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Members include Steve Albini, guitars, vocals; Todd Trainer, drums; Robert Weston, bass. Addresses: Record company--Touch & Go, P.O. Box 25520, Chicago, IL 60625, phone: (773) 388-8888, fax: (773) 388-8888, website: http://www.tgrec.com.
Having never compromised their ethic of free expression in favor of album sales or popularity, Shellac became perhaps the quintessential independent rock band over the course of a decade. They repeatedly managed to deliver some of rock's most brutally honest recordings while garnering respect as purveyors of the genre in its purest form. In addition, they have been interested in rock music's behind-the-scenes politics and in high-fidelity production electronics.
Consisting of guitarist, vocalist, and engineer Steve Albini, bassist Bob Weston, and drummer Todd Trainer, Shellac took shape in Evanston, Illinois, in 1992. Albini's noisy and confrontational Big Black and Rapeman projects had disbanded after causing controversy in the hardcore music scene over the previous ten years, and he was ready for something new. When Albini invited Weston, a former bassist in the bands Sorry and Volcano Suns, to work for him at his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, the trio started playing regularly, releasing a few singles on the local Touch & Go and Drag City labels.
Holding down day jobs, the group members never allowed their music to become their main source of income. As a result, they never felt the pressures experienced by many other bands that have been locked into bad record contracts and other obligations. Shellac's dealings with independent labels generally benefited both band and label equally, with neither party pressuring the other to try to make a recording that exceeded its inherent limitations.
Albini had been a much sought-after producer for some years and had direct experience with the problems that many bands faced when dealing with major labels. He grew more disillusioned with the state of commercial music with each record he produced, and finally he vented his observations in the now-famous essay "The Problem With Music," which appeared in the Chicago literary journal The Baffler. The essay outlined in the simplest terms how naive bands with the best intentions upon getting signed could have a hit recording and still end up penniless and disenchanted. The piece was especially relevant in the early 1990s, when major labels were mining the talents of the country's numerous underground music scenes and exploiting many of Albini's friends' bands in search of corporate profits.
Albini had studied journalism at Northwestern University and had always held a critical attitude toward corporate America. It was his general intention to inform the public about music industry ethics and practices while at the same time representing his own interests and opinions truthfully. Albini earned a reputation in the industry as an opinionated and hard-nosed producer, leading many major labels to steer clear of him for fear that his honesty would compromise the label's control over the artist whose career they might be trying to develop. The fact that recording industry executives were reluctant to use him, however, was exactly what led many bands to insist that Albini produce their albums. Musicians felt that Albini would stick up for their best interests and that at the same time they could count on his studio expertise to create sonically superb recordings.
During Shellac's career Albini produced hundreds of records, a number of them now considered alternative rock classics. These included Nirvana's In Utero, the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, and the Breeders' Pod. When producing smaller bands on independent labels, he charged what each band could afford and worked for a flat rate, declining to accept royalties. As well, he shunned the credit of producer, opting instead for engineer since he believed that no one should be more prominently credited on a recording than the band itself.
While Albini and Weston produced records for numerous bands, and Trainer held down a management job, Shellac released its first LP in 1994. At Action Park appeared that fall, and, by word of mouth alone, became a hit in underground circles. Featuring what would become Shellac's trademark sound--angular guitars, direct, punchy vocals, and crisp rhythm--At Action Park took listeners on a trip through the dark depths of human nature and revealed much about Albini's misanthropic outlook on life. His obsessions with violence, sex, and anger were as evident here as they had been on his recordings with Rapeman or Big Black, but so was his dedication to high-fidelity sound reproduction.
Albini's devotion to the truest recorded analog sound led the band to release the recording on vinyl several weeks before it came out on cassette or CD. They hoped to induce fans to purchase the album in the LP format, one that Albini considered superior. As well, the band and its label, Touch & Go, decided not to promote the record to the press or to college radio stations, assuming that those who might enjoy the album would eventually seek it out themselves or discover it through word of mouth.
In line with Albini's do-it-yourself philosophy, most of Shellac's interviews were granted to independent music fan magazines and alternative newspapers where noncommercial values were prized and major-label promotional politics were absent. Shellac's tour schedules saw the group visiting only cities that all the members wanted to visit. Tours were never money-making ventures but rather vacations on which the band played rock shows, at locations as obscure as 4-H clubs. One show in Evershot, England was organized by rocker PJ Harvey's mother. The band's early tour of Japan yielded the 1994 record Live in Tokyo, issued in limited release by Japanese noise artist and friend of the band members K.K. Null.
Shellac's next release, the 1997 instrumental recording The Futurist, was also extremely limited in its production run--a mere 799 copies were distributed, exclusively to family and friends--and Shellac's growing fan base clamored for something that they could actually get their hands on. Still, nearly four years went by before Shellac followed up the successful At Action Park with another full-length recording.
The release of Terraform was substantially delayed because of copyright clearance issues related to the album's cover art. After the wait was over, though, the recording--produced at the Beatles' famed Abbey Road Studios--still garnered its share of decent reviews. Rolling Stone's Ivan Kreilkamp commented that "Shellac continue to make exceedingly precise music in which silence counts as much as noise, and the rhythms ... are wound as tight as industrial-strength springs."
The trio spent much of 1998 and 1999 recording their 2000 release 1000 Hurts, whose title was a pun on the unit of measurement of frequency denoted by the abbreviation "Hz." Included on 1000 Hurts was one of Albini's signature odes to violent attack, entitled "Prayer to God"; in the lyrics he asks outright to have a woman and her partner mercilessly killed. The vinyl issue of 1000 Hurts included a free CD copy of the disc for the listener's convenience.
Notwithstanding its nasty tone, 1000 Hurts was well received by the music press. Had that not occurred, though, Albini and the other band members likely wouldn't have minded much; the usual concepts of success never held much appeal for the members of Shellac "[Shellac] has not been the No. 1 obligation in any of our lives," Albini told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "The band can exist in a quite comfortable way without us ever having to play another show or make another record."
by Ken Taylor
Group formed in Evanston, IL, 1992; released debut album At Action Park, 1994; released live album Live in Tokyo, 1994; released The Futurist, 1997; released Terraform, 1998; released 1000 Hurts, 2000.
- Selected discography
- At Action Park Touch & Go, 1994.
- Live in Tokyo Nux, 1994.
- The Futurist Touch & Go, 1997.
- Terraform Touch & Go, 1998.
- 1000 Hurts Touch & Go, 2000.
- The Baffler, November 1993.
- Rolling Stone, April 2, 1998; September 28 2000.
- St. Paul Pioneer Press, September 12, 2002.
- "Shellac," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 28, 2003).
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