Shellac Speaks!

Shellac Speaks!
In a rare exclusive, Shellac’s Steve Albini, Todd Trainer, and Bob Weston each field questions about their brand new record,Excellent Italian Greyhound. Albini was reached by phone in Chicago, Illinois from Guelph, Ontario, while Trainer and Weston responded to questions electronically.

Steve Albini (Guitar/Voice)
Over the years, members of Shellac have spoken to the fact that this band does not operate on any sort of conventional schedule, yet fans still clamour to hear new studio recordings. And even though Shellac's sound is distinctive, there still seems to be some demand for you to behave "normally" and put out new records regularly. Are you conscious of such expectations?
Well, only in the sense that it’s nice to know people are listening. 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. We work at a pace that we’re comfortable with and work on the band in the spaces between all the other things we do in our lives. So, not only is it not possible for us to do things any quicker, we don’t feel any internal pressure with the band to do things any quicker. External considerations really don’t enter into our thinking.

You’ve been pretty clear about this over the years; what do you make of people still having these expectations, this impatience?
Yeah, I thought I kind of explained that. We don’t care! (laughs) It’s flattering that people are interested in the band but their expectations are for them, not for us to be concerned with.

Shellac has been a band for almost 15 years now and its sound has remained pretty consistent in some ways. The early singles and first album, At Action Park, contained some relatively concise songs but at some point, the songs grew longer and maybe even more dramatic on new albums, even if the minimalist style was familiar. Can you discuss how the band got to a point where expansive songs like "Mama Gina” [from 2000’s 1000 Hurts] or "The End of Radio” and "Genuine Lullabelle” from Excellent Italian Greyhound seemed like ideas worth pursuing?
I think that sort of thing was never off the table. From the very beginning we experimented with some abstractions of conventional song structure. Sometimes those abstractions were reductions and some times they were extrapolations on them. I don’t think we ever had a conversation about it, to be honest.

That’s kind of what I was getting at; I wondered if it was ever articulated or if it was something that happened, for lack of a better term, "organically.”
Yeah, I think what happened is we’d get together and work on songs and, every now and again, one of them would be long. (laughs)


Yeah. We have other songs that we approached that were long but, for whatever reason, they didn’t survive long enough to get put on records.

So, it’s just a natural progression for the band?
Yeah, every now and again, we write a long ‘un.

"The End of Radio” seems to be about the end of the world. What inspired you to broach such a topic while mocking radio DJ conventions?
Well, it is neat how there is kind of a subculture of radio DJs and they tend to speak in a stilted manner that is sort of instantly recognizable, as "the radio DJ.” Whether they’re in a big town or a small town, they all tend to have this stentorian delivery or exaggerated persona. It’s the sort of thing you can identify without ever really putting your finger on it; when you hear a radio DJ or announcer, you know that’s what you’re listening to. There were a lot of things that played into our thinking about radio while we were making the song. The song doesn’t have a particular point; it’s just a series of vignettes or glimpses into the phenomenon of radio. Bob has worked on the technical side of radio and he...If you’ve ever met someone who is a local radio personality in a small town, they’re super famous, but only to about, like 800 people (laughs). But to those 800 people, they’re as famous as Elvis, y’know? That’s such a strange kind of fame that probably brings with it all of the same trappings of real fame, just on a very dollhouse scale. And then, just the place of radio in society; it started out as the hottest, most cutting edge technology where all of the super egghead, brilliant minds were working. Then it caused this incredible stock market boom and then that busted out and then there was a lot of shyster-ism and [stock] market manipulation with respect to radio. Then radio became part of a vertical monopoly for a lot of larger companies: the radio stations were owned by the same company that was making records to play on the radio and they were staffed by people trained by that company’s system and the studios were outfitted with equipment that was manufactured by the parent company. So, from soup to nuts you’d have a vertical monopoly where everything originated in RCA or Columbia or whatever. And now, radio is a relatively unimportant, tertiary medium, yet it still has all these historical associations and people still think of radio, as being part of show business after a fashion. Once you start thinking about radio, as differentiated from…if you start thinking about the function and dissemination of radio waves and the way that has been co-opted into a channel for the cult of personality and the way radio stations have been bought up, as a commodity by the plundering, oligarchic capitalists (chuckles), so that the little local radio station in the shack outside of town doesn’t really exist anymore. There might be a license on a wall but it’s actually run by some massive corporation. It just seems like radio, which began, as a scientific or military exercise became all these other different things stair-cased throughout society and each one of those steps has eventually been kicked out from under it. But radio still exists — everyone still has a radio, every car still has a radio.

So, it seems to me then that you’ve portrayed a desperate medium in the most desperate of circumstances…
Yeah but the other thing is, there are still people who aspire to be radio personalities. If there’s a literal story there, it’s about somebody who’s achieved his life’s dream of being a radio announcer but under circumstances that don’t really make that a very rewarding realisation. "Okay, you are the last person on earth; you are now also the most famous radio personality on earth…but by default, you’re also the most skilled neurosurgeon on earth,” y’know? (chuckles)

Some people thought that "The End of Radio” may have been for and about John Peel. Then there’s "Spoke” (the last song on Excellent Italian Greyhound), which, as I recall, was first recorded for a Peel session. Is there some connection here?
Well, when we played "The End of Radio” at a John Peel session for the John Peel program shortly after he died, we kind of wanted to make a point of saying that we were there because we appreciated John Peel and not just because we wanted to be on the radio.
The song "Spoke” was originally done for the Peel session and then, for a very long time, we didn’t bother playing it anymore. We sort of wrote it ad-hoc on the airplane trip over to England, where we were gonna play some shows and also do a Peel session. So, on the plane we discussed the song. Like, "Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a song where like, we play a bit and then I did gibberish, and then we play a bit and then Bob did gibberish, and then we both did gibberish, and then we played and did gibberish at the same time? Wouldn’t that be nice?” When we got to Maida Vale, which is where the session was recorded, we sort of made a quick arrangement on a napkin of how we were gonna do it and played it for the Peel session. That was the first and, for a long time, the only time we played that song. But it turns out we liked it, so we revived it and tried to play it again.

So, "The End of the Radio” actually predates the passing of John Peel?
The song itself does, yeah.

All of Shellac’s members have taken a turn writing lyrics and singing songs. On the new record, it seems that Bob’s songs like "Elephant” and "Boycott” are more overtly politically oriented, (as in, they appear to speak to feelings of frustration and subsequent empowerment) while yours are more abstract stories. Todd appears to be silent here. Would you say that any of you has a more direct writing style than the other?
Well, I don’t want to speak for Bob but here I go…

No one should speak for Bob really…
(chuckles) Bob likes to be understood and I think that’s a nice conversational trait. He’s not a mumbler. He tends to use pretty plain language in what he’s saying. I tend not to commit to a specific set of lyrics say, ever, for a song. So, I end up toying around with it for the lifetime of the song.

A lot of improvisation?
Yeah, and also I revise the delivery or the precise subject matter if I get a better idea or it becomes more clear to me, or if a song starts out from a certain perspective but later on I realise I was full of shit in the beginning, I allow myself the luxury of revising that perspective so that I am no longer full of shit — that kind of thing.

And this is a trial and error process in the live setting?
Yeah. It tends to be, I’m gonna say 60 percent consistent from night to night. The subject matter and content tends to hang around, but 60 percent is the same from night to night in a given set. But, given that, if you’re rolling the dice on 40 percent of your material every night, if you come back a year later, you may have replaced the whole thing. It’s kind of like the paradox of the homeopathic doctor; he’s deluding his tinctures so much, statistically it’s impossible that there’s any of the original remedy in the final dilution. So, the songs survive in that we can play them from night to night but they don’t necessarily resemble themselves over the span of time. "The End of Radio” is entirely extemporaneous. That one tends to be the most different from night to night.

In fact, I don’t want to suggest that it’s my favourite section, but I’ve seen it live a couple of times where you discuss [tennis player] Martina Navratilova. That to me is really enjoyable.
Well, it shows up now and again. It’s sort of a play on the concept of the sponsor. It used to be quite common for radio and television programs to explicitly thank their sponsors and name them in the body of a song. Or you’d have Ricky and Lucy come out and share a Winston cigarette or whatever it was [or] talk about how fantastic Chesterfield cigarettes are and that’s why they’re able to do the "Ricky and Lucy Show” or whatever. That sort of thing doesn’t exist anymore but there still are sponsorships obviously and the other place where they’re evident is in the sports world. There’s a kind of tacky, ghetto version of sponsorship available to musicians, whether it’s governmental sponsorship or industry sponsorship. Like "so-and-so plays so-and-so drums exclusively” or whatever.
There was a while there when Martina Navratilova was not being offered particularly lucrative endorsement or sponsorship deals because she was a lesbian. That seems utterly absurd when you’re talking about a target audience of female athletes. That’s sort of like saying, "Well, we wouldn’t want the Irish to find out about this whiskey we’re making,” y’know? It’s insane!

Right, it’s similar demographics; I can see that.
Yeah, utterly insane. So, that’s where that came from. We started riffing on this idea that, "Well, there’s obviously this lucrative market there that’s under-exploited, so maybe we should sponsor Martina Navratilova. Maybe we should get her to endorse us.”

On the record, there’s actually a little jingle or something before "Spoke?”
Ah. On the album The Who Sells Out there’s a little Rotosound Strings jingle and Bob uses Rotosound Strings on his bass and he thought it would be nice — in a reversal of the notion where you’re sponsored by a company and they give you their product for free in exchange for acknowledging that you use their product — if we said to Rotosound, "Thank you for making these strings that we have been buying from you for years.” It’s kind of a reversal of the endorsement/sponsorship relationship; what we’re saying is, "These are badass bass guitar strings, we buy them all the time. Thank you.” But the Rotosound Strings jingle is actually a cover of the Who Rotosound Strings jingle.

Getting back to what you were saying about making things up and revising them; when you freeze it on a record, what then happens to the song?
Nothing. There is a record of it and that’s one aspect of a given song; that it gets recorded and put on a record.

And it can grow and expand…
Yeah. I understand the logic of thinking that once it’s been recorded, that sort of canonises it as the legitimate version but we don’t really subscribe to that, mainly because we’re too lazy to ever memorise anything. Once we get to a point where we’re capable of playing a song, that’s sort of where we stop and we figure the rest of it will sort itself out over the lifetime of the song.
There are some songs that we play around with for a while and then we get tired of them and we stop playing them. A couple of years later, we realise that we haven’t played them in a while so we’ll play them and it turns out that we like them again. If we had to play them the same way every time or made an effort to play them the same way every time, I think we would get to the point of hating them quite quickly and it’s unlikely that they’d ever revive themselves that way.

Do you all ever discuss what's inspired your respective lyrics or collaborate on them at any point? Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a big part of what we do in rehearsal. Most of our rehearsals are not spent playing our instruments; they’re spent talking about what we wanna do when we do start playing them.

In most bands, there’s a sense that the person singing the song is the one who’s written it. So it is a collaborative thing?
Well, yeah, generally speaking. There are a couple of spots where Bob sings where I can’t sing, physically, but essentially if there’s a dominant voice in a song, you can sort of assume that that person wrote the text for the song.

The new Shellac album didn’t get sent out in any advance or promo form, yet it leaked online about a week early. I know you’re adamant about people not recording the band live without permission. I assume the Excellent Italian Greyhound leak was somewhat frustrating for you…
No, not at all. I think that stuff is, obviously, to be expected and it’s harmless. If anything, it’s evidence of an interest in the band and we should be flattered by that… and I think we are.

So, internet piracy is different than… I’ve been at shows where I’ve witnessed a real hostility from the band towards people trying to record or document the show.
I think you might be misunderstanding our position. We don’t like people videotaping us while we’re playing. The reason is that, those people are then not participating in the show — they’re working on a project. They’re sort of delaying their participation in the show until later. We didn’t come all this way and bust our asses so that you could sit at home in your living room and watch the show later. (laughs)

That makes sense.
The shows that I like, the shows that are enjoyable for us to play, are those where everyone is there interacting with us in the moment. Not where someone is trying to make a personal, festishistic archive of shows that he’s been to. I think that’s a completely ridiculous way to approach a live show. I suppose we’d prefer if people didn’t bootleg us but that’s not the thing that drives our distaste for these tapers. I don’t know if you’ve ever hung out in the company of a show taper.

Uh, no I haven’t.
I mean they’re the dorkiest, geekiest, least enthusiastic people. They’re fetishistic and they’ve perverted the experience of going to a show into a scene where they’ve just created an opportunity to expand their collection somehow. They’re like blues geeks, or whatever. Going to garage sales, not because they like garage sales but because there might be a rare Bukka White 78 in there or something, y’know?

I think I know what you’re saying and I appreciate the distinction.
The point of it is we’re playing the show because we want to play the show. We’re there because we want the event to go off and be cool. We’re not gratified when people are there for a reason other than that. Like people who come to the show who are not there because they want to be there but are there because they have something else they want to work on and are using the show, as a vehicle. Like a drug dealer that shows up to sell drugs to the crowd at the show or the dude that made his own gig posters and wants to sell them at the gig that he’s not involved in. Or the local radio personality who wants to ‘make the scene’ or the local music journalist who feels obliged to show up at the show and write a report about it. Fuck those people; fuck every single one of those people. The reason that we’re there is because we want to have this kind of communal event, a kind of interaction with an audience that’s there for the same reason we are — to have that experience. And the fewer parasites we can have, the better.

What about the idea of not sending out those advanced promos? Does that play a part in your outlook, as well?
Well, yes but that’s a slightly different case. When we’ve talked about the promotional thing, I think what it boils down to is all of us really hate having things thrust at us. Like, "Listen to this, this is awesome. You should like this.” All of us are insulted by this constant badgering of promotion where people are constantly trying to convince us that something or other is awesome. If nothing else, we are willing to be the band that does not do that (chuckles). We don’t want to have our band thrust at anyone. We don’t want to have anybody coerced into listening to our record. We don’t want to operate on any level other than what we see as our legitimate function, which is to play our stuff in front of people who like it for its own merits. A lot of the promotional world is about trying to convince people who don’t like your band to buy the record for one reason or another, or trying to convince people who don’t like your band that they’re somehow wrong. Right? 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 actually wanted to be there and we would prefer if people that bought our records were people who bought them because they liked them, y’know?

Right, that makes complete sense.
From a business standpoint, I can understand why a record label that wants to sell as many records as possible, would care less who buys those records and why they might be interested in having as much promotion done for a given title, as possible. They want as many people as possible exposed to this music so that, in the case that some of them like it, then they will know about it and buy it. We’re of the opinion that if our records remain available—that is, if they don’t go out of print—then eventually, anyone of a make-up that would appreciate them, will stumble across them, and will naturally want to have them. And we don’t feel like that needs to happen instantly for us to be successful.

So, you’re thinking long-term basically.
Yeah. I’m of the opinion that our records will sell a perfectly suitable number of records. I don’t really care how many that is. However many people want to buy our records, that’s the proper number, y’know? And having said that, they don’t have to all sell at once. With a lot of bands, they do have to sell all at once because their record label isn’t about to invest the time that it would take to allow them to develop an audience long-term. We know that’s not the case with our record label, so we’re not concerned about that.

I’m wondering about Shellac’s next visit to Canada. Your first and only shows here were on the west coast and prairies in 1999. Have you discussed returning to Canada at any point recently?
We have discussed it and we haven’t decided to do it yet. I mean it’s conceivable that it could happen but we don’t have any plans to do it yet.

Okay, but it is a topic up for discussion?
Oh yeah, yeah. We’ve talked about wanting to go to Canada again sort of off and on; we talk about it regularly. There are a lot of places that we have been and haven’t been and want to go to.

So, it’s not an aversion to Ontario necessarily? I was very lucky because I got to see the first Canadian show in Vancouver and then in Victoria. And then I believe you crossed over to Manitoba and then headed down into the States again. So, I worry, as an Ontarion that you may have some kind of aversion…
Well, this might surprise you but we don’t actually think about Ontario at all, so we don’t have a negative opinion of Ontario.

It’s so close to Illinois in some ways…
Yeah, it’s only 10 hours and a time zone away. No, yeah, we have nothing against Ontario; I mean it literally never crosses our mind (laughs).

I can appreciate that.
Although, I have to say, lately we have been watching more of the SCTV episodes. There was a whole season that I didn’t even know existed that is now being shown and available on DVD and stuff. That’s heavily Toronto content there isn’t it?

Absolutely, some of the people there are from Toronto and Hamilton, yup. So, you are, in a way, quite fond of Ontario then…
Uh, I’m quite fond of the SCTV paradigm.

Have you seen the movie Strange Brew?
I have and I quite like the film Strange Brew; I think it’s an outstanding film.

A lot of great shots of Toronto there.
I believe you.

I don’t mean to advocate for Toronto by the way. We’d be thrilled to have you in Guelph actually. That would really rub it in the faces of those Toronto people…
How far away is Guelph from Toronto?

It’s about 55 minutes by automobile.
And that’s on normal paved roads or is it dirt roads still?

No, no, we have…
Asphalt?

I believe you refer to it as a "freeway.”
Oh, outstanding.

We call it a "highway.”
A highway?

Yeah, so we have a highway and it…it takes you right there.
Right there?

Yup.
Huh. Cool.

So yeah, I know you guys keep a file. I’ve been told this any way, that things get filed.
What happens is, people who are specifically interested in doing shows contact us and then we collect their details and then when we’re fixing to go out on some place, then we contact those people and ask them if they still want to do shows or, if not, who they would recommend.

I see. It’s very organised.
Yeah. Well, it’s not very organised at all but it’s efficient. It seems to work; it’s allowed us to travel around the world.

Yes, absolutely. Just because I’ve been lucky to see the band many times even though you’ve never been to Ontario, I do hope you will come here at some point and I’m around.
Well, you know, if it hasn’t been an obstacle for you seeing the band, you’re actually weakening your argument for us to come to Ontario.

Absolutely but I think I want to spread the love. I talk to enough people who say ‘Oh my God, you saw them in Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit, and all these places…’
It seems like if you’ll travel that far then we don’t really need to go there.

You shouldn’t be thinking just of me.
Oh, okay.

There are lots of fans up here who’d love to see you. I can’t take them all with me when I make these trips.
(laughs) Right.


Todd Trainer (Drums/Voice) Over the years, members of Shellac have spoken to the fact that this band does not operate on any sort of conventional schedule but, even though Shellac's sound is so distinctive, there still seems to be some demand for you to behave "normally" and put out new records regularly. Are you conscious of such expectations? What do you make of these people and their expectations?
Yes, we are conscious of these expectations. We make nothing of these
people and their expectations. Expectations are rarely met or exceeded. Expectations equal disappointment. We do what we can to make us happy.

The early Shellac singles and first album contained some relatively concise songs but at some point, the songs grew longer and maybe even more dramatic, even if the minimalist style was familiar. Can you discuss how the band got to a point where more expansive songs like "Mama Gina” [from 2000’s 1000 Hurts] or "The End of Radio” and "Genuine Lullabelle” from Excellent Italian Greyhound seemed like ideas worth pursuing?
Most of our ideas are worth pursuing. We never reached a point where we decided to be more "expansive…” and if you are aware of our history we’ve been "expansive” all along.

You sang a song on the last record but not so this time; how come? In terms of the songwriting process in Shellac, do you all ever discuss what's inspired your respective lyrics or collaborate on them at any point? Do you know what Bob and Steve are talking about on the new record?
I did not sing on this record, for no reason at all. We do discuss our ideas, and I have a pretty good idea of what Bob and Steve are talking about.

In many respects, Shellac's one of the most community-minded bands I can think of and you've fostered a uniquely open rapport with fans. With the message boards ,the Q&A's, the drum lessons — you all encourage participation. Why do you suppose the band's relationship with its audience has unfolded the way it has?
It would be ridiculous to isolate ourselves from the fans. 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.’

Finally, I'm wondering about Shellac's next visit to Canada. Your first and only shows here were on the west coast and prairies in 1999. Have you discussed returning to Canada at any point recently? Is this even a topic for discussion?
No we have not talked about returning to Canada in the near future, which means we have yet to rule it out. Canada’s cool. We even named a song after it: it’s called "Canada.”


Bob Weston (Bass/Voice)
Over the years, members of Shellac have spoken to the fact that this band does not operate on any sort of conventional schedule, yet fans still clamour to hear new studio recordings. And even though Shellac's sound is distinctive, there still seems to be some demand for you to behave "normally" and put out new records regularly. Are you conscious of such expectations? What do you make of these people and their expectations?
I’m conscious of these expectations, in that fans of the band routinely ask when we have a new record coming out. But those expectations on the part of our fans have absolutely no bearing on how quickly we work. I’m flattered that people are interested, but we can only write songs and make records at our own pace.

The early Shellac singles and first album contained some relatively concise songs but at some point, the songs grew longer and maybe even more dramatic, even if the minimalist style was familiar. Can you discuss how the band got to a point where more expansive songs like "Mama Gina” [from 2000’ 1000 Hurts] or "The End of Radio” and "Genuine Lullabelle” from Excellent Italian Greyhound seemed like ideas worth pursuing?
Huh. I guess I never really thought about it like that. 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.

On the new record, it seems that "Elephant" and "Boycott," which you sing, are more overtly politically oriented, (as in, they appear to speak to feelings of frustration and subsequent empowerment) while Steve's are more abstract stories. Would you say that either of you has a more direct writing style than the other? Do you ever discuss what's inspired your respective lyrics or collaborate on them at any point?
I suppose that "Elephant” can be thought of as politically oriented, but it’s really more broad than that to me. It’s about how people use language to frame arguments... how the word choice in a discussion or argument can be used to frame the argument in your favour and put the other person on the defensive. "Boycott,” however, is not political at all. It’s about community and sticking together with your friends to stand up for what’s right. I guess on this record my writing is more direct than in the past. I usually am much more abstract with my lyrics, even if there’s a very particular story behind the lyrics. Maybe they turned out a little too direct/obvious/trite this time for me?
We do discuss lyrics. Steve always likes to explain his stories to us. And occasionally we have ideas for him once we hear his story and the words. I contributed some ideas to "The End of Radio,” for instance. And when I'm doing my singing, I always ask for input on what I’ve come up with.

In many respects, Shellac’s one of the most community-minded bands I can think of and you’ve fostered a uniquely open rapport with fans. With the message boards, the Q&A’s — you encourage participation. Why do you suppose the band's relationship with its audience has unfolded the way it has?
I feel that we’re all a part of this great worldwide underground arts community. So we like interacting with others in this community, who we feel are our peers.

Finally, I'm wondering about Shellac's next visit to Canada. Your first and only shows here were on the west coast and prairies in 1999. Have you discussed returning to Canada at any point recently? Is this even a topic for discussion? ,
It hasn’t come up. I think we’d like to go to South America and the Czech Republic next. We don’t plan too far ahead. There is absolutely nothing planned right now. Did you know that Canada charges bands money to cross the border and play shows up there? I have no doubt that we’ll play in Canada again. But I have absolutely no idea when. Look out Flin Flon.