artwork by Graeme Kennedy
“I’m not generally a nostalgic person, but every now and again I’ll think…’remember that time you got a Christmas card from Jimmy Page?’”
Steve Albini might just be the most outspoken, and opinionated man in the music business.
His words have been known to stir up their share of controversy, and spark feuds amongst bands and fans alike. For example, in 2010 while speaking to GQ, Albini really stirred the pot. He wished death to the magazine saying, “I would like the fashion industry to collapse,” and he also called Sonic Youth an “embarrassment” for selling out.
For such an opinionated, and divisive man, however, Steve Albini may be one of the least discriminatory, and most noble.
Beginning his career as a journalist, Steve has gained his fame and (sometimes) fortune through his extensive recording and engineering of rock and roll records. For over 25 years he has been on a torrid pace, recording thousands and thousands of bands. Since opening his own studio in Chicago (Electrical Audio) in 1997, he’s only increased his prolific nature behind the soundboard. Yet, despite all the accolades he has received for his recording, Steve will not turn down a band based on his taste, and instead has provided a world class studio, at affordable rates, for any band with the ability to come to his studio.
Also, and perhaps most impressively, Steve Albini refuses to be called a producer. He engineers music. As such, he has notoriously refused any royalties from records he has worked on. In doing so, he has most certainly turned down a very large sum of money.
Wait a second. If you don’t know anything about Steve Albini I have some explaining to do.
Steve Albini doesn’t just own a studio, and he hasn’t just recorded thousands of bands. He has been the man behind some of the most important, and influential rock records in modern history. Most notably: The Pixies “Surfer Rosa,” and Nirvana’s “In Utero.” He’s also recorded PJ Harvey, Breeders, The Stooges, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Cheap Trick, and the Manic Street Preachers; just to name a few.
Aside from being one of the most prolific, and important rock engineers, Steve Albini has also fronted a number of successful bands including Big Black, and the still running, Shellac.
In recent months, the press on Steve has taken a drastic detour: major publications now want to discuss his taste in food. Why? He randomly started a food blog called Mario Batalli Voice. The blog, intended as a description of what he cooked his wife Heather for dinner, has turned into a bigger deal than he could have imagined, and has exposed his cooking talents to the world.
In 2005, I had the privilege of traveling to Chicago, Illinois to record a song at the Electrical Audio studios with my former band, Money Money.
At that time we were aware that the place, and it’s owner Steve Albini, were quite a big deal, but we weren’t around long enough, and were admittedly a little bit timid, to pick the brain of a music icon. Now, six years later I decided to do just that.
I talked with Steve on the phone from his studio in Chicago.
In true Albini fashion he speaks his mind in this interview. I believe Steve’s words are best left unedited, and that’s just how I’ve left them.
From Ethiopian food, to Kurt Cobain, to the truth behind the infamous GQ article, to Quantum Fluctuations, we cover it all.
Ryan Kohls: You’re known as one of the most prolific engineers ever. Other than the financial necessity, what motivates you to keep recording?
Albini in studio.
Steve Albini: Well, that’s basically it. It’s my profession; it’s what I do. If I didn’t need the money I’d do it a lot less. Ask a Doctor, why do you still see patients? It’s his profession; it’s what he does. You choose a profession based on what you’re good at, and where your skills are geared. Once you’re there, and doing it everyday, it’s not a conscious choice to get up and do the same thing everyday.
RK: Finances are what drive your need to keep recording in abundance, yet you famously have refused to take royalties for the records you engineer. Had you accepted royalties from records like “In Utero,” and “Surfer Rosa” would that still be the case?
SA: Yes, I have an ethical objection to being paid in perpetuity for a job I do once, like making a record. I also like to keep things simple. I’m paid enough for my work as it is, and grovelling for extras is demeaning.
RK: Switching to food. You’ve been getting a lot of attention for your food blog Mario Batalli Voice.
SA: I don’t really get it, but it’s flattering.
RK: You’ve had international coverage from major newspapers like The Guardian. What inspired you to go public with this?
SA: Originally it began when my wife started, as a joke, taking pictures of what I was cooking for her, and posting it on her facebook page. I would then write a description for her to post about what I had cooked.
What spurred it though was when my wife got an iPhone. The camera on it was really good, and it instantly linked to her facebook. She started posting a lot more pictures, and got it in her head that there were a lot of food pictures on there, and she should collect them in one place. That’s what she did.
RK: Is Italian your favorite cuisine?
Polenta with coarse ragu. A meal prepared by Steve for his wife.
SA: Well, it’s what I’m most versed in. Italian cooking is all about not doing much to ingredients. You take quality ingredients, prepare them simply, and present them so they look good. Most of the cooking I do, I have to do very quickly. It’s normally midnight by the time I get out of the studio, and my wife is starving so I have to whip something up really quickly. Italian cooking is suited to that.
As it turns out I do really like Italian cooking, more than any other regional cuisine.
RK: Have you ever tried Ethiopian food?
SA: Oh yeah, there’s a couple of really great Ethiopian places in Chicago. It’s super tasty. It’s a very filling food, so if you sit down to a big meal you’re not going to be getting up for awhile.
It’s got a really nice food profile. A lot of the savory dishes go really well with that spongy sour dough bread. It has really rich complex spices, and they use a lot of nut oil so it’s very fatty and rich. The sour spongy bread is just the perfect complement. it’s a really nice cuisine.
RK: The spongy bread is called injera. I actually spent a few years living there, and recently visited, so it’s become one of my favorite cuisines as well. I think it’s one of the most unique cuisines in the world.
SA: I agree. The thing is that you can’t really incorporate elements of Ethiopian food. You can take a Japanese fish preparation and put it over risotto. But, because of the way their savories and staples are meant to be eaten together you can’t really steal elements, and incorporate them into other dishes. It’s either Ethiopian food, or it’s not.
A traditional Ethiopian meal
RK: Food TV has become a massively popular thing in America. It’s my understanding that you’re not a big fan. Is that correct?
SA: What makes food valuable is that when it’s done well, it’s the highest experience you can have. I probably have stronger emotional reactions to food than anything else, other than life or death experiences. I would happily trade the best blowjob of my life, for the best plate of pasta in my life for sure. I feel that the people who have trivialized the food, and maximized the celebrity aspect of TV cooks are demeaning something that is quite important.
There are people that have been good at communicating how to make great food, and how to do it from home, and I think that stuff is great. When those people become famous it doesn’t bother me at all. I think Jamie Oliver is fucking genius. He showed an entire generation of people who had never cooked forthemselves, how to cook well, and demonstrated that it’s not particularly difficult. We’re talking about English people who have no tradition of good eating. Well, they did, but it was sort of interrupted by a war, and then Thatcherism. Jamie Oliver almost single handedly revived the consciousness of good eating in England. After he publicized it, there’s been a wave of good food coming out of England.
One of my favorite chef’s is a guy named Fergus Henderson who cooks traditional, two hundred year old British food, and it’s fucking fantastic. When you eat food that developed in the area its indigenous too, in season, in the manner revered to them, it’s amazing. That’s why Ethiopian food tastes so great in Ethiopia, and French food so great in season in France, because you’re eating regional cooking.
Just having some nitwit in a funny hat, or fancy shirt showing someone how to cook hamburgers, fuck that, who cares. Hamburgers are not the problem. It’s never been hard to cook hamburgers. Show people how to cook a fucking vegetable. Show people how to cook asparagus so that it doesn’t fall apart in your mouth. Show people how to cook pasta so it doesn’t get gummy and gluey. I just don’t understand how the crappiest end of the food spectrum is being celebrated in this fratish, Maxim magazine style. It’s like “this is crap, but there’s a lot of it, so stuff your face, and then belly bump me.”
RK: My brother’s a chef, and he’s heard that some of these guys are more studied in acting than actually cooking.
SA: I don’t know anything about anyone in particular, but when you watch them on TV you can tell. Their taste is in their ass. They’re not good technicians. You watch a guy like Jacques Pepin, he’s so good with his hands, the way he handles the tools. He’s obviously got his technique down from years of working in a high-pressure work environment. He has his shit together. Same with Mario Batalli, when you see him working with pasta, you can tell he’s not trying to figure it out on camera. That’s not like some of these TV chefs. You can tell they’re not comfortable with the tools, or the ingredients. They’re not good with their hands. They’re not really cooks. It’s a mistake to expect people to learn from people who are not really cooks.
RK: If you were approached by the food network to do a show would you do it?
SA: Sure. It would be a blast. I don’t think it would survive long. I’m not that great of a cook. I also don’t really know what I could show people. If you’re asking me from a purely selfish standpoint, “do you want to do a TV show about cooking?” I would say, “Fuck yeah, of course I do.”
RK: I could see it being popular: “Cooking with Steve Albini”
SA: Among the nerdish entities I’m sure it would be quite popular.
RK: When I recorded with you, you seemed to consume a massive amount of tea. Are you still doing that?
SA: I tend to drink tea all day, yeah. I drink a couple coffees, and a pot of tea a day. I tend not to eat until I can cook with my wife in the evening. I usually just eat one big meal in the evening. It’s supposed to be bad for you, but my work and eating schedule is so a tuned to that, that I don’t think I could do it any other way.
RK: In the early 90s you wrote a now famous essay, “The Problem With Music.” Do you feel that the sentiments you shared in that piece are just as relevant, or even more so, today?
SA: When that essay was written it was written as a warning to my peers about the behavior of an oligarchic music industry. That industry doesn’t really exist anymore. The conventional show business industry still does not have the interest of the band at the front of its attention.
Steve reading one of his short stories at Quimby's in Chicago
The music business is no longer the record business; it’s now a hybridized thing. There are live concerts, merchandizing, web interaction, and licensing and that sort of stuff. In a lot of cases bands can avoid the industry, and do it themselves. In terms of a physical product, you don’t need anyone to help you. You can do it by yourself now. But, the demand for physical LPs is quite low. You can manufacture LP’s on a sort of as needed basis, and satisfy the demand yourself. You don’t need a record label. You can put your stuff on iTunes: you don’t need a record label for that. You can make your own website: you don’t need a record company for that. You can post clips on YouTube and do international promotion. The utility of the old record business has pretty much exhausted.
I don’t think the institutional record labels will last much longer. They’re clinging by crook, and trying to make some kind of pay model work that will allow them to survive, but it’s totally doomed.
RK: Are there any drawbacks to the new, predominantly Internet based, music business?
SA: It used to be that you could record and sell records, and make a decent profit doing it. Now, your band can still turn a decent profit, but it’s going to do the lion share of the earning on the road, which is kind of cool. It means that bands get paid most by interacting with their fans, and by delivering the music live.
For those people who are more comfortable making a record every few years, and taking some time off, that paradigm isn’t going to fly anymore.
Albini discusses music with Ani Difranco, and RZA. 2005.
RK: In your recent interview with GQ, you came down really hard on the fashion industry, and I was….
SA: Well, only because the guy asked me. There’s a kind of uncomfortable context to that interview, let me explain that. It’s never been discussed as far as I know.
I was sitting on the couch at Kutsher’s resort in New York, during the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. I had my computer on my lap in the bar area because that was the only place I could get Internet. I was answering some emails, and this douche-knuckle came up to me and said, “Can I ask you a few questions?” I didn’t know who he was, what his deal was, and that he was going to be doing a formal interview, and causing a big ruckus in a big magazine. I said “sure” cause I didn’t want to be a dick about it.
Then he started on a line of questioning that was geared towards making me look like I was at odds with a perspective he was purposing. He’s working on a book about the band Chumbawamba. His theory is that selling out, and being part of the mainstream if you have a message is a good thing because then you are reaching more people with your message. I think it boils down to that. I don’t really understand the context of it. I didn’t really want to get into it with him because it sounded like a stupid, childish notion, and I didn’t want to debate it with him.
He was angling towards several lines of inquiry. He was principally trying to stir up a feud between me and Sonic Youth. Using Sonic Youth as a sort of parallel to Chumbawamba. I responded to it frankly, as I would to anybody, and that became kind of a big deal. It took a lot of attention away from the other things I was saying in the interview, like it’s a great time to be in a band, you have access to the world, etc. I felt after the article was published that the whole thing had been done under false pretenses, and that that informal moment had been taken advantage of, and I felt a little weird about that. So that’s the context, go ahead and ask me your question.
RK: What I was going to say was, in relation to what you said about the fashion industry, would you share the same sentiments towards the record reviewing industry? (i.e. Pitchfork)
SA: That stuff has always gone hand in hand with the regular mainstream show business industry. The old record labels used to spend a fortune trying to get people to write about bands. They’d spend a fortune on payola trying to get artists played on radio and reviewed. That promotion industry and the organs of exposure have always worked hand in hand. I’ve never wanted anything to do with any of them. Fan publications and websites I don’t have any problem with, and I don’t think anyone does. But, the commodification of the celebrity aspect of the music scene doesn’t sit well with me, and I don’t anyone who is in a band that thinks that’s an important part of it.
In England, it has historically been so critical that an awful lot of bands can’t even fathom playing music without coverage from the press. If you’re not being covered as far as their concerned you’re not even in a band. It’s a weird scene over there, and it doesn’t resonate with me.
RK: In terms of artists getting exposure, do you see any merit in shows like American Idol?
SA: I’ve never seen it so I don’t know. I’m going to assume though that I would hate it to the core of my being. Based on that assumption I’ve never forced myself to watch any of it. I don’t know anything about it.
RK: Dave Grohl has always been one of my favourite drummers. I was wondering what your thoughts are on his drumming, as well as your thoughts on the Foo Fighters?
SA: I think he is an enormously underrated drummer. I think he’s fantastic, whether he’s playing his own music, or playing with others. I think his drumming on the Killing Joke record is great.
I’m not that familiar with the Foo Fighters. I’m sure I’ve heard some of there stuff, and it sounds OK. It’s not necessarily music made for me, ya know?
RK: I remember reading that Dave’s timing was exceptionally good. Do you recall that being one of his strong suites when you recorded with him?
SA: He has a very nice feel. He can play in several different styles, and adapt quite well. I’m not the biggest stickler for timing. Some people are really hung up on metronomic accuracy, but I’m not. So, I’m not the best person to talk to about that.
A click track has its uses, but it has a lot fewer uses that it is used for, if you know what I mean.
RK: What is it about Nirvana’s music that seems to make it remain so relevant, and never sounding outdated?
SA: They were genuine guys. They weren’t trying to do anything but make records they liked. I think that goes along way. A lot of bands have an agenda. They want to do things, and go places with their music. They weren’t like that at all. They were happy that whoever liked them liked them. They were content.
Albini and Nirvana.
RK: What was Kurt Cobain like from your experiences?
SA: He was very similar to a lot of quiet, introverted, creative people that I’ve met over the years. I enjoyed his company. I was sympathetic to him. He had been under a lot of pressure, and there were a lot of people yapping at him, and jumping down his throat about shit. He had an insane wife, and had all this crazy shit going on around him. I think he handled it as well as any human being could, up until he couldn’t handle it anymore.
RK: I was going to ask you about Courtney Love because….
SA: Man, I don’t want to spend any energy on her. I don’t even want to have her name in my head right now (laughs).
RK: Oh OK. I understand. Moving along then. What’s going on with Shellac these days?
SA: We just got back from a short tour of Italy, Spain, and France. It was great: nice food, super fun, good shows, and nice people. We’re going to be playing on the West Coast of the USA in October. It looks like we’ll be playing for about two weeks, and then in September we will be playing out east, including an All Tomorrow’s Parties show.
We’re also working on some new material. I’m sure we’ll make another record eventually.
RK: Any plans to play shows in Canada soon?
Performing live with Shellac
SA: I don’t mind going to Canada, but it’s a real pain in the cock now. It’s super expensive crossing the border. There’s this whole bullshit thing about having to get work permits for venues unless they’re exempt. Every venue tells you they are exempt, but when you reach the border there’s always this beef about the venue.
As a working band it has become a real serious pain in the cock to cross the border. We’re only going to do it if we can put together a bunch of shows so we can make a whole shit pile of money, and make the hassle of doing them not overwhelm the fun of the shows.
RK: How would you describe what it’s like for you to be on stage and playing live in front of a crowd? What about it do you enjoy/not enjoy?
SA: The crowd is a sort of traffic light, and when they’re responding to what you do it can add to the experience, but in all honesty most of what happens on stage is for the three of us to enjoy ourselves. Those people don’t really need to be there, though it’s nice when they are involved in the show, so we’re all peers involved in a communal experience.
RK: Who are your top 3 favorite Canadian bands of all time?
SA: Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. They are probably number one. Who else is any good? Sadies. Don’t mind the Sadies. Older No Means No, I kind of like. That’s three. Is there anymore?
RK: I don’t know if you like them, but you mentioned Sloan in your “The Problem With Music” essay.
SA: Did I? I don’ t know much about that band. There’s a guy in that band that dated a girl that I went out with before I went out with her. That’s the only thing I know about Sloan.
Bob Westin our bass player is crazy about them.
RK: They just celebrated 20 years as a band.
SA: Well, good for them, and good for Canada.
RK: What do you think about Oasis?
SA: I never gave a fuck about that band. Before I had ever heard them I saw an interview with one of the loudmouth brothers and he was going on at length about how they were the best fucking band ever, and if he was a kid he would kill to see this fucking band because they were so fucking exciting. That got my attention enough to watch the footage of the band that followed the interview, and to be kind about it, the band didn’t live
up to its billing.
It was totally fitting that despite a vigorous promotional campaign and millions of dollars in payola they went over like a wet turd in the US, while a band like Bush, who were also British, made themselves a huge hit here not through hype and nonsense, but by playing a couple hundred shows a year and having people genuinely like them. Say what you like about their music, Bush earned their fans legitimately by working their asses off, playing their music and building an audience that genuinely liked them. Oasis were trying to take the typically English shortcut approach of being ordained brilliant by the cognoscenti and the press, without ever having to back it up by playing and letting an audience hear them.
Bullshit band. Hated everything about them. Glad they disappeared.
RK: Do you enjoy travelling, Steve? And, what other countries have you visited?
SA: No, I don’t enjoy travelling; it’s a pain in the balls. I like going to Italy because I have great friends there, and the food and atmosphere is amazing.
Being in Istanbul is magical. I’ve only been there once, but you could get lost in it.
I like Japan, because I have friends and fun stuff to do there.
Ya know, I can basically amuse myself anywhere. Having friends some place makes a difference.
RK: Anywhere you’d like to go that you haven’t already been?
SA: I’m curious about China. There are also several South American countries that Shellac hasn’t been to, but I don’t know if I have a burning ambition to go.
RK: If you ever get the chance you should try Ethiopia. I think you’d like it.
SA: You know the band, the ex? They go there all the time. They’ve done several tours of Ethiopia, and done a bunch of albums with Ethiopian musicians. There are some cool videos of them on YouTube playing in these schoolyards with thousands of people around them. They were saying, “You have to go to Addis. We’ll set you up.”
It started to transpire that Heather and I were going to go there on vacation, but then I went broke again and we couldn’t afford it.
RK: If you need a place to stay I can hook you up.
SA: (laughs) It sounds magical. Apart from everybody getting diarrhea, it sounds really cool. That’s the part I’m not that stoked about.
RK: You’re an avid poker player. What attracts you to the game?
SA: I think it’s an enormously complex and fascinating game. It’s a game of incomplete information, as opposed to a game like chess where you can stare at the board and conceivably figure out the best set of moves. In poker, it’s sort of like chess if part of the board is hidden. You are inferring a lot of stuff that you gleam from the play of the hands. It suits my technical bent, and there is a strong mathematical, and technical component to poker.
It allows me to test myself, and put myself in situations that require creative problem solving, and I won’t lie, it’s been a nice second income. It’s actually been a pretty significant second income for me.
RK: As an American, and Chicago native, how do you rate Obama’s presidency thus far?
SA: I’m actually not a Chicago native, although I have lived here for 30 years so I don’t mind you calling me a Chicagoan.
Anyways, Barack Obama getting elected was such an inspirational, exciting, and definitive moment for anyone suffering the fucking Bush years. However, he has been a huge disappointment for those of us on the progressive side of the spectrum. But, we live in a practical universe, and I’m not going to convince myself that things could be better if he wasn’t our President because all the other options are worse.
RK: Will he win the next election?
SA: He’s a shoe in. He’s smart, and he’s doing better than he was. All the other competition varies between brain dead and idiotic.
RK: And, now with Bin laden dead, it can only help.
SA: I don’t think it will make much of a difference. It will only knock all the right-wingers down a peg. I don’t give a shit that we got Osama. It means nothing to me. I was over that dude fairly quickly after the Tower’s came down. He was an old man living in a hideout. He was trivial.
RK: I was wondering, is there a spiritual or religious side to Steve Albini?
SA: No, not at all. I’m an atheist. You could say that I’m agnostic, but that’s just a certain kind of atheist (laughs). An atheist is someone who lacks a belief in a supernatural, and that’s me. I can’t say with absolute certainty that there is nothing beyond the material world, but there’s no reason for me to think there is. If I were a gambling man I would put all my money on there not being anything other than this universe.
RK: Give me an example of what makes you so sure that there is no supernatural.
SA: There’s no need for it. People use God to fill in the spaces in the gaps of their knowledge. Before there was any knowledge of the universe people believed the sun came up because God made it come up. Once we figured out why it actually comes out, because of the rotation of the earth, then we didn’t need God to explain that. Then God moved into other things. There are just a dwindling number of things that we don’t know about the universe that would be rational for God to fill in the gaps.
As we follow the trajectory of knowledge, the need for a God just dwindles, and it approaches zero, and most likely is zero.
RK: What would you say towards the debate on the origin of matter?
SA: The universe probably came about because of a quantum fluctuation. That’s where particles pop into existence, and out of existence, randomly all the time. There happened to be inflation during one of these, and it’s what we would call the Big Bang. That appears to be where everything comes from. No one knows of course, but it’s starting to look like that’s the most likely answer.
If the idea that things can’t come into being from nothing is what’s holding you back. If you just spend a few minutes on Google you can disabuse yourself of that concern because there are virtual particle, and
anti-particle pairs being created in the universe all the time. There is even a mechanism for measuring the energy of a vacuum. Do a Google search for the energy of a vacuum. In a pure vacuum, virtual particle, and anti particle pairs will be constantly being created and annihilated leaving a net energy state of nothing. You can engineer a physical barrier so that some of the vertical pairs will interact with it, and a circumstance will be created so you can measure the quantity of these particles that are popping into existence from nothing, these are random quantum fluctuations.
If you have it in your head that you can’t create something from nothing, well, it happens all the time.
RK: I just came up with this question on the spot, do you ever have moments when you think to yourself, “Wow, I’m Steve Albini.”
RK: Let me rephrase that. Do you find it strange that people around the world are talking about you everyday?
SA: Well, I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. I’m not generally a nostalgic person, but every now and again I do think about what I’ve done, and I’ll think, “Holy shit, I’ve been able to do some cool shit.” Like, remember that time I did a record with the Stooges. That was awesome. Remember that time your band went on tour to Bulgaria, Turkey, and Macedonia. Or, remember that time you got a Christmas card from Jimmy Page. Shit like that I’ll think about.
For More on Steve Albini:
1) Check out his studio, and book some time: www.electrical.com
2) Read his food blog: mariobatalivoice.blogspot.com
3) Listen to some of his records, you’ve probably already got one in your house.