“There should be an asterisk with my credits that I didn’t work on the ‘big one’,” jokes recording engineer Steve Albini, in regards to albums he has been a part of as he was joined in conversation with former Pixies’ bassist-turned-Breeders-frontwoman Kim Deal. The interview — a keynote session at this year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas, was high on my priority list, not only because I was genuinely interested in hearing what the well-rounded figure had to say whilst he interviewed one of his most famous clients, but also because we had set up a chat a week prior and I was ready to get the nerve out of me that had built up.
“What do you think of the festival?” I started out our conversation with, to which I was given a “this is, like, easily the most toxic environment for music and culture that I’ve ever been in. 100 percent assholes.”
Steve Albini has been in the music industry for a good minute at this point, progressing from being in controversial bands such as Big Black and Shellac to producing for Nirvana, the Jesus Lizard, Jawbreaker, and so many others. But I’ll touch up on that later in our conversation. An outspoken critic on the way that certains aspects of the music industry are handled. In fact, he once wrote a piece coined “The Problem With Music.” I asked him about it. Without further ado, here is FPH’s conversation with the one and only, Steve Albini.
Free Press Houston: You prefaced your interview with Kim Deal by stating that you never thought you’d be here at SXSW. What aspects of the festival turn you off? Has it become something that it never sought out to be?
Steve Albini: Yeah, and having been here, I’m certain that my instincts were right. I can’t compare it to anything. The way SXSW used to be, I can’t compare it to that at all. It’s just — the organization of it, the conduct of the organization, the makeup of the clientele of SXSW. Everything about SXSW is just an affront to the way I think about music and culture. There’s one subset of people who are desperately trying to make it, and they are trying to make it through connections and show business savvy and politicking; there’s another subset of people who are trying to exploit those people for their advantage, so they can gain a professional edge. All of it is just conducted in a way that puddies all the cracks and shuts out the indigenous, thriving music and culture scene for a period, as a kind of aztec sacrifice to the Gods of capitalism. The whole thing is just — minutes after I got here I was just fantasizing about a massive chemical spill in the streets and solving all of our problems at once.
FPH: Do you think there are these kind-hearted guy and gal A&R people scouring the streets looking to give a new band this fair deal at the festival?
SA: I don’t know and I don’t care. If they were here, they’d be welcome to die in the chemical spill as well, you know.
FPH: Speaking of A&R, one of your written pieces, the Problem with Music –
SA: Bear in mind the Problem with Music was written 25-plus years ago, so it was a kind of warning to my peers in the music scene about the state of the professional music industry at that time. Things have changed a lot, the professional music industry has winnowed down to a very small, hard core of extremely efficient business men, and when I say efficient, I mean efficient in extracting value from the relationship between the artist and the artist’s audience. So a lot of the preconditions existed in the ’90s that made that sort of alarm necessary don’t exist anymore. The mainstream conventional music business is much weaker, there are many more options and avenues for people to operate independent of it. The music business is not a bogeyman to me at this stage, it’s no longer a threat to my peers; my friends and peers can operate their entire careers successfully outside of the conventional music business. That’s a fantastic development. So having said that, I felt it was an important thing to write at the time.
FPH: In the piece you state “calling people like Don Fleming, Al Jourgensen, Lee Ranaldo or Jerry Harrison “producers” in the traditional sense is akin to calling Bernie a “shortstop” because he watched the whole playoffs this year.” How true do you still hold that to be?
SA: The term “producer” was a sort of honorific or job title in the era of the music business where the music business was the record business. Producers worked for record labels and they were responsible for, essentially, all of the artistic and technical decisions on a record. After that, there became an era of independent producers hired by bands or record labels to work on specific records. And after that, there was an era of completely independent producers who developed relationships with bands and worked independent and did not come up through the studio or the record label food chain. That, sort of, coincides with the end of the analog technology era where you didn’t need to know as much, from a technical standpoint, in order to do productive work.
The title “producer” now means a number of different things that it didn’t use to mean. In the pop music sense, there are people who are producers who are, essentially, complete artists; that is, they make entire tracks and then the nominal artists — the vocalists — can be superimposed on completed works. In that sense, the producers are effectively auteurs of that whole process.
There are also hip-hop producers who will make beats or even complete, finished tracks in the same manner, and again, they are responsible for everything that’s on the track. That’s a category of producer that didn’t exist prior to the digital era, where people could be making these outside of the studio environment, at home, with limitless amount of time.
The word means what people understand it to mean, so it’s perfectly normal for a word to change meaning over time. Now, the contemporary definition of “producer” includes someone who makes music independent of any artists, and that music can be suited to adapt to another musician, or they can release on their own as an artist. That’s a perfectly reasonable use of the language. I’m fond of evolving language and I don’t like people who cling to archaic terminology. There’s a reactionary element in the music business where people are objecting to things like sampling and the collage use of using other people’s music as their own music. While I think that it can be an extraordinarily weak artistic choice, I certainly do not think that there is anything wrong with it, you know?
By the same token, there are people who think that downloaded music doesn’t qualify as a valid music, and they want people to go to the store and buy a CD or something. At a minimum, they want people to pay to listen to music on their phones, because it allows them to extract capital from that appreciation of music. Again, that’s a throwback. That’s an archaic notion of the way people listen to and value music. I think those people need to get with the times. All of these terms of art and concepts — including the term “producer” and the art of producing — are evolving, and if you cling to a notion of the way something should be, all you are going to do is bristle at the way the rest of the world rubs against you with its new understanding. So I think it’s slightly ironic that I, a guy that sticks to analog working methods — which are seen to many as archaic — has a very open mind about how music is going to be used and consumed and the way the audience of the music will react to the people that produce it. The old model is clearly not equitable.
FPH: There was another keynote at the festival that was pretty interesting; it was with YouTube’s head of music, and he mentioned that they (YouTube) plan on becoming a serious competitor in the streaming business. Your thoughts on that?
SA: I don’t have an opinion on the internal politics of any of the streaming services. They are obviously a channel through which people listen to music, but I think they are a temporary, sort of, stopgap thing. I’ll give you a parallel example: there’s a set top video box that you can buy — they’re available on Amazon — called Thorstream. What it is, is a rather crude computer that attaches to the internet and searches the internet for any video content that you might be interested in — any film that has ever been released, any television program that has ever been broadcasted, public events that had televised broadcasts — and it autonomously finds these things and plays them for you. You don’t download anything, you don’t own a copy of the file, you’re not recording anything; it’s just a device that searches the internet for video content that is of interest to you and it let’s you play it. I think that is a glimpse at what may be coming for all media; that is, if you have interest in an artist, there will come a time when you just speak the name of that artist into your phone and your phone will autonomously find anything that is available by that artist and let you hear it. It is going to do it independent of these streaming services, and it’s going to do it independent of any archaic notions of ownership of property.
The reason I think that that is inevitable is that the internet was designed, at a base level, to allow access from one node to another node, and if there’s an interruption in the connection between them, the internet automatically routes around it. And in that sense, there is a truism that censorship is treated by the internet as a flaw or fault, and the internet routes around the fault; it is a self-correcting mechanism. I believe that some kind of universal access like that is inevitable, and for the moment, people can hold that off by using streaming services. There may be some small number of millionaires made during the period of these streaming services, but ultimately, I think that the streaming services are going to be superseded by something easier, more efficient, and more universal than the [current] streaming services. I do not concern myself with the politics or the finances of the streaming services; I think they are the betamax of the technology. They might have some utility in the short term, but in the long term, they are going to be irrelevant.
FPH: I have read that you studied journalism in university; What caused you to switch over to become more interested in music than writing on news? You have also said that, at least at one point, your heroes were journalists.
SA: I worked on a small, daily newspaper as a part of my college education. I saw the workings of a newsroom on a day-to-day level for a year and there was a degree of internal politics that I was uncomfortable with. I also felt like I was not diligent enough to do excellent journalism. I felt that to do excellent journalism is difficult, because people will lie to you, and you need to find out that they are lying, and then you have to prove to yourself that they were lying, and then you need to gather the evidence you got and be willing to go to print with something that could potentially make people really angry with you. Good journalism is exceedingly difficult and demanding on the journalists. I just did not think I had the personal rigor to do that, and I felt that, if I was going to be a poor journalist, or a lazy one, I should just do it in a sort of way that is inconsequential, like write for a fanzine where you can call people names and there would be no consequences. I did not know it at the time, but print journalism, which was what I was interested in, was a dying industry, and it remains dying. I was glad, on a personal level, that I did not commit life to journalism so I would not just be a crappy journalist on a small town daily newspaper for a few years.
FPH: You are credited with working on over 1,000 records. I also overheard you tell someone that you try to “answer the phone” for any band that calls asking for help. When you first started working on records for other people, did you go in with the mindset that you’ll help as many people as possible or did you ever set out to be someone extremely selective like Butch Vig or Rick Rubin?
SA: It is probably a couple thousand by now. Well, it was sort of self-selecting in the beginning, because in the beginning, I had no reputation or track record, so I was only working for my friends and then my friend’s friends, and then friends of my friend’s friends. It was a very small circle of people that I was making myself useful to as a peer, a part of the punk scene. The scene has a self-identity: punks hung out with other punks and they knew who each other were. So within the music underground, there developed networks where, if you wanted a show in Bloomington, Indiana, there was one guy you would call, because he would be the only one who knew how to set up a show in Bloomington, Indiana. In the sense of needing someone to do recordings of bands, I was that guy for Chicago. Like, “oh, you need need something recorded, this guy, Steve, can do it.” There were a small number of people like that, but in the beginning, every town had someone like that, a go-to guy that did everything. It was self-selecting in the beginning; it was my friends and peers. I liked all of these bands and I liked all of these people.
Because it grew by word of mouth, there was always some tangential connection or thread of continuity or between me and the record I was working on. Over a course of about eight or nine years, it became a career, it became a job. By that time, it was still growing by word-of-mouth, and it wasn’t until the late 1980’s — like ‘89, or something — that I started regularly doing records for bands with whom I had no prior interaction. One of the first bands I recorded that was a not a friend, or a friend of a friend, was the Pixies; [Surfer Rosa] was one of the first records I worked on where it was just me working on a record for a band that that was my first interaction with them. Then having a few more records like that, then that sort of became — the local bands that were my bread and butter and the independent-tier bands around the country and around the world became my clientbase, and I’ve just tried to serve that clientbase ever since.
FPH: Speaking of producing, and to also bring this back to “The Problem with Music,” is a band in for a rough time when they hear their producer use words such as “crunchy” and “warm”?
SA: No. People are trying to communicate something, but I also think that people are trying to look knowledgeable; they’re trying to appear to have a command. [The producer] will use jargon as a way to signify that they are professionals or that they have something of value to the people they’re working for. I try to avoid jargon, because I think jargon is a way of insulating people from having a grasp of what’s happening to their music. If I have to use a technical term for a technical reason, it’s incumbent for me to explain myself to the people I’m working for, so that they know what’s happening to their record. I feel like it’s important for me to feel good about my relationship with the band, it’s important for me to be understood and for me to explain myself. Jargon and industry terms are a way of creating a barrier between the band and a full comprehension of the circumstances.
FPH: I want to conclude with something outside of music that you are fond of, baseball. Being that we’re based out of Houston, I gotta ask, do the Astros have another championship season ahead of them?
SA: I’m actually good friends with Kevin Goldstein, who was the director of pro-scouting for the Houston Astros. He was instrumental in putting together the  team that won the World Series. I texted him moments after the last out, and he was just beaming and ecstatic, and it was just super great to see someone you know achieve something that’s clearly a lifelong aspiration like that. It’s just such a rewarding thing, to be able to see someone spend their whole life thinking of a moment and then have that moment. It was really gratifying. I am a huge and enthusiastic fan of the Houston Astros. In Chicago, my allegiance is with the White Sox, but I don’t think Houston has a lot to fear from the White Sox. But yeah, I am an enormous fan of [the Astros]. I love seeing young players in the prime of their game exceeding expectation. I think José Altuve is one of the most exciting baseball figures in my lifetime, it’s just a joy watching him play. Yeah, big fan.
I also want to thank Steve Albini for being patient as I arrived late to our interview because I was at the wrong hotel. In my defense, it’s totally not cool for Marriott to have two hotels less than five blocks away from each other.