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The Unstoppable Noise That Was Steve Albini

The legendary musician, producer, and writer lived by his own fiercely stubborn code of punk DIY ethics, reigning as one of rock’s most brilliant provocateurs even as he became a model for how to outgrow your own bullshit

Steve Albini

Scott Dudelson/WireImage

If all Steve Albini ever did with music was complain about it, he still would have reigned as one of its most brilliant provocateurs. But Albini came to make noise — as a punk guitarist, as a producer, as a writer —with rock’s most notoriously savage sense of humor. “I like noise,” he declared in a hugely influential 1986 manifesto in the fanzine Forced Exposure. “I like big-ass vicious noise that makes my head spin. I wanna feel it whipping through me like a fucking jolt. We’re so dilapidated and crushed by our pathetic existence we need it like a fix.”

Steve Albini always brought that noise, in his bands Big Black and Shellac, in his razorblade production on classics by Nirvana, PJ Harvey, and the Pixies. That’s why the world is so shocked by the terrible news of his death Wednesday, only 61, of a heart attack. It doesn’t seem real because he seemed built to outlast everyone. Albini made his name as an angry young man — the “Thin White Dick,” as Forced Exposure called him. Yet he aged into a surprisingly wise elder statesman, a model for how to outgrow your own bullshit. We were all expecting many more years of Steve Albini being a brilliant pain in the ass.

Albini lived by his own fiercely stubborn code of punk DIY ethics. His bands always set up their own gear onstage. Once at a Shellac gig in Brooklyn, the club tried to give them a little rock-star allure by cranking up the fog machine. Albini told them to knock it off, snapping, “We’re an anti-fog band.”

He refused to take points for producing Nirvana’s In Utero, which would have been standard industry practice, passing up a fortune on principle. At his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, he took pride in wearing work overalls. But he never learned his manners. A typical Albini joke onstage: “What’s orange and looks good on a hippie? Fire.”

He got his start as a fanzine brat, making enemies all over Chicago with his rants in the zine Matter. Nobody was funnier or nastier at trashing bands they hated, and Albini hated nearly all of them, especially if his friends were in them. But he had a guitar sound to match in the pavement-saw buzz of Big Black, in noise omelettes like Atomizer and Songs About Fucking. “This is the brutal guitar machine thousands of lonely adolescent cowards have heard in their heads,” the critic Robert Christgau wrote in The Village Voice. (That sounded 100 percent accurate to me at the time, as a member of that tribe.) Their best-loved song was “Kerosene,” an ode to teen pyromania with the hook, “Set me on fiiiire!

With his sociopathic stare and dork glasses, Albini became a cult hero around the same time as subway gunman Bernard Goetz, and not for totally dissimilar reasons. He made Big Black’s debut EP, Lungs, alone in his room with his four-track, admitting, “I wanted a real live band, but I couldn’t find anybody who didn’t blow out a pig’s asshole.” When they followed Atomizer with their Headache EP — packaged in gruesome photos of a dead man with his head split open — they added a sticker warning, “Not as good as Atomizer, so don’t get your hopes up, cheese.” He ended Big Black at the peak of their notoriety, explaining, “Hey, breaking up is an idea that’s occurred to far too few bands. Sometimes the wrong ones.”

There was a lot to hate about this guy. He enjoyed talking about serial killers, slaughterhouses, child sex predators, any variety of bloodshed or torture. He relished racist, misogynist shock-horror humor, making the usual corny excuses about mainstream hypocrisy. But over the years, to his credit, he took himself to task in public. “I’m overdue for a conversation about my role in inspiring ‘edgelord’ shit,” he wrote in a viral 2021 social-media thread. “A lot of things I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful and I regret them.”

But he didn’t evolve in a “that was a different era” way, or an “I was another person then” way. He came to despise his earlier excuses as a fog machine he needed to turn off. “The one thing I don’t want to do is say: ‘The culture shifted – excuse my behavior,’” he told the Guardian last year. “It provides a context for why I was wrong at the time, but I was wrong at the time.”

Albini was a lifelong enemy of the major labels, even in the Nineties grunge gold rush. He laid it all out in his most famous broadside, “The Problem With Music,” published in The Baffler in 1993. Anyone can find it now online, but at the time, it was something people Xeroxed, paper-clipped, and sent via snail mail to their friends, who then Xeroxed it for their friends. He broke down the math of a major-label contract, and why it was a sucker bet where the house always wins. In his cautionary tale, the band signs a sweet-looking deal, with expenses from “Recording Budget: $150,000” to “New fancy potato-shaped bass guitar: $1,000.” After they sell a quarter-million albums, “the band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month.” Yet for all their sales, they’re still massively in debt to the label, trapped in this contract. He concludes with the ominous and oft-quoted words, “Some of your friends are already this fucked.”

He was an in-demand producer, although he despised the whole idea of producers. As he wrote in 1990, “When I am hired to record a band, I make it plain to my clients that I do not wish to be associated with their charming little records.” Instead, he claimed to want anonymity. “When I was employed as a photo retoucher, I was often involved in the alteration of reality for the noble purpose of increasing cigarette sales. Not once did I expect or desire to see ‘produced by Steve Albini’ on a Marlboro ad, simply because it was this, and not some poor other sap, who toned down the excessive lipgloss on Darryl’s pout or removed the unfortunate sarcoma from his forehead. I apply the same logic to my current occupation.”

But his production career exploded with the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa. He gave them a raw room-tone live crunch, especially the heavy drums and slashing guitars. Despite his overall hostility to singers, he had a soft spot for Kim Deal’s flat Midwestern tone, and they became lifelong friends. (It was definitely a trip to hear Kim Deal last month in a sold-out Madison Square Garden, as The Breeders opened for Olivia Rodrigo, bashing out the utterly unknown Albini-produced deep cut “When I Was a Painter” for an arena full of curious girls. Now that’s the pop-punk process at its best and weirdest.)

Nirvana went to Albini for a taste of his sonic kerosene on In Utero — a highlight of both their careers. He also produced PJ Harvey’s 1993 classic Rid of Me. As he reported, in his later phase as a foodie, “Polly Harvey ate nothing but potatoes, with occasional sauces, during the entire recording of her Rid of Me album.” A divisive production — fans accused him of muffling her voice — yet it was exactly what she wanted. “Polly’s playing is incredible, but the sound is amazing,” drummer Robert Ellis said. “Jimmy Page would be jealous.” Maybe Page was, since he and Robert Plant hired Albini a few years later for their best post-Zep collabo, Walking Into Clarksdale.

Albini loathed pop music, yet so many of us who loved pop also loved Albini as a crucial part of it, because his unfakeable enthusiasm was the essence of true pop fandom — you love what you love, you hate what you hate, no waffling or soft-soaping allowed. He was a true believer, Casey Kasem’s evil twin. He adored the Swans the way I adored Miami Sound Machine. What he opposed was the idea of hearing music without taking it personally — without looking for that jolt whipping through you. In a 1987 Village Voice screed, he jeered, “Shitheads write about whatever is presented to them, non-judgmentally treating all styles of music as equals, distinguished from each other only by superficial stylistic elements.” That he couldn’t abide. That’s why pop heads could relate to Albini — his whole point was, whatever it is you love, go ahead and be an irresponsible asshole fanatic about it.

An Eighties critic cleverly compared Big Black to the “multiplatinum pap smear” Whitney Houston: “The Greatest Love of All vs. The Greatest Hate of All: equally contrived, equally vacuous, equally false.” A clever putdown, yet I read it and thought “this must be why I love both of them.” Albini, like Whitney, really just cared about letting it rip; they enjoyed overstatement for its own sake. They were both in it for that jolt. “Set me on fiiiiire!” was just a noisier way to say “I wanna feel the heeeeeat with somebody!”

That’s also why pop aesthetes often made great records with Albini, from the band Bush (“Swallowed” is a goddamn Nineties classic) to Jarvis Cocker, the Britpop god of Pulp. “When I recorded the Further Complications album with Steve Albini in Chicago,” Cocker told me in 2020, “he asked my favorite kind of music. I said pop music. He was like, what the hell? Obviously I realized it was the wrong thing to say, because to Steve Albini, pop music is the exploitative capitalist system which will suck all the truth out of artistic expression. And I get his point — it’s an industry, it’s a business — but … to me, that was where music really happened.”

Even as the stakes got high and the weird turned pro, Albini didn’t change his tune. One mega-obscure band he couldn’t shut up about was the Didjits, Chicago jokers nobody else seemed to care as much about. In 1994, they got one of their songs covered by The Offspring, on the mega-platinum hit Smash — a surprise windfall. According to Albini, the band tried to pay him a “tip” for his loud support over the years. “Of course I didn’t accept,” he noted, but couldn’t resist pointing out that if the Didjits had been dumb enough to sign a publishing deal, they never would have gotten a cent of the money.

He thrived in media that was instant, temporary, good for a hit-and-run quickie polemic. He became brilliant at the internet, the same way he was once brilliant at zines. In the Nineties, he dropped science on the indie-rock insider listserv Chugchanga, insulting artists (“Suzanne Vega + the word ‘fuck’ = Liz Phair”) and making fun of Steely Dan. In the 2020s he took to Twitter, insulting Republicans (“You are my enemy and can get fucked”) and making fun of Steely Dan. “History can judge Trump, sure,” he wrote. “But first we get to play football with his head.” It was bracing to see the guy who wrote “Il Duce” add, “He wants to be Mussolini, he gets to be Mussolini.”

Social media was a good place for him to evolve in public and face up to the asshole he used to be. He had a lot to answer for. After Big Black, he called his next band Rapeman (I’m told they had a great guitar sound — never could bring myself to listen.) “I can’t defend any of it,” he told the Guardian in 2023. “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.”

It’s complex because he wrote so many powerful songs about misogyny, sung in the voices of misogynist male characters. Shellac’s best-known song is “Prayer to God,” where he asks the Lord to kill his ex (painlessly) and her new man (painfully). “Make him cry like a woman/No particular woman,” Albini prays, repeating the words “fucking kill him” dozens of times. (One of my wife’s favorite karaoke songs.)

“I try to be an ally in feminism,” he said last year in a essential interview with Evelyn Morris for the online zine Listen.

This song “examines the different facets of impotent male rage,” he says. “It’s repellent or comic depending on your mood, and uncomfortably familiar to most men. That discomfort is maybe the reason to do it.” As he saw it, he was exposing the kind of misogyny he despised, because he knew it from the inside. “As for men, boys and other dudes, I feel like I can voice many of those perspectives without invention, and while I’m not about to speak for women, men are fair game, including the way they deal with women.”

On Big Black’s final record, in the liner notes, Albini warned, “Slowly, without trying, everyone becomes what he despises most.” But surprisingly, to many, this did not happen to him. He aged gracefully, obsessed with billiards, baseball, and fine dining. He became a champion at the World Series of Poker. With his wife, Heather Whinna, he became a formidable philanthropist on behalf of Chicago’s unhoused and impoverished.

Shellac made a longtime habit of playing All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals, where he would set up a poker room to make dough in his downtime. Between sets, fans could enjoy the honor of sitting down at the table to lose their shirts to the guy who produced “Milk It.” But no lurkers allowed. If you casually popped into the room, to eavesdrop or merely loiter, maybe pretend you were making up your mind, he had a business-like way of transfixing you with his eyes and asking “Are you in?” in a tone that made it clear “nope, just watching you make other people look like fools” was not going to cut it. That was always his approach to music as well. He always knew how to clear a room. Requiescat, Steve Albini. You and your noise will be missed.

From Rolling Stone US