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Steve Albini, iconoclastic rock musician and engineer, dies at 61

Steve Albini in his Electrical Audio studios in Chicago in 2023.
John Semley
/
WXPN
Steve Albini in his Electrical Audio studios in Chicago in 2023.

Updated May 08, 2024 at 17:26 PM ET

Steve Albini, renowned for decades as a distinctive musician and recording engineer, died Tuesday night of a heart attack. Staff at his Chicago recording studio, Electrical Audio, confirmed news of his death with NPR. Albini was 61 years old.

As a performer, he fronted Shellac and Big Black, two indie-rock bands that pushed punk and noise past absurd and abrasive limits. Albini famously did not like to be called a "producer," but he worked on — by his own estimate — "a couple thousand" records as a recording engineer, including classics like the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, Nirvana's In Utero and PJ Harvey's Rid of Me.

Born July 22, 1962, in Pasadena, Calif., Albini's family moved around often before settling in Missoula, Mont. As a teenager, he was introduced to punk rock. "I was baffled and thrilled by music like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Pere Ubu, Devo and all those contemporaneous, inspirational punk bands without wanting to try to mimic them," he told The Quietus in 2017.

After playing in many early bands, Albini initially started Big Black in 1981 while still a student at Northwestern University, where he was studying for a degree in journalism, eventually adding guitarist Santiago Durango and bassist Jeff Pezzati, both of Chicago punk band Naked Raygun. On records like Atomizer and Songs About F******, Big Black would realize Albini's imitable sound: a terse and treble-heavy clang of guitars throttled by grotesque bass lines, with darkly funny and threatening lyrics screamed. The band's drum machine, which gave Big Black's austere punk an industrial sheen, was always credited as "Roland."

"One of the things that got me first was just the guitar playing," Annie Clark told NPR in 2011. Her band St. Vincent covered Big Black for a celebration of Michael Azerrad's book Our Band Could Be Your Life. "It's just this lacerating noise, this thing that kind of expresses, for lack of a better word, all of your suburban angst and rage. It's kind of physically painful in a really wonderful way."

By 1987, when Big Black was breaking up, Albini had already spent years recording "my friends and then my friend's friends, and then friends of my friend's friends," as he told Free Press Houston in 2018. "It was a very small circle of people that I was making myself useful to as a peer, a part of the punk scene." So it wasn't until the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, released in early 1988, that Albini began to work outside his bubble, yet he continued to build a clientele that skewed underground: Urge Overkill, Tar, The Jesus Lizard and Pussy Galore, to name a few.

Albini's recording techniques themselves might not have been revolutionary, but his commitment to them could feel like it was. Grounded in that punk ethos, he favored a natural room sound — the feel, the echoes, the ambience of a studio all captured by careful and often inventive mic placement. He knew the limits and expectations of equipment, but would experiment to achieve the unexpected. Mclusky's Andy Falkous, who recorded a pair of albums at Electrical Audio in the early 2000s, put it more plainly: "The great thing about him, and it sounds ridiculous, is the drums sound like drums, bass sounds like bass, guitar sounds like guitar." Digital recording was verboten — there are too many ways to over-correct and manipulate a performance. To him, only analog tape gave superior sound quality and dynamic range to a recording. Albini gave you the sound of an artist unfiltered.

That unfiltered quality was exactly what Kurt Cobain was after. He deemed the sound of Nirvana's Nevermind, an international phenomenon, as too commercial. "I'm embarrassed by it now," Cobain said. "It's closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk rock record." So when Cobain reached out to the person listed in the credits of his favorite Pixies album, Albini responded with a four-page letter in late 1992. "I'm only interested in working on records that legitimately reflect the band's own perception of their music and existence," he wrote to the band. "If you will commit yourselves to that as a tenet of the recording methodology, then I will bust my ass for you."

After he recorded Nirvana's In Utero, his profile changed, but even as rock stars like Bush, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant courted studio time, Albini always picked up the phone whenever an artist wanted to book a session at Electrical Audio, which he founded in 1997. "I try very hard not to say no," he told World Cafe in 2023. "There is an extremely small list of circumstances that would cause me to decline a session. There are some people that are just extraordinary creeps that I don't want to work with and there's some art I don't want to participate in." Albini also never accepted royalties for working on an album, which he spelled out brilliantly and brutishly in a 1993 essay titled "The Problem with Music."

In the midst of an already busy studio career, Albini started Shellac in 1992 with fellow recording engineer Bob Weston (bass) and Todd Trainer (drums). All three members contributed vocals and continued the caustic aesthetics of Big Black, but with an elevated sense of rhythm and song structure. Albums like At Action Park (1994) and 1000 Hurts (2000) were meticulously minimalist, rife with riffs that were taut, tangled and tattered, yet never gave in to chaos; instead, Shellac dared you to listen ... and maybe even laugh. The band's sixth studio album, To All Trains, is set to be released on May 17.

Between Big Black and Shellac, Albini formed the short-lived Rapeman. The shocking name was the point. For much of his career onstage and off, Albini was an uncompromising, opinionated and antagonistic figure. His jokes — however tongue-in-cheek — could be misogynistic, homophobic and racist. His most provocative lyrics demonstrated discomfiting and extreme power dynamics in sex. Given the era of punk he grew up in, a particular vein that prized provocation as a means to peel back the most grueling nature of humankind, perhaps this all tracks. But an internal interrogation was overdue.

In the last decade or so, Albini would be quick to call out problematic behavior online. And, increasingly, he'd turn the mirror on himself. He detailed initial intentions for some of his more controversial songs in a revealing interview, originally published in 2016, with Evelyn Morris. "It is imperative for an artist to be honest, to respect the creative impulse, wherever that may go," he said. "Anything less is just decoration or inconsequential humming. Sometimes the resulting art is repugnant, but I believe the world is better for it, that it is made richer by having those thoughts explored."

But he wouldn't let himself off the hook for any harm he might have created or perpetuated. In a beautiful and vulnerable profile in The Guardian, he reflected on the ugliness of past sins: "I can't defend any of it," he said. "It was all coming from a privileged position of someone who would never have to suffer any of the hatred that's embodied in any of that language." Albini didn't want to be excused from any role he played; he wanted to own up to his faults, and to tell anyone who respected him — or used to — why he was wrong.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: May 8, 2024 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Steve Albini was interviewed by Evelyn Morris in 2023. The interview was conducted in 2016.
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