Q&A: Steve Albini Is Not an Asshole But Sylvester Stallone Might Be


In the early 2000’s, the shits ‘n’ giggles folks at snarkier-than-thou Chunklet Magazine plopped recording engineer god and Shellac guitarorrist Steve Albini on its cover, screaming: Is This Guy The Biggest Asshole In Rock? That infamous issue still resonates on his rep today–and he could care less. But brutal honesty and outspokenness shouldn’t equal a-hole-dom, and fact is, Albini’s one of the good guys. His cutthroat, drum machine-anchored postpunk band from the 80s, Big Black, revolutionized the Industrial music blueprint with their album Songs About Fucking then formed the eloquently-named Rapeman. (Offensive? Nah.)

Yet there stands Albini–not the crusty grump he’s been painted as–but staunch arbiter of independent rock ethos. The Chicago mainstay (along with his Shellac mates, bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer) has always gone econo: nominal ticket prices, handpicked venues, zero corporate involvement, records made on the cheap and positively no handouts. Not only does Shellac schedule shows in the morning so the pre-teen set and fans with night gigs can attend, but Albini has been known to play Santa at Christmastime in the Windy City, giving cash and presents to the needy.

Now, and after a lengthy absence, Albini and his long-running minimalist rock trio are bringing their do-gooder deeds to our ‘hood, gearing up for their ‘house band’ slot and serious poker playing All Tomorrow’s Parties and a Brooklyn gig on September 7 at the Bell House. I hit up Albini on the phone at his Electrical Audio studio to talk ATP, poker, a new Shellac record, his wife’s online feud with journalist Jessica Hopper, stalkers, and Rocky Balboa, himself.

That Chunklet “Assholes In Rock” issue came out years ago and it’s still talked about. Has public perception ever bothered you?

I feel like people are allowed to have whatever opinion they want of other people. I don’t know him at all, and have no reason to think this, but I kind of think Sylvester Stallone is an asshole. I don’t even know why I think that. I think that’s a perfectly legitimate part of human experience to have the prejudices against people you’ve never met or don’t know anything about. That doesn’t mean Stallone should give a shit. In the case of people disliking me from a distance, I certainly don’t give a shit. But I’m not going to begrudge somebody the option of thinking that I’m a dick for some salacious reason.

Shellac’s been known to play shows before noon. Are you are a morning person?

Oh no, not at all. But what I like about doing the morning shows is typically the way we do it is we set it up so we can play a venue in the evening then the same venue in the morning so we don’t have to load the van. Everything is locked up safe overnight. We still get on the road the next day relatively early to make it to the next gig but we’ve been able to play another show. The audience you see at the morning shows is quite different–it’s a lot of people whose work or personal lives prevent them from going to shows at night and those people are particularly grateful for doing shows they can see. I like talking to those people because they have pretty weird jobs. Also, little kids come to the morning shows, 10 and 12 year-olds who can’t go out at midnight. You get a completely different response from an audience that’s got 12-year-old kids than you do one that’s all jaded partiers.

Jesus Lizard reformed and played last year’s ATP NY. Were you for or against it?

In the truest sense, if you are in a band and decide with the other members that you want to start playing again, then nobody else in the world really has anything to say about it–fuck all those people. In the case of the Jesus Lizard, I know it had been floated several times they’d get back together and play some shows. I think they chose to do it at a time when they were being appreciated by a whole new generation of fans. I saw them play in the reconstituted version and they were as good on any night in their original heyday. That was quite satisfying to me to see this band could reanimate itself and still be at 100%.

The spate of bands reforming to play in front of a new audience thing – there’s certain scenarios where it comes off as being profiteering or desperate. But in the case of the Jesus Lizard and Slint, it seems like a very genuine nod to appreciation for an audience that took a while to catch up to them. For example, Mission of Burma got back together and have been much more active than they were during their original inning. I can only see that as a good thing. As far as my bands are concerned, we did a lot of things and were appreciated to a pretty gratifying degree when we were around. I don’t feel like there’s any unfinished business.

At ATP, Shellac has been billed as ‘House Band.’ What’s the story behind that?

It’s a little bit of an inside joke. When the band first started, we had a couple of experiences with music festivals, which were not very pleasant. So as a policy, we weren’t going to play them. ATP then approached us and asked us if we’d play. We said ‘no, we don’t do festivals.’ They had to do a lot of convincing. Eventually, they did talk us into it and we had a great time. ATP did change the festival game worldwide by offering a different kind of experience, both for the bands that play and the people that come see the bands. So, we’ve modified our policy of not playing festivals except anything ATP asks us to do. We’ve played every time they’ve asked us whenever it was physically possible for us to play. We’ve jokingly referred to ourselves as the house band and I think [fest mastermind] Barry [Hogan] is just getting that as a convenient way of describing that we’ve played ATP maybe 300 times.

At this point in Shellac’s lifeline, where does the money figure in?

It doesn’t. We all have jobs and don’t need to use the band to sustain ourselves. We don’t give a shit how much we get paid. We just want to play interesting shows and want to enjoy ourselves. Part of that is knowing the places we are playing are a good experience for the people that come to see it. We like to feel we are having a genuine interaction with the audience and they are being treated civilly or decently on our behalf. So we tend not to play corporate venues, keep the ticket prices below par and try to make sure the venues have decent sightlines and sound systems.

You’ve had a notable career as a recorder and for being in Shellac, Big Black and Rapeman. Can we add poker player to that humble list?

Poker has been a serious hobby of mine for a long time. I don’t consider myself a poker player to the extent that I would either a recording engineer or a musician. Like anything you can do as a pastime, if you take it seriously you can occupy those parts of your brain that don’t get occupied otherwise. Poker, for me, is a very stimulating game. I’ve done well and it’s provided me a bit of an additional income but I wouldn’t consider it a job in any sense. In a very real way, it’s very much like being in Shellac in that it’s something I take seriously and it gives me a lot of satisfaction. But by no means do I consider it my livelihood and by no means would I allow it to impinge on my real life.

You even run a poker table at ATP.

The NY ATP has a card room that’s part of the Kutschers resort. They have card tables and in its heyday it was probably used for bridge, gin and canasta, and things like that. But they have poker tables with dealer cut-outs and makes it convenient for us to set up a poker game with a dealer there. So if people want to come play poker, we make it easy.

What’s the experience been? Do you come across hardcore players or just kids who want to sit next to you?

I wouldn’t say hardcore players but there are some savvy players that are music fans that turn up every now and again. Obviously, at a music festival you are going to find people primarily interested in music. It’s not the sort of thing that would necessarily be enough to attract somebody to the event.

Your wife Heather caused a minor ‘net stir, posting thoughts on the Electrical Audio message board about your home life, phone calls from wackos wanting to talk to you and fucked up letters. Do you entertain these callers and is there a memorable one?

I don’t entertain them, no. I try to get off the phone as fast as possible. There was a particular person that was calling literally every few minutes around the clock for a couple of weekends straight – that was pretty weird.

What was the caller saying?

They weren’t saying anything – just calling then hearing that someone answered the phone because we are a business and we need to answer and then hanging up. I don’t think too much about those people; there aren’t too many of them given how long I’ve been alive. I’ve suffered relatively few indignities so I can’t get too concerned what a maniac thinks about me.

Your wife also went on a long-winded rant about Jessica Hopper’s dirt-dishing fifteen-year obsession with you.

I have to admit, I hardly ever think about it.

Do you try to get your wife to stay off the message board?

Nah, it’s none of my business what she does. But having arguments in public is really only interesting if the topic of the argument is something other than the people involved.

Touch & Go went through some radical changes. Is Shellac looking for a new record label?

We are planning on making another record sometime soon and Touch & Go will put our record out. T & G went through a pretty substantial change when they had to end their distribution business because it was occupying the majority of their commercial space in their building and the time of their staff and while it was an active business, it was bringing in the lions share of the money. When physical distribution started to collapse and [owner] Corey [Rusk] realized it wasn’t going to be a viable business anymore, suddenly the majority of his space and staff was unneeded and all the inventory had to disappear. It took him a long time to reorganize the business and what was left was the record label, its catalog, his relationships with the bands, the people on the label and all of those things survived. I am content with whenever we want to make a record, we’re happy to put it out on T & G. It got really big during an era when a lot of labels were getting really big. But before it was big, it was a small record label run by Corey and his wife and they were the best at running a small label. Now, it’s small again and I have every confidence that Corey will continue to be the best at running a small record label.

So, only two Shellac albums in the last decade?

We work real slow. We have regular jobs so we don’t have that much time to spend on the band. When we do get together we tend to be more concerned with working on new material or getting ready for an upcoming tour so we don’t record very often. But I am content with the pace the band works at. A lot of bands don’t get to make three or four records in their career – they get to make one or two. We are way ahead of the curve in that respect.

You’ve engineered a shitload of records over the years -most notably Nirvana’s In Utero and Page and Plant. Is there one that stands out?

There really isn’t one experience that stands out but what is most satisfying about making records is you develop long-term relationships with people where you see them in a very creative mode year after year and see them realizing their ambitions developing a friendship you couldn’t develop any other way. That gives you a really intimate perspective on somebody and I’ve made some great friendships through being a recording engineer. Those are way more important to me than any “I saw Dave Grohl set his feet on fire” kind of story. And I did in fact see Dave Grohl set his feet on fire.

Shellac plays ATP New York at Kutschers Country Club in Monticello on September 4th and Brooklyn’s Bell House on the 7th.