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