Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Interview with Steve Albini, 1993

Interview with Steve Albini; recording engineer (Nirvana, Jesus Lizard, P.J. Harvey, many others); member of Big Black, Rapeman, Shellac; interview takes place at his house on April 14, 1993.

Matt: Can you give me a mini-biography of how you got into the music. . .

Steve: I grew up in Missoula, Montana. And sometime around 1978, it might have been ’77. . .

M: How old are you now?

S: I’m 30 now.

I was on a school field trip, and on the school field trip somebody on the bus had a portable cassette recorder which was, at that time, a novelty. He was playing this tape of the Ramones which I thought, everyone on the bus thought was the most hilarious record ever made. The first Ramones album. We all thought it was totally hilarious. No one took it seriously at all.
A friend of mine and I were enthralled by this concept of the Ramones; this really terrible band that were making records. That was the first record that I ever actually ordered from a record shop. I went to the record store and I placed an order for the first Ramones album.

M: Were you into music at all?

S: Not even in the slightest. Not even marginally interested in music. Over a period of weeks I became religious about going to the record shop to see if the Ramones record had come in. When it showed up it was. . .we threw a little party and played the Ramones album.

Anyway, I lived by the record for about six months. Initially it was comedy, it was a gag. We just thought, “oh, this is that goofy record.” But then it did develop into. . .it developed to the point where I thought. . .suddenly it made sense to me. I thought, “yea, this is the perfect form of rock music.” I was totally rabid after that. I bought anything that anybody called a punk rock record. I bought anything that I could find in the record shop. Used, new records that didn’t look familiar, that looked punk rock. I just completely immersed myself. And when I came out here to go to school, that was an opportunity to go see live bands which I’d never really been able to do in Montana.

M: Did you pick Chicago knowing that there would be a lot of music here?

S: No. I had no idea that there was any kind of a music scene here. I just figured it’s a city, there’s gotta be more stuff goin’ on there than there is in Montana. I was kind of wrong, because there wasn’t a whole lot going on except for a few scattered bands during that era. But those few bands turned out to be some of the more remarkable ones that Chicago’s ever produced: The Effigies, Naked Raygun. A lot of those bands were bands that were really inspirational to me.

M: I’m trying to remember the name of an album which came out in the early ‘80s which was a compilation of Chicago punk bands. .

S: There was one called The Middle of America. It was a hardcore compilation. And before that there was one called Busted at Oz. That was a live record. It was recorded at the Oz Club. That had the Effigies, and Naked Raygun, and Da, and Silver Abuse. That was an amazing record. Some of the sound quality was pretty lousy, but some of the stuff on that record was pretty amazing. The Effigies stuff on that record is amazing. Just a furious, just amazingly great sounding fuckin’ live, raw punk record.

So the early 1980-82 was sort of when I was learning what a live music scene was about. I had formed a band as soon as I got here. Just a goofy punk rock band.

M: What was the name?

S: Small Irregular Pieces of Aluminum. Then I joined a . . .a friend of mine introduced me to some friends of his that were this sort of arty new wave band, sort of like Joy Division, or Magazine or something. I played bass in their band for three or four months and they kicked me out. And when they kicked me out I decided to try and start my own band, and I messed around with some people for awhile, trying to find musicians to be in a band with, and I wasn’t really comfortable with anybody. I didn’t know that many people, so I couldn’t really just put the word out. I had to try putting up flyers.

M: Were you going to school all this time?

S: Yea. I wasn’t very successful finding anybody to play with, so I just. ..

M: Did you live on campus?

S: No. My freshman year I lived in a dorm because, at that time, they required you to live in a dorm your freshman year. I think that was because they had to justify all these new dorms they’d built in the seventies. So my freshman year I lived in a dorm, and after that I lived off campus. I didn’t really live in Evanston after my freshman year. I lived in Chicago.

So I was looking for a band, and I failed. So I decided I was gonna try and record some stuff on my own and see if I could use that to find people to play in a band with.

M: Di you go through the usual channels, such as the Reader?

S: Yea. I placed ads in the Reader, and I answered ads in the Reader. I met people who ultimately went on to do other things, but there was nobody I was really comfortable playing with. From there it gravitated to being quite satisfied doing things by myself. I did the first Big Black record by myself, recorded on borrowed equipment. By the time that record was ready to come out, I had become friends with the Effigies and Naked Raygun and some other people in town that were involved in music on a larger scale. From the release of that record, those people helped me put together a live band. The band was fairly stable. Initially it was Jeff Pezzati from Naked Raygun playing bass, and Santiago Durango playing guitar, and me.

M: And you used a drum machine live?

S: We used a drum machine.

After a couple of years of operating that way, Big Black started to become more serious as a band. It was obvious that Jeff had too many things to look after. He was in Naked Raygun, and he had a girlfriend, and he had a job, and he had other responsibilities as well. I just asked him if it would be easier for him if I didn’t expect him to be in the band anymore, and he said it would be.

So Santiago and I had both like this band, a surf-punk band called Savage Beliefs from Chicago. And the bass player in that band, dave Riley, was a prtty good bass player, and Savage Beliefs had broken up, so we asked him to join. And that was the last of the line-up changes. It stayed that way until we broke up in ’86 or ’87. . .’87.

M: When did the last album come out?

S: The last Big Black album came out in September of that year, I think it was ’87. That was about a month after we had broken up. Our last show was in August of ’87.

M: Did you play the regular clubs in Chicago?

S: At that time there were quite a few clubs that you could play goofy punk rock gigs at. You could play at the. . what’s now the 950. It was originally the Lucky Number bar. The Lucky Number was one of the earliest punk rock joints in the city. And Tut’s, which was on Belmont where the Avalon is now. A place called C.O.D., which is in Roger’s Park on Devon Avenue. And a place called Misfits, which is on Sheridan Road just north of there. The Metro would have gigs, but there was also a group of punk rocker kids that were putting on shows in a rented hall on Broadway and Irving Park.

So there were quite a few places to play whereas now there’s really only. . .for a band of that size, a band that got it’s land legs but isn’t famous yet, there really very few places to play. The Czar Bar, or something of that caliber is about the best that you can play if you don’t have records out.

M: Were clubs receptive to you if they thought you were a punk rock band?

S: It was kind of cool in that the people who ran the clubs had no fuckin’ idea about what was goin’ on.

M: So like in L.A., if they found out you were a punk rock band, you were black-balled from many clubs.

S: Well, L.A. is such a weird universe anyway. I don’t even consider that part of the world. If you leave this plain of reality and go into an alternate reality, that’s where you’d find places like Los Angeles. Because the club owners didn’t know what the hell was going on, they would turn it over to somebody else and say, “find me some bands to play here.” So usually there were people who were eager to do that sort of thing. People who worked at record shops or people on college radio were eager and excited to be booking bands someplace. So you could call one guy and he could get you into the Lucky Number, or you could call another guy and he could get you into C.O.D., or call another guy and he could set up an independent show for you. That person, the independent middle-man show arranger, doesn’t really exist anymore. Local independent promoters are few and far between. Sean Duffy is a holdover from those days. He still does shows in Chicago on rare occasions.

M: Why are they gone?

S: Because there are clubs now that specialize in alternative music. And they’re generally speaking run by people who are fans of the genre and they can pick and choose which bands they want and make contacts with booking agents. And booking agents is another fairly recent phenomenon. That there are people that make a living just booking tours for punk rock and odd ball bands I pretty amazing. That was inconceivable as little as ten years ago. That was just absolutely inconceivable that you could make a living doing nothing but booking tours for rock bands. Or that you could make a living being in a rock band. That was virtually out of the question for virtually all punk rock bands. It was never, from the time that I recall its inception, to very very recently, it was never even a consideration. . .it was never even in the realm of possibilities that your band could pay your way through life; that your band could be your living. As far back as I can remember, and for virtually every person that I can think of involved in the music scene, having a straight job was considered part of the price of being in a band. You have to buy guitar strings, and you have to buy an amp, and you have to have a straight job.
And now it seems as through the attitude of the bands that are coming up now is that of course eventually they’ll make a living at it. And of course they’ll find someone else to give them money to put out a record. And of course they will find someone to book shows, book a tour for them. It’s as though that machinery is part of the birth right of every musician.

M: I’m not sure they think of it as an “of course” thing. I think they see it as a legitimate thing to strive for. The possibility that if you are a good band this will come for you.

S: Right. My definition of a good band is broader than “popular.” Popular band is not by my definition a good one necessarily. And that is all that matters as far as the rest of the music machinery is concerned. If you are a popular band, then you are viable. If you are viable, then there are any number of leaches that will try to take parts of your money in exchange for making you more popular, or so they claim.

M: What’s a good band?

S: A good band is a band that makes music that I respect or admire, and behaves itself honorably. Does things within the band, and within the interaction of all the bands that it deals with, and all he people that it deals with, does things in a way that it has no reason to be ashamed of. If you’re looking for specific examples, a real good example would be someone like Fugazi. They are the pinnacle of the integrity ladder. They do everything themselves, they deal directly with the people. They don’t go through middle-men or agents or crew or anything like that. They handle their own affairs, and they demonstrate how easy it is.

There’s a sort of religion of fear that’s built up around being in a rock band. If you don’t have a booking agent then you’ll get taken advantage of when you try to book shows. If you don’t have a record label, then no one will take you seriously if you try to put out your own record. If you don’t have a manager, then the record labels won’t take you seriously. If you don’t have a lawyer, then your manager has no clout. All of these steps. . .all these peripheral parts of being in a rock band are now considered an organic part of the scheme, when they’re very recent developments as far as punk rock music goes.

M: So you don’t think they’re necessary?

S: Absolutely not! Admittedly it’s been three or four years since I’ve been in an active rock band, but in the entire time that I was in a rock band, which was over ten years, I never once dealt with a booking agent, never once had a lawyer, never had a manager, never had. . .we took. . .Big Black categorically never took an advance from a record company. We paid for our recordings ourselves. That way we would be careful about how much money we spent. And as a result we ended up making quite a bit of money off the band. Whereas a band that spends its money in advance recording or whatever, has virtually no chance of making money off of its record label. . .I mean off of its records.

M: Big Black has probably made more money since you broke up.

S: That’s true. Since we broke up before our most successful record was released.

M: Songs About Fucking.

S: And then that record and all the previous records continued to sell really dramatically.

M: They were all just rereleased, right?

S: The ones that were out of print were just rereleased. The records that were rereleased sold geometrically more in their rerelease than they did originally.

M: So just recently.

S: Yea.

M: Weren’t they just rereleased in the last month or so?

S: About three months ago. I think in total numbers of records sold, I think we sold something. . .the reissues, the combined sales of the reissues was something like 80,000 copies. And the total world-wide sales to date of those records is something like half a million records. That’s if you take every copy of every record that’s ever been sold and add them all together it’s about half a million records. We made a substantial amount of money on those. If we had been on a big label and sold that many records, we would probably still owe money.

M: Were you ever approached by a major label?

S: Yep. We were approached by EMI. We were approached by Capital, by RCA, and by Warner Bros., and Rough Trade in England. And the point when Rough Trade. . .

M: And you categorically told them to get lost?

S: Umm hmm. Actually, Rough Trade were still, in name, an independent, so we did. . .the guy that started and ran the company, Jeff Travis, wanted to meet with us and we had a meeting with him. And he explained the way he did business and it seemed so shaky that we weren’t interested. And ultimately they went broke, so I guess that was a good decision.

M: So if you put yourself in the shoes of a young unsigned band, eighteen or nineteen year old kids, especially in the post-Nirvana signing craze, which I imagine is a reality. . .

S: It’s now to the point where any band that wants to get signed to a major label, I do not care what style of music you play, what the personalities in the band are, if you are willing to sign a contract, any contract, then you can get signed to a major label. It is not as though that is an unattainable thing at this point. Not only is it not difficult, in a lot of cases it’s easier to get on a major label than to be on an independent label. To be on an independent label you actually have to be worth something. A major label will take a band that no one has ever heard, and sign them. An independent label, for it to be worth their effort to put out your record, they have to be certain that somebody likes you. Either that, or someone at the record label has to take a personal interest in you and thing, “yes, I really love this band. I’m gonna champion this band.” And that is something that never happens on a major label. Major labels, by and large, sign bands based solely on whether or not they think they can be successful.

M: It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad band though, does it?

S: Not necessarily, although there’s a very very high correlation between bands that sign to major labels immediately, and bands that are terrible. There’s a very high correlation.

M: But what about bands that go from independent to major? Like Nirvana, for example.

S: I don’t think Nirvana are any worse a band now than they were when they were on Sub Pop. I do think Nirvana, in terms of the way that band is structured and the way their money is handled and things of that nature, I think Nirvana are in a far worse situation than they were when they were on an independent label. It’s a good example. And this is from published figures, this is nto me spilling the beans on anything, or making stuff up. Geffen, as a result of the Nirvana albums, this is the figure that they have publicly given, made $55 million off of that album, off of the Nevermind album. The band were paid $3 million. So there you’re in a situation where the record company is making $55 million and the band is making $3 million. That means the individual members of the band each made, probably, about $1 million. They lost half of that to taxes, of course. They probably had to pay out an equal amount of that in terms of management fees and percentages that they lose to collectors and that sort of stuff. When it boils down to it, they made about as much as, each of them made about as much as a lawyer would. The difference being that a lawyer in a good position in a firm, can make better than a half million a year for thirty years. And that’s from the perspective of the most popular rock band in the world, Nirvana. The band that sold more records than any other rock band that year. The most popular rock band in the world. Eight million records down the pipe.

Ting! There’s that band.

They are probably in the situation where in five years they will have no record income. No income from records. Or a measly income. The sort of income that Styx has nowadays, or the sort of income that, you know, Chicago would have. Where there are a few diehard fans, but that’s about it.

And if you compare that with a band like the Jesus Lizard who’ve already had five years of phenomenal success in artistic terms, there’s really no reason to. . .I don’t see any reason to strive for the sort of chaos, and the sort of piddling that goes along with being on a major label.
I can’t think of a single thing that a major label can offer a band that will offset the negative aspects, being the amount of meddling and the amount of lying to and all that sort of stuff. And the ancillary costs that are associated with being on a major label. Major labels flatly will not allow bands to make albums cheaply.

I’ve been at odds with record labels—major labels—about albums that I’ve made for people. And their chief complaint is, “You didn’t spend enough time, you didn’t spend enough money.” The more money that a band spends initially on a record, the better the record labe’s position with that band. Because then the band is dependent on the label for every cent that comes after that. They can’t earn any money ‘cause they’re in the hole. And as long as they can keep them there, in the hole, then the record company can dictate the terms of everything that the band does from there on out.

I can show you mathematically how a band can make no money, and a record label can make a lot of money, and as far as the record company is concerned the band is still in the hole. Basically, the pre-expense percentage that a band is paid of the retail sale price of every album is generally less that twelve percent. So less that twelve percent of the retail price of an album is credited to the band. Generally speaking, if the record company has, in standard fashion, insisted that the band use a main producer on the record, that main producer will get from 1-3 of those percentage points. . .of their twelve percent. Which would put the band, let’s split numbers and say that the band then is in a position where they’re getting ten percent of the retail price of the record. If the band has a management company, the management company will take ten to fifteen percent of their income. And depending on the deal, depending on whether the management company is talking about their royalty or their income, then they would be taking an additional ten percent off of the band’s net income.

M: So the record label is making eighty-eight percent?

S: No. The record label is making. . .that’s off the retail price. The record label is probably wholesaling that record for about sixty percent, or seventy percent of retail price. So the record company is not making eighty to eighty-eight percent compared to twelve percent. The record company is making something like seventy or sixty percent, from which they have to pay twelve percent. It’s more like, something like sixty percent of the gross income of the record goes to the record company, and ten to twelve percent of it goes to the band.

M: And out of the ten to twelve percent the band. . .

S: The band has to pay all of their recording expenses. That is, the money that the record company advanced them to record the record, that has to come out of the band’s ten to twelve percent.

M: And at the same time the label dictates who they should use, and how much they should spend on it?

S: Exactly.

M: That’s fucked up.

S: Yea. That’s why I have categorically said that any band that signs to a major label out of the underground is fucked.

M: But you still work for bands that are on major labels.

S: I work for bands that have chosen to go to major labels, yea. I get paid significantly more than I do for working for an independent band. For a couple of reasons, I justify that to myself in several different ways. One way is, these bands are fucked. They’re never gonna get paid. So the money that I’m paid is not coming out of their pockets, it’s coming out of the record company’s pocket, because the record company is gonna cheat them anyway. That’s one way of looking at it. The other way that I justify it is, it’s sort of punitive. If you think that you can be a big shot by being on a major label, you’re going to have to pay me considerably more than somebody else does.

M: Do you tell them this?

S: Yeah. I’m totally above board with this to everybody. The other thing about it is, using me to record a record for a major label, they will get stuck far, far less, if they do turn a profit, than if they use somebody else. Virtually everyone, and I should actually state it as, everyone that I know of, except me, that records records as a producer or engineer, is paid a royalty on a record, on records that are sold. One point, two points, three points. That is the producers fee for making the record is a percentage of the retail sales. The way I structure my deals is that I’m paid a flat fee, and that pays me. . .I’m paid for the job that I do to make the record. So I have no interest in whether or not that record sells one copy or a zillion. I’m pad a flat fee. Period. The advantage that give the band is, any money that they do earn from their record, they get to keep. They don’t have to keep shelling money out to me.

There are situations where a band is in an unfavorable contract, and the record company, the record company dictates that they use a certain producer, and the producer gets paid a certain number of percentage points out of the band’s income. And it is possible to stricter a deal, I know that this has been done in many cases, where for every record that the band sells, the band goes deeper in dept, because the have to pay the producer. They’re paying the producer out of their income. They’re still in the hole and unrecouped from the record label, and they have their marginal costs that they have to keep paying. They’re daily operating expenses, and their expenses for management, and their expenses for. . .

M: But there must be bands that are making money on major labels.

S: Why do you say that?

M: It just seems that there must be.

S: There are probably a very very small number of bands, of the superstar elete status, that make money. When yo speak of bands on the underground scene that have graduated to, in their eyes, graduated to the major label circuit, I would be shocked and appauled if I. . . I would be shocked if I found more than a half dozen of them.

M: REM must be making money.

S: REM are a superstar band.

M: They supposively came from the underground.

S: They were never really, strictly speaking, in the underground. Their first album was on IRS. IRS was a division of Warner Bros. records. They were not, strictly speaking, from the underground. If you’re talking about bands that work their way up from being on independent labels playing punk rock clubs and stuff. . .

M: Sonic Youth?

S: Sonic Youth are not making money on their records. They make some money touring. And they make some money from royalties. Broadcast royalties. And in European royalties. They’re not making a buck on their records. They spend way too much money on their records to make any money.

M: Were they making more money before they were on a major label?

S: They were getting paid for sales of records, yea. Not immediately before. Immediately before they were on Geffen, they were on. . .signed to a company called Blast First. And Blast First had a deal with a label in California called Restless, that also had a deal with a company called Capital Records. That arrangement pretty much precluded them from ever getting paid from anything. Because the money had to pass through so many hands. Their English record label before that did pay them. And their American record label, SST, was in really bad financial straits, but was paying them as much as they could.

M: What do you think of SST?

S: It’s not really a label to be taken seriously at this point.

M: There’s the stuff going on in the press about them not paying people. . .

S: I wouldn’t be surprised at all. There was a period when that record company made a lot of money. They had a lot of good bands. . .Husker Du, the Minutemen, Sonic Youth. . .

M: Meat Puppets.

S: Meat Puppets. I didn’t particularly like the Meat Puppets, but they had quite a few bands, and if they had not managed the company poorly, that is if they hadn’t taken on too many employees, and too many expenses. They had a whole fancy ass suite of offices that they built and all that sort of bullshit. If they didn’t do stuff like that, then they could be in a position that Touch and Go is now. That is a record company that’s been around for a long time, been doing things honorably, and pays everybody. But they’re not.

M: So you’ve making money.

S: As what. . .off record royalties?

M: Doing what you do.

S: Oh sure. I make a good living as a recording engineer. I make a good living. I could make a good living just off record royalties. Because I don’t deal with big labels. Big Black and Rapeman records still make money. If I had a band that was in the public eye now, and the band sold records consistent with the other bands I’ve been in, I could make a living off of that.

M: Are you gonna be in a band again?

S: I’d like to. It’s not a priority. Because. . .for a lot of the reasons we’re talking about. I’m’ not interested in being part of that scene. I’m not interested in being thought of in the same breath as Pearl jam. That very notion makes me want to give up.

M: They’re probably making money.

S: Pearl Jam are very, very wealthy.

M: They’ve stayed on the charts whereas Nirvana came and went. Anyway, what do you think about local scenes?

S: They’re very important. That’s where all the good music is being made. There are small and interesting communities of bands all over the place. I don’t think that there’s anything holy about bands being small and inexperienced, but that’s obviously where new ideas are gonna come from, from people who have never played music before.

M: Do you think there’s any way for a band to keep that attitude even as they being making records?

S: Sure. That’s not a problem. The primary evils in the music industry are people other than musicians who want to make money off of bands. Managers, booking agents, lawyers, record companies. Any time somebody says, “Let me take your band and give you some money so that I can make more money,” that person is evil. That’s all there is to it.

M: So you must be part evil.

S: No. Bands come to me and buy my services. That’s an enormous difference from a record company saying to a band, “You have to have Steve Albini produce your record.” I would never work with a band under those circumstances. And it’s never come up.
Generally speaking, the bands that want to use me for recording their records are either bands like this band here, Heyday, band that haven’t got enough money to do it any other way and they come to me because they know I’m cheap and that I do a good job. . .

M: How much do you charge?

S: Independent bands I charge $150 a day, and big shot bands I charge by the project. I did a P.J. Harvey record, I happen to like. . .I happen to have a fondness for her as a person, and for the band for their music. . .I charged $30,000 for that record. The Nirvana record that I just did I charged $100,000 for.

M: Because you know that they have more money?

S: No. Well partly because I know they have more money. But mainly because they offered me $100,000.

M: They chose you?

S: Yea. They said, “It’s worth it to us to give you $100,000.”

I said, “Okay. Sounds good.”

M: They must be worried about their next album, looking as if they’ve sold-out.

S: You would think that except that, for example, we just recorded this album in February. They were ecstatic with it. I thought it sounded great. I though I did as good a job as I possibly could. They, at the time seemed totally thrilled with it, and the record company is not arguing, trying to convince them not to release it. The record company does not want them to release that record. Principly because they didn’t spend enough money on it. You might think that paying me $100,000 is. . . that means they must have spent a lot of money on the record. They spent $130,000, roughly, on the record. That’s far less than their last record cost them. And the record company knows that I’m not getting paid any points. So the band is gonna make money on this record. And that scares the shit out of the record company. They want them to spend six months and a million dollars on the record. That’s what they want. That’s ultimately what they would be happiest with. So that when the record came out, it would be the talk of the town, but what an ordeal it was to make the record, and that would be more hype. They’re guaranteed of selling a couple million. They could put out a blank record that says “Nirvana” on it and sell a couple million.

M: This album will sell no matter what, but their next one is the one. . .

S: Exactly.

M: That’s why it would be bad for them to come to someone like you who has a reputation of independent alternative stuff, rather than Bob Rock. . .

S: You would think that, if you were from the underground scene. But they’re not from that scene. These people. . .this is the record company that gave us Nelson for Christ’s sake! This is the record company that gave Neil Young a contract that said, “You can do whatever you want,” and then they sued him, and the ground for their suit was that he did! That’s the mentality of the people you’re dealing with here. You’re not dealing with punk rock fans. You’re dealing with people that want to maintain tight control while seeming to be with it and hip. Because the with it and hip quotient is what sells some of their records.

M: But the three members of Nirvana must be thinking, they must be a little worried about the album looking as if. . .

S: I don’t think that’s a. . .their lives are so weird now. They can’t live like normal people, and I doubt that they have normal people thoughts. Personally I got along with them great. I think they’re nice guys. But they live in such a weird universe now, where I can’t even begin to imagine what they’re thinking. It’s not like being in a band anymore. It’s like having a whole. . .it’s like having an enormous industry that exists merely to suck your blood. My dealings with that band confirmed my suspicions about all the people that work with them. Everybody associated with that band, other than the actual band, every member of the entourage. . .the publishing company. . not the publishing company. . .the managing company, the record company, the legal people. . everybody associated with that band is a piece of shit. They’re scum. They’re pure fuckin’ thieving robbing pieces of shit. They will indulge any infantile whim that the band has. They will extend any infantile paranoia that the band has. They will do whatever yes-man type thing it takes to get the band in a position where they feel dependent on them. And whenever they can exploit an insecurity, whenever they can exploit a drug problem or an emotional problem, or anything like that, whenever they can use any of that stuff as another means of making a little scratch, they will. And I think that is totally criminal. To prey on people’s weaknesses like that. That’s awful.

M: So that’s a larger economic question dealing with capitalism vs. other economic forms. . .

S: No. there is a way that you. . .all the functions that those people server for these bands, and I’m speaking in general terms now, I don’t want to pick on Nirvana, all the functions that these people do could be handled by the band themselves, or by people that dealt with the band honorably. It just isn’t done. It could be, it just isn’t.
There’s a good example in town. There’s a booking agent, a buy named Dave Vaichelle (INTERVIEWERS NOTE: I’M NOT SURE THIS IS HIS NAME. IF ANYONE DOES KNOW, PLEASE LET ME KNOW). He deals only with un. . .small bands, independent bands. And generally speaking pretty good bands. And he’s got a good reputation with the bands for setting up tours that are reasonable. That is, where the band is not being paid too little to make it worth their while, and not being paid so much that the clubs will lose money and they won’t be welcome again. He’s very straight foreword about his business dealings, he’s above board with the clubs, he’s got good relationships with all the bands he deals with. I think he’s doing it in an honorable fashion. That begs the question, should anybody be doing that at all for anybody else? I think there are some bands for whom. . .bands that tour a lot, have straight jobs, or don’t have straight jobs, and want to tour full-time, and don’t want to be bothered with trying to set up itineraries for touring. For those bands, I think having a booking agent is reasonable. The band that I was in, I always thought it made more sense for me to do that. I think these things can be done for people in an honorable way. Cory Rusk, head of Touch and Go, runs a record label for all these bands, and he does it honorably. He accounts for every penny that’s spent on the band’s behalf. The band and he split all the expenses down the middle, as opposed to them being the band’s responsibility as is the case on major labels. The money that comes in is divided among the expenses and the profit. And the profit is split evenly, 50/50 with the bands. I think that’s a very honorable, equitable way to run a record company. And he had made it a . . .there are people that would argue, “You can’t be a financial success doing that. You can’t make money.” He’s done it for fifteen years. Cory Rusk has run a record company at a profit and has dealt honorably with all the people that he deals with. I think that. . .just the evidence of his existence by itself is evidence enough that you can be an honorable businessman in the music business. It’s just very rare.

M: Because most people get into it not from the music side of things.

S: Exactly. Most people that run record companies. . .the vast, vast majority of people that are involved in this whole scene—press people, management companies, booking agents—never played a note of music in their lives, don’t know what it means to go on stage scared out of your mind and have beer cans thrown at you and get paid $20, if that. They have no conception of what it is to be in a rock band. They see it as this big pinwheel of money going around between an audience and band, and they’re just snatching a few dollars off the pinwheel. Mathematically it works out that all these ancillary people, all these secondary people, the players make way, way more in every instance. . .they make more money than the bands that the whole thing revolves around. It’s pathetic that such an industry exists. The industry exists specifically to exploit the popularity of the bands. But that’s the case.

M: What do you consider the real “alternative” music? It’s obviously not rock.

S: There is rock music being made on an independent level that is truly and vehemently independent. I support most of that music in principle if not. . .even if I don’t like the way it sounds. There are plenty of bands that are still releasing their own records. And there are bands that don’t even bother releasing records, that just exist as a social entity. I think that is perfectly valid.

M: Do you look for bands?

S: I’m a fan of music. I buy records. I go see bands that I don’t know anything about.

M: Do you ever look for bands to produce?

S: No. I made it a tenet of my behavior that I won’t thrust myself on anybody else. If people decide that they want me to work with them, they’ll get in touch with me. And there are people that are so out of touch that they don’t’ have any idea how to get a hold of me, and if it’s somebody that I’m particularly interested in, I’ll make of point of letting them know how they can get a hold of me if they want to. But I’ve never pressed myself on any band.

M: So you go to shows around Chicago?

S: All the time.

M: What bands to you like in Chicago?

S: Well, obviously, the Jesus Lizard, the greatest rock band in the world.

M: But can they really be considered a local band? They live here, but they never really played the scene.

S: That’s not true at all. They’ve built themselves up through the same network of, you know, opening gigs with friends’ bands. . .

M: I thought they just came up here from Austin.

S: No. David Sims was in Rapeman, the band that I was in. And he lived here for two years before the Jesus Lizard got started. And so did David yow. He lived here for two years before the Jesus Lizard started. Duane moved up to start the Jesus Lizard, but he moved to Chicago. So did Mac. As a matter of fact, I think the first ever Jesus Lizard gig was at. . .they were opening for Slint at a Thai food restaurant. Slint was having their album release party for their first album.

M: I’ve never heard of Slint.

S: Slint are an amazing band. They don’t exist anymore. When they did they were a phenomenal band.

M: What other bands do you like?

S: I like Shorty. I like Tar. I like the Didjits, they’re not really from here, though, they’re from down-state Illinois.

M: What about bands that aren’t signed?

S: Shorty aren’t signed to anybody that I know of. I like Dolomite, I think they’re a cool band. I’ve seen Burnout a few times, I think they’re okay. They’re not my favorite band in the world, but they’re kind of okay. There’s a guy who’s just a guitar player, who I think is really cool. He’s a really funny guy, writes really goofy songs. His name is Robby Fulks. He has this combo called Trailer Trash.

M: I think there was a write-up in the Tribune.

S: Really. That’s surprising. I like him. He’s a friend of mine from years ago. I think he’s doing things I a kind of neat way. He doesn’t really care if anybody likes his stuff or not. And he’s not playing the kind of music that’s at all popular. He’s just writing goofy songs, and playing them.
There are personalities in town that occasionally put together bands that I think are really cool, kind of intreging. A guy named Camilo Gonzalez who’s been in bands for years. He was in Naked Raygun when they first started. He was in Silver Abuse, arguably the first punk rock band in Chicago. And he’s trying to put together a new band now. He’s looking for a guitar player, I think he’s a really cool guy. Whatever he does I’m sure will be great. There are other bands that are. . .that I believe in, that I have some faith in, that I don’t necessarily think they’re gonna do great things in the world.

Phone rings. Steve answers. Tape goes off. Then on.

S: There are bands that I think are worth support, even if they’re not necessarily a lot of fun to listen to. A band called Super Duty that I like. And another band called Buzz Muscle that I like.
It’s not necessarily that a band is successful or even any good that makes them supportable for me. There’s a band from Milwaukee that I have a real fondness for, called Dis.

M: I was emailing a guy from Dis. . . he goes to Marquett.

S: Two of them work at the Marquette library.

M: Are they a pretty good band?

S: They’re derivative musically, and they’re not an amazing. . .They’re good musicians. Their music is not totally riveting to listen to yet, but it might be. I’m completely in favor of the way they do things. I like them a lot.

M: Most of these bands you mention I’ve never heard of, and I go to a lot of shows in Chicago.

S: What sort of shows have you been going to?

M: To the Avalon. . .

S: The Avalon. That’s a whole. .

M: and Metro on Wednesday nights.

S: A lot of those bands are bands that will exist for six months and then disappear. They’re not really committed musicians or anything. A lot of those are sort of goof off bands.

M: But these are bands that have been around for awhile. Like Rustbucket.

S: I’ve heard Rustbucket.

M: You don’t like them obviously. Charming Beggars.

S: Don’t know anything about the Charming Beggars, although it sounds like. . .just the name invokes an image of a certain era of bar bands that I really couldn’t stand. Sort of like pop, hippy, like vaguely ethnic pop hippy rock music.

M: Skid Marks, from the Way Moves, is the singer.

S: The Way Moves! Now you’re reaching way back into the horrible band era.

M: He’s completely different now. They’re a pretty good band.

S: Don’t know anything about them.

M: Why don’t you like Rustbucket?

S: They’re just awful. Some bands defy any kind of. . .If a band is derivative, and they’re young, that’s one thing. Because young bands tend to be derivative. If a band is horrible and young, that’s excusable. Young bands can be horrible before they find their way around. If they’re derivative and horrible and persistent, they get no excuse from me. I can’t put up with it. A band like Big Hat, for example. I can’t fathom a reason why they shouldn’t be just guillotined. They’re awful. They’ve been around for too long. They’re horrible. They’re derivative. And they take up space. Fuckin’ kill them; get ‘em out of the way.

M: What do you mean by derivative?

S: Derivative means playing music of a genre, rather than playing music of inspiration. Playing music that stylistically fits in with the bands that are their favorites. That bugs me.

M: Everybody has their favorite bands, and they’re bound to be influenced by their favorite bands.

S: Not necessarily. My favorite bands, I know, don’t influence the way I play, or didn’t influence the way I played after the first hour or two. The first couple of weeks I owned a guitar, I tried to play Killing Joke and Public Image riffs. After that, it was just a matter of. . .you can appreciate what somebody else is doing, but it doesn’t mean you want to do it.

M: This band you were just recording sounded a bit Public Image to me.

S: This band is horrible. They’re an example of an inexcusably bad band who’s been around for too long to be apologized for. I really don’t like their music. And they’re really annoying people.

M: So why do you produce them?

S: Grit my teeth and get through it.

M: Do you try and make them sound better?

S: I try to do a good job, yea. It’s my obligation to do a good job, even if I’m not a particular fan of the band.

M: They must have sent you a demo.

S: No. They just called me up and booked the time.

M: That doesn’t bother you?

S: I explained it to them. I said, “If I know that I’m gonna hate the session, if you familiarize me with your music and I hate it, then I won’t do it. But if you just want to book the time, and not give me the option of turning you down, I’m fine.” The problem is that he booked the time under the name Heyday. The band is called Heyday now. They used to be called Hollow Heyday. And I have a Hollow Heyday record that’s awful. If he has said, “This is Bob from Hollow Heyday,” I wouldn’ve said “Oh, yea. Sorry, I really don’t think I’d enjoy it.” But I wasn’t perceptive enough.

M: So you don’t see yourself as a prostitute?

S: Not in the slightest. Prostitutes do things. . .if you consider prostituting yourself to be doing something just for the money, now, I do not do that, period. I’ve never done that, and I can’t imagine doing it.

M: But you don’t like this band. But you’re doing it anyway, ‘cause they’re paying you to do it.

S: No. I’m doing it because they asked me to and because no one else would. There’s no place they could go to get a professionally made record for this little money. I would feel horrible if I put myself in the position of being arbiter of taste. If I said “no no no no no. You are not good enough to work with the almighty Steve Albini. I do not consider your band worthy of me.” I couldn’t imagine behaving that way. So I cut them the slack. I’ll say, “Sure. I’ll work with anybody. Anybody on the lower rungs, no questions asked. I’ll work with you.” But if it turns out to be horrible, I’m not gonna do it again. And if they turn out to be dicks. . .