Interview: Steve Albini
The outspoken indie rocker talks Cheap Trick and baseball
Shellac hasn’t put out a new record since 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound, and currently there are no plans for the group to enter the studio. But the willfully unconventional Chicago rock band doesn’t need a new album to hawk in order to hit the road for a short tour, which comes to Club Garibaldi on Friday. Shellac has always recorded and toured exactly when it felt like it, even (or especially) if it runs counter to the usual rules of the music business. Fans can’t expect any less from Steve Albini, the band’s outspoken singer-guitarist and one of the most sought-after recording engineers in indie rock. Decider recently caught up with Albini and talked about having “enough” songs to tour on, whether he’s tired of playing “My Black Ass,” and the awesomeness of Bill Hall.
Decider: How close is Shellac to making another record?
Steve Albini: We always have vague plans. We don’t have anything firm. I mean, we’re working on some new material, and we’d like to record it eventually.
D: Most bands only tour when they have a record out, but Shellac never really followed the record-tour-record model.
SA: When you’ve been a band for a long enough time, you’ve already got a bunch of songs—you don’t really need to keep pumpin’ ’em out. And the other thing is that when we started the band, we decided that we were only ever going to do things that were worth doing for their own sake. We were never gonna play shows just because they were filling a hole in the calendar, or put out a record just because we haven’t put one out in a while. So, if you put that high a threshold on things, you don’t make that many records because there aren’t that many records dying to get made. You have to sit on a bunch of crappy records before you get a good one. It always takes us a while to get off the schnide, but we’re fairly efficient when we get started working on something. We just don’t do it at anyone else’s pace.
D: You make an interesting point about bands having “enough” songs to tour on. You don’t think there needs to be new material to justify a tour?
SA: I saw Neil Young play a couple weeks ago, and he has a new album out. He played for two hours, and I think he played only one song I wasn’t already intimately familiar with and super-stoked to be hearing. I would assume that one was off his new record—I don’t know. And he was fantastic! He played the hell out of those songs. Or every time you go see Cheap Trick, they’re an incredible band—they have all of the best songs. Novelty is just grotesquely overrated, I think. Okay, I guess it’s nice to have a new song now and again, but I’d much rather have stuff that’s awesome than something where its one salable characteristic is that it’s new and fresh. If you have three or four albums of the best rock music ever, why would you not play all that awesome stuff? Why would you punish your audience who came to see you?
D: Do you ever get tired of any of the old songs? You seem to play “My Black Ass” a lot.
SA: If we get fed up with stuff, we’ll drop it for a while or we’ll just give up on it. There are plenty of songs we played for a while that we just gave up on. The ones that we still play are the ones that we still like. And also, in almost all the songs there’s an improvisational aspect, or at least a flexibility, in the performance that prevents you from getting fed up with it if you know that you can do things differently every time you play the song, to a degree. You save yourself a lot of fatigue and don’t feel painted into a corner by a given song because you know you can change it around.
D: Being from Chicago, are you a Cubs or a White Sox fan?
SA: I have to say neither, but of the two, I much prefer watching the White Sox play, although I like Wrigley Field quite a bit. I think it’s a beautiful place to see a ballgame. I’m just, you know, constitutionally prevented from rooting for the Cubs. [Laughs.] I have friends who are Cubs fans, and it’s nice to see them all excited every year. “This year we’re gonna do it!” And of course they shit the bed.
D: Who’s your favorite team?
SA: I don’t actually have one. Seven or eight years ago, I was quite into the Minnesota Twins because it seemed like they were trying to make a baseball club out of constituent parts that they sort of grew up: a bunch of guys who came up through their minor league system and played together for a long time—you know, solid, fundamental baseball, no superstars, that kind of thing. They kinda changed the makeup of that team considerably. You know, stuck a bunch of money in there, got rid of a bunch of unspectacular players that I felt embodied that sort of workmanlike mentality, brought up some young studs, and are now basically trying to compete with the Yankees as a power-hitting, long ball team. And I guess it seems to be working. They have some fantastic hitters, but the whole team synthesis that I was a fan of disappeared, so there’s not any particular team that I’m rooting for.
D: What about the Brewers? They’ve been built up in the same way.
SA: There’s a guy who’s kind of a utility player—he’s not spectacular, but he’s solid. Bill Hall is who I’m thinking of. If you have a team of solid guys like that, you do fine, you know? And Prince Fielder is an absolute marvel. It’s incredible that someone can be that big and still be a professional athlete. It kinda blows my mind a little bit. I don’t know how long his legs will hold out, but it’s great seeing him while he’s still around. Every year the Brewers have one or two spectacular games, where someone pitches the skin right off the ball or whatever, you know? And I always enjoy those moments.