Indie Music

‘He’d offset the intensity by setting his feet on fire’: PJ Harvey, Mogwai and more on Steve Albini

PJ Harvey

I wanted to work with Steve from the moment I heard Surfer Rosa by Pixies. I had never heard anything as powerfully moving, both emotionally and sonically, and knew I wanted to hear my songs within that sound – a sound so alive, it was as if you were there in the room while the blaze of emotion was taking place.

Steve spent the first day of our recording session pacing and measuring the live room at Pachyderm [studio in Minnesota]. He would stand and look at the room a long time from different positions, intermittently clapping his hands. The band and I came and went, but Steve stayed from dawn till the late evening, absorbing and feeling the “shape” of the room, and learning what it could give him. I think we knew instinctively to leave Steve alone in the space to find what he was looking for.

He re-tuned Rob [Ellis]’s drum kit so it would be enhanced by the room and sing with it. He placed microphones in carefully measured positions to catch and open as sound met them at certain volumes. He set up our amps and guitars in the places he knew best for the room and the types of players we were.

He was driven. Driven to explore and learn from sound and space, but also mysteriously aligned with it in a way I didn’t quite understand, but knew to respect and try to learn from. He was an alchemist: patient, methodical, sensitive. Ready to capture the moment when it came. Work was hard and long as we all reached for something he knew would appear, and it did.

This intensity was offset by pauses when Steve might set his feet on fire. He was a funny man as well as being kind, intelligent and charming. I was drawn to him and his mystery, and my sadness at his death makes me realise how much I valued and loved this man. I feel lucky to have walked alongside him for a short while on this earth.

Bob Bert, Pussy Galore and Sonic Youth

Pussy Galore was one of the first bands that Steve recorded. It was 1987 and we were working on the album Right Now! I was playing a drum kit half constructed from a junkyard. The snare was two metal plates wired together on a snare drum shell. He couldn’t get a good sound out of it, so he brought out an S&M cock ring and wired it to the top to create a much better rattle and it remained there throughout the band’s existence. Albini’s cock ring travelled the world with me.

He stayed with me at my apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, two different times for a week – I spent a lot of time with him, hearing about his obsessions like billiards and his favourite candy: Skittles. He was a one-of-a-kind personality, and could get a drum sound like no one else on the planet.

Gavin Rossdale, Bush

I loved Fugazi and Jesus Lizard, Slint records, and the whole Touch and Go [label]. Everything he’d done – so many roads led back to him. Just going to meet him was a bit of a thrill.

We went off first to the countryside [to record 1996 album Razorblade Suitcase], this very fancy recording studio owned by Trevor Horn, called Hook End. Being down there with him and spending time with him in country pubs, where he’d drink half a cider slowly, was really fun. But we really got going when we went to Abbey Road.

He was not big into overdubs. I’d be like: “I meant this harmony. Can I do it?” He goes: “All right, do it – if it was compositionally intended.” “Totally, Steve, of course it was.” I sang it, and later I looked at the track sheet – and it’s got “pointless harmony” written on it. He did call Swallowed – which was the only hit I had in England – the only turkey on the record. He didn’t want me to do the quiet-loud thing. But then people in my management heard the song and were like: “Ooh, it’s catchy.” And thank God for that, or else I never would’ve had a hit in England.

I hadn’t been made part of any gang at that point; I was sort of ostracised. So it felt really good to hang out with him, hang out with Todd [Trainer], hang out with Bob [Weston, both of Shellac], be accepted by them as a peers. Steve’s a wonderful cook; he was incredibly funny, incredibly cutting, and everything you’d want him to be. Most people are sort of disappointing, potentially, when you meet them – especially someone with that sort of history behind them – so it’s really refreshing when they’re just as acerbic as you thought [laughs]. Just as opinionated.

We had a No 1 record in America – no one can take that away from us. And more importantly, a friendship was born. It never wavered.

Jami Morgan, Code Orange

Our time with Steve [for 2023 album The Above] was one of our favourite recording experiences ever. He was a sweet man, who spent as much time making us “fluffy coffees” as he did moving mics around his self-constructed guitar music paradise. A genius of sound and an unrestricted spirit. Someone who showed up to work every single day, tools in hand. He told us amazing stories of times he, mostly inadvertently, made choices and walked paths most wouldn’t. When I asked him: “Steve, why the hell are you wearing a garbage man suit?” he replied: “Here, I’m just a utility worker.”

Jon Spencer

Steve taught me so much about the recording studio and making records – things like getting sounds on to tape, mixing, mastering, packaging design, and manufacturing and distribution. But he also taught me how to run a band: booking shows, promoting your shows and records, reading a contract, navigating a deal. All DIY!

He showed me the recording studio could be approached in the same way as a guitar or any other instrument. Do you know how to play it? Who cares. Do you have something to express? Go for it! What’s most important is the band and the record you want to make. You could ignore “rules” or “the correct way”. In fact, almost nothing was wrong or off-limits, which was very empowering. However, Steve totally knew how to work in the studio the “correct” way. He was an excellent engineer and extremely knowledgable, particularly in microphone selection and placement.

Julia Cafritz, Pussy Galore

Jon [Spencer] and I were such incredibly devoted Big Black fans. That band was so powerful and sonically interesting. And so we weren’t thinking of, “Steve Albini, the recording studio engineer.” We were really drawn to him by the sheer talent that we saw in what we thought of as his main gig. I had a very strong, visceral impression, both of his guitar playing and his personality. It was so explosive. He was such a live wire. He was clearly bristling with intelligence. And, like Pussy Galore, really transgressive in that dumb, stupid way that young punk rockers were, when you want to take down society, so you say the most horrible thing.

When we arrived in Chicago to record with him, I was struck that he was a bundle of contradictions. But maybe that’s wrong – because maybe it’s just all the natural contradictions that somebody with such a strong personality and worldview and artistic sensibility has. Like all of this is part of the stew that is Steve Albini.

We met him at his domicile at the time, and he’s in the back yard, bleaching glass bottles, because he was about to embark on bottling his own root beer. Meticulously bleaching them – rinsing them, wiping them with a little cloth at the edge of his apron to keep the bleach off his already-bleached jeans, and then placing them in crates. And I was just like: “Oh my God. What a nerd!” [laughs] But the thing is, I was a nerd. I didn’t drink, I didn’t to drugs; he didn’t drink, he didn’t do drugs. And yet we had these outsize, really hardcore personalities.

He brought his intensity – that intensity of focus, that gaze, that meticulousness, that sort of doctrinaire way of being and approaching life – to every endeavour. You might think that somebody like that would not necessarily be the best collaborator in the studio. But it was really fun.

We recorded a song [Pussy Stomp from the album Right Now], and Jon wasn’t happy with the recording. But he was happy with the way it sounded when we played it in our van, which had much shittier speakers. We ran cables all the way out of the studio into the back alley, where Jon turned on the van, put the cassette in, and then blasted the music. And Steve recorded the sound of that track with two mics coming out of the stereo in the van. To me, that was everything a studio experience was supposed to be. It was creative, rigorously intellectual in its own way; it was fun. To me, that’s everything you need to know about Steve right there: really game and really excited by other people’s ideas.

He wisely grew out of a lot of the sort of dumb shit that we all do when we’re young. But then he replaced it with really smart shit. He was an extraordinary human being in terms of sheer intelligence and the power of how he would focus that. Everything was quick. And I knew him when it was all brutal. What’s interesting to me is that as he grew older and softer, he didn’t lose any of that edge. It just was put to better use.

Laura Jane Grace

I was of that age that when Nirvana’s Nevermind came out, it absolutely blew me away, and in equal impact was In Utero. I’ve been fortunate – and made a point of it with my career – to work with as many people within that circle, or who are a part of that band, as possible. In 2020, I finally got the chance to make a record with Steve.

A true testament to him is just how easy that process was. I literally called on the phone and booked studio time, you know? It was both of us walking around in face masks and keeping distance – this surreal, science fiction-type experience, especially Steve with his coveralls.

The record I made with him [Stay Alive] is all live takes. There was only one edit, and I specifically wanted the edit made just so I could watch him edit tape. I hope people realise what a loss that is, as far as his knowledge of analogue recording and how few people have that any more. To watch someone edit tape with a razor blade and Scotch tape was incredible. And the speed with which he moved – that was like artistry.

His approach in a lot of ways [was] first take, best take. And every take after that, you’re losing energy and focus, and it’s getting diluted. If I needed more than two times through the song, I could see he lost interest immediately [laughs]. So it was a little bit of pressure. But I knew that going into it and I practised as much as I could because I respected that approach. I wanted to do it his way.

Usually you finish making a record, there’s a chain of emails and the payment’s worked out in the back and forth between managers or label people. Steve had all my master tapes and handed them to me. Then I gave him the money and we shook hands, and that was it. It was everything I wanted out of it. Refusing to take points [a percentage cut of royalties for the producer] on a record – that’s unheard of these days. And that if there isn’t someone like Steve there calling bullshit on it, who’s going to be doing that? And him wanting to be basically like a plumber – I really respect that. He woke up every morning and he made records.

Jason Narducy

There was a reason why Steve insisted on being called an engineer and not a producer. He was such a master at getting sounds, and he didn’t really want to do the other stuff. I mean, occasionally I would hear him say: “Well, this part could use a little decoration.” But he was very unspecific. If you were a really good band that practised a lot and had great songs, he could make you sound incredible.

I was at his studio Electrical Audio in Chicago two weeks ago, and I went down to sing vocals. In comes Steve Albini carrying guitars and amps – 61-year-old Steve Albini helping a band load in, how about that? And as I’m singing, with the guitars in hand, he starts dancing in the room. He was so playful. I had a hard time not laughing, but I did get the vocal take. He asked if his dancing had helped my performance. I was like: “How could it not?”

He could deep dive on audio science in a way that I just could not keep up with – one morning I got to the studio and he was sending an angry email to a tape manufacturer from France, going into great detail. He had this unique level of expertise. So many people in his position would have two people doing the heavy lifting for him, and that was never the case. It was just Steve and his jumpsuit, his doing all the cables, all the mics. And he liked that. It’s very blue-collar Chicago.

Andrew Falkous, Mclusky

When we worked with Steve on our debut album Mclusky Do Dallas 20 years ago, I didn’t really know who he was, except that he’d produced In Utero. I’ve never been a music historian; I came to music via arena bands. I didn’t have any expectations, apart from knowing that his whole general aesthetic was recording live – overdubs were for pussies. On first meeting, he was obviously a very intelligent person, and the whole process turned out to be a dream.

We got to Electrical Audio, and you’re instantly aware this is a facility set up for bands to record, which a lot of studios aren’t necessarily. Obviously, it’s in America, so it fucking stinks of coffee. Technically, the guy knew what he was doing, to say the least. But his real trick was creating the environment in which you’re going to give the best performance of that song. Albini provided the facility, the template, so the artist can be the artist, so the personality can be captured by his microphones.

We stayed in the dorm rooms at Electrical – you wake up and you’re there, you’re consumed by it. The first day, we started at noon and ended at midnight. By the end, we were at it until seven in the morning. The legend was that Steve worked 364 days a year, and I’m sure that’s an exaggeration. But the experience of intense collaboration with him, pulling together for a common cause … when it’s going well, there’s nothing like it.

He had a regard for us as human beings. He was perfectly happy for us to make him watch Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace with us. It was like hanging out with a friend who also had the keys to the building. Obviously, the personality of “Steve Albini” got involved; how could it not? We recorded She Will Bring You Only Happiness, I did a vocal, and Steve said: “OK, that’s a wrap.” And I said, there’s actually a harmony vocal to go with the lead vocal. “Nah, doesn’t need it.” But I’ve already demoed it, it sounds great, we’re gonna do it. And he said, “It’s your record.” So his aesthetic would push its way through, make its case – but ultimately he knew it was your record.

Mclusky Do Dallas sounds like we sounded as a band, for better or worse, and what leaps from the record is so much energy that you really feel like you’re there. And that’s because of Steve’s understanding of the scientific principles of where to place a microphone, but also because he had empathy, he knew how to listen to a band.

Stuart Braithwaite, Mogwai

We only recorded one song with Steve, but it was a very long and very involved song. My Father My King was a Jewish hymn that Arthur Baker had wanted us to record for an album he never finished. We’d been playing it live for years, and it was the big highlight of our set, so we wanted to finally record it: live, together, in a studio, and have it sound good. So Steve was the natural choice.

He was a very pleasant person to be in a room with, which goes against his reputation as being an edgelord. His sense of humour was pretty brutal, but to be honest, we loved that – he was always funny, he was never cruel. He told us not to get him a hotel room for the session: he’d just sleep on the couch of a friend. He didn’t eat anything apart from chocolate Hobnobs for the entire four days that it took us to record the song – apparently you can’t get them in the US.

Towards the end of the session, most of us went off to go watch the football, leaving [guitarist/synth player] Barry Burns alone in the studio with Steve. Barry told Steve: “I’ve just remembered that there’s actually an important guitar part that I’ve still got to record.” Steve turned round really slowly to Barry and said: “Do you remember the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? You know the bit where the monolith comes down and the monkeys gain this knowledge from this mysterious object and suddenly they understand violence and they understand the cause and effect of something hitting another thing, and that being the birth of humanity? That’s ‘important’.”

Our friend and occasional bandmate Luke Sutherland played violin on the song, and when we were mixing the track we told Steve it didn’t need to be too loud in the mix. And Steve, absolutely deadpan, said – and this is something we still say in the studio all the time: “Feature it or fuck it.” So yeah, we featured it.

We were really young, just a bunch of kids absolutely beating the shit out of our guitars, and he was all about it – he was very kind about our band. He said we knew exactly what we wanted to sound like. He loved the big riff that surfaces in the second half of the song – he was just very enthusiastic about music.

David Gedge, the Wedding Present and Cinerama

The first couple of [Wedding Present] albums were kind of jangly, clean, like indie pop. We wanted to move away from that – they never sounded to me like the band live. I think we had more of a three-dimensional sound, and he was able to capture that.

Our first album for RCA was Bizarro, and that took us about six weeks. When we worked with Albini, we wanted to book an equivalent time. And he said: “No, no. If a record can’t be made in two weeks, something’s wrong. The Beatles did records in a weekend.” And we were like: “Well, we’re not the Beatles.” [laughs] I think, in the end, we compromised at two weeks. It was almost back to the way we started, when we had no money at the very early days, and we just recorded live in a studio, because we had to be out of there. With Albini it was: “OK, set the gear up in this room, I’ll place some microphones, and just play live.” That was his forte, wasn’t it? To capture a live band in the studio.

I happened upon this Mellotron in the studio. And he was like: “Have you any idea how hard they are to a) keep in tune, b) play, c) record?” And I was like, yeah, it’s a weird 60s instrument, but it’s going to have its great sound. “Have you got any parts prepared for it?” No, not really. “Well, fuck that, I’m not going to do that.” I let it pass, and we carried on working. And then the next day, the Mellotron was set up with the mics on it. He just wanted to argue with me a bit about it, and tell me how difficult it was going to be. But he was a pleasure to work with, really. I know people often considered him to be a bit purposely confrontational, and I think he enjoyed being a bit of a wind-up merchant. He also didn’t suffer fools – I’m from the north of England, and we’ve got that in common. People speak their mind, and don’t care if they offend people sometimes.

Sometimes it was a little bit annoying, because you would say: “Why don’t you like CDs? Why do you never take [royalty] points on records?” And then he’d launch into one of his lectures [laughs]. Once he took me aside and explained why CDs don’t sound as good as vinyl. And I was bored after about half an hour, but he was showing me these graphs and things. And I was like: “This is all very well, but we’re paying for the studio time. I know it’s quick, because it’s you, but can we crack on now?” I remember he was explaining the history of the pencil to our bass player once. I walked in and said: “Well, can we move on?” Because he was reading a book about the history of the pencil at that point.

He was very clever, very witty, and we always had brilliant times in the studio with him. I found him very easy to work with. It was never a chore; it was always good fun. He always said: “The band is the boss.” You’d tell him what you want to do, he’d do it. Which was unique for a person at that level. I’ve had so many meetings with producers over the years, and they always want to put their mark on it. He was more: “If you ask my opinion, I will give it, but I’m not going to be telling you what to do in the studio, because you are the band.” That was admirable.

Stephen O’Malley, Sunn O)))

The very first time I recorded a record was with him. He’d flown to Seattle to record Silkworm. I was in a band called Burning Witch and our bass player Stuart Dahlquist was brothers with the drummer of Silkworm, Michael Dahlquist. It was like: “Oh, Steve can come a few days early. Do you want to record with him?” He flew to Seattle from London. And I didn’t really understand this very well at the time, because I was like, 21, stoned, a metalhead – but the gig he had done right before was Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s new album. And then flown to Seattle to record Silkworm and Burning Witch.

There’s a few things about that session that really stand out. Having the opportunity to be the next guitar player he recorded after Jimmy Page is kind of mind blowing. I checked this with him when we worked with him with Sunn O))) a few years ago, and he’s like: “Yeah, I guess so. I guess that’s what happened.” [laughs] And that says something about his character. It’s not nonchalant, but just, like, not really crushed by these hierarchies of music business. Everyone was an artist on the same level as far as how creative they could be and what they were doing themselves. He always told us he was an engineer. He’s not going to make your songs sound good; that’s your thing. But he’ll record them perfectly.

In that Burning Witch session, I learned about mic-ing – like, placing mics in front of the drum kit in a way that was inspired by billiards positioning. Putting my guitar stack in a tiny hallway where I didn’t have really room to move very much, and playing at really high volume so the feedback became musical – interactive with the feedback, and taping a tiny mic to the floor as the main sound. That was a moment for me that defined my [approach of]: “Oh, I can work with feedback as musical element – deliberately.” Which has been the thesis of my guitar playing career, actually.

He’s the kind of person you work with who’ll say a sentence and you’ll remember it for 20 years. We were listening back to a take of one of the Burning Witch songs, and there’s a pause in the riff and a feedback squall – I had somehow controlled it into this pitch bend that went up the harmonic scale, but it was feedback. And he kept rewinding and he’s like: “Oh, that’s hot. That sounds awesome.” And I’ll never forget that. I was like: “Oh, it’s not a mistake. It’s actually something we discovered that was phenomena right there.” When you can discover together something fresh and new, despite all the experience you have, that’s bonding. And it’s really encouraging to go further outside the envelope and into places you don’t know.

In 2018, Greg Anderson from Sunn O))) and I recorded with Steve at his studio for two weeks. Tim Midyett from Silkworm was involved – he played bass on that session – and also [Oscar-winning composer and cellist] Hildur Guðnadóttir was there. That whole time was so enjoyable. We took it really seriously – because working with him wasn’t the situation where you could fix stuff up to sound better than it was [laughs].

He was really intelligent and wasn’t afraid to get into it with someone – not in an aggressive, defensive way, but to really dig in and have a conversation which might not be so comfortable, if you weren’t open to trying to learn something or debate. It was interesting. I was really happy to be able to encounter him, learn from him, and make some really cool records that are monumental parts of my own music experience.


Mia Clarke: We spent several weeks living at Electrical Audio in the spring of 2003, recording our second album The Power Out. Twenty years later it’s a bit of a blur, but I look back and think about how kind Steve was. I mean, I was a teenager and the others not much older. He was so respectful of our vision and made us feel completely comfortable in the studio, which wasn’t something we’d experienced before. He was just very focused, no BS, and helped us bring to life what I now understand to be a pretty ambitious record. In the recording room he was on the job, always, but some of my favourite memories of him at that time were in the apartment upstairs. We’d watch movies together and eat burritos. He had the sweetest grey cat, Fluss, who used to sit on his shoulders.

Emma Gaze: Steve bought a calm and reassuring feeling that everything was in hand, and because we were well prepared, it was more exciting than intimidating. I think that speaks to his attitude in general. He wasn’t ever interested in making you feel “less than”, and there was never a moment where I felt patronised or embarrassed. In fact, the opposite. If a certain band member’s neuroses were in full swing, he calmly said: “That’s the way she played it – no need to change it”. I loved that.

MC: For our third album Axes, we wanted to get as close to our live sound as possible. Steve made that happen. There was so much knowledge in his placement of each microphone. It was a huge part of his gift as an engineer, but I think a bigger part of his magic was giving a band everything they need to succeed and then just letting them be. He wasn’t a tinkerer. He was efficient. He just focused on harnessing our sound in its realest and truest form. It’s not an easy thing to do. But Steve always did it.

Will Oldham, AKA Bonnie “Prince” Billy

He was a human being who elevated the quality of the human experience. He expected more of himself and other people, but also knew it was possible. There was nothing outrageous. Just the idea of being able to continue to work within the music business, and maintain such humanity, in the face of what almost everybody says: “Well, it’s impossible to do things right, because this is just the way you do things.” Steve thought: no, there’s not another way to do it besides doing it as right as you can do it. In recent years, he’s addressed that at times in his ignorance – because we’re all born not sinful, but ignorant – he misstepped, with the full force of ignorance behind him. But he rarely spoke mindlessly or off the cuff. I always thought I had something to learn from what came out of his mouth.

We’re experiencing an increasing momentum of things that run counter to seemingly anything that drove human civilisation forward. It seems like it’s kind of coming apart right now at a mind-boggling rate. It feels like Steve’s reward is not having to witness it, and our reward is getting to do our best to fill in the vacuum that his death leaves. He took on a lot of responsibility for everybody, so we didn’t have to think and do, because he was thinking and doing on our behalf. And I feel charged and prepared to move forward alongside Steve’s personal and professional legacy as much as possible. It’s hard for those of us for whom thoughtfulness is a principal virtue. There are few examples to look to, in the way Albini is.

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