Steve Albini interview 1988

October 26, 2009

Steve Albini interviewed in Sounds 1988…this was just as he was getting Rapeman together. I had met Steve when Big Black had played Manchester in 1986/87 and had heard he had liked what I was doing with the Membranes. We got him to record our third album, ‘Kiss Ass Godhead’ just as he was starting out as a sound recordist. This interview was done just as he was about to take off in the studio with the Pixies album about to come out and the Slint record recorded but still unknown and putting his new band, the controversially titled Rapeman together after Big Black had imploded……

WHEN NOISE terror gods Big Black finally imploded last year, it was the inevitable culmination of several years of a blistering, snowballing intense noise assault. The unbelievable hype generated by the band and their gradual rise to flavour of the month left a bad taste in the operatives’ mouths. Big Black were one of the key bands in America in the post hardcore period. They took music to a logical extreme and created a small visceral catalogue of powerful music that was on the verge of breaking big but in punk rock style they backed away from the success.

With perfect timing the three-piece split. Leaving guitar-abuser and “singer” Steve Albini free to roam the planet producing a ragbag collection of combos while simultaneously welding together a new upgraded model together- a new upgraded model of his fearsome machine with ex-Scratch Acid rhythm section David Sims on bass and Rey Washem on drums. The group then carelessly saddled themselves with the monicker Rapeman.

Albini is a hyperactive cranefly from hell, spit-buzzin’ with an internal energy that keeps him locked in the studios for days on end without sleep. At the time of interview he was putting together parts of the upcoming Rapeman LP in his cellar studio and at other locations in Chicago. Two tracks culled from these sessions have already been released into America’s Midwest heartland as an almost anonymous 7-inch single. I had just been to the studios in the cellar recording the membranes ‘Kiss Ass Godhead’ album. It was set in the suburbs in one of those typical American wooden bungelows ina sleepy street. Quite how he managed to record such a  fearsome racket down there and not get lynched was amazing. Sharing the house was Nate from Urge Overkill who was away on tour giving us more space to sleep. Steve showed me copies of my fanzine, ‘Rox’ which he had picked up in Rough Trade and we started working on the album using the Big Black drum machine because Coofy Sid, the membranes drummer, had been refused a visa.

the band kicked up a storm in the cellar whilst Albini mixed on the 8 track in his back room- it sounded amazing.

He also talked about his new band, Rapeman and how to to get back into being in a band with punk rock dignity.

“We wanted to sneak out a low key single and try to deflate this pompous idea of being in a supergroup. I wanted people to buy the record on its own merits – the only problem is that collector scum have got hold of it and are charging ridiculous prices.”

The single, a two-track advert for band, grinds away in a Big Black style but there is a greater emphasis on the rhythmic melodic undercurrents than ever before.

This is no surprise as Rey Washem is using the biggest sticks since Zep’s Bonzo took his hammer to the gods, pumping the snare with a pair of regular oak trees that rip the skins apart every few songs. Yet this brute force does not impede the man’s skill and dexterity. He’s reaching out for a new distinctive style of rock drumming and he’s bang on course for smashing his way in there.

His partner in Scratch Acid and Rapeman, David Sims, is a musically fluent and gifted bass player, and the pair are well versed in musicology, as Albini proudly points out.

“Rey can watch a cartoon on TV, write down the backing music and score it for a string section. Rey and David got into the punk rock thing first and then started learning about musical theory afterwards, whereas I was excited about the about thing, but don’t really give a shit about music.”
THE TWO-track single is a fine introduction to the band, one of the two oddly-named songs being ‘Hated Chinese’

‘It’s is an abstraction on the life of a Chinese immigrant worker pre-1940 slaving on railway construction. They were not treated like human beings. The immigrant laws prevented their women from joining them, so all they had to do was to get stoned and masturbate a lot. At the time the idea was that you could kill a Chinaman but not a human being,” Albini chillingly adds, a stark reminder of how close the US moved towards an embarrassing South African-style apartheid situation.

‘Marmoset’ concerns a certain member of the band’s failed attempt at oral sex in the Nocturnal Animals section of Chicago Zoo, a cavernous place, dimly-lit with deserted winding corridors and tiny cages where the animals shuffle around. Needless to say the escapade was an alcohol-induced failure.

Does this band member know what you have been writing about him?

“Yes, I know,” chuckles Albini, adding, “and I certainly have not been back in that capacity since.”

Albini enjoys employing his dark sense of humour, combined with his acid and opinionated tongue it’s got him into a lot of trouble over the years, it’s the kind of trouble that he enjoys. ruffling feathers, grossing out and bad taste are part of the assault. This jolt to the system sense of humour was very much part and parcel of punk rock and it’s one that Steve attempts to try and keep in control.

Noticing that this human stick insect rarely imbibes alcohol, I ask if this is because the demon drink dries up the creative juices that race through his bloodstream.

“I found that when I got drunk I was being totally obnoxious and going up to people and telling them exactly what I thought of them. This caused problems – most people drink so that they become less self-conscious, but as I am not self-conscious to start with then the alcohol tends to have a different and more exaggerated effect.”

Listening to tracks from the forthcoming Rapeman Budd EP you can’t help but notice that whereas Big Black’s brutal treatment of guitar, bass and drum machine took rock to a new violent frontier, Rapeman tend to stand back a little, utilising the sound for whatever they want to say. Only Albini’s guitar sound links the formidable trios.

“That’s because I am a bit of a guitar cripple. I’m limited to making noises, I get no joy from playing a lot of little notes. It’s more satisfying to all of us to have the guitar jumping off in all directions, sounding like a blender, making cool little exploding sounds. It certainly keeps my interest up more.”

This new found overall subtlety is best explored in the lead track, ‘Budd’, a slow, live eight-minute crawl that reeks of sadness and compassion: a brilliant staccato snare drum punctuates the pain-ridden guitar riff which perfectly complements Albini’s tense, hoarse, half-spoken, half-whispered vocal.

“‘Budd’ is a song about two people, one of whom was Budd Dwyer, the treasurer in Philadelphia who blew his brains out on live TV after he had been caught embezzling state funds.” explains Steve showing the video of the precise moment when the gun went off which was live on the local news., where the soon-to-be retired Dwyer calmly reads out a press statement absolving himself from all responsibility.

The tension mounts as he reaches inside a brown paper bag as if rooting for his sandwiches or groping around for cold metal. Producing a gun, he places it into his mouth and, despite horrified screams from the onlooking press, he blows his brains out, slumping to the floor with a torrent of blood running from his nose. A disgusting and depressing piece of video to watch over and over.

“By blowing his brains out he still got a state funeral and pension as well as several other benefits that he would have lost had he been busted. He also got to be shown on nationwide TV reading out a little defence that he had written for himself.”

Beats getting a lawyer, cheaper too!

“I tied this together in a song with another Budd, a Budd that used to live in this house before I bought it. When I first moved in here there was a period when I felt very bad about living here, I felt like some sort of intruder and it was this that I tried to document.

“Budd had lived here for years. It was kinda sad the way he had lived out his life, his home was his own little piece of America. He had his own collection of personalized can-openers and comedy coffee cups. He brought his children up here, they left him and then his wife died, leaving him alone.

“The first time I moved in here I felt like a complete squirt, a 25-year-old kid with poop in his diapers who turned the place into a gross punk rock dungeon, which is how my neighbours envisage it.”

You can imagine the neighbours’ drop jawed expressions as they survey the front room, littered with sleeping musician bodies, as likely as not belonging to the freaked-out muthas in the Butthole Surfers or some tawdry English punk rock outfit. They all snooze away beneath the “Elvis In Vegas” tea towels that adorn the walls, oblivious to the huge stuffed cat that snarls from the top of the TV set, the gynecologist’s kit that spills out from beneath the settee, maybe its the half read book of botched operations or sexual diseases lying open on the table or the porn movies which include the classic Santa Claus indulging in fellatio with his favourite dwarf assistant. Steve, though, still feels bad about the previous tennent.

“Specific things made me feel really awful, like just after we moved in a bunch of friends came round and we were rummaging through Budd’s stuff laughing at it, a bunch of little squirts poking away through this man’s life and laughing at it…”
WHILE ALBINI’s sentimental raw nerve is exposed in this grinding avalanche of sound, the other tracks on the EP are in a more traditional Big Black mould. The remaining up tempo spurts of violence muscling their way around the grooves include the demon seed of ‘Super Pussy’, again a live cut, where the band’s fascination with comic book personae takes on a three dimensional role.

“If superheroes really existed smashing their way through windows and zapping things up with laser beams, then there would have to be pretty broad spectrum of characters to balance things out, so we thought this drug addict, cannibal, lesbian character with a lustful kick ass attitude would be interesting.

“I have a really good friend who is a hell-raising, beer-drinking lesbian. We go out and get lustful at the same type of women, she has the same sort of character as ‘Super Pussy’.”

Another live track is ‘Log Bass’, which definitely benefits from the crackle of performance being one of the live tracks on the EP.

“There’s no balls to the stuff in the studio. I like the live material better. It’s played faster when the band’s jumping up and down getting off on the song. ‘Log Bass’ is about a small town mayor in Indiana who was interviewed onThe David Letterman Show. Apparently, the mayor was also an Elvis Presley impersonator who would drive to gigs in his pick up truck dressed in a cheapo homemade Elvis costume.

“One night, on the way to a gig, he was called out (on one of his civic duties!) to unblock drains. This he did dressed in his Elvis get up, pulling out from the drains what he termed a log bass, ‘Bass’ as in the fish and ‘Log’ as in poop. From this stupid story we added a few of our own, like the Aztec birth ritual where the father takes his newly arrived offspring and holds it up to the sun, just like the Elvis mayor holding up his log bass.”

The only studio track is ‘Dutch Courage’, which seems to be about Albini’s roommate’s alcohol-induced trouble making lust for life more than anything else.

THE MOST contentious thing about Rapeman is obviously the clumsy moniker. The name was picked up from an obscure sicko Japanese comics mag, where the hero rapes women who have misbehaved. This seems to be one of those lurid Japanese comics that mix rock’n’roll, porn and gory violence in a perverse quest for visual kicks.

Although Rapeman’s nom de plume remains acceptable to the USA, the more politically-charged UK atmosphere is already buzzing with a static anger. people are not happy with the name. Out of context you can see why.

“I was asked by Paul Smith (the band’s UK label manager) to prepare a statement explaining the motives behind the naming of the group. It was for record pressures and people at the company who felt uncomfortable handling the name of the band, and although I was loathe to do it, I sent one off anyway, and of course it made no difference. In the UK we seem to be having some difficulties with getting the records pressed and distributed.

“It’s only the people in the company that seem to be annoyed. Her Majesty’s Government have had no difficulties in issuing work permits to a group of this name. Anyone who does not want to be involved with the record, I have no gripe with, and anyone who wants to object, then go ahead, make a stink.”

Is the group name not in some sense trivialising rape by reducing it to a crass showbiz level?

“That’s obviously stupid. I mean, were Joy Division glorifying Nazism with their name, or are Napalm Death, who by the way are excellent, an endorsement of the use of Napalm upon people? Rape is a feminist issue, it’s an offensive crime, and no one except for a total dork is pro-rape.”

Now that the Rapeman machine is finally out and running. Albini’s production work is going to have to rest for a few months, and in some cases this is a great relief to the man. the pixies album has made him better known as a recorder of sound.

“I liked working with Pixies and I admit that the record is OK. But the problem is that there are now bands who try to imitate them and want me to produce them, total morons, gushing on about how good Pixies are. I get no satisfaction from ‘pussy’ bands.”

Albini’s recent production work includes some devilish stuff with New York art garage renegades Pussy Galore and the grooves kicked together in these sessions already sound like some of the Galore’s best spuzz yet.

Another band that has seen the Albini touch is an oddball act called Slint, who sound like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon put through a liquidizer. Marvellous stuff, almost as entertaining as shoving the Floyd’s fat butts through the self same liquidizer. Steve plays back the Slint album and they sound amazing, hopefully they will get heard.

Rapeman are to tour Europe in October and will also, by then, be ready to unleash their debut LP.

“The LP will either be called ZZ Top’s First Album or Tres Motherf***ers“, avers Albini. “It’s an obscure Texan joke hatched by David and Rey and I very much doubt whether anyone else could understand it. It relates to ZZ Top’s best album, Tres Hombres, which features a gatefold sleeve showing a spread of Mexican food.

“We may go for the gatefold as well with a photo of a barbecue in my back garden,” he explains, being a battle-hardened veteran of this cooking feat that aroused the wrath of his neighbours and sent bemused policeman round to scold the dressing-gowned gourmet.

So the spirit of Big Black is back, agitating, irritating and thankfully kicking some ass.

And beneath the wire-rimmed frames that cling to Albini’s scalpel thin face beats a punk rock brain.

“I hope people react to my music in the way that I reacted to my favourite records, getting excited and jumping up and down. It’s all very big-eyed and punk-rock-inspired. I like playing a guitar, I like being in a band and like exploring specific types of sound.

“The other guys in the band have a different approach, though, in that they are trying to create something totally powerful and new within the punk rock framework.”

Rapeman have already shown that they’re twitching with potential, and when their UK tour and LP explode into action this Autumn, go grab yerself a slice of the action.

%d bloggers like this: