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SAVAGE MIND conversations: Steve Albini

There aren't too many music enthusiasts, like there aren’t any musicians who don’t know Steve Albini’s creative portfolio. Revolutionary and innovative, isn’t overstating part of your professional summary, your life’s work. Saying that, to say that my job of coming up with questions that haven’t been asked before isn’t easy and can be limiting, EXCEPT if you are a sound engineer,or a student of sound engineering. We may have “lost” Phil Spector, but fortunately we have you to talk angular sound should we need to.


Steve Albini: During the pandemic everyone's world has contracted, we've all been more in our homes and in our heads and I'm no different. I used some of the enforced down time to work in my home woodworking shop, making furniture and useful items for the house, spent more time in the garden, that sort of thing. The band I'm in, Shellac, has always been a low-key affair, we don't have a demanding schedule. We were able to conduct a couple of tours in 2022, and while it was great to be able to do it at all, touring under covid protocols is nowhere near as much fun as touring used to be. The hour onstage is great, the rest of the time you feel extremely constrained by what is safe to do and what isn't.

ON BANDS PRODUCING THEIR OWN MUSIC. ON THE EVOLUTION OF SHELLAC. Steve Albini: If we define "production" in a specific way, that it means making all the sonic and artistic decisions about a record, then yes, I think it's best that people produce their own music. There are often situations where the band don't know what the range of possibilities is for a given sound or technique, and in those cases it helps to have an experienced engineer who can show them what is possible so they can make an informed decision, or to use the proper equipment and techniques to realize a concept. A great engineer has complete grasp of the recording environment (technical and acoustic) and enough familiarity with the equipment and music to make intelligent choices in the recording process with respect to technique, method, timing, etc. A great engineer works in service of the band, doing whatever it takes to make the sound in their heads come out of the speakers. A great engineer doesn't try to produce the record, he makes the production painless. In Shellac, we're lucky to have two very good engineers in the band, so we can likely solve any engineering problems ourselves. While we're actually playing, we need somebody else to act as tape operator, and sometimes those people have an impact on the sessions as well. In the beginning of the band we were testing the limits of our initial ideas, so often every new song would have a foundational idea, like, "This song should have a chord sequence that doesn't ever repeat the same way," or "This song should start fast and end slow..." that sort of thing. The longer the band survived, the ideas became more subtle, the distinctions between songs more specific. Now when we come up with one of those foundations, there's usually something else along with it to distinguish it, and the process is a lot slower. We've used a lot of the easy formats, now we're on the hard ones.

ANALOGUE VS DIGITAL: WHY ANALOGUE IS THE CHOICE FOR THOSE WHO ARE CONSIDERING THE PERMANENT When I started recording, way back in the 1970s, there was no decision to be made. Analog techniques were all there was, so that's how I learned. Every year or so from about 1980 on, there was a "new breakthrough" in digital recording that promised to replace analog recording. In the beginning these were trivial, awful systems that sounded bad and had crippled functionality. In the tape-based systems you couldn't make edits and they were tied to a single manufacturer for playback systems, so the masters were constantly being orphaned as companies went broke and devices became obsolete. They were tragically bad and studio practices were compromised by their limitations. As digital recording moved from hardware to DAW systems, the problem of incompatibility between formats remained, but a lot of practical features were added and it was possible to record essentially normally on them. The only real problem with them was that there was no long-term storage format for the masters, and the computer industry changed so rapidly that software and hardware rapidly became incompatible from year to year, and the competing formats and fragility of businesses holding proprietary control over over the utility of masters created many more orphaned masters, sessions that could no longer be opened or had badly compromised functionality. These problems persist. There is still no long-term archival solution for the masters made during a recording session. There is no universal format for sessions, such that all the things used to make a record, the EDL, edit parameters, virtual instruments, plug-ins, metadata and everything else needed to revive the session in the future is fragile and prone to disappearing over time. Added to that is the current subscription model, which ensures that sessions conducted today won't be of any use in the future unless a subscription is maintained. I see my primary responsibility in a recording session as making a recording. My number one job is to make something that will outlive everyone in the session, so that the music will survive long enough to potentially find an audience. Most of the music I record is of limited appeal in the moment, but a lot of it has eventually developed historical significance over time, and it would be a failure of my responsibility had I not recorded it in such a way that it could be heard today as it was then. Recording in the analog domain is the only way to ensure that my clients' work will survive long term, and honestly the long term is all I care about. Some records I make will be popular in the moment, some won't, but what matters to me is that they be preserved, so that people in 100 years can know something about out music and our culture. I record to analog tape because preserving the music for the future is my primary concern.

ON WHAT CONSTITUTES A GENRE: IS IT A SUM OF IT'S MUSICAL ELEMENTS? Steve Albini: Lots of genre musicians are happy and proud to be part of a tradition, a culture, a community that has self-defined and coalesced around a kind of music. Country music, roots music, ska, punk, goth, surf, garage, various categories of metal and electronic/club music... these are idioms, sometimes whole cultures encapsulated in a sound, and the people within are there by choice. It is absolutely fine to recognize these categories and celebrate them when they behave honorably. Most surf music is fun to listen to, almost regardless of when it was made or how competently. It isn't deep, but it's fun. Same with ska, for an arbitrary value of "fun." But the music almost doesn't matter if the culture of the genre is significant beyond music. I don't want to listen to white-power music, nationalistic trash or the kinds of black metal that flirt with fascism, so I don't listen and can't tell you if the music is "good." I'll assume it's bad since it comes from an awful mindset, but that isn't a symmetrical relationship. I don't have any affection for the music of Insane Clown Posse, for example, but the genre they created and the community that has built up around it is inclusive and welcoming to people who are on the far outside fringes of straight society, people who have no place else to turn, and that is enough for me to appreciate them, for extra-musical concerns. ON NEW MUSIC HE LISTENS TO AND T SHIRTS HE WEARS

Steve Albini: I recently did a session with the band Code Orange and in the run-up to the session I did a bit of a deep dive into their music online and found it invigorating and rewarding to discover a whole catalog I had ignored previously. There's a new Dead Meadow album out, and is a significant experimental departure for them and I admire it. It has a couple of absolute masterpieces on it and is an engrossing listen as a whole. In the last couple of years I have gotten new T shirts from Cocaine Piss, Decibelles, Naked Raygun (the Pierre Kezdy tribute) and Spare Snare, all of them fantastic, and I wear them a lot.

WHY POKER, AND WHAT POKER Steve Albini: I play poker for the money and will play any poker game I think I can make money in. That usually depends more on the lineup of players than the type of game, but my skill set, such as it is, is suited to games with a strong implied-information component, where reads on players and hand-reading from action are the most valuable. For those reasons I prefer mixed games and stud format games, 7-card stud in particular. If there's a tough mixed game and a soft holdem game I probably still like my chances in the stud game, but if the combination of players and stakes make playing Holdem more profitable, then that's what I'll do.

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