“I’m not ashamed to say I would not have done a lot of the things that I did then, in the way that I did them, as of now.”
Before setting off to ArcTanGent, Shellac agreed to let us interview them, asking us to message them on the day to arrange a time. Unfortunately, the whole weekend we had no phone signal, data or wi-fi to get hold of anyone. So on Saturday we had to frequently pop back to the press tent to see if they were about. We did this hourly throughout the day, and by the time it got to 8pm we still hadn’t got hold of them. Interviewer Frenchie thought he’d give it one last try, as it was getting close to their set time. Lo and behold they were there and agreed to let him come chill with them in the back room!
I sat down on a couch with the band members and their touring sound engineer, nicknamed Z. Opposite from us, Amalie Bruun, AKA Myrkur, was sat on a table brushing her golden hair… Suddenly I was thrust into the presence of greatness!
Bob [Weston, Bass and vocals]: Frenchy from Grease?
Yes there is a Frenchy in Grease, spelt with a “Y” though…
Steve [Albini, guitar and vocals]: Oh, I thought he was saying you were from Greece!
No, the musical!
Steve: Sorry! I’m unfamiliar. My wife is a big fan of the film version of Grease, I don’t know if there was a Broadway play earlier…
Bob: Yeah there was, and it was set in Chicago!
Steve: I believe you! My wife Heather is a big fan, but I’m completely unfamiliar!
So anyway… Does Shellac have any new material in the works?
Steve: Eventually! I am certain there is going to be a new record. We work at a glacial pace. Right now we’ve got half a dozen songs in process. We’ll probably play two or three of them tonight. There are another three to five that are in various states of preparedness. Because our time is spoken for by our regular lives, we get to work on the band infrequently, which means years will go by between take one and take two of a given effort. So it might be another year before we make any substantial progress, but we are working on them the whole time. I don’t want to speak for Bob and Todd [Trainer, drums], but in the back of my mind, I am always boiling over these ideas of things that are in work. So when we get together, each of us have made individual progress on new material, without us necessarily working together.
So you say you have a couple of new songs in the set tonight?
Steve: I mean we improvise the set every night, so I can’t say for certain that will play these songs tonight, but there are three we have been playing a lot, so I suspect that we will play them.
Ah, so you like to keep it spontaneous?
Steve: Yeah, the whole reason we are in the band is that we want to enjoy ourselves playing together…
Bob: [Interrupting] It’s based on Taft High School!
[Steve looks around confused]
Steve: [To Bob] Again, I believe you!
[Steve continues] If you’re doing the same set or a similar set every night it’s dull. So right before we go on stage, we’ll talk about a couple of songs to play at the beginning, and often we’ll also decide on a song we want to end with. But in the middle, there’s a lot of call your shots kind of stuff, where one of us will just shout out a song, and then we’ll play that song.
From a sound engineer’s perspective, how do you find that playing outdoor festival stages compares to playing indoor shows, and do you have any tips for controlling the outdoor sound?
Steve: As a sound mixing engineer, you should talk to Z [Zaneta Ogar, Shellac’s touring live sound mixing engineer], she’s dealt with everything from little tiny rooms with barely a PA, to big outdoor festivals. From an on stage perspective, we are very defensive in our behaviour. We tend to use very similar or identical equipment every night. And our stage setup tends to be nearly identical in terms of our physical distance from each other. Whether we are in a big stage outdoors or a small club indoors. I’m always going to be an arms length from Todd, and I’m going to always acoustically be able to hear Todd playing drums. We don’t rely on monitors on stage to hear our stage sound. So whether we are playing in the basement for rehearsal, or in a studio, or on stage, it tends to be very similar. We’ve done it for so long that we are now quite set in our ways. Because we are physically set up the same, we’re hearing each other the same every night. It doesn’t matter to us whether we are playing in a big outdoor stage or a little tiny club, our physical relationship to each other is always the same.
That is so interesting, not everyone has that luxury I guess…
Steve: I think everyone does have that luxury! What happens is, people have succumbed to the convention of relying on stage monitors, or in some cases in ear monitors, to build a simulacrum of an acoustic sound. When if they just decided not to use monitors at the outset 25 years ago, by now everyone would be as comfortable on stage as we are.
Wow! That’s really fascinating… I’ve always thought of stage monitors as the norm. I’ve never heard of a band choosing not to use them…
Steve: We have a single monitor behind Todd, in the middle of the stage. In that monitor is bass drum and the two vocals. That’s literally it. Every night, everywhere in the word, every environment, we have that setup.
Do you usually bring Z along for every show?
Steve: Z has been doing our live sound for five years now. When we started working with Z, she didn’t have that much experience doing live sounds for bands. But her work ethic is incredible. In advance for every show she gets specs for the PA, reads up on the desk, she has a three-ring binder that has all the specs for every show on every tour. She’s made a point for educating herself, and that kind of homework goes a very long way. She’s also a very quick study, so if a problem comes up she can solve that problem very quickly. For us the luxury was not that we had a super experienced full time pro, but someone who was dedicated to learning from the ground up. We’ve been extremely lucky to work with Z for the past five years. She’s easy to travel with and she puts in more background work than any sound engineer we’ve ever worked with.
Todd: One of my favourite things with travelling with Z is that all of our sound people had travelled relatively extensively. Z had never been out of the [US], and so everything for her is still unbelievable. She brings a youthful enthusiasm and excitement to the band that we’ve never really had.
So Z has become an essential part of Shellac in a way…
Steve: On every trip we always ask the question, are we going to bring Z along, and the answer has always been yes! For the way we operate the band, she has always been a perfect fit.
Shellac have always pushed vinyl, even during the dip in the late ’90s/early ’00s. Are you glad to see that vinyl has now come back as a dominant format?
Steve: I think it was kind of inevitable that once people realised that CDs were more cumbersome than a [digital] playlist, that CDs were going to go away. For people who used CD as a convenience format, the CD was actually less convenient than having nothing at all. So for people that wanted to build a collection of permanent music, the default for that hi-fi listener was going to be vinyl records. A very wise person, John Loder who ran Southern Studios in London [as well as mastering some of Shellac’s own records], told me at the dawn of the CD era in ’86, ’87, something like that… He said we’re going to make a shitload of money off CDs, but then they’ll disappear, but vinyl records will be around long after CDs. And this was in the ’80s when everyone was saying vinyl is doomed. He saw even then that the reason CDs were popular was because you could fit a lot of music on something physically small, but in ten years there would be something the size of a cigarette butt that you could fit all your music on. So, the one thing that CD has going for it is their size and capacity… That’s the thing that’s going to be obsolete. Whereas vinyl records are permanent, durable and beautiful, and those things won’t change. There was a big dip in vinyl sales for a while when CD was the dominant format, but then, when the CD disappears, vinyl records are going to be all that’s left in terms of the physical embodiment of music.
I have a friend who runs a second hand record store, and I said, compared to ten years ago when you first started working in the store, how have your buying characteristics changed? And he said, I’ll buy anything in a jacket!
[we both laugh]
Any vinyl record now has intrinsic value because it has survived and it is a physical embodiment of an expression that isn’t available elsewhere. That is the single most important thing about the analogue domain, it’s permanent. If you have a digital file on your phone and you don’t migrate it to your new phone, it’s gone forever.
Shellac and your previous bands have always had a lot of anger and balls fuelling the music, and a blunt directness. Do you feel that new and emerging bands, especially in the hardcore and punk scene, are still coming through with a lot of anger and controversy, or has the “PC age” softened that?
Steve: Well, first, I think it’s important to note that the persona in a piece of music are not us. The people we are singing about are, in a lot of cases, reprehensible people, and that’s not us. The impulse to sing about dark subjects or to expose aspects of your thought process that may veer into ugly territory, that’s always in relation to the rest of your life. And as the rest of our lives in America, and to a degree the UK, has got more brutish, more hateful and more ugly… As real life imposes those things on you, there is less satisfaction in indulging those dark fantasies. “PC culture”, as you call it, is by and large a good thing. If you substitute for that expression, treating each other decently, as they are synonymous. When someone complains about “PC culture”, they’re talking about a generalised impulse toward civility and treating each other decently. I can’t find any fault in that. Especially when there are so many formal structures being put in place to treat people indecently and inhumanely… I think that as a kind of barometer, having the personal culture of people on a one-to-one basis be more sensitive and more aware of these abuses and offences, is categorically a good thing. If that means that you can’t tell racist jokes without people criticising you… I mean you can still tell racist jokes, but you have to put up with other people calling you out on it. I don’t see that as being any kind of a problem. I think that is absolutely warranted as part of a discourse. If nothing else, it gives people an opportunity to interrogate their own thinking, about what they’re saying. So you can still say anything you want to say, but you now have a reason to ask yourself why you’re saying it, and what the effect of what you’re saying is meant to be. What is the intention behind that, are you trying to humiliate someone, belittle someone, are you trying to reinforce an existing power structure, or are you genuinely trying to make a unique point? I think there is room to make genuinely unique points, whilst still being conscious of the fact that some people just default to a base inhumanity that should be called out.
Even though we are in more of a “PC culture”, things aren’t as shocking any more. At the time when you released ‘Songs About Fucking’ [Big Black, 1987] and Rapeman , that was very controversial. But if you were to release albums with those titles today, it would go under the watershed a lot easier…
Steve: Yeah… I don’t think there is value in shock for it’s own sake. The point of pushing the boundaries is to give everyone a wider vocabulary… A wider kin for their acceptable experience and frame of mind. When it widens, it will of necessity include things that you should and will find abhorrent. But those were things that you hadn’t considered previously. I think the widening is a good thing that doesn’t absolve you of being responsible for what you are now accepting as part of discourse. It doesn’t absolve you of taking a position and saying I’m not this and I don’t approve of this. Previously, there are countless examples in culture and society… People have known that priests molested children for a very long time, it just wasn’t discussed. Now it comes out into the open on occasion, and there are people who would prefer we didn’t talk about it under the guise of modesty or decency. I think it’s important that the scope of discussion includes those things. That doesn’t negate the obligation to have a perspective on them just by saying, now we need to talk about this.
Baring in mind that when I was expressing myself in these earlier bands with this sort of patently offensive material, I was still forming these ideas in my own mind. I was still coming to grips with my own impulses towards them. Now 30 years down the pipe, I have a better understanding of what I was thinking about at the time. I have a better means of articulating those ideas, and I have some reservations about how I conducted myself during that period. All of that is a result of the initial effort to talk about a broader range of subjects, to incorporate a larger vocabulary. I’m not ashamed to say I would not have done a lot of the things that I did then, in the way that I did them, as of now. Because the whole of society has evolved, and a lot of it has evolved in ways where a canonical position from then would not survive now. And a critical perspective from then would not be appropriate now. All of that transgressive impulse was a worthwhile method to get into discussions that have caused our society and culture to evolve into the conversations we are having now, about acceptance, equality and fairness. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have in order to get to a point where we can speak frankly about all of this.
Do you listen to Death Grips?
Steve: I know who you are talking about…
Todd: Oh, we played straight after Death Grips in Barcelona.
Bob: Do you know [mouths something silently to Steve], they did a record together!
I think they are the truest embodiment of the spirit of punk today. Not necessarily in terms of their music, as that is more electronic, industrial, hip-hop, but in terms of attitude. They signed a major deal with Sony and then got dropped for leaking their own albums. They announced a major tour with Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails just to break up as it started, and then get back together after. Their whole attitude towards their music and their art is just punk as fuck…
Todd: They were cool guys.
Bob: Now I wanna hear some Death Grips!
Steve: The thing about punk is it was a historical moment. It happened at a certain point and it’s never going to happen again, same with rock’n’roll.
Todd: The original wave of rock’n’roll… You’re not gonna reproduce that! There is only one Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, whatever!
Steve: I think the thing with punk music is that it was in relation to what had happened until that point. Once punk made a break with the traditions and norms of rock music, and said all bets are off, you can do whatever you like. You only need that to happen once. Sure, boredom reasserts itself and things become mundane again, but I don’t think that you can repeat, or that it is even valid to repeat that concept. It’s like, we had a civil war, we don’t need to relive that. Punk rock was the death of the norms of rock music. And everything that has happened since then has been, one way or another, related to that death of norms. And as new norms establish themselves, they’re always viewed in this context of, you don’t have to do that. You’ve chosen to be boring!
What new bands would you say completely embody the spirit of punk?
Steve: There are contemporary bands that I like. I’m a big fan of Ty Segall, I think he’s terrific and very energetic. I love the Sleaford Mods, they have this ranting persona which is uniquely British. Every few generations there’s another shouting complainer!
[We are told to wrap it up so that Shellac can start setting up for their headlining performance]
One last quick question.. The band Boss Keloid who also played ATG asked me to ask you… Howcome you wear your guitar with your strap wrapped around your waist?
Bob: [stepping in] It’s the best way to do it!
Do you do it?
Steve: If you wear it around your neck, your neck hurts and you have all this weight on your neck. You also have to physically restrain the guitar from flopping round. When it’s strapped to you, then it’s always in position wherever you turn and you don’t have as much weight on you.
Interview conducted by Chris “Frenchie” French.
Photo credits: Ian Percival @trashmonkeypics
‘Dude Incredible’ is out now on Touch & Go.
Early bird tickets for ArcTanGent 2019 are on sale now!