Consummate cranky person Steve Albini has definitely earned a reputation for expressing opinions that are as uncompromisingly harsh as the music he made with his bands Shellac and Big Black. In Albini’s worldview, there is no greater insult than “mainstream,” a word that one imagines Albini saying followed by an emphatic spit on the floor to ward off its evil, corrupting spirits.
As this typically corrosive GQ interview reveals, that goes for his ostensible pals in Sonic Youth as well, whom Albini says he believes “should be embarrassed” for signing with major label Geffen in 1990, and whose efforts to shepherd independent bands like Nirvana, Pavement, and Bikini Kill to greater exposure was actually a “bad influence” that all but ruined music culture—never mind the impact it may have had on music fans who weren’t lucky enough to live in Albini’s “neck of the woods” and may never have had heard them without Sonic Youth’s help. You should also probably ignore the fact that Albini gave “mainstream alt-rock” a little shove himself, notably by producing Nirvana’s In Utero and PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me. Dude even helped Bush sound as much like his poor, snookered-into-the-"mainstream" pals Nirvana as possible on Razorblade Suitcase. Hey, just pointing that out. But no, sure, Sonic Youth should be embarrassed.
Anyway, the whole thing is worth reading, particularly if you feel like the old battle-axe of “indie cred” hasn’t gotten enough pointless grinding lately (and obviously we’re all about the ’90s nostalgia these days), but here are a couple of highlights.
On Sonic Youth joining a major label: "I don't know the exact circumstances of Sonic Youth's decision, so I'm not comfortable saying they did it wrong. But a lot of the things they were involved with as part of the mainstream were distasteful to me. And a lot of the things that happened as a direct result of their association with the mainstream music industry gave credibility to some of the nonsense notions that hover around the star-making machinery. A lot of that stuff was offensive to me and I saw it as a sellout and a corruption of a perfectly valid, well-oiled music scene. Sonic Youth chose to abandon it in order to become a modestly successful mainstream band-- as opposed to being a quite successful independent band that could have used their resources and influence to extend that end of the culture. They chose to join the mainstream culture and become a foot soldier for that culture's encroachment into my neck of the woods by acting as scouts. I thought it was crass and I thought it reflected poorly on them. I still consider them friends and their music has its own integrity, but that kind of behavior-- I can't say that I think it's not embarrassing for them. I think they should be embarrassed about it."
On whether music would be different today had Sonic Youth not “acted as scouts” or made the “crass” decision to help bands like Nirvana and Pavement et al. get signed: "I think what they did was take a lot of people who didn't have aspirations or ambitions and encouraged them to be part of the mainstream music industry. They validated the fleeting notions that these kids had that they might one day be rock stars. And then they participated in inducing a lot of them to make very stupid career moves. That was a period where the music scene got quite ugly—there were a lot of parasitic people involved like lawyers and managers. There were people who were making a living on the backs of bands, who were doing all the work. Had Sonic Youth not done what they did I don't know what would have happened—the alternative history game is kind of silly. But I think it cheapened music quite a bit. It made music culture kind of empty and ugly and was generally a kind of bad influence."
Oh, and just for fun, Albini wrapped up his interview by telling GQ that he hopes it fails, right after the entire fashion industry collapses. Like we said, it’s a fun read.
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