Interview: Steve Albini Talks About Shellac, Chicago, And The Specifics Of Remastering Nirvana's 'In Utero'
By Jessica Mlinaric in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 11, 2013 7:00PM
A fixture in Chicago music for over thirty years, legendary musician and recording engineer Steve Albini still manages to keep fans on their toes. Earlier this summer, he announced a new Shellac album after a lapse in studio releases since 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound. Chicagoist caught up with Albini to discuss the details of Shellac’s new album, Dude, Incredible, his work on the 20th anniversary edition of In Utero (which drops September 24), and what’s special about ball-breaking in Chicago’s music scene.
CHICAGOIST: Can you start by explaining how the new Shellac material developed?
STEVE ALBINI: We’re always working on new material. We don’t have a set schedule of when we’re going to release records. That sort of happens whenever we have enough material to make a record and decide to do it. Whenever we get our shit together on the production side and get things like artwork, a title, and all that sort of stuff that gradually works itself out together then we end up with a record.
We didn’t have a timetable. In the interim between the last album and this album we’ve constantly been working on new material and incorporating it into the live sets. Eventually we had enough of it that we felt like we could record it all. We had a couple of recording sessions and then [laughs] ... time passed. Then we had a couple more recording sessions and some more time passed and we reevaluated everything. We were happy with it so we tried to put it together into an album.
It’s a very gradual process with us because we’re not working on the band as a full-time endeavor. We’re just working on the band in the margins of our regular lives. It’s fairly deliberate process. It’s not like we didn’t intend to make a record. We did intend to make a record, it just took us awhile because we had to take each of the steps when we could fit the time in around our regular day-to-day obligations and responsibilities.
C: You all had to make a lot of other people’s records first.
STEVE ALBINI: Yeah we have to make other people’s records. The principal obligation is paying the bills, knocking out the rent.
C: In the interim since the last album you’ve got six years of material. How does the band go about narrowing it down?
STEVE ALBINI: It doesn’t require that much narrowing down. We’re not prolific [laughs].We do work on new material all the time, but we work on it at a pace that’s equivalently relaxed. We might come up with an idea for a new song and then play around with it in several partially abstracted forms. It might take eight or ten rehearsals before it’s been slapped into a shape that we can perform live. Then it might take twenty or thirty live performances before we’re totally confident in that arrangement, and a lot can change along the way. There have been songs that we’ve worked on for a couple of years, literally, which we ultimately just ended up scrapping because we couldn’t bring them together in a way that we were content. That’s a very realistic possibility with any song that we get started on; we might pursue it for a year or more and then just decide it’s not worth it.
STEVE ALBINI: There are, I want to say, nine songs on the album? Yes, there are in fact nine songs.
C: How much of that will people recognize from being played live versus anything that is previously unheard?
STEVE ALBINI: There are only a couple of songs on the album that we have not been playing regularly live. So if people have been seeing us play for the past couple of years they will have heard the bulk of the record at the live shows.
C: Any surprises we should look forward to?
STEVE ALBINI: Well we all sing simultaneously, that’s pretty rare. We don’t do that very often, in fact I can’t remember ever having done that before. There’s one little bit, just an introduction to a song where we all sing simultaneously. We refer to it jokingly as “the Queen part,” but it doesn’t really sound like Queen.
Photo by Lauri Apple
STEVE ALBINI: Oh yeah.
C: What’s special about that partnership?
STEVE ALBINI: We’ve just been dealing with Corey [Rusk] and Touch and Go for so long it’s really integral to the way we’ve conceived of the band. Touch and Go started out as a small, entrepreneurial record label and it gradually became a really important fixture in the independent music scene doing manufacturing and production for a lot of other labels. Then when the physical distribution of records started to decline and it was obvious that that was not going to be a survivable business model Corey pulled the plug on the large part of Touch and Go, reserving the option to still be a small entrepreneurial record label the way the company started.
We couldn’t be happier with that because that’s precisely what we’re looking for. We’re looking for a record label that doesn’t have 900 employees, that has two employees. A place where if you want to get a question answered you can call the guy who runs the whole show and he’ll answer it for you. That’s the kind of record label that we’re most comfortable working with anyway. Touch and Go is a fantastic, small record label, so we’re glad that we’re giving Corey and the label an opportunity to do the thing that they do best one more time.
Chicagoist: Do you have a target release date?
STEVE ALBINI: You know that sort of stuff doesn’t really mean anything anymore. The people who buy records are not lining up at the record store on the day of release. There may be a date ticked off on the calendar at Corey’s office somewhere. If there is I don’t know what it is. [Chicagoist confirmed the date is TBD.] We’re just trying to finish the record with a few more production steps. We need to get the artwork wrapped up finally. We need to make a few final decisions about the printing process and that sort of stuff. So there are still a few little loose ends to wrap up.
C: Any chance you have a title to share?
STEVE ALBINI: Yeah, the record is going to be called Dude, Incredible. There’s a song on the record called “Dude, Incredible,” but I think it would be overstating it to say that the album was named after the song. I think that we just liked the title.
C: As far as the artwork, Shellac usually incorporate unique sleeve designs. Do you have anything interesting in the works?
STEVE ALBINI: The album sleeve is actually very straightforward. We all care that our records look nice, because we all own a lot of records. It’s cool to go through your record collection and pick out a record and holding it feels nice and looking at it doesn’t embarrass you. We’re all into all that stuff, but it’s not an obstacle to finishing everything. There’s nothing super elaborate about the packaging. It’s gonna be a nice looking record.
STEVE ALBINI: It happens pretty regularly. We made that record as a gift for people, and once you get a gift it’s yours and you can do whatever you want with it. We don’t really make any claim on that record. If anybody who owns that record has been avoiding selling it on the secondhand market because they don’t want to insult us, don’t worry, we won’t be insulted. We made that record as a gift to thank a bunch of people who had been nice to the band over the years, and I feel like that gesture only counts if you’re genuine about the concept of giving it to them. So if you got a Futurist record from us that means that we liked you enough to give you the record and after that it’s your record and you can do whatever you want with it.
C: Has the band looked ahead to touring at all?
STEVE ALBINI: We’re always trying to put together touring plans. Our touring and our record releases are not really coordinated very well. They never have been. Historically, touring fits in around our work schedules and whatever minor ambitions we have about places in the world we haven’t seen in a kind of travelogue sense. I think our next trip is going to be Ireland, Scotland, and the U.K. After that we have some vague plans to travel east in some fashion, whether it be Eastern Europe or Asia. We haven’t got that worked out at all, but those are things that are on our mind.
Chicagoist: At this point you guys have been around for over two decades, and it’s pretty rare to see an original lineup with that kind of longevity. What makes Shellac work still?
STEVE ALBINI: None of us expect this band to be an occupation, so we have an awful lot more freedom in what we do with the band because we don’t have to worry about jeopardizing our mortgage payments with it. I think a big part of what keeps the band exciting for all of us is that we don’t need to count on it to make a living. Our jobs take care of our normal obligations and then the band can be a pure exercise in expressing our creative impulse.
C: How has your group dynamic or writing process changed over that time?
STEVE ALBINI: It sounds kind of corny, but I think we got it right at the beginning and we haven’t really changed anything. Whoever has a musical idea will bring it up during practice and we’ll play around with it as a group experimenting with different arrangement ideas. Eventually it gets to a point where it’s a real song that you can play from beginning to end, and when we’re content with that we start incorporating it into live sets. If it survives that test then we’ll probably end up recording it the next time we record. There’s no formal structure to the way we do it. That’s the method that we’ve worked out over the years.
Albini with members of Nirvana (and another rock star). Photo via Piece's Facebook page
C: Do you mind if I ask you about the 20th anniversary of In Utero?
STEVE ALBINI: No, go ahead.
C: Given the issues you experienced back when with Geffen, how did it feel to reapproach the material for the remastering?
STEVE ALBINI: To be honest, the people who gave me a hard time on the initial release of that record were not in the band. I never had any real beef with the band, so it was totally comfortable working on that material again with Krist, Dave, and Pat. I never had any qualms with them and they never expressed any reservations to me about the job I did or the way I handled things with the band.
Mercifully, the participation of the record label this time was purely advisory. There was no mandate that came down about how everything was supposed to be handled. I think that the record labels now realize that they’re not that good at telling musicians how to conduct their business. Record labels are just trying to stay afloat. This seemed like a pretty low-risk operation to take a great band who made a super popular famous album and say, “O.K., go make a deluxe edition of it for us” [laughs]. That doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a high-risk endeavor.
C: What differences are we going to notice in the remastered version?
STEVE ALBINI: There are a couple of things at play there. The 1993 version of the record was somewhat constrained by the mastering technology of the time. Digital mastering was in its infancy then, so there were a lot of presumptions made about how you should approach a CD that proved incorrect over time. The CD master was made with certain sonic characteristics in mind that were probably standard practice at the time, but in the long term turned out to be not beneficial. The LP was limited by certain restrictions on the abilities of mastering techniques that were used. This is kind of a complicated technical discussion, but most records are mastered by cutting a master lacquer disc. The lacquer has certain limitations on its capabilities, such as the side lengths are limited. If the side lengths get longer than about 18 or 20 minutes then you start compromising the sound quality in order to fit the program material. In Utero was a long record; the side lengths were 22-24 minutes as I recall. Mastering it into lacquer implied certain limitations on the sound quality. You couldn’t get full frequency response, you couldn’t get full dynamic range, things like that.
For the new deluxe edition the mastering has been done into copper discs, that’s called Direct Metal Mastering. That gives you better immediate fidelity but also it removes a few of those limitations on side length, overall volume, perceived sound quality, bass response, dynamic range, and things like that. All those things are improved by cutting Direct Metal which was not an option at the time when the record was just another production record. It’s more expensive and time consuming and it takes more attention from everybody, so it wasn’t done as a matter of course during the original vinyl era. Now, because this is a specialty item it can be done since it’s worth it to take the time and spend the money to do a good job on what has proved itself to be a classic record.
The side lengths do still impinge somewhat on some of the sound quality considerations. If you split the record up into four 12-inch 45 rpm sides rather than two 33 rpm LP sides then you no longer have those constraints on program length. You can then have full frequency response and full dynamic range even with a long program, because you split it up onto four sides. So that’s what they did for the deluxe edition on this record. They decided to make it as a double 12-inch 45 rather than a single LP record. That’s an extraordinary step. It’s not commonly done, and it would be nice if it were done more often because it is a really terrific format for sound quality.
In a lot of mastering the LP will be cut from a digital file that will be created in a mastering studio that incorporates whatever tone changes were requested during the mastering. So create a master digital file, that file will be used to cut the LP and will also be used as the CD master. On the deluxe edition of In Utero the LP discs, that is the proper masters, were cut from the original master tapes or the same tapes that were played in the studio when we were making the record. That’s an unusual step and an extraordinary step these days, because it’s somewhat risky to send your original priceless master tapes off to be worked on in an external studio. It does ensure that you have the absolute best sound quality if you’re working from the original master tapes rather than a digital transfer. So again, I was gratified that we were able to do this record that way.
I can say that if you get the new deluxe edition double 12-inch 45 vinyl version of Nirvana’s In Utero that is as good as records can be made. You literally can’t do anything more to ensure fidelity on a record than all the steps that we took for that record. It was cut from the original master tapes, it was cut directly into copper, the whole thing was overseen by the guy who was in the room at the time the record was being mixed. Everything about it was done in the best possible way that we could conceive in order to give people the purest, most accurate, best fidelity listening experience that they could have with that album. I’m pretty happy with the way it came out. It’s exactly what a record of that stature deserves.
C: Was it redeeming to have the chance to go back and make the record the way you wanted?
STEVE ALBINI: The record is getting the treatment that it has always deserved. As far as the political stuff about the record label bitching at me and trying to put me out of business, those are all old injuries at this point. I’m just glad that this record is important to the band and that they were able to have it made the way they wanted to. That’s very satisfying to me. It was very gratifying to rekindle a relationship with Dave and Krist and see that our relationship is still intact. We haven’t communicated much over the years, but they’re still the people that they were then and I’m still the guy that I was then.
C: In Utero is a noteworthy album for a lot of reasons, but you’ve had such a prolific career otherwise. What projects stand out to you as being the most unique or personally significant?
STEVE ALBINI: That question is odd for me because I don’t really rank the records I work on. The records that have meant the most to me honestly are not necessarily records that are even particularly good. They’re records where a lasting friendship or two has developed. I’ve grown very fond of a few people I’ve worked with in the studio, and they’ve become lifelong friends. To me that’s a bigger accomplishment than making a record.
For instance, I’ve made quite a few records with the band Silkworm. That band doesn’t exist anymore, but one of the crowning achievements of my enterprise is that I was able to get to know and befriend Silkworm and help them make a bunch of really great records. I’m still close friends with the surviving members of that band. I went out to dinner with Tim Midgett and his family last night, for example. It was our wedding anniversary - I’m proud of having a wedding anniversary as well. Without a doubt, the fact that I have long standing relationships with people I’ve worked with over the years is much more important to me than any particular record. I don’t work on records that are hits and I don’t work on records that win awards; I just try to do as good a job as I can and make sure the band for whom I’m making the record gets every penny of their money’s worth out of me.
C: You’ve appeared in a few different documentaries about Chicago’s underground scene. In your view what is Chicago’s musical contribution or legacy?
STEVE ALBINI: The thing that’s unique to Chicago that people who don’t live here won’t understand is the amount of ball-breaking that is done among very close friends. I think that it’s built into the music scene here. In Chicago people display their affection for each other by the amount of abuse and ball-breaking that they do among their closest friends. When someone is really riding you about the way you look, or behave, or any sensitive personal thing in your life in Chicago that person can very likely be a close friend rather than an enemy carping at you from the outside.
There’s a sort of enforced humility here, which means that nobody ever really gets bigger than their britches and if they do everybody else will let them know about it. It keeps the mood very light and low key and you don’t end up developing divas in Chicago. In Chicago you end up with a bunch of people who are working on something trying to make a difference and do something solid, but the focus is never on the personalities. The focus is never on this person as a star or locus of a scene. Every music scene that I’ve encountered in Chicago has been super collaborative, very cooperative, and very fraternal. It hasn’t been about individual spotlight stars the way it is in every other music community where someone is trying to make a name for themself as an individual. Every musical epoch in Chicago has had these kind of waves of activity where things happen because a group of people get involved. It’s true in the arts community, the theater community, in the music community, and among writers in Chicago. There’s much more collaboration, cooperation, and sharing of resources setting stuff up for each other or for the scene as a whole.
Photo by Jason Persse
C: I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recently, and there was a section with exhibits on scenes in different cities. It was interesting that among displays on London and San Francisco, Chicago was lumped in a “Midwest” display with great memorabilia that didn’t resonate with one particular scene or singular distinguishing musical personality.
STEVE ALBINI: In almost every other industry scene there’s a big industry presence—London, New York, Nashville. There’s a concentration of music business people. In Chicago, there’s a concentration of bands and musicians. It was kind of a center for independent and underground music while Touch & Go was carrying the flag for that, and I think that was a worthwhile resource for all those bands. Chicago never had the personality of other cities where you have a secret society of “official music business” and you need to be invited into that circle like the Masons in order to have any participation. Chicago has always been completely open, low key, and fraternal. Like I said, I think the ball-busting as a pastime actually contributes to the business mentality here as well. Everyone involved in aspects of the business is aware that their peers will jump on them if they make mistakes.
C: They also didn’t have any costumes from Chicago like Motown or Nashville. Just instruments and posters.
STEVE ALBINI:[Laughs] Yeah we don’t have any good outfits.
C: What are you most looking forward to?
STEVE ALBINI:: In October a friend of mine is coming down from Montreal. He’s got a band called Alexei Martov that’s kind of a psychedelic blues rock expressionist music. I’m really looking forward to working on that record. I worked on a record for that band last year and I think they’ve stepped it up a notch. I’m really curious to see what will happen with this record after a year’s progress
I don’t really have any super great expectations for anything, but I enjoy my job. I enjoy coming in every day and making records. It’s a really good way to spend my time.
C: Any chance we’ll see any digital recording on the new Shellac album?
STEVE ALBINI: Oh no. I don’t stick with analog recording because I’m some kind of a nutball. It’s the best solution for most of the problems that I have is to carry on working the way I always have making records on tape. It’s not a novelty for me; I’m not doing it to be recalcitrant or reactionary. I genuinely think that making records on tape is the best long-term solution for creating a survivable master tape, and I have yet to encounter any limitations on the medium that would make me regret making records on tape. So I carry on doing it, I know there aren’t many people that do but those of us that do understand that there are practical and long-term reasons why recording on tape is the best way to make a permanent record for a band.