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What we learned from Steve Albini’s appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast

on October 29, 2015, 3:30pm

Music is a big, big part of Marc Maron’s world, and therefore a key element of his WTF Podcast. He’s welcomed everyone from Lemmy, to Laura Jane Grace, to Mick Jagger onto his garage-based program, and today he added another icon to the list. Respected recording engineer (don’t call him a producer) Steve Albini was in town playing some gigs with his band Shellac over the summer, and he stopped by the Cat Ranch to chat with Maron.

The conversation opened with discussions about how Albini’s dad worked on the Titan C3 mission and Reagan’s Star Wars plan; discovering punk in Missoula, Montana; and how Maron is still close with a mohawked woman he once met at a show Albini played in a shitty Boston venue years ago. Albini tells a great story about how he was a nerdy agitator in college, and how he once got a friend tossed out of a frat party by pretending the friend was actually Albini. They also touched upon how Yes’ “Roundabout” is “essentially the entire career of the band Rush condensed and executed to perfection”; how “If a song starts with cowbell, you turn it up, because the number of great songs that start with a cowbell is extraordinary”; and how music culture has moved online.

There was also deeper conversation about how The Ramones changed Albini’s world view, the most meaningful records of his career, and working with the likes of Iggy Pop and the Pixies. You can listen to the whole conversation over at WTFPod.com, or check out the quoted highlights below.

On how discovering The Ramones in high school changed his perspective on music and the world:

“The subject matter of The Ramones’ music was all the same sort of childish shit that my friends and I were talking about. Outsider culture, trash popular culture, horror movies, comics — stupid childish shit that we had clung to and that we had imbued with this significance in our peer group. And The Ramones were taking that stuff seriously, so suddenly I thought maybe I can take these perverse notions that roll through my mind seriously. They’re singing songs about a chainsaw massacre or sucking dick for drug money, whatever they’re singing about — that’s legit then. I can entertain those thoughts in my own head. I don’t have to suppress them.”

On how becoming an engineer was a necessary extension of being in a band that wanted to record music, and what that means for people going to college for music engineering:

“I went from being a college student to being a professional in that business to being self-employed as a recording engineer. I was doing recordings the whole time. I think the expectation now is that at the end of a university program, you’re qualified to work in an industry and then you can work in that industry. Specifically in recording, there’s just so much stuff that you pick up in the saddle, that I just don’t think that’s realistic. Besides, there’s just no jobs. No one’s hiring engineers … The main thing is that if you’re interested in it, you will pursue it anyway and then you will find a way to make it part of your life.”

On getting hired to record the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa while he still worked at a photo touch-up agency, and what he thought of the band:

“Their English record label essentially sent my name down from above and said, ‘You should talk to Steve Albini about doing your record.’ I don’t think they’d ever heard of me. I don’t think they knew who I was … I contacted them, I heard their cassette. I thought they were an interesting band, I thought I could work on their record and probably do okay. They were one of the first bands that I worked on where they weren’t part of my immediate peer group … Charles [“Black Francis” Thompson IV] is a distinctive songwriter. I thought he had some odd ideas that I thought were under-represented. To this day, I have a very close relationship with Kim Deal. I think she has an absolutely magical voice. I think she is a genius and she thinks about music in a unique way. I consider myself very close to her in terms of her musical existence. I really admire her and I’m proud of that association. The Pixies, as a band, they were fine. Whatever. They were fine. I thought as a band, their music was kind of unremarkable. Especially considering the extraordinary range of experiences that you could have in the punk scene at the time, I felt like their music was fairly conservative.”

On his impact on Surfer Rosa:

“Even then I didn’t think that I was able to … you can’t turn a sausage into a trout. I didn’t have that kind of disillusion. I think I did insert myself into the personality of the record a little much, to my way of thinking. The little bits of recorded conversation that ended up in the record and certain sonic aspects of it I think were driven more by my ambition than the band’s organic [desires]. That actually left a bad taste in my mouth thinking that for the rest of their career this band has to answer for all these little gags that are on their record that weren’t their idea, but they have to go to their grave with that hung on them as part of their legacy…

That helped to shape my current philosophy, which has been since then, I tend not to insinuate myself too much into the personality of the record. I tend not to try to exert much control over the music I’m recording. I would go as far as to say I try to avoid forming opinions about the music that I work on as an engineer because I think it’s inappropriate … I’ve seen that mentality of the engineer trying to use his tastes and his perception of the music, I’ve seen that be detrimental. If the band is really into something and they have a method that they’ve used to form the personality of the band, I don’t want to interfere with that. It’s also, on one hand, its none of my business. Because that’s all internal talk about what goes on with the band, what their aesthetic is and what they want to sound like. My tastes are pretty fucked up, the music that I listen to is kind of absurd and a disaster.”

On why he thinks musicians keep coming back to record with him:

“I flatter myself in thinking that I do a good job. I think that that’s a baseline that a lot of people have been frustrated by. A lot of bands have felt like they were treated ineptly previously in the studio. If you listen to a record from a band that you’re familiar with and you think, ‘Wow, that sounds convincingly like that band.’ And then you look at the credits and it’s me that did the recording, that’s very gratifying to me. And also that might entice you to bring your band to me. I like to think that’s a part of it: On a base level, I do a good job. Secondary to that, I’m also a bargain. For people in my position who do what I do, I charge significantly less than most of the people who have that kind of CV and that kind of tenure and who have been doing it as long and have that kind of facility available.”

On why he’s careful of taking credit and opts not to take royalties on recordings he’s engineered:

“I’m sensitive about getting credit for aesthetic decisions that the band or the musicians make because I’m aggressive about not participating in those decisions. If you listen to a record and you say, ‘Wow, that’s really brilliant the way they did that with the music there,’ that’s them. That’s not me … I’ve never been interested in a career in that sense. I just like my job and I want to keep doing it…

I don’t take royalties on records that I work on partly because I think it’s part of a system that exploits musicians and artists in a way that I’m just not comfortable with. But also I just don’t feel like my job warrants it. There’s a fundamental thing that I’ve noticed about the music scene which is that whenever anyone wants to be paid a percentage — for whatever it is, management, booking agent, promoter, whatever — whenever somebody wants to be paid a percentage of what would otherwise be your income, that person is being overpaid. I feel like not participating in that system makes it easier for me to get to sleep, and also means that the differential — the money that would otherwise have gone to me — that’s going to the band. And I feel good about that. I feel good about knowing that the members of Nirvana, for example, are a couple million dollars richer as individuals. It’s their music, it’s their record. They deserve that money. They made those records, and they lived that experience. It’s not like I’m hurting; I can still make rent. I just keep doing my job and I keep getting paid…

Other people maybe have not realized that they’re exploiting other people. It’s easy to either feign ignorance or prefer ignorance in a situation like that.”

On why he calls himself a recording engineer, and how the term “producer” has evolved:

“There are people who make completely finished backing tracks and then they can apply a vocalist over any portion of that track to finish it, to complete it. And in that sense, those people are authors of that music. But when a band comes in with a song that they wrote four years ago, that they’ve been playing on the road and that is an embodiment of their aesthetic, and they knock that song out in two takes. And I just sit in that chair and hit record, there’s no way that I deserve more than just an hourly wage, basically, for what I’ve done. That’s the situation that I’m in most commonly. I’m recording what a band is doing organically…

[Producers] are, like, bossing people around. And they’re telling people to ‘keep the hi-hat a little more peppery on the top,’ shit like that. If you’re doing that, I’m proud to not be associated with that.”

On two records that are “big” for him: Teeth’s The Strain and The Breeders’ Title TK:

“I did a record a couple years ago now for a guy named John Grabski. He had been given a terminal cancer diagnosis. After having beaten cancer previously, the caner reasserted itself and he had a terminal diagnosis. He had two options in his treatment. He could maintain a sort of normal quality of life for a relatively short period or he could maybe extend his life by being very aggressive with the treatment at the expense of much lessened quality of life. And he chose to live his life as normally as he could and let the cancer take its course, but he was going to try to be productive with the months or weeks that he had left. He contacted me and said he wanted to make an album documenting his relationship with the disease. And that’s how he wanted to spend his last months on Earth … The name of the band is Teeth and the album is called The Strain. It’s an incredible record, it’s a great record, it’s a brutal record. It’s a really eyes-open assessment of his — they call it a struggle; it’s not a struggle. It’s a relationship. It’s his relationship with the disease from the inside. It’s kind of like a war correspondent giving the rest of the world a synopsis of the action. Along with him just expressing himself about his emotional state and his feelings and his fear.

A few years earlier, Kim Deal had been contacting me about making a record under the name of The Breeders. She had gone through a bunch of personal stuff. Her actual band The Breeders had dissolved under her. She tried to mount another version of that band and that was a failure. She’d burned through a whole bunch of money. She was kind of at the end of her rope in terms of that relationship. We got started making the record and she had been suspicious of me, as she had grown to become suspicious of other recording engineers who had been trying to hoodwink her into doing things in ways she didn’t want to. And that re-opened our relationship. We hadn’t interacted much since the first Breeders record that I worked on. It was called Pod. In the intervening years, she had seen a lot of changes in her personal life, gone through a bunch of shit. If that session had gone poorly, if she hadn’t been able to reanimate The Breeders at that point, I shudder to think what other things might have gone wrong for her. But we had a very successful session. We carried on with more, she formed a new version of the band around the success of those initial sessions. We recorded something with that band, she carried on. And since then she has recorded several Breeders records … This was a record called Title TK. That record reestablished my relationship with Kim. She’s become a dear friend. I have an enormous amount of respect for her and her aesthetic and her perseverance through all the bullshit she’s been saddled with.”

Why it’s not the records that he makes, but the people he makes them with that is important:

“What I’m most proud of are those long standing relationships. Where it’s not just that I’m working with someone again and again, but it’s that whole range of experiences that was hinted at to me by the idea of punk rock as expressed by The Ramones. All of that is all true. I get to experience all these life experiences. I get to have all these long, meaningful friendships and professional relationships that transcend any artifact that you make along the way … The records are signposts.”

On recording The Weirdness with The Stooges:

“That was an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. Just hanging out with The Stooges for a month was maybe the coolest thing I’ve ever done … Just hearing Iggy’s voice over the intercom when you ring the doorbell and it’s just, ‘Yeah, it’s Iggy.’ It’s the best! If I could time travel back to 15-year-old me and say, ‘Don’t worry about all this bullshit. One of these days you’re going to get to record The Stooges’ album. It’s gonna be great.’ It was exactly the experience you would want. Iggy was a huge personality. He had his shirt off the whole time. He’s wrought iron, that guy. What you think Iggy Pop is, what you think if I ran into Iggy Pop what it would be like — that’s exactly what it’s like!

Particularly for Ron and Scott [Asheton] — they’re both gone now — but they had always been short-changed. It was their band. They never really achieved any sort of significant success during the initial iteration of the band … And to see them see their band sort of reanimated like that in its original incarnation. Like, this is the band that we’ve always wanted and we’ve got it back and we’re playing to sell-outs every night and people love us. That was very satisfying for them. To see their ambition for themselves, to see it realized like that in a really tangible way after so long. Just to get another bite of the apple was really, really great.”

On watching Fred Armisen’s career blossom firsthand:

“There’s a guy who used to work in the bands in Chicago named Fred Armisen. Terrific dude. He honed his comic skills by mocking and playing with all the people in — He used to work at a club called Lounge Ax, which was a club where all the bands would tour through. He would play pranks on the bands. That’s where a lot of his comic sensibility came from … Seeing him go from being just, like, Fred from Lounge Ax, to being this international television star, that’s one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever witnessed up close. He’s the first person that I’ve ever known that wanted to become famous, and then through strength of will and being funny, made himself famous.

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