Albini, Steve (Contemporary Musicians)
Producer, guitarist, songwriter
Spawning controversy as well as adulation throughout his career as both a record producer and guitarist, Steve Albini has made a major impact on alternative and punk rock and rock and roll. In his recording efforts, he has striven to create a sound that comes as close as possible to that of a live performance. "All I want to do is, I want to make records that sound realistic and that kick my ass," he declared in Chicago magazine. "Everything else is secondary to that."
Albini does not like to be referred to as a producer on the albums to which he contributes; instead, according to Chicago, he prefers the designation of "recording engineer." Unlike most big-name producers, he accepts no royalties on records he produces, believing that the producer should have only a technical role in the studio and should totally acquiesce to the artist's goals. "You have to respect the fact that the band does what it does for a reason," Albini commented in Billboard, "and those reasons can be intensely personal." As Mark Jannot wrote in Chicago, "[Albini's] function, as he sees it, is to be a clear window, transferring the band's sound intact to vinyl or disc."
Experimentation with different sounds is typical when Albini is in the recording studio, and he continually tries to take the guitar to new limits of noise and distortion. "I get as much satisfaction out of making the instrument squeak or sound like rattling chains as I imagine some players get from bona fide soloing," he pointed out in Guitar Player. Chuck Crisafulli added in the same article, "[Albini's] sound may be brutal, but it's undeniably straightforward and undoctored."
Observers have noted Albini's obsessive attention to detail, which includes microphone placement and sound level adjustments. When recording away from home, he brings up to 30 microphones with him in order to achieve the effects he wants. He prefers using vintage microphones, claiming that they provide a better quality of sound. Chicago's Jannot wrote, "The hallmarks of the Albini sound are a well-balanced interrelation among all the instruments, vocals that assume equal footing with the music instead of floating above the mix, an extraordinarily wide stereo stage (your right ear hears something different from your left), and a pristine, echoey drum."
A self-proclaimed rock philosopher, Albini has also made numerous contributions to rock magazines. His articles often attack bands that he claims have "sold out" to achieve mainstream success. According to Jannot, "For a decade, [Albini] has spewed streams of bile into the pages of various rock-music fanzinesnd into the faces of any less pure wannabes stupid enough to ask him for his honest opinion."
Growing up in Montana, Albini encountered an unusual array of guests in his childhood home. His mother, Giana Albini, had a charitable bent, and on Christmas and Easter would serve dinner to parollees who worked in forest-clearing crews. When Albini was 16, his mother started inviting Vietnamese and Laotian foster children to live with the family. Albini's father, Frank, was a well-known scientist and an authority on the mathematical modeling of forest fires.
"A borderline emotional basket case" as a teen, as Albini described himself to Jannot, he became withdrawn during his high school years and developed an intense interest in music. He recalled in Musician, "I spent my formative years obsessed with punk rock, and the bands that I've been in have all been punk influenced." While a student at Northwestern University in Illinois, he formed two bands garage band called Small Irregular Pieces of Aluminum and a locally popular new wave group known as Stations. The other members of Stations dismissed Albini from the band when he attempted to steer the music in a more punk direction.
In 1981 Albini formed Big Black, a group that helped cement his reputation in the punk world. He played all the instruments himself when he recorded the group's first album, Lungs, on a four-track tape deck in 1982.
Having found it difficult to locate other musicians who shared his musical taste, he hoped that the album would help him in his "recruiting." Albini explained in Chicago, "I thought, well, if I put out this record, that will give people the idea of what kind of music I want to make and then I'll be able to find people who want to be in a band with me. It worked." Soon Jeff Pezzati, who had sung with Naked Raygun, joined the group as bass player, followed by Santiago Durango on guitar. Dave Riley of Savage Beliefs later replaced Pezzati.
Big Black made a splash with its 1986 Atomizer album, which showcased Albini's willingness to let the guitar "attack" the listener. Fans of rock noise jumped on the bandwagon. "Albini perfected a pulverizing, unrelenting guitar sound, closer to industrial than to punk, a radical approach perhaps best captured on Big Black's... Atomizer," according to The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. Billboard was prompted to refer to Big Black as "a key influence on today's 'industrial' sound." Atomizer succeeded in making Big Black one of the top alternative rock bands in the United States. It also included Albini's antisocial lyrics, which often focused on perverse topics. The song "Kerosene," for example, touts pyromania as a viable way to escape boredom in the type of small town in which Albini grew up.
After recording one more album in 1987, Albini became bored with Big Black and disbanded it. He then formed Rapeman, a band featuring David Wm. Sims on bass and Rey Washam on drums. Albini took a lot of criticism for the group's name, which he took from a character in Japanese comics. Perhaps as a result of the controversy surrounding its moniker, the group broke up soon after its formation, during a tour of Europe.
Found Success as a Producer Underground
As a producer, Albini has recorded nearly 1,000 albums for various underground rock bands in the 1980s and 1990s. His most significant affiliation has been with Chicago's Touch and Go Records, for which he has recorded all of the Jesus Lizard LPs. He has also produced albums for the Pixies, the Breeders, Tad, Helmet, the Didjits, Mule, and Superchunk. Explaining Albini's allegiance to independent (indie) label acts, Chicago's Jannot wrote, "In Albini's world, nothing marks you as a sellout more starkly than your signature on a major-label contract."
Albini himself was accused of selling out when, in 1993, he agreed to work as producer for rock band Nirvana's follow-up album to their hugely successful Geffen Records debut, Nevermind. The group enlisted Albini partly to regain some of their status as an alternative band. After In Utero was recorded, neither Geffen nor the members of Nirvana were satisfied with the results. Nirvana felt that the vocals and bass were too soft, and they hired Scott Litt, fellow rock troupe R.E.M.'s producer, to remix some of the songs for radio play. Litt ended up also changing the tonal balance during mastering. Albini rejected the criticism from the group, claiming that Nirvana was obsessed about the record not being "perfect."
In 1993 Crain's Chicago Business included Albini in its "40 Under Forty" profile of the top young entrepreneurs on the rise in Chicago. His experience with Nirvana, however, proved damaging to his career, making him an anathema to major record labels and an abhorred "mainstreamer" to formerly loyal, low-profile punk bands. At the time, Albini was hoping to set up a new recording studio in Chicago that could produce records on a low budget, but he had trouble getting necessary financing due to the bad publicity of his experience with Nirvana.
Avoided "Satan-Worshipping Freak" Image
In the early 1990s Albini formed the band Shellac with bassist Todd Trainer and drummer Bob Weston; Albini took the roles of guitarist and vocalist. From the start he stressed that the group was not interested in having any bizarre image, but only in playing solid rock and roll. "In Shellac, we're not trying to be nine-armed, long-haired, Satan-worshipping 3-D freaks," he proclaimed in Guitar Player. "We're normal people who happen to play rock music, and our normalcy makes us distinctive."
Rolling Stone called Shellac "Steve Albini's latest power trio from hell" and added that they "make a superb, corrosive Wire-ish thunder on the twin EPs The Rude Gesture (A Pictorial History) and Uranus." Marc Weidenbaum observed in Pulse! that At Action Park, Shellac's first full-length album, "rekindles the terse rage and skittish fervor of Albini's early bands, Big Black and Rapeman," and that it is "taut with rigor, rage and compression."
According to Albini, At Action Park represents rock stripped down to its bare essentials. "My preference is for a very straightforward, very unembellished recording," he revealed in Pulse! "The Shellac record is that: It's just a three-piece rock band recorded live and presented without much flash. That's the way I like to hear music, so it only makes sense that my band would be presented that way."
In the mid 1990s Albini was working at the Black Box studio near Angers, France, where he had recorded an album for the German band 18th Dye on Matador, as well as part of his Shellac album. His choice of studio reflects his ongoing concern with keeping production costs low. Albini also has a recording studio in his own home, which helps him maintain total control over the production environment.
Believes Producers Lack Know-How
A master of the technical aspects of producing, Albini claims that many producers lack the proper knowledge of studio techniques. "A lot of people making records don't have a grasp of the process," he opined, according to Billboard. "They do it thinking that it's some abstract art form that doesn't need to be comprehended on a technical procedural level. [In those cases] you'll end up with a record that isn't formally completed, but that's finished when the bell rings." Albini further lamented in Musician what he calls the industry's assembly line mentality: "The sound of contemporary rock records, especially those made with big budgets, is so homogeneous. You hear exactly the same mix balance, the same dynamic, the same production techniques brought to bear on every single band."
Albini has also pointed out that the quality of his own records has improved, largely because he has stifled former tendencies to "fiddle around" with the music. "In the last few years, I've learned to leave things alone," he remarked in Billboard. "Now when I set up a microphone and like the way it sounds, I consider the job done." As of early 1995, Albini was beginning to record new albums for the groups Palace Brothers and Silkworm; an LP he produced for the Fleshtones was scheduled to be released on Ichiban Records in the fall of 1995. He was also considering going on tour with Shellac.
With Big Black; also producer
Lungs (EP), Ruthless, 1983.
Racer X (EP), Homestead, 1984.
Atomizer, Homestead, 1986.
With Rapeman; also producer
Two Nuns on a Pack Mule, 1988.
With Shellac; also producer
At Action Park, Touch and Go, 1994.
The Rude Gesture (A Pictorial History) and Uranus (twin EPs) Touch and Go, 1994.
The Pixies, Surfer Rosa, 4AD/Rough Trade, 1988.
Jesus Lizard, Head, Touch and Go, 1990.
Nirvana, In Utero, Geffen, 1993.
PJ Harvey, Rid of Me, Island, 1993.
DeCurtis, Anthony, and James Henke, editors, The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, Random House, 1992.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, volumes 1 and 3, Guinness Publishing, 1992.
Billboard, January 7, 1995.
Chicago, May 1994.
Guitar Player, March 1994.
Melody Maker, November 21, 1992; September 4, 1993; March 19, 1995.
Musician, June 1995.
Newsweek, May 17, 1993.
Pulse!, April 1995.
Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994.