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Steve Albini: Indie Rock Legend Passes Away Aged 61

An absolute giant of the music world, he leaves behind an incredible legacy. Ben Woolhead reflects on the loss of the legendary producer and musician...

Few strangers’ deaths have hit me as hard as that of Steve Albini, who has passed away at the criminally young age of just 61.

When the dust settles, I doubt Albini will be best remembered as a musician – whether fronting nihilistic sonic terrorists Big Black or the caustic minimalist noise-rock of Shellac, brilliant though both were. Nor will he be primarily celebrated as a world-class poker player or an accomplished amateur chef .

No, it will be for his skills in the studio.

In a now-legendary letter written to Nirvana pitching for the job of recording ‘In Utero’, Albini effectively set out his philosophy, arguing that the band and their needs/desires should always be central. He saw his own role modestly, as merely as that of an engineer rather than a producer – someone working humbly in service of the artists and the songs – to the extent that he retrospectively claimed that his part in the creation of ‘In Utero‘ and Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Journal Of Plague Lovers‘ ‘is kind of a footnote’ 

Self-effacing and refreshingly ego-free, for sure – but simply not true. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Albini was a critical contributor to these and countless other landmark records (PJ Harvey’s ‘Rid Of Me’ and The Wedding Present’s ‘Seamonsters’, to name just two), to such an extent that he could arguably be hailed as the single most influential man in the realm of ‘alternative’ rock – much as he’d have hated it.

There’s no mistaking an Albini album – just listen for the distinctive aggressive thump of the drums, especially in tandem with the bass and scraping, searing guitar. That signature sound is most prominent on ‘In Utero’ (see ‘Scentless Apprentice‘ for example) but also ensures that the likes of The Jesus Lizard’s ‘Goat’, ‘Strange Peace’ by Metz and ‘Mclusky Do Dallas’ carry serious heft.

But Albini was versatile, refusing to restrict himself to working only on punk and noise records. Over the years, he collaborated with artists as wildly different as Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, Joanna Newsom, The Dirty Three and Slint. It’s remarkable that he worked with drone metal overlords Sunn O))) at one end of the sonic spectrum, and had a hand in bringing the impossibly fragile beauty of ‘Laser Beam‘ (from Low‘s ‘Things We Lost In The Fire’) into the world at the other.

The sheer number of albums for which Albini has production/engineering credits is a reflection of his ethos. Despite being fiercely opinionated on music, he would work with anyone prepared to pay, seeing himself as a gun for hire – hence the record he made with Bush, and the fact that he was receptive to fiftysomething Scots emailing him out of the blue and offering to spend a chunk of their pension flying him to Leith for five days. 

Albini’s punk rock principles prevented him from agreeing to a share of royalties. As he told Nirvana, “I would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it’s worth”. Taking points rather than a flat fee for ‘In Utero’ alone would have netted him a small fortune, but the practice was, in his view, “ethically indefensible”. Ultimately, it came down to a disdain for the profit motive, a belief in fairness and a respect for the artists as the real creative forces – all of which he touched on in a 2015 interview on his business philosophy with Michael Friedman for Psychology Today‘.

At the same time, Albini could be notoriously prickly and cantankerous, particularly in his youth. He was eternally forthright in his opinions, whether savaging the corporate music industry, dismissing ‘club culture’ or ranting about ‘tomato paste as a base for pasta sauce’ on his cookery blog.

Of course, some of the sentiments Albini expressed over the years were rather more unsavoury, especially within the left-leaning punk community. It’s not like these need to be dredged up – they’re there for all to see, not least the fact that the agent provocateur par excellence saw fit to form a post-Big Black band called Rapeman. But it’s to Albini’s huge credit that unlike some of his peers, in his later years he not only refused to double down but actually held his hands up in unequivocal apology – first on Twitter and in an interview with Mel‘s Zaron Burnett III and then in an illuminating and frank conversation with Jeremy Gordon for the Guardian. This was an old dog willing to denounce his old tricks and learn to be a better person.

Like so many of my generation, I first came across Albini the producer via ‘In Utero’, which he felt was defanged somewhat in post-production but to my ears still sounded like a red-raw howl of an album. But it was at the inaugural ATP in 2000 that I first encountered Albini the musician, onstage with Shellac telling jokes (‘What’s orange and looks good on hippies? Fire’) and leaving Kim Gordon speechless with his band’s force. (Curators Mogwai would later enlist his services for ‘My Father, My King‘ – and, like so many others, be taken aback at his refusal to accept royalties.)

Shellac were on the bill again when I (very belatedly) made it to my second ATP, in 2009, curated by The Breeders, one of the hundreds of bands with an album listed on his CV. Nothing had changed, thankfully. I wrote: ‘For their first set of the weekend, as always, they set up their own equipment and insist on nothing but harsh bright white light on stage before clobbering us full in the face with their precise, abrasive, minimalist bludgeon – a fusion of Steve Albini’s fingernails-down-blackboard guitar (attached with his trademark waist strap), Bob Weston’s subterranean bass rumble and whipcrack drumming provided by Todd Trainer, who, stick-thin and dressed all in black, looks like a character from a Tim Burton film.’

I saw Shellac at ATP several more times. They practically became the festival’s house band, but I never took those regular appearances for granted, savouring each one (though I also never plucked up the courage to take up the mass invitation to his chalet to play poker, regrettably).

It was fitting, then, that – after a welcome encounter on foreign shores, at Primavera in Porto, in the summer of 2012 – they curated the last ATP I ever went to, at the end of that year. The line-up featured everyone from Neurosis, Zeni Geva and Mono to Kim Deal, The Ex, The Membranes and Nina Nastasia, all of whom had benefitted at some time from Albini’s expertise – testimony to the mark he made on the landscape.

Now, Shellac’s forthcoming new album ‘To All Trains’ – their first for a decade – will be their last, and the cover feature on the band in the June issue of The Wire will be an epitaph.

As Albini himself would have said, requiescat.

Main Photo Credit: Abbie Eales

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