ANOTHER reprint from the annals of GRUNT magazine, this time an interview with legendary guitar-botherer, microphone enthusiast and In Utero, Surfer Rosa and Pod engineer Steve Albini.
Big Black imploded at their darkest, angriest and most intense, when they’s simply done everything they wanted to do as Big Black. Albini got together with a couple of the guys from the brilliant Texan bluesy noiseniks Scratch Acid and created a band with a name inspired by their favourite cartoon character.
Steve ‘Weave’ Hawkins put them on in Leeds and the Brag editorial board (Mark, Marie, Doug and me) bugged him into letting us interview the band at their contentious Poly gig.
We were all major Big Black fans, but we were all as appalled by the name of the new band as any of the people protesting outside the venue. Well, maybe not quite as much. But they were great. The music Albini and his bandmates made was pretty fantastic, with Albini’s big, bad guitar accompanied by a muscular rhythm section that was simply out of control.
Albini was something of an indie legend already, from his work with Big Black. And Scratch Acid were just unbelievable, if not quite as well known. We were proper excited.
All the same, we had to walk through a picket to get into the venue. It felt very weird.
* * *
RAPEMAN is the name of a Japanese comic book super-hero who punishes bad people by raping them. It’s also the name of Steve Albini’s new band.
Rapeman formed this year and includes two members of Scratch Acid, who, alongside Big Black, Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth, produced some of the most radical and crucial music to have come out of the US in recent years.
Rey Washam and David Sims, former Scratch Acid members from Austin, Texas provide the drums and bass for Rapeman. Guitar and vocals are by Albini, formerly with Chicago’s Big Black.
Anyone with any kind of interest will know the story behind the Big Black split. Santiago Durango went into law school, Dave Riley went back into the porno business, and Albini went to California and checked into the world famous Betty Ford detox clinic in an ultimately futile attempt to rid himself of a long-standing barbituate habit.
But what the hell happened with Scratch Acid?
“I think I’m going to like this interview,” says Albini.
“Well, you know,” drawls David Sims in a stereotypical southern drawl. “We’d been going for almost five years all told, and it just got really fucking old.”
That Berserker album was one of the best thing Scratch Acid had ever done.
“I thought it was a good note to end on, but it was just pulling teeth. We sorta got tired of associating with each other.”
“Which is kind of odd given that three of the four of them live in the same house in Chicago. Seems like rockstar bullshit to me,” babbles Albini. “C’mon, who had the drug problem?”
“We just kinda ran out of things to say,” shrugs Sims. “It got harder and harder to write songs that weren’t just obvious retreads of songs we’d written before.”
Albini and Washam tried and rejected a number of bass players, including ex-Magazine and Bad Seeds bassist Barry Adamson who, it seems, impressed them with his musicianship but not with his prodigious drug-taking. Eventually Sims moved to Chicago from Texas and the duo became a trio.
“I don’t really care for Chicago,” decides Sims, “but at that time it made more sense for us to go to Chicago than for Steve to come to Texas – although Chicago is a vastly inferior place to live.”
“I would’ve probably have been willing to go to Texas except that at the time Rey first called me he kept saying, I gotta get the fuck out of Texas, I gotta get the fuck out of Texas. And then of course, after he got a taste of winter in Chicago, he started saying” – Albini’s voice rises several octaves – “I miss Texas.”
How does working in Rapeman compare to working in their previous bands?
“Things get done much more quickly,” offers Sims. “In Scratch Acid there was just a lot of fucking up involved. There was just way too much smoking pot and getting drunk. Also, the average IQ was significantly lower.”
Albini ponders for a while.
“Probably Big Black was a little bit lower key in terms of the perfectionist element. Big Black weren’t terribly interested in breaking our backs trying to get to the ultimate anything. With Rapeman there tends to be a tendency to fiddle with things a lot more.”
The music the trio create often seems to be closer to that of Scratch Acid than Big Black, to the former’s sparsity than the latter’s density. Big Black tended to pick a riff and stay there, whereas Rapeman, like Scratch Acid is about intricacies and subtleties. Is Albini mellowing out in his old age?
Afterall, you’re pushing 40 aren’t you Steve?
“No, that’s due to the influence of the other people in the band. People have always assumed that, because I’m the one in front of the microphone I’m the primary influence in the sound of the band. Rapeman is evidence that’s bullshit.”
So how does working with a drummer compare with working with a drum machine?
“The drummer thing is probably two or three questions in one. I never had any problem working with a drum machine philosophically. I think the way Big Black did it was the only way I would’ve been willing to do it. We didn’t have the drum machine playing sequences that would dictate the whole flow of the music, and we didn’t have it trying to ape a human drummer.
“But at the same time, playing with Rey makes me realise just how good a human drummer can be. He’s just a blast to play with, he’s incredibly creative and does stuff that you’ve never heard before and he just beats the shit out of his drums, which in my opinion is the only way to play them. He doesn’t consider himself a percussionist, he knows how to play the drums really fucking well, and that’s all he does.”
Lyrically, Albini deals with much the same laugh-a-minute concerns of weird sex, violent death and the sour remnants of the American dream as he did in Big Black. For example, the title track of the trio’s debut release, the Budd EP, deals with Budd Dwyer, a local councillor accused of corruption who shot himself on live TV in the US last year, and his namesake, the rather enigmatic figure who once occupied Albini’s house in Chicago.
Is Log Bass about fishing?
“Sort of,” grins Sims.
“It is sort of about fishing,” says Albini with a smirk like someone who’s just put clingfilm over the toilet. “See, once you get into the log bass frame of mind, pretty much anything becomes log bass territory really. It doesn’t have to be anything to do with .. bumming.”
“Good quote Steve,” says Sims, his grin ever wider.
“You should’ve seen this curry dinner we were fed in Chester last night, that was an encapsulation of the log bass frame of mind right there. ‘Log milk flowing all around!’”
None the wiser here Steve. It’s about shit? Isn’t writing songs about shit a bit puerile?
“Sure, I guess. Is that a bad thing?”
And what about the rest of the EP?
“The EP is kind of a downer. I can’t see anybody listening to it and thinking, this is the most exciting thing I’ve heard in my life, I have to go buy this now. Thematically, it’s just such a downer of a record.”
It isn’t often you hear bands slagging off their own records. This type of thing should be encouraged.
How has the response to the band differed in the US and over here?
“Well, the response to the name has been different. A lot of people show up expecting to hear Big Black songs or Scratch Acid songs, but once they realise we aren’t gonna play ‘em they sorta settle down and judge it on its own merits.”
Does the current US election – Bush / Quayle vs Dukakis / Bentsen – seem as farcical over there as it does over here?
“For once, you people are right on the mark,” says Albini, generously.
Are either of you going to vote?
“I tried to vote,” says Sims. “I tried to get an absentee vote because obviously we’ll be in Europe, but something fucked up. I wasn’t registered properly. I would’ve held my nose and voted for the Democratic ticket. I would’ve voted against George Bush really.”
“There’s really only one issue on which it makes any difference. I think both Bush and Dukakis are both image politicians, both are complete losers. The only reason to vote is that we’ve got three Supreme Court judges, who are judges for life, who are in their eighties. The three that are looking to bite it next are the three most liberal, if you can call them that.
“Reagan’s already put in three right-wing freakos, so if the liberals bite it, Bush could stack the deck on all judicial decisions for the next 20 or 30 years. Supreme Court judges decide basic constitutional issues upon which all laws in the US are based. They’re that important.”
Talking of judges and courts, have you heard anything about Peter Wright’s book, Spycatcher?
“In a typically British manoeuvre, they decided that yes, he could print the book but he ouldn’t make any money out of it. It’s funny and English, that’s all there is to it.”
It might be ‘funny and English’ to you but we’re losing our civil liberties over here.
“Well, it’s not like any of you couldn’t have someone in America buy the book and mail it over to you. I realise that you shouldn’t have to, but it isn’t as though the information isn’t available.”
Britain seems to be becoming a very scary country. Have you heard about stuff like Clause 28?
“Sure,” admits Albini. “You can say that the political climate is becoming right-wing, and the international policy and the policy with respect to Northern Ireland, whatever, but on a personal level, life in Britain for regular everyday people is a fuck of a lot easier than it is in most places on the planet.”
Unless you’re black. Unless you’re gay. Unless you’re in a trade union, or unemployed ..
“Wait a minute. Unemployed. Right there you got us hands down in America. You can exist quite easily over here without a job. That isn’t the case in America. Over here, you get your rent paid, you get free medical help ..”
We’re rapidly getting into Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen territory here.
“Well okay,” concedes Albini. “Most of the people that we’ve run into that don’t have jobs are doing okay, which isn’t the case in America. For example, Rey couldn’t get work in Texas. He’d lost his job – I think the company had folded – so he went to the unemployment office and they said, you’re healthy, you’re male, you’re white, you’re under 40, you don’t get anything. That was it. He went out onto the sidewalk and look for dimes in the cracks.
“There literally is no safety net in the US. If you’re not working and some adjudicator decides that you’re fit enough to work, you don’t get a thing. For a single, able-bodied man in Chicago at the moment, I think GA benefit is $60 a month – and that’s why absolutely everyone on welfare in the US does something illegal for money. Prostitution, theft, drugs, anything.
“You may think that your lot over here is really quite rough because you can’t live where you would like, but you can exist without a job and that’s just not possible in the US.”
Having spent much of the Eighties on the dole, I resent the idea of a bunch of Yank musicians telling me how good I have it, but Albini kind of has a point, hateful to admit that though it is.
We finally turn our attention to the big, ugly elephant trying to mind its own business in the corner of the dressing room.
As names for bands go, Rapeman has to be one of the stupidest and most offensive. A lot of other seem to think so too, including Leeds Poly student union, the press officer at Blast First, many staff members of Sounds, NME and Melody Maker, Rape Crisis and a whole host of feminist and women’s groups and individuals around the country.
As a letter to the Leeds Other Paper put it: “It’s very ill-considered and amounts to an attack on people who’ve already suffered enough. Steve Albini is being very arrogant if he thinks he is breaking a taboo of some sort by using this name. There’s already a fucking truckload of literature on the subject, written by women themselves.”
Have you been surprised to the reaction to the name over here?
“I’m surprised by the amount of attention people pay to the reaction to the name,” says Albini. “We knew people were gonna be upset by the name, but it amazes me that everyone knows about this big demonstration in Leeds, everyone knows that the gig was cancelled and is now back on again.”
It’s been all over the music papers for ages.
“I know, but nobody in America reads those things, they’re full of shit anyway. Over there, a couple of the gigs have had very minor feminist protests and the people who were demonstrating obviously had very little conception of what we were about.”
Indeed. On the picket line outside the gig in Leeds apparently there was talk of Big Black being a racist band. An SWP-led chant went along the lines of “Rape is nothing to sing about”. I’m not entirely sure there’s anything you can’t sing about, but either way, Rapeman don’t have any songs about rape. The only people singing about rape were the people on the picket line.
“The people at the protests were just the usual half-dozen housewives and lesbians who show up at every one of those feminist meetings.”
That’s a load of bigoted bullshit. Anyone who’s a feminist is either a housewife or a lesbian?
“Over here it seems like there’s a contingent of people who do at least have an inkling of what we’re about and they should at least suspect that ideologically we don’t have anything for anyone to worry about. But they’re still so incensed by the name and go with the party line about what should be done about it.”
Like Songs About Fucking, isn’t there a controversy-seeking element to the name?
“Well, for a start, all the creative decisions in Big Black weren’t mine and all of the creative decisions in Rapeman aren’t mine, so it’s not that much of an Albini lineage. Songs About Fucking was done with the intent of rubbing people’s noses in the origins of rock’n’roll music.
“The name Rapeman was just chosen as the name of the band with no agenda in mind. We knew it was gonna cause some shit but we figured it would die down fairly quickly. But we never really took into account English people.”
Sims squeezes a word in edgeways: “There really hasn’t been any problem to speak of in the States.”
What about seeing it on a wall somewhere, out of context. Don’t you see that could be offensive?
Albini, who says he is “incapable of being offended” is adamant: “Well, no. There’s no way by looking at the word Rapeman that you can tell it implies any particular perspective. It’s just two syllables. If you removed the first syllable and put any other verb in there, your argument falls to shit.”
But the whole point is that verb is Rape.
“Exactly. That first syllable really bugs you people. If we used the words Rape and Woman, Rapewoman, that would have been seen as a command. If we had just used the word Rape, you wouldn’t have liked that either. There’s a political touchiness about the word in England.”
It’s something that goes through my mind and a lot of other women’s minds every day. When you’re walking home at night you always have to walk where it’s light because you’re fucking frightened of being raped.
“I appreciate that,” concedes Albini.
The letters are E, P, R, and A but together they spell rape.
“It’s a powerful word, I’m not denying that.”
It strikes horror into women. Isn’t it cheapening that to use that as part of the name of a rock band?
“I’m firmly convinced that there is no morally correct or incorrect rock band name. I don’t think there’s any name that you can give to a rock band that has any moral weight. We could have picked just about any other name that in abstract, at root would have been just as horrifying but if we didn’t use the word rape, nobody would have been offended.
“We could have called ourselves the Baby Killing Fascists and no one would care. You wouldn’t see anyone lined up in front of the venue trying to stop people seeing the Baby Killing Fascists, because there would be an assumption of irony there. Why that assumption is made about fascism and not rape is beyond me.
“There are bands who use equally atrocious names like Millions of Dead Cops, or the Day-Glo Abortions, or the Butthole Surfers, or the Homosexuals or whatever. They all offend different sections of the community.
“What you’re saying is that certain things shouldn’t be used for band names and I’m saying that’s an incredible conceit.”
How about if there was a comic you liked called All Women Are Whores? Would you decide to call your band All Women Are Whores?
“No, because that’s a stupid name,” says Washam as he passes through the room.
“Right,” agrees Albini. “That’s much stupider than Rapeman.”
Why? Because Rapeman is ambiguous and All Women Are Whores isn’t?
“No, because Rapeman has a connotation we appreciate, this comic book and the complete bewilderment you feel after reading it. It has a specific reference for us – and it is memorable, if nothing else.”
Don’t you think that the name has the potential to damage the cause of women today?
“I don’t think that’s the case at all. Absolutely not.”
Women are still struggling to get the power to control their own lives ..
“And that’s a good fight that they should keep on fighting,” interjects Albini.
Right. We were talking about judges earlier and they really give women shit in rape cases, talking about contributory negligence ..
“I’ve only ever seen one case where that phrase was used but I was totally disgusted. It’s like if a prostitute is raped, then it’s like it doesn’t matter because she’s only a prostitute. I agree completely that it’s an affront to women everywhere and a ridiculous way for a society to behave.”
And one of the strongest reasons why people are against the name is that people can see the name and not perceive that you’re a right on, anti-sexist bloke, and out of context the name can quietly reinforce the macho stereotype.
“It sounds pretty far-fetched,” decides Sims.
“That’s a pretty long wire you’re walking out on there,” adds Albini.
Neither of you are women, you don’t have to experience ..
“Well, that’s a pretty sexist notion.”
What are your chances of getting raped tonight Steve?
“Maybe you’re not afraid of being raped, but you’re afraid of getting clubbed.”
Come on. There’s a feeling of violation in rape which is unlike most other kinds of violence.
“Well, so what? You’re saying that I don’t ever have to worry about being raped. Do you know what the likelihood of me ending up in jail in Chicago is? A helluva lot better than the likelihood of you ending up in jail in Chicago.”
Like you say, so what?
“David doesn’t like the name either,” says Washam.
Sims shoots him a look and explains: “I’m not offended by the name. My only problem with it is that it’s kinda silly. But that’s kind of a whole different ball park. I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep over what people put onto me, or onto the band.”
“We’re not concerned what people think of the name, period. We know what kind of people we are and we know why we chose the name and it doesn’t bother us in the slightest if people misinterpret it one way or the other.”