INTERVIEW: Shellac | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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When I got the bucket list opportunity to interview Shellac, the first thing I did was thank them profusely for making their Newcastle debut twenty-seven years into the band’s life, although Steve Albini (lauded guitarist / vocalist / engineer) isn’t so sure. “I’ll take your word for it that we’ve never played in Newcastle before, but as a long-time Viz reader it would surprise me if we’d never made the pilgrimage. The way it works is when we get together to practice, write songs or record, once in a while somebody will say, ‘hey we haven’t been to the UK in a while, let’s do that next.’ Then the next thing you know we’re calling places to book shows in the UK. It’s honestly no more thought out than that.”

“Are you sure we haven’t been there? I seem to remember playing there. But maybe not.”, adds Weston (avuncular bassist). “As we get older, another part of the decision-making process is determining how uncomfortable the travel can be for us, while still being able to play well and put on a good show. Long flights are tough. We need a day to decompress after a long flight and a time zone change. Long drives (which make for a very long day) can be hard on us and so we look for mostly shorter drives with a long one or two interspersed throughout the itinerary, and maybe a day off here and there.  We used to land in London, play a show that night and then a show every night until we flew home.”

“On this trip, for instance: we decided how many days we could all be away from our jobs, decided to end in London, and then just looked at the map and sussed out a logical route with reasonable drives.”, he continues.  “It ended in Glasgow, so that’s where we’re starting. Each day had a few city options at the outset. Those were narrowed down based upon which venues were available on the night we wanted, and what their capacity is.”

 

Earlier this year Shellac released The End Of Radio, which collected two Peel sessions – one from 1994, the other from ten years later, shortly after the death of John Peel. This was recorded in front of a small audience in the studio, with Albini dedicating the title track to the great man. Prior to that, their last album was in 2014 and the new one hasn’t appeared on any schedules yet (indeed, Shellac have only released five ‘proper’ albums in nearly thirty years.) But it is imminent.

Albini: “We are always working on new material, and we fit songs into our sets as they become seaworthy. We like playing songs for a while live before we try recording them, though that isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Since we don’t generally have a theme for our records, it’s always a surprise to look at a particular album in the rear-view mirror and realize it has some kind of arc to it that we didn’t commit to intentionally. In that sense, this batch of songs is no different from any of the others. I’m sure we’ll find some thread of continuity in it once it’s done, but it’s still a long way from done. Of this batch of songs, we’ve been playing four or five pretty regularly and I’d expect around that many to nose their way into an average set.”

Weston: “Whenever we practice we’re probably trying out a new idea, or fleshing out a few that we’ve been working on. Once we finish recording and mixing an album it probably won’t be released for another 18-24 months while we slowly work our way through mastering, package design and layout, artwork, test pressings, test printing (paper types, ink types, finishes, color adjustments, etc), package printing, etc. We still practice during this 1-2 year period and so we’re already working on new songs towards the next album before the “current” album is released; and are probably playing them out. The recording methodology is the same as the past few. It’s recorded to 16-track analogue tape at Steve’s studio by Steve. We’re quite happy with the way everything is sounding.”

Albini in particular has always been a vehement champion of keeping everything independent, and has been quite scathing in the past of bands taking the corporate shilling, whilst admitting that Shellac exist ‘in the margins of the rest of our lives’ and the band don’t depend on it to pay the bills. Bearing this in mind, and the fact that nobody seems to pay for music anymore, has he relaxed his stance at all?

Albini: “Yeah, I think all that is a reasonable response. Everybody does something to pay the rent, and I don’t think less of somebody who finds himself forced to take a terrible job or work in a dishonourable profession to make ends meet. I’ve been friends with drug dealers and cops, sex workers and prosecutors. All of them have days they wish they didn’t do what they did for a living. When I was just out of college, I worked retouching photographs for cigarette ads. Reprehensible. I see that as debasing myself rather than my band, and I have always been proud of our band operating in a way that made us proud. If you attach your music to something tacky or gross, you’re cheapening it of course, and it won’t come as a surprise that people like me will think less of it, because that’s what cheapening it means. But I appreciate that some people are happy to cheapen their music a little bit to earn something, and I can imagine justifying it as a professional risk. I try very hard not to do it myself, but it’s true that not relying on the band as an occupation is liberating. We never have to consider doing something that debases us or the music just for money. There’s an odd perception in the music scene that if you’re not doing music full time as a profession, that you’re somehow less serious than someone who is, and I think that’s exactly backwards. I’m willing to work a full-time job to support my interest in music, like it was a wife and family, and there are millions of people like me. I think that shows that we take it more seriously than somebody who also expects it to be a free ride and pay his rent. “

I know as a band you’ve eschewed any direct political comment in your music, but as things seem more and more fucked (to me, anyway) with terrifying man-babies taking control all over, do you ever feel the need to chime in? Or do you prefer to do that on an individual level, like Steve’s work with Affordable Aid?

Albini: “Once in a while I think it’s worth it to put it out there that you don’t side with the fascists, if only for calibration purposes. We try to be allies to marginalized people and have lent our name and money to progressive causes. I know that we’re generally of a mind within the band, but to avoid putting words in anybody’s mouth, I’m speaking for myself personally when I say I’m a progressive who leans socialist. I believe in progressive taxation, a strong social safety net and an economy regulated to reduce exploitation. I am not quite a prison abolitionist, though I am sympathetic and still listening, and am categorically opposed to privately operated prisons, imprisoning minors, cash bail, mandatory sentences and the death penalty. It will not seem remarkable in the UK, but in the US it is worth noting that I believe healthcare of all kinds should be available free as a human right and paid for from the common purse.”

“I say all these things not out of tribal identity, but so people won’t wonder if they’re unintentionally enabling a closet fascist. I used to wear my hair very short, then I grew uncomfortable with the fascists adopting that style so I let my hair grow for a couple of years. Unfortunately, having waited until my 50s to grow long hair, I had none of the life skills necessary to maintain it, and it frustrated me so much I gave up and went back to wearing short hair. It still bothers me, not that some regular kind person might think I was a fascist, but that a fascist might see me and think he was tuned in on something. I never want a fascist to feel safe in public, I want them to always feel outnumbered and fearful.”

Weston: “I liked Steve’s long hair and don’t understand what ‘life skills’ he feels are necessary and missing in his life-skills-kit. A comb? Some shampoo? A scrunchie? I think he just prefers a short haircut, which is a fine choice (I still think he should give the longer hair another shot). None of us are fascists, regardless of our hairstyles.”

This is going back a bit, but when I used to get to see Shellac a lot (when I lived in London), I was always intrigued by the story Steve told in the middle of Billiard Player Song. Was it actually a long story unfolding over a number of performances? Or was it more in-the-moment than that?

Albini: “It’s improvised, though some things repeat and reappear over time. There are three or four songs in a given set with improvised or extemporaneous parts. When we play them, there are things we’ve been talking about or have observed and are on our minds, and those things work their way into the music in those parts. The whole of the lyric to the song the End of Radio, for example, is improvised apart from a few signposts. Other moments are the middle, spoken part of Wing Walker, the middle of Billiard Player Song, some other bits elsewhere.”

Given that the band are almost a hobby for the three of them, I wonder if they foresee a logical endpoint to Shellac. Albini: “We have structured our lives such that the band doesn’t ever burden us. We get to work on it in the margins of the rest of our lives, so it’s more like a vacation from that life than an occupation, and so the wear-and-tear is very low. We tour about 6 weeks a year, so that’s not a huge time commitment, and we don’t have anybody riding our ass to put records out on a schedule. All of that, removing all the sources of tension and pressure, make it easy for us to continue at the pace we’ve set, essentially indefinitely. I’ve told Bob and Todd I’m willing to commit to 100 years, but anything beyond that we’ll need to talk about.”

Finally, what do you think about the need bands have to keep reforming at the moment? Should they all just fucking stop?

Albini: “Eh, I don’t know about that. Of course bands aren’t always as good when they reanimate, but if I had a band, me and my comrades, and after we’d hung it up for a while we decided we wanted to get out and do it again, and some other people not in the band had an opinion on it, I’m pretty sure I’d tell them to get fucked and do what we wanted to do. It’s not your band, it’s theirs, and they can do what they want with it. Your options are to go to the gig or not. Some bands like Mission of Burma have had longer, more productive careers after their hiatus than before.

And there are some bands I only got to see in a reformed incarnation, like Television, the Stooges, the Raincoats, the Cravats and the Pop Group, and those shows were fucking fantastic. Awful bands, who cares. They were awful before and will be awful again, but all bands should feel free to do whatever the fuck they want to in that regard. Other people don’t get a say.”

Weston: “I’ve been really happy to see a few reformed bands as well. I know that this isn’t a reformed band, but I’ll leave you with this one comment: No Moon, No Who.”

Shellac play Newcastle’s Boiler Shop on Wednesday 11th December. The End Of Radio (and the rest of their vast back catalogue) is available now on Touch & Go Records

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