GREG NORMAN: ELECTRICAL AUDIO
The name Steve Albini certainly is a divisive one in the world of indie rock. Depending on who you talk to, he is either a seminal post-punk rock icon and genius engineer who has worked for some of the most influential bands in modern rock, or, he is an overly opinionated misogynist, who is an independent music elitist. I, for one, worship at the altar of Albini. He fronted the groundbreaking trio Big Black through a good portion of the '80s. Since 1992 he has been one third of the magnificent Shellac, who reconvene whenever they feel the need to blow minds and eardrums. All the while he has remained militantly anti-corporate rock. Albini, a former music journalist, even wrote a lengthy diatribe against the industry entitled “The Problem with Music.” His full time job though, involves owning and operating ‘Electrical Audio’ recording studio in Chicago.
Through the years, Albini has made quite a name for himself in the recording game. He has become famous for his ability to capture a live sound in the studio, particularly the drums. The Albini ‘sound’ includes signatures such as: cutting, abrasive guitars, a blended rhythm section and low vocals in the final mix. Another favourite trick of his is to use steel guitar picks, all the better at producing a corrosive sounding six-string. The list of bands that he has recorded for is legendary: Pixies, Nirvana, The Breeders, PJ Harvey, The Jesus Lizard, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and The Stooges.
We here at chorusVERSEchorus thought it would be cool to do an on-going series on influential producers and studios that have had an effect on the music that we listen to, and what better place to start than Electrical Audio? We were fortunate enough to catch up with Electrical’s Staff Engineer, Greg Norman. Greg has been on the staff since 1996 and was even part of the crew that built the studio. The Chicago native has a degree in musical engineering and is a musician himself. We had a chance to talk records, recording, and Steve Albini’s cooking prowess.
You have worked at Electrical Audio since 1996. How did you come to work there?
Greg Norman: In 1995 I snuck into Lounge Ax (Chicago rock club) to watch U.S. Maple. It was there that I met Al Johnson (singer of U.S. Maple), and in a conversation with him, I mentioned that I wanted to intern at a recording studio. He gave me Steve’s number and I simply called him and asked if he needed any interns. He said yes. When I started, the new building was just beginning to be transformed into, what is now Electrical Audio. Steve was still recording out of his house. They offered me construction work on the days I wasn’t interning, so I was able to be a part of the construction process. It was a great learning experience. I learned about recording and electronics at the house, as well as masonry, carpentry and plumbing at the studio.
Were you a fan of Steve’s bands and engineering work?
GN: I was a fan of Steve’s bands. I think Rapeman was my favourite at that point. When I first heard Big Black, I thought they sounded really dumb. Everyone was telling me how awesome and abrasive the music was, but my first impression was of a wimpy voice trying to sound tough over some noise and a silly drum machine. It was decidedly un-tough sounding to me. It took me a bunch of listens to really start appreciating it. I like that band more now than I did when I started working here.
The recordings I liked would be the ones everyone else points to; various Jesus Lizard records, Pixies’ ‘Surfer Rosa’, Breeders, Shellac and a few dozen others.
Are you a musician yourself?
GN: Sort of. I don’t really know any instrument well, but I can learn parts. I used to play in a band called The Bitter Tears. If you asked me to play ‘Jingle Bells’ on the spot, I couldn’t. I have a good ear for pitch though, which helps me fake it sometimes.
Steve is famous for his ability to record drum sounds. In layman’s terms, is this mostly a matter of the right microphone setup, in the right sounding room?
GN: Basically, but the most important factors are having a good drummer and a critical ear. Steve has been fortunate enough to record hundreds of great drummers.
Have there been particular instances where you and Steve have butt heads over recording techniques or equipment?
GN: No, not really. We rarely work on the same project, so there isn’t the setting for this type of disagreement. He has a way of doing things that works for him and his clients. His recording practices are popular enough that most seeking to work with him will know what they are getting into, and don’t ask for much else. I have to be much more flexible with the people I work with. The only time we fight is when he leaves the windows open with the AC on, or if he buys another superfluous piece of gear.
Outside of the use of Pro Tools, what is the major difference in recording since you began your career?
GN: A few things. There has been an explosion of small studios since I started. I run my own out of my house. It has gotten so cheap to put something together. The equipment that I assembled for my studio would have cost about 12 times as much if I did so in the 90s. Because things are so cheap to record and deliver, there is no obstacle to recording an album anymore. You used to have to prove to someone; a label, band mates, friends or yourself that your record was worth the $5000+ to make. If you couldn’t do that, the record would not be made. Now, it’s free and there is nothing to sacrifice but your time. That is a pretty crazy shift. I’m not sure it’s a terrible thing. Sure, there is a lot of recorded music out there that no one wants to hear, but you don’t have to listen to it if you don’t want to.
Another change that I have noticed in the independent music scene is that there is almost no difference between being on a label and not. For an active band in a web driven industry, the traditional benefits of having label support become much harder to see. The delivery mechanism is in total flux, and will end simply with downloading everything. We will have the occasional novelty of an LP run. There is no great amount of money to be made by selling a thingy in a store. Bands make more money licensing a song to a Toyota commercial than selling albums. This means that the label must be more of a publicity/taste making machine than anything else. If a hard working, popular band were to sign with a savvy publicist, it would probably benefit them as much as signing with a competent label.
In a dream scenario, who would you most like to work with?
GN: Aside from listing my favourite bands throughout history, which I would love to just be around for….Built to Spill. A few years back I recorded some demos for them while they were in town for Lollapalooza. It would be great to spend some real time with them recording something. I wish I could have been able to record Karp back in the day. They played one of the best shows I have ever seen.
Hmmm… this is a tough one. I’m not a giant fan of these bands but they intrigue me; Wilco and Bon Iver. I figure something interesting could happen. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I like working with great, loud, room filling singers.
A year or so ago there was a public appeal made by Tim Midgett (of the band Silkworm) to collect money so that the studio could pay off its mortgage. How financially healthy is Electrical today? Also, how has the current economy impacted the studio?
GN: Tim tried this thing to see if he could surprise his friend with a big collective gift. He started it without any of our knowledge or involvement. It was a super nice gesture. Unfortunately, it led to everyone thinking we couldn’t pay the mortgage, and were going out of business. I was in Indiana doing some tech work at a friend’s studio when the campaign was launched. Whenever someone found out I worked at Electrical, they were like, “oh man…I heard about the fundraiser. Dude, that sucks! What are you guys going to do if you can’t raise the money?” As it was, we paid off our mortgage as planned, and are doing well.
The downturn, coupled with the lowered music industry related revenue has probably had an effect on us, but not as much as you would think. We never had a constant stream of big label acts locking the studio up for months at a time. Our business mostly comes from working bands, who are funding things themselves, or with the help of smaller labels. This insulated us, I believe, from the devastation that hit other studios our size or bigger. Since we never depended on a system of major label referrals, we don’t feel the hurt that others do.
Steve has been keeping a blog of his cooking for his wife, Heather. Have you sampled any of these? Can you vouch for his cooking?
GN: He’s made things for me in the past, and will make appetizers for whoever’s around, from time to time. Usually, whatever he makes is great and scraped together with whatever’s around. In my experience, they are richly themed dishes. The theme is always, “this shit was about to go bad, so I made a ton of it. You want some?”
Finally, what are you plans for 2012?
GN: I have a random assortment of bands to record, as always. I have been recording more jazz lately, which is fun. Hopefully there will be more Starlicker, and Exploding Star Orchestra in my future.
I finished an Electrical Audio branded mic preamplifier. We’re going to see if it’s worth selling abroad.