Big Black on 'Songs About F--king' at 30: 'We Wanted to Make Filthy Music'

Steve Albini and Santiago Durango look back on their middle-finger industrial-punk swan song

After 30 years, Steve Albini and Santiago Durango of industrial-punk provocateurs Big Black look back on their final LP, 'Songs About Fucking.' Credit: Courtesy of Touch and Go Records

At their peak, Big Black were some of the nastiest noisemakers in rock. Their sound was an industrial-strength miasma of piercing, static-like guitar (played with metal picks), drum-machine battery and frontman Steve Albini's unapologetically hateful and acrimonious lyrics about the worst aspects of humanity. So when they decided to break up in 1987, they did so with a furious kiss-off to the world in the form of their final LP, Songs About Fucking.

"Steve came up with the title, which is just brilliant," says guitarist Santiago Durango, now an appellate defender in Ottawa, Illinois. "The title is the biggest 'fuck you' to the music industry that I am aware of. In fact, Big Black as a whole was a big fuck you, so things culminated quite nicely in my mind."

"All the people that work in music, even in the independent music business, give you the impression that they are iconoclasts and that they are unconcerned with commercial considerations," says Albini, who now fronts noise-rockers Shellac and works as a recording engineer at his own Electrical Audio studio in Chicago. "They want you to think that they are in it for art and art alone. Then when you present them with something that is unmarketable or that might not reach all of the chain stores – when you present them with something that is a manifestation of their pretense – they blanch. So we were gonna put everybody on the rack. 'Oh, your record label is about the unfettered free expression of the artist? OK, we will give you an obscene album title and horrible music, and let's see if you live up to your word.'"

Although the band's label, Touch and Go, embraced the title and its unsettling artwork, culled from Japanese manga, Big Black's British label, Blast First, bristled at the phrase. "We had to put our foot down," Albini says. "We said, 'No, that's the name of the record.'"

Released after the band's final tour, Songs About Fucking, went on to become their best-selling LP and it sealed Big Black's legacy as shit stirrers par excellence. "They were at a point when they were using the forum to be audacious," says Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, whose band was also on Blast First. "There's a certain side of Steve that's very provocative, and from the title on down, that record was a provocation. I think that was a period when maybe the music was less important than the idea of provocation. It's perfectly valid as an artist to want to provoke your audience to a reaction in some way. Steve loves that."

True to form, the LP contains 12 severe bursts of ill will – nefarious stories about murderous boyfriends, bloody public mafia hits, a woman upset she emerged from a catatonic state – as well as a cover of Kraftwerk's "The Model," all set to a literal soundtrack of metal scraping metal. Songs About Fucking was intended a final stab at the heart of human decency, and it left a scar on the music fans who were paying attention. And even though neither Albini nor Durango cite it as their favorite Big Black release (Albini prefers 1986's Atomizer while Durango likes specific songs and points to the band's Peel Sessions as memorable), they see it as a fitting epitaph. (Bassist Dave Riley declined an interview for this article, declaring, as if he were a character in a Big Black song, "Rolling Stone disgusts me.")

Albini conceived the band as a one-man project in 1981, while a journalism student at Chicago's Northwestern University. He released Big Black's debut EP, Lungs, the next year, recording nearly all the instruments himself and using a drum machine later credited as a band member dubbed "Roland" (its brand name). Durango, who'd been playing with the punk group Naked Raygun, joined with his Raygun bandmate Jeff Pezzati on bass in '83 followed by his replacement, Riley, in '85. Big Black put out a string of singles and EPs in a short period of time. When Songs About Fucking came out on the fall of 1987, it capped off a particularly productive year for the trio that also saw the release of an EP, Headache, and two singles, one featuring the Wire cover "Heartbeat" and another sporting Cheap Trick's "He's a Whore" (with artwork featuring Albini doing his best Robin Zander pout to boot.)

Looking back, Albini and Durango say they were moving fast because they knew the end was near. Earlier that year, Durango had decided to attend law school. "Back then, no one had heard of us really and I was tired of working shitty jobs just so that I could be in a band," the guitarist says. "I was getting tired of driving a rusted, old Toyota that needed all kinds of maintenance and sleeping on people's floors and living in crappy apartments, not having money. Obviously, Big Black was never going to become some big commercial band."

He broke the news to the band, and Albini and Riley took the news well and simply got to work. "It was almost like an end-of-life scenario, like we'd better get our affairs in order," Albini says. "I didn't want to leave anything hanging or unresolved, so we plotted out the last year of the band well in advance, leaving time to record material that was already under way and then leaving enough time post-that to generate and record enough additional material to make that final album."

In spite of their impending demise, the band set out to write Songs About Fucking as if it were any other LP. One of the musicians would get a riff, a rhythm or a chord progression, and the three of them would create an arrangement for it and punch a beat into Roland. For instance, "Colombian Necktie" – a song describing someone whose throat has been slit and had his tongue pulled out the neckhole – evolved from a riff Durango had come up with in Naked Raygun he believed no drummer could play, so Albini figured it out on the drum machine.

"I'm proud of the way we used Roland," Albini says. "I feel like it's an underutilized instrument. It kind of bothers me that it was not taken seriously as an instrument by other people. It was used as kind of a simulacrum of a regular drummer, or just as a slightly fancy metronome. In Big Black, the drum machine got to stretch its legs a little. Even now, I can't think of another band that used the drum machine in a similar fashion."

"Big Black's use of the drum machine was excellent," Wire bassist Graham Lewis says. "They gave it its own amp stack and placed it centerstage like a traditional drummer. This gave the band its ferocious rhythmic focus. Bruce [Gilbert, former Wire guitarist] and I loved drum machines; I bought my first in 1979. We approved of the inflexibility of Big Black's drum machine policy at the time."

To accompany their audio nasties, Albini wrote lyrics that explored a theory he had. "The central conceit of the band, in terms of its lyric content," he explains, "was, 'You think you're better than these awful people that you hear about – you are not. You are the same as these awful people. You're not a special and noble person merely because you haven't indulged these impulses at the moment.' I feel like that perspective was fairly well played out, or fairly well articulated, by the time I got to that record. I was kind of grasping at straws lyrically. It ended up being a series of abstractions from that premise."

"The central conceit of the band was, 'You think you're better than these awful people that you hear about – you are not.'" –Steve Albini

Albini would come up with ideas by cataloguing stories of cruelty. "Whenever I would stumble across some aspect of human behavior that left me agog, it would reinforce the notion I had that we're all susceptible to these incredibly base urges and impulses," he says. "'Colombian Necktie,' for instance is a humiliating way to kill somebody that would leave his corpse embarrassed."

Similarly, "Fish Fry," a pulsing, almost surfy track, was based on a newspaper article Albini read about a man who took a woman to a family gathering (a fish fry) and later raped and killed her. "When the police came to his place to interview him, he was casually hosing out the cab of his pickup truck," the singer recalls. "You know … as one does after someone has beaten someone to death." The seething "Kasimir S. Pulaski Day" was inspired by a mob-style killing where the body of a man was found shot through the head in his car. "I don't remember if it was on [Chicago's] Pulaski Skyway or just on some other South Side highway but I conflated it, and it gave me the excuse to use the word Pulaski," he says, noting that the Pulaski reference was meant to appeal to Chicagoans. The catchy "Bad Penny" – about a guy who sleeps with all his friends' girlfriends – was loosely about a guy Albini knew who "took casual advantage of his friends. He was the sort of guy that you'll be glad when he leaves the scene except he never left the scene – he was always there. It was inspired by that but not directly referencing this person."

Meanwhile, Fucking opener "The Power of Independent Trucking" – with its "sing a song about fornicate" refrain, which seems to reference the album's title – is a work of fiction. "It's an imagined independent truck driver who is very full of his own importance," he says. And he wrote "Kitty Empire" about his cat Fluffs. "I sort of imagined him as the emperor of a domain, but a trivial and pitiful domain that was basically my yard," he says. "I suppose there's an allegorical thing there about people who are impressed by their own power without realizing how pitiful it is to anyone with a broader perspective, like, 'OK, yeah, you're the "re-tread tire king."'" Albini laughs.

They included a cover of Kraftwerk's icy "The Model" – with their guitars playing all of the Germans' synth parts – simply because they thought it would work. "It seemed like there would be very few songs in Kraftwerk's catalogue that you could adapt to a rock-band setting, and it seemed like the perfect one," Albini says. "There's a little Russian melody in the middle, which Santiago could play effortlessly, and I thought that sounded great when he played it." (Incidentally, Big Black put out "The Model" along with "He's a Whore" because both Kraftwerk and Cheap Trick had influenced them and they thought people might not figure Big Black were fans.)

The album's artwork – a woman on her back, gnashing her teeth as sweat dripped down her face on the front, a giant, white-haired man behind her on the back – came from a manga Albini got from a friend who imported printed goods from Japan. "None of us had any deep connection to manga or Japanese culture, but there was this schism in their depiction of sexuality where you could have these very aggressive, very dramatic facial expressions and body postures – radiating lines and flying sweat and people vigorously and enthusiastically copulating, that we found interesting," he says. "In some cases, there were these dominance scenarios where there appears to be a mortified woman being violated by an older dude, or someone who is obviously exploiting a power structure. It's really dramatic, unsettling imagery. But they weren't allowed to show you a penis."

The album title, Songs About Fucking, came from Albini thinking about how people would ask him to describe Big Black's music. "The term 'rock & roll music' originally meant dirty songs about fucking," he says. "It was rhythmic songs that were euphemistically or explicitly about fucking. Songs about fucking – that's what rock & roll meant. And then the Parents' Music Resource Center was trying to rein in the subject matter of popular music and art at the time. We wanted to explicitly decline to participate in that reining in. We wanted to make filthy music. We wanted to make our records. We wanted to be explicit about our willingness to offend people."

Albini still relishes how when the album came out in Australia, the label Au Go Go had to censor the album title … by putting a sticker on it that said, "Please remove." "I thought it was great because it would encourage petty vandalism in record stores," he says. "Seems trivial right? Now there's a band called Fuck Buttons and there are numerous and more significant obscenities on display everywhere."

Albini, who last listened to the record a few years ago when he remastered it, now thinks that some of it sounds a bit forced. The LP's first side, dubbed "Happy Otter" (a Japanese manga metaphor for a phallus), comprised songs they'd been test-driving on the road, including many that were Albini's favorites to perform like "Bad Penny" and "L Dopa" (based on Dr. Oliver Sacks' book Awakenings). They recorded that half in London. But on the second side – "Sad Otter" (or a flaccid penis), recorded in Chicago with equipment that would provide the foundation for Albini's Electrical Audio – he feels now that he forced himself to perform the vocals as a character on songs like "Kitty Empire" and "Pavement Saw."

Similarly, Durango felt spent creatively. "Everything I had been saving up in my little arsenal – all the little tricks I wanted to try – I was just tapped out," he says. "We realized amongst ourselves that there were a finite number of ideas that we could explore as Big Black. Once we crossed a certain line, we would start to really suck, because we'd be repeating ourselves or we'd just be going through the motions to come up with some quirky idea to record for whatever reason. We had a list of bands we liked and admired that we felt had overstayed their welcome, and we didn't want to become that sort of band." (He declines to name the bands who disappointed him on the record.)

"Side One is pretty much all A material," Albini says. "Side Two had some B-plus material."

Before they put out the album, they embarked on a farewell tour. They contacted all of the people who booked small shows for them and wound up playing bizarre shows. "We said, 'If you want to come up with a crazy idea for a show, we will indulge all crazy ideas,'" Albini recalls. "We ended up playing a former brothel someplace in Ohio. It still had the turn-of-the-century, ostentatious atmosphere of a brothel. And we were going to play a cave where a rattlesnake roundup was taking place in Texas but that fell through."

"I remember in Australia, we played someplace and no one had heard of us," Durango recalls. "They had no fucking idea who Big Black was, and we were booked to play two sets with an intermission. So the people had no idea what to do with us during the first set, and we got pissed off during the intermission, so we just decided to piss 'em off. Dave just started insulting Australia, and Australian women and men, and Australian beer – everything about Australia – and within a matter of five minutes, we had a little mini riot happening in the club and then we just kicked in and had a great, great show after that.

"And I remember playing a club in England where the kids just grabbed Steve and put him on their shoulders, and just ran him around the club," he continues. "They just picked him off the stage and ran around the club. And we did a show in Germany where the stage seemed to be about two floors above where the crowd was standing. It was very weird.

At the time, Big Black shows were displays of primal dynamism. Albini and Durango wore their instruments not from over-the-shoulder straps like most guitarists but over their crotches from belts they had custom-made at a leather shop for gay men in Chicago. When they performed the Atomizer tune "Jordan, Minnesota" – about a ring of child molesters – Albini would act out the abuse. ("It was unsettling," Durango says.) And since both were bespectacled and lunged forward around the drum-machine speaker, they looked like no other punk or hardcore band. They'd also set off firecrackers at their shows. Sometimes the whole scene would lead to confrontations. "When we played at the I-Beam in San Francisco, I leaned over the stage and somebody just came up and smacked me in the face. And people were always yelling at us – mostly yelling at Steve, actually. He gave as good as he took."

At the London show, Big Black welcomed some of their heroes on the stage – Wire's Gilbert and Lewis, who joined them on their cover of Wire's "Heartbeat." "I first heard their version on our manager at the time's cabriolet's sound system cruising through North London," Lewis says. "Bang! Dig it! It certainly got people in the streets attention. Steve invited Bruce and I to take part in the London show and 'Heartbeat' was the encore. I brought my Casio SK1 sampler and had a mic feed from Santiago's amp. This gave me his guitar sound one octave above and one below. It was distortion heaven with portamento and circuit meltdown. What more could a boy ask for?"

Big Black played their final show, other than a four-song reunion in 2006 at Touch and Go's festival, at a steam power plant at Boeing Field in Seattle. "[The promoter] Larry Reid booked it the way you would a wedding or a bar mitzvah," Albini says. "He booked this industrial power plant and they were like, 'Yeah, sure, you could do that.' You had to drive to a certain access road at the airport, and you had to go through a checkpoint and show them your ticket, and they'd let you just drive onto the airfield. And then you'd go to this power plant and then you'd see the gig. It was on a makeshift stage surrounded by this massive equipment and machinery. It was really fucked up. It was one of the oddest places that we played and one of the oddest gigs I've ever been to."

At the final show, a friend of Albini's called out song titles, and all three of them dug into their instruments with ferocity until the end when they destroyed them as an act of finality. "I remember after I smashed my guitar, this kid asked if he could have a chunk of it that was on the ground," Albini says. "I said, 'Sure, yeah. It's garbage now.' Then when I was working on the In Utero album with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain told that he had asked me if he could take a piece of my guitar and I told him he could, and he still had the little piece of the guitar. The point of this story is that it was a really cool gig and weird stuff happened, and long after the fact, people remember the cool stuff that happened."

Once the band was done, everyone went their separate ways. Albini ended up joining another band, named Rapeman after another manga, with former members of Scratch Acid. "It was not long after Big Black broke up," Albini says. "Certainly not long enough." It lasted only a year. He'd later focus on audio engineering and later formed Shellac, with whom he still plays and records. Durango went to law school with the hope of becoming a lawyer like the bellicose Melvin Belli (who got the credit for playing guitar on Songs About Fucking) but jokes that he ended up being a bit more like Rick Moranis in Ghost Busters II. ("The scene where his character 'questions' Bill Murray's character in the courtroom, and his ensuing argument to the judge, is considered a minor classic by trial attorneys," Durango says. "It makes me laugh every time.") Now that his oldest son is going to college, he's been exploring making music again. Riley survived a stroke in the early Nineties and for a while published a blog called Worthless Goddamn Cripple.

Meanwhile, the legacy of Songs About Fucking has only grown. Electronic artist Kid606 put out a record with a parody cover and cheeky title, Songs About Fucking Steve Albini, in 2010 (incidentally Roland was a TR-606 model), and punk groups the Copyrights and the Dopamines issued a 2009 split release titled Songs About Fucking Up (which sort of misses the point by being too earnest).

These days, Durango sees Albini from time to time and describes their friendship as being like distant cousins. "You may not talk to them for a while, but when you talk, it's like you had just talked yesterday," he says. "Albini was in touch with Riley when he was mastering recordings from Riley's pre–Big Black band Savage Beliefs. When they reunited, with Pezzati on bass, for the Touch and Go festival, they played only songs from before Riley joined since he couldn't partake. "We haven't kept close contact post–Big Black, but it's been close enough to know that he wasn't in a condition to play," Albini says. "I didn't want to put him in an awkward position of trying to play, but not being able to do it."

Roland, Albini says, has since ceased to exist. "The housing for it broke and all the components under the pads have deteriorated to the point that it's unusable," he says. "Some of the programmed parts of the memory have failed. It wasn't getting any use, really."

When Durango reflects on Songs About Fucking now, it's with pride. "You'll never see a band on a major label put out a record like that – with songs like that, that kind of artwork and the lyrics," he says. "It's just like, 'We can do it. Fuck you. We don't need you.' So it was satisfying."

Overall, Albini feels the band went out on a high note. "I felt like we were playing really well as a band," he says. "Our camaraderie was very strong because there was an end in sight. It was the conclusion of the project, so let's do this and be proud of it and be done with it. Ending that band was one of the most satisfying things I've ever done."