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Steve Albini, Noise Rock Pioneer and ‘In Utero’ Engineer, Dead at 61

In addition to his own work with Big Black and Shellac, Albini also brought his abrasive sound to alt-rock classics like Pixies’ Surfer ‘Rosa’ and PJ Harvey’s ‘Rid of Me’

Steve Albini

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Steve Albini, the noise-rock pioneer with Big Black and Shellac who also helped engineer some of the greatest alternative rock albums of all time — Nirvana’s In Utero and PixiesSurfer Rosa among them — has died at the age of 61.

Staff at Albini’s Electrical Audio recording studio confirmed to Rolling Stone that he died Tuesday night, with The New York Times adding that the cause of death was a heart attack. Albini’s death comes just a week after his acclaimed noise-rock project Shellac was set to release To All Trains, their first new album in over a decade.

The California-born, Montana-raised Albini played in Missoula punk bands as a teenager before moving to Chicago in the late Seventies to attend Northwestern University, where he majored in journalism and wrote for local music zines. On the side, Albini formed his own solo music project that he dubbed Big Black, releasing the EP Lungs in 1981.

After filling out Big Black with guitarist Santiago Durango and bassist Jeff Pezzati — both of the beloved Chicago punk act Naked Raygun — with a Roland TR-606 as the drummer, the band released a series of EPs that showcased Big Black’s trademark sound: Suffocating, abrasive guitars, played slower than punk rock but no less intense.

In 1986, Big Black, now with Dave Riley on bass, released their debut album, Atomizer, followed a year later by their second and most enduring LP, the post-hardcore classic Songs About Fucking, released on the Chicago indie label Touch & Go.

“All the people that work in music, even in the independent music business, give you the impression that they are iconoclasts and that they are unconcerned with commercial considerations,” Albini told Rolling Stone of the album title in a 2017 interview celebrating its 30th anniversary:

“They want you to think that they are in it for art and art alone. Then when you present them with something that is unmarketable or that might not reach all of the chain stores — when you present them with something that is a manifestation of their pretense — they blanch. So we were gonna put everybody on the rack. ‘Oh, your record label is about the unfettered free expression of the artist? OK, we will give you an obscene album title and horrible music, and let’s see if you live up to your word.’”

Albini added, “The term ‘rock & roll music’ originally meant dirty songs about fucking,” he says. “It was rhythmic songs that were euphemistically or explicitly about fucking. Songs about fucking — that’s what rock & roll meant.”

After the two highly influential albums, Big Black broke up in 1987, with Albini briefly forming the noise-rock outfit Rapeman — which released one LP in 1988 and split soon after — before focusing his efforts on the recording studio and bringing his noisy production approach to other artists’ music.

After honing his craft in the studio with Chicago-area acts like Urge Overkill, Albini was enlisted to produce (though Albini himself preferred the word “engineer”) an album by a relatively unknown Boston band called Pixies. Released in 1988, Surfer Rosa was an instant cult hit and helped launch the alternative-rock revolution that would take over the mainstream in the early Nineties.

“The brainy Boston quartet went up against punk producer Steve Albini for one of the era’s most influential rock sounds: all razor-blade guitars and drum thud,” Rolling Stone wrote in naming Surfer Rosa one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. “It became the sound of the Nineties, as everyone from Nirvana to PJ Harvey went to Albini, hoping to get the raw power of Surfer Rosa.”

In the early Nineties, Albini continued to produce and engineer albums at a prolific pace, recording with bands like the Jesus Lizard, Tad, Failure, Superchunk, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. In 1993, Albini was recruited to work on a pair of high-profile, major-label LPs: PJ Harvey’s sophomore album, Rid of Me, and Nirvana’s much-anticipated follow-up to Nevermind, In Utero.

“When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band,” Cobain, a fan of Surfer Rosa, told Rolling Stone. “After Nevermind, we could do whatever we wanted,” recalled Krist Novoselic. “Kurt wanted to make a Pixies record.”

“I think the very best thing you could do at this point is exactly what you are talking about doing: Bang a record out in a couple of days, with high quality but minimal ‘production’ and no interference from the front office bulletheads. If that is indeed what you want to do, I would love to be involved,” Albini wrote in his infamous four-page letter to Nirvana prior to recording.

“I’m only interested in working on records that legitimately reflect the band’s own perception of their music and existence. If you will commit yourselves to that as a tenet of the recording methodology, then I will bust my ass for you. I’ll work circles around you. I’ll rap your head with a ratchet …”

For his role on In Utero, Albini insisted on a $100,000 flat fee with no stake in future royalties. “I think paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible. I would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it’s worth,” he wrote. “There’s no way I would ever take that much money. I wouldn’t be able to sleep.”

Despite Albini’s notoriously acerbic and opinionated personality, Kurt Cobain said of recording with him in a 1993 Details interview, “For the most part, he was surprisingly pleasant to work with.” However, after recording In Utero over two weeks, Nirvana’s label DGC was apparently taken aback by how un-commercial the follow-up to the multiplatinum Nevermind was, and after initially refusing to release the LP, the label finally acquiesced after a pair of radio-friendlier tracks (“Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”) were remixed by Scott Litt, which drove a wedge between Nirvana, Albini, and the finished product. “It was totally devastating to me from a business standpoint,” Albini told Gillian G. Gaar of the remixes. “Because it was officially regarded as inappropriate for bands to record with me on a mainstream level.”

Despite its troubled journey, In Utero would soon be regarded as an alt-rock masterpiece and one of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Amid work on In Utero, Albini resumed his own musical career by founding the noise-rock trio Shellac alongside drummer Todd Trainer and bassist (and fellow engineer extraordinaire, including as Albini’s assistant on In Utero) Bob Weston. Over the next 30 years, the trio would release six albums together, from 1994’s math-rock classic At Action Park to 2024’s To All Trains, due out on May 17.

Following the difficult birth of In Utero, Albini continued to produce and engineer albums at a blistering pace, albeit with more out-of-the-mainstream artists; one of the exceptions was when Albini produced Bush’s Nirvana-indebted 1996 LP, Razorblade Suitcase. By Albini’s own count, he estimated that he worked on more than 2,000 albums.

“Every day, I get up and make a record, go to bed, get up the next day and make a record,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014. “It’s normal for me. I don’t know if there’s another way to do it that would have been easier on me, but I made it through. I’m fine.”

“If you pace yourself, you don’t really have to worry about that. I tend not to work at excruciating volume, so my ears are not physically fatigued. My attention span could still be fatigued, but there are tricks to preserve that,” Albini told Rolling Stone of his methods.

Among the many highlights from his production career are Low’s Things We Lost in the Fire, the Breeders’ Title TK, Joanna Newsom’s Ys, Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory, Sunn O)))’s Life Metal, and dozens more.

“I spend a lot of my time in the studio reading and listening to the music semi-casually rather than listening intently and focusing all my attention on every minute detail. You have to focus your attention on the minute details now and again, but if you spend every second of the session gritting your teeth and staring at the speakers and concentrating intently on every single thing that happens, then you eventually burn out your attention span, and then you can’t do any work whatsoever.”

Outside the recording studio, Albini was also a successful semiprofessional poker player, even winning a pair of prestigious World Series of Poker bracelets. “Everything in my life comes in pieces, in parts. Poker is one part of my life,” Albini told WSOP after his win in 2022.

“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.”

Code Orange’s 2023 LP, The Above, recorded as Albini’s Electrical Audio studio, was among the last albums worked on by the pioneering engineer. “Our time with Steve was one of our favorite recording experiences ever,” Code Orange’s Jami Morgan said in a statement to Rolling Stone.

“He was a sweet man, who spent as much time making us ‘fluffy coffees’ individually 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.’ That was the Steve we got to know while recording The Above. So grateful and blessed to have experienced that time with a true legend and pioneer.”

Albini himself said of his “methodology and philosophy” in the In Utero letter, “I consider the band the most important thing, as the creative entity that spawned both the band’s personality and style and as the social entity that exists 24 hours out of each day. I do not consider it my place to tell you what to do or how to play. I’m quite willing to let my opinions be heard (if I think the band is making beautiful progress or a heaving mistake, I consider it part of my job to tell them), but if the band decides to pursue something, I’ll see that it gets done. I like to leave room for accidents or chaos. Making a seamless record, where every note and syllable is in place and every bass drum is identical, is no trick. Any idiot with the patience and the budget to allow such foolishness can do it. I prefer to work on records that aspire to greater things, like originality, personality, and enthusiasm.”

In a now-revered op-ed he wrote titled “The Problem With Music,” published shortly after the arrival of In Utero, Albini took a scathing look at the music industry, as well as the role of “producer” and why he warned artists against signing with major labels.

“Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end, holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed,” Albini wrote. “Nobody can see what’s printed on the contract. It’s too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody’s eyes water.”

He added an additional warning about “producers who aren’t also engineers, and as such, don’t have the slightest fucking idea what they’re doing in a studio, besides talking all the time…. That’s why few self-respecting engineers will allow themselves to be called ‘producers.’”

From Rolling Stone US