Shellac

Posted on March 30, 2011

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Maximising autonomy

Steve Albini with Burning Witch T-Shirt (used without permission)

When Steve Albini first heard a Ramones tape on the bus during a school trip in his teens, he became a punk rocker. How would Shellac have sounded if he had heard Perry Como or any other brushed off smoking? No one knows, but Albini once said that everything he has done could be traced down to the moment where that record (that he first found the most hilarious he ever heard) blended with his susceptible modus at that time.

The Chicago, Illinois based Noise rockers that call themselves Shellac of North America when in a pretentious mood, are a great beacon for hundreds of bands and music lovers all-over the world. Nevertheless, Shellac floats between underground and mainstream. Albini gained more acquaintanceship because of his work as an engineer for P J Harvey, Pixies, Joanna Newsom, The Jesus Lizard, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Nirvana and a bunch of other small bands. In a lot of the cases he accomplished to help them to record their best albums. As an engineer our spokesman is known for his analogue techniques (“the most transparent and sustainable recording technique” dixit Albini), a direct sharpened sound and his ‘live-in-the-studio’-ethic. Albini thinks that most ‘producers’ try to restrain sounds and keep them under control. They want rock music to have layers and a heavy production, and by doing that they mute a band’s power. His work is characterised by the complete opposite: giving room to the genuine idea of the artist with a hard and crystal-clear sound. It’s also the reason why he hates to be called a producer. We knew it but we made the mistake when we wrote down our question. We excused ourselves extensively.

As a musician he started recording as Big Black with guitarist Santiago Durango, a drum computer and different bassists. In the aftermath of the Punk movement they helped to accomplish a sound that would later be called Noise rock. The band was also one of the first bands to have an Industrial sound and thus would influence a body of work by from bands like Ministry and Godflesh. And they played a vital role in the founding of the Do-It-Yourself concept, which they still more or less are faithful to. In the same vein Albini for a short period established Rapeman, together with Scratch Acid’s David Wm. Sims and Rey Washam. The first would later set up The Jesus Lizard. With Bob Weston (bass) and Todd Trainer (drums) Albini runs Shellac for almost 20 years. His partners in crime on their turn played in all kinds of more or less obscure bands: Volcanic Suns, Breaking Sun and Riffle Sport. Trainer also played drums with Scout Niblett in 2005. Weston – who also plays trumpet, in Rachel’s among others – learned recording skills from Albini and today is also an important and respected engineer in post-punk and all kind of other genres. By the way, this isn’t the Bob Weston that was in Fleetwood Mac, as we could read on allmusic.com.

Math rock is the most horrible name that is used for this band. It implies that the band is making some kind of calculated music. On the contrary Shellac is tongue-in-cheek, both voluptuous and unsexy, and more about an energetic force than about a deliberated art form. Noise rock or Minimalist rock (their own term) are more accurate. Shellac’s pure and refined sound fits perfectly to the band’s basic riffs, and bears the stamp of Albini and Weston’s recording techniques. Albini said there’s a great satisfaction in doing something substantial with simple elements, and I think that’s what drives a lot of Shellac’s decisions, whether in music or our other interactions.”

Between now and the future

All in all Shellac is a nerd-band, a tough and a self-secured one, but still. And guitarists in nerd-bands listen to  (for instance) Television, Throbbing Gristle and Suicide. In an MTV interview the band once stated that they “don’t attract women. We attract more like computer programmers and guys with blood spattered baseball card collections”. Shellac puts itself outside the musical popular culture and its social activities and cultivates that image. They are anti-systemic when it comes to the music industry. We don’t participate in the non-band parts of the music scene. We aren’t interested in show business or making a career out of our band. We just write songs, make records and play shows.” Albini explains. In an early 90’s article in Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine Albini made up his mind and further fulminated against the music industry’s power structures and devious tricks.

Shellac tours at its “usually sporadic and relaxed pace” and when it comes to recording the band explains that they will “have a new LP anytime between now and the future”. These ‘explanations’ on the Touch And Go label website give an idea of how the band works. “We don’t work on a schedule, so we only need to record when we have new music we’re happy with. That takes us longer now than when we could devote more time to the band because our lives are more complicated by work and other obligations. Many bands are bound by agreement to make a certain number of records over a certain period of time. We aren’t in that position. I’d rather make a record every couple of years that I’m totally happy with than one every year about which we have some reservations.”

Shellac despises the economical processes that pepper the musical world. Albini can’t stand the fact that he nowadays has to ask more dollars or Euros for an evening of guilty pleasure. At the same time that doesn’t mean that Shellac doesn’t want to play gigs anymore. But they try to push forward the boundaries that are set by the neoliberal techniques used in the industry. Albini explains there’s another way to make choices. “We don’t make distinctions between people we deal with, inside or outside music. We think of all our interactions on a personal level, which prevents us from treating some people badly and excusing it as a business matter. We are careful who we deal with, so we try to take everyone at his word, and trust everyone to treat us reasonably, and we are seldomly disappointed.” In Touch And Go they found the label that gave them complete artistic independence and the possibility to work at the pace they want to work at.

Band as product

From Albini’s musings on the music industry it’s obvious he’s not unhappy with the trickling down of the old paradigm that structured the music industry for many years. In older interviews he criticized the system that underlies. Too much bands seem to think that they can outsmart a system that basically is there to support itself. According to Albini, too much bands think they have to professionalise and use the mainstream approach of having a manager, booking agent and a record label. Bands should hold to the DIY-ethic instead of jumping into the system of the industry. In an interview he did as the key note speaker on the 2010 Leed’s Metropolitan University’s Art of Record Production Conference, he described a paradigm shift from a market based on making and selling albums to one in which the band itself is the product. The Internet helps bands to make their own choices and sell themselves. Live performances, web-presence and t-shirts have become more important. Of course there will always be a market for physical recordings, but its downsizing will continue. Bands will have a more direct relationship with the audience. And labels will have to be more polite to bands, he states, and support that direct relation. Probably, this process helped bands to gain power again. Although he doesn’t adjudicate about that evolution, we think he doesn’t see that as a worsening.

Shellac members don’t act to the expectation. Artists don’t have to give accountability for what and how they do what they do. Every choice is autonomous. The moment you start imagining what someone else will think you are making decisions based on ghosts.” In an interview with Perfect Sound Forever he explained the difference between being in a crowd and being on stage. He doesn’t care about the audience when he plays, although he’s in front of them. They almost disappear. What matters is the connection that happens between Weston, Trainer and himself and the “following of their own internal logic and conversation”. But as a fan he wants a band to play his favourite tracks.

From that perspective there’s no point in explaining if a crowd reacts appropriate. The trio expects as much of the audience as they can expect from them: not an ace. In the first place there’s a truly egocentric aspect to what the band does. “Other people are probably entertained by what we do, but we’re doing it for ourselves. Like dogs fucking, other people can notice what’s going on and take an interest, but it’s not happening for the sake of an audience. We try to enjoy ourselves and allow ourselves room to do something new every night. That’s an integral part of the design of the band, whether we’re in the studio or on stage.” When we suggest that artists have the ability to manipulate their audience Albini replicates he respects “people too much to be interested in manipulating them. Shellac does its thing and people are welcome to watch. What they get out of it is up to them and I’m too busy to think about it in advance. Any art form requires some involvement from the audience to be relevant, and this is no different.”

At the same time these rockers are polite crowd-pleasers, as they do reserve quite some time for their audience after a show. A face-to-face interview, for example, wasn’t possible, because they wanted to speak to and party with them. Albini sees a large connection between their anti-systemic outlook and their interaction with the audience. They don’t have any problems with holding that line. The way you behave affects how people treat you, but more importantly it affects how you feel about yourself. I don’t want to feel like an asshole, so I don’t act like an asshole. As a band we act in the same way.” Kinship and comradery are important values in Shellac. “The three of us work together on the music. Nobody is really the “chef.” I cannot imagine making this music any other way. Our music is an extension of our friendship, and the band wouldn’t exist if we didn’t love each other like brothers.”

State of the art

As an engineer I’m employed by a band to make the kind of record they want to make. It’s none of my business what kind of record they want to make. My job is to help them do it and make sure there are no problems along the way.” What he explains about being an artist that performs doesn’t count for his work as engineer. The connection between him and the artist is structured within a contractual framework. But at the same time “I try to treat people with respect and generosity in that process, and that’s consistent with what I said before”.

“All art aspires towards the condition of music” (English essayist) Walter Pater said in his “Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry”. So, yes I think there isn’t any art-form that is as direct as music,” Albini states. According to Pater each art movement tries to convey meaning through its formal characteristics. Matter and form should be unified and can’t be divided. Music would be the only form of art that accomplishes that idea completely. Subject matter and form are seemingly one.  In the same sense Albini “can’t divorce the song (the notes and text) from the execution of it. We’ve all heard cover bands play versions of supposedly “great” songs, and those cover versions are often horrible. I don’t think it’s possible for a song to be “good” on its own, distinct from somebody performing it. Good songs are good because somebody did something special by singing them. The song as distinct from the performance is bullshit. I know there’s a whole song writing industry and copyright lawyers who would disagree with me, but they’re wrong.”

Pater’s quote also points at a collectiveness and mutuality in playing together. It also applies to Shellac as “the three of us spend a lot of time talking about things. Those thoughts make their way into the music one way or another. From a practical standpoint, we write music as a group, and it’s a very cooperative process [] It’s more about communication than about logic.”

If we take all these observations into account we conclude that Steve Albini isn’t God, no matter what 331 last.fm-people would think. Our spokesman is a sincere, creative and authentic musician that doesn’t need the confusing and inappropriate morals of the flock.
Article by Peter, 2011

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