By Vish KhannaShellac have always been an anomaly in independent music but with their latest album, Excellent Italian Greyhound, the Chicago art-punk trio remind listeners just how unusual. It’s been seven years since Shellac released their last record, 1000 Hurts. Though it’s been an eternity for fans, Steve Albini (guitar, vocals), Bob Weston (bass, vocals), and Todd Trainer (drums, vocals) haven’t been watching the clock. Since forming in 1992, they have been quite clear that Shellac operate, however slowly, around their day jobs.
Albini remains one of the most respected audio engineers in the world, operating the Electrical Audio recording facility in Chicago. A punk pioneer to boot, Albini’s work in Big Black and support for fellow Touch & Go artists has had an immeasurable effect on underground music. A member of the reconstituted Mission of Burma, Weston is also a sought-after recording technician who recently launched a lab called Chicago Mastering Service. The mysterious Trainer has worked in the hair care industry for some time and offers drum lessons as well.
"As flattering as it is to have people interested in what you’re doing, we’re not doing the band for them; we’re doing it for ourselves,” Albini explains. "Not only is it not possible for us to do things any quicker, we don’t feel any internal pressure to do so. External considerations really don’t enter into our thinking.”
But make no mistake — Shellac aren’t indifferent to their audience. The band’s songs may be daunting, blending dark humour and blunt commentary with an unprecedented, minimalist mix of corrosive guitar, thundering drums, and slyly utilitarian bass, but there’s an undercurrent of fun to all things Shellac. Aside from some comically difficult arrangements and an entertaining array of subject matter, Shellac has an open rapport with fans. From hilarious banter and audience Q&A sessions to their presence on message boards, for a near-nihilistic punk band, Shellac is eager to engage with people.
"It would be ridiculous to isolate ourselves from the fans,” Trainer says. "If we’re going to travel around the world and people are going to pay to see us, the absolute least we can do is say ‘hello,’ ‘bonjour,’ or ‘ciao.’”
Without intention, Shellac has influenced legions of bands with a malleable yet idiosyncratic sound, lately exemplified by Excellent Italian Greyhound. The band’s earliest songs were relatively concise blasts of beautiful, post-hardcore muscle but, as Shellac progressed, their surreal take on riff-based, verse/chorus dynamics gave way to longer, more abstract pieces. In many ways, Excellent Italian Greyhound is the most coherent reflection of Shellac’s explorative nature.
"I guess I never really thought about it like that,” Weston admits. "We didn’t talk about songwriting or a ‘direction’ or change or anything. We just write songs that occur to us and interest us at the time. There’s no talk about it; we just do what sounds good to us all.”
Operating on their terms give Shellac a unique foothold. Making art for art’s sake, they do limited press, don’t issue any advance copies of their records, and are more thoughtful than flippant about avoiding the music industry’s "business as usual” practices. "A lot of the promotional world is about trying to convince people who don’t like your band to buy the record, or trying to convince people who don’t like your band that they’re somehow wrong,” Albini says. "We have no interest in that kind of coercion; it’s just not part of our perception of the band. We would prefer if people who came to our shows were people who wanted to be there and people that bought our records bought them because they liked them.”