Steve Albini on Page & Plant, Nirvana and how to make a great dill mayonnaise

Plus Hobnobs, fighting and Third World War

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An Audience With… Steve Albini originally appeared in Uncut Take 209 [October 2014].

It’s 10am on a Tuesday morning and Steve Albini has just arrived at the offices of Electrical Audio, the two-studio recording facility in Chicago, Illinois that he founded in 1997. Over the past few decades, Albini has overseen the creation of hundreds of records – among them, legendary albums by the Pixies, Nirvana, Page & Plant, PJ Harvey and the Stooges. Today, however, he politely rebuffs enquiries about his current clients. “I am very discreet, because there are people who will form opinions on bands based on their association with me.”
Of course, Albini is man of many skills, and not all of them lie behind the desk. As singer and guitarist, he has been a mainstay of the American independent scene from his earliest days in Big Black through Rapeman and now Shellac. In fact, this month, Shellac release Dude Incredible, their first album since 2007. Why the long wait? “We mastered it either end of June or beginning of July 2013 and since then we’ve been working on the cover,” he explains. “Trying to get monkeys printed on paper turns out is really difficult. I could totally understand it if we were trying to print wood nymphs on aluminium or something but we’re not. We’re trying to print monkeys on paper. But apparently it’s a new procedure so it’s literally taken that long to get a fucking cover printed. If you see the cover, and you’re familiar with the printing arts, you might understand what some of the technical problems were. But it still seems preposterous that it was so hard. But in the end we’re happy it’s monkeys on paper. We’re fine with it.”
And with that, it’s into to the Uncut mailbag…

What’s your walk-up song?
Kim Deal
I’m going to say “Master Of Sparks” by ZZ Top because the riff in that is unstoppable. The thing that makes baseball much better than other games is because it’s structurally unique. Virtually all other games can be reduced to a pretty simple formula: you’ve got one team in possession of a ball and you’re trying to put that ball in a goal and the other team trying to prevent the movement of that ball or trying to steal the ball to put it in the goal. That’s basically all other team sports and they’re all fucking stupid. I mean, they all run on a fucking clock for a start. There’s a clock, really? That’s a part of your game? Is some kind of bell going to go off and you lose? That seems fucking ridiculous to me. In baseball, the ball doesn’t do anything except control the behaviour of the players; the players do all the scoring. The defence team is in possession of the ball and in control of the ball, that’s the only team where that’s true. It’s got some formal similarities to cricket in that regard but cricket, I feel like there is a crippled quality to it. You’ve only got two bases. But I’m a baseball fan and baseball is clearly the superior game.


Have you ever been in a fist fight?
Kelley Deal
When I was an adolescent, I was in a couple of actual fights. I really detest violence and its practice. I don’t respect or admire fighting, wrestling, boxing, MMA – things like that. I can appreciate the effort and the conditioning and the tactical elements of it but it still boils down to physically trying to incapacitate another person. Children and animals fight, I don’t think there’s anything to be respected about fighting. I feel like watching fighting as entertainment is fucking barbaric, I don’t care if it’s chickens or dogs or people. Seeing people execute violence on each other as a pastime or as a sport is revolting to me.

Could you remind me of the recipe for the famous Electrical Audio ‘Fluffy Coffee’? We’ve been trying to recreate it and never seem to get it right.
David Gedge
It’s a pretty simple procedure. You have an espresso machine. You grind espresso grade coffee very fine and mix one portafilter worth of espresso coffee with about a quarter teaspoon of finely ground cinnamon. Don’t just sprinkle the cinnamon on the coffee; you have to mix it in with the coffee. If you sprinkle it across the top of the coffee it congeals it into a matte and prevents the water from percolating through the portafilter. Tap that mix down and that’s now prepared to make a shot of cinnamon-infused espresso. Before you make the shot of cinnamon infused espresso, put a tablespoon or more of maple syrup in the bottom of a pint class and half or three quarters fill that pint glass with whole milk. Then, using the steaming wand on your espresso machine, steam that milk and froth it so that it fills the pint glass to the top with foam. You now have a pint glass full of maple syrup infused milk with foam on the top of it. The foam is also infused with maple syrup and that stabilises the foam and makes it tasty like a marshmallow. Now you pull the shot of espresso from the espresso machine that you have charged with your coffee and cinnamon and dump it in one motion into the pint glass filled with foamy, hot milk. That is a traditional hot fluffy coffee. I’m convinced that if I had have come up with the fluffy coffee before we bothered building the studio, I wouldn’t have needed to build it. I’d just have little van of some place that makes these and I’d fucking print money.

Ask Steve what prostaglandins are.
David Yow, The Jesus Lizard
He probably doesn’t mean the actual definition, which he could find on the internet. He wants me to make something up, so I’m going to say that’s the resultant stock made by boiling socks and/or underwear to kill lice and nits.


How many Hobnobs do you eat a day?
Stuart Braithwaite, Mogwai
There was a period where I was making a lot of records in England and I was in the company of English people and Scottish people in particular and I would go through a packet of Hobnobs a day. Hobnobs with hot tea, it might very well be the prefect food. Instead of looking for a thing to sustain mankind on the intergalactic journey to another planet, they just want one food that they can feed generations while the spaceship is travelling to a new home planet. Hobnobs and hot tea, absolutely no questions you could survive on that.

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Who would you like to work with before you die?
Sean Parker, Chester
I’ve been a lifelong fan of Crazy Horse and I admire Neil Young in many ways. But primarily, I appreciate his skills as a guitar player and the way he takes my most uncomfortable thoughts and makes them concrete using pure sound. I think I could do a good job with one of his records. But he’s a very particular guy, he lies to do things in a very particular way and I can’t blame him for it because the results have been spectacular. Lifetime and long-term, he’s got an unbelievable batting average. All of my favourite music has been made by people whose general perspective has been to do it their way with a disregard for the audience and I can only admire that. Neil Young – top of the list and then Willie Nelson, unbelievable musician – always surrounds himself with really interesting players, he puts himself in really awkward situations. I think Dolly Parton is an underrated songwriter and musician and I think it would be great to work on her.

PJ Harvey says you make a great dill sauce. What’s your secret?
Rose, Brighton
She’s probably talking about a dill mayonnaise I was making for a while. There’s no secret, it’s a classic. You emulsify an egg yolk. I use olive oil because I like strongly flavoured mayonnaise but you could use sunflower oil or rapeseed oil if you wanted a more neutral flavour. You emulsify an egg yolk with oil and some acid. I typically use either vinegar or some lemon juice but you could also use something tart or sour to offset the oiliness. A little bit of salt, black pepper, white pepper, Cayenne pepper, something like that to make it a little spicy and then a load of fresh chopped dill. Use just the fronds and chop it as fine as possible. You could also use dill seed if you want a more uniform texture. You could powder the dill seed in a mortar and pestle and then use that. But I can of like that little speckly, yellow, aioli-looking stuff with the green flecks of dill. I think that’s pretty nice. It’s a great universal sauce.

I once saw on eBay a Shellac-branded weight loss/belt massager machine from the 1940s or 1950s. Someone had won it from you in a competition. What qualities does a machine have to have to be worthy of the Shellac brand?
Ivy, London
All the items that were made into Shellac items for that competition, they were all just things that were physically appealing and were simple technologies that we thought had not been appreciated. There was a beauty parlour-sit-down-hair-drying machine. Obviously, they were terribly inefficient but kind of beautiful and outmoded. There was a vacuum tube tester that was aesthetically gorgeous, and it had really beautiful arrangement of controls The exercise belt? The idea behind it was that it would do the moving for you so that you wouldn’t have to exert yourself and exercise. Completely pointless and couldn’t possibly be of any value. But, beautiful and funny to watch. We inserted little golden tickets into a number of our albums – I think it was 10. The tickets were printed by a friend of ours as a sort of certificate and they were called Shellac Dollars. If you got a Shellac Dollar in your record you could return it with your address to receive one of these prizes. We tried to make it so that the prizes were substantial.

Why do you think the guitar belt – as opposed to the strap – hasn’t taken off in popularity?
Tim Bugbee
It is slightly awkward to put the guitar around your waist if you’ve never done it before. I really like the freedom of mobility I have with the guitar bound to me like that. I feel like my arms aren’t encumbered, I haven’t got a weight around my neck. I have a lot to recommend it. A friend of mine, Marissa Paternoster from the punk band Screaming Females in Brunswick, New Jersey, had debilitating neck, back and shoulder pain so she wanted my advice about wearing a guitar around her waist. She found a company making special harnesses for guitars. The only drawback to that is that it requires you to put a strap button on the lower bout of your guitar. That is the bit under where you’re hand goes when you’re shredding and she modified her guitar to have that thing for it and now she’s happy as a clam. So there are other around-the-waist guitar set-ups. The thing that I like about my guitar strap arrangement is that it just uses a conventional guitar strap, you don’t have to have anything special.

The original sleeve for Big Black’s Headache is one of the nastiest record covers ever. What was your reasoning behind that?
Glenn Burke, Appleby
A number of things. Partly as a visual pun. Partly because there aren’t that many images you can look at where you can identify with the image. You instantly imagine how that could happen to you. A major component of Big Black’s aesthetic was this idea that we are all susceptible and vulnerable to dark thoughts or aberrant behaviour. We are all vulnerable to situations beyond our control, you’re not special, you’re not safe and you’re not better than all these other people. You look at a picture of another person and they’re totally traumatised like that and you can’t help but picture yourself or someone you know in that situation and instantly you feel weakened by it. I’m deducing all this after the fact because we certainly didn’t have this conversation when we did it. We just saw the picture and we were like “Wow! We should use that picture!” Everybody in the band was like “Yeah, you’re right that would be perfect.”

Were there any bands you really wanted to get on the bill but couldn’t, when you’ve curated various All Tomorrow’s Parties events?
Cheri Dickens, Edinburgh
My biggest disappointment was Bill Withers. We have a backdoor contact for him. We made some enquiries but he just wasn’t interested in performing. There was a documentary on his current life called Still Bill that was made four or five years ago. It’s really enlightening. If I had seen that documentary before approaching him about performing on All Tomorrow’s Parties, I don’t know if I would have approached him. Because it’s clear from this documentary that he’s quite content making music for himself on a very personal scale and he’s not interested in being part of the public eye anymore. I feel like, in a way, being ignorant of that was my fault. It was a big disappointment at the time.

How did Plant and Page approach you to record Walking Into Clarksdale?
Robert Dawes, Chorlton
I literally got a phone call from Robert Plant. It was pretty incredible. You’re talking about people who are responsible for a half-dozen of the best records ever made and who have shaped the idiom of my lifetime and those people called me on the phone to talk about working on their record. I mean there isn’t an English word for how I felt, it was enormously flattering. Going into it, I knew it was kind of an impossible challenge to satisfy their core audience and make a record that they wanted to make. I would do another record with Page and Plant in a heartbeat. They were totally professional with me. It was clear that they were in charge of everything, but it was also clear that they appreciated the effort that everybody was making on their behalf. I was impressed with how collaborative Robert Page and Jimmy Plant were, bearing in mind that there was a previously existing power structure where it was Jimmy Page’s band and Robert was hired to be the singer and in the interim, Robert Plant had gone on to become a very successful solo artist and now should be able to call the shots in a lot of situations. Jimmy Page was differential to him in that regard. A very similar experience for me was when I got to work on a record by The Stooges. I feel very lucky in that I have literally had my wildest dreams come true a couple of times.

Are you still a fan of proto-punkers Third World War?
Philip Delahunte, London
What an incredibly underrated band. They were radical, Communist, they were openly advocating overthrow the crown which is technically treasonous. Really rough, confrontational singing, really skeletal, stripped down music, biting guitar sounds. If their music had got more attention, I would be really surprised if they didn’t get legitimate police attention because of their subject matter. The best thing about Third World War is probably that after they made the first album Third World War, they decided they were going to make another album and they may have decided to make another album for no other reason than to name it Third World War Two and that would’ve been a perfectly valid decision. That is without question, the greatest album title of all time.

How did it feel to revisit In Utero for the 20th anniversary?
Sean McCarthy
At the time, there was a political problem between the band and the label. In the end, the record as it was released was accompanied by a rather unpleasant attempt by the record label to blame me for its failure which is a really bizarre perspective from a record label saying “This is a new record from a hit band. We hope you love it, if you don’t it’s Steve Albini’s fault.” It was an unpleasant six months for me and I almost went broke during that period. So there was a bit of bad taste in my mouth regarding that record when it was released. I tried not to personalise that towards the band, and it was great to reconnect with Krist down the road and realise we were still friendly and cordial and we can still work together. It was gratifying that the people responsible for that reissue were willing to let them go the distance for quality and by that I mean we had the original masters for the original LP sessions and I suggested that we do the vinyl reissue as double twelve inch and that we cut it direct into metal at Abbey Road and they signed off on all of that. I said I was happy to oversee the mastering and they signed off on that as well. So I got to see the production aspect of the reissue version of the original mix through to the very end. That was very satisfying and in the end I don’t know how to make a record better than that.


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