Steve Albini on Shellac's New Album, His Love of Music and His Hatred of Promoting It

"Fascism is up there, but marketing is right behind"

Photo: Vish Khanna

BY Vish KhannaPublished May 17, 2024

"I mean, this is more talking about our music than I think anyone outside of the band has ever requested of me," Steve Albini told Exclaim! jovially on April 23, during one of the last interviews he ever gave.

Two weeks later, the esteemed recording engineer and musician died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 61 at his home in Chicago.

Musically, he was known for founding the pioneering and abrasive punk band Big Black, who broke up after a final 1987 show in Seattle (attended by a young Kurt Cobain, who interacted with Albini after their set). Albini went on to play squalling guitar and speak/yell-sing in the influential, noisy, minimalist rock trio Shellac, along with his good friends and fellow singers, bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer.

Because its members all had day jobs, Shellac did everything at a reasonable-for-them/slow-for-fans pace. The band's excellent, funny and ferocious new album, To All Trains (out today), is their first in 10 years.

"We never talk about the music," Albini said, while immersed in a discussion about the songs on the record. "We just talk in sort of general terms about stuff. Talking granularly and very specifically about the music — it's weird, I would have expected myself to be uncomfortable."

Steve Albini loved music, really and truly. But perhaps more than that, he cared for every aspect of it — from learning and teaching to writing, performing, recording and playing, to coming up with corrective business practices in the face of greed and artifice.

And yet, his passion for such things could be greeted by hostility and derision by those who couldn't see the value in his punk rock ethos (or, like Elvis Costello and Steve Earle, his unfettered production style), which was imbued with selflessness, an anti-capitalist framework, and a belief that authenticity was impossible to lie about and therefore was among the most laudable traits in people.

For some, being oneself and staying true to that self is a difficult task in a music industry built on capitulation, ass-kissing and a fear of not making money. Albini was against such things — but he exhibited this not by avoiding a sordid music system, but by working hard within it with consistent principles, which made him successful and exemplified how employing such methods was simply better. For everyone.

He did almost everything he possibly could on his own terms. He wrote extensively and uncompromisingly about artists he loved and loathed, and took some joy in telling it like it was, no matter who might be offended (i.e. fans of Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair and Steely Dan, or mainstream producers). His primary targets were anyone who reeked of phoniness or clearly had materialistic or capitalistic goals over artistic ones and furthered the most inhumane, gross aspects of the music business.

For instance, Shellac never sent their records out to any press or media outlets in advance, because they couldn't care less about any of the jockeying that musicians and labels often do, to indulge in gaining attention for themselves. Albini was not one for such preening.

"It's marketing," he said, "which is maybe my most hated thing on earth. Like, fascism is up there, but marketing is right behind, you know?"  

Beyond recording Nirvana's In Utero, Albini was often known more for his opinions than he was for making his own music. That's partially because he participated in millions of interviews and could write circles around anyone, which in recent years consisted of him composing remembrances, letters to the editor, and wildly entertaining message board posts. His opinions could also be inflammatory or use jarringly harsh language.

Sometimes he said and did things that were regrettable, often in the pursuit of humourous provocation (he himself was haunted by the flippantly horrible names a couple of his bands had), which he regretted and owned up to. But in general, he had a kind of unfiltered honesty, an ethical framework, a logical consistency, and the courage of his convictions that some people perceived as smugness and self-righteousness.

Unlike many record producers, Albini famously never took a royalty percentage on In Utero or any album he worked on. He charged a reasonable fee for his services and that was it. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant? The Stooges? METZ? Mint Mile? The Sadies? Nina Nastasia? All had the same deal.

He advocated for musicians and people in his Chicago community, working on the poverty alleviation charity Letters to Santa with his wife, Heather Whinna. He loved cats. And yet, Albini was often regarded as a taciturn curmudgeon, simply because he had an allegiance to tell the truth and be true to himself and punk rock.

We live in a culture that fails to acknowledge people who are decent and work to better the lives of others in their communities and beyond, because truth to power is a direct threat to complacency and the status quo of capitalism that functions best if most people are suffering — or, at the very least, if people pretend they're fine doing something they're really not fine doing at all.

And instead of interrogating why these systems are failing, it becomes easier for some participants to undercut the people trying to fix them, attacking them with cynicism and doubt, looking for holes in the armour we've put on them.

When Albini spoke out, it was seldom on behalf of himself as much as it was less fortunate members of his musical and cultural community. And we were lucky, because he could dish it out and take it; he once told me he'd developed the "skin of a rhino," and was impervious to insults.

So, when we mourn Steve Albini, we grieve for an unintentional figurehead in our independent cultural consciousness who is irreplaceable. We are left with the music by others that he captured — an astoundingly long list that is easiest to look up than summarize here — and the music he made, like the new Shellac album, To All Trains, which, even to his own surprise, he was more than happy and proud to discuss.

"If someone had asked me, 'What do you think about talking about your band's music for an hour?' I would have thought, 'Oh, that's going to make me feel really self-conscious and awkward,'" Albini said, "but, yeah, I'm fine with this." 

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