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Clip: Bob Mehr on Steve Albini, Electrical Audio, and Touch and Go

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  • Carl Z.
    The Plumber Steve Albini on Touch and Go, the Stooges, and how his analog work ethic is faring
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 29, 2006
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      The Plumber

      Steve Albini on Touch and Go, the Stooges, and how his analog work
      ethic is faring in the digital age

      By Bob Mehr
      September 29, 2006

      It's been more than two decades since guitarist and recording engineer
      Steve Albini emerged as the gadfly of the midwestern rock underground.
      In his 20s he led the notoriously abrasive, crowd-baiting bands Big
      Black and Rapeman, but he's since mellowed considerably -- though his
      current outfit, Shellac, is hardly warm and cuddly, at 44 he no longer
      goes out of his way to make himself a lightning rod for controversy.
      His reputation as an iconoclast persists, however, and he remains the
      sort of public figure folks either love or hate. "There are specific
      people who have a bee in their bonnet about me," Albini says. "I can't
      do anything about that. I trust the bands and people I work with every
      day -- the ones that know me on a personal level and actually know me
      as opposed to the image of me -- they have the real perspective. If
      those people thought I was a jerk, then I'd feel bad."

      Albini can afford to brush off his critics: It's been nearly a decade
      since he opened Electrical Audio in its current location, on Belmont
      near the river, and his studio has weathered both the end of the 90s
      alt-rock boom and the spread of cheap digital home recording. Despite
      Albini's notorious refusal to install a digital rig at Electrical,
      this has been one of his busiest years yet at the studio -- he's
      scheduled to complete more than 40 projects by the end of December.
      Shellac has just finished recording a new LP, and this week Albini
      starts work on a comeback album by proto-punk icons the Stooges.

      The forthcoming Shellac record, the band's first since 1000 Hurts in
      2000, will be called Excellent Italian Greyhound -- originally what
      drummer Todd Trainer would say to his dog instead of "good boy," it
      was quickly adopted by the band to refer to anything praiseworthy. "If
      you're familiar with our stuff you probably won't be surprised,"
      Albini says. "I guess Todd has a cowbell now, so that's new." Touch
      and Go has tentative plans to release the album in early 2007, and the
      band has a couple spring shows planned for the UK, which may turn into
      the nucleus of a European tour.

      Albini has been playing in Shellac with Trainer and bassist Bob Weston
      for 14 years, and calls it "absolutely my favorite thing in the whole
      world to do" -- though he's quick to point out that he still considers
      it a hobby. The studio is his job, and he puts in an average of 300
      days a year as an engineer. In 2006 his work has appeared on releases
      by Canadian roots band the Sadies, Sicilian art punks Uzeda, power-pop
      legends Cheap Trick, and even the Lovehammers, the group led by Rock
      Star: INXS runner-up Marty Casey. He's not a fan of every act he
      records, but he's looking forward to working with the Stooges, who he
      calls one of his all-time favorite bands. The re-formed lineup
      includes three original members -- Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, and his
      brother Scott -- along with Minutemen bassist Mike Watt and Fun House
      saxist Steve MacKay.

      Albini has never met any of the Stooges -- so far he's just had a
      couple phone conversations with them -- and only knows Watt casually.
      "I got a call out of the blue from Ron Asheton," he says. "They
      basically expressed a desire to set up and play live. We'll see how
      that goes. I've yet to see the reconstituted Stooges, but by all
      accounts they're playing like champions." In a recent Spanish-language
      interview, Iggy says hiring Albini was something Ron pushed for, in
      part because Albini has said he arrived at a lot of his ideas about
      recording by listening to Fun House. Iggy also praises Albini's
      no-nonsense blue-collar approach, comparing it to a plumber's.

      One rumor that's been following the project is that Jack White will
      play on the disc or produce it, but Albini has heard nothing either
      way. "I really have no idea. . . . There may be a point where an
      Edwardian carriage pulls up in front of the studio and Jack White and
      his footmen step out," he says. "By the way, I've never used the word
      'footmen' in conversation before."

      Electrical Audio, like most full-service studios, has suffered as
      digital recording has gotten cheaper and more accessible. But because
      it's still primarily an analog facility, it continues to attract
      musicians who don't see the two methods as interchangeable. (Albini's
      rep doesn't hurt either, and even people who don't care what kind of
      tape they use agree that the rooms sound great.) The studio hosts
      digital sessions for outside engineers, but Albini has never used Pro
      Tools himself. "I wouldn't even know how to turn it on," he admits.
      "It would be like asking me to translate a Chinese poem." He claims
      he's never encountered a situation where the use of analog tape was
      the problem, and he's not about to fix what isn't broken. "Many of our
      peer studios that have slavishly followed the fashions in recording
      have either gone broke or run themselves into the ground," he says.
      "So I don't see any indication that we're doing things wrong."

      Electrical is far from broke, but over the past few years it's lowered
      its fees repeatedly to stay competitive as the demand for pro
      recording declines. Albini says that when he arrived in Chicago in
      1980, the average daily rate for a comparable studio was between
      $1,000 and $2,000; at Electrical the top room rate is currently $600 a
      day, down from a peak of $850. "To survive under those conditions
      requires a different mind-set," he says. "You can't treat a studio as
      a pure business venture. You have to treat it as something you're
      doing for its own sake. The same is true for indie labels: they're a
      viable business, but only just. So having a punk-rock mentality --
      doing as much as you can yourself and keeping things as cheap as
      possible so it doesn't have to be expensive for the bands -- is the
      approach we take."

      Every one of Albini's bands has released records on Touch and Go, the
      indie label run by Corey Rusk, and two of them -- Shellac and Big
      Black -- played at the label's 25th-anniversary party earlier this
      month. Albini is generally loath to indulge in nostalgia (during Big
      Black's mini set he commented, "You can tell it's not something that
      we had a burning desire to do"), but he's long been a vocal
      cheerleader for Touch and Go and helped persuade Rusk to move the
      operation to Chicago in 1986. For Albini the Touch and Go celebration
      was a reminder of why he'd invested so much of himself in underground
      music to begin with. "Seeing Scratch Acid again, seeing Killdozer,
      seeing the Didjits -- all of the reconstituted bands were as good as
      in their heyday," he says. "And even though those bands were
      dissimilar to one another, they were still comrades in this cultural

      "There's nothing cornier than grandpa music scenester saying, 'Back in
      my day, things were so much better,'" he continues. "But to see all
      those bands that really got me super excited about music in the first
      place, and seeing them in full flight again, made me realize I wasn't
      a fool back then."

      The "punk-rock mentality" that guides both Electrical Audio and Touch
      and Go has been vindicated by time, and Albini takes great
      satisfaction in that. "When we started, everyone was rather adamant
      that you couldn't do things the way we wanted to. That it would be
      impossible to run a record label without contracts or more
      professional accoutrements. Everyone said it would be impossible to
      run a recording studio that catered to a punk-rock client base because
      they don't have any money and they're not reliable, or whatever," he
      says. "I like the fact that Touch and Go and Electrical Audio have
      proven that all those people who thought they knew best were wrong.
      Not just that they were wrong to offer their opinion, but that they
      were wrong, period. It's quite gratifying to realize you were smarter
      than all the people who were telling you you were gonna fail."
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