Steve Albini: Black Magic

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If '80s punk was about finding nothing sacred and everything profane, Chicago's Big Black was it. Steve Albini and Santiago Durango's guitar swordplay imitated the symphonies of the city's meatpacking houses, while bassist Dave Riley broke bones with each pluck. Their heartbeat was inhuman, with the locked rhythms of Roland drum machines igniting each salvo. And what really punctured the skin was Albini. His verses were snapshots of the Middle American wasteland: a bored slacker igniting himself for kicks, a dog trained to attack blacks, a Minnesota town running a child sex ring.

After the band ended in '87, Albini went on to form Shellac and to become one of rock's great studio engineers, leaving his fingerprints on records by Nirvana, PJ Harvey, The Pixies and countless other bands. XLR8R recently spoke to Albini about the Big Black era in Chicago and their 1986 classic Atomizer.

XLR8R: Did Big Black start as a reaction against what was happening in the Chicago rock scene?

SA: It was more a reaction against the softer, less challenging elements of the post-punk environment (REM, The Replacements, the beginnings of the disco/dance music, etc). It was also a reaction against the conformity and simplicity–especially the simplicity of ideas–in the hardcore scene, which had become hidebound and irrelevant in a very short period of time.

Please describe the Chicago rock scene when BB started. I read that Naked Raygun blew you away.

Naked Raygun was one of a few bands (not just in Chicago, but anywhere) that defied easy comprehension. They were cryptic and aggressive and stylish and perverse and funny and powerful. Their music didn't seem to be "received," in the sense that it sounded like they brewed it up themselves, rather than taking it from somewhere else. I felt less compelled by their music once it crystallized into a "style," but early on they were awesome.

As for other influences, we've read that they were heavily post-punk (Gang of Four, Wire, The Pop Group). What were the main ideas you drew from them for Big Black?

I appreciated the abstraction they all used, and the distinct personalities implied by each unique sound. They all seemed to be out on a limb, and there was nothing conventionally "pretty" about any of them. I admired that, as a retreat into prettiness (conventionalism, I guess) is the first sign of failed ideas.

I read that when BB started, you walked around the Northwestern campus listening to a drum machine on headphones. Out of curiosity, what were the rhythms you played?

I was just using the machine in place of a Walkman, which I couldn't afford at the time. I appreciated the drum machine as a unique instrument. It has a capacity for things that people playing the drums can't do: uncomfortably slow or fast tempos and intricate rhythms, for example. I am sad to say that the instrument never got its due, and it was seldom used elsewhere as anything other than a metronome or drummer mimic. That's a shame.

Looking back, what mark do you believe that the band made on Chicago's indie rock scene?

We were part of an explosive era of growth, and I think that era is more important than any individual band. Specific to Big Black, I'd say we were very good at keeping our band's efforts under our own control. We operated cheaply and efficiently, so we made money, and we had a self-sufficiency that many bands at the time thought was impossible. The DIY ethic was proving itself to be a tool for a viable, thriving counterculture, and we were part of it.

Any regrets?

I regret being duped by all the brouhaha around the Jordan Minnesota case, and I regret writing a song ("Jordan, Minnesota") about it. I bought into the conventional news media coverage like everyone else, and I was wrong. I feel quite foolish (gullible is probably a better word) for believing that there could be a large child sex ring in a small town. I wish I had seen through the obvious bullshit the prosecutor was laying down. And I hope she roasts in whatever there is for hell these days.

What stage do you believe the band's sound evolved into during the Atomizer era? The record is somewhat sandwiched between hardcore punk's fascination with old-school metal and the emergence of what many would deem "college rock."

We were determined not to sound like anyone else. Early on, Big Black incorporated my fanboy mimicry of some of my heroes (Stranglers, The Cure, Gang of Four, Killing Joke, Wire, Public Image Ltd), but by the time Atomizer came around, we had developed our own vocabulary and we were pretty confident.

After Atomizer was released, what direction did the band go?

We were on a trajectory, and I think we were about at the natural end of it when we recorded our last album. The only thing that bothered me toward the end of the band was that we had picked up a few hitchhiker fans that weren't there for the same reasons as us. In the beginning, anybody at one of our shows was someone I would invite into my house. I felt like the band and the audiences were basically the same kind of people. Toward the end, I felt that less and less. There were people at our shows who were there for conventional entertainment reasons, and I was put off by that. I thought the distinction between what we were doing and "entertainment" was obvious, and I was disappointed that it could be missed.

Do you believe that Big Black could be end up as a retro favorite?

Christ in a basket, I hope not. Please smother me in my sleep if that ever happens.