A few thoughts on Steve Albini and Steely Dan

(for those catching up, legendary punk producer Steve Albini died suddenly last week. One of the stories that’s been recirculating is a tweet thread he posted about how much he hates Steely Dan).

Here’s the thing. It matters not one bit whether you agree with Albini or not about Steely Dan. All artists need to have strongly held opinions about art. Sharing them is generally a bad idea. I imagine that for Steve his right to share his unfiltered thoughts on his Twitter feed comes from a commitment of radical autonomy – he didn’t say it (as far as I’m aware) in an interview, just a thread on his own Twitter feed. Read it if you like, respond if you like, argue if you like. He didn’t seem to be one to try and control how people responded to his thoughts ever.

Anyway, the thing about you having those big opinions is that they are absolutely vital to you understanding what you want to do and how you want to do it, and are of zero relevance to anyone else. Because the value of them is in you being able to refine your own work in response to things in other people’s work that don’t reflect what you want from art. They will show up in your work in obvious ways. No-one ever listened to In Utero and thought ‘wow, there’s a lot of Gaucho in here’.

I have LOADS of these. There are a ton of sacred cow bands that I have zero interest in, there are things that a large majority of bassists do that I have absolutely no time for. There are creative choices that some people make that leave me scratching my head. But I very rarely tell anyone, for three main reasons:

1) there’s no way that my opinion should impact the work of anyone who isn’t paying me to impact their work with my opinions. If someone values what I do and how I work, and wants me to contribute to their work, then it’s only right and proper that I comment on their work – that’s what I do as a teacher, producer, arranger and friend. But for me to take something that someone has put into the world and then to declare it good or bad, successful or a failure isn’t something they need in their lives. My own place of peace comes from knowing I’m not their target market. This isn’t FOR me, that’s why I don’t like it. If I haven’t spent the time to find out WHY they did a thing, bitching publicly about it’s impact on me helps no-one.

2) I have students whose taste would be greatly impacted by my bold declarations of what I do and don’t like. I don’t want to shit on their favourite bands, because it won’t help them to learn to judge things in a meaningful way for their own art. (There are definitely exceptions to this, where I’ve dissed a massive band or two for comic relief – but even then, I’ve ended up with people who were sod-all to do with the conversation getting all bent out of shape because I shat on a band they like… Yup, I should have kept quiet. My bad). If someone I respected came along and told 18 year old me that the bands I liked were shit, whether or not I later decided they were, it wouldn’t helped me refine my taste and my musical vision, I would have just felt shame. And no-one should ever feel shamed for their music taste. Ever.

3) Just because I wouldn’t do something doesn’t mean someone else shouldn’t. Those bass-things that loads of people do are never things I’d tell anyone else not to do. Some of them are things I’m happy to teach students about. But they aren’t me and don’t have my goals, and those techniques and ideas are clearly serving their vision. Me not liking them is a really useful thing for me to spend time with, and I’m SOOOO grateful that I never spent a bunch of time learning the same shit as loads of other players only to find that I didn’t like it anyway. But that usefulness to me is not the same as usefulness to anyone else. So I refine my own vision and find clarity in what appears to be lacking in other people’s work.

Albini hates Steely Dan for a bunch of reasons that are screamingly obvious if you’ve ever heard literally anything he made. It’s absolutely fine to love Surfer Rosa and Aja – there’s nothing radically broadminded about being into music from different genres. Agreeing or disagreeing with Steve Albini about polished 70s jazz-rock isn’t a useful public statement or opinion, but it may be REALLY helpful to you to understand what you love and what you need to do to incorporate those things into your own playing. I’m indebted to Chuck Rainey and to Kim Deal, to Steve Albini and Donald Fagen. One of the hugely celebrated bands that I’m most ambivalent about are a MASSIVE influence on so many of my favourite artists. I’m not wrong and neither are they. It’s just how we find out what matters to us and how to pursue it.

Listen, Judge, Strategise, but maybe keep it to yourself 😉❤

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