Chapter 24: Chicago (Steve Albini)
Everything was set. I was in Chicago, I had my interviews completed, and I was heading back to Jet’s apartment to call the studio and ask if I could talk to Steve that night. When I called, though, it wasn’t Steve who answered the phone. It was “weekend John,” a studio intern. When I asked if Steve was around, John told me Steve went away. I tried to assure him that, yes, Steve had been away, but now he was home, and he was supposed to be meeting with me. John seemed a little confused by my assuredness, but told me he would get studio manager John Novotny to figure out what was happening.
Novotny informed me that Steve was indeed supposed to be around, but, upon his return from Italy, his girlfriend Heather surprised him with tickets to go to Los Angeles. John said he would try to get in touch with Steve, and asked for my number. He said not to worry, he’d find out when Steve was coming home, and get back to me. Novotny concluded by repeating that I was not to worry.
I tried to play it cool. When Jet returned from work she asked if I had called the studio, and I said yes. I was just waiting to hear what time I drive over to Electrical Audio. When no one called later that night, she wondered if maybe I should call again.
When I phoned the studio for the second time, Novotny said that Steve was expected home Wednesday night. I was supposed to be leaving town Wednesday, so when I told Jet the news I tried to break it to her as lightly as possible. She was genuinely disappointed. She asked what I was going to do, and when was I planning on leaving town. I asked if I could stay until Thursday and she consented, and I spent the next two days pretty much exclusively bumming around Chicago looking for interesting things to do to pass the time.
Wednesday night came, and I once again called Electrical. I got Novotny on the phone, and he said the couple’s flight was expected in at about midnight, but he had spoken to Steve and it was okay if I wanted to come over then and chat for a few minutes. There was a session scheduled to begin in the morning, but Steve didn’t mind meeting then due to my staying in Chicago longer only to find he wasn’t in town. I thanked Novotny and told him I would call to confirm later in the evening, to make sure there were no delays or anything.
Meanwhile, Jet and I sat in her apartment, recording made up songs about AIDS and abortions on acoustic guitar and cello. We went out for pizza and strolled around Rogers Park for a while. At eleven o’clock I called the studio. The flight had been delayed, and wasn’t expected in until later. I told John to please call if he heard any news, and that I’d stay awake as long as possible to make sure our meeting could occur.
Jet and I watched an episode of Get Smart, played with her cats and broke out a deck of miniature UNO cards. She mercilessly beat me at UNO for about an hour, until she got tired and went to sleep. I stayed up reading for another hour or two, and passed out with my phone next to my pillow. It never rang.
The next day, as I was sitting on I-94 trying to worm my way out of Chicago, Steve called. We spoke for maybe ten minutes, and our conversation consisted mostly of us apologizing to one another for the interview not happening. I told him that when a situation is out of my control, I have absolutely no right to let it frustrate me. Contrary to popular belief—I couldn’t control air traffic. He told me his schedule for the next month, and we decided on an afternoon phone interview. I’d call the studio late in the day and that way I could ask some of my questions.
True to his word, Steve picked up the phone after half a ring the next time I called, and proceeded to spend roughly forty-minutes talking about Chicago and his experiences there.
I start by asking, “What were your first impressions when you first arrived in the Evanston/Chicago areas from Montana?”
“When I moved here in 1980,” Steve prefaces, “I kind of expected to be able to find live music in Chicago, and I was a little surprised at how, sort of, hidden the punk scene was. I was expecting there to be a lot of bands and a lot of clubs and all that sort of stuff and there wasn’t really.”
“How long after you got there did things start to come around?”
He pauses to think, before saying, “It probably took me about a year to find the secret society of punk rockers in Chicago, and they congregated primarily at a record store called Wax Trax. Once I found Wax Trax I started finding out about shows, and bands, and their homemade singles and that sort of stuff.”
“Who, at the time,” I continue, “was involved in the local punk rock scene? Were your peers making music in Chicago at that time?”
“Well, the bands that were active at the time were Naked Raygun, The Effegies, Silver Abuse, Strike Under—those were terrific bands, as well. I wouldn’t consider them peers, really, those were just the active bands that I could go see, and I started putting out records about a year after that…started recording Big Black in December of ’81, I think?”
“The records that you put out,” I ask, “were those on Ruthless [Records]? Or…”
“Yeah, the first record was put out on a sort-of cooperative label that was run by local bands in Chicago. The Effigies, Naked Raygun, Big Black, and…I think that was it—all three of us were planning on putting out records, but we didn’t really have a record label so we sort-of centralized the shipping, billing and phone calls out of my apartment and called it a record label. That way we were able to get a little more respect from the distributors and radio stations and things like that.”
“At the time—or any time since then—has there has been a prevailing ideology that could be attributed to bands making music in Chicago?”
“Well,” he begins, “there are a few sort-of character traits that run through all artistic disciplines in Chicago. There’s a self-reliance, you know? There’s less of an interest in participating in somebody else’s thing than there is in making your own thing. Chicago is famous for having self-defined arts collectives and theater companies and, uh, intellectual communities and stuff like that. It’s not the case like it is in, say, New York or Los Angeles, where there is an existing industry that people try to fit into. People in Chicago primarily try to make their own industry, as it were. And that was evident in the punk rock scene. There were helper fan ‘zines and homemade labels, Wax Trax the record store. Rather than trying to encourage clubs to bring in bands from out of town, Jim Nash—the owner of Wax Trax—was acting actively as an independent promoter, bringing bands to Chicago to increase interest in the punk scene. There’s a, ‘Don’t bitch about it, do it!’ mentality in Chicago that I think runs through the whole of the city. Pretty much all artistic enterprises in the city have that.”
“Oh, sure,” I agree. “When I spoke to Tim Midgett and Jeff Mueller they both mentioned that Chicago is a very ‘blue collar city,’ and that the worker-mentality is very evident in the music scene.”
“Yeah…” he says, hesitantly. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily a class thing, but it’s more a matter of…In New York or Los Angeles, or other big cosmopolitan cities, you find people waiting for their big break a lot, and they’re doing things in the meantime. In Chicago, it doesn’t seem like anybody really has any expectations that there will be a big break. Everybody just does what they’re interested in doing, and that’s how they get their satisfaction. They’re actually doing it, they’re not waiting to be given permission to do it, they’re actually doing it.”
“Do you think that equates to the strong independent label presence in Chicago?”
“Oh, I’m absolutely certain that’s why,” Steve says, much more assuredly. “I mean, when Touch and Go moved here from Detroit—or, Ann Arbor—they moved here because it seemed like there was more activity in the Midwest, and specifically in Chicago. Like, the bands were doing more of the work here. There were better and more interesting shows. It was becoming kind-of a nexus of a lot of different touring streams. Bands from Minneapolis and Milwaukee and Madison would come south to Chicago. Bands from Louisville and Columbus and down-state would come north to Chicago, and it seemed like there was a lot happening in Chicago that was being…not supported by an industry or any sort of structure, but being spontaneously generated by the people who were doing it. And I know that Corey [Rusk]’s rationale for coming to Chicago was, like, ‘Well, there’s not a lot going on in Detroit,’ and a lot of the bands he liked were in the Midwest and it seemed like there was a lot activity and a lot of enthusiasm in Chicago, so he moved to Chicago. You know, all the other record labels that are in Chicago are, in one way or another, beholden to Touch and Go for creating a label mentality—like a professional mentality for record labels—in Chicago.
“How did you first get in touch with Corey?”
“Corey was running shows—he was running Touch and Go out of his house in Detroit, and I was familiar with the label, but I first ran into him when Big Black needed to find places to play. He was recommended by a bunch of different people as someone who could set shows up in Detroit, or in the areas around Detroit. I first ran into him in that regard. He and his wife at the time—Lisa—were setting up shows and there was always a super-hospitable environment when you’d go to Detroit. There would be a really great show, great audience, Corey would treat you right from a business standpoint, they’d put you up in their house, Lisa would cook a big meal…it was a very familial atmosphere. It was very welcoming to an out-of-town band to be made to feel at home like that. And that same mentality carried across to the record label. When we started dealing with him for putting records out, it was primarily because we trusted him, and we knew that his impulses were always aimed at making sure the band got the best of things.”
“Right, I agree. “I think that’s more than apparent in the fact that now you have other labels who sprung up using that same foundation, or dichotomy, for beginning their own businesses.”
“I think Touch and Go—and a few other labels at the time—like Dischord, for example—are responsible for the good reputation that independent labels have in the U.S. I mean, it would have been just as easy for the independent label scene to be like a mirror image of the major record label scene, where people were being taken advantage of, and there was a lot of jockeying for position, and a lot of power movies, and that stuff. But, instead, it became a very egalitarian community, and the bands and the labels were all on equal footing, and the bands were treated with respect. I think that the fact that independent labels have a good reputation is a direct outgrowth of the way that Touch and Go behaved.”
“Their basic premise is 50/50 split and the artist had complete artistic control of aspects such as packaging and whatnot?” I try to recall.
“Yeah. I mean, when Corey decides he wants to work with a band, he basically says, ‘I want to put your records out. Whatever sorts of records you want to make, I want to put them out.’ If a band decides to make a record that he doesn’t like, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t put it out, what it means is that he’s given them enough rope to hang themselves. If they want to hang themselves, I guess they’re allowed to do that, you know? I guess the profit sharing arrangement…it’s just so inherent—it’s so intuitively fair. However much money is made, we’ll split it. That just seems like such a fair, like an unquestionably fair arrangement, and it’s also so simple. It’s amazing that no big record companies have tried to do things that way. They probably wouldn’t be in the dire straits that they’re in right now.”
“That’s true. Do you have any sort-of relationships with any of the other area labels, be it Drag City or Thrill Jockey or anything like that?”
“I’m friendly with all those people. I mean…all those people are part of the same community. They’re peers, and comrades.”
“As far as local clubs go, everyone I’ve spoken to has really fond memories of Lounge Ax, from performances to the handling of artists and fairness of the management.”
“Oh,” he sighs. “The best…the best live music venue in the world. There’s really only one place that can compete with it, and that’s a place called the Vera in Groningen, Holland. But, that exists in a socialist atmosphere where the government is partially subsidizing it and it has a lot of volunteer workforce working for it. It’s a really pleasant experience to play there, and it’s a nice experience to see bands there, but it’s also subsidized to the extent that I think it’s an artificial environment. It’s a little bit of a ‘Potemkin village’. Given the realities of running a club and surviving as a business, I think Lounge Ax did it as well as it could possibly be done. There were sweet people who worked there, and they were always fair to the bands. Whether the music that was being performed there on a given night was to my taste or not, I knew that the bands who were there were taken seriously, and that’s why they were playing there. Nothing was ever done pro-forma, they never did the sort-of sleazy buy-out gigs, where a label will pay a club to host an event or that sort of thing.”
“Jason Molina seemed to be most appreciative of the fact that touring acts or local acts were seen as equals, and no one band was treated any different from the next. He mentioned their fairness with time slots and days of the week, and matching like-bands with one another.”
“Well, everybody was around, you know? Every band starts opening for other bands, and if you treat those bands well, when those bands become famous and need a place to play for their headlining shows, then they’ll remember where they were treated well when they were the opening band. I just think it’s a matter of civility to not mistreat bands. What eventually happened with Lounge Ax was, there was an existing ordinance that…somebody complained about noise, and so there was political pressure to try and close the club. They found a violation that they could technically be charged with, and it would have been impossible for them to come into compliance. It’s the sort-of thing that…there’s a…if you look hard enough, you can find a violation in any functioning business. You can walk into any business in the city and find a trash can too close to a fire extinguisher, or something like that, and say, ‘Alright, you’re in violation now.’ If there’s political pressure to do it, you can make life hell for a functioning business in a city like Chicago. That’s what was done. They basically ran a beloved club out of existence.”
“In its wake, have you noticed any clubs that have stepped up to try and attain that beloved status?” I ask.
“In sort of an opportunistic sense, yeah, there are other clubs that have taken it on themselves to host the gigs that would otherwise have been at Lounge Ax. But, there’s no place that has anything like the atmosphere, or the general…I don’t know…just the innate charm of Lounge Ax, or that’s run on the same general principles of Lounge Ax. There’s no place like it.”
“These days, as a musician and performer, are there places in Chicago you enjoy seeing—or watching—a show?”
“Um…I don’t mind going to the Hideout, or Schuba’s, but—I mean—the atmosphere is completely different now.” He pauses for a moment. “Now it seems like shows are being done as an afterthought. It doesn’t really seem like there’s as much of a groundswell of activity as there was in the past. Even the ‘90s when things were getting kind of corporate it seemed like the bands were responsible for their own presentation more than clubs were.”
“Taking the city’s venues as a whole, how do you compare Chicago to other U.S. cities?”
“Well, at the moment it’s pretty difficult…there just aren’t very many venues in Chicago anymore. The city has been on an active campaign of closing down bars, and, unfortunately, a lot of music venues have been hit with that. So there’s been sort-of an attrition, where the small music venues close down over time and no new ones open, so the power sort-of accrues in the hands of the people who have been able to survive through the shake-up, and those are mostly the institutionalized big clubs that have been here forever. It’s not as bad as it is in some places, where every venue is a Clear Channel venue, or something like that, it’s not quite that bad. The number of legitimate places to host a gig in Chicago is a very small number, and if you want to host a gig that’s more than a few-hundred people, you’re really stuck, you know? You have to look for an event hall or something like that, and rig it up, and it’s quite an expensive undertaking if you don’t want to deal with one of the mainstream conventional clubs. And the mainstream conventional clubs have a bad reputation just because they have a monopoly, or a few people have exclusive control over the larger venues in town, so they can behave as badly as they want and they don’t suffer any consequences.”
“What are you perceptions of the public, and their perceptions of local arts?” I ask, slightly changing topics.
“There’s always been a supportive audience in Chicago for underground music, whether it was race music in the ‘40s or jazz and blues music in the ‘50s, and psychedelic music in the ‘60s, there’s always been a supportive audience for outsider music. It hasn’t always taken the front page in the greater culture, but there has always been an audience here. And, like I said, the city actively discourages live music performance in bars. They make it as hard as possible for anybody to open up a live music venue. I think that’s because, if there’s a small number of very large venues, then there’s this reliable entertainment bloc that the city can use as a political bargaining chip. Whereas, if it’s more diffused, and there are more small venues, then they become neighborhood concerns and it becomes a little more unmanageable.”
“And what about the local press, and their relationship with local talent?”
“There was some boosterism a few years ago,” Steve admits. “A few local journalists were trying to whip up some international hype about Chicago’s music scene, but it didn’t really amount to much. The bands that were actually in the trenches playing knew what the score was. It was only people who didn’t actually live here that thought there was something weird about it. I don’t pay that much attention to the press, but when a band starts to play regularly and develops an audience, then they usual get some notice. There is a kind-of industry for publicists and stuff like that, and those people do have some influence over mainstream media, and I’ve always been kind of creeped out by that profession, and I’ve always thought it was dishonorable for journalists to take their cues from a publicist. It does happen, though. It doesn’t really happen in areas outside of the arts, because—I guess—music and arts coverage is the only place where you’re allowed to call yourself a journalist without having to do any reporting. You just get records in the mail and you tell people whether you like them or not, and you go see shows and tell people what you think about the band. There’s no actual reporting involved. So, I think they can get away with it in the medium of music journalism, where you couldn’t really get away with it in the medium of business reporting, or government or police beat or anything like that. You’d actually have to do some work and find out if what you’re being told is true.”
“Well, music journalism is kind-of intrinsically more subjective than business or politics,” I suggest.
“Yeah…well, little things…” He trails off. “Let’s put it this way: If you were a sports reporter, and you knew as little about the teams that you covered as most journalists know about the bands they cover, you wouldn’t last a week.”
“Alright, that’s true,” I state. “Since you moved to Chicago, what kinds of landscape changes have you seen politically and economically?”
“Well, there was a very brief period where Mayor Harold was in power, and that was pretty amazing, to see the institutionalized machine politics suspended briefly. There was a lot of cultural growth in that period in the ‘80s and the late ‘80s. There were a lot of crazy bands, a lot of crazy shows…just the sight of fucking in streets, really.” He laughs loudly at his remark. “It was pretty exciting. Then, when Kid Daley got in power things started reverting to the way they had been previously, where there was—in order to get anything done you had to be politically connected, all of a sudden you had to pay people off to get things done, and it got weird again.”
“The same Daley who Mueller told me tore up the airfield in the middle of the night?” I inquire.
“Yeah,” he confirms, “that was our current mayor Daley. He decided that he wanted to—he’s been lobbying for a second airport on the south side, for business travel. He just got fed up with the idea that there was this private airport out there, and he tore it up. A totally lawless act, but…he’s the king. He can do whatever he wants.” He laughs again.
“…Any economical, or socio-economical changes you want to touch on?”
“Certain neighborhoods,” Steve says, “have been canonized as the artists’ neighborhoods over the years. When I first moved to Chicago it was Lincoln Park. Then, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s it was the Wicker Park neighborhood. Now I’d say it’s either Ukrainian village or Pilsen. Those neighborhoods have been picked as the places where artists congregate. There are always local bars and hangouts in those places, wherever they are.”
“Do those artists’ styles change through those years? Have you seen much musical changes like, if any?”
“Well,” Steve draws in a sharp breath, “there were a couple of big trends that were kind of ugly,” he exhales. “When punk rock sort-of coalesced into hardcore and there were a lot of copycat bands—suburban bands more than city bands, but there were a lot of hardcore bands in Chicago that were pretty insubstantial—and then a few years later, when Wax Trax started specializing in dance music there was a pretty big contingent of…Ministry and similar industrial disco bands in Chicago. That stuff all played itself out, you know, those transmuted out and that was it. Then, in the early ‘90s, there was a kind-of a crazy rush by bands trying to get signed by record labels—that was driven by people who were entrenched in the industry, like managers and club owners and lawyers and that sort of stuff. There were a few ambitious bands that wanted that to happen, but it was mostly secondary and in tertiary people—not necessarily the bands—who were lobbying for a lot of outside attention.”
“On the topic of neighborhoods, politics, economics and that, what’s your opinion on diversity in Chicago?”
Steve takes no time in asserting, “Chicago is a grossly segregated city. White people live on the north side and black people live on the south side, and that’s about it.” It sounds startlingly similar to what Jeff Mueller said when we spoke. “When I say south side,” Steve continues, “I actually mean west side, but south side is a nice way of putting it. It was institutionalized, you know? There were housing developments built specifically to warehouse the poor in Chicago, and the poor in Chicago means black people. Though, the city actually institutionalized segregation a long time ago, it hasn’t really ameliorated very much. There are black clubs and there are white clubs, and very few white people go to the black clubs, and very few black people go to the white clubs. I’m not happy about it, and I’ve been in other cities where there is much less race consciousness—places like Louisville, even—or any of the bigger cosmopolitan cities like Los Angeles or New York. It’s less of an issue there. I think, in Chicago, you’re acutely aware of what your social place is based on your race. And I know that I’ve had all kinds of artificial advantages because I’m white, and because I live where I live. I’m conscious of it and I’m embarrassed by it, but—on a personal level—I can’t really do anything about it.”
“As far as other places that have impacted you, where else would you consider to be important?”
“For a long time, Minneapolis was a sister city for the punk rock bands in Chicago. All the bands up there like Hüsker Dü and Man-Sized Action and Rifle Sport…The Replacements and Soul Asylum, all those bands were friends with bands down here, and they’d trade shows all the time. Some people from there moved here, and some people from here moved there. When you’re in a band in Chicago, and you want to go outside of Chicago to tour, of the places you would always play, you would always play in Columbus, Ohio. You would always play in Madison and Milwaukee and Minneapolis. You would always play in Saint Louis, and Louisville—all those places within driving distance, you would play—Cincinnati…they all developed a symbiotic relationship with Chicago.”
“Do you keep your eyes on upcoming bands at all, in Chicago or any of those ‘sister cities’?” I ask.
“Not actively,” Steve admits. “When something crosses my path and I notice it, I’m kind of excited. There’s a band from Milwaukee that’s called Call Me Lightning, I think they’re a terrific band. This band from Minneapolis called Stnnng that I really like. That stuff comes up now and again. If you run across a band that you like, then you remember them, and that’s about it.”
“I know of Stnnng, they’re really great. I’ve heard of Call me Lightning, but I can’t say I’ve listened to anything. I would assume that—more likely in your case—if a band seeks you out for recording purposes, that’s how you’d come across a new band.”
“Yeah,” he consents, “I have met a lot of people that way as well.”
“Do you think Electrical holds an important place in Chicago, culturally?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says, sounding a bit humble. “All I know is that we’ve survived as part of the musical community, so we’re more of a resource than anything else.”
“The reason I ask,” I go on, “is because the majority of the people I’ve spoken to have recorded there, and—”
“Well,” he interjects, “we’ve been around for a while, and we’re not expensive, and there are other studios in Chicago, but—probably because we’ve been catering to a rock band clientele for a lot time—it makes sense that most people that record in Chicago at one time or another will record here.”
“Do you think the artistic community there is a close-knit one?”
“Oh yeah,” he says, boldly. “The artistic community in Chicago is very supportive and very close-knit. There’s only very, very mild competition. Every other place I’ve been, people have been more backstab-y and more judgmental about their peers. There’s an awful lot of cooperation in Chicago, way more than I’ve ever noticed anywhere else.”
“Do you have any relationships with anyone who works in the arts outside of music, like in theater or film or fine arts?” I inquire.
“A little bit. My girlfriend is a filmmaker and she manages the Second City Theater, so I know people involved in the theater community, and stand-up comedy, and a few other areas like that. I don’t know many people, but I know some.”
“What about those fields peripherally related to music, like silk-screeners or print-makers or—”
“Oh, yeah,” he suddenly says, “we’re friendly with a lot of those people, like the Crosshair people, and the Bird Machine people. Not only have they done work for us, but on a personal level they’re all friends. I think it’s great that it has developed as a secondary music scene, really. The fine arts, printmaking community of Chicago has all of the same attributes of the band scene. I think it’s really cool.”
“If I mentioned names of people who spoke about working with you,” I take a breath, “do you think you’d remember anything that stood out?”
“Sure. I’ll try, anyway,” he says.
“Tim Furnish and Will Chatham from Crain—”
“Wow, Crain,” he says, holding the ‘o’ sound in ‘Wow’. “That was a while ago. They recorded in my house for a day or two. That would be dusting off a memory.”
“Bubba Kadane mentioned the last Bedhead album was one of the first recordings to take place at the new studio…”
“Something like that,” he recalls. “It was fairly early on after we opened the new studio, yeah.”
“…And he mentioned how the sessions got off to an inauspicious start.”
“Whatever. He’s a crybaby.” We both laugh loudly.
“Yeah, Rodan recorded Rusty at my house, but since I didn’t work on it I don’t remember too much about it.”
“He said you went out one day and came back with the gift of an engraved ‘Rodan’ rock for the band?”
“The gift was probably from Maxwell Street. The Maxwell Street market is another great, lost treasure of the city of Chicago…along with Lounge Ax.”
“Lost treasures, music and all, do you have a lot of pride for the city?”
“Not really,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Not in the sense that people from Louisville are proud of Louisville. I think Chicago is a great city. It has its problems, but I can’t imagine doing what I do anywhere else. It’s a huge city, and in order for a huge city to be run centrally, there has a degree of control that has to be exercised. The only way that you can wrench that control is by having everybody be at least a little bit afraid of authority. Sometimes in Chicago you feel like you’re in a Soviet system, where there’s an unwritten set of rules by which you have to conduct yourself. You’re at risk of losing everything if you don’t follow those unwritten rules. You really do get that feeling sometimes, but the rest of the time you’re really pleased that everything works well and you get everything done.”
“Do you portend any changes for the city in the future?” I wonder, knowing the interview has reached it’s conclusion.
“No, it’ll be slow evolution as always. I know I’ll be here.” He laughs loudly. “I’m stuck.”
“My last question is—because I couldn’t meet with you last week—is, when do I get the steak that you owe me?”
There’s a long pause. “I owe you a steak?” Steve asks.
“Yeah, when the Mets finish over .500…” I say in reference to a bet Steve wagered anonymously against me on the forum for his studio’s website.
“Ha ha!” He loudly laughs. “That was you? You’re right! I owe you a steak. Next time you’re in Chicago let me know.”
“All right, I will,” I assert.
“I know a place,” he says.
Now that it’s documented both in print and on cassette tape, I plan on holding Steve to his bet. I just have to make it back to Chicago.
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