We’ve Got A File On You: Steve Albini

Daniel Bergeron

We’ve Got A File On You: Steve Albini

Daniel Bergeron

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Steve Albini doesn’t need an introduction, he needs an index.

The independent rock icon passed away this week at the age of 61, leaving behind an incalculable legacy. As an engineer, his name (and pseudonyms) have graced more than 650 albums. His instantly recognizable sound — open, dry, claustrophobic, brutally honest — serves as the way we collectively understand Nirvana, the Pixies, PJ Harvey, Jesus Lizard, and more. As the irascible, grit-toothed leader of Big Black, Rapeman, and Shellac, he amassed a 40-year discography of lean, abrasive noise-rock classics. As the opinionated, no-holds-barred, tenet-spouting lodestar of DIY ethics, he was a geyser of both wisdom and controversy across zines, alt-weeklies, message boards, and social media.

Before his passing, Shellac were set to release their first album in 10 years, To All Trains. Since 1993, the band had been a reliable source of caustic, minimalist bludgeon over the course of six albums and we couldn’t imagine they were going to fuck this one up. We still haven’t heard a note of it because we didn’t want to find out what happens when you ask Steve Albini for a promo.

This edition of We’ve Got A File On You What started as a celebration of what would surely be another solid Shellac knockout. Hopefully it still stands as an appreciation of some of the fascinating and fun detours Steve Albini got into while not making history.

Big Black’s Bulldozer, Metal Sleeve Edition (1983)

The first 200 copies of the Bulldozer EP came in a handmade metal sleeve. How did you make those?

STEVE ALBINI: Jeff Pezzati, at that time the bass player in Big Black, his dad had a metal fabrication company that did galvanized duct work. So he had access to seaming and forming tools and metal brakes and sheet metal supply and all that sort of stuff. So we just used scrap galvanized metal from that company, and he designed a form that was like a two-piece thing that you could make fairly simply. Then I stenciled them with the Big Black logo. The original idea was that the stencil would be clear and then I would use dilute nitric acid to wipe the galvanizing off around the lettering. And because exposed steel didn’t have galvanizing on it, over time it would corrode and rust and you’d end up with a rusty thing that had the name of the band in relief. But we did a bunch of variations on it while we were doing it. And the nitric acid made a really lovely rust all by itself.

Were they a pain to mail?

ALBINI: No. They were heavier, so the shipping costs was higher. Some distributors and some record stores would buy records from you, but they were really not keen on paying for them. So, our standard practice at Ruthless, which was the collective label that I worked at, was to ship things COD or freight COD at a minimum, meaning if you wanted terms for buying the records, you would at least have to pay for the shipping. So, at various times, I sent boxes of these records to stores and/or distributors knowing that it was going to be like pulling teeth to get paid for them. And they just refused them because there was a COD tag for the freight, and the freight was more than they expected because the records were heavy. So for want of paying a $12 shipping charge, they passed on having maybe five grand worth of records in their hands given the way the prices of these things escalated almost immediately.

The Army’s What Happened to Your Hand? (recorded 1986, released 2012)

ALBINI: The Army was an excuse for me and Jay Tiller [of Couch Flambeau] to play together. Big Black had broken up. I wasn’t in a band at the time, and he and I wanted to play music together, so we just improvised some songs one afternoon and recorded ’em the next afternoon. And then that tape sat around unused for a really long time.

[Members of the Electrical Audio Forum] have an annual summer barbecue where a bunch of bands play and there’s a big hangout and there’s a bunch of free food. And one of the things that they do is they have these giveaway bags at these events. Bands that are playing, or like- minded bands, just provide a bunch of records or tapes or whatever they want to give away. And I thought it would be cool to press up the Army record and give it away at the barbecue [in 2012]. The guys that were running the barbecue that year, they handled all the details. I didn’t have to do anything. I just gave them the tape and the photo that Jay and I had taken. … Now that I think about it, there might only have been one song with lyrics and that was about getting high with Nipsey Russell and talking about Paul Lynde.

Did you actually get high with Nipsey Russell?

No, but it was pretty easy to imagine what it would be like getting high with Nipsey Russell, talking about Paul Lynde.

The Breeders’ Pod (1990)

ALBINI: It was kind of a fuck-band at the time. I don’t know that Kim [Deal] was thinking that it was going to be her vehicle. I think she just had these songs and she had these people that she was playing with for the moment and she wanted to do a session. I don’t know if she thought of it as a backup plan for if she quit the Pixies. We never really talked about it.

Kim had asked me if I knew any drummers, and I recommended Britt [Walford]. Britt is a weirdo, but he’s a really accomplished drummer. And I thought he had a really distinctive style. Britt had a mischievous streak, he was quite young still. And so I think there was an element of prankster wisdom in his participation in that band that manifested in a couple of odd ways. Like, he didn’t want to be listed by name. He didn’t want to be associated with the band because he didn’t want it to overshadow his band, Slint. So he was listed on the record as “Shannon Doughton,” which was an assumed name that was not gender specific. During the making of the record, he was pretty lighthearted the whole time. At one point, you can hear him asking Josephine [Wiggs] if she’s losing her hair on the original master recordings. And then you can hear Josephine respond, she has this very proper voice. “You’ve asked me that before. The answer is still no.”

Fred Schnieder’s Just Fred (1996)

ALBINI: Fred is a one-off. There’s nobody on earth like Fred Schneider other than Fred Schneider, and he wakes up every morning and he goes and spends his whole day as Fred Schneider, and it’s incredible hanging out with him. Fred Schneider is part of this big, very productive group, the B-52’s, where they’re generating a lot of money for the people that are sort of affiliated with them — their production people, record company, management people. During a period when they were cranking out hit records, they extended their contract, and one of the concessions that Fred got was he wanted to be able to do a solo album. So they agreed to let him do these solo records… but they did not want him to do solo records. They agreed on paper… but they did not want him to do them. So they did everything they could to try to discourage him from doing this solo record.

It was like pulling teeth to get the people who were responsible for his records to actually even fucking manufacture the record. So he enlisted my help in finding musicians. So many of my generation of underground musicians just absolutely worshipped Fred Schneider. Everybody just leapt at the opportunity. There was a long list of prospective names for the backing band, and Deadly Cupcake was not unanimous, but the near-unanimous choice. And that was Russell Simins from the Blues Explosion, Rick Didjit from the Didjits, and Tom Zaluckyj from the band Tar. Everybody that I approached about doing it immediately said yes, and then they also really fucking delivered. They really committed to the project. I thought it was great. I really enjoyed it.

[Schneider] was involved with the big record label, and that big record label was not going to cooperate with him having any kind of serious solo ambitions. So when they did a tour to support this record, they were playing all these 400-capacity punk clubs, traveling in a van. It was like Fred Schneider in a garage band. It was kind of incredible.

Cheap Trick’s In Color Re-Recording Session (ca. 1997)

ALBINI: I’m a longstanding Cheap Trick fan. My first interaction with them was when I was a teenager.

They were coming to Missoula, and there was only one hotel in town that was big enough to host a touring rock band. So I called that hotel and I said, “Hey, I’d like to leave a message for Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick.” And the guy said, “We don’t have anyone here registered by that name.” And I’m like, “Okay, let me leave a message for Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, and if he registers there, you can give him this message.” And I left at their hotel that there was a guitar shop in town that had an interesting old guitar, ’cause I knew he collected guitars. There was a ’57 Stratocaster at a guitar shop in town, but someone had sprayed over the body with black auto primer. So it was a very rare collectible guitar that had been abused. And so it wasn’t being sold for collectors’ prices. I left my sister’s phone number ’cause I was planning to get really high at the show and crash at my sister’s place rather than come home. And I succeeded in all of those areas.

The phone rang at my sister’s place at four in the morning and I answered it, And it was Rick Nielsen. So I told him about this guitar shop. … I later found out that their tour bus pulled up to this guitar shop and he bolted off the bus into the store, grabbed the guitar off the wall, gave the guy 500 bucks or something, and walked out the door with it. The whole transaction was done in like 30 seconds, so he ended up buying that guitar from that shop based on that tip of mine. It made me feel good. I mentioned that to him when I met up with him prior to doing this session. I mentioned that whole exchange, and he had absolutely no recollection of it whatsoever. [Laughs.]

There was an entire album that was recorded and then scrapped. They were going through a change of record label, change of management. There was a stint in rehab. A whole bunch of things happened and they scrapped that entire album that we did — and, being fair, it wouldn’t have been a highlight of their career. That was after we had done the In Color remake [of their 1977 sophomore album]. Now, I’ve never confirmed any of this with the band, but my intuition based on what was going on around the band at the time was that they were in the middle of extricating themselves from a managerial relationship and also from a record label relationship. And that album, the In Color album, had most of their hit titles on it. And so by remaking that album, they created a version of it that they owned entirely and that then they could use, they could license and keep all the money from. And that was a tactic that was later used by Taylor Swift and other people. They were pretty early and pretty on the ball doing that.

That seemed like such a crazy idea. And it almost seemed like a kind of a tacit admission that their later material wasn’t as good. I thought it was a bad idea, and I said, so. Then from the minute they started, I just could not have enjoyed myself more sitting there listening to it, and I’m so glad they did it. If you’ve ever seen them play live, that’s what they sound like. They’re an energetic hard rock band, and their studio record version didn’t, didn’t really bring that across that much.

The Stooges’ The Weirdness (2007)

ALBINI: One of the supreme joys of my job is that I get to meet people who are heroes of mine and just get to revel in their company. I got to hang out with Iggy Pop for a month, and it was fucking awesome. It was exactly like, “What would you like Iggy Pop to be like?” “Well, for a start: shirtless. And then incredibly bawdy and dancing and clapping nonstop.” “Oh, yeah, okay, no problem. That’s what you’ll get. We’ll send one of those.”

He would show up wearing a shirt. The shirt would come off, they would get started. He would rock all day, dancing and clapping and motivating everybody, and then just devour a plate of tamales for lunch, get a nice bottle of red wine for the evening, and then retreat to luxury accommodations. It was an amazing experience hanging out with the Stooges and specifically Iggy. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

All Tomorrow’s Parties Card Games Room (2008-2010)

When they had the ATP festivals at Kutsher’s in the Catskills, you were always hosting poker games late into the night with the fans. How were fans as players?

ALBINI: I mean, that was a social poker game. It was nobody’s bread-and-butter game. Nobody was going to make a living in a game like that. It was like a kitchen table poker game. There were a few decent players, like a few people who knew what they were doing, but a lot of people who’d never played before and people were just learning and wanted to hang out and have a good time. It’s part of my livelihood, but a social version of a poker game is way more fun than a cutthroat, deadly serious version of a poker game.

Guesting On Delocated (2009)

You have one line in an episode of Delocated. How did you end up with that gig?

ALBINI: Man, I genuinely don’t remember. Kevin Dorff was on that show, and I’ve known Kevin Dorff for a long time through Second City, so it’s reasonably possible that he contacted me. Their production company was really sort of self-contained. They didn’t have to go through brass at a network or whatever to make that show. They sent me a release to sign. And just as a small protest against the formalization of all of our relationships, I don’t sign things. Like if you were going to do a video podcast and you wanted me to sign a release for your video podcast, I’m happy to do your video podcast, but I’m not going to sign anything. I’m not going to legally bind myself to you in any way, right? And so they sent me this release and I just never signed it. And right before the thing was going to get added to the series, they were like, “Hey, you never signed your release.”

“Yeah, I don’t sign those.”

“Uhhhhh. What do you mean?”

“Yeah, I don’t sign things. I think it’s ridiculous that we formalize all of our relationships. I don’t know what you’re worried about, why you would need me to sign that. I’m not going to sue you.”

“Hey, yeah, it’s just a formality. It’s no big deal.”

“OK, well, if it’s no big deal, then fucking skip it.”

“No, no, no, no, no, no. It’s an incredibly big deal.”

“Oh, well, if it’s an incredibly big deal, then I better get my lawyer to go over it with a fine-tooth comb and we’ll come up with a counter proposal to something that suits us. And I hope you’re prepared to pay for my lawyer’s time. I have a very good lawyer. He’s very expensive.” [Laughs.]

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no. It’s simultaneously not a big deal, and also a very big deal.”

And I said, “You know, no one is ever going to look at this thing. Can you just tell them that you got one?”

And he was like, “Oh, yeah, I could just say that we got it. .. That’s a lot easier. Okay, never mind.”

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