A conversation with Steve Albini


    We spoke with Steve Albini about billiards, microseconds, the act of creativity, primitive investigation, poker, tape machines & microphones.

    That the arts are involved in warfare at all means there is no special nobility to creation.


    Julien Fernandez

    I love to think that the act of creation is an act of resistance. What does the act of creation mean to you?

    Steve Albini

    I think of the creative impulse as innate, like the sex drive or hunger and thirst. I know my creative moments have often been inspired by watching other people be creative or under the influence of their art, so I think creativity can be fostered and encouraged. It isn’t the product of a purely fertile mind acting alone, although there is an element of that, which comes from the human desire to communicate. While it’s romantic to think of creativity as a weapon, or as you say a form of resistance, there are too many examples of creativity being co-opted into the regimes of authoritarianism, capitalism, coercion, jingoism etc. for me to think that is credible. Creativity, like hunger, is innate, but just as starvation and gluttony are hallmarks of oppression, so can art be.


    That’s true of a lot of passive entertainment, to me. In your opinion, which specific piece of art (music or otherwise) has been integrated into the proverbial machine?

    Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” which was probably about heroin and anal sex, is now the commercial theme song for a family vacation cruise line, and it plays behind scenes of shuffleboard and shrimp cocktails. It’s hard to imagine the intent of a song being more completely neutralized.

    More succinctly, performers and entertainers are used as a diversion for troops in combat theater, implicitly suggesting not just that the warfare is worthy of support, but that soldiers shouldn’t even be deprived of life’s normal pleasures while engaged in killing other people. It’s a complex subject, but that the arts are involved in warfare at all means there is no special nobility to creation. It’s as human and base as shitting, fighting and fucking.


    What was your relationship with creativity as a child? How did it develop itself so that you could expose yourself to the world through music?

    I don’t think my childhood played an important role in my creative life. I dabbled in drawing and painting, and took painting as a minor subject in college, but music seemed to be a completely separate realm and I don’t recall it entering my mind except fleetingly until I got into music – through punk rock – as a teenager.

    We connected the output of the tape machine back into the input and realized that’s how echo was generated.


    How much importance do you give to chance and to failure in your creative process?

    I like to be surprised. If something I’m doing or something our band is doing surprises me, that’s an indication that we should pursue it. If you’re open to surprise, then a lot of what you do will be experimental and most experiments fail. I don’t consider that to be a drawback of the process.

    I like it when things fail so I can get them out of my mind in a clean and satisfied fashion. Recently Shellac had a song we tried to write that would have been pretty straight, conventional rock music. All of us playing at once, chord following chord in a familiar fashion, all the stuff. We tried it for a while and hated it, so now it’s dead and we never have to think about it again.


    You taught yourself to do what you do. I think that’s a symbol of immense courage and determination. What was the first process you ever taught yourself?

    I taught myself how to operate a four-track reel-to-reel recorder as a teenager, and the experiments my friends and I conducted with it have continued to inform my practices to this day.


    Can you tell us about one of the experiments you and your friends conducted?

    We connected the output of the tape machine back into the input and realized that’s how echo was generated. I still use this effect in the same way almost forty years later and it still seems magical.

    I am always interrogating my methods in light of day-to-day experiences.


    I recently listened to a radio show that explained how medieval-era doctors would understand anatomy. They would blow into dead bodies’ organs to map them and understand how they connected together. Can you relate to that sense of primitive investigation in your own work? Do you ever feel like a researcher when you work or create?

    Yes, and that’s a very good analogy for learning to make recordings. You wouldn’t do that to a living person, inflate his bladder, so I think it’s important to have some practice sessions where you can destroy a master or ruin a take and it won’t bear any consequences.

    That’s why I’m glad I didn’t learn the trade in a commercial environment — nobody’s album was hanging in the balance and nobody had any money at risk.


    I came to your studio for the first time almost 15 years ago. I learned a lot from that experience – most importantly, that the room is the most important aspect of sound design. Metaphorically, I guess that taught me perspective, to distance myself from something to fully absorb what’s going on. What do you personally learn from recording?

    It sounds like an empty cliche, but I am always interrogating my methods in light of day-to-day experiences and try to set up opportunities to learn something in every session. A few years ago, at a time when I was feeling slightly jaded about my profession, I read an interview with Bob Weston and he said something I liked, so I immediately adopted it. He said that on every session he tries to do one thing he’s never done before. Maybe a choice of mic, a mic position, or some technical detail, but always one thing that he’s never tried before. I loved that idea and ever since, I’ve made it a point to try one new thing on every session.


    That’s amazing. If you don’t mind us asking, what was the latest recording technique you tried that was completely new to you?

    Most of the time it’s a microphone or other small choice I wouldn’t have made otherwise. Today I’m using a direct signal from an amplifier line out to simulate the sound of a tweeter in a two-way cabinet, since the bass player didn’t bring his own cabinet. I’ve done this before, but never with this particular amplifier and I had to do some special stuff to the direct signal to get it in sync with the microphone signal.

    I used a very short delay (70 microseconds) to time-align the signal, and it was electronically out of phase with the speaker so I had to correct that. Yesterday I tried a mic on the snare drum I’d never tried before, didn’t like it that much so I went back to the one I had thought of originally.

    A lot of these little experiments amount to nothing but they gradually improve my technical arsenal and my familiarity with the studio and equipment.


    Have you ever recorded your own bands? If yes, what was that experience like?

    Many times. I tend to think like an engineer while the session is being set up, then forget about the technical stuff while I’m playing, then discover at the end of the day that there are technical problems I should have noticed earlier except that I was distracted by the playing. I’m still glad I do it that way, because between Bob and myself we have the engineering side covered, and I understand the technical implications of our music better than an outside engineer would.

    If I was going to be in another band, I wanted it to be the band to end all bands for me.


    We love lists and technical vocabulary at NOTI. Can you make a written list for us, of anything you want?

    Types of three-cushion billiard shots:

    I Natural
    I Plus Two
    I Double-the-rail
    I Ticky
    I Umbrella
    I Bank
    I Rail First
    I Long Angle
    I Cross Table
    I Smash Through
    I Force Follow
    I Massé
    I Piqué
    I Around the Table
    I Dead Ball Draw
    I Short Angle
    I Spot Shot
    I Drop In


    I accidentally discovered Shellac’s first two 7”s when I was a teenager. I lived in a small country town in France, and a friend of mine who lived in Rennes had radio recordings on tape. Fascinated, I then traveled to Paris to buy the original 7”s, and those records remain some of my favorites. Can you tell us about the band at the time? and about those singles – where the songs came from, the recording process, the artwork?

    We’ve recently been working on an anthology of those early recordings so I’ve had an excuse to listen to them again. The songs on the first two singles developed over a period of several years where Todd Trainer and I would get together once in a while and play, just the two of us, with a very informal goal of eventually putting a band together.

    I had just wrapped up a rather hectic period, having finished with Big Black, then quit my job to become a full-time freelance recording engineer while trying to get another band off the ground. That band, Rapeman, petered out after a year or so and I was determined not to jump into anything immediately.

    I wanted to be sure I didn’t end up like many “lifer” musicians, flitting from project to project with no real intent. If I was going to be in another band, I wanted it to be the band to end all bands for me. I was taking it slow.

    Todd and I played in a pick-up band backing our friend Pete Conway, who put out records under the name Flour, for a couple of tours and enjoyed each others’ company and playing, so we started an informal practice of playing together when we had time free. Over the course of a couple of years, we developed a collaborative method of song writing and decided to play as a band. We initially thought to keep it to the two of us, but things seemed thin, so we added a bass player. Initially (and on the single recording of “Rambler Song”) we played with Camilo Gonzalez, a Chicago punk legend who had been in Silver Abuse, the Wayouts and Naked Raygun, but when Bob Weston moved to Chicago and settled here, we instantly felt like we’d completed the band. We all still admire Camilo and remain friends and fans.

    The Rambler Song was recorded in the basement studio of the house I lived in as an 8-track recording. Around the time Bob moved to Chicago I bought a bunch of equipment and Bob helped me upgrade the basement studio to 24-track. The other songs on the singles (Doris, Wingwalker, the Guy who Invented Fire, Billiard Player) were recorded with Bob in the new 24-track version of that studio.

    The artwork was an attempt to make each single a direct connection with the band. To that end, we designed a novel cover, had them printed, decorated and assembled them ourselves. That was a lot of work and over time we’ve fallen out of the habit of making singles, though we plan to do it again one of these days. I love the fact that there are something like 60,000 individual little objects out there that we made, sometimes with the help of our friends but always with the idea that every person buying a single would have a unique, hand-made object. The covers were printed in clear varnish, then rubbed with a stain for and rubber stamped. The idea was similar to the Shellac T-shirts, which are black but printed with a clear varnish. So as the shirt ages the word is eventually made visible by the fading of the fabric around it. The band has been around long enough now that we get to see 20 year old T-shirts now and then, and it’s really cool to see an experiment like that work its way out over a long term.

    Shellac Record #1.
    Shellac Record #1. Detail.
    Shellac Record #1. Detail.
    Shellac Record #1. Detail.
    Shellac Record #2.
    Shellac Record #2. Detail.
    Shellac Record #2. Detail.
    Shellac Record #2. Detail.


    Apart from musical pursuits, you’re an amazing poker player. How did you first discover poker? How would you explain the concept of the game to a child?

    My family were all keen card players. I learned poker from my family as a child, and played casually through college and into the 1980s. I started to take it more seriously during the online poker boom in the 1990s. As more people got interested in it and there was an influx of dumb money in the game and it became a significant second income in the early 2000s. I’ve treated it that way — as a second job — ever since. There is a misconception about poker that it is a card game with betting involved. More accurately, it’s a betting game with cards involved.

    To a child I would say poker is a game of deception, like hide-and seek, where you use cards to trick your opponents into giving you money. Normally this would make me a bad person, but in poker everybody agrees that this is okay and everybody is trying to do the same, so it’s fair. It’s important to explain to children that some things are only okay if everybody agrees.

    Thank you.


    Conversation: 1
    Curated by: Julien Fernandez
    Conducted by: Email
    Published: June 21, 2017
    Total questions: 13
    Word count: 2222
    Reading time: Nine minutes
    Hyperlinks: 5
    Imagery: 8
    Photographs by: Alessio Federico


    Microseconds: 70
    Quantum crosswords: Ignore/Make Fun/Suggest
    Echo: Generated


    About the subject

    steve albini is a musician and recording engineer living in Chicago, Illinois.

    About the curator

    Julien Fernandez was born in Mayenne, France in 1976. He currently lives and works in Pescara, Italy with his wife, two kids and a dog, Lenny. He is captivated by structural relations between objects, animal behavior, contagion and magic, and is currently working on a mechanism that would classify mental images in the physical world. He also designs and envisions the day-to-day architecture of North of the Internet.

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