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To be Young, Gifted and Big Black

By Luis and Barbara Rice

from Truly Needy 10 (1986). Interview conducted on October 24, 1984.

After reading Steve Albini in Matter magazine, you get the feeling Steve is a resolute person who has ideas and opinions about everything, and would gladly share them with anyone smart enough to listen. This is what Barbara Rice and I found when we talked to BIG BLACK after their inspiring show at dc space last October. The whole band was present though really, Steve did most of the talking (he was closest to the tape deck) with occasional comment from Jeff Pezzati, Big Black's bassist and Naked Raygun's lead vocalist.

Another impression formed from reading Matter and listening to Big Black records is that Steve Albini has a clear idea of how things should be and would not hesitate, even at great risk and mayhem to impose his vision when given the rare opportunity. His would be the band that would literally close down a high school prom after playing only half an hour--a feat, by the way, Albini actually performed as a teenager in Montana.

Armed with these feelings, loads of questions, and our trusty tape deck, we squared off with Big Black at Dupont Villa and hashed over everything from sex and pornography, to writing and influences, and finally to pans and the ubiquitous plugs. Hope you enjoy it.

P.S. Since we spoke, Jeff Pezzati has left Big Black to pursue what ought to be stardom in Naked Raygun. His replacement is Dave Riley.

TRULY NEEDY: Your songs seem to have a sort of violent sexual imagery. What's the matter, Steve? Sex can be good you know?

STEVE ALBINI: I'm responsible for the lyrics. I really like sex, I think sex is a really cool thing. Sex is just a severe thing. It's one of the strongest things that can happen to people. So, any images that have legitimate sex in them are really strong if they're appropriate. But at the same time, sex is, let' s face it, one of those tender subjects that people always laugh about. So if you're going to bring some humor into something, sex is a really good place to twist the knife.

TN: It's interesting, don't you think though, though that it's getting kind of tired. I mean, we've been inundated with sex since this latest sexual revolution for about 20 years. I think that death is the most recent obscenity.

SA: Death is such a silly obsession though. Everywhere in popular culture you see people obsessed...

TN: You see more people obsessed with sex.

SA: I don't think so at all. If anything, it's the societal barrier to keep people from talking about sex.

TN: I dunno, just turn on the television.

SA: I m not talking about Three's Company. I don't have anything to do with that. None of us have anything to do with that. I'm talking about the kind of cultural art we're creating--that we're working on now. There's a big new taboo area now. People don't want to talk about sex because they're afraid of being called sexist. They don't want to talk about sex because they're afraid of being called homophobes or homos. It's silly. This is 1984. Sex is a real think... I think sex is as much a part of human life as anything. At the same time, you can't up this mystical quality on it, like, "We can't talk about it." Any time you try to separate it from the rest of your human existence, then you're trying to make it something it's not.

TN: It's kind of like saying you can't sing about drugs because obviously, people take drugs, therefore it's a part of life.

SA: I have nothing against singing about drugs. As far as I'm concerned, an artist has absolutely no responsibility. Anyone who's involved in anything creative should feel no obligation whatsoever of sticking within certain prescribed limits. Because the only way anything true or real is going to happen is if there are no constraints. The natural inclination is to run free, and people are going to run free.

TN: You seem to concentrate, especially on Bulldozer, on American mean spiritedness and using violent sexual imagery, again.

SA: I don't see the sexual imagery as much as I see the violence. There's a lot of violence, very little sex.

JEFF PEZATTI: I don't see that much sex in it... It's partly raw, kind of beastly stuff with little stories or depictions of actual incidents throughout history in America.

SA: Exactly.

JP: Pointing out things rather than making a huge statement about them.

SA: It's much more like a journalistic sort of more than anything else, which I guess would be the fault of my education.

TN: So you think that most artists are inhibited from doing what they want to do?

SA: Most of them wouldn't even want to think about it because they're so constrained by societal mores they are pressed with. When you see people--they write love songs, they write trashy popular literature, or they write pathetic expressive poetry--write it that way because that's all they've been exposed to and they've been taught that that is an acceptable way to do things.

TN: Is it possible that someone would write a love song because they're really in love?

SA: Sure, it happens once in a while. The main problem is that people seem to think that that's the only fair game. Once something has been beaten to the point of insignificance, once we've been bombarded with all this pop-teen love imagery, then any further additions one tries to do is totally ineffective. We've already been numbed to any effects on us. But at the same time, you can take that, twist it, and make a cliche about it and it becomes funny. You can turn it into to something ironic.

TN: Do you feel it is possible for you to write a love song?

SA: I don't know. I've never been in love in the sense that I would know it was something different from "like". I'm in "like" all the time. I really like my girlfriend, that doesn't mean I would sit down and write a "like" song to her. I'm really nuts about, my present girlfriend, but it's not a different sensation from before. Well, maybe it is possible to write a good love song, but nobody but the Buzzcocks have done so recently.

TN: You once wrote a response to a letter in Matter that complained about a number of things...

SA: You mean the one about pornography?

TN: Yes. Do you still stand by that?

SA: I think pornography is hilarious. I like pornography a lot, I think it's really amazingly funny!

TN: Obviously, I'm anti-censorship, but on the other hand, I believe that there are some things that, though they shouldn't be censored--a medium portraying sex violence does have an effect on society.

SA: I don't think pornography has any effect on society. Pornography is a result of society.

TN: It has to have an effect.

SA: You can say that. My personal feeling of the thing is that pornography is by and for a specific audience and it has always been. It doesn't have any wider reaching effects. How many people do you see going into porn bookstores? You don't (see many). You see only those who are fanatic about it for some reason or another.

TN: It's kind of like punk rock and people going into Yesterday & Today Records.

SA: Exactly. And for the same reason that punk rock has no effect on society, pornography has no effect on society.

TN: Steve, do you feel any inherent conflicts in being a rock writer, music critic, and musician?big black

SA: Up until now, I've always been able to avoid being considered a critic's band. It's the kiss of death. I mean, who ever took Lester Bangs' band seriously?

TN: Nobody.

SA: I would hate to have Big Black thought of in the same manner. It didn't come from the same place. I got interested in music simultaneously. So simultaneously, I became interested in writing about music, being a fan of music, and playing it, you know. It is not as though I sort of slimed into this playing music left-handedly after observing it from afar. That's why I generally try to keep my music and what I write distinct as possible. When I'm writing about somebody or when I'm writing about something, I'm addressing that from a standpoint that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I'm in a band or play an instrument. And when I play with a band, that has nothing to do with the fact that I have a public forum where I can spew my ideas.

TN: So what are your influences?

SA: I've been asked that and I really don't know. I can tell you what I like, though. I can tell you what bands I think are really cool.

TN: I remember when I first met you, you said that Iggy Pop changed your life. Do you still think so?

SA: Well, Iggy Pop, the Ramones, and Suicide got me through high school. I literally had less than a dozen records in high school. I was going to school in Montana. I could get almost no music out there. When anything showed up, no matter what it was, if it was any good whatsoever, I'd buy it.

TN: So you're not originally from Chicago?

SA: No, I grew up in Montana, although I did live in Washington DC for five years as a wee tad.

TN: You went to school in Chicago, is that it?

SA: I moved out of Montana to go to school.

TN: Smart idea. But how did you first conceive of Big Black? Someone had suggested that it was a solo project.

SA: Well, it wasn't so much of a solo project as a band that didn't have any members at the time. I always though of Big Black as a band. It's just that for the first year or so there were no other members except me. That sounds like a stupid thing, but it's true. I went about it as a band instead of as an artist expressing himself.

JP: You look for band members in a weird way, cuz I know for a fact that you never go to clubs.

SA: That's not true.

JP: You can find some of the best people in clubs.

SA: I don't hang out on the scene, but I go to shows all the time. If there's a show, I go. I just can't stand the party atmosphere.

TN: It seems that Bulldozer has a lot more--although it is still noisy--digestible songs. It's relatively poppy--I do stress the word relatively--as compared to Lungs.

SA: That has more to do with Santiago (Durango) than me, because he can play guitar, and I can't. And Santiago has been writing and playing songs for several thousand years.

JP: It also has a drummer.

SA: It also has a drummer.

TN: You have an extremely good drumbox. Can you tell us something about it?

SA: It's not my drumbox. The one we're using live is the one we used on Racer X. It is owned by Steve Bjorklund, from Breaking Circus, who is doing our sound. I first heard it when he was making his record. I was in the studio watching and I was just really impressed. He and I had the same kind of cheezy drumbox, the difference is that this is a digital machine. The one we used before was an analog machine. A digital machine is one that's got much more control over the sounds because they're real drum sounds that you can modify.

TN: Do you prefer to use a drumbox or is it for convenience?

SA: It's entirely for convenience. I would much prefer the sound of real drums. I would much prefer having a real drummer who could dedicate himself, but so far that has been entirely impossible. But given that we're going to use a drum machine, I'm going to make it a damn interesting one.

TN: You were on the verge of mentioning sane bands that you thought were cool. I know it's a common question, but I'm still curious.

SA: It's probably different for Santiago and Jeff, but I like a lot of screaming death noise like a lot of really crazy, energetic music.

TN: Do you listen to so-called "industrial" music?

SA: I listen to...oh, I'm exposed to a lot of it. A great deal of it is total shit...The noise music I like is, well, there's this 12" by a German 16 year old paraplegic named Tommy Stumph. That is so brilliant.

TN: Boy, what label? I'm intrigued.

SA: It's Poison Records. That's produced by Connie Plank. It's impossible to find.

TN: Sounds wild.

SA: The Killdozer record is really great. Top drawer stuff.

TN: You played a Feelies' cover.

SA: I like the Feelies a lot.

TN: Any other pop bands?

SA: The Buzzcocks are great!

JP: All pop bands.

SA: Good pop. I like old dBs. Old dBs are cool. Kimberly Rew. Kimberly Rew's cool, too.

JP: The Sound is really good.

SA: These guys are nuts about the Sound, though I'm not familiar with them. I like things abrasive. I don't mean abrasiveness for abrasiveness' sake, but for some reason, there's a lot more energy involved for somebody who's going out of his way to iritate people. So, I like things like Suicide. Stuff that was just flying up everybody's nostrils. Just about everything I've ever heard about Cabaret Voltaire that I've been exposed to is really great. I like the Cravats a lot. I came out and just went nuts at Yesterday & Today. They had every Cravats single!

TN: What about the Fall?

SA: The Fall are cool. Old Fall. Old Bauhaus records are great. Bauhaus were a kick in the ass live.

JP: They were great live. They had about two good songs.

SA: Naked Raygun played at one of their shows in Chicago. It was a real competition to see who was going to be cooler that night because Naked Raygun were really tough. I like Joy Division and Magazine too. At the same time, I like savage, brutal punk rock: Rudimentary Peni are easily my favorite punk band.

TN: So, tell us about the new record.

SA: It's called Racer X.

TN: Is it on Ruthless?

SA: All of the money is coming from Dutch East India Trading Company.

TN: How nice.

SA: It's going to be a Ruthless record simply because the label Dutch East is running is called Homestead records. Homestead is such a dorky name for anything. I don't really want to be associated...Naked Raygun was gonna have theirs called Sand Pounder records and there was this drawing of this fellow pounding sand up his ass...

JP: They wouldn't go for it.

SA: If I could get them to call is LSR instead of Homestead I'd be happier.

TN: Is Ruthless defunct then?

SA: Not really, it's very low-key, man.

JP: It's something to put on checks and that's it.

SA: It's not a corporate entity.

TN: So what's the story?

JP: If you started "Psychedelic Marbles Records" that would be about as big as Ruthless.

SA: Ruthless does not have any money, Ruthless not have any power. Ruthless is just a sort of shelter organization that are on it, so they can have their checks sent to the same place.

JP: So we don't have to be on something like "Homestead".

TN: Gerard Cosloy is gonna be happy with this...

JP: It's a bad name, Gerard.


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