Steve Albini for Nobel Laureate

Steve Albini performing at a show with Shellac in December 2007
Steve Albini performing at a show with Shellac in December 2007

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The first time I saw Shellac live was in a middle school auditorium in Kentucky, set up on stage where the kids probably had their talent shows. There were plastic lunchroom seats on stage for students to sit behind the band. Instead, we opted to stand at the front where we were asked by the drummer, Todd Trainer, to help hold his bass drum in place. (As he played, the drum, and the rug it was on, would begin to slip off the lip of the stage.) Throughout the show, the wind from his pedal’s impact against the bass drum would pummel my face with every beat, as if the room were breathing. I remember at the same time not being able to take my eyes off the strange aluminum necks of Albini and Weston’s custom guitars, which made them seem even more alien somehow, men bearing alien transistors that bore their sound. The show was loud as hell and time seemed to crystalize around us, already the substance of enduring memory as they played tracks off their first album, At Action Park, a record I’d listened to so many times by then I could feel it imprinted in my head, changing the very shape in my mind of what music could even do. The band would interrupt the program every so often to answer questions from the audience.

The ethos delivered in that experience — overrunning the uncanny into the everyday, blurring the lines between the conceptual and high-volume heavy rock — stands out amidst so many other years of performance for me, at once unassuming and alchemical, like magic objects comprised of everyday household parts. In an era where everything is about branding, Shellac, much like the breadth of Albini’s body of work, embodies an anti-brand, one that seems both ahead of its time and out of place, if in a way where being forever out of place has become the true fundament of our reality.

It’s an approach through which even the most unappealing material is allowed to find its ideal shape. Take, for instance, Albini’s unexpected and sometimes controversial engineering of Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase from 1996 (which he agreed to work on after meeting at-the-time mega rockstar Gavin Rossdale for lunch and finding out he seemed like a “genuine guy” who liked The Jesus Lizard): here’s a case where a band who would be otherwise basically unlistenable outside of the ears of 16-year-olds, but under Albini’s direction becomes suddenly angular, somehow alert. It’s still Bush at the end of the day, but there’s a newfound vibrancy to the outline, hearing the band for what it is instead of what layers of effects and hyper-gloss most rock producers would have enforced. Albini’s willingness to break boundaries by putting his hands on such an act speaks volumes about his utilitarian intent, one placing all its emphasis on craft beyond pretension, technique over affect.

“I would like to be paid like a plumber,” Albini now famously wrote in a letter to Nirvana as they discussed the possibility of his producing their next record, In Utero, at the height of their fame. “I do the job and you pay me what it’s worth . . . . How much you choose to pay me will not affect my enthusiasm for the record.” Sound engineering, then, in Albini’s practice, allows the concept of “production” to be pushed out of the way, allowing a recording to make a great band sound like who they really are, not some big ego’s repackaging of parts, completely based on current sales or some other false indicator of success of art.

Shellac. Image courtesy Wikicommons.
Shellac. Albini is in the center. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The results speak for themselves (Bush notwithstanding). For my money, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person’s discography in recording that holds as much weight as Albini’s 20-plus years, up till today. His is a laundry list of not only some of the most influential names in independent rock, but a Rolodex of captivating, important artists: The Pixies, The Jesus Lizard, Slint, Whitehouse, Silkworm, Melt-Banana, Breadwinner, Killdozer, Superchunk, Gastr del Sol, Man or Astro-man?, Tony Conrad, Palace Music, Oxbow, A Minor Forest, Brainiac, Smog, Cheer-Accident, Low, Guided By Voices, Burning Witch, Storm & Stress, Dianogah, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Will Oldham, Dirty Three, The Ex, Bedhead, Don Caballero, Shannon Wright, Danielson Famile, Labradford, Mogwai, Rye Coalition, Jawbreaker, Mclusky, The Breeders, PJ Harvey, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co., Neurosis, High on Fire, Joanna Newsom, Cheap Trick, Iggy and The Stooges, Weedeater, Om. The list goes on, in its wake including not only so many legendary bands but literally a thousand others, including a sprawl of lesser-known and unknown acts, many of them local to Chicago, the city that Albini’s studio, Electrical Audio, calls home. Anyone can book Albini to record a project, and at completely affordable rates: a one-day fee in studio with him engineering costs $900, plus tape (every recording must be analog).

Outside of ethics, the elements that define Albini’s overall aesthetic are frequently patent, if still elastic. The guitars often seem crunchy, metallic, electrically conductive. There’s a weird middle to the bass that cuts as much as it punches, making lines for the song to hold to, like big fat wires. The drums sound live, filling a whole room, almost like live. The live feeling is, to me, perhaps the clearest thread throughout Albini’s catalog: it’s as if you are hearing the band there in your living room, right there, no gloss and no disruption. Because to Albini, the job of recording music isn’t about ego or money, it’s about providing a service: to show up and make a record over which the artists have control; what you are hearing is what was there. The song is the song, and the recording of the song is the relic that survives it. In this way, music seems to become less like some kind of idiotic dream, and more like a transmission from prior lives, an expression that would not otherwise survive itself outside some mangled version recreated by machines; not timeless, but continuously timely; records that seem somehow not to age, but to survive the aging of the world surrounding.

Outside of his engineering continuum, Albini’s work with Shellac finds such an approach at its freest, a state of sound where any concept is allowed to totally play out as it must. It is music that sounds truly, completely free, devoid of outside pressure. Shellac is the kind of band where you hear ideas that in straighter projects might have disappeared or dissolved, and here are allowed to expand and grow into songs that don’t work like songs as much as they do concepts, textures, while also not feeling inaccessible, but fun to listen to, infectious. Nothing seems off-limits in their expanse, creating the feeling of a writer’s writer’s favorite band; a dream fakebook where instruments are conduits as much as they are tools. Each album is precedented in its conception only in that you are not sure what might come next, while also knowing that it exists on its own terms, no questions asked.  

Even in Shellac’s more bizarre compositions — the 12+-minute album opener “Didn’t We Deserve a Look at You The Way You Really Are,” which repeats a two-note bass line throughout the majority of the track, or the continuously time-shifting “New Number Order,” whose lyrics suggest an alternate arrangement of the counting system “to make things in-ter-est-ing” — evoke a prowess that seems to be found nowhere but in their minutes, making the music as a substance feel sincere to the point of malformation, like a child’s mind, or as in dreaming. Around these stranger pieces, the larger album absorbs its strangeness, seeming in a way to hold a flesh, a vibrant quality to the construction as a whole; one of those albums, in other words, that can only be defined by its own name.

The result, throughout all of Albini’s work, is something, to me, more punk than what punk turned into. Or to put it another way, Albini’s is an ongoing force we as a culture seem to only have less and less of in a continuously digitizing era, one so suffused with ego that we often can’t see the work for all the other frames around it. Albini maintains a viewpoint that seems more vitally contemporary the older it gets, and therein the rarer. In a world where posture and fashion seem to have overridden everything, fashion no longer seems to have a voice; nor does a song seem to have words, still, at least none that can be remembered long enough to stick. Instead, there is a person as a point of access; an idea of freedom of expression more so than any specific lyric or riff could want to ask; a freedom, instead, that begets further outlet in its wake, in a way that reminds me of cult author Dennis Cooper’s overlying aesthetic outlook: “As soon as you get some power, spread it around.”

For those in Atlanta, the latest spreading of such power now has a date; as on Friday, October 28, when Shellac will perform with local legend Shannon Wright at Mammal Gallery at 8 p.m. I can promise, if nothing else, it will be something you won’t likely soon forget.

 

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