ve done.
I’m strongly of the opinion that every work of art has been made with near-complete disinterest in the audience. If you’re making something and you consider the audience even for a moment, then you’ve cheapened it. Look at Nick Cave, for example. What people are responding too isn’t the tunes, it’s Nick Cave, the person. The more he’s willing to present himself in a genuine fashion, even if it’s just a character he’s playing, then the more the audience will have a genuine reaction.
It’s an odd thing that a lot of bands who are trying to ‘make it’ listen too much to the industry. The music business is reactionary and its always going to push artists towards whatever’s hot at the moment and make them incorporate these sounds into their sounds. They reduce it to these action memos, but no one buys records for this reason. When has one musician said to another, ‘did you know who the business manager was on this record?’ They don’t care. Even if you think of it from a purely business perspective, it makes sense to always be honest. It always works out better in the long run.
Y’know, like managers, agents, lawyers, record producers, pluggers, promoters, publicity – those kinds of people. Basically, if you are in a band or a musician, then you and I will get on; if you’re one of these people who is living this parasitic existence outside that, but within the administration of music, whatever you’re thinking, I won’t get it and probably will never get it.
There’s a very small number of independent record labels that are run by enthusiasts and work on a similar level to me, for example, Corey Rusk of Touch and Go or Ian MacKaye of Dischord – they’re very respectful to the bands and operate very efficiently. I understand those people very well, but people in the mainstream music business? I don’t get those people at all. They’re like fucking space aliens to me.
Additional photography: Primavera/Paco Amate