Indie Music

Steve Albini obituary

Steve Albini, the musician and frontman of the alternative rock bands Big Black and Shellac, who has died from a heart attack aged 61, was more widely known for his huge list of credits as a producer, or – as he preferred to be called – recording engineer, of albums by independent artists from the mid-1980s to the present.

Notable recordings bearing the Albini imprint include Pixies’ Surfer Rosa (1988), the Breeders’ Pod (1990), PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me (1993), the Auteurs’ After Murder Park (1996) and Manic Street Preachers’ Journal for Plague Lovers (2009). He collaborated with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page on Walking Into Clarksdale (1998), recorded The Weirdness with punk pioneers the Stooges (2007), and worked with Cheap Trick and the B52s’ Fred Schneider, but sought to treat unknown acts and superstars equally.

Reflecting on working with Albini on Rid of Me, PJ Harvey noted how “you can feel the sound he records, and that’s why I wanted to work with him, because all I ever wanted is for us to be recorded and to sound like we do when we’re playing together in a room, and that’s never happened before”.

Among his best-known projects was Nirvana’s third album, In Utero (1993). This was at a point when Nirvana could have veered into the commercial rock mainstream after the colossal success of Nevermind, but they opted for the Albini philosophy, which he described as “bang a record out in a couple of days, with high quality but minimal ‘production’ and no interference from the front office [ie record company] bulletheads”. The album was a commercial and critical smash, but Albini had refused on principle to take percentage-point earnings on it, passing up a not-so-small fortune.

He expounded his thoughts on the way in which major-label record deals are structured against the artist’s interest in a celebrated article for The Baffler magazine, The Problem With Music (1993). His own career as a musician and record producer, as one observer put it, “defied genre conventions”, and he committed himself to “longstanding advocacy for artistic freedom and aversion to mainstream commercialism”.

His first band was Big Black, formed in 1981. The EP Lungs (1982) was their first recording (though it was created almost single-handedly by Albini and a Roland TR-606 drum machine) on Ruthless Records, the running of which Albini would later take over. The band released their first studio album, Atomizer, in 1986, but dissolved in 1987, shortly before the release of the second album, Songs About Fucking. Critics hailed Big Black for their unsparing and confrontational sound, but were sometimes uncomfortable with the subject matter, which dealt with issues such as child sexual abuse and racism.

Also controversial was Albini’s next project, Rapeman, its name taken from a notorious Japanese manga comic. A so-called “post hardcore” trio, they only lasted from 1987 to 88, releasing a couple of singles, an EP and the album Two Nuns and a Pack Mule. Albini later regretted the group’s title, saying, “I can’t defend that name, especially to someone who has a personal history that makes them particularly sensitive to it.”

In 2021 he sought to make further amends for various outrage-provoking episodes in a Twitter thread, followed by an interview with MEL Magazine. “A lot of things I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful and I regret them. It’s nobody’s obligation to overlook that, and I do feel an obligation to redeem myself.”

As a musician, he found his fullest expression with Shellac, the band he formed in 1992 with the bass player Camilo Gonzalez (previously with Naked Raygun) and drummer Todd Trainer (from Breaking Circus and Rifle Sport). Gonzalez was soon replaced by Bob Weston, from the Boston band Volcano Suns.

The band members treated Shellac as an ongoing side project, an approach that seemingly freed them to experiment and explore. Their minimalist and angular approach won them fanatical admirers, and they were regarded as definitive exponents of “noise rock”. The critic and musician John Robb called them “the finest rock band on the planet”.

Born in Pasadena, California, Albini was the son of Italian-American parents, Frank, a wildfire research scientist, and his wife, Gina (nee Martinelli). In 1974 the family moved to Missoula, Montana, where Albini attended Hellgate high school. He started learning to play bass while recuperating from a broken leg suffered in a motorcycle accident, then switched to guitar. He also became a contributor to Hellgate’s student newspaper, the Lance, where his regular column, Paparazzo, provoked controversy. “I polarise people,” he commented. “They either respect me or hate me … my column can be very annoying and so can I.” He also claimed that “I have a voice like a harpooned whale and I cannot carry a tune.”

At school he had become fascinated by punk bands such as the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, and had played in the local punk ensemble Just Ducky. While at Northwestern University, Illinois, he became a provocatively opinionated writer for local music magazines, covering the Chicago punk scene, and spent many hours browsing the Chicago record store Wax Trax!. He described the musical life of the city as “an extremely active, very fertile scene where everybody was participating on every level. The community that I joined when I came to Chicago enabled me to continue on with a life in music.”

He set up his recording studio Electrical Audio in 1997, and engineered more than 3,000 records during his lifetime, including releases by Joanna Newsom, Low and Mogwai.

Shellac remained active to the end of his life, with their seventh album, To All Trains, due for release on 17 May – though one of the preceding six albums, The Futurist (1997) was a limited release for the band’s friends and acquaintances only, with exactly 779 copies manufactured.

The formidably intelligent Albini also found time for a variety of interests outside the music scene. He was a high-stakes poker player who enjoyed lucrative success in World Series of Poker tournaments, had been a top-flight billiards player, loved baseball, and was a fine-dining enthusiast. He appeared on the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s TV show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, where he managed to insert a critique of the capitalistic excesses of the music business.

He is survived by his wife, Heather Whinna, a film-maker, and by his mother.

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