Keeping the DIY Faith

Steve Albini relishes Shellac's unvarnished power


If punk rock still stood for a certain way of doing things and approaching life, then you might characterize Steve Albini as a punk-rock godfather. Steadfastly anti-corporate, DIY and a purveyor of music as no-frills as his famous production style, Albini is an underground icon who still preaches the gospel of self-sufficiency at the core of DIY.

"It's true in almost any enterprise. If you do things for a reason other than that you really want to do that thing, then that thing you end up doing becomes a tool, and most tools get dull after a while," Albini said from his studio, Electrical Audio. "That's the way I've always approached creative endeavors--to try to make them satisfying in their own right. Then it doesn't matter what the result is."

As a musician, Albini founded the influential act Big Black in Chicago during the early '80s. Its blend of bleak, crushing guitars and drum-machine beats would serve as an early inspiration for mainstream bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. Meanwhile, the aggressive guitar brutality rallied legions of late '80s Midwestern bands--Tar, Helmet, The Jesus Lizard, the Cows, Killdozer--under the noise-rock banner.

Albini carried over that scabrous, hard-hewn minimalist sound when he started Shellac with bassist Bob Weston (Volcano Suns) and drummer Todd Trainer (Breaking Circus) in 1992. Since then, they have released four albums along with a handful of EPs and 7 inches. Most of Albini's time is spent burnishing his reputation as one of the busiest, most affordable big-name producers in the business. As a result, he's recorded plenty of big names like Nirvana, Pixies, Bush, Cheap Trick, Nine Inch Nails, and far lesser-known ones like Neurosis, Wrangler Brutes, Om and Scout Niblett.

His production style reflects his musical aesthetic, preferring the raw and unadorned sound of a live band to the artificiality of meticulous multi-tracking. He's often credited on albums as an engineer rather than a producer, an expression of his desire to capture the band's true sound as opposed to tweaking and polishing it into something it's not. As a result, he concentrates heavily on mic placement and tends to shy away from knob-twiddling unless instructed to by the band.

"I tend to not get involved in creative decisions in the studio because I'm an ignorant outsider. I haven't done those eight-hour drives where the whole life story and philosophy of the band has been worked out in conversation. I haven't lived through the helping-your-drunken-friend-up-the-stairs-moments that build the bonds of fraternity that are the basis of bands, so I really have no right to and no perspective to tell them that this song should actually be a little bit faster or that maybe the guitar solo shouldn't be so long," Albini said.

"I didn't start out from that perspective, obviously. When you're first put in the position of making recordings for other people, after a couple of sessions you realize you actually have a lot of power and that you could actually influence the outcome. And initially, at least, it's seductive. The first couple sessions I did for other people, I probably did go a little too far in trying to make things suit myself," Albini said.

"It was through that experience of seeing what effect that had on other people that I realized that was not the way to approach it, and it kind of resonated with my perspective on the rest of everything else involved in the music scene, which is that bands mattered and they should be treated with respect," he said.

A similar idea continues to drive Shellac. Though releases have been rather sporadic--with seven years separating 2007's Excellent Italian Greyhound and its predecessor, 1,000 Hurts--each came out of a simple desire to make music. Recordings and tours happen when they feel like it or they don't happen. If Shellac is standing in front of you, it's because the band wants to be there. Band members book their own relatively short tours and only leave when they're in the mood, helping to ensure an inspired rather than perfunctory performance.

"A lot of bands end up in a position where they have to do something for their band so it ends up becoming an obligation in the same way that because you have to go to your job every day you end up resenting it," Albini said. "So I've never allowed my band to create obligations for me. If we make a commitment of time to do something that's always by consensus, and we don't give ourselves deadlines for [making records] we just do it and when they're done, they're done."

That said, Albini admits that Shellac has done a good bit of recording already and--while not wanting to fence them in--he expects to have a new album out by this time next year. Meanwhile, he couldn't be happier about the developments of the last decade, which he sees as having freed musicians from the seductive spectre of major labels bargaining for their souls.

"The music business is no longer the record business. It's actually about music. It's about people playing music in front of other people for a living," he said. "Now when people are playing stuff on their iPod, they're much more likely to be playing something they stumbled upon themselves and that genuinely suits them. A fair bit of it is going to be stuff that never got an airing in the commercial music marketplace because there was no label support for it, or the band wasn't sexy on television or whatever. So there are an awful lot of bands whose music is becoming popular based on its merits, and I think that's fantastic."

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