Bigger Black: 5 Easy Pieces w/Steve Albini
Five questions, not a single one about music, that's the deal.
Cybill Shepherd framed it best when she, as Betsy in Taxi Driver, said “bringing me to a place like this is about as exciting to me as saying ‘let’s fuck.’” By which I mean any time any one has any opportunity to talk to musician and recorder of music of note Steve Albini, invariably they talk music. Which makes sense. You don’t talk to a matador about fly fishing.
But multiple decades in there’s not a lot that Steve has said about music that people who care what Steve has to say about music have not already heard. And while the “let’s fuck” come on works wonders, on me, at the very least, if I had the briefest of windows into Steve’s head on any given day the last thing I would do is ask him about music.
Mostly because that was never why I wandered down Steve’s street in the first place. Before Shellac, before Rapeman, before Big Black, it was some shit he had written for Forced Exposure that got my attention. It was funny, trenchant and most importantly for me, at the time, it radiated a sort of intelligence that everyone even remotely interested in punk rock had worked hard to conceal.
And, oh yeah, it was mean.
Not like Wilson Pickett pistol-whip you mean. Not Tallulah Bankhead mean (read: catty). It was more like William Burroughs mean: dry, cutting and willing to argue the point. I was sold. Then I started to listen to the music and became a fan of the music I started to listen to.
Eventually getting a postcard from Steve with cowboys on a cattle drive and bearing portions of the “Cowboy’s Prayer” on it, I contacted him, unsure of why he had sent it other than to say that he has listened to Oxbow’s Fuckfest, and then King of the Jews.
Lately people have been told they should feel good about shitting on somebody, and it's no mystery who's going to get shit on.
He was in the best of all possible spaces/places though and so it was me who finally brought up the possibility of him recording Oxbow. He said it wasn’t just possible but probable and through Let Me Be a Woman, and then later Serenade in Red, Steve recorded two Oxbow records.
In the photo above he had just told me that if I beat him at a game of pool he’d not charge us for the session and on top of that he’d give me $1000. If I lost? His fee stood and I bore/wore the shame. It was a bet I’d have been a fool not to take. The look on my face in the photo is when I’ve calculated that I’m never going to see that $1000 because I was hustled by a hustler who is smart enough to know that no one who knows anything about life takes gambling seriously.
Which brings us here to FIVE EASY PIECES…five questions, not one about the discipline/art for which the person is known, five answers.
[ONE] Having lived on this earth for approximately the same amount of time, I am wondering what kind of sense -- after remembering The Hard Hat Riot in 1970 and the Democrats losing the south in the '60s (and then the working class in subsequent decades), skinheads, and now Proud Boys -- you have been able to make of the durability of this retrograde understanding of race in America? I have maintained it's not about race at all but class, but I know someone like Gavin McInnes comes from cash and is rich now sooooooo....
STEVE: Racism has nothing to do with class, or at least not with being working class. Trump's supporters were more affluent than average Americans, as are the longstanding class of overt white nationalists that pre-dated him. In general Trump's biggest support/donations/grass roots came from the richest people in poor areas. The bosses, the landowners, guys who own gas stations, workshops and car lots -- all the people profiting off the unskilled labor. Sure the uneducated white vote skews racist, but economic class has very little to do with it. Lately people have been told they should feel good about shitting on somebody, and it's no mystery who's going to get shit on. Also, the working poor are not predominantly white, quite the contrary, so I always bristle at the economic excuses for racism.
Remember, when the hard hats were counter-protesting the hippies, they had union jobs and were solidly middle-class. It wasn't until recently that working stiffs couldn't make ends meet, and as those economic conditions prevailed, those jobs lost status, union representation and became more like service work, which fell predominantly to minorities and immigrants.
Since 2000 or so the best predictor for support for the GOP is economic security. The more wealth, the stronger the correlation. I think there's a bit of an academic interest in preserving the notion of a noble rural working class, and that thinking has spilled over, Hillbilly Elegy-style, into some of the excuses made for Trump support and general bigotry. It's bullshit. There's 24-hour propaganda on Fox, Sinclair and the AM band telling their audience it's good to hate people unlike themselves, the hated deserve it, and they deserve to enjoy hating them.
Rogan, Barstool, all the anti-woke comics, just fuck them all in the eye. It's trash garbage and I want it all to fail.
[TWO] I remember at some point you were doing this charity drive, a kind of local action that I had lots of respect for, but I'm more of the If the Roof Is On Fire Let the Motherfucker Burn school. Despite a reputation for cynicism that might confuse you, you were a superhero here it seems. What led to this?
STEVE: I met a good woman who started us both on a path of service. Heather Whinna runs Poverty Alleviation Charities (unconditionalgiving.org), which is an outgrowth of the two of us and some friends raising money and giving it to poor people on Christmas every year. It started out small, but by now she's given out several million dollars in direct aid to poor families, enough to change the trajectory of their lives. It seems obvious, but the solution for a family suffering poverty is to get them money. Not a tax credit, not a program, not something they need to qualify for or jump through hoops to access, just give them money. We've been doing it for more than 20 years now and it's not enough by any means, but it works.
[THREE] And living in Chicago, I really need to ask, is there anything that would/could sensibly lower Chicago's murder rate? Outside of no longer having Rahm as mayor?
STEVE: Well turning the police loose on the neighborhoods certainly isn't going to do it. I'm not an urban policy expert but as a regular guy I'd guess we need large scale economic development and small business grants within the city, a living wage law, job and housing guarantee programs along with investment in schools, rather than closing them and offloading to for-profit charter schools. I'd really like to see Postal Banking return, so people don't have to use shady check-cashing stands and high-fee ATMs to access their money, and citywide free broadband for business and personal use.
[FOUR] Some folks who have gotten their tickets punched I begrudgingly still embrace for a variety of complicated reasons. Mike Tyson because he served his time, Paula Poundstone, David Letterman, and Quentin Tarantino? I somehow want to grant a pass. Louis CK, Elvis Costello, Woody Allen, and Roman Polanski I cannot. It's not willful...I just find myself much less interested in their work. Who is on your Keep/Toss list?
STEVE: I respect fighting as a trade less than you, so I was probably off the Tyson bandwagon before it got rolling. Anybody who uses a position of power, status or authority to exploit people who are vulnerable to that power, status or authority is dead to me. I don't care what kind of movies a rapist makes, don't care if other people think they're good, they're rapist movies and I'm not watching them. I have limited attention to lend to other people's art, and I get to choose who deserves it. I'll admit I laughed at Bill Cosby's humor before I knew what a monster he was. Never since. Those Spanish Fly jokes just hit different now.
Roger Ebert spoke at my university and he said one thing that has stuck with me ever since: "Never second-guess a belly-laugh, never second-guess a hard-on."
I've never had a problem with transgressive art, but it sure seems like you can tell when it's just a veneer used to justify being a fucking creep. Always hated Vice, still hate it. Just a parade of gawkers reveling in whatever misery they can observe from an ironic distance. Fuck that shit completely.
Rogan, Barstool, all the anti-woke comics, just fuck them all in the eye. It's trash garbage and I want it all to fail. What if all the stupid shit your racist neighbor you can't stand said was typed up and put on a blog? Nope, still trash, still fuck it. I want them all out looking for work. Into the chipper with all of it.
[FIVE] Have you ever noticed that no amount of telling people you're sexy ever really convinces them that you're sexy? Apropos of that, I am baffled at what qualifies sexy. Please advise.
STEVE: Roger Ebert spoke at my university and he said one thing that has stuck with me ever since: "Never second-guess a belly-laugh, never second-guess a hard-on." What makes you laugh, what makes you horny, those things aren't by your choosing, so don't try to make sense of them. Just laugh and fuck and consider yourself lucky.
The older I get the less certain I am of some things, the more obvious others seem. One that has become clear over time is that nobody deserves your attention, you dole it out and you can decide who deserves it. The idea that we can remove the artist from the art means that art isn't communicating anything after all, it's just decoration, an amusement.
I refuse to look or listen that way. If when you hear music it's just sounds, brother I pity you. If you look at a picture or read a book and it's just a picture or a story then why fucking bother?
Great read. The text of the answer to question number five inevitably will be quilted on to a large white pillow.
interesting interview! new to the site, really excited to read more from you eugene.
i personally feel that to some extent individuals are merely a conduit for expression, and no art truly belongs to the maker. listened to joe rogan when tony hawk was on it and enjoyed it too !