Two years ago, on the 20th of November, 2016, I interviewed one of my heroes – Steve Albini, famed and infamous recording engineer known for his work with the Pixies, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, the Jesus Lizard, mclusky, Slint, the Breeders, etc. (and that’s one hell of an etc.), as well as for his own music in Big Black, Shellac. and another band with a very naughty name. I was scouting around for ideas for a university project I was working on, and I ended up emailing and messaging a whole bunch of people in the slight hope of scoring an interview. Among other, I messaged Sean Bonnette from Andrew Jackson Jihad, Ian MacKaye of Dischord Records (plus Minor Threat, Fugazi, The Evens, etc.), and British rock band Savages. Of all of the people I contacted, I least of all expected Steve Albini to get back to me with his direct email and phone number. But hey, it happened, and we organised a day to speak. Then… it actually happened. He gave me an hour of his time, through which I nervously stumbled through ill-conceived questions and occasional bouts of fanboying (2021 update: make that fangirling). He was kind, curt, considerate, clever and cool as fuck. With his permission, I now publish the contents of that interview, slightly edited for clarity, here.
Punk, the Internet, and Ballroom Dancing: The Steve Albini Interview
Artoria: What does the term ‘punk’ mean to you? Do you just think it’s like a musical style, or is it something more than that?
Steve Albini: When I became aware of punk it had no specific style associated with it, all the music was rock music and aggressive, or if not aggressive, at least kind of unschooled. But there were many, many different individual styles of music that bands were playing, and one of the things that particularly invigorated me was that every band had their own quite distinct style and voice and presentation and subject matter. And I felt like it was an almost boundless concept that, you know, people who were enthusiasts were making music without being ordained by an existing music power structure, and I thought that was incredibly liberating and exciting. So when I think of punk music I think of the moment when I became aware of punk, and when I realised what punk was about, and how that changed everything—it changed my perspective on the whole rest of the world.
A friend of mine described as like a really brilliant flash that was over very quickly—its initial inspirational moment was over very quickly—but the flash was really so brilliant that it burned long shadows into everything, and that’s the way I feel about it as well. If you saw that initial explosion of punk creativity, you couldn’t help but be dazzled by it, and then you couldn’t help but have your mind blown and your perspective on the rest of the world changed, and I may not have been there for the very nascent beginnings of it, but I was definitely warmed by that initial explosion, and if definitely changed my worldview, and I was definitely in awe of all of the things that were illuminated by that initial brilliant flash.
AJ: So you think it’s because of that initial flash, that it’s something that is just going to continue?
SA: Well, like I say, I see punk as a thing that happened, and it was a moment in time, a very brief period of extraordinary creativity that changed everyone’s perspective, and that happened a long time ago—people are still being influenced by it, but I think it would be a mistake to say that ‘punk’ as an identity—now—means as much as it did when the idea itself was new. In fact now I’m slightly suspicious of people who have adopted the term ‘punk’ because they tend to apply it to things that are antithetical, like you hear about somebody being a ‘punk rock stockbroker’ or the ‘punk rock lawyer’ or something like that—that sort of thing, and I find that to be depressing in the extreme, that something that was uniquely a counterculture identity has been normalised to the extent that it is an adjective to describing a style. And I have to admit that the music that is described as ‘punk music’ now—a lot of it seems formulaic and reiterative. The fundamental idea of punk rock was that you didn’t have to have your music sound like anybody else’s music, and that to me was the liberating aspect of punk rock, and that seems to be the part that people are most willing to discard in contemporary interpretations of the idea.
AJ: How do you think this whole idea of ‘punk’—usually when it’s being labelled as music—has changed since the turn of the millennium, up to the modern day? Obviously there was the huge ‘pop punk’ explosion, but that finally kind of died down towards the end of the 2000s, and a lot of bands now seem to be smaller.
SA: Yeah, I have to admit I remained blissfully ignorant to most of that, like my musical interests don’t coincide with that of people who were just discovering music in their formative years, and so when something that seems kind of transparently phony comes along, it’s meant for an audience that doesn’t have a perspective to dislike it, and I had a perspective to dislike it—I couldn’t help but dislike that music because it seemed like such a cheap simulacrum of some of the music that was an original statement. I was around when the Buzzcocks, the Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, the Ramones and the Dead Boys were making music of that order—music of that sort of form—and I experienced that I got what I could out of it and I learned from it, and then they moved on and I moved on, so I’m not particularly moved by a slightly dumber rendering of the same form. I mean I like to be charitable and I like to give people credit for finding parallel paths to a good idea, but just as a music fan, as a listener, that stuff left me completely cold. So I had gotten off of the train of formulaic punk music long before then, so what happened to it after that I really don’t know.
AJ: You’ve recorded quite a lot of modern bands, you’re obviously still very active as a recording engineer—have you heard any bands lately that you think are like, not necessarily ‘carrying the torch’ to say, but coming from a similar mindset of doing something that’s completely different and new?
SA: Yeah—I mean, there is a very vibrant underground scene, and some people sort of stumble onto some similar themes and ideas, and I like to give them credit for having thought it up on their own, and some of these people are well-informed so aren’t doing it out of ignorance. There’s a band from Chicago called Fake Limbs, and I think they’re a terrific band and you would casually describe them as a punk band—there’s a band from Athens, Georgia called Motherfucker, who I think are an amazing band, a super fantastic driving and very distinctive rock band, and casually might describe them as a punk band as well. There was a kind of a hardcore band called G.L.O.S.S., Girls Living Outside of Society’s Shit, and all the stuff I heard from them was just ferocious, really invigorating to listen to, really ferocious and really ripping music, and much, much, much, much better than all of the bands they were compared to.
AJ: Yeah, they’re definitely making some waves at the moment, I’ve seen them around quite a lot—refusing Epitaph and stuff—
SA: They’ve broken up.
AJ: Oh, they’ve broken up now?
SA: Yeah, they broke up, they released this statement about sort of like, they were getting more attention than they could handle for the state they were in.
AJ: Well, they got that Epitaph offer, didn’t they?
SA: Yeah, I mean Epitaph could be considered one of the venues for the normalisation of punk that we were discussing previously, that kind of turned my stomach. So I don’t know how flattering it is to have that sort of vehicle approach you, but at very least it’s a sign that everyone, even people who aren’t necessarily the target audience, recognised how good they were.
AJ: Do you think that the audience for what can casually be referred to as punk music has changed since the dawn of the Internet—do you think that the Internet has opened up new audiences?
SA: Oh sure, yeah, one of the biggest things is that places where in the ‘70s and ‘80s there was essentially no punk scene—a lot emerging economies and countries that were cut off by language, now that those people are connected by the Internet, you see punk bands from those parts of the world can now find an audience, and they can find like-minded people even if they’re in different countries. We just had a band here in the studio (Albini’s recording studio Electrical Audio) from Honduras—Honduras is an incredibly poor economy, and it was all they could do to scrape together their lempiras (the currency of Honduras) to come here and make a record—and so I was really charmed by them, and their music seems to be an amalgam of all the different styles of music that have been identified as punk over the last thirty years. So yeah, I found that to be incredibly charming and I’m very glad I got a chance to meet them.
AJ: You did that Keynote address in 2014, where you said that the Internet has “solved the problem with music.” Do you think that this is going to stay like this for a while yet?
SA: Well, it’s very difficult to put genies back in the bottle in the internet era—it’s very difficult to make things that are available unavailable. There’s a possibility with a massive security crackdown that it could be done, but it would require a complete reinvention of the security state on an electronic level, and I think it would be difficult to implement worldwide, so even if it transpired in the U.S., it would not take over everywhere, and then it would be pretty easy to work around if activists wanted to, and they will want to. (laughs) So I think from a practical standpoint, the availability of music is going to remain quite high on the Internet, and I think that enthusiasts and fans are going to be able to find things that they like, and people that make music are going to be able to get it out to an audience. Now, I don’t know how much commerce is going to be involved in that, how much business is going to transact, but people will definitely be able to make music and get it out to an audience.
AJ: Yeah, I mean one of the things you said in the speech was—you were addressing that particular quote—“We need to figure out how to make internet distribution work for everyone”—the idea that these people who were part of the old industry want to gain control over it again. Do you think that they really have a chance with that?
SA: Like I said, it will require intervention on the part of governments into the very backbone of the structure of the Internet. Now, if you change the way the Internet works, so that the internet providers are allowed to know everything that you’re doing on your computer at home, they’re allowed to know every bit of information that crosses your desk, then you could oblige those internet service providers to prevent you from doing or sharing certain things, so it is possible that it could be parented, but at the moment the structure of the Internet allows for people to share things with each other, and I don’t see how that’s going to change.
AJ: I’ve spoken to a few other people about like what they think about how the Internet is affecting music, and generally it’s pretty positive—but this recurring thing is the idea of oversaturation, the idea that there’s so much of it out there that it’s hard to get noticed—do you agree with that, do you think there’s anything that can be done about that, or is that just the kind of thing you have to accept?
SA: I’ve heard that same argument every time there’s been a ground swell of interest in activity in music, I’ve heard that same argument from people, you know like, “oh yeah there’s no space to put flyers up anymore, there’s so many bands, and they’re covered all the phone poles”—you know? (laughs) It’s a familiar argument and I think it’s specious. There’s always room at the top, for a start—that is, if there’s a truly great band that resonates with people, they will find an audience, now that may take some time, and it might require more than one attempt on the part of the band, but the nice thing about the Internet is that it provides for saturation. Once something gets a ground swell of popularity, like once one of those adorable cat videos becomes somewhat popular, it becomes ubiquitous-popular. So I don’t think that there’s a problem with their being ‘too much’ interesting music to listen to. That doesn’t sound like a problem.
AJ: So you see that this whole situation with the Internet as quite positive for what can be called ‘punk’ music?
SA: Oh yeah, if you assume some fundamental things about punk music, meaning that if you assume that it is an inspiration for art forms of the working class and the underclass, then the Internet is great because it doesn’t require any money to gain access, you can shoot a video on your telephone and post it to a bulletin board, or a message board, or a website, or YouTube, and then in a matter of hours it can be spread around the world. So if you become adept at using the free tools that are available to you, then the economics of it are quite viable. You don’t need to make a lot of money to cover the costs of the show if that show has had no booking costs, and no costs of acquisition, if you don’t have to pay a manager to find you a venue, and you don’t have to advertise your show, if it doesn’t cost you anything to advertise your show and it doesn’t cost you anything to print tickets and anything like that—the economics of it can actually work in the favour of anyone who takes advantage of it.
So, I think the developments of the Internet have been great for working bands, and great for people of little means. What they’ve been bad for is the structured industry that exists to make a profit from transactions, because there aren’t as many transactions now. People aren’t buying physical objects as much. The good thing is that when they do buy a physical object, like a record or a cassette or a CD or a t-shirt, typically now they’re buying it directly from the band, so the band keeps all of the money, and that’s much, much more efficient as an operation than having to go through a retail outlet, and a wholesale outlet, and a manufacturer, and a record label, which then apportions shares of the profit toward recoupable expenses, and then eventually some of the money trickles down to the band.
AJ: So it’s pretty much one of the best periods that has ever existed for independent music, really?
SA: As far as I’m concerned, yeah. If I had to choose between being in an underground independent band now, or being in an underground independent band in the 1970s, now is way easier.
AJ: So lastly, I was wondering if you had any advice yourself for any aspiring bands, or anyone who might be a bit anxious about whether to do it or not, and if it’s viable?
SA: The important thing is that you can do it regardless, you don’t need to make it your career in order to do it, I’ve been in bands since I was seventeen—or sixteen—I’ve been in bands now for about thirty-eight years, and at no point in that stretch did I ever consider being in a band my career. I’ve always had some kind of a job, as a livelihood. But because being in a band was important to me, I’ve been able to maintain it for all of that period, and it has given me incredible experiences. And, you know, once it became viable it did become a reasonable second income. But it’s never been my livelihood. So if you think of playing music as something, like ice skating, or playing chess, or ballroom dancing, or something like that, you get something out of it just by doing it.
But there are very, very, very few people who get to make a living doing nothing else, so you have to appreciate the place of music in society—and that place for music is much closer to something like ballroom dancing, or figure skating, or playing chess—it’s much closer to something like that than it is to being a plumber, or being an architect, or a pharmacist. People die without medicine, people freeze to death without homes, people shit in the streets without plumbing, right? Nothing bad happens to them without music, so society is never going to value music the way it values things that make society function normally.
In the general sense, there is always going to be some interest and some support for the arts in general, and music will be a fraction of that, but the important thing about being in a band is that it’s fucking awesome, you know? It’s a fantastic thing that you get to do. So you should do it because it’s awesome, and because it’s an incredibly satisfying thing to do, and occasionally there will be periods where you’ll be able to make it pay for itself or turn a profit—but you can do it forever. I expect myself to be playing music my whole life.