Thanks to more than three decades of teeth-gnashing growls, industrial-strength guitar riffs and excoriating commentary on the record industry, Steve Albini has established himself as one of rock’s most fiercely independent – and genuinely fierce – iconoclasts. His current band, noise-rock thumpsters Shellac, puts out records without promotion or aplomb (“no free lunch,” offers the only Shellac-related press release in the past seven years) and matches musical vehemence with darkly humorous lyrics and visceral songcraft.
The trio has titled its latest collection Dude Incredible, and the record finds the band exploring a variety of curious subject matter: monkey-like groupthink, the gritty history of Gary, Indiana, and something self-explanatory called “You Came in Me.” This is the band’s most accessible offering to date, but Albini has hardly softened. As a recording engineer and the owner of his own Electrical Audio studio, he has cultivated a pro-artist culture, keeping his rates low and often working seven days a week.
“Every day, I get up and make a record, go to bed, get up the next day and make a record,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It’s normal for me. I don’t know if there’s another way to do it that would have been easier on me, but I made it through. I’m fine.”
You made it very clear in your press release that the album’s title, Dude Incredible, does not contain a comma. What is your objection?
That phrase is just something that we started saying within the band, like as a sort of general exclamation or a confirmation of awesomeness. I think if the way we were saying it was as though there were a comma there, then that’s how we would’ve punctuated it. But it was always “Dude incredible” – two words.
Our previous album, Excellent Italian Greyhound, was named, in a sense, named after Uffizi, Todd’s dog who was an excellent Italian greyhound. Instead of saying “Atta boy” or “Good boy,” that’s how Todd would reward Uffizi: He would pat him on the head and say “excellent Italian greyhound.” That shifted and became something we would say about any good experience. If you have a really great coffee someplace, you’d say, “Ah, excellent Italian greyhound.” It’s like there’s a Joe Walsh album called Got Any Gum? I think that’s an incredible name for a record.
One of my favorite moments on the record is the intro to “All the Surveyors,” when you all sing together about walking the king’s road and ultimately, “Fuck the king.” How did that come about?
We were talking in practice at one point about how there’s no part of any one of our songs where all three of us sing together. So I came up with a script, poked out some notes on the piano, and we tried it. It was an idea that we had that we knocked out, so I’m content with it.
It’s a bit like a Monty Python routine.
We refer to it as the “Queen Part,” knowing full well that it doesn’t sound like Queen. I think every band has stuff like that inside their internal dialogue, where you’ll refer to a song as the “Led Zeppelin Song” or the “Buzzcocks song,” even though it’s just the chords to “Orgasm Addict” played really, really slow. For us, we tend to have a ZZ Top song every couple of rehearsals, so it’ll be like “The New ZZ Top Song” or “The Old ZZ Top Song.”
Shellac have not recorded anything like “Legs” yet.
No, you’re not going to get “Legs” out of us. That’s past the sell-by date.
You’ve made over 2,000 records. How do you keep from burning out?
If you pace yourself, you don’t really have to worry about that. I tend not to work at excruciating volume, so my ears are not physically fatigued. My attention span could still be fatigued, but there are tricks to preserve that. I spend a lot of my time in the studio reading and listening to the music semi-casually rather than listening intently and focusing all my attention on every minute detail. You have to focus your attention on the minute details now and again, but if you spend every second of the session gritting your teeth and staring at the speakers and concentrating intently on every single thing that happens, then you eventually burn out your attention span and then you can’t do any work whatsoever.
You recently remixed and remastered Nirvana’s In Utero. Have you ever considered remastering your own back catalog?
The bulk of the Big Black records were remastered a couple years ago. There are a few that haven’t been, but that’s because we still have inventory of them. When that inventory sells down to the point where we’re going to need to make another batch, we’ll probably end up doing remasters of those as well.
We didn’t make a big announcement of it. We just made it so the new ones sound a little better. That’s all. It’s very small changes. I’m not into the idea of trying to resell records based on triviality like remastering, but there is a little sticker on the records now that says, “This record has been remastered.”
What struck you about your Big Black records as you listened to them again?
It was a good experience. I’m not prone to nostalgia as a person, and to be honest it’s slightly off-putting to be listening to your own music. In a way, it makes you feel narcissistic even though that isn’t the impulse that you’re indulging at the moment. So it was slightly uncomfortable to do it, but I got over that fairly quickly and then just really enjoyed listening to all that material. I guess I was just pleased that the ideas I had at the time survived. There are certain things that are vaguely embarrassing, but the bulk of it – I think we did a good job at the time.
Touch and Go sized down its operation considerably a few years ago, yet Shellac issued Dude Incredible on the label. What’s going on with Touch and Go these days?
The label now exists primarily to maintain its catalog and to do occasional very special things. Like they did box sets for Rodan and Slint and the Jesus Lizard’s anniversary editions. What it boils down to is the workload of Corey [Rusk, label owner] and if it’s something that he can manage by himself or with his wife. Because of the way Shellac operates, where we don’t place any demands on our record label with regard to promotions. Touch and Go is such an important label for all of us, because of the way the label sort of changed music for the better means a lot to us.
The period from ’82 to ’90, so many astonishingly great and distinctive bands put out their best records on Touch and Go. Every once in a while I’ll start to feel like I’m just being a crotchety old man, like I have rose-tinted glasses about the past. But when we played that Touch and Go 25th anniversary festival [in 2006], those three nights were a complete underscoring of everything that I felt. Like, yeah, these were the best bands ever. The Didjits set was as good as the Didjits ever were live. It was that great. I stole the set list from that, and it’s taped to our office door right now. And Scratch Acid were incredible; the Killdozer set was absolutely otherworldly. Literally every band that reconstituted themselves played like they were at their peak. It was just magical. And so yeah, I do think it was just best record label ever, and those were the best bands ever.
Returning to your back catalog, will Rapeman be getting the same remastering treatment Big Black got?
No, it’s unlikely that very much is going to be done with Rapeman in the foreseeable future. There were a number of things about the politics of that band internally and externally with another record label that complicate it. Also, I get the impression – we haven’t actually spoken about it – that David Sims, our bass player, is somewhat embarrassed by his association with that band. I think he would be unlikely to sign off for doing anything further with Rapeman. It would take the three of us to agree to do something, and I just don’t think he would be into it.
Have you ever regretted naming a band “Rapeman”?
You know, I can’t defend that choice. The thought processes I went through at the time, I thought, were valid. At the time both Ray [Washam, drums] and I were the only people in the band. Both of us sort of caught onto the idea of the band and the band name, and that was all it took. So I still think that’s a valid process, and that’s the result we have to live with. I can’t defend that name, especially to someone who has a personal history that makes them particularly sensitive to it. But you know, I’m proud of the band, I’m proud of the music we made. I can’t defend the name, but I’m also not willing to apologize for it.
It was probably hard to get a date for a while.
That was never really an issue.