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Shellac 101: Splendid Minimalism

Posted by November 26th, 2018 No Comments »

Shellac Live with Buke and Gase
October 6-7, 2018 at the Tractor Tavern
Seattle, Wash.
By John Regan 

I recently caught the band Shellac, the Chicago-based three piece and math rock aficionados, for a pair of intimate sets—on October 6 and 7, respectively—at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle. I had never seen the same band (or any band for that matter) on consecutive nights before and after this amazing experience, I may never be the same.

If you are not familiar with Shellac or Steve Albini and his contributions to alternative music and punk rock, you can get up to speed quickly by checking out some YouTube videos. You may also bump into some of his tutorials on music production, (hint, he prefers analog) and his outspoken stances on the music industry itself.

For the uninitiated, Albini is the mastermind behind seminal punk rock band Big Black (1981 – 1987) and from there he went to front bands Rapeman (1987 – 1988) and Shellac (1992 – present). Albini has produced and lent his audio production skills to thousands of albums during his career as a sound engineer with Nirvana’s In Utero and the Pixies Surfa Rosa his most celebrated.

I grew up in Waltham, Massachusetts and in the same neighborhood (Warrendale) as Bob Weston, who plays bass in Shellac along with Steve Albini (guitar, vocals) and the maniacal Todd Trainer on drums. I caught up with Bob before and after the show and he told me that Albini had produced the albums for his Boston post punk band Volcano Suns and then one day asked Bob if he wanted to come work for him in Chicago as a sound engineer, which Bob had learned at college. Bob packed up his humble belongings and drove to Chicago. There was no band Shellac at the time and its formation occurred organically after Bob arrived.

Bob and Steve are both recording engineers and sing on Shellac songs, which feature repetition and a bare-bones style, which for me, sounds like music should. It is stripped down to its essentials and then built back up with a methodical precision. It is hard to describe what Shellac sounds like to someone who has not heard the band. Imagine everything you love about music and then imagine it deconstructed and set free from everything you hate about the music industry. That’s Shellac.

Some say the Shellac signature sound of heavy bass and heavy guitar textures comes from using aluminum neck guitars from the likes of Travis Bean and the Electric Guitar Company and the way sound engineers Albini and Weston arrange their equipment. The sound is like nothing you have heard and everything great you have heard (through the influences on other bands of the Albini and Weston footprint) at the same time and you can see that register in the fans who move, dance, and throb as one concentric mass and a cohesive whole instead of disparate individuals looking for answers.

A three-piece act, Shellac puts the Trainier’s drums literally in the forefront of their music in both recording mix and placement on the stage. The drums are mixed intentionally louder than most bands and the vocals are often lower than normal, and this is how Shellac fans like it. Shellac songs employ repetition, which can be soothing (“Didn’t We Deserve A Look At You The Way You Really Are”) or reaffirming (“The End of Radio”) and the repeating passage is often the bass guitar of Bob Weston with the same cords  over and over. Somehow, you never get sick of them or want less. You actually want more. I liken their music to a beautiful baseball play that the fielder makes look easy when it is, in fact, anything but.

Shellac is a musician’s and music lover’s band. The opening act, Buke and Gase, mentioned several times what huge Shellac fans they were. Shellac have released seven albums over their 26-year career and tour every few years so catching them is a rare treat indeed. They don’t have “hits” per se and get almost no radio airplay (even on indie music stations) but there are songs that are fan favorites such as “Riding Bikes,” “Squirrel Song,” and “Dog and Pony Show” and they delivered a steady diet of these on both nights.

Shellac may be the rare band who like their own music as much as their fans and for this reason, they do not solicit or accept audience requests. Albini playfully chastised a fan on night two who requested a song by explaining that they have such a love of their own catalog that they play the songs they want to play and don’t “take requests.” He added that one surefire way to get a song not played—and anger the intimate room of fans who have internalized the “Inside Shellac” rules—was to make such a request.

Shellac lives by the Albini and Weston sound engineering credo of recording albums in a “live” setting with minimal barriers between the instruments and the sound. Likewise, they prefer small, intimate settings for shows and eschew (and for the most part avoid) playing at festivals and large settings. Because they all have day jobs and can pick and choose when and where they play, they select small venues and limit the number of tickets. I would conservatively estimate each night’s audience at about 300 or so lucky folks each evening. Both shows sold out.

Each night, the sound was as clean, sparse, and pure as I imagined having listened to and watched YouTube videos for the month leading up to the pair of shows. “Riding Bikes,” with its signature yelling at the end of the song, was included both nights as song four and like a good cleanup hitter in baseball, it brought home the goods.

On night one I was in the middle of the crowd and struggled to get a good view and position but on the second night, the wiser man in me emerged and I grabbed a piece of wall to the right of the stage and like a wallflower, stayed pasted to that slab of concrete all night.

The apex of both shows was the song “Prayer to God”—an emotional Albini screed with the chorus of “Fucking kill him, kill him already, kill him” repeated over and over in different permutations—mid-set on night two. The shows were at the end of a trying week for women in America with the Judge Cavanaugh hearings. Albini offered an apology to women on behalf of all men before the song and then ripped into a scorching version that left fans shaken. It was art meets life and it was done impeccably well.

Unlike most bands who merely play their instruments, Shellac wield theirs like audiophilic weapons–the bass a propeller, the guitar a steam engine, and the drums a shotgun. The music entrances their fans and they move as one collective body, shaking all over. They put on two amazing performances and I strongly recommend you catch them next time.

Set List Night One

  • Squirrel Song
  • Compliant
  • Steady as She Goes
  • Riding Bikes
  • Canada
  • You Came in Me
  • Killers
  • Dude Incredible
  • Dog and Pony Show
  • Wingwalker
  • The End of Radio

Set List Night Two

  • Squirrel Song
  • Compliant
  • Steady as She Goes
  • Riding Bikes
  • Prayer To God
  • Killers
  • Canada
  • Billiard Player Song
  • Spoke

Last song
Shellac concluded the two-night set with an extended version of the drum- and bass-centric song Spoke, replete with an alternate introduction, something the band does often. Near the end of the song, Bob Weston and Steve Albini begin to methodically break down the drum kit of Todd Trainer, who continues to play as if nothing is happening. The crescendo of instrument minimalization continues until Todd is beating down on his prize snare drum, which is a staple in many of their core songs such as The End of Radio, while the band’s mastermind Steve Albini patiently waits. When Steve finally yanks the snare drum away, Todd stands up and raises his drumsticks to the crowd and the three-piece exits stage. These final moments are a metaphor a minimalism and underscore the band’s credo of less is more.

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