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The Plumber 

Steve Albini on Touch and Go, the Stooges, and how his analog work ethic is faring in the digital age

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Steve Albini on Touch and Go, the Stooges, and how his analog work ethic is It's been more than two decades since guitarist and recording engineer Steve Albini emerged as the gadfly of the midwestern rock underground. In his 20s he led the notoriously abrasive, crowd-baiting bands Big Black and Rapeman, but he's since mellowed considerably--though his current outfit, Shellac, is hardly warm and cuddly, at 44 he no longer goes out of his way to make himself a lightning rod for controversy. His reputation as an iconoclast persists, however, and he remains the sort of public figure folks either love or hate. "There are specific people who have a bee in their bonnet about me," Albini says. "I can't do anything about that. I trust the bands and people I work with every day--the ones that know me on a personal level and actually know me as opposed to the image of me--they have the real perspective. If those people thought I was a jerk, then I'd feel bad."

Albini can afford to brush off his critics: It's been nearly a decade since he opened Electrical Audio in its current location, on Belmont near the river, and his studio has weathered both the end of the 90s alt-rock boom and the spread of cheap digital home recording. Despite Albini's notorious refusal to install a digital rig at Electrical, this has been one of his busiest years yet at the studio--he's scheduled to complete more than 40 projects by the end of December.

Shellac has just finished recording a new LP, and this week Albini starts work on a comeback album by proto-punk icons the Stooges.

The forthcoming Shellac record, the band's first since 1000 Hurts in 2000, will be called Excellent Italian Greyhound--originally what drummer Todd Trainer would say to his dog instead of "good boy," it was quickly adopted by the band to refer to anything praiseworthy. "If you're familiar with our stuff you probably won't be surprised," Albini says. "I guess Todd has a cowbell now, so that's new." Touch and Go has tentative plans to release the album in early 2007, and the band has a couple spring shows planned for the UK, which may turn into the nucleus of a European tour.

Albini has been playing in Shellac with Trainer and bassist Bob Weston for 14 years, and calls it "absolutely my favorite thing in the whole world to do"--though he's quick to point out that he still considers it a hobby. The studio is his job, and he puts in an average of 300 days a year as an engineer. In 2006 his work has appeared on releases by Canadian roots band the Sadies, Sicilian art punks Uzeda, power-pop legends Cheap Trick, and even the Lovehammers, the group led by Rock Star: INXS runner-up Marty Casey. He's not a fan of every act he records, but he's looking forward to working with the Stooges, who he calls one of his all-time favorite bands. The re-formed lineup includes three original members--Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, and his brother Scott--along with Minutemen bassist Mike Watt and Fun House saxist Steve MacKay.

Albini has never met any of the Stooges--so far he's just had a couple phone conversations with them--and only knows Watt casually. "I got a call out of the blue from Ron Asheton," he says. "They basically expressed a desire to set up and play live. We'll see how that goes. I've yet to see the reconstituted Stooges, but by all accounts they're playing like champions." In a recent Spanish-language interview, Iggy says hiring Albini was something Ron pushed for, in part because Albini has said he arrived at a lot of his ideas about recording by listening to Fun House. Iggy also praises Albini's no-nonsense blue-collar approach, comparing it to a plumber's.

One rumor that's been following the project is that Jack White will play on the disc or produce it, but Albini has heard nothing either way. "I really have no idea. . . . There may be a point where an Edwardian carriage pulls up in front of the studio and Jack White and his footmen step out," he says. "By the way, I've never used the word 'footmen' in conversation before."

Electrical Audio, like most full-service studios, has suffered as digital recording has gotten cheaper and more accessible. But because it's still primarily an analog facility, it continues to attract musicians who don't see the two methods as interchangeable. (Albini's rep doesn't hurt either, and even people who don't care what kind of tape they use agree that the rooms sound great.) The studio hosts digital sessions for outside engineers, but Albini has never used Pro Tools himself. "I wouldn't even know how to turn it on," he admits. "It would be like asking me to translate a Chinese poem." He claims he's never encountered a situation where the use of analog tape was the problem, and he's not about to fix what isn't broken. "Many of our peer studios that have slavishly followed the fashions in recording have either gone broke or run themselves into the ground," he says. "So I don't see any indication that we're doing things wrong."

Electrical is far from broke, but over the past few years it's lowered its fees repeatedly to stay competitive as the demand for pro recording declines. Albini says that when he arrived in Chicago in 1980, the average daily rate for a comparable studio was between $1,000 and $2,000; at Electrical the top room rate is currently $600 a day, down from a peak of $850. "To survive under those conditions requires a different mind-set," he says. "You can't treat a studio as a pure business venture. You have to treat it as something you're doing for its own sake. The same is true for indie labels: they're a viable business, but only just. So having a punk-rock mentality--doing as much as you can yourself and keeping things as cheap as possible so it doesn't have to be expensive for the bands--is the approach we take."

Every one of Albini's bands has released records on Touch and Go, the indie label run by Corey Rusk, and two of them--Shellac and Big Black--played at the label's 25th-anniversary party earlier this month. Albini is generally loath to indulge in nostalgia (during Big Black's mini set he commented, "You can tell it's not something that we had a burning desire to do"), but he's long been a vocal cheerleader for Touch and Go and helped persuade Rusk to move the operation to Chicago in 1986. For Albini the Touch and Go celebration was a reminder of why he'd invested so much of himself in underground music to begin with. "Seeing Scratch Acid again, seeing Killdozer, seeing the Didjits--all of the reconstituted bands were as good as in their heyday," he says. "And even though those bands were dissimilar to one another, they were still comrades in this cultural movement.

"There's nothing cornier than grandpa music scenester saying, 'Back in my day, things were so much better,'" he continues. "But to see all those bands that really got me super excited about music in the first place, and seeing them in full flight again, made me realize I wasn't a fool back then."

The "punk-rock mentality" that guides both Electrical Audio and Touch and Go has been vindicated by time, and Albini takes great satisfaction in that. "When we started, everyone was rather adamant that you couldn't do things the way we wanted to. That it would be impossible to run a record label without contracts or more professional accoutrements. Everyone said it would be impossible to run a recording studio that catered to a punk-rock client base because they don't have any money and they're not reliable, or whatever," he says. "I like the fact that Touch and Go and Electrical Audio have proven that all those people who thought they knew best were wrong. Not just that they were wrong to offer their opinion, but that they were wrong, period. It's quite gratifying to realize you were smarter than all the people who were telling you you were gonna fail."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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