Steve Albini

Family tree of Steve Albini

Singer & Musician

AmericanBorn Steve Albini

American musician and audio engineer

Born on July 22, 1962 in Pasadena, California , United States

Died on May 7, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois , United States

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Steven Frank Albini (; July 22, 1962 – May 7, 2024) was an American musician and audio engineer who was a member of the influential post-hardcore and noise rock bands Big Black (1981–1987), Rapeman (1987–1989) and Shellac (1992–2024). He was the founder, owner, and principal engineer of the Chicago recording studio Electrical Audio. He recorded thousands of records, collaborating with acts including Nirvana, the Pixies, the Breeders, PJ Harvey, the Jesus Lizard and Page and Plant.
Albini was born in Pasadena, California, and raised in Missoula, Montana. After discovering the Ramones as a teenager, he played in a number of punk bands. He earned a degree in journalism at Northwestern University, Illinois, and he wrote for local zines before moving to Chicago, where he immersed himself in the punk scene. He formed Big Black in 1981, with whom he released two albums: Atomizer (1986) and Songs About Fucking (1987).
Following the dissolution of Big Black, Albini opened Electrical Audio and focused on engineering. He briefly played in Rapeman with David Wm. Sims and Rey Washam, releasing their only album, Two Nuns and a Pack Mule (1988). In 1992, he formed Shellac with Bob Weston and Todd Trainer, with whom he released several albums, including At Action Park (1994) and 1000 Hurts (2000).
...   Steven Frank Albini (; July 22, 1962 – May 7, 2024) was an American musician and audio engineer who was a member of the influential post-hardcore and noise rock bands Big Black (1981–1987), Rapeman (1987–1989) and Shellac (1992–2024). He was the founder, owner, and principal engineer of the Chicago recording studio Electrical Audio. He recorded thousands of records, collaborating with acts including Nirvana, the Pixies, the Breeders, PJ Harvey, the Jesus Lizard and Page and Plant.
Albini was born in Pasadena, California, and raised in Missoula, Montana. After discovering the Ramones as a teenager, he played in a number of punk bands. He earned a degree in journalism at Northwestern University, Illinois, and he wrote for local zines before moving to Chicago, where he immersed himself in the punk scene. He formed Big Black in 1981, with whom he released two albums: Atomizer (1986) and Songs About Fucking (1987).
Following the dissolution of Big Black, Albini opened Electrical Audio and focused on engineering. He briefly played in Rapeman with David Wm. Sims and Rey Washam, releasing their only album, Two Nuns and a Pack Mule (1988). In 1992, he formed Shellac with Bob Weston and Todd Trainer, with whom he released several albums, including At Action Park (1994) and 1000 Hurts (2000).
Noted for his outspoken and blunt opinions, Albini was critical of local punk scenes and the music industry, which he saw as exploitative. He refused to take royalties on albums he worked on, operating on a fee-only basis. Albini died of a heart attack on May 7, 2024.


Early life

Steven Frank Albini was born in Pasadena, California, to Gina (née Martinelli) and Frank Addison Albini. His father was a wildfire researcher. He had two siblings. In his youth, Albini's family moved often, before settling in the college town of Missoula, Montana, in 1974. Albini was Italian American, and some of his family are from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy.
While recovering from a broken leg, Albini began playing bass guitar and participated in bass lessons in high school for one week. He was introduced to the Ramones by a schoolmate on a field trip when he was 14 or 15. He felt it was the best music he had ever heard and bought every Ramones recording available to him, and credits his music career to hearing their first album. He said, "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."
During his teenage years, Albini played in bands including the Montana punk band Just Ducky, the Chicago band Small Irregular Pieces of Aluminum, and another band that record label Touch and Go Records explained "he is paying us not to mention".
After graduating from Hellgate High School, Albini moved to Evanston, Illinois, to attend college at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University where he earned a degree in journalism. He said that he studied painting in college with Ed Paschke, someone he calls a brilliant educator and "one of the only people in college who actually taught me anything".
In the Chicago area, Albini was active as a writer in local zines including Matter, and later Boston's Forced Exposure, covering the then-nascent punk rock scene, and gained a reputation for the iconoclastic nature of his articles. About the same time, he began recording musicians and engineered his first album in 1981. He co-managed Ruthless Records (Chicago) with John Kezdy of the Effigies and Jon Babbin (Criminal IQ Records). According to Albini, he maintained a "straight job" for five years until 1987, working in a photography studio as a photograph retouch artist.


Performing career


1981–1987: Big Black
Albini formed Big Black in 1981 while he was a student at Northwestern, and recorded their debut EP Lungs on Ruthless Records (Chicago). He played all of the instruments on Lungs except the saxophone, played by his friend John Bohnen. The Bulldozer (1983) EP followed on Ruthless and Fever Records.
Jeff Pezzati and Santiago Durango, of Chicago band Naked Raygun, and live drummer Pat Byrne joined shortly after, and the band—along with a Roland TR-606 drum machine, released the 1984 EP Racer-X after touring and signing a contract with the Homestead Records business. Pezzati was replaced on bass by Dave Riley, with whom the group recorded their debut full-length album Atomizer (1986). The "Il Duce" recording was eventually finished with Riley as bassist; the band also released The Hammer Party while signed to Homestead, which was a compilation of the Lungs and Bulldozer EPs.
Big Black signed to Touch and Go in late 1985/early 1986, and released the EP Headache and the 7-inch single Heartbeat. That year, the live album Sound of Impact was released on the Not/Blast First label.
In 1987, Big Black released the album Songs About Fucking and the single "He's a Whore / The Model", both on Touch and Go. Big Black disbanded shortly after a period of extensive touring that year. Durango enrolled in law school and became a lawyer. Albini also played in the shortlived band Run Nigger Run, the name taken from the tagline of a 1970s blaxploitation film. Albini said in 2023 that he was embarrassed by the band.


1987–1988: Rapeman
Albini formed Rapeman in 1987. The band consisted of Albini on vocals and guitar, Rey Washam on drums and David Wm. Sims on bass. Both Washam and Sims were previously members of Scratch Acid. They broke up after the release of two 7-inch singles, "Hated Chinee b/w Marmoset" (1988) and "Inki's Butt Crack b/w Song Number One" (1989), the EP Budd (1988), and the Two Nuns and a Pack Mule album, also released in 1988 on Touch and Go.
The band's name was taken from a Japanese manga, and was chosen in a deliberate attempt to repel audiences and do the "opposite" of bands that were desperate to appear on MTV. In 2023, Albini said he was embarrassed by the name.


1992–2024: Shellac
Albini formed Shellac in 1992 with Bob Weston (formerly of Volcano Suns) and Todd Trainer (of Rifle Sport, Breaking Circus and Brick Layer Cake). They initially released three EPs: The Rude Gesture: A Pictorial History (1993), Uranus (1993) and The Bird Is the Most Popular Finger (1994). The first two EP releases were on Touch and Go, while the third EP was a Drag City label release.
Two years after formation, the Japanese label NUX Organization released the Japan-exclusive live album Live in Tokyo, followed by five studio albums: At Action Park (1994), Terraform (1998), 1000 Hurts (2000), Excellent Italian Greyhound (2007) and Dude Incredible (2014). All of Shellac's studio albums were released on vinyl as well as CD. Albini died on May 7, 2024, ten days before the release of Shellac's sixth album, To All Trains.


Recording career

Albini became widely known as a producer after recording the 1988 Pixies album Surfer Rosa. According to the Rolling Stone journalist Rob Sheffield, Albini gave the album a "raw room-tone live crunch, especially the heavy drums and slashing guitars". The journalist Michael Azerrad wrote: "The recordings were both very basic and very exacting: Albini used few special effects; got an aggressive, often violent guitar sound; and made sure the rhythm section slammed as one.": 344 
Albini did not see himself as a record producer, which he defined as someone completely responsible for a recording session. Instead, he described himself as an audio engineer. He left creative decisions to the artist and saw it as his job to satisfy them. Albini felt that putting producers in charge often destroyed records, and that the role of the recording engineer was to solve technical problems, not to threaten the artist's creative control.
Albini did not request credit, and said that when he had been credited as a producer it had not been at his request. When credited, Albini preferred the term "recording engineer". He felt that his involvement in recording was unimportant and sometimes created public relations problems for acts, or could distract from the record.
Albini refused to accept royalties, seeing this as an insult to the artist. As of 2005, he charged a daily fee of $450, much less than other high-profile producers and engineers. This rose to $700 by 2014. He would occasionally work unpaid as a favor or if an act ran out of money, preferring not to leave work unfinished.
Though Albini was a vocal critic of major labels and artists, he would work with anyone who requested his service, regardless of style or ability. He required no audition, only an expectation that the act would take their work seriously. He said he was willing to work with "anyone who calls on the phone ... If someone rings because he wants to make a record, I say yes." In The Vinyl District, Joseph Neff wrote: "When enlisted by the big leagues, Albini took his job just as seriously as when he was assisting on the debut recording from a bunch of aspiring unknowns."
In 2004, Albini estimated that he had engineered 1,500 records, mostly by underground musicians. By 2018, his estimate had increased to several thousand. Artists that Albini worked with include Nirvana, the Breeders, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, the Jesus Lizard, Don Caballero, PJ Harvey, the Wedding Present, Joanna Newsom, Superchunk, Low, Dirty Three, Jawbreaker, Neurosis, Cloud Nothings, Bush, Chevelle, Page and Plant, Helmet, Fred Schneider, the Stooges, Owls, Manic Street Preachers, Jarvis Cocker, the Cribs, the Fleshtones, Nina Nastasia, the Frames, the Membranes, Cheap Trick, Motorpsycho, Slint, mclusky, Labradford, Veruca Salt, Zao, the Auteurs, Spare Snare and Foxy Shazam.


Methodology

Albini was influenced by the English producer and engineer John Loder, who recorded numerous early punk records quickly and cheaply. Loder engineered a session with Big Black, and impressed Albini with his efficiency, knowledge of the equipment and "sensitivity to the band".
Albini was an advocate for analog recording. He said it would be irresponsible to give clients digital files as masters, as he feared digital formats might become unusable in the future. In 2005, Albini said he disliked recording with computers, finding that software unreliable and overcomplex. By comparison, "In the analogue domain you know what you're supposed to do, you plug something in, and it's done." He said he had never felt limited by his equipment and had never had to tell an artist that something was impossible without computers. He was skeptical of digital manipulation, saying: "I don't understand where the impulse comes from to make a record that doesn't have any relationship to the sound of the real band. That seems crazy to me."
Albini preferred to record bands together in live takes where possible, rather than overdubbing, believing this created the most natural result. He aimed to crate a faithful document of the performance, and said "I would be very happy if my fingerprints weren't possible". However, he conceded that it was impossible to have an "objective perspective in the visible". He used few effects and little compression, preferring to preserve dynamics and "hear the band rather than the machine". In his 1993 essay "The Problem with Music", he said compression made "everything sound like a beer commercial" and said words such as "punchy" and "warm" were meaningless. He wrote that producers and engineers who raise the vocals in the mix to make the music "sound more like the Beatles" were pandering to commercial interests.
According to The Guardian, Albini was "especially good at capturing the raw sound of a band, as though they were playing right in front of you". Bands would hire Albini in an attempt to "sound realer". Stereogum described his recording sound as "open, dry, claustrophobic, brutally honest". Steve Von Till of Neurosis, who recorded several albums with Albini, said in 2013: "He is the best damn engineer in the world, I believe. He's very traditional, there's no tricks, there's no fix it later. There's only an extremely high-fidelity approach towards capturing a natural performance in a room." Albini would spend about a week on average recording an album, including mixing.
Albini disputed his reputation for working with "hard-hitting grunge bands" and for imposing an "uncompromising sound", saying he had recorded hundreds of acoustic albums and that he did not impose his taste on his clients. He said most artists wanted him to create an "organic" sound. Albini said his opinion on the quality of a song or an arrangement was irrelevant, and that it would be inappropriate to tell a musician they were wrong about their music: "It's like saying, 'Here, let me show you how to fuck your wife. You're doing it all wrong.'" He felt his musical preferences were obscure and that imposing them would "make a lot of freakish records that wouldn't flatter the band in any way, and no one would like them".


Nirvana and In Utero

In 1993, Nirvana hired Albini for their third album, In Utero. Albini dismissed Nirvana as "R.E.M. with a fuzzbox" and "an unremarkable version of the Seattle sound". However, he accepted the job because he felt sorry for them, perceiving them as "the same sort of people as all the small-fry bands I deal with", at the mercy of their record company. Cobain said he chose Albini because he had produced two of his favorite records, Surfer Rosa (1988) by the Pixies and Pod (1990) by the Breeders. Cobain wanted to use Albini's technique of capturing the natural ambience of a room via the placement of several microphones, something previous Nirvana producers had been averse to trying.
At Albini's recommendation, Nirvana went to Pachyderm Studios in Minnesota to record the album. Albini chose the studio in part due to its isolation, hoping to keep representatives of Nirvana's record label, DGC Records, away. Recording was completed in six days; Cobain had anticipated disagreements with Albini, whom he had heard "was supposedly this sexist jerk", but called the process "the easiest recording we've ever done, hands down".
DGC did not like the results, and Nirvana began to have doubts about the album. They asked Albini to remix it, but he declined, fearing a "slippery slope". Years later, Albini said: "All I know is ... we made a record, everybody was happy with it. A few weeks later I hear that it's unreleasable and it's all got to be redone." Nirvana considered working with the producer Scott Litt and remixing some tracks with Andy Wallace, who had mixed Nevermind. Albini vehemently disagreed, and said Nirvana had agreed not to modify the tracks without his involvement. Nirvana eventually had Litt remix songs intended as singles.
The rest of the album was left unaltered aside from a remastering. In Utero was a critical and commercial success, and remains associated with Albini, despite his criticism of the final mix; he said, "The record in the stores doesn't sound all that much like the record that was made, though it's still them singing and playing their songs, and the musical quality of it still comes across." Albini said In Utero made him unpopular with major record labels, and he faced problems finding work in the year following.


Electrical Audio

Albini bought Electrical Audio, a recording studio, in 1995. Due to a lack of privacy for Albini and his wife he moved to the studio. Albini's former studio was in their house, eventually taking over almost all the rooms, with the exception of the bedroom. Before Electrical Audio, Albini had a studio in the basement of another personal residence. Musician Robbie Fulks recalls the hassle of "running up two flights of stairs all the time from the tracking room" to communicate with Albini.
Albini did not receive royalties for anything he recorded or mixed at his own facility, unlike many other engineer/record producers with his experience and prominence. At Electrical Audio in 2004, Albini earned a daily fee of US$750 for engineering work, and drew a salary of US$24,000 a year. Azerrad referred to Albini's rates in 2001 as among the most affordable for a world-class recording studio. After the completion of the studio's construction, Albini initially charged only for his time, allowing his friends or musicians he respected—who were willing to engineer their own recording sessions and purchase their own magnetic tape—to use his studio for free. In a 2004 lecture, Albini said that he answered the phone himself and dealt with bands directly at Electrical Audio.


Musical influences
Albini mentioned his liking for "good guitar", saying "good noise is like orgasm". He commented: "Anybody can play notes. There's no trick. What is a trick and a good one is to make a guitar do things that don't sound like a guitar at all. The point here is stretching the boundaries." Albini praised guitarists including Andy Gill of Gang of Four, Rowland S. Howard of Birthday Party, John McKay of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Keith Levene of Public Image Ltd, Steve Diggle and Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks, Ron Asheton of the Stooges, Paul Fox of the Ruts, Greg Ginn of Black Flag, Lyle Preslar of Minor Threat, John McGeoch of Magazine and the Banshees, and Tom Verlaine of Television.
Albini praised Andy Gill's guitar tone on Gang of Four's Entertainment! and said "[he] makes six strings produce more beautiful, broken noise than anybody". He praised John McKay for his work on Siouxsie and the Banshees's The Scream, saying "only now people are trying to copy it, and even now nobody understands how that guitar player got all that pointless noise to stick together as songs". Albini cited Ron Asheton: "he made great squealy death noise feedback". He also described John McGeoch's guitar playing as "great choral swells, great scratches and buzzes, [and] great dissonant noise". He admired Tom Verlaine for his ability to "twist almost any conceivable sound out of a guitar."


Views


Music industry
In 2018, Albini said the reduction in the power of record labels over the preceding 25 years had reduced the prevalence of producers who are there only to exert artistic control over the recording. In contrast, he felt that digital recording created more freedom for people do productive work as engineers. Albini saw the increasing affordability of high-quality recording gear as a positive development, as it allowed bands greater freedom to record without studios.
In 1993, Albini published a widely shared essay, "The Problem with Music", in The Baffler. Albini argued that record companies exploit artists and illustrated how bands can remain in debt even after selling hundreds of thousands of albums. He reaffirmed his stance in a 2004 presentation at Middle Tennessee State University.
In November 2014, Albini delivered the keynote speech at the Face the Music conference in Melbourne, Australia, in which he discussed the evolution of the music industry over his career. He described the pre-internet corporate industry as "a system that ensured waste by rewarding the most profligate spendthrifts in a system specifically engineered to waste the band's money", which aimed to perpetuate its structures and business arrangements while preventing almost all but the biggest acts from earning a living. He contrasted it with the independent scene, which encouraged resourcefulness and established an alternative network of clubs, promoters, fanzines, DJs and labels, and whose greater efficiency allowed musicians to make a reasonable income.

Asked about filesharing in June 2014, Albini said that while he did not believe it was the "best thing" for the music industry, he did not identify with the music industry. He considered "the community, the band, the musician" his peers, and was pleased that musicians can "get their music out to the world at no cost instantly".
As part of the Face the Music speech, Albini noted that both the corporate and independent industry models had been damaged by filesharing. However, he praised the spread of free music as a "fantastic development", which allowed previously ignored music and bands to find an audience; the use of the internet as a distribution channel for music to be heard worldwide; and the increasing affordability of recording equipment, all of which allow bands to circumvent the traditional recording industry. Albini also argued that the increased availability of recorded music stimulates demand for live music, boosting artists' income.


Journalism
From 1983 to 1986, Albini wrote for the newly launched Chicago music magazine Matter. He wrote in each issue a chronicle called "Tired of Ugly Fat?", and contributed articles such as "Husker Du? Only Their Hairdresser Knows For Sure". In 1994, Albini wrote a letter to the music critic Bill Wyman (not to be confused with the musician Bill Wyman), which was published in the Chicago Reader, calling Wyman a "music press stooge" for having championed three Chicago-based music acts whom Albini labeled "frauds": Liz Phair, the Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill.
While in Australia in November 2014, Albini spoke with national radio station Double J and stated that, while the state of the music industry is healthy in his view, the industry of music journalism is in crisis. Albini used the example of the media spotlight that he received after criticizing Amanda Palmer for not paying her musicians after receiving over $1 million on Kickstarter to release her 2012 album Theatre Is Evil, saying, "I don't think I was wrong but I also don't think that it was that big of a deal." He described the music media as "superficial" and composed of "copy-paste bullshit".
Albini frequently expressed a general dislike for pop music, and in a 2015 interview told 2SER Sydney that "pop music is for children and idiots". He expressed a loathing for electronic dance music (EDM) and the entire club scene to techno producer Oscar Powell in 2015, who quoted Albini in a billboard advert and music video for his track "Insomniac" which samples Albini; Powell found Albini's dismissal of the track to be ironic, considering that while Albini chose not to listen to it, Powell felt it bore more similarity to the early industrial music that Albini cited than popular EDM.


Music festivals
Albini criticized music festivals for their corporatization of popular alternative music. In a 1993 interview, he said of Lollapalooza:

Lollapalooza is the worst example of corporate encroachment into what is supposed to be the underground. It is just a large scale marketing of bands that pretend to be alternative but are in reality just another facet of the mass cultural exploitation scheme. I have no appreciation or affection for those bands and I have no interest in that whole circle. If Lollapalooza had Jesus Lizard and the Melvins and Fugazi and Slint then you could make a case that it was actually people on the vanguard of music. What it really is is the most popular bands on MTV that are not heavy metal.Shellac notably does not play festivals, with the exception of Primavera Sound in Barcelona, where the band played every edition since 2006, except for 2007. Shellac had to be convinced by Mogwai to play their curated edition of the now-defunct All Tomorrow's Parties (ATP) in 2001, which the band performed regularly at. Albini said, "They completely changed the festival game. Now the whole world has to operate under the knowledge that there are these cool, curated festivals where everyone is treated well and the experience is a generally pleasant one."
We didn't like the cattle call nature of unrelated artists playing in an un-curated fashion. We established the precedent that we weren't gonna play festivals...Most festivals, there's a competition to get the biggest names as headliners, then everybody else was whoever was on tour, and then the bottom rungs were filled with payola spots where labels would pay to get people added to a bill. ATP was entirely curated. Somebody chose every single one of those bands because they thought they were awesome.After this, Shellac had a longstanding involvement with ATP and were often referred to as ATP's 'House Band'. Shellac were the curators of ATP at Camber Sands, UK in 2002 and 2012, co-curated in 2004 and also played at several other editions of the festival including its final UK holiday camp event in 2013.


Personal life
Albini was married to the film director Heather Whinna. They lived in Chicago. He avoided drugs and alcohol; his father was an alcoholic, which made him aware of his "own vulnerability to addiction". Albini maintained a food blog, documenting meals he had cooked for his wife. The Los Angeles Times described him as a "good food writer" with a "laconic, dry wit". Since 1996 the couple committed charity drives during the Christmas season, responding to letters in the Chicago post office. They experienced conflict in deliveries after a "policy change" by the Postal Service in 2009 over including personal details.
Albini was an avid poker player, particularly in mixed games. He won two World Series of Poker bracelets: in 2018, Albini finished first in a $1,500 Stud event for $105,629; and won a $1,500 H.O.R.S.E. event in 2022 for $196,089. He described his relationship to the game in a 2022 PokerNews article: "Poker is one part of my life. So when I'm playing poker, I try to commit to it. I try to take it seriously. I try to make sure I devote the attention to it that it deserves as an occupation. But it's only part of my year. I only play tournaments at the World Series of Poker. I play cash games informally in Chicago. It's a part of my livelihood, but it's not my profession."


Death
Albini died from a heart attack at his home in Chicago, on May 7, 2024, at the age of 61. Dave Grohl dedicated a performance of the Foo Fighters song "My Hero" in his memory, and Joanna Newsom did likewise with a performance of her song "Cosmia".


Discography


Selected publications
"Husker Du? Only Their Hairdresser Knows for Sure" Article for Matter on Hüsker Dü, published September 1983.
"I would like to be paid like a plumber" Letter written by Steve Albini to Nirvana in 1992, outlining his working philosophy
"Ask a music scene micro celebrity" Steve Albini answers questions about bands and music on a poker forum, The 2+2 Forums, July 7, 2007. Archived from the original on April 17, 2010.
"I am Steve Albini, ask me anything" reddit IAmA, May 8, 2012; accessed June 21, 2015.
"Steve Albini talks to LISTEN: "I try to be an ally in feminism"" Interview in LISTEN, May 2, 2016; accessed August 16, 2016.


Notes


References


Further reading
Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2001; ISBN 9780316063791. OCLC 62518347.
Cameron, Keith. "This Is Pop". MOJO magazine, Issue 90, May 2001.
King, Braden. Looking for a Thrill: An Anthology of Inspiration (DVD). Chicago: Thrill Jockey, 2005. UPC 790377010091.


External links

Electrical Audio official website
Steve Albini at AllMusic
Steve Albini discography at Discogs
Steve Albini at IMDb
Steve Albini discography at MusicBrainz



Biography from Wikipedia (see original) under licence CC BY-SA 3.0

 

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