Big Black Interviews

MaximumRock'n'roll #112

Interviewed by Josh Andrews of WNTH, Winnetka IL Graham H. of himself and Dan Condit along for the ride. The interview took place in Mr. Albini's home studio in 1991, and was transcribed by Graham.

MRR #112: When did you first become involved in production?

Steve Albini: I've been involved with production about as long as I've been playing in bands or whatever. Because all of my friends were in bands and they would need help in the studio, because they were sort of afraid of being mistreated by staff recording engineers, they would ask me to come along and mediate between the band and the house staff.

MRR #112: It never came out of frustration of not getting the sound you wanted?

Steve Albini: Not really.

When I first started recording and making records, the people who were available to work with as engineers in the studios were trained in the sixties and seventies, and the style of music that they were used to recording was so different than from what we were doing. Like they couldn't fathom not having a drummer in a band or they couldn't believe that you would want to play a guitar that had that much distortion in it. And a lot of bands couldn't handle dealing with that kind of mentality, so they looked for other people to do their recording for them.

When I first started out, I was doing a lot of recording on my own because it was a lot cheaper than using a professional studio. And then a lot of my friends started asking me to record them on the same kind of equipment just because I had it around.

MRR #112: Do you usually produce your own music?

Steve Albini: When I first started out I did, because I was the only one who knew how to turn on the tape machine or whatever. And then when Big Black started going into more professional studios, the amount of equipment seemed overwhelming at the time, so we found Iain Burgess (who I had met through Jeff Pezzati of Naked Raygun) because he had worked on some Naked Raygun stuff. I had heard that and thought that sounded good so I said, "Let's get Iain in and do some Big Black stuff."

And in retrospect that was really wise because not only did he do a good job, but by working with him I learned a lot of the seventies studio recording techniques that I would later want to avoid. I also learned a lot of general useful information about the recording sciences. And then once we got sufficient at doing our own recording then we stopped having to being Iain in as well.

MRR #112: Did you ever use anyone besides Iain Burgess?

Steve Albini: Not for music that I've played on. There have been other staff recording engineers that were around for like when you go into a studio in a strange town. You don't have a lot of time, and then they can tell you the recurring problems or other quirks that happen at every studio. Like when this button says "console explodes" what it really means is "coffee machine turns on."

And I've met plenty of people at other studios that really make my flesh crawl. Irritating guys with ponytails who will stick their noses in the studio every half hour and make a disgusted face and then walk out. But probably the worst type of person in these places is the ass-kisser who says things like, "Oh, yeah -- I'm really, like, into what you're doing, dude." Just slime.

MRR #112: Did you ever want to get Big Black on a label?

Steve Albini: Well, it's only been very recently that putting a record out on somebody else's label has been an option. A lot of bands that are out now all think in terms of finding a label to put their records out.

When Big Black started there were no labels like that. There were independent labels but it never occurred to us to bother them with putting out our puny little records. We just made the money and saved it and put the records out ourselves. The first three Big Black records were all done like that.

There were a bunch of bands in Chicago at the time that decided, well, putting a record out on a label is an impossibility, so why don't we put out our own records and call it a label. That's how Ruthless Records got started. The Effigies were putting out their own records, Big Black was putting out our records and Naked Raygun was putting out records.

So we sort of figured that even if no one was giving us any money and if no one was turning a profit around on this thing, if we all banded together and called it a record label then we would get taken more seriously by the distributors.

MRR #112: How do you feel when you hear bands that are influenced by Big Black?

Steve Albini: Well, a lot of the times I don't think that's the case. I'll hear a band that other people will say that they sound like Big Black and I'll hear them and think, "that doesn't sound anything like Big Black." That's probably because after being in the band my perception of it is totally different from other people's.

I know that there are some people that think of us as some sort of dark and scary charging industrial rock machine, and I think of it as three goofballs playing a slightly bent version of rock music which was essentially all we were interested in listening to at the time. There was no overview or plan to the band or anything.

So I think a lot of people are responding to what they think we were as people when they compare us to other bands, rather than what we sounded like.

MRR #112: What were some of Big Black's influences?

Steve Albini: Early on, just the music that was current at the time. I remember playing PiL's Metal Box like a hundred times in a row at one point because I thought it was just the strangest, coolest, weirdest album in the world.

My personal influences I know better than the other guys in the band. Like oddball rock music from all eras. From the fifties there were some maniac singers like Little Richard and Fats Domino. Not people that had any real sonic influence on the band, but just their mentality or personality was so weird. There is very little music from the sixties that I like.

I'm more into the more oddball stuff -- just weird music. There was this band from New York called The Silver Apples that were just amazing. You couldn't believe that a band like that existed. It was a guy who played a drum kit, and another guy who had a stack of oscillators. And they would play a song by him switching these oscillators on and off for each note, and the drummer would be freaking out and the whole time the guy with the oscillators would be singing like a typical sixties ballad like, "La, la, la."

The fact that a band like The Silver Apples existed was really inspirational. Just because they existed at a time when it was unheard of not to be a totally linear rock band. That was an influence but not a musical one.

But easily the most significant thing in my life was punk rock. I lived in Missoula, Montana, and I left Missoula, Montana because I liked punk rock. I came to Chicago when I went to college, because I was going to journalism school at Northwestern. And I figured, "Wow, Chicago, that's a big city, I bet they got a lot of punk rock there." And as soon as I got there I decided that I had to go and find all the "punk" bars and record shops.

And at that point it was a very small and insular community with maybe a hundred people involved. I would read ads for a bar and see the name of a band that looked like some other band that I was familiar with and go there and be horribly disappointed. Now the information flows a lot. The fucking Tribune and Sun-Times are writing about punk rock these days. It's nothing like the secret society it was.

MRR #112: Does that take away from it?

Steve Albini: I don't think that it necessarily takes away the impact of some of the music but I think it makes going to the shows less pleasant because there are more yahoos there. I used to enjoy being one of five people seeing The Oil Tasters or Hüsker Dü or any of the bands that I could see for three dollars. And now it's $18.50 from Ticketmaster.

Now if you go to The Metro on a Wednesday night it's Ladies Night and there are 600 people to see Tar or something. And that kind of stuff can be unsettling on a personal level if you are more comfortable with a small crowd. But I don't think it has any impact on the music except that it has sort of changed a lot of people's perspectives, like the people in bands. Nowadays, some people are directing the things that they do towards success or whatever.

MRR #112: Do you find yourself going to a lot of shows these days?

Steve Albini: I'm a huge fan of music so I'm always going. But I've been awfully disappointed lately. There's not a whole lot out there that I'm really excited by.

One of the last bands that I've seen that have really knocked me out has been this one from Texas called Naked Vanilla, who, as a band, are pretty bad. But their guitar player was amazing. He had the most incredible underwater sound. Completely murky and lost sounding. Like if you took a regular Marshall amp and turned it over into the carpet. It was tremendous.

Also, Slint, who I think are amazing...

MRR #112: They came out of Squirrel Bait, didn't they?

Steve Albini: Not really. Just one of the guitarists was a founding member of it. But they don't have anything more to do with them than they do Abba.

But anyway, Slint is just an amazing band. They have a new album out called Spiderland that is just one of the coolest, creepiest albums I've ever heard.

MRR #112: Now if you see a band that you really like, does it make you want to go work with them?

Steve Albini: What usually happens is that I'll want to meet them as a fan. I'll go and say, "Gosh, you guys are really great." That happened with a band called Dirt. I saw them in Atlanta and I went up and told them that I thought they were really incredible.

And it usually comes out in that initial handshaking that I'm Steve Albini and I used to be in a band and now I'm a recording engineer. And if they're interested in having me work with them they'll tell me. If they're not, then they'll tell me that also.

MRR #112: Do you consider yourself a "producer"?

Steve Albini: No. That has been a cause of irritation with some labels that I've dealt with because the bigger labels are used to working with industry people.

And there are things about the way those people do business that I want nothing to do with. Those people insist on being credited on the records and taking a royalty off of it. They get paid huge sums of money and have little responsibility and do whatever the hell they want.

I think that the bands are far more important than anyone inside of the industry. So I won't take a royalty on a record for example. I think it is an insult to the band to say that because I recorded this album and not somebody else you're selling more records and therefore I want a cut. I won't do that.

When I think of a producer I think of one of those industry losers with a beard and a ponytail sitting in a chair telling the band what to do. I've heard stories of bands that have been together for like ten years going into a studio and having the producer tell them that their drummer just isn't good enough so he's going to bring in a session man. I just can't understand that. I think that a band as a unit is a sacred thing. Those guys figured out what they want to play, wrote all their songs and stored all that stuff in their heads.

MRR #112: If you don't agree with what a band wants, how do you deal with it?

Steve Albini: When I think a band is making a mistake, I always tell them because otherwise I feel I'm not doing my job. But if they are firmly dedicated to something then I do what they want.

I've been wrong a bunch of times with bands that I just plain didn't understand. Six months later I'll listen and realize that they were right. And I think it is important that a band have the strength to say "No, we want to do it this way," and then do it.

MRR #112: Are there any types of music you won't produce?

Steve Albini: Plenty. OK... the studio in my house is very small scale, very limited, but it is top-line equipment. The idea behind it is that it is a high-quality studio available for almost no money to just about anybody that needs it.

I will record just about anybody in the studio in my house. But I get more selective when I have to disrupt my day, like book time in another studio, or go out-of-town and deal with a band for an extended period. And especially if there is a record label involved giving me a hard time and trying to weasel out of paying me and all that kind of stuff. Then it has to be music that I really feel strong about. Or it has to be people that I really get along with well.

MRR #112: What was the most commercially successful album that you have been involved in?

Steve Albini: I have no idea. I did two gold singles for an English band called The Wedding Present. And I did an album with them that will probably go gold in England. Just in number of records sold?

MRR #112: Would it be The Pixies?

Steve Albini: Maybe, except their distribution was done on that album by Rough Trade, and they have since gone under.

I can tell you the best record I've ever worked on. That would be the new Jesus Lizard album, Goat. That is just a mindblower of a record. I'm much more concerned with stuff like that than how much money comes from it.

Working with a band I like, I'll work for free, or I'll lend them money. I did that for a long time with Slint, and Urge Overkill, and The Didjits. Bands that I really, really like. I consider it an obligation of mine to do stuff for them cheaply because I like them.

But if there is a band I don't really care for on a personal level or whose music doesn't mean anything to me, and if they've got a lot of money, then I stick it to them. Because it's not their money, it's the big- ass record company's money who's not going to pay them anyway. So there's no reason for me not to say, "I want $25,000." And the big-ass record labels are so stupid. They're used to spending $200,000 on an album. They think that's reasonable. So when I give my price they say, "Oooh, what a babe in the woods! What a bargain!"

MRR #112: Realistically, what's the least amount of money an album can be made for?

Steve Albini: You can make an album for a couple hundred dollars. If you did an album here in my house. And you recorded it, and mixed it in a day, and I've done albums like that, you could do it for less than $200. That's just recording, not manufacturing.

And you could do it for even cheaper than that. I don't charge money for the studio in my house. I just charge for my time. So if a band has a friend who knows how to run the gear, then it doesn't cost them anything. If they give that friend hoagies and beer, then that's it. I think that it is really important to make a record for a manageable amount of money.

If I'm working on an album that costs more than a thousand dollars then I get uncomfortable. The entire recorded output of Big Black I don't think cost more than two or three thousand dollars. That is about the equivalent of about four LPs. We put out a lot of stuff on singles because we were impatient.

MRR #112: I heard a quote from you saying that "louder is better." Does that apply to everything?

Steve Albini: Probably. Not in my personal life. There was a period when I had quite a bit of loud and it got very uncomfortable. But yeah, when you listen to something and it grabs you by the face and drags you around the room, that's great. It doesn't have to be a macho rock stud kind of loud, but it should jump out of the speakers at you.

MRR #112: Do you think too many bands are doing the same kinds of things that was done ten years ago?

Steve Albini: Absolutely. But a lot of the younger bands weren't around when punk started. You can't fault somebody for being young. So I cut them a lot of slack. Though I think every age or whatever has distinctive qualities, and I think those are available for anybody to exploit.

But by the same token, whenever you use things that make your music current and distinctive with your time period, that insures that that music will be obsolete in ten years. So I think that a band should avoid the current cliches. Like in the '80s there was this amazing trend towards dance music and the associated technology like synthesizers and samplers. And that continues now, which disgusts me. Because in ten years you are just going to laugh. It's as boring as hearing droning sitar solos and LSD references now. It will be just as out of date. You should try to make things timeless.

People don't recognize that when they are mimicking something. It isn't improving anything. Like for example, I went to see Buffalo Tom, and all I could think of was just how much better Hüsker Dü was ten years ago doing the same thing. I feel the same way now about a lot of the punk bands out there right now. Although I do think there is still room for expansion within punk. You hear a band that sounds sort of like The Descendents or All or whatever. There has got to be more room than that.

MRR #112: Do you like Sonic Youth?

Steve Albini: Yeah, but they don't explore half as much as they used to. When they started out they had so few things that you could pin down as part of their style. And now you hear a song and immediately know that it's Sonic Youth because they now have a style.

MRR #112: Is that the worst thing that can happen to a band?

Steve Albini: It's up there. The worst thing that can happen to a band is that they suck.

MRR #112: Don't you think Big Black had its own style?

Steve Albini: Near the end we were developing a definite type of sound, and that's why I'm really glad we broke up.

MRR #112: Some would say that Rapeman sounded like Big Black.

Steve Albini: I don't think Rapeman sounded like Big Black at all. I've heard that too and I think those people are crazy on dope.

MRR #112: Whatever happened to Rapeman?

Steve Albini: We broke up, for all the reasons bands do. Someone couldn't get along with someone else. That's it.

MRR #112: Were you glad Rapeman broke up?

Steve Albini: I was real heartbroken when we broke up. I didn't think we had gotten 10% of what we could have been. We hadn't even scratched the surface. I was as disappointed with the Rapeman records as everybody else. I don't think they were that good. But if you took the five or six songs that were good, that would be one hell of a record.

MRR #112: So is there going to be a "Best of" Rapeman album?

Steve Albini: No. No.

MRR #112: Are there any other albums that you worked on as a performer or producer that you just weren't satisfied with?

Steve Albini: Oh yeah, lots. The first Rapeman album, Budd, was just the biggest pain in the ass. We had recorded the album in the studio and no one was happy with that so we never released that stuff. Then we recorded live, and I wasn't happy with the sound of that but everybody else wanted to put out a record, so we released that and I was very unhappy.

I've worked on records for other people where I just feel that I haven't done my job. And that bothers me. I did a record for Tad, and partly owing to all the money and time restrictions, and the fact that the company hadn't thought about the price of flying them out, and feeding them for four or five days, and all that. But I really feel like I didn't do a very good job on that record, and that disappointed me, and it did them as well. As a result they used someone else for the next album. I felt guilty that I had done a bad job.

But there are very few records that I get emotionally attached to. When it does happen that's really satisfying. Like this new Jesus Lizard album. I think the band is one of the best bands, if not THE best band in the world right now. Hearing their songs come out of the speakers and have them be just as impressive as it is when the band plays is really satisfying. I like working on that type of a record. I like working on a record where the people in the band are great people, the music is incredible, and everything clicks in the studio. That is the best.

MRR #112: Do you ever work with a band and think they're great but they end up going nowhere?

Steve Albini: Oh yeah, lots of bands. There's this band called The Didjits that are reasonably popular around here but they've been a band since like 1980. I've been working with them for a long, long time. Not necessarily in just the studio either. I've lent them money so they can make records with other people, helped them set up gigs and stuff. I think they're just an amazing band, but they just don't catch on for some reason.

MRR #112: How often do you get requests to produce for bands?

Steve Albini: Three or four a day. A lot of them are from real idiots too. Like, "Hi! This is Bob Shmendrick from Warner Brothers and we've got this band that we think would be just perfect for that sound you have." I'm sorry, but when that happens, you have to kiss my ass.

And then there's a lot of people calling me up and being like, "Um... hi... um... I'm in this band and, uh, we want you to record... snicker!" You can tell that they're not terribly serious about it, so that getting involved in it would be massaging some little twerp's ego. I try to make sure that they are actually in a band, and actually have some serious motive behind it.

MRR #112: How do you weed out these people?

Steve Albini: I usually ask them to send me a demo tape. So that I can hear it and I can decide if it would be something that I would feel comfortable working on. That weeds out a lot of people. And also, if you meet a band or talk to them on the phone you can usually tell if they are going to be difficult. Just how picky they are or whether they're dope fiends or losers or whatever.

I'm not terribly selective about what I do in the house -- I just consider this a service that I do. Because, like, when I was in a band it really frustrated me that there weren't good, cheap studios out there to record in. So what I have done is built a good, cheap studio to all the bands out there. But when it comes to doing extended stuff, then I get a little picky.

I've turned down big money just because I didn't think the people would be very fun to work with. I was asked to do a Depeche Mode album a couple of years ago. I have no idea why, but they asked me. At the time I had never even heard them so I went to go see them at this big sports arena in London. After about two songs I thought that "this is horrible, these guys are the worst. What are these young homosexuals doing?" So I just split. And told them that they had the wrong guy.

MRR #112: What was the most recent band that you've worked with?

Steve Albini: Since this fall, I did an album with an English band called Silverfish, The Volcano Suns, The Didjits, Urge Overkill, The Jesus Lizard, The Wedding Present, Dirt, and just last weekend did an album with a band from New York called Drunk Tank. In between I did a single with Tar, and a bunch of people.

MRR #112: Why did Jeff Pezzati leave Big Black?

Steve Albini: He had Naked Raygun, which was my favorite band when I first moved to Chicago. I went to see them and thought, "Oh my God, this is the greatest band in the whole world!"

I was totally nuts about Santiago, their guitar player. And sort of by accident I became friends with Jeff the singer, and I asked if he would want to play bass in Big Black and he said sure. We were rehearsing at the house where Jeff lived and where Naked Raygun practiced.

Then Santiago, who lived in the same house, was watching a football game and we were disturbing him. So he came down and said, "you know, I can't concentrate with you playing down here, so do you mind if I play along?" And I was like, "Sure, Mr. Durango, anything you want!" And then he ended up being in the band, and the two of us got along personally real well.

And he ended up being absolutely crucial to Big Black. He was the idiot detector who, anytime he thought I was making a mistake, would say, "You're a stupid person." And he was always right.

And Jeff was in Naked Raygun the whole time, and he had a job, and a girlfriend, two bands, and it was just too much. So he quit. We remained very close friends for years after that.

MRR #112: What do you think of Naked Raygun now?

Steve Albini: I think they blow now. I think they're terrible because they haven't bothered to write any songs. They just keep playing the same songs even when they write a new song. I think they like it, but they're not stretching out at all. I don't know if you're familiar with the really early Raygun stuff...

MRR #112: Like Basement Screams or Busted at Oz?

Steve Albini: Yeah. The stuff they did on the Busted at Oz album, I mean, they were so weird back then. Totally left field. Going to see them live at that time was totally invigorating because they were so damn weird. I was like a space age rockabilly band. With this bizarre jungle drumming going on. And periodically they would take too much drugs or whatever, and Santiago would come out with this completely underwater guitar sound. It would just flatten everybody. They don't do anything remotely that weird anymore.

MRR #112: What do you think their last good album was?

Steve Albini: Their first album is a great album, Throb Throb. The single that came out before it, Gear, is, I think the best thing that they ever did.

MRR #112: How about All Rise?

Steve Albini: There's a song or two there. But that was after Santiago had left, and their original drummer had left. And Santiago had played with them for the year and a half prior to Throb Throb. John Haggerty joined when Santiago was still in the band. John joined at about the time Basement Screams was released. And that five piece lasted about a year and a half. That was an amazing period because you had this son of a macho rock stud, John Haggerty. And this space-alien, goofball guitar of Santiago. It was great. I saw them do some shows then that were just unreal.

MRR #112: Have you seen them lately?

Steve Albini: I haven't seen them since Haggerty left. But I saw them right after... what was that horrible album?

MRR #112: Understand?

Steve Albini: Yeah. Right after that came out. It was sad. Seeing that band play those songs, was, it wasn't heartbreaking because it was OK and they were enjoying it, but it was like watching a beautiful girl go fat. You know she's still beautiful, but you can't get through the fat.

MRR #112: What bands are really exciting to you in Chicago right now?

Steve Albini: Man... I sorta like Tar. They're a lot better than people give them credit and a lot more original. Jesus Lizard is the best band in the world. I just saw this band Mantis that really made me laugh. They reminded me a lot of late-seventies, early-eighties British idiot rock. Like The Mekons or TV Personalities. They also remind me of a band called Pavement from California. It's not really competent music but it was really entertaining.

MRR #112: Do you feel there is a music scene in Chicago, or is it just bands?

Steve Albini: Just bands. Well, there are scenes, but some of them I want nothing to do with. Like the Wax Trax industrial disco scene. And those people all hang out together and play on each other's records and try to come up with stupid band names or whatever. That's a scene, but I want nothing to do with it. It's all based on campy, dress-up humor, taking drugs and disco. Then there's a sort of a suburban hardcore scene, but it's not really that solidified right now. It's not like they all hang out together or anything.

And there is a certain neighborhood called the Ukranian Village where a lot of bands live now. And there is a sort of community there, and that's where a lot of the interesting stuff is happening, I think. There's this band called Dolomite from there that I think is kind of cool.

Then there are bands that have been around for a long time that I wish would just give up. Like Precious Wax Drippings who have been around for a long time and have always been awful. The weird thing about Precious Wax is that the guys in the band are really nice guys. I know one of them and he's a really nice guy. And their drummer Johnny Machine is just an amazing drummer. But he's stuck in this band that just blows. I can't help but think that he could come up with something a hell of a lot better on his own.

When I say there isn't much of a scene, I don't mean that that's a bad thing. Because when there is a scene, certain things become easy. It's easier to get gigs, people borrow each other's equipment, and there's like a support group. And that's kinda nice but it also tends to make people lazy if they know that they only have to satisfy the 100 or so people in their scene. Then they don't ever stretch out.

I don't think that having a scene is necessarily a positive thing. Look at Minneapolis, where for a long time they just kept cranking out the same miserable-sounding bands. Like Replacements versions 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. And Soul Asylum versions 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. And now there's all these sort of hippy, frat-rock bands like Trip Shakespeare and all those horrible bands. And that's the result of having a scene. Having all these bands that support each other, and having all these people be sort of an interchangeable audience that go from show to show without being picky.

MRR #112: Is there a town that you feel is producing the best music in the country right now?

Steve Albini: There's a lot of real smart people coming out of Louisville, Kentucky for reasons I can't really figure out. Bastro is from there, and they're great. Slint is from there and that's a great band. King Kong is great too. Historically, Louisville has had some good music. There was this band called Your Food in the early '80s and they were great. There was this band called Babylon Dance Band, and they were a great band. Malignant Growth who changed their name to Fading Out. Big fat guys, they're great.

MRR #112: What do you think of all the stuff coming out of Seattle right now?

Steve Albini: I think there is a good band from up there, Tad. All the rest can jump in the water. A lot of it sounds like they want to be Van Halen to me. Nirvana wannabe Led Zeppelin, and Fluid wannabe Nirvana, and Mudhoney wannabe Van Halen. And I just don't see the point in a lot of that stuff.

There's bands like Jane's Addiction everywhere, so why make a big deal out of being a slightly different version of the same thing? The thing I like about Tad is that he's a huge fat man. And that sort of prevents him from jumping around the stage like an idiot. Like D. Boon was. And as a result he doesn't make me embarrassed to see them.

Like you go see Mudhoney or one of those bands and it's silly how great they think they are. It's almost offensive to me. And the thing is when Mudhoney started out they were a real cool, real fucked up band. Their first single, I think, is really great. And now it's sort of like a hard rock version of The Beatles. If you had a choice between being this totally great fucked up band or being this hard rock generic pop band, why be a generic pop band? Unless it was some sort of ego thing where you think "We can compete with Foreigner."

MRR #112: Can a band be commercially successful while being fucked up at the same time?

Steve Albini: Not lately, I don't think.

No, I take it back. The new Neil Young album is as fucked up as anything out there. And that's a great album and it happens to be on a major label and will probably make a lot of money. But other than that, it's really hard for me to think of any popular bands that are really any good.

If you think about it, in order to appeal to the general public, you got to be, in some way or another categorizable and predictable. And as soon as that happens it makes it impossible to be a good band.

Like if you look at the show "Twin Peaks." It started out as this bizarre and enigmatic TV program and everybody got all excited about it. The same with "The Simpsons." It was this weird TV program that became popular. Now there is this enormous pressure on those two programs to satisfy the audience. "Twin Peaks" completely succumbed to it. It seemed like a Saturday Night Live parody. Lot of goofy stuff, weird camera angles, a lot of red herrings. That stuff was all blown out of proportion and the substance totally gone.

That's what happens to a certain degree to any rock band that becomes popular. Somebody tells them they can go spend three months recording their album. "Sure, Sonic Youth -- have $150,000 and make the album of your dreams." So then they have all this pressure to make the perfect album. So that leads to so much introspection into what you're doing that you can't do it naturally anymore.

MRR #112: Did you like the album Goo?

Steve Albini: It has a good song on it. "Dirty Boots" is a good song.

It sounds like somebody gave the band $150,000 and said "Go burn your ears out in the studio." It sounds awful, I think.

MRR #112: What is your relationship with them?

Steve Albini: I'm real good friends with them. Not the first gig they played in Chicago, but the first gig that paid them money, I set up for them. I've known them since I was in college, about 1983. They're great people, but I think their albums have just been sad these last couple of years because they just don't recognize their strong points. And when they play at big places now it seems so tiny what they're doing. 'Cause, like, if you see a band in a club, everything seems giant because they're four feet away.

MRR #112: When you see the guys in Sonic Youth, do you tell them what you think they should do?

Steve Albini: I don't offer my opinion unless they ask. A lot of people I know are real diplomatic about that. They won't tell someone that they think their record blows. I don't think you're doing anyone a favor by doing that. 'Cause then if someone has made a mistake and they keep getting rewarded, then they have no reason to change. Like I saw Tad last night, and there is some stuff on the new album that I think is just pansy-ass crap. And I think Tad is much better at being a ballsy, hard-ass maniac.

MRR #112: If you hear a song, do you make a decision about whether you like it or not right away?

Steve Albini: Nah. Usually it makes an impact on me and then the more I listen to it the more I can solidify what I feel about it. I'm a firm believer in the theory that people like what they're going to like, and they figure out why afterwards. I'm exactly that way. I'll listen to stuff and it will either affect me or not affect me or I'll like it or not like it. Then it takes me a long time to figure out why.

MRR #112: Have you ever run into a record and wished you had produced it because you felt you could make it so much better?

Steve Albini: Yeah. I never actually thought of that before, but there was one band that I can think that about, because I saw them live and they just blew my mind, and listening to their records I thought they sounded horrible.

MRR #112: Do you think that a recording should be more raw?

Steve Albini: In general. The way people are taught to limit the degree of the loud to quietness so that you don't lose anything. And then to limit the tonal range so you don't depend too heavily on the bass or treble end of things in people's stereos. Then to control the process so that nothing erratic happens.

That tends to make for very boring records. Sometimes they have hi-fi sound, but nothing unpredictable ever happens. I think it's a lot more important to make room for mistakes.

MRR #112: In the insert of the last Big Black album, Songs About Fucking, it is dedicated to bands that don't write love songs. Was that a rule of thumb for you?

Steve Albini: I just think the subject's covered. It was never even a consideration.

MRR #112: Where did you get the name "Big Black"?

Steve Albini: Just made it up when I was in college. I thought, "Oh, I'm going to have this dark and scary rock band, and it's going to be called 'Big Black!'"

MRR #112: What Big Black work are you the most satisfied or dissatisfied with?

Steve Albini: There's plenty that I'm embarrassed by. The whole first Big Black record, Lungs, I recorded by myself, and it just makes my flesh crawl. I can't listen to that record anymore.

The best was side one of Songs About Fucking. I was real pleased with the way we did that. We just hopped into the studio, banged all the songs out and hopped out. Didn't take long, didn't cost much, just real smooth. Side two we recorded at a more leisurely pace and I think that hurt us. And that Cheap Trick song got on the tape and the CD by accident, and we just left it on.

I'm totally against extra tracks on CDs because I think CDs have way too much going for them right now. I don't like them and I'd like to encourage everybody out there not to buy them -- because they're a bad deal for the artist and a good deal for the labels.

And despite what you've been told, they do not last half as long as albums. I've got CDs now that were made in 1985, less than six years old, that are already rotting.

CDs are a temporary format that costs very little to make and a lot to buy in the record store, so there's a huge profit margin for the labels. The artists on CDs are generally not paid (because of the royalty structures) as well as for albums, and the damn things don't sound that great either, I think.

It's a sad decision to discontinue records. The first step was that they started increasing the retail price for albums so that instead of vinyl being $7 and CDs being $13, then it became vinyl $10 and CDs $12. And then they started manufacturing them for lower because of the demands. It used to cost about $1.50 to manufacture and package a vinyl album and $3 to make a CD. Now it costs $.90 to make a CD and almost $2 for vinyl.

So if an artist is getting 16% of the price of an LP they're getting like 8% for a CD. I don't care if I record a band for CD because they tell me what to do. I might suggest stylistic stuff, but they're the boss.

MRR #112: How do you feel when Big Black is called industrial?

Steve Albini: Well, at the time, industrial meant something totally different. When people use that term now, they mean that disco Ministry stuff.

When the term was first used it was to describe bands like Throbbing Gristle, Whitehouse and The Cum Organization, and a bunch of bands that didn't have anything to do with music but were just these sounds. I've got albums that were called industrial in the '80s that don't have anything to do with music whatsoever. Explosions, hisses, and noise.

So if somebody calls Big Black an industrial band, I choose it to mean what it did in '82 or '83. It doesn't affect me at all. And as a matter of fact, whatever anybody says about what I do doesn't affect me at all. Because if I'm going to put stuff out for public consumption, then I have to be a big boy and take it when someone says they don't like it.

MRR #112: I remember you being quoted as saying that you cared more about the sounds you and Santiago got out of your instruments than about the quality of the playing.

Steve Albini: Absolutely. The tune aspect means very little to me in my appreciation of music. Emotional content and the textural content mean more to me.