Today, cranky lord of the mixing board Steve Albini submitted himself to an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. This means that random users asked him random questions for a few hours, and he gave responses as he saw fit. Many of the answers were very, very interesting. Steve Albini, of course, is the owner of Electrical Audio studios in Chicago, and has produced incredible albums from Nirvana, the Breeders, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Cloud Nothings, Screaming Females, and countless other independent rock bands. Below are 10 especially interesting excerpts from today's exchange; we encourage you to check out the whole conversation.
1. Artists he'd work with
Q: If you could work with any band/artist (past or present) who would you choose?
Albini: Patsy Cline, Neil Young or AC/DC.
2. Playing Scrabble while recording?
Q: In a pretty recent interview, Dylan Baldi from Cloud Nothings said:
"Steve Albini played Scrabble on Facebook almost the entire time [we were recording]. I don't even know if he remembers what our album sounds like."
Is that true? Did you not enjoy the recording process or is that just part of your "hands off" approach?
Albini: When I first started making records I would sit in front of the console concentrating on the music every second. I found out the hard way that I tended to fiddle with things unnecessarily and records ended up sounding tweaked and weird. I developed a couple of techniques to avoid this, to keep me from messing with things while still paying attention enough to catch problems. For a long time I would read, but it had to be really dry, un-interesting stuff. The magazine the Economist was perfect, as were things like technical manuals and parts catalogs. I had a stack of them by the console. It can't be anything interesting or with a story line like fiction because then you can get engrossed and stop paying attention to the session. It has to be really dull, basically, so you are looking for an excuse to put it down and do something else. This has proven to be a really good threshold, so that if anything sounds weird or someone says something you immediately give it your full attention and your concentration hasn't been ruined by staring at the speakers and straining all day.
Lately I play Scrabble, and it serves the same purpose.
3. Streaming vs. physical format
Q: Do you have a viewpoint on the streaming vs. physical media debate?
Albini: Sure. For anything that matters and I'll want to have around forever, I want a record. For casual listening I think streams are great. Super convenient both for listeners and bands trying to get their music out. If you're talking about money, then I side with the listeners. I don't think you should have to pay to listen to something. That just seems like a normal, decent position.
4. On jazz
Q: Why don't you like jazz?
Albini: Because it sucks and I'm tired of hearing about it. Believe me I've tried. I just hate the parts I hate about it more than I like the little things there are to like. The batting average is just so low I can't bear the dead time between highlights being filled with all that noodling. It's vain music.
5. On recording Nirvana's In Utero
Q: What happened when you were helping to produce Nirvana's In Utero? Didn't they decide to go with someone else on the singles?
Albini: Long story, but basically the standard protocol for a big record company at the time was for players in the industry to try to claim authorship of a successful record somehow -- this guy did the A&R, this guy did the legal, this guy was the producer, this guy remixed it -- so credit for success stayed within the industry and players could use it as professional capital. Nirvana made a record by themselves, outside all that influence, and it made everybody inside uncomfortable enough to try to derail it and get them to do it over. Additionally, it's normal for any band to have some slight misgivings about their record once it's in the can, everybody does. The label put pressure on the band, partially using me as a publicity scapegoat, to get them to do the record over, and that coupled with their natural uncertainty eventually created enough doubt that they re-mixed a couple of songs.
I know the label was directly involved with blaming me because I got more than one call from music journalists who said, "I just got off the phone with Gary Gersh and he says the Nirvana album is un-releasable and it's your fault."
The record that made it into the stores is the one Nirvana wanted you to hear, and I'm content with that. I have no beef with Nirvana, they were a normal bunch of guys under extraordinary stress and they behaved normally. All the motherfuckers around them, all their functionaries and managers and label parasites, those petty little people who fucked with them to preserve their positions within the industry, fuck every last one of them.
6. On Journalism
Q: Steve, I'm 25 years old, I'm thinking about a career in journalism.. Thoughts, tips? Thanks for all the wonderful sounds! Drink kerosene!
Albini: There's very little left of the newspaper industry, and that's what my journalism background was in, so I have no advice. Reporting is the lost art, so you could distinguish yourself by actually doing legwork and digging out primary sources rather than reposting crap you see on Twitter. If you don't want to work hard, find something you can do from your iphone probably. Or a blog.
7. On Michael Azerrad's seminal indie history, Our Band Could Be Your Life
Q: Did you like the way you were portrayed in Our Band and the book's portrayal of the '80s independent scene as a whole?
Albini: That book is always going to be weird for me. I lived through everything Azerrad describes in the book, and his descriptions generally sound at least a little off. That's to be expected of course, since I was there and he wasn't, but it seemed like he had an agenda or a thematic arc he wanted to follow that was only glancingly associated with the reality of the times. It's basically impossible for an outsider to write a book about a bunch of my closest friends and comrades having their formative experiences without it seeming stupid or ignorant sometimes. That said, I devoured the Minutemen chapter.
Basically the '80s underground was an array of distinct local scenes of incredible fertility, and there was nothing unifying about them other than outsider status and that some of the principals knew about each other. Trying to tie it all together in a conceptual framework is a fools errand, much like the cuisines of India, Japan, and Russia are not similar despite all being "Asian."