A Tribute To An Authentic Visionary

In a testimonial published in Brooklyn Vegan following his death, former Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore paid heartfelt tribute to Steve Albini, describing the late musician and record producer as “an authentic visionary, a person alive with the delight of creative impulse.”

Such fulsome praise is entirely worthy, for Albini – who tragically passed following a heart attack at his home in Chicago on May 7, 2024, aged just 61 – really was a singular figure in his field of expertise. Well known for his caustic wit, Albini was equally renowned for his no-nonsense approach in the studio. Expressing a lifelong dislike of the term “producer,” he preferred to be credited as “recording engineer” on all his projects and he always aimed to capture sound in its purest and most unalloyed form.

As a result, Albini-helmed sessions were legendarily quick and affordable affairs, with albums often completed in just a matter of days. He would record instruments on room microphones to capture the natural reverberations of the given space, while the use of analog equipment and one-take recordings were his preferred modus operandi. Unlike most engineers and/or record producers with comparable mainstream experience, Albini also famously charged a flat fee for his services, refusing royalties and production points on many of his projects. He remained so hands-on in approach that he answered the phone and dealt directly with all the bands he worked with at his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago.

Crucially, Albini experienced the music industry from both sides of the studio glass. Before making his name as arguably the great alt-rock producer/engineer of our times, he was the guitar and vocal frontman with two influential post-punk/proto-industrial bands, while his on-going parallel career fronting self-styled “minimalist rock trio” Shellac lasted for 30 years and yielded acclaimed titles such as 1994’s At Action Park and 2000’s 1000 Hurts. Ultimately, though, this “authentic visionary” will be remembered as one of modern music’s most iconoclastic studio technicians, with a catalog including a “couple thousand” albums. Here are just five that highlight why Steve Albini was so beloved in the studio.

PJ Harvey: Rid of Me (1993)

Steve Albini’s reputation as underground rock’s go-to engineer mushroomed after he helmed landmark late 80s/early 90s releases including Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and The Breeders’ Pod – which is why PJ Harvey approached him to oversee her second album, Rid Of Me as she believed Albini was “getting sounds unlike other sounds that I’d heard on vinyl.”

Following on from her acclaimed debut Dry, Rid Of Me was Harvey’s major label debut for Island, though the bigger budget was largely irrelevant to Albini, who boxed the album off in two weeks, with Harvey and her band – drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan – capturing the songs in the minimum number of takes. Albini’s stripped-back approach proved perfect for Rid Of Me, which still went Top 3 in the U.K. despite containing some of Harvey’s most wiry and visceral songs such as “Man-Size,” “50 Ft Queenie,” “Rub ‘Til It Bleeds,” and “Me-Jane.”

“I really wanted that very bare, very real sound,” Harvey said of Albini’s approach in an interview with Spin. “I knew that it would suit the songs. It’s like touching real objects or feeling the grain of wood.”

Listen to Rid Of Me here.

Nirvana: In Utero (1993)

Albini’s work with the Pixies and The Breeders also brought him to the attention of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, though his band’s status as arguably the world’s biggest rock band at this point cut little ice with Albini. Indeed, according to Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad, Albini felt they were “the same sort of people as all the small-fry bands I deal with, at the mercy of their record company.”

For this reason, Albini accepted Nirvana’s invitation but – as with Rid Of Me – major label budgets and big recording complexes never entered the equation. Instead, Nirvana and Albini retreated to rural Minnesota’s Pachyderm Studios to cut In Utero in under two weeks, with a number of the finished cuts comprising first takes. This ensured the album had an edgy, slightly ragged, but always compelling feel which perfectly suited volatile and sometimes desperate Cobain songs such as “Milk It,” “Scentless Apprentice,” and the mordantly sarcastic “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.” Albini’s raw engineering initially polarized opinion (Geffen even brought in R.E.M. producer Scott Litt to remix several tracks), but In Utero still sold 15 million copies worldwide and it’s impossible to imagine it sounding any other way today.

Listen to In Utero here.

Veruca Salt: Blow It Out Your Ass, It’s Veruca Salt (1996)

Named after the spoilt rich girl from Roald Dahl’s legendary 1964 children’s book, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, spiky, yet melodic alt-rock quartet Veruca Salt formed in Chicago in 1992, with their music showcasing the songwriting talents of co-founding guitar and vocal duo, Nina Gordon and Louise Post.

The band made waves with 1994’s American Thighs (featuring the MTV hit “Seether”) after which they bridged the gap to 1997’s Eight Arms To Hold You with the memorably-titled, Albini-helmed EP Blow It Out Your Ass, It’s Veruca Salt, featuring four spirited alt-rock workouts including Post’s “I’m Taking Europe With Me” and Gordon’s “Shimmer Like A Girl.” Bob Rock replaced Albini in the producer’s chair for Eight Arms To Hold You, but the band’s liaison with Albini nonetheless proved memorable.

“Those of us who were lucky enough to call [Steve] a friend knew that he was incredibly sweet, sensitive and generous,” the band wrote in a tribute to Albini in The Line Of Best Fit following his death. “He was funny, smart as hell, an excellent cook and a fiercely loyal defender of the people he loved.”

Bush: Razorblade Suitcase (1996)

Bush’s 1994 debut album Sixteen Stone was a huge success in North America, but the U.K. quartet initially lacked the credibility of the likes of established alt-rock acts such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. Keen to put that right, Gavin Rossdale and company hired Albini to oversee Sixteen Tons’ follow-up Razorblade Suitcase which came together during sessions at London’s Abbey Road Studios.

In a manner similar to Nirvana’s In Utero, Razorblade Suitcase was considerably more visceral than its predecessor, yet its less polished feel suited Rossdale’s angst-ridden songs and it became a huge success in the States, topping the charts on the back of its ferocious lead single “Swallowed.”

Razorblade Suitcase also succeeded in winning Bush some goodwill from the press, several of whom referred to the album as the last major “grunge” album of the 1990s. Albini further surprised the critics by roundly endorsing the band’s music and telling Spin that “I’ve put more time and energy on this record than any record I’ve done and you can’t work on something for that long if it doesn’t have resonance for you.”

Jimmy Page & Robert Plant: Walking Into Clarksdale (1998)

Without knowing the back story, you might reasonably assume that Albini was overwhelmed by an invitation to work with former Led Zeppelin legends Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on their much-lauded reunion album Walking Into Clarksdale. However, as Albini later revealed, their collaboration didn’t come about because he was a starry-eyed Led Zeppelin fan. Indeed, it was his no-nonsense approach which won Albini the gig.

“I could flatter myself and think they wanted to record with a hip producer,” Albini told Classic Rock. “But I don’t think of myself as being particularly hip. Their recording method is very matter of fact, very old school and there are very few people making records that way anymore. And the fact that’s also my preferred way of working I think appealed to them. They weren’t trying to make a contemporary record at all.”

Nonetheless, Albini’s sparse production added a contemporary edge to Walking Into Clarksdale regardless. Songs such as the gnarly, jagged “Sons Of Freedom,” the angry “Burning Up” and the Nirvana-esque quiet-loud dynamics of “Blue Train” sounded bang on trend in the late 90s and the record’s edgy, in-the-moment feel reflected Plant’s wishes that Walking Into Clarksdale sound modern enough that it would allow him and Page to “be measured by what happened two hours ago than what happened 25 years ago.”

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