In the Booth with Katie von Schleicher and Steve Albini

The producers/engineers talk touring, selling out, and more.

Katie von Schleicher is a musician, producer, and engineer based in Brooklyn; Steve Albini is the legendary engineer, producer, and member of the noise rock band Shellac, based in Chicago. Katie’s new record, A Little Touch of Schleicher in the Night, is due October 20 on Sipsman, so to celebrate, the fellow producers/engineers(/poker players) got on a Zoom call to chat about touring, selling out, and more.  
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Katie von Schleicher: I didn’t write questions for you. 

Steve Albini: I’ve done even less preparation than that, for what it’s worth.

Katie: Fair enough. You have a session this week?

Steve: I do. There’s a band that’s been in from Japan. It’s actually kind of a return to normalcy — I would say 40% of our business pre-pandemic was bands coming here from elsewhere. Then the pandemic, and subsequent Trump immigration regulations, have made it really difficult for international bands to come to the studio, so our international clientele got really screwed. It’s been nice, in the last nine months we’ve gotten a few more international clients back. But it’s not easy now for people to get into the country, and it’s crazy expensive for a touring band. I don’t know why anyone bothers, honestly. It’s not like the audiences here are super friendly, you know?

Katie: Right. It pisses me off — I’ve worked at a label for a while, so I’ve thought about some of the financial aspects of how this works, and I know the visa prices have gone up in the last year.

Steve: Yeah. The thing that’s happened that made it really hard is that people that used to be able to just come here on a whim now have to specifically apply for visas and be approved, and all of that takes time, and in some places you need to do it through legal channels that require you to pay significant amounts of money. It can be an investment of thousands of dollars to get a visa to come into the country. And, you know, at the end of that investment, they can just say, “No, you can’t come in.” So it’s a hugely cumbersome process now, where it used to be easy.

Katie: Is it the same visa process for someone to record?

Steve: It’s not supposed to be, because they’re coming here to make a record — that is, they’re coming here to spend money in the US economy. As grotesque as that is, that’s supposed to be a favored or preferred behavior. But we have seen bands run afoul of it where they come over here as tourists, ostensibly to spend money, but they’re carrying instruments so the immigration service says, “What are you doing carrying instruments? Are you performing? You’re not allowed to perform.” And we’ve actually had people stranded at the border for up to a day trying to get into the country. There seems to be no clear way to do it where it’s just problem-free. Like, you get a letter from us that says they’re coming here to record, and that’s supposed to be enough, but it never is. It’s a carrying on effect of the mania for rules and legalism that has kind of encroached on every aspect of the arts. It’s really irritating. But, whatever.

Katie: I get it for countries that give that money back to artists in the form of grants, but I don’t really know what goes on with that money here.

Steve: I mean, it’s just supposed to pay for the process of keeping people out of the country. The immigration service is expensive to operate because there are all these rules that they’ve created that are expensive to enforce, and so they just charge people money because they can. I’m past my frustrations about it and onto just this resigned thing of like, “Yeah, we’re just going to be a shithole country. From now, on it’s just going to be awful.”

Katie: [Sighs.]

Steve: Where are you right now?

Katie: I’m in Brooklyn. 

Steve: I’m in my control room at Electrical Audio in Chicago. This is where I come every day to make records.

Katie: Do you live nearby?

Steve: I used to live in this building for 17 years. My wife and I lived in a little apartment upstairs, and then like a fucking idiot, I bought a house and plunged myself into debt. And we now live in a lovely house about a mile from here. The improvement in my quality of life has been remarkable, being able to leave the building when I’m through working and go tend the garden and play with the cats and make dinner for Heather. All of that has been great. I used to be here all day, every day, 100% of the time, and it did change me as a person and made me less good, I guess. [Laughs.] And then getting a house and moving out of the studio was an immediate change in my mood. And for Heather, it was just night and day — she was surrounded by dudes all the time and everybody was always in her face and she felt like she had no privacy. So that’s been a big plus. But now, I come here to work, and I go home after. I used to just wake up, roll out of bed, walk downstairs, make a record, grind away until midnight, and go upstairs, make dinner and go to bed. Now I have a something of a normal schedule.

Katie: Yeah, that’s good. I work in my house because I do record people, but on a much smaller scale. I can attest to the fact that it is a lot to have someone in my house for, like, 10 hours. Now I work at a studio nearby called Figure 8, and yeah, it improves my brain a bit.

Steve: Yeah. I was in Brooklyn for a couple of weeks in the depths of the pandemic, right around when Biden got elected. The thing that struck me about it, as differentiating it from Manhattan, was it had much less of that sort of crush of humanity. Whenever I’m in Manhattan, I always feel like there’s just so many fucking people and they’re just everywhere and it’s inescapable. And Brooklyn felt like the neighborhoods had really distinct personalities and it was quite walkable. Where I was staying was about a half mile from the studio, so every morning I had this lovely walk through two or three different neighborhoods, and they all had different personalities. It was much more like a civilized living environment. It was less like — I once described Manhattan as Calcutta with credit cards, and it sort of seemed like that for the longest time. Every time I was there, I was just surrounded by people and everybody had an agenda and everybody was in a big fucking hurry to go where they wanted to be. And Brooklyn seemed, on a human scale, much more relaxed.

Katie: Yeah, it is. I live in Flatbush right next to Prospect Park, and it’s fairly human around here. [Laughs.] I mean, a lot of artists have moved here in recent years, so the neighborhood is kind of at odds, but it’s a nice place to be. It’s pretty quiet. When I first moved to New York, I remember going to Manhattan and feeling like I was in a concrete box and I wanted to get out as quickly as possible.

Steve: There’s a band from Chicago called Pinebender, and they wrote a song about touring. When you’re on tour, you’re in a different place every night, so you see all these cities one after the other, and then the second or third week into it, you get to New York. And, you know, most touring bands find places to crash rather than spending the exorbitant fees on hotels, and one of those evenings ended at somebody’s place in Manhattan, and they wrote a song about that called “So, This Is Your Apartment.” [Laughs.] It struck me like just such a permanent fixture of Manhattan living, that people live in the most absurd arrangements. Like, “Yeah, I have the closet and part of the kitchen — not the part of the kitchen that has the bathtub in it, but the other part of the kitchen.”

Katie: I mean, I wish I could see everyone’s apartment. I wish we would all agree to an open house one day. I’m two days home from being on tour with my friend Julie Byrne, and we’ve just been on the West Coast and crashing a lot, because of financial necessity. 

Steve: That’s honestly one of my favorite things about my life of touring — all the incredible crash stories. The places you end up, the people you end up hanging out with… I’ve got lifelong friends that were made just from announcing from the stage that you need a place to stay. There are people that I’ve been friends with for 30 years because we did that one time.

Katie: Have you seen their different places evolve over time? Like new houses, new apartments?

Steve: Yeah, and seeing what was a minor, kitschy obsession with something turn into a complete theme over the course of years — that kind of stuff is adorable. One thing I appreciate more and more, though, is that in terms of flophouse conditions, Midwestern touring is way more comfortable than the West Coast or East Coast. I mean, some places are reasonable, but Boston and New York and Philadelphia, nobody has any space to themselves so you’re always in these really cramped environments. Sometimes you get lucky and they have a loft, and it’s like four or five artists but it’s this one massive room, and so there’s plenty of room to lay out. But I think geographically, the way that band culture evolved in the Midwest is fundamentally down to the fact that there are bungalows and basements in the Midwest. So a bunch of people can get together and rent a whole fucking house instead of a bunch of people getting together to rent an apartment or a room, you know? And once you have a house, then that house becomes kind of a focal point and the basement becomes the shared rehearsal space for all of the bands in your orbit. And the living room becomes the party spot for all of the bands in your orbit, and the after gig is there for every gig. 

There’s a great one in Minneapolis — the band Rifle Sport lived in this house on Lyndale. It was across the street from the CC Club, which was a regular hangout for the bands, and they had a rehearsal space in their house and a big backyard for barbecues. After every gig, everybody ended up either at the CC Club or across the street at Lyndale Manor. It was kind of an incredible era that lasted for the better part of 20 years. And that just doesn’t happen in a big, dense urban environment. You just don’t have that kind of permanent hang.

Katie: Yeah. On tour, I wish we could play more small towns the way you can in Europe, where you can play a town you’ve never heard of. It’s definitely a better night when I’m not in a major city I’ve been to 30 times or whatever. Do people crash at your house, now that you have a house, when they come through?

Steve: The house that I’m in now, that wasn’t necessary, because the studio had a dormitory, and we regularly used to turn the dormitory over to touring bands who needed a place to crash. There were quite a few bands — not necessarily bands that had any business at the studio, just bands that needed a place to crash — if the dormitory was available, they were welcome to it. And we there were a couple of hard luck stories, like friends of ours that needed a place to stay for a few weeks or a few months, or even a few years, and those people ended up living in one of the dormitory rooms in the building. 

But before this building was completed, before the studio existed, I had another small house, a little bungalow about a mile from here, and bands crashed there constantly. Not just bands that were recording there, but bands on tour. The all-time record was 26 people crashing on the floor of my house. It was a tour that was GWAR and White Zombie, and there may have been one other band… But all of them crashed at my place and there were 26 people scattered in various different parts of the house.

Katie: That sounds messy.

Steve: No, no, no, GWAR are very tidy offstage.

Katie: [Laughs.] Nice to hear it. Well, what percentage of your life is touring now?

Steve: Not very much. Shellac, we tour at most six weeks in a year. It’s boiled down to just our normal lives, our professional obligations, and our family obligations are an awful lot more complicated than they were when we were younger. I have this whole fucking business to run, the studio. And my wife, Heather, has Parkinson’s, so it was problematic to be gone and leave her fending for herself. So I tried to minimize the amount of time I was gone. All of that stuff, just the complications of adulthood, play into having a shorter schedule of free time than you do when you’re young and you’re made out of rubber and nothing hurts. “Oh, I got kicked out of my apartment, I guess I’m going on tour.” [Laughs.] But I’m 61 now, and when you’re old, you just don’t have that kind of flexibility.

So we try to plan two, maybe three trips a year for the band, and they typically stay under three weeks. Two weeks is a really great sweet spot for touring, because you can play every day without getting tired. If you keep the drives manageable, then you don’t put too much wear and tear on yourself; you’re never exhausted. The shows get better over the course of the tour. You don’t run out of clean socks or guitar strings or whatever. 

Katie: I agree with you. I just finished two, and then I’ll do two more.

Steve: Yeah, it’s great, right? You come home, you answer your mail and you pay your bills, you wash your laundry. Throw it back in and go out for another two weeks… I feel like I could do two weeks every three weeks for life. 

Katie: Well, I’m 36—

Steve: Lucky you.

Katie: [Laughs.] But I don’t have the same stamina that I did — because I’ve slept on a lot of shitty floors all throughout my 20s. I’m a lifelong working musician, but I’m not successful or notable. So I try to think about sustainability a lot, especially with working in the studio too, because that easily becomes, like, 13 hour days. I’ve been thinking a lot about transitioning from music as a youthful practice and trying to make it a sustainable thing.

Steve: Well, one thing that I think is underappreciated is that if you commit to being involved in music, nobody can stop you. People act like there’s some sort of a professional class of musician, and those people are allowed to play music for their whole lives and everybody else is is sort of not serious about it. And that’s just not the case at all. Everybody in a band has a straight job or some other way of cranking out rent, right? And that’s just part of being a musician. Like, shoes have laces; if you’re in a band, you also have some straight job. And one of the joys of having that as your relationship with music is that you never have to pander. You never have to play a gig that’s not a good gig. It’s never an obligation to go on tour to make rent. You get to go on tour because it’s the thing that animates you and what you want to do. 

I’ve had that relationship with music my whole life. I think one of the reasons that I’ve been so durable — and I’ve been in bands since the late ‘70s — one of the reasons that it’s been such a consistently rewarding part of my life is that I’ve never tried to make it my livelihood. I’ve never tried to be a full-time musician. Because I think my relationship to music would change and it would make me resent it, you know? I know people who have managed to eke out a living doing nothing but playing their music in bands. For the most part, it’s a meager living and it’s a hell of a lot more work than having a job. I don’t envy those people. I guess I admire the determination to do it that way, but in a way, it’s kind of like playing “the floor is lava.” You have to do so much stuff just to not do the normal thing, you know? And your whole life becomes really encumbered by it. 

I love the fact that every tour I’ve been on has been a joy and every show we’ve ever played has been a show we wanted to play, and we never had to turn a record in that we weren’t happy with. We never had to do anything with the band that wasn’t completely our discretion and our idea. And that all boils down to the freedom that we have because nobody could take our livelihood away. If we put out a record and it tanks, big fucking deal. We’ll do another record. Who cares? It’s not like I’m going to lose my house if the record tanks.

Katie: Has anyone ever felt that being an engineer was a glamorous thing, or made you feel that way?

Steve: [Laughs.] People do have these absurd notions, which are all played into by the popular media, that the studio is all cocaine and dashikis and psychedelic lights at 4 in the morning. That whole thing just is so bizarre to me. Like even now, there’s been so many years of people making records at home and in informal settings — people should know that it’s a pretty mundane thing. It’s just a normal, regular activity, right? But I get a kick out of it. There’s this radio program called Sound Opinions, which is these two music journalists talking about music — and they’re not dummies, they’ve been around, but they still treat musicians like they’re some some kind of alien creature, that they have these rituals and that what they’re doing is bizarre and freakish, and they have to summon the muse somehow. And it’s just normal. People are living their lives. Every now and again, a song falls out, and then when you have spare time and spare money, you go and record it. And when you have spare time on your schedule, then you go on tour. It’s just normal stuff. But that’s no fun to talk about. I understand the appeal of thinking that there are these big dramatic things going on all the time. But most of the time it’s just like, “How was that?” “Uh, I think I want to try it again.” “OK, I’ll drop you in.” You know, it’s super mundane.

Katie: Well, I’m curious — because I’ve been doing this as very much a day job — how irregular you let the sessions or the hours get.

Steve: So my policy from the beginning has always been that I come to the studio in the morning and the band can show up whenever they want, and within reason they can finish whenever they want. It’s normal for me to to put in 10 or 12 hour days at work. But it’s also normal for bands to stop being productive after about eight or nine hours. They start to get tired; if they take a meal break, there’s always this lethargy after the meal break. By the end of the evening, their playing acuity is not that great. If they’re working on a song that’s giving them problems, they get frustrated with it. It takes one or two takes in the morning to get a master; it can take 19 or 20 takes in the evening to get a master, and by the end of it, everybody’s really angry. It’s one thing I like to be conscious of: not letting people burn themselves out, not letting people frustrate themselves by grinding away too much. So I do tend to get out of here at reasonable hour, but I don’t impose it on anybody. I know some people who say, “I work from 10 to 9 and that’s it.” And I admire that they can get away with that. But my clientele is always working on their own schedule, and I kind of have to go with the flow.

Katie: Yeah, that makes sense. I do know a lot of people — to go back for a second — who just live on making music. And I don’t envy it either, because it seems extremely stressful and everyone’s frustrated with the industry all the time. But it does feel like we’re in this era where pandering feels more prevalent than ever. 

Steve: Well, certain critical judgments within the music scene have absolutely changed. Like in the ‘70s and’ 80s, in the punk scene and thereafter, if your music was used for commercial purposes, that was considered embarrassing. And there were stories of people trying to prevent it and failing because their music wasn’t under their control, like, “Oh, our record label licensed that song and that’s why it’s in that fucking Play-Doh commercial,” or whatever. And that was seen as a really embarrassing thing for your music to be corrupted that way. And that’s not the case at all now. That’s like a brass ring. 

Katie: I remember it as sometime in the 2000s, Kurt Vile’s music was in a Bank of America commercial and people gave him shit for it. And he was like, “I got a kid, I got a wife…” And that’s when, for me, it all flipped and no one ever criticized anyone again for being in, like, a Hummer commercial.

Steve: I mean, that plays into precisely what we were talking about before. He is dependent on his musical popularity for a living, which means he inevitably has to compromise it. It goes back to that notion of mine where, if I’m not dependent on it, if it’s not my bread and butter, then I never have to make those compromises. We just used to flatly refuse, whenever anybody would ask to do something with our music. Just because we make our records as records; people can listen to them if they want as records. That’s the function. And then there were a few artistic projects where they wanted to use music of ours for specific reasons, and so we reconsidered those more carefully, and we ended up saying no to almost all of those anyway. But it did put a different perspective on it. The Bank of America commercial is not that case. It’s not like, “This is a coming of age story, this person is realizing their identity, there’s a moment of of epiphany and we feel like the subtext of this song really suits that character’s development…” Fine, we’ll consider that. 

My absolute favorite story of this is, there was an Apple product launch that was all based around the Pixies song “Gigantic,” and they had shot all these commercials and everything was all in the can already. And then they realized they forgot to ask Kim Deal if they could use her voice on this commercial. So they contacted her like, “Oh, yeah, we just need you to sign this release so we can use your voice on this commercial.” And she’s like, “I don’t want my voice on the commercial.” And everything just immediately ground to a halt. Everyone around her was like, “Don’t you realize how much money this is?” And she’s like, “Yeah. I have money. I don’t need money. I just don’t want my voice on a commercial.” And it just baffled everyone involved. They kept laying it on thicker and thicker, like, “We’ll give you more money than everybody, just sign the thing.” And she’s like, “I don’t want my voice on a commercial.” It was really heartwarming to me to see somebody who actually had a principle rather than, “Yeah, I don’t want my voice on a commercial. Oh, how much money? Yeah, I could I could reconsider for that.”

Katie: [Laughs.] Well, I don’t feel judgmental of anyone for putting their music in a commercial for money, because there’s dumber shit that we all see people do now.

Steve: Yeah, I’m always sympathetic with the band, if the band feels like they’re trapped in a corner and this is what they have to do. But some people invest a lot of themselves and their identity into the meaning of their music, and it bugs me that it can be taken from them and that song no longer means this. What it means is, Holiday Cruises and shuffleboard. That bothers me. But I’m sympathetic to the to the band, obviously. 

Katie: Yeah. I wish we could have a larger conversation on this, because I’m just so fascinated by the era that we live in now, and I feel like we’re really ripe for people to actually take a stand against a lot of the aspects of the industry.

Steve: In many ways, this is like the best time ever. If you wanted to, you could go through your entire music career without ever having anybody else take a cut, which is incredible. You could release your own music, you can book your own tours, you can sell your own t-shirts. Nobody has to have their fingers in your in your game at all, and that’s way easier than it ever used to be. But by the same token, because it’s easier, you’re not competing with 14 other bands in town — you’re competing with, like, 30,000 artists from all over the world, you know?

(Photo Credit: left, Eleanor Petry; right, Evan Jenkins/The Guardian)

Katie von Schleicher is a musician, producer, and engineer based in Brooklyn. Her latest record, A Little Touch of Schleicher in the Night, is out October 20 via Sipsman.