June 18th, 2009 | Interviews

luke mcgarry

Shellac of North America record when they want and tour when they want and defuse all hecklers with the confidence and acumen of thirty-year bomb squad vets. Guitarist/vocalist (and engineer) Steve Albini speaks now 36 hours after returning to America. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

In an interview you had with the Boston Phoenix, you explained how Shellac gets caught in these conversational ‘loops,’ like fake Italian or ventriloquism—what’s the current loop?

Steve Albini (guitar/vocals): Just recently I discovered that a Canadian hockey fan used the word ‘pylon’ as an insult. It’s a derogatory term for a bad defenseman—‘He’s a pylon,’ meaning you just have to skate around him. I’ve taken to calling just about any idiot a pylon. I think that might develop into other traffic control devices that show up in the lexicon before long.
What was your former go-to term for ‘idiot’?
Wow, there have been so many. In Chicago there’s a particular kind of asshole wearing cargo shorts and generally a white baseball cap and those guys are just called ‘white caps.’ But the thing is that when you run into one of those you really can’t call them anything else.
The trick those guys have is that when they buy the white hats, they run it over a few times with their raised pick-up truck so it looks respectably old and legitimate.
I did not know that. I believe you.
You also said in that interview that you hoped Shellac would be able to insert an insult into the American language—do you think you’ve come close?
Probably not. Those things take so much popular momentum that we don’t really have. We don’t really have that kind of juice in the culture.
But the Internet is designed to propagate this exact kind of thing.
Right, but you need an adorable kitten video to go along with it and we don’t really have that.
What baby animal do you find the most cute?
Oh, there’s just so many—basically any baby animal is adorable.
How about baby humans?
Ah, not so much, but whatever. Whenever one of your friends has a baby, they are always so in awe of this thing that they made that they think it’s adorable and you have to go along because it’s kind of a big deal to make another person. But objectively, all babies look the same.
Is there such thing as an ugly baby?
The ‘baby’ aspect sort of overwhelms anything else.
What’s something that instantly turns you off about a band?
It’s hard to say—there’s so many little intricacies to it. There’s some YouTube clips of a band called Brokencyde and they’re kind of a compendium of all the things that instantly make me hate someone or a band. So basically if you share any trait—apart from something like cell mitosis—if you share any similarity with a band like Brokencyde you’re almost guaranteed to have me not like your band.
What has disappeared from the world in your lifetime that you’re glad to see gone?
There’s currently a kind of nostalgia for a kind of corporate disco music which I thought we were finally done with, but I guess the kitsch engine has to run on something. So a few year ago you might have been able to say that. That kind of bouncy European music they called house—that music disappeared finally. It lasted for a while in a kind of bastardized version in things like NBA trailers and perfume commercials, but it kind of disappeared. That was the only music that was capable of annoying me in the last twenty years. You know how a guy that works in a kitchen develops really leathery hands from handling hot pans and sharp knives? Or carpenters have really calloused hands?
Are you saying you have really leathery taste?
Yeah—my attention span and my hearing. I have developed callouses on my hearing and my sensibilities. A lot of stuff that would have driven me absolutely crazy when I was a teenager, I don’t even hear it. It doesn’t even register. The scar tissue that forms is infinitely tougher than the original mind.
How would you rate your ability to judge a stranger’s character on first meeting?
I’ve gotten a lot better at it since I started doing it every day. Meeting someone in person—it’s a little bit easier than speaking to them over the phone or corresponding with them but there are always some clues in any kind of interaction about whether or not somebody is reliable, honorable or on the level.
What are some of the universal indicators of trouble in the human character?
When you ask someone a direct question and they look upward and to the left or upward and to the right before they formulate their answer, that indicates that they are inventing part of the answer. That means that the answer is not something they know but rather something that they are having to create.
Is this something that you apply at poker games?
Only in the conversational parts—what’s called ‘the meta game.’ The great majority of poker is not the daring psychological battle it’s sometimes presented to be. Most of poker is just counting, simple math, and knowing probabilities of certain situations. But there is a psychological aspect to it. That’s a pretty good example. Another one is when someone is overly specific about trivial details and then unnecessarily general about fundamental elements of a deal. When a promoter tells you that you will be given a certain hotel room and certain kind of catering and that you’ll have this many towels backstage, but then can’t tell you the capacity of the venue or can’t tell you the size of the PA or how many stage hands he’s hired, then you can tell that someone is not speaking from a base of knowledge but is inventing a story that he wants you to go along with.
Has there ever been a show when Shellac was caught at a loss for words by a heckle?
I’m sure there has been. But I’m not super good at everything. That might be one thing that I’m not that good at sometimes. Don’t get me wrong—I’m super good at most things. I tend to not to embark on things where I’m an underdog to be competent. A friend of mine put it much more simply—he said, ‘He’s only interested in doing things that he’s instantly great at.’ I don’t know if this qualifies as great but I’ve hit golf balls three times in my life and the guy that I was walking along with on the golf course—I can’t really say that I was playing golf, but the three times that I’ve hit golf balls, the person that I was with said that I had a good natural swing. So there’s that. And snorkeling.
How does one become super good at snorkeling?
You enjoy it. My girlfriend was born in Honolulu and we go back to Hawaii pretty regularly—I want to say at least once a year. Well, that’s not true. We go there often—I don’t know how many times. A lot of places in Hawaii, you can rent snorkeling gear and the first couple times we went I didn’t rent snorkeling gear because I assumed that you had to learn how to do it and you could drown and die and that sort of stuff. It turns out that no, you don’t. You just stick the thing in your mouth and you’re fine. And also swim around for a while and you’ll realize that fish in their natural environment are fucking amazing.
How so?
They’re just super great. They look like they’re having the best fucking time. I’m really captivated by the notion that I’m looking at the fish and he’s hanging out by his house—this is his normal fish environment. And if he wanted to he could just fuck off to China. Start that way and if he didn’t wear out, he would end up in China—how cool would that be?
Does this ruin the experience of going to the aquarium for you—fish prison?
Yeah—I don’t really enjoy aquariums or zoos.
You’ve got kind of a soft spot for animals.
Who doesn’t? Come on. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t have any problem eating them or having them enslaved for farm labor. None of that stuff bothers me in the slightest.
What’s the cutest animal you ever ate?
Did you shoot them yourself?
Are you a good shot? Deadeye Albini?
Not so great. My dad is a fantastic shot.
And he’s a rocket scientist?
Well, he worked in the aerospace industry for years and in that regard you could call him a rocket scientist, but his major contribution in the last third of his life—he worked in the science of forest fires. He and a very small number of people developed the science out of nothing and he’s the most published scientist in the field. He died a few years ago and there was an award named after him. He was the first recipient of this award called the Ember Award which was for contributions to the science of forest fires, and that award was then named after him. That’s probably what he’s most known for in the scientific community—his work on the incredibly and almost impossibly complex paradigm of forest fires.
What is the crucial conundrum of forest fire behavior?
Well, it was described to me once as a house fire on a freight train in a hurricane. There are so many things going on. There are things happening in forest fires that occur literally nowhere else on Earth. Imagine a fire so big that it creates its own weather and that’s what we’re talking about. And as a result of creating its own weather it can prolong itself or it can germinate by hurling pieces of itself into the rest of the world. It’s incredible. And when you take into consideration all the complexities of just the fuel matter—all the different things, what different things is it burning, how wet are they, what’s the ambient temperature—the forest fire changes all of that as well. It’s almost like a living thing, a forest fire.
Have you ever planned to incorporate or maybe already incorporated the science of forest fires into Shellac’s music?
Well, there’s a book by Norman Maclean called Young Men and Fire which is about the Mann Gulch fire in Montana, which he witnessed when he was a teenager. There was an incident that happened in the Mann Gulch fire where some expert smoke jumpers—outdoor fire fighters who parachute into the middle of a fire to put it out—some smoke jumpers burned to death on a ridge and one of the party survived. The way he survived was that they were part way up a hill in the middle of a draw—a shallow one-ended valley—and they saw the fire break around the base of the hill and they could see the fire coming up the hill at them. All but one of the firefighters tore ass up the hill and tried to outrun the fire and crest the hill. One of the guys stopped, opened his pack, pulled out some matches and set fire to the grass in front of him, creating a large fire which he then jumped into so he was in the middle of this grass fire as the grass fire was burning around him. He just curled up into a ball in the middle of this fire that he just started. His intuition was that if he burned out the fuel in the immediate area, then the big fire would go around that area because it would already be burned. He survived the fire and the guys who tried to outrun the fire didn’t—they all got burned to death. And when somebody burns to death it isn’t like, ‘Boom! You’re dead.’ What happens is your flesh cooks and your blood curdles and the fat in your body renders and your skin breaks and all these things happen and it takes a very long time to die.
Do you think that’s one of the worst ways to go?
Oh hell yeah. That would be number one of how not to die.
What do you think is number two?
I don’t know—maybe being thrown into a very slow woodchipper. Anyway, the long and the short of it was—this fire and this single event made a very deep impression on Norman Maclean and he wrote a book about it called Young Men and Fire and there’s a line in a Shellac song called ‘The Guy Who Invented Fire’ that says, ‘I’m going to invent a fire / I’m going to lay down in it’ and that’s directly stolen from Norman Maclean’s book. The reason that I mention that book and Norman Maclean is that he was a friend of my father and he was a scientific consultant on that book and he actually is mentioned in the book because the book is about Norman Maclean as an old man, revisiting this fire and his memory. He goes back to the location of the Mann Gulch fire and he retraces his steps of these guys that went up the hill and burned to death and he actually finds little artifacts. There’s kind of a touching scene where one of the guys is really badly roasted. One of the things that happens when you’re roasted is you get an insatiable thirst. They had packed their provisions with them and one of the things that they packed in their provisions were cans of potatoes that were packed in brine. At one point this guy is doomed and dying and cooked but he’s beseeching the other guys that he is with to give him something to drink because he just can’t take it anymore. So this guy opens a can of potatoes and lets him drink the brine out of the can of potatoes. And Norman Maclean finds this fucking rusted can in precisely the spot where that must have happened and it’s a really chilling moment in the book. So anyway—I don’t know what we were just talking about to bring me to the potatoes but it’s an incredible book and Norman Maclean was an old man trying to make some sense of this thing that’s been haunting him his whole life. My dad kind of helped out with his understanding the general behavior of forest fires. I came to Chicago at the same time that came out—to go to school at Northwestern and at the time Norman Maclean was the head of the English Department a the University of Chicago.
What’s the most affecting historical site you’ve ever visited?
Maybe Wounded Knee. I’m trying to remember if I’ve actually been to Wounded Knee. I want to say Wounded Knee.
Nothing in Eastern Europe?
I have to say, it’s weird driving through some place like Zagreb and seeing buildings with the corners blown off. Or like you realize that you’re at this nightclub in Serbia and that big burly motherfucker at the door probably did some shit during the war. Shit like that. I think that has more of an effect on me than the location. Yeah, like you see somebody and you’re like… you know? Or for example—being somewhere inland in Germany—and this was more true in the ‘80s when the Wall was still up—and you’d see a guy old enough that he must have been of fighting age during World War II. So then you have to wonder, ‘All right—were you a Nazi? Were you a soldier? Were you some kind of apparatchik? During the most important period in history, what was your role? What did you do? What did you see?’ That kind of shit.
If you ever got time to write a book, what would be worth exploring at length?
I don’t think I have a novel in me. I have written short fiction for my whole life, as a diversion. I have a feeling I would probably just carry on doing that. I have written some technical articles about the recording scene and I write pretty regularly on the forum for the studio and I think that satisfies my writing impulse. I’m a terrible correspondent otherwise so I guess that must satisfy me. At any rate, I don’t subscribe to the David Bowie school of creativity where because I’ve made records I am therefore also an actor and a poet and a painter. I think that’s hubristic, if I may use a word that I may have invented. But I really don’t feel like that’s necessary. I have a perfectly satisfying outlet for my creative impulse—the band is perfectly satisfying to me. So I don’t feel like I need to do anything else. And also—I don’t like admitting this because I think all musicians are generally intelligent people and well-spoken and in coversation are even articulate—but I think almost all of the books that I’ve read by musicians and all of those that I’ve even flipped through at the book store, whether it be one of Jimmy Buffett’s novels or one of Nick Cave’s or Lydia Lunch’s or Henry Rollins’—virtually all of them have been atrocious. Just embarrassing writing. I think the one exception is the stuff I’ve read that Eugene Robinson has written. He’s writing about fighting—I’m not a fighter. I don’t have any interest in fighting. I don’t think that it’s a noble or worthwhile or rewarding pursuit. I’m not entertained by it. I think it’s in every sense barbaric and I’m not interested in it, whether it’s dogs fighting or people fighting—I’m not interested in it. But his writing about fighting is so matter-of-fact and so self-aware that you can’t help but be completely charmed by it and I think he’s great. I also think his sensibilities and sense of humor are akin to mine and I enjoy reading stuff like that. He’s written a bunch of articles, some of which have been collected and expanded in a book called Fight. The hardcover of it is kind of hard to read because it was made as sort of a coffee-table item rather than a piece of literature, but it’s a great book—a great read. And also his band blog for Oxbow is great reading because he gets into some stuff on tour. It’s kind of weird that he does inspire this kind of challenge-match mentality with the bigger lunkheads in his audience.
What do you think is your great topic—something you’re endlessly fascinated by?
There’s like a half a dozen things. Generally my areas of interest outside of being in a band are probably cooking, billiards, poker, general superficial scientific interest—nothing academic but at the speed of the Discovery Channel.
Have you ever been to El Bulli?
No, although I have to say—intuitively I’m kind of grossed out by molecular gastronomy. There’s something about the industrial-process element of it that I have a hard time embracing. A lot of the sensations and a lot of the things that happen in molecular gastronomy are inevitably unique because it’s never occurred to anybody to put sea urchin pureé inside of a caramel shell. So of course they’re going to be unique experiences and as an eater, I enjoy unique experiences—I have a very expansive palate. But something about the amount of effort and convolution of the processes that need to occur in order to get to the finished product makes it seem unsatisfying. It makes it seem like that one bite of frozen carrot foam can’t possibly have been worth the three days of preparation and the team of assistants. There is something about that fundamental inefficiency that galls me. It makes it seem grotesque and indulgent and like a gilded toilet or something. I’m in this weird quandary. I would very much like to have that experience—I would very much like to respect it, but it is so indulgent and so reserved for the truly decadent that it’s like boutique heroin. It makes me hate the people who are into it. If there was like a DIY version where people could do it without wasting 90% of the ingredient to get the two drops of salmon essence—if there was a way that it could be made more like normal eating, but still have these unique sensational experiences… If there was a way that it could be made more normal so that it wouldn’t seem so indulgent and pampered and fucking Monopoly money, then I would be into it.
How much of that is what exactly people are paying for?
I don’t know. There are a couple of restaurants like that in Chicago that have these things like laser-grilled packing peanuts, but I’ve never eaten at any of them. I have friends who have and they truly enjoy the experience and say that they were breathtaking, memorable, life-changing meals. I believe them, but there’s something grotesque about it that makes me—in the weakest part of my personality, the reactionary part of my personality—makes me hate my friends a little bit for that. It makes me think that they’re creepy and I don’t like feeling that way about my friends. Because these are the same friends that can go to the ballpark with me and have some churros and a hot dog and enjoy that. They’re the same friends that appreciate the things that I do, like a fresh peach. What the hell is wrong with a fresh peach? It’s thirty cents and it’s awesome. So I don’t like feeling that way about them, but I can’t help myself.
Is this because you’re worried that there’s some tiny chance that you could become some totally decadent hedonist?
You know what? I thank Christ—assuming that He existed and was not a historical metaphor—that I have never had money. Because if I ever had money I would do stupid shit like that. I would come to think of private jet travel as normal. I’m that lazy and that weak. I’m pretty sure that it’s a normal human failing that I would fall victim to.
So you’ve been forced into principle by financial circumstance?
Exactly. When you’re dead broke, you can’t help but be honorable.