Music Features, Spotlights

In Passing: Steve Albini



The producer, serial band starter and provocateur leaves behind a complicated legacy

Steve Albini

Steve Albini (Photo: PR)

Music lost one of its most unique and important voices when Steve Albini died from a heart attack on 7 May 2024 aged 61. As a performer, engineer, and vocal critic of industry practices, the impact that he had is almost immeasurable.

Born in Pasadena, California, Albini led an unsettled childhood until his family landed in Montana. It was during his teenage years that his discovery of The Ramones changed everything for the young Albini. In the book ‘The Truth Of Revolution, Brother: The Philosophies Of Punk’ says of the first Ramones album, “I realised that it was actually the greatest record that was ever made and that actually that’s how I wanted to live my life – being a goofball with a bunch of my friends and writing offensive and absurd music.”

The first step towards making “offensive and absurd music” came whilst studying in Illinois as he immersed himself in the Chicago punk scene. He then started Big Black in 1981 initially as a solo project before expanding out into a three-piece. The music produced by the band didn’t sound like anything else at the time, it felt aggressive and unstoppable. The guitars have an edge to them that felt like could cut through skin, the propulsive drum machine delivered relentless punches.

And then there was the content of the songs themselves. Big Black, on their albums Atomizer and Songs About Fucking, covered subjects that were deliberately uncomfortable, such as sexual abuse, murder, and rape. One of the band’s most controversial songs came in the shape of Jordan, Minnesota which pulled no punches in tackling the story of a child sex ring that had allegedly been operating in the area. But they weren’t finished there, and with Songs About Fucking, they continued with their confrontational approach. Even though the band had finished before the album was released, it still had a profound impact with its songs about Pablo Escobar’s execution techniques (Columbian Necktie), their reworking of Kraftwerk‘s The Model, and perhaps Albini’s most aggressive vocal performance, Bad Penny.

With Big Black in the rear view mirror, Albini’s next project was Rapeman, another band that pushed the envelope in terms of taste and sonic assault. The band’s name, naturally, caused a significant reaction, with protests at their shows. In recent years, Albini expressed regret for the band’s name and some of his more inflammatory statements. On his Twitter account he wrote: “A lot of things I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful and I regret them.”

His next project was Shellac, and alongside bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer, they made five albums that set the bar for noise rock bands. Essentially a minimalist in approach, their songs relied entirely on a stripped back sound of bass, guitar and drums. Yet despite the apparently sparse approach, they could be remarkable complex and intricate too. Their live performances were often quite light hearted affairs, which flew in the face of the idea of being something of a po-faced grouch. Their influence was far reaching and impactful – and with their sixth album To All Trains out this week (and typically not being offered out for promotion ahead of its release date), no doubt it will continue for some time to come.

Away from his talents as a musician, Albini is probably best known as a producer, although that was a term that he had no time for, preferring ‘recording engineer’. Within this role, he refused to operate in the usual terms of being a ‘record producer’. He refused to take royalties on the records that he worked on and he kept his costs low too. Over the course of his career he recorded the classic albums Pixies‘ Surfer Rosa, Nirvana‘s In Utero and PJ Harvey‘s Rid Of Me amongst many others. His ethos was always to capture the band as they sounded, and he had no time for studio trickery. As a result, the albums that he worked on had a certain kind of truth at their hearts, where occasional mistakes could be heard, where the room and recording space was important, and where, due to the process, the interaction of the musicians whilst playing was vital. For someone who set out to make offensive and absurd music, Albini’s commitment to sonic truth and fair play within the recording industry (as highlighted by his essay ‘The Problem With Music‘) was both unusual and most welcome.

There are not many people in music where the term ‘we shall not see their like again’ applies, but in the case of Steve Albini, that is most certainly the case.


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