Shellac: “AC/DC kick the shit out of The Rolling Stones”
“Who wants to see a band that’s trying to sound like Shellac open up for Shellac?” TREVOR BLOCK interviews the crankiest men in rock. Photo by ABBEY BRADEN.
Since forming in 1992, Shellac have become renowned as much for their clear-eyed independent outlook as for the often harsh minimalist rock music found on albums like 1000 Hurts and Excellent Italian Greyhound.
Two members – Bob Weston and Steve Albini – are both separately involved in music production. Bob runs a mastering service called (appropriately enough) Chicago Mastering Service, and Steve does production work at Electrical Audio, the studio he owns, which is also based in Chicago. His credits include PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me, The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, The Stooges’ The Weirdness and, most famously, Nirvana’s In Utero. He also has a long-standing connection with Australia, working on records by the likes of The Dirty Three, The Mark of Cain, My Disco and Crow. Meanwhile, drummer Todd Trainer is based in Minneapolis, and has a sporadic solo recording project called Brick Layer Cake.
Shellac haven’t visited Australia since a legendary trip back in 1993 that saw them share bills with Washington DC’s Fugazi. They’re playing the first of two sold-out shows at The Hi-Fi tonight (October 19) as part of Melbourne Festival, before continuing on to Hobart, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Sydney next week.
I spoke to all three members separately via email about and an Italian greyhound named Uffizi, curating ATP and why AC/DC kicks the shit out of The Rolling Stones.
Where are you as we do this: home, office, internet cafe?
Todd Trainer: At the moment I’m at home, which is where I feel most at home.
Bob Weston: In the control room at Chicago Mastering Service.
Steve Albini: I’m on the couch watching the first game of the San Francisco Giants vs Cincinnati Reds [baseball], which I recorded earlier. I have no dog in this fight really, and I like both the Giants and the city of San Francisco, but the Reds have played lights-out this year, and when I was a kid the “Big Red Machine” was my favourite team. Johnny Bench was my hero, and it would be cool to see them play the Nationals in the LCS [League Championship Series].
Any reason it has been so long since the last tour here?
Todd: Well, in the meantime we’ve been to nearly 40 other countries which took us quite awhile.
Bob: A few main reasons. We don’t tour often; getting to and from Australia requires a hell of a long uncomfortable flight; getting from city to city requires super long drives or dealing with the hell of air travel daily; and the massive expense of all the travel, internationally and domestically.
“When a band starts to worry about what other people think, that band is doomed.”
Steve, you’ve been to Australia a couple of times now. Any favourite memories, or gigs?
Steve: I built Electrical Audio, the recording studio where I live and work, using mud bricks from the southwest of the US called “adobe”. I got the idea from seeing the Adelaide studio Mixmasters under construction. It seemed like a perfect acoustic material and has proven its worth over the last 17 years. That and seeing the Dog on the Tucker Box memorial [in Gundagai, NSW].
Is it true you will not talk about the digital set up at Electrical Audio?
Steve: I’ve been told we have a very nice Pro Tools rig, but I only use the tape machines so I have to take everybody at their word. I don’t think less of people who use digital techniques, they’re just not for me, and I can’t speak with any intelligence about them.
Todd, do you ever get sick of being asked about [your greyhound] Uffizi? And how is he by the way?
Todd: No I don’t get sick of being asked about Uffizi. He’s adorable, cute, charming, funny, completely spectacular and a total terror. He’s Uffizi, the excellent Italian greyhound, and he’s well, especially considering he’s 13 years old.
How does it feel that your band pic is at the top of the [Melbourne Festival] poster that’s all over Melbourne?
Todd: In a sense it’s flattering, although I’m not sure what sense that is.
Steve: We’re normally pretty modest and don’t put pictures of ourselves on things, but it seems like a normal thing to do, put a picture on a flyer. Am I missing something?
What can people expect at the shows? Old stuff? New stuff? A random mix?
Todd: It will most certainly be a random mix of stuff old and new. We don’t write or use a setlist, however, we do enjoy playing a bit of everything spanning the history of the band.
Bob: A random mix. We pick the songs we’re going to play as we go each night, so we’re never sure what we’ll be playing. We’re also playing a bunch of new songs regularly that haven’t yet been released.
Steve: We improvise the sets every night so there’s no telling precisely, but we play songs from the whole length of our existence. We have about seven or eight newer songs not yet on any records we’ve been playing lately, so probably at least a couple of them.
Word is the band handpicked the supports. I know Bob has worked with Blacklevel Embassy, and Steve has worked with My Disco. Wondering if you had any thoughts to share about why they were chosen, over and above that personal contact? What’s the Pikelet connection?
Todd: We always pick our supports. It’s true Bob and Steve had worked with those bands and enjoyed their music so they were obvious choices. We chose Pikelet because we usually attempt to avoid all male rock band bills. We’re an all-male rock band and we play long sets so when we play with other rock bands it can make for an excruciating evening. We have no Pikelet connection. We all sat down and listened to everything that was recommend to us from various different sources and agreed that if we wanted some diversity, something unique and interesting and something other than a typical rock band the perfect choice would be Pikelet.
Bob: When we can, we always want to play with bands that are friends of ours. So that we enjoy the show and the entire experience. We also try to introduce bands that we like to people that may not have heard them before. We didn’t know anybody in some of the cities and so asked for some recommendations. Pikelet blew away the competition. And also, who wants to see a band that’s trying to sound like Shellac open up for Shellac? Boring.
Are you looking forward to the obligatory trip to the zoo to admire local fauna?
Todd: It would be wonderful to take a trip to the zoo to admire the local fauna providing that we have time for it. Our schedule is tight on this trip which won’t allow for a lot of extracurricular activities. Hopefully we’ll have time for an Australian zoo. If not, I’m afraid Australia itself will have to do.
Bob: No. Should I be?
I don’t want to revisit the Amanda Palmer thing, Steve, but you said something very interesting during the to and fro: “I value self-sufficiency and independence, even (or especially) from an audience.” It’s the “especially” that really gets me- can you expand on this a bit?
Steve: When a band starts to worry about what other people think, that band is doomed. It’s impossible to predict other peoples’ responses, and also they shouldn’t matter. People make their best music – the music most revealing of their creative impulse – when they are pursuing their unique mania with a wilful disregard of outside opinion. In short, the band gets to decide what to do and how to do it, and fuck other people. Other people aren’t in the band. If they really cared, they’d be there for rehearsal and help load shit in the van.
“It would actually be exciting to vote for Alice Cooper.”
Steve: The Big Black Tour Diary was a lark, and nobody including me or the guys who first printed it [Forced Exposure magazine] thought much of it at the time. I guess as a snapshot of the kind of loudmouth I was at the time it has value. The “Problem with Music” essay was intended to be a warning to my peers in the music scene during a period in the ‘90s when the mainstream music industry was poaching bands off of independent labels with regularity. I wanted to demonstrate that it wasn’t necessarily in a band’s best interest to get involved with a monolithic industry that had no respect for them.
The industry has changed pretty dramatically since then, and virtually all the figures are out of date but the principle argument, that the mainstream of the old-school showbusiness record industry is not operated for the benefit of the bands, holds up. Thankfully there isn’t much of that record industry left, so bands are almost forced to work in a more independent way, which means they are more efficient by default.
Do you have any deep thoughts on turning 50 earlier this year?
Steve: I need bifocals now but my cock still works. Still have my hearing, all my teeth and all my hair. I take the occasional nap. Can’t complain.
Do you follow politics, or will you be glad to be out of the US for a few weeks and avoid some of the Obama/Romney thing?
Todd: I do not follow politics. I pay a little bit of attention and exercise my right to vote, however, I will admit that more often than not it feels like I’m voting for the lesser of two evils. Alice Cooper wrote a song called ‘Elected’. I’m quite certain that he’s less evil than most politicians. It would actually be exciting to vote for Alice Cooper, that’s who I want to cast my vote for, Alice Cooper.
Bob: You cannot avoid hearing abut politics during an election year in the US. It’s depressing and I’ll be happy to not be bombarded. The corporations run the government for the most part, so following politics or the election almost doesn’t even matter. Humans barely have a voice.
I see you guys are curating another ATP festival soon [December’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” at Camber Sands Holiday Camp in the UK]. Can you describe how that works and what that process is like for you?
Todd: We are indeed curating another ATP festival and it’s truly an honour to be chosen to do so. It’s an incredible festival to be involved with and loads of fun. The process is quite simple: We all select bands and movies that we personally enjoy and if all goes well, both the bands and the fans will all enjoy themselves.
Bob, you like to play a Travis Bean bass, so did Bill Wyman [The Rolling Stones] and Mick Karn [Japan]. Which of those two do you feel spiritually closest to?
Bob: Who’s Mick Karn?
“We usually attempt to avoid all male rock band bills.”
Steve, you like to play a Travis Bean guitar, so did Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Keith Richards. Which of those two do you feel spiritually closest to?
Steve: I don’t know. They both kinda seem like assholes. I guess I can stomach more of Aerosmith’s music than I can of the Rolling Stones. I mean, Charlie Watts is a pretty cool drummer with a distinctive style, but other than that I’m baffled why anybody listens to the Rolling Stones. It’s hack bar-band crap. AC/DC kick the shit out of The Rolling Stones.
Any other stray words/thoughts/veiled messages you want to add?
Todd: The only other thought that I had happens to be for you Trevor. It’s an idea for a publication that may appeal to an older audience, it’s only an idea for the title itself and that title could be Slower Quieter.
Bob: Looking forward to it, ya cunts.
Steve: The dolphins are in the Jacuzzi.
A few days after sending out the initial emails, Bob and Todd had come back to me but I hadn’t heard from Steve. In an attempt to prod him/provoke some response, I decided to send an email that would get his attention without being rude. Thus the following exchange:
Not harassing you about this or anything, I just wanted to add the burning question I had shied from: Your entire career, since [Big Black’s] The Hammer Party, has pretty much been a ongoing attempt to attain the state of grace and sonic perfection represented by Bauhaus’ In The Flat Field? Y/N?
Steve: Well, no, but that’s flattering of you. That is a pretty great record. Thanks.
Shellac Tour dates
Sunday, October 21 – Republic Bar, Hobart
Tuesday, October 23 – The Zoo – Brisbane
Thursday, October 25 – Rosemount Hotel, Perth
Saturday, October 27 – Fowler’s Live, Adelaide
Sunday, October 28 – Metro Theatre, Sydney