Interview: Shellac

I respected John, his work ethic and his openness to new ideas tremendously, and I think he is a great person to emulate when engaging with music. He was the least judgmental about musical style, but had an unerring ear for substance and quality. If something was good, he could tell it was good, regardless of the idiom. - Steve Albini

Fans of minimalist rock trio and underground overlords Shellac have got used to lengthy waits between their album releases. It’s already five years since Dude Incredible, so it could still be at least a couple more to go until the next one. Helping scratch that itch they’ve just released their two Peel sessions in a handsome double disc package as The End Of Radio. To varying degrees the sessions show the material in a state of flux both before and after the more familiar album versions. The first is a regular four track Peel session that catches them in their fiery infancy a few months before the release of their debut album. The second is a live set for a small Maida Vale audience that runs just shy of an hour. Taking place shortly after Peel’s untimely death on holiday it opens with Albini dedicating the session “and probably the rest of our career, to John Peel”. Peel also gets a namecheck alongside Martina Navratilova during the stunning ‘The End Of Radio’ and there are particularly excellent versions of ‘Paco’ and ‘Billiard Player Song’. Pick your own favourites, it’s wonderful stuff.

After the early, rough and ready version of ‘Steady As She Goes’ Bob remarks “I’m really looking forward to hearing the crappy mono bootleg of that song. It’s gonna be awesome”. Inevitably, low grade, partial, versions of these recordings have floated about the internet since probably the day after broadcast but, equally obviously, everything here sounds so much better than a thin youtube stream it’s ridiculous and it’s great to have them. A new thing in the steady, orderly world of how Shellac conduct themselves The End Of Radio is really the first release of this kind for the band. A little look back at archival material and live recordings, the sessions roughly bookend the first decade of the band. The mysteries of Shellac time prevail but I couldn’t help asking if there was a particular reason this album was appearing now…

 

(((o))):  The press release makes it clear that the band is still working on new material but the obvious question about this release is; why do it now?

Bob Weston: We are most of the way towards having enough songs written for the next new album. It seems like bands normally start to release compilations, greatest hits collections, and live albums when they can’t come up with good new material anymore. We didn’t want people to see this Peel Sessions record and think, ‘I guess they’re done. Now they’ll put out some compilations and wrap things up’. As to ‘why now?’: no reason. We’ve assumed that we’d eventually get to it for a long time. We finally got to it.

Steve Albini: As usual, our glacial pace of work lends to a lot of down time, and in that down time I don’t fault other people for speculating on what’s going on with the band, but like Bob says we’re still just plugging away at our normal pace, working on new material, touring and playing shows as they present themselves. We are all really busy so the time we get to spend on the band is limited, and while that’s inevitable it’s also good for us, since it prevents us from becoming annoyed by the demands or expectations associated with a more full-time endeavour.

(((o))):  The opening track on the record is ‘Spoke’ which wouldn’t then make it onto a Shellac album for years, although it already seems to be all there, complete. Unlike some of the others it’s not a song that appeared to grow or change much over time. Was there ever an idea that it would get proper lyrics, or was it always that way?

BW: The concept for the song was for us to sing gibberish lyrics. So, those are the proper lyrics. That’s how the song was written on the airplane on the way to the UK for that first Peel Session. The gibberish is different each time we play it.

SA: It’s odd, there are little things about the gibberish that I find myself returning to more-or-less consistently, like there’s a little mock-tribute to another band in there, there’s a particular cadence I like to observe about a certain part… but the words, yeah the words are meaningless. Just sound.

(((o))):  You don’t seem the kind of band to dwell too much on anniversaries or band history, At Action Park will be 25 years old this year. The first disc here captures the band at that point, as still a fairly new band but, like with ‘Spoke’, it seems all the elements are quite well established. Does it feel odd or different looking back at it or is it much the same as now to you?

SA: When we started the band we had a few ideas that were central to our conception of our music and how we wanted to conduct ourselves, and by and large we’ve carried on with those central ideas intact. It’s not that we are bound by rules, it’s that we had a set of ideas we wanted to explore, as fully as we could, and we’re still in that process.

BW: We were younger and were playing everything faster. But, yeah, it’s all there and it’s still the same. It doesn’t sound weird to us. It sounds like us to us still.

(((o))):  You’d all been in other bands before and there was no reason particularly to expect this one would last any longer – does it seem surprising, or entirely natural, to be looking back that long at the start of the same band and, as you say, ‘still be working though that process’ after so long?

SA: Before we started the band, Todd and I and then Bob had many conversations about what we did and didn’t want the band to do and represent. We knew what we were getting into so to speak. I think that’s a big part of why the band has survived when other bands haven’t; we avoided a lot of presumptions and misgivings by being frank with each other about what we didn’t want to suffer in our next band, and by getting to know each other well enough that we wouldn’t harbor false expectations about what we were like.

(((o))):  There’s then a decade between the two sessions, do you see this release as presenting a slightly different view of the band’s slow pace of writing and recording?

BW: No. Our slow process shows up in the gaps between albums the same as it does in the gap between these two sessions. We write and play differently over the years as we get interested in different things and change our playing styles. Our musical interaction and song writing evolves over time. Each album or Peel Session shows where we are at the time in the band’s slow evolution.

SA: I feel like a lot of bands have an initial spurt of creativity at their formation, as those ideas are initially expressed, it’s quick work to bounce from one to the next. As you refine your process, it takes you deeper into that set of ideas, which require more finesse to express without becoming repetitive or formulaic. For some bands the formula is the whole deal, but for us the lack of formula is one of the fundamental ideas we want to respect.

 

(((o))):  Often you’d hear bands talk about recording their Peel sessions who were amazed by how quickly they were done and how well they turned out – possibly as a result of being young bands who’d had limited budget experience with studios. As an outsider it seems that the process, essentially recording live in the studio, was similar to the approach Shellac takes and which Steve in particular is often called upon to discuss. I was wondering if there was anything as recording engineers you might have to say about that?

SA: When we’re in the studio doing out own sessions for a record, we can waste time, blow a take, try an experiment, whatever. There’s nothing about it that’s under external pressure. The radio sessions have their own internal logic that’s nothing like that. You have employees on the clock with a schedule to keep and time is a limited resource. We get that and we respect the time and effort of other people enough to work efficiently for their sake. It’s part of what made Peel sessions so great – bands don’t have the time to wander off track.

(((o))):  Obviously Peel was a big fan of the band so it seems odd in a way there were just the two sessions. The second coincidentally happened shortly following his death, and at the start Steve dedicates the session to him. What was the extent of your dealings or relationship with Peel?

BW: Steve had a personal relationship with John Peel. I never met him, but understand how important he was. His producer let us know that he had died and asked if we still wanted to do the second session. The BBC would still run the John Peel Show with a different presenter for a short while after his death. So, our second session was presented on the John Peel Show, but Peel wasn’t there. We were glad that we were able to do that session as a tribute to the man.

SA: I met John and his wife, socialized with them some and got to know them a little, but it would be an overstatement to say that we were friends. I respected John, his work ethic and his openness to new ideas tremendously, and I think he is a great person to emulate when engaging with music. He was the least judgmental about musical style, but had an unerring ear for substance and quality. If something was good, he could tell it was good, regardless of the idiom. We don’t live in the UK so it’s hard to gauge what impact his having us on the program had, but we considered it a great honour.

(((o))):  It was a fairly common thing on Peel sessions for bands to indulge cover versions, aside from AC/DC I don’t think Shellac have gone in for that sort of thing particularly, is there a reason for that? Or anything that you fancy taking a run at?

BW: There’s been talk of a few covers over the years. But we are together so infrequently that we tend to concentrate on new material during our limited practice time. I don’t think I’ll mention any of the songs we’ve talked about so that we don’t start getting badgered by people about learning and playing those particular songs. Maybe we’ll record or play a cover live sometime. I wouldn’t rule it out.

SA: We have taken the first steps in rehearsal toward doing cover versions of a few songs, but it’s always stopped there. It takes a really accomplished band to do credible cover versions, and I think we’re generally best suited to our own music.

(((o))):  The second session is a live set for a small audience, and I wanted to ask about the structure of the Shellac show because, like the band, it seems to work with a minimal set of elements – there’s a degree of anti showmanship, the questions, the ‘choreography’ for ‘Wingwalker’ and taking Todd’s kit apart and so on – but they seem to offer less possibility than the musical elements. Do you ever worry you’ve substituted rock show clichés with your own set of moves and get bored of them or think about changing it?

BW: Well, I guess ‘choreography’ cancels out anti-showmanship, right? There are some songs where we have specific ‘moves’ or ‘choreography’, We think of those moves as a part of the song; the same as a rhythm part or chord or lyric. Many of them were ‘written’ as a part of the song during the songwriting process, and so we perform the moves almost every time we play the song. Even at practice. There’s also room to perform the moves differently or not do them, in the same way that many of our songs have some open musical structures or sections where we play differently each time.

SA: I’m with Bob. We’ve honestly never discussed it, but the bits of business we do onstage vary and evolve over time the same way the text of the songs do. If they were all set pieces then it might feel repetitive, but we’ve allowed ourselves the luxury of doing things more or less extemporaneously and we’ve generally been happy with the results and the stage stuff adds a little levity.

(((o))):  There’s a lot to love about this, the levity of it is important. The idea that pretending to be a plane is an integral part of the song and they all do it in rehearsal too is one that brings a delighted smile to my face. If you’re only casually familiar with Shellac they can present an austere face, a band bound by a hardcore asceticism, eschewing the decadent indulgences of coloured lights or choruses, but a seam of dry, good natured humour runs through the band that is most evident in the live show.

BW: Todd mentions that if you go to see AC/DC you expect to see the giant bell, and cannon, and Angus wearing his school uniform. You’d be disappointed if they didn’t trot out those props. Or the “Gabba Gabba Hey” sign with the Ramones. We don’t worry about doing the moves. They’re a part of the songs.

(((o))):  I don’t know if Todd is comparing Bob’s taste for avuncular trousers on stage to Angus’s uniform here but he’s obviously right to suggest the audience expects certain things. I wanted to ask him particularly about Bob and Steve stealing his kit at the end of the show. This entertaining finale strikes me as one that began as the two of them winding him up and wondered whether he enjoyed it now or secretly simmers with repressed rage and continues to plot revenge every night. Turns out I’m just making wild assumptions…

Todd Trainer: The finale you’re referring to is a song called ‘Spoke’. We do not always finish shows with this song, although when we do, dismantling the drum kit is Bob and Steve’s way of assisting me.

(((o))):  Nice to see a band help the drummer out for a change. That it might be song specific had never even occurred to me, I just thought it was an end of the show ritual, so it goes. Such evidence as can be found with a few clicks about their recent european dates clearly backs him up. As for the band returning to the UK, Bob assures me they’ll be back at some point but that nothing is currently booked. Another familiar part of the live show is taking audience questions while the others tune up or fix stuff…

(((o))):  What’s the best or dumbest question you’ve been asked on stage lately?

BW: I can never remember. Maybe Steve or Todd will chime in here.

SA: They say there are no dumb questions. They are absolutely wrong about that. We do this every night, and a lot of the questions are dumb. The dumb ones are not really questions, they’re proclamations by somebody, as a way of asserting a tribal identity or showing off some inside knowledge. Gear nerds are big on those, asking questions about the pickups in our guitars or whatever. A question asked in earnest though, those are never dumb questions. Sometimes they get us thinking about something we hadn’t been, and that can be very productive, even if the thought process starts with a naive or innocent question.

(((o))):  Speaking of dumb questions, the media landscape has changed quite considerably since 1994, do you think we are seeing the end of radio, or a certain kind of radio, does the shift to online radio, podcasting and so on seem a positive, negative or neutral thing to you?

BW: I still listen to the radio every day. I also listen to podcasts every day. But your question implies that you think the song, ‘The End of Radio’, is literally about the current state of radio. My idea of the song is that the scene is some post-apocalyptic future where there’s only one man left alive on Earth. He wanders the ruins and finds a radio station. He goes inside and starts broadcasting, hoping to contact anybody else out there still alive. But he’s the last man on Earth.

SA: Like Bob says, there’s an apocalyptic note to the text, but the song was written during the first wave of essays about how podcast/streaming culture would one day completely supplant and replace radio. That’s happening to an extent, in new cars and for comedians for example, but there is a lot of world out there, and a lot of it is only reachable by radio, regular terrestrial radio, and I think it’s going to be around for a while yet. There are other themes, like how in the era of local broadcast there would be DJs as regional celebrities — genuine celebrities — but only within the range of a particular radio station. So Crazy Mike in the Morning would be as famous as a movie star, but celebrity confined to a population of a few thousand people. I’m all for the podcast/internet culture, myself. It lets weird people find and indulge their kinks and the weirder the better as far as that goes. My wife listens to a lot of true crime podcasts. I don’t have time for any of that, but she loves it, and if I had any spare time I’d probably find something equivalent to indulge.

 

(((o))):  Touching on the apocalyptic tone of the track and the current state of the world – I recall a few years ago you talking about how the kind of right/reactionary/republican gains we’re now living through in the UK and USA are always temporary, that it’s one step back followed by two steps forward on more progressive ideals. I’m very much hoping we’re seeing this burn out dramatically and in a couple of years we’ll all be back in a better place but it can be hard to sustain that hope. Are you managing to keep the faith on this view of things heading into 2020?

SA: I have no faith that things will get better. We need to actively reject fascism and bigotry at every turn. Not doing so and hoping somebody else does it for us is all it takes for fascism to take hold. Of course I hope that each election cycle will present a fresh hope, but so far that ambition has been less than fulfilled. Regardless, with the profound stupidity of Brexit in the UK and packing of the courts in the US, we’ll all be dealing with the resonance and effect of the current crop of fascists for another 50 years. There’s no reason to be optimistic.

(((o))):  I love all the stuff about Martina Navratilova on this version of ‘The End Of Radio’, what kind of random stuff is making its way out on that terminal broadcast at the moment?

BW: Apologies to the aliens picking up Earth radio transmissions containing that Ed Sheeran song about not changing his sheets.

SA: Seriously, Ed. You disgust me. Quit sniffing your sheets you little troll. You got lucky, thank your stars and carry on with your day.

(((o))):  Sheeran appears in a new Brit movie in which a guy wakes up from an accident to find he’s the only person to remember The Beatles. It looks appalling to be honest. If there was a band whose music or malign long term cultural influence you could remove from history – who would you pick?

SA: Well, I’ve always hated the Rolling Stones, but they provide some of my friends with great joy so I’d have a hard time getting rid of even them, as awful as they have always been. I think as I mature I get less interested in punishing bad music and more interested in finding good music. One of the great things about the modern listening environment is that you rarely have to listen to something you don’t want to. I mean, I basically never hear bad music any more because I can push a button and it goes away.

The End Of Radio is out now on Touch and Go.

photo credit: Mila Samson

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