Ok, I’m sorry this took me forever to transcribe. I met Steve Albini when he was here in Gothenburg in October and played an extremely rare date with his excellent band Shellac. If you haven’t heard his band you have most certainly have heard (and very likely loved) a record he’s produced, Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, Palace Music, Smog and it goes on and on and on. I saw a documentary about the making of Magnolia Electric Company’s Josephine the other day and what Steve said there is really what I think makes him such a great producer: he makes sure everything runs along smoothly and efficiently, he stays in the background and let’s the band be the band. We spoke for half an hour and that was the same impression I got from him, that he’s pretty humble, but efficient. Let’s eat along the way:
LL: So what I do is, I try to ask questions that’s related to the lyrics, so I try to make that into a food question somehow.
Steve Albini: Ok, good luck.
Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes bands sing a lot about food, but sometimes it’s harder. Have you ever eaten a crow?
No. I’m trying to think of if I’ve ever eaten any irregular birds and I don’t think I have. I’ve eaten just normal birds that you would eat. You know like partridge, pheasant, quail, grouse, chicken, duck, goose, you know, normal you-would-eat-them-birds.
How about a dog or a pony?
I’ve eaten horse. There’s Bresaola in Italy. It’s smoked cured horse loin. It’s delicious. Really incredible. I’ve had horse cutlet and steak and stuff and I don’t think that’s very good meat. Used in that way it’s not very good. But that one thing, the smoked cured horse loin is incredible. It’s like solidified camp fire smoke, you know? Very, very pure smoke flavor with just enough meaty protein to make it wrap around your tongue. It’s really incredible but other horse things I’ve eaten have not been delicious.
So no dogs?
I don’t think I’ve eaten dog. There was a Chinese restaurant in Chicago that was rumored to serve dog but that’s the kind of rumor you hear of a lot of Chinese restaurants. And I’ve eaten there so if they were serving dog, I’ve eaten dog. I don’t think it was true, I think it was just an urban myth.
So, in Songs for the Minerals, ”how do make a meal out of nothing at all”? How would you do that?
Well, that song is specifically about a kind of cultural perception that women are emotionally unstable because of their periodic cycle and that the hormone and mineral content changes cyclically and that changes how their brains work. That’s a cultural stereotype and one part of the song is about trying to negate that stereotype by saying that the range of behavior that you can consider normal should include all of the parts of the spectrum that would occur naturally according to these variations in mineral and hormone cycles, right? And to say that the baseline for normalcy should be something defined externally by men rather than being a wide enough definition to include all parts of the spectrum that occur normally is chauvinistic, basically. That’s part of the song. And there are two other parts to the song. One of the other parts is that there are accommodations that people make in their lives to certain psychological issues that they have and one of them might be an eating disorder and that’s what the sentence ”make a meal out of nothing at all” comes in. And again these behavioral things is seen as something that needs to be ironed out, to be corrected, in order for someone else to conform to my perception of how she should live her life and again I’m trying to negate that perspective by saying that I can conceive a normal state that includes accommodating these psychological issues in whatever way you need to. Then the third part of the song is just a catalogue of different minerals and their properties so that’s where that lyric comes from.
So what would be the easiest, most basic thing you would make if you were to make a meal?
Oh I see what you’re saying, ok, I regularly make dinner out of nothing. I mean if you have flour and eggs you have pasta and if you have any plant then you have something to put on the pasta. That’s a standard thing at my house, if we can’t think of anything else to eat I make pasta.
So I guess, what food could you cook in a minute then? Pasta? Now you can’t cook pasta from scratch in a minute?
If the pasta, if you’ve made it and you just boil it but ah, yeah I think you’re limited to a sandwich in a minute.
Do you often ”eat along the way”? I don’t even know what I mean by that, even.
Well, that song that that’s from, the Dude Incredible song, is kind of inspired by seeing similarities between the behavior of other social animals and people, how, if you have a group of people and somebody says ”hey, let’s get go get something to eat” it seems like that could happen very quickly but it can’t happen quickly because everybody needs to decide how they wanna spend the rest of their evening, like their whole evening before they can decide ”yes, we’re gonna go and get something to eat now” and then there might be quite a bit of debate on what we should eat, where we should go and in that song there’s a fellow who takes it on himself to sort of lead the group and say ”let’s go do something” and some members of the group object and they say ”we’re quite comfortable where we are” and then he shuts them down by saying ”fuck that, let’s go, we can eat along the way” meaning you don’t need, what if you’re hungry, we can pick something up along the way, we can still go on our adventure. And I guess I was just struck by the parallels between like the social organization of any group whether it’s a pack of gorillas or a school of fish or whatever, it doesn’t matter what it is and the organizing principles are always the same. There’s always gonna be some descent and some people are gonna need to be convinced and eventually there’s gonna be a movement and everybody follows the group.
Right, this one is not food related but I’m about to start this café where I will encourage people to ride bikes so I was just wondering if you still ride bikes?
I actually just recently started riding a bicycle. As an adult I’ve never had a bicycle. I had a motorcycle when I was a teenager but I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since I was a kid and I just recently moved. I was living in the studio building, in the studio that I run had an apartment in it and I was living in that apartment for about twenty year. My wife and I just recently moved out into a house and so as a kind of a house warming present for me my wife got me a bicycle so I could ride my bike back and forth to work. So I’ve been riding my bike to work, to and from work everyday, I ride between seven and ten miles every day now and I really like it, I really enjoy, it’s not much physical activity, but I enjoy have some physical activity every day. There’s a sense of real freedom and real mobility with a bicycle and with a car it’s kind of a pain in the ass, you have to find a place to park it and lock it up and get all of your shit out of it, on a bike you’re carrying everything and you just get off the bike and you’re done, you know. So I quite like riding my bike, I haven’t had a chance, previously, to ride a bike in an urban setting until very recently and I’ve really gotten use to it and I really like it. Bob has been riding bikes for a very long time. Bob is a big proponent of bicycles. But Todd and I, Todd just bought a bike as well, he and his wife had been cycling around Minneapolis and I just got my bike in March so I’ve had like six or seven months of bicycling. I think Todd’s had four or five months of bicycling.
I will encourage people to bike just by having a discount if you arrive on a bike. That’s pretty much the whole idea of the cafe, to get more people to bike and maybe I can do that with an economic incentive.
Speaking as an urban bike rider the thing that matters most is having a convenient place to put your bike. Like this scenario here, where you have a bike rack where everybody puts their bikes and locks them up, that sort of thing doesn’t really exist in Chicago. There are some occasional places where you can find two or three places to put a bicycle but I mean a big centralized bike parking area doesn’t really exist.
I’m actually gonna talk to the city, there’s just one place in the whole city where they have made a car parking into a bike parking so I’m gonna try and talk to the city and try to get that in front of the cafe. That would be convenient. We’ll see if it happens. So at the cafe I will have soup and I heard that you like soup a lot?
Big fan of soup.
So what’s your ideal soup?
I make twenty or thirty different soups. The ones I like the most are very simple vegetable soups. Like you can take, just take a broccoli or cauliflower or asparagus, ah, [a begger comes by and Steve gives him some coins]. So I don’t know, my favorite soups are just like if you just take broccoli or carrots or cauliflower or asparagus or something like that and just boil it in stock and just puree it and that’s it. But it doesn’t need anything extra or fancy. Those are my favorite soups. Just one very simple and very clean taste. Potatoes make a natural soup. Tomatoes, you basically don’t anything more than tomatoes, just take some tomatoes and puree them and heat them up and add some lime juice and some garlic and you have soup.
Is there a reason why there’s a lot of vegetables and fruits around Uffizi on the cover of Excellent Grey Italian?
The idea is that he’s a black and white dog and we wanted to have a contrast between a colorful setting and a black and white dog, grey dog. And we couldn’t think of anything that would be free of context except fruits and vegetables. It seemed like a very colorful group of fruits and vegetables and then have a grey dog in it would look good and I like the way it looks. I mean anything else that’s really colorful has some kind of context to it, like clothing or money or photographs or magazines or whatever. Like all of those have an implicit content like you’re trying to make some kind of statement about all of these things and that wasn’t our idea. Our idea was just show off this good looking dog.
Is he still alive and well?
Uffizi’s still with us, he’s been Todd’s companion for fifteen year and he’s still there.
Do you boycott any foods?
No, I’m not crazy about sea food. When I was a, when I was very young I got very sick eating fish and so for the longest time I was convinced I was allergic to fish. And since then I’ve eaten, I’ve gradually incorporated fish into my diet now and again and I just don’t like it very much. I’ve had a few physical reaction to a few fishes that made me think I may have some kind of allergy to some aspect of some fish but it’s not a general thing. But I’m not that into it. The thing that’s weird is I really like fishy flavors like I like if there’s a an anchovy mixed in with a salad dressing or something like that I think that tastes pretty good usually or if there’s things like sea weed or sea salt. I think all of those taste fantastic but actual fish, for some reason, doesn’t sit will with me. I’m not into. And I realize that’s a lot of food but I will basically eat, I will try to anything, I will eat any other thing in the world, any plant, any animal, any mineral, doesn’t even have to be cooked, doesn’t have to be dead, whatever it is I’ll eat it. I don’t care. If it something that people eat some place in the world I’ll eat it.
But you don’t boycott anything for political reasons?
Well, I don’t eat fast food, that’s more of a concern for, I suppose it’s a political act. I don’t like the corporatized, I don’t like anything that has been reduced to a polypoly of corporate suppliers, I don’t like mass media, I don’t like fast food, I don’t like having a limited choice in cooking and eating so I prefer to buy my stuff from a market rather than a supermarket where everything is organized by brand. I much rather buy things from suppliers or producers or farmers or whatever. If I can. And I don’t eat factory farmed animals, I don’t buy meat and fish and chicken, I don’t buy that from a supermarket. I’ll buy it from a reputable butcher where I know the animals are raised humanely and that sort of thing.
What’s your favorite fruit?
It’s really hard to beat a fresh peach. A peach straight off a tree is like one of the most incredible foods. I really like melons as well, water melon, cantaloup. I like pretty much all berries. Berries can sometimes be annoying because of the seeds. You have this very luscious, very squishy, tasty fruit and you wanna just slurp it down and you end up with all these seeds in your teeth. But yeah, I’m gonna say fresh peach. I’m not a big fan of things done with peaches, you know? Like peach pie or peach cobbler, they’re ok but a peach by itself is amazing.
Do you have any food on your rider?
We don’t actually have a rider. We just, we try to keep things simple and if you have a rider that gives you a number of things to be disappointed by so we just tell people that if there’s some water and some towels back stage that’s really all we need. We can feed ourselves and take care of ourselves.
So I guess you don’t bring anything from America, food-wise?
No. When I’m traveling I try to find local candy, like candy produced locally for the local market. Because often there’s very distinctive flavors that don’t exist anywhere else. In Hawaii, for example, there’s a salted licorice plum called Li hing mui, a Chinese dried plum with salt and licorice on it and that’s used in all kinds of things. They use it in. There’s shops called ”crack seeds shops” and in these crack seeds shops they sell hundreds of things all flavored with Li hing mui. And the Li Hing flavor, it’s like salt and peppar for them, it’s on everything. You go to a fruit stand and you buy some fresh pineapple you will always be offered to have Li Hing sprinkled on it, if you want. If you go to an ice cream place you can get Li Hing sprinkled on your ice cream. It’s an insane flavor.
So what does it taste like?
It’s sour and salty and kind of dirty tasting. I really like it, but I’ve only eaten it in Hawaii where everything is amazing. So if I tried to incorporate it into my regular life I might not like it as much. But it’s a really amazing, distinctive flavor. And in Scandinavia this salted licorice is everywhere and I mean that’s a nasty, nasty thing but once you get use to it I can see how you can develop an affection for it. And in the United States for example there’s a soft drink called root beer that’s like basically unknown elsewhere but It’s a very particular, very peculiar flavor that Americans are very fond of. Like every town have their own local root beer and people are fiercely loyal to the root beer that they grew up with or the one they consider the best root beer. So I like this sort of local, the unique local flavors that you find in places and how passionate people are about their… Like in Japan, each region of Japan has it’s own kind of fast food, kind of street food, you know? Like in the coastal areas there’ll be like a salted eel is very common, or dried eel. It’s eaten like a snack. Sometimes just the bones of an eel are eaten like peanuts. In Kyoto and Osaka there’s kind of a dinner pancake that’s called Okonomiyaki, it’s like chopped vegetables and eggs and flour are cooked into a pancake and then that pancake is painted with this very rich sort of barbecue sauce and then it has bonito shavings sprinkled on it and it has herbs on it and sea weed. So it’s a very complexed, rich flavor, but it’s basically a pancake. And that’s only served in that part of Japan and in this other part of Japan. Then in Tokyo and the north there’s the ramen shops. Everybody’s fiercely loyal to their ramen shop, the one that they think is the one true, great ramen. I love all that, I think that’s one of the nicest things about traveling is that you get to experience little things that people think are great and unique about the particular place where they live.
I’m thinking about root beer and if I’ve ever tried it. There’s this thing, a Christmas drink that I think might be…
Have you tried that?
Yeah, I tried that the other day, I thought it was very good. The juniper flavor is really distinctive and that’s, root beer is, if you replace the juniper flavor with kind of a kind of Wintergreen flavor or birch bark flavor then that might give you an idea of what root beer is like. But julmust is not miles away from it.
I just stumbled over some Nirvana thing. I heard that you recorded the drums for Very Ape in a kitchen? Did you cook something as well?
No, in the studio building there was the normal performing area and then outside the performing area there was a small kitchen. And that’s where we set up the drums up for some of the songs on that record, I don’t remember which ones. Could’ve been that one, sure.
I thought of a Barcelona thing. I go to Primavera every year as well.
Amazing food in Barcelona!
That was what I was thinking. What’s your favorite restaurant?
There’s a little tapas place called Quimet, Q-U-I-M-E-T, I’ve heard it called Bar Quimet. It’s just a bar but it has every kind of bar food you can imagine. Really just deliciously prepared stuff. A lot of the food has been canned, in-house, they prepare something and then they put it in cans so that they can serve it at any time, you know? It’s really delicious food. I’ve had incredible cheeses and they have a canned quail that they make there that’s really delicious. Incredible preparation of foie gras there. Maybe my favorite serving of foie gras ever is from there.
You’re going next year as well?
Oh, yeah. If I’m in Barcelona I’m gonna go to Quimet, it’s just an incredible place. It’s very informal and it doesn’t have to be expensive. If you eat a few things, like a light lunch, if you eat a lot, like a big meal, it’s gonna be expensive but it’s incredible food. So, definitely worth it.
This isn’t food-related, but what do you think of the whole ATP debacle?
It’s depressing the way how ATP has sort of collapsed into itself. Because ATP, in my mind, still represents a better version of the world. A festival where the patrons and the bands are treated well and the slate of music is chosen because it’s excellent and not because it’s current, you know? There are things about it that I think survive in principle, I think it’s a shame that money was managed so poorly, that the company is in bad shape, that’s the shame. What they’ve accomplished, what they did, the way the ran it, the shows that I’ve seen, the ATP shows that I’ve seen, the festivals have all been really magical experiences so I think it’s really sad that it’s sort of collapsing on itself.
Do you think they’ll…?
It’s hard to see how ATP can dig themselves out. I mean, they owe so much money to so many people and they’ve got so many people angry at them. It’s hard to see how they could turn it around. But if it happens it would be great. I should be going because they’re probably waiting for me back stage.