From Hellgate to Shellac 

Music provocateur Steve Albini dishes on his Missoula years

Steve Albini grew up in Missoula, graduated from Hellgate High School, moved to Chicago, started a band called Big Black, made an album called Songs About Fucking, started a new band called Rapeman, started a newer band called Shellac, opened a studio and recorded albums by Nirvana and the Pixies, among thousands of others. His work is characterized by a refusal to record anything digitally. His guitar playing and singing is characterized by viciousness, dissonance, repetition and iconoclasm.

But according to the song "Slipstream" by Silkworm, an excellent band that started out in Missoula in the '80s, Albini was known around Hellgate as "Albini the Weenie." When I call him recently for an interview and ask him if this is true, he won't quite answer: "I think," he says, "that was more local mythology than anything else." Otherwise, he's forthcoming, even loquacious, as he tells me about growing up in Missoula, his high-school dance disaster and why he doesn't care if you think he's an asshole.

click to enlarge Shellac is Todd Trainer, Robert Weston IV and Steve Albini.
  • Shellac is Todd Trainer, Robert Weston IV and Steve Albini.

Indy: Was there anything about growing up in Missoula that gave you something you wouldn't have gotten elsewhere?

Albini: Yeah. I credit Missoula with a pretty significant part of the development of my personality. The things about Missoula that are unique to Missoula are the sort of combination of the Western libertarian mentality, the kind of live-and-let-live thing, which is tempered by a lefty-progressive element, which I attribute to it being a college and artistic community. And I appreciated all that stuff and felt like, coming from Missoula, I had a fairly open mind.

Indy: I saw somewhere that you were in a punk band in high school.

Albini: Some friends of mine from Hellgate and I started a band. We didn't really have many opportunities to play, but we had two out-of-town gigs. We got booked to play at a college party in Coeur d'Alene and that was a disaster. Then we got booked to play a high school dance in Hot Springs and that was also a disaster. That was such a disaster it made the papers. We started playing and like maybe five or six songs in, the matron who was responsible for the dance just marched onstage with our check and said, "Here, you guys can stop and leave," and gave us the check, which they then tried to stop payment on. Which I thought was pretty funny. It was my first paying gig as a musician ever, and someone still tried to screw me. And then there was a little article about it in the Hot Springs newspaper. The headline was something like "Band Turns Dance into Disaster." To be frank, we weren't very good. But also, if we had been good at what we were doing, they probably still wouldn't have liked it.

Indy: The thing that I especially love about Shellac is that it demands that the listener listen. Do you think of that as an aim of the music?

Albini: What you're saying doesn't sound familiar to me, but I put that down to a more general thing, which is that we basically don't consider the listener when we're working. It sounds trite but we are really 100 percent doing stuff within the band to suit ourselves. And so the effect that it has on the listener doesn't enter into the discussion.

The way the whole band works is as a process. We don't really set goals, and we don't have our own impression of our legacy or our place in the world. We just do it. And that's sort of the way the three of us live our lives, as well. We're in a process and that process is what we find rewarding. And along the way, we're gonna write songs and play shows and make records. But we're not in a band in order to write songs and play shows and make records. We're in a band because we like being in a band. And that process has byproducts that I suppose are the rest of what other people can see about being in the band.

Indy: When people fixate on the violent or provocative parts of the band, does that bother you?

Albini: I think it's totally normal for people to have things that they know, like little pieces of information that they come across or particular things that strike their fancy. I think that's totally normal but that's their experience and that's not my experience. I certainly wouldn't deny anybody the pleasure of thinking I was an asshole for some reason that he's found for himself. I think that's perfectly legitimate. But again, that's his experience and not mine. I'm actually in the band, so I know why we do things and why things are the way they are.

Indy: Are you working on any new songs that you might play at the Missoula show?

Albini: Oh yeah. We work at a pretty slow pace, but we're always working on new stuff.

Shellac plays the Palace Sunday, Oct. 16, at 9 PM with Helen Money. $10/$8 advance at Ear Candy.

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