Wednesday, April 9, 2008



BIG BLACK, interview
Melody Maker, 1987

by Simon Reynolds


BIG BLACK. One of the rock names. BIG BLACK says it all. The looming threat. The black hole of noise. The yawning abyss of horror that swallows up all the words we can muster in our attempts to master the experience.

Big Black are alive to the psychedelic possibilities of horror. They are drawn, instinctively, to those phenomena--atrocity, psychosis, calamity--before which the mind reels and language dries up. If fascination is a fixation on an ineffable, arbitrary manifestation of beauty, then horror is simply the inversion of fascination--that chaste, hideous rapture that comes when the mind faces that which undoes it, the unaccountable. Awe (a word which contains both wonder and terror), the ecstasy of dread that comes when meaning fails--these are the dark, religious feelings that shudder at the heart of Big Black.

Big Black have hit upon a kind of subterranean psychedelia, music whose message is not "rise above", but "let's submerge". There are several solutions to the problem of escaping the cage of identity--"make music to satisfy angels" (Paul Morley), "play like beasts" (Lester Bangs)--but Big Black have located a kind of liberation in the mechanical. Like Swans, they have turned themselves into a pop abattoir, a concussion machine whose function is not to expand consciousness, but to compress it, obliterate it.

So I meet Big Black and what I really want to know is what is it about them, about me, about all other like minds, that draws us to this metaphoric self-destruction? Why is it that these sensitive, caring boys, these self-confessed wimps, avowed humanists, are obsessed by everything that subverts the humanist project, all the traumas and sicknesses that contradict our faith in perfection and progress?

Big Black--at some instinctive level--resist the kind of liberal humanism that invents a notion like "death education": the delusion that you can prepare people for this arbitrary, terroristic fact of life, somehow cope with this final sick joke! Big Black want to restore to us the vividness of death, of the threshold situations that compromise our balanced lives.

"What it is", says Steve Albini, singer and guitarist, "is that I just happen to have a fascination for certain kinds of human interaction--where people try to dominate each other, or the means of expression people resort to when pushed to their absolute limits. When people go beyond their training and morals and do exactly what their urges tell them to do, they are, in a sense, being most true to themselves. What intrigues me is that here are situations and phenomena that are severe, and yet I can't understand them."

Does the fascination lie in being confronted with the sheer arbitrariness of tyrannical reality?

"Well, recognising that you are helpless, that you have no power, over others, over your own drives--facing that, accepting it, is a step to stability. Because, if you think you've got the reins of your life in your hands, you're wrong! But basically there's something fascinating about the dirtiness of things going wrong that really stimulates me. I can't explain it, just acknowledge it."

Does the pleasure reside in the disorientation induced by the unmanageable? Or are our nerves so enfeebled that only violent music and violent imagery can wake us up? It's a truism that the presence of death makes us feel more alive.

Bassist Dave Riley speaks: "When I hear the word 'violence' I think of 'victim'. When I think of 'aggression', I think of intensity. Big Black are about intensity."
Santiago Durango, guitarist: "And the opposite of intensity is numbness--who wants to listen to music like that, to live like that? My life is so boring and regular, I need this kind of disruption."

I tell them my interpretation of "Kerosene", their masterpiece: that this story of a man so bored he sets himself on fire is like a metaphor for the Big Black method--their music is an equally drastic solution to inertia, a metaphorical self-immolation.

Dave: "That's quite neat, but actually the song is about something different. It's been widely misinterpreted as being about gang raping a woman and then burning her to death, and we have received a lot of shit about it. In actual fact, the song is about American small towns where life is so boring, there's only two things to do. Go blow up a whole load of stuff for fun. Or have a lot of sex with the one girl in town who'll have sex with anyone. 'Kerosene' is about a guy who tries to combine the two pleasures."

It's as if Big Black use other people's most extreme moments of reality--madness and death--as an escape from their reality. The horror that is someone else's life becomes for them a kind of oblivion.

Don't they worry that they'll develop a tolerance to all this? And that if they try to maintain the level of impact by piling on yet more noise/horror, they'll get sucked into an upward spiral whose ultimate destination is total musical seizure/sensory burnout?

Santiago: "If we reach the point where we can't add anymore, we'll stop. Once we've shot our wad, seen Jesus, we'll give it up."

Dave: "Getting numb to our own material is not really a problem. It's not like we have this stable version of the set, which we've honed over the months. Becoming familiar with our material is helpful, because if allows us to improvise. Someone will always throw in a new rent..."

Santiago: "The song defines the parameters within which we can be creative."

What I like about Big Black is that there's a kind of lucidity to the violence--it's not a fog of noise, everything is picked out articulately, for maximum impact.

Dave: "That's what I liked about the band when I joined--everything's focused."

Big Black are not about making an incompetent din. Unlike British noise groups, I don't get the impression that you're frightened of virtuosity.

Dave: "Getting skilled, acquiring knowledge of music theory, these are not problems. The point is to eliminate those skills and pieces of theory that are not appropriate at any given time. Knowledge is not a problem, knowledge is power. What you need is the right mindset, the attitude to use that knowledge well."

Santiago: "It's the same with learning to use studios. The studio is just a big instrument."

Will Big Black start to take on other textures apart from guitars, exploit other kinds of noise-making technology?

Dave: "Well, there's a synthesizer on 'Bad Houses'. We've done some primitive sampling. I've got a sax I can't play. We're working with Vocoders."

Steve: "You see, I hate the human voice. Our idea is to tamper with my voice as much as possible, and then bury it at the back of the mix. We're working on this song where we put the whole track through the Vocoder, so that my voice comes out composed of the same material as the music, and there's just this flurry of consonants under the beat."

Santiago: "The guitars are basically the thing though--we'll bend, we'll add certain elements--but guitars are what it's all about. And that's basically because they're extensions of our cocks, and we love them."

Dave: "We're puds. Jerks, but it's much better to be a pud with a guitar than a pud without a guitar."

This is as much the heart of Big Black as any fancy theory of trancendence through noise and horror. They're so sweet, so meek and mild-mannered, these boys, possessed with the spindly, bespectacled air of God's chosen computer operators...and yet these Woody Allen geeks have a strange otherlife onstage, where they metamorphise into a monstrous, glorious death machine. What went wrong?

Santiago: "We were never in the mainstream while growing up, we were isolated at school, we all have terrible problems with women."

Dave (mock-hysterical): "I told you--we're losers, we're puds. We're pathetic!"

Sounds like the classic course of development for rock musicians, rock critics, fanzine writers, and indeed anyone who gets into "difficult" or "alternative" music.

Dave: "Yeah, you're a loner, you want to be one-up over everyone else. Plus, you want to belong, somewhere. I mean, I never met anyone who had a good adolescence that I even wanna associate with!"

So life's losers achieve a strange kind of triumph onstage, reinvent themselves through rock noise.

Santiago: "Our lives would be just so much worse without Big Black. Without Big Black we might turn into the sickos we write about."

^^^^^^
Steve Albini looks like a fanzine editor--stoop-shouldered, with arms as thin as twigs and an air of bespectacled intensity about him. His writing for US hardcore rag Forced Exposure has won him notoriety, even persecution. Each day he returns home from work (as a photo-retoucher in Chicago), checks his answering machine and finds at least two or three detailed messages of abuse. He's left Forced Exposure now, after a piece entitled "Guide For Social Tards" was printed under his name, 90 per cent which had been written by someone else.

"It was a crap piece of writing. I don't mind making myself look stupid. In fact, I'm probably the best at it. So what annoyed me was amateurs messing where professionals should be."

Albini resents and resists any idea that there is an American "movement" of noise bands, groups like Scratch Acid, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Swans, Live Skull...

"Sure, everyone knows everyone else, has each other's phone numbers, plays the same clubs. But musically, all you can say that we have in common is that we're all American, all like electric guitars, and are all inspired by punk rock. Anything more specific than that is misleading. We start from the same origin, but go in very different directions."

But isn't there at least a similarity of intended effect? Unlike, say, soulboys or singer-songwriters, who want to strengthen the listener's sense and identity and reinforce values, aren't your kind of bands into the pursuit of oblivion, using noise and horror to put the self in jeopardy?

"Well, certainly, the whole thing is about reaching that point where your eyes roll back and you get dizzy! Like the first time me and my friend heard The Ramones. All we could say was 'Fuck!' That was it for me, the beginning. I wasn't even dissatisfied with music before punk, because I didn't listen to music at all."

Perhaps what fascinates Albini about power and domination is the spectacle of pure will. You could define violence as the refusal to argue, to give an account, to justify. Maybe the kind of people who've worked around the noise/horror interface--intellectual geeks--are secretly envious of the sheer will to power, to action, that marks the psychos, fanatics, fuhrers, shamens, they deal with. The kind of potency and singlemindedness that is missing from our aimless, debilitated lives. But onstage, or in print, we can live like fanatics, monsters, live with murderous edge, high on "attitude".

I speak to Big Black while they are in the middle of recording one side of their new LP in London. Before then, in a week or two, there'll be an EP with the promising title, "Headache."

Tell us about the new material, Steve.

"One song on the new LP, called 'L Dopa', is about a Sleeping Sickness epidemic in America in 1926. It's a true story I read about in a book called 'The Awakening', written by Dr. Oliver Sachs, the guy responsible for waking up all these people from deep sleep. Some were woken up as late as 1965, awoke to find themselves old people, their entire productive life just slept away. And all these people either committed suicide or asked to be killed. They were so fucked up, so unable to cope with what they'd lost, that they wanted to throw away the little they had left.

"There's a song called 'Bad Penny', which is about the kind of person who just won't get out of your life, who sticks around and stirs up shit, in your name. 'My Disco' is the true story of a physician who has a kid that has brain damage. And rather than live with that, he beats his way into the maternity ward, grabs the baby and bounces it off the floor until it dies. The amazing thing is that the guy doesn't get sent to jail forever, he's found guilty of aggravated manslaughter, and spends maybe a year in jail. So somehow he managed to convince a jury that, hell, it wasn't such bad thing to smash a baby on a hospital floor because he was too dumb and ugly to be in your family. Any of you guys woulda done the same. That's weird! Can you imagine this guy thinking it through, carrying out the whole operation--punching out nurses, swerving through the hospital corridors and bouncing his child off the floor."

Albini and his group find a terrible poetry in the intractable, the unbudgeable, the indelible. Their music is as desperate a response to these things as any in the stories of their songs. They are drawn to desperation as to a heady drug.
"The thing about these phenomena is that they aren't that unusual; you have to face the fact that you too could be driven to these lengths. I use true stories because I couldn't think up these things. But I don't have to look."

Big Black want to make us feel awe. The paradox of Big Black is that they immerse us, deluge us in defilement and desecration, and yet produce sacred feelings. I feel small before the scale of the experiences they deal in, small and religious in the face of the beauty of terror, the terror of beauty.

Live, when Steve Albini plays guitar with his teeth, I think I see God.



STEVE ALBINI,interview
Melody Maker, late 1992

by Simon Reynolds



Reissue-mania rages unabated. And now it's getting
eerie, for they're dis-interring the recent past, stuff I
wrote about at the time. To whit: the entire Big Black
catalogue: from the early EP's ("Bulldozer", "Racer X",
"Lungs",), right up the band's final out-with-a-bang-not-a-
whimper performance at London's Clarendon, captured in the
form of the album/video Pigpile.

But what you really need to hear is Big Black's two
LP's Atomiser (1986) and Songs About Fucking (1987).
Combining catharsis-through concussion noise with a morbid
interest in the extremities of human experience, Big Black
were an absolute pinnacle of the sickfuck/ear-rape aesthetic.
"Songs" like "Jordan, Minnesota", "Kerosene", "Bad Penny"
still chafe your eardrums and pummel your guts something
grievous. And then there's the Big Black legacy, which
stretches from Hole (Courtney Love recently put "Kerosene" at
top of her Top Ten Records That Changed My Life) to the
English skronk scene (Silverfish etc) to the ghoulish thrash
of Therapy?. Ah well... I guess, like most great bands, Big
Black's influence has been largely dire and occasionally
productive.

Anyways, here's Steve Albini, all set to appraise the
"living legacy", his acquaintance with his own oeuvre
refreshed after eight hours of remastering at Southern
Studios in North London. I've interviewed him a couple of
times, but it's easy to forget how likeable he is, easy to
assume he's identical with the twisted, obsessed geek that so
often inhabits the songs. In reality, he's an appealing
fellow. His virtues include admirable rigor and
fastidiousness of thought, a dry sense of humour, scrupulous
honesty, and against-the-grain contrariness: he says that far
from objecting, he'd rather I smoke, because he prefers the
company of smokers - "they tend to be more tolerant and less
judgemental than non-smokers".)




Re-listening to his own music, it transpires, was not
always a comfortable experience. "I haven't heard those early
Big Black records for five years, and it's horribly
embarassing, like if someone uncovered your high school year
book pictures and wanted to publish them nationally". The
embarassment abates a bit when Big Black ceased to be the 19
year old Albini "fucking around on my own with a drum
machine", with the arrival in 1982 of guitarist Santiago
Durango and, a bit later, bassist Dave Riley. "When it was
just me it was far more stylized and affected than when it
was performing rock band that wrote songs as a collective."

The way Albini tells it, Big Black's collective identity
was based not on convictions about how rock bands should
sound but how they should conduct themselves. "We had an
ideology about how we dealt with people inside the music
scene, the way we'd operate as a team internally. We
constructed an archetype of a perfect rock band, which we
tried to live up to."

That ideology was basically the punk belief in "complete
control". "We were inspired more by what punk rock purported
to be, rather than what it actually was. The exemplar of
independence and ethical conduct today are Fugazi, where they
call their own shots, don't have a manager, don't have a
booking agent. And we did all that stuff ourselves. It's
actually quite easy."

It was this ferociously uncompromising idealism that
culminated in the descision to end Big Black at the height of
its white-hot fervour of creativity, critical esteem and
popularity in '87. The pretext was Santiago's long-delayed
decision to become fulfil his familial obligation to become a
lawyer. But really, Big Black were sick of the problems
generated by their burgeoning success. And so they opted for
one of the great feats of bloodymindedness in rock history, a
premature auto-destruct rivalled only by Jane's Addiction.

"As we got bigger, people tried to make plays for the
band, appeals to our vanity or our ambition, or tried to
coerce us into doing things. And it was obvious that the only
way to shortcircuit that was just to break the band up. We
were never comfortable with the notion that there were people
in the audience that we didn't know personally. Finally,
we'd play a show to several hundred and it'd be a real
stretch to find three we'd want to talk to. In the beginning
there's a sense of kinship with the audience. As it gets
bigger, that community gets diffuse, and you can either
accept the fact that you're a star entertainer. Or you can
completely sever yourself from the audience, like we did."

Albini is sceptical about the notion of a Big Black
legacy. "See, what I considered the most important thing
about the band was the way we conducted ourselves, not the
series of noises that came out of the speakers. To me, the
least significant part of any band is the stylistic elements.
Any truly great band is going to have consistent stylistic
elements. But they're also going to have ideals underneath
that are the foundation for the style. Unfortunately with Big
Black it's the superficial elements that've been mimiced."

According to Albini, the list of culpable copyists who
grabbed hold of the substance but not the spirit range from
Godflesh and their grindcore ilk to "a lot of the disco-
industrial stuff" (Wax-Trax etc). Nor can he see many
examples of a positive influence. "There are people that
think similarly, but I think it'd be awfully presumptuous of
me to say they'd been inspired by us. As well as Fugazi,
there are many smaller American bands doing things completely
indepedent of the music industry/alternative scene."

It's strange to think of Big Black as idealists, when so
many of their lyrical obsessions seemed to partake of a
brutally nihilistic worldview, a vision of human life as
governed by power-relations of domination and submission.

"When I think of Big Black I think of our motivations and
ethics. The lyrics are paid an undue amount of attention,
I'm not joking when I say they were largely an afterthought.
It was whatever we happened to be interested in at the time.
We were disenfranchised middle class americans, and so we had
the same sort of death and freak obsessions that everyone
from that era had. I do think that those themes are
universal, to an extent. De Sade explored a lot of the same
territory. I don't actually share de Sade's worldview, but I
think it's sort of fun to put on that hat and actually think
that way. That's where the personalities in the songs came
from. I was interested in imagining the motivations for
extreme behaviours that appear totally preposterous."

Big Black's anti-Romanticism was signalled very clearly
in the sleeve note salutation on Songs About Fucking to
"all bands who don't write love songs", which recalled the
Futurists' proclamation that the nude in painting was an
exhausted idiom, sentimentalized and enfeebled.

"Every so often you'll find someone who has an angle on
the love song that isn't completely beaten to death. But it
just seems like such a small domain for 90 percent of pop
to be centred on. I don't know why there aren't more songs
about three-cushion billiard, which I think is the most
beautiful, graceful thing a human being can do. I don't
understand why there aren't songs about taxidermy or fly
fishing. There are so many things that people do for
satisfaction, that don't centre on rubbing genitals."

By 1987, the post-hardcore/noise-horror bands'
fetishisation of real life at its most graphic and ghastly
seemed to have reached a dead end. There seemed like there
was no way to up the shock effects, the torturous noise
levels. And so the aesthetic petered out (until it's recent
ressurrection with the grunge movement). By '87, the
obsession with psychopaths and serial killers seemed to be
just another kind of conformist cliche, a stock narrative.

"I agree to an extent, although those themes go back a
long way, to the blues and Appalachian murder ballads. I
don't think we actually did it to an obsessive degree. But
the bands that mimiced Big Black and our peers, did develop
a "let's write about 'grody' things" aesthetic that very
quickly burned itself out."

At times it seemed like hardcore bands identified with
serial killers as the ultimate heroic outsiders. Albini
denies that BB ever celebrated "lowlife" or psychosis.
Nonetheless, the characters in songs like "Kerosene" (a bored
man who combines his small town's two sources of release -
blowing things up and screwing the local slut - in a single
self-immolatory catharsis), or "Power Of Independent
Trucking" (a fuck'em, forget'em redneck nomad) did come
across as vaguely impressive figures. Their singlemindedness
is almost heroic, because they're decisive, they act.

"What interested in me in those subjects was examining
the scenarios in detail and finding the degree of absurdity
or obsession that was expressed. The ultimate interest lay in
seeing how close these characters were to you, coming to
accept that everyone is capable of extreme, absurd, and
preposterous behaviour like that, under certain conditions."

Along with limit-experiences, Big Black struggled to
reach the extremities of aural punishment. At the time,
Albini declared that even though he was losing his hearing in
the right ear, he could never get the band to sound loud
enough. He still feels that "when I see a band I like, I want
to be overwhelmed, pinned to the wall, induced to vomit."

For many, the bankruptcy of this sado-masochist
aesthetic, with its concealed machismo and latent misogyny,
was finally revealed in the name of Albini's post-Big Black
combo, Rapeman. Albini is still unperturbed by the outcry
that surrounded that ill-fated band (whose music,
incidentally, he rates higher than Big Black!). He shrugs it
off as a very local-to-England knee-jerk response on the part
of the tattered remnants of left-wing politics.

"The idea that Rapeman or Big Black were misogynyist
seemed completely misdirected to me. The songs were all
personas. If the persona adopted for a song happened to be a
sexist pig, I don't see how that relates to my personal
politics. But that's a leap that people make all the time.
Accusations of proto-fascist ideology, sexism and machismo
were much more appropriate for heavy metal than the scene in
which we operated."

After R***man, Albini's pursued a very successful career
as a producer. He grimaces at the idea: "the word 'producer'
has the same effect on me as 'nigger' and 'faggot'. It's
such a pejorative term, one I associate with a mode of
thinking, a way of life, that I shun and abhor." For all his
protestations, the list of bands Albini has sprinkled his
glitterdust upon is legion: from "big names" like the
Wedding Present, Breeders, Pixies to a swarm of minor post-
hardcore bands (many done for love rather than money, like
Jesus Lizard). Most recently he's scuffed up Silverfish's
latest ball of scree.

Albini's has long contributed rants and (excellent)
fiction to the influential US fanzine Forced Exposure, Most
recently he penned a column of "Eyewitness Record Reviews",
the idea being that these were the only truly informed
reviews ever written because he was involved in making the
albums. Picking only on bands who'd ignored his request NOT
to be credited on the sleeve, Albini passed vitriolic
verdicts on the platters and the personnel behind them,
concluding with the fee he charged.

Albini has similarly trenchant opinions on the state of
the rock underground. "Until about six months ago I thought
we were in the absolute fucking depths. But very recently,
there's been an upswell of unknown bands, and my opinion of
the rock community has improved significantly." He cites
eccentric labels like Drag City, and "really independent"
bands like Arc Welder, Shorty, The Dijdits, Slint, Jesus
Lizard, The Idiot, as the wave of the future.

"Nirvana's success has triggered a buying frenzy on the
part of the record industry. On one hand that's bad, 'cos
some good bands will be tempted to sign to the majors and
will of course be destroyed as all good bands are. But on
the other hand, it's good: a whole load of real horseshit
bands will be taken out of the picture. Bands that sign to a
major have typically eighteen months: a year of being treated
like kings, then the album comes out, it fails to meet the
sales expectactions, they spend six months in limbo and then
the band collapses. But there is a population of bands who
recognise the stupidity of signing to major, like Jesus
Lizard, who've told them to get fucked. And I think those
bands will be the foundation of the next significant phase in
American music. We're in the shit now, it's going to be
horrible, a lot of indie labels are going to form unholy
alliances with majors and they'll be crushed. But the end
result is going to be very positive. It'll destroy the
incentive the majors have to eat up indie bands, and wipe out
the bands who are weak enough to think they can cash in."

Albini admits, with a twinge of ruefulness, that he's
sorely tempted to get back into the fray himself. "Not a day
goes by where I don't miss being in a band. Personally it
would be hugely satisfying to just do it. But I also think
the one thing that's missing in the music scene is restraint;
people are constantly releasing things".

Instead, Albini has a new focus for his energies: three
cushion billiards, a game which he finds has almost Zen-like
properties in terms of the discipline and focus it demands.
"It's very humbling, especially if you're used to the instant
gratification of playing rock. Executing a particular shot,
you either have the right stuff or you don't. It's completely
unforgiving. I'm good enough to make a fair game with someone
who's national tournament calibre. But it takes 50 years to
be good at this game. I'm 29, and I've only been playing for
three years."

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