Shellac: No Free Lunch, Still

Given their unpredictable touring habits, Shellac's upcoming show Glasgow gig is kind of a big deal. Jorge Marticorena catches up with recording engineer and musician Bob Weston for a talk about his life in and out of the minimalist rock trio

Feature by Jorge Marticorena | 16 Oct 2008

Shellac’s all about timing. If the timing’s right, then Steve Albini, Bob Weston, and Todd Trainer become Shellac. Kind of like a total solar eclipse. Except that it usually doesn’t take an average of 400 years (though to some it may feel that way) and the music is generally better. “We only practice and tour for something like 30 days per year on average,” says bassist/vocalist Bob Weston, “though it’s been more in 2008 for some unknown reason.”

The reasons are generally varied and arbitrary, but Shellac’s scattered activity always comes down to their reputable work ethic, which is, basically, to tour and record whenever they want. Their standards are often cost-inefficient: they use no promotional gimmicks, as much as seven years have passed between records, and tours rarely coincide with record releases.

It’s also a matter of necessity, considering these dudes have got other things going on in their lives. Albini and Weston are both experienced (and estimable) recording engineers. And this is not to mention their own pet projects, such as Weston’s involvement with Bostonian post-punk legends Mission of Burma. Weston also has a full-time job as the co-founder of Chicago Mastering Service, an analog/digital audio mastering facility.

“Yeah, this is my job. I am here working almost every single day. I am a procrastinator by nature so I’m always falling behind in my work here and thus increasing my stress level... always playing catch-up. Our mantra at CMS: ABC (always be cutting).”

This is where Shellac comes in. After all, we all need some sort of diversion from our regular day jobs, be it traveling, fishing, taking a long walk on the beach, or playing in a noise-rock/post-hardcore trio. Whatever works. “When I'm on tour with Shellac or Burma, it's truly relaxing and invigorating," suggests Weston. "As soon as I leave CMS for a tour, I am able to release all the stress of running a business, since I can't do anything about it when I'm not there. It's easy for me to let it all go until I return. Plus, I have an excellent business partner [Jason Ward] at the studio, which allows me to no have any worries while I'm away. Serenity now.”

Video: Shellac - Steady As She Goes (Burn to Shine)

It’s amusing to think of Shellac as some sort of serene therapeutic escapade, given the noisy, aggressive, and erratic texture of their music. Their sound is highly distinct, due in large part to Albini’s affinity for aluminum-based Travis Bean guitars, and the way their repetitive, minimalistic song structures stray so far from tradition. However, it’s all much more effortless than it sounds. “We write songs that come to us naturally. Any ‘style’ we have is derived from the songs we come up with. As opposed to writing songs that cater to a specific style. We just play what we like. But what we like includes experimenting, tension, absurdity, catharsis, etcetera. I'd say it's about one hundred per cent brain and one hundred per cent heart.”

Though Shellac are often as abrasive as they can be, their tone stretches far and wide, from irony to sincerity to cynicism to geekiness. Contrary to the band’s earlier claim, their songs aren’t all about baseball and Canada (good one, guys). Their lyrical output can be as obscure as it can be commonplace.

“It’s pretty random,” says Weston of the process. “Whatever is on my mind the most when I'm writing, like any songwriter I'd imagine. Situations I find myself in, fictional situations, non-sequiturs, absurd ideas, things/people/politics/behaviors that annoy or amuse me, tributes or quotes relating to my friends' bands or other artists and bands that I admire, talking about books or TV or movie stories that I liked. Cats.”

Cats? Yes, why not. They also have a song called Shoe Song and another called Squirrel Song. This is the great thing about Shellac — the carelessness. There’s definitely a not-so-subtle “we don’t really give a fuck” byline running across virtually everything they do. The refreshing thing is that it’s actually genuine. This is a band that recorded an instrumental album called The Futurist for a modern dance troupe - which was deemed unfit for proper release by the band itself - which they pressed a limited run of 700 copies of for friends and family, with the names of every recipient (and each owner's name encircled) on the front cover. In 1995, they printed a couple of thousand copies of a 7”, only to give it away to a German audience during a show. They shun promotions, with their press releases typically exclaiming the words 'no free lunch'. They tour spontaneously, going to places they haven’t been to before, playing on river boats or for whiffle ball tournaments.

Clearly, Shellac isn’t a job. They practice and record with no schedules or expectations, stopping before it gets old and picking up again when it feels fresh. It’s all a very laid-back middle finger to the wiles of the music industry and everything it represents. The kids really need to catch on to Shellac’s stride here:

“Last time I was bored was at a rock show,” says Weston. “So many young bands are terribly boring. It's sad. Bring it on, kids!”

Shellac play ABC, Glasgow on 2 Nov.

Support comes from Aidan John Moffat.