Steven "Steve" Albini (pronounced //; born July 22, 1962) is an American musician, record producer, audio engineer and music journalist. He was a member of Big Black, Rapeman and Flour, and is a member of Shellac. He is the founder, owner and principal engineer of Electrical Audio, a recording studio complex located in Chicago. In March 2004, Albini said that the number of albums he had worked on was "probably as many as 1500." He has had major influence on the development of genres such as noise rock, post-hardcore and math rock.
Albini was born in Pasadena, California, to Gina (née Martinelli) and Frank Addison Albini. His father is a wildlife researcher. He also has two siblings. In his youth, Albini's family moved often, before settling in the college town of Missoula, Montana in 1974. Albini is Italian American and part of his family comes 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. According to Thrill Jockey's Looking for a Thrill, Albini was exposed to punk rock by a schoolmate on a field trip when he was 14 or 15, and subsequently bought every Ramones recording available to him.
Growing up in Montana, he became a fan of bands such as The Stooges, the Ramones, Television, Suicide, Wire, The Fall, The Velvet Underground, Throbbing Gristle, Kraftwerk, The Birthday Party, Pere Ubu, Public Image Ltd, Rudimentary Peni, and Killing Joke.
After graduating from Hellgate High School, Albini moved to Evanston, Illinois, to attend college at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University (NU), where he attained a degree in Journalism. Albini said he studied painting in college with the late 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 such as Matter, covering the then-nascent punk rock scene, and gained a reputation for the iconoclastic nature of his articles. Around 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.
Prior to formation of his first prominent band Big Black, Albini played in bands, such as the Montana punk band "Just Ducky", a Chicago band called "Small Irregular Pieces of Aluminum," "Stations," and another band that record label Touch and Go/Quarterstick Records explained "he [Albini] is paying us not to mention." He also played for Flour circa 1988.
In 1981, Albini formed Big Black while he was a student at NU and recorded Lungs, the band's debut EP, on Ruthless Records (Chicago), a label he co-managed with Jon Babbin (Criminal IQ Records) and John Kezdy (The Effigies). Albini played all of the instruments on Lungs, except the saxophone parts, played by friend John Bohnen. The Bulldozer (1983) EP was then released on both Ruthless and Fever Records.
Jeff Pezzati and Santiago Durango, of Chicago band Naked Raygun, and live drummer Pat Byrne joined shortly thereafter, and the band—along with a drum machine credited as "Roland"—released the EP Racer-X in 1984 after touring and signing a new contract with the Homestead Records business. Pezzati commenced recording the "Il Duce" 7-inch single with the band, but returned to his original band before it was completed. Pezzati was replaced on bass by Dave Riley, with whom the group recorded its debut full-length album, Atomizer (1986). The "Il Duce" recording was eventually finished with Riley as bassist and the band also released The Hammer Party album while signed to Homestead, which was a compilation of the Lungs and Bulldozer EPs.
Big Black left the Homestead label for Touch and Go Records in late 1985/early 1986 and recorded the Headache EP and the 7-inch single, Heartbeat between June and August 1986—both were released the following year. Also in 1986, a live album, titled Sound of Impact, was released on the Not/Blast First label.
The accompanying booklet provides insight into the band's influences, as Albini cited bands such as Ramones, The Birthday Party, The Stooges, Minor Threat, Whitehouse, Pere Ubu, Throbbing Gristle, Skrewdriver, the Ex, Minimal Man, U.S. Chaos, Gang Green and Bad Brains.
In 1987 the band released their second studio album Songs About Fucking, as well as the He's a Whore / The Model 7-inch single, both on Touch and Go. Following a period of extensive touring in 1987 in support of Songs About Fucking, Big Black eventually disbanded shortly afterwards. Durango enrolled in law school and was successful in becoming a practicing lawyer.
Touch and Go released a Big Black live album and video, Pigpile, in 1992 that consisted mostly of recordings from their final tour in 1987. Pigpile was also released in Japan, Australia and Germany. Touch and Go states on its website in May 2014: "Someday, we might release the video on DVD. Until then, please don’t ask us about it."
Albini went on to form the controversially named Rapeman in 1987—the band consisted of Albini (vocals, guitar), Rey Washam (drums), and David Wm. Sims. The band was named after a popular Japanese comic book that garnered Albini and Washam's interests. 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), one EP titled Budd (1988) and the Two Nuns and a Pack Mule album, also released in 1988 on Touch and Go.
Albini formed Shellac in 1992. With bandmates 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 a Japan-exclusive live album in CD format titled ライヴイン東京—an English-language reference to the name Shellac cannot be found anywhere on the CD product, which was not available outside Japan. The live album was 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 explained in 2010 that Shellac had made a decision early in their existence that they would not play at festivals and this position was articulated to All Tomorrow's Parties (ATP) festival organizer Barry Hogan during the preparation stage of the inaugural ATP event. However, Scottish band Mogwai managed to convince Albini at the time that they were ATP curators and the band was very impressed by the experience: "They (ATP) 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."
As of 2008, Albini is most active as a record producer; however, he dislikes the term and prefers to receive no credit on album sleeves or notes. When credited, he prefers the term "recording engineer."
In 2004, Albini estimated that he has engineered the recording of 1,500 albums, mostly by obscure musicians. More prominent artists that Albini has worked with include: Foxy Shazam, Nirvana, Pixies, 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, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, 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 and Spare Snare.
Following the release of Schneider's album Just ... Fred, The Vinyl District's Joseph Neff wrote: "The reality is that 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."
Albini's openness toward working with any artist, regardless of their popularity, was reaffirmed in October 2014 when he said in an Uncut interview that he would produce another album with Page and Plant "in a heartbeat." Furthermore, Stereogum's Tom Breihan wrote in 2012: "And even though he’s [Albini] been an outspoken opponent of the major-label system (and of other underground-rock heroes), he’s known to work with just about anyone who requests his service".
In Albini's opinion, putting producers in charge of recording sessions often destroys records, while the role of the recording engineer is to solve problems in capturing the sound of the musicians, not to threaten the artists' control over their product.
Albini's recordings have been analyzed by writers such as Michael Azerrad, who is also a musician. In Azerrad's 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991, Azerrad describes Albini's work on the Pixies album Surfer Rosa: "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
On Nirvana's In Utero, one can find a typical example of Albini's recording practices. Common practice in popular music is to record each instrument on a separate track at different times, and then blend the different recordings together at a later time as part of a process that is known as multi-track recording. However, Albini prefers to record "live in the studio" as much as possible: the musicians perform together as a group in the same recording space. Albini also places particular importance on the selection and use of microphones in achieving a desired sound—including the painstaking placement of different microphones at certain points around a room to best capture ambience and other qualities.
A key influence on Albini was producer John Loder, who came to prominence in the late 1970s with a reputation for recording albums quickly and inexpensively, but nonetheless with distinctive qualities and a sensitivity towards a band's sound and aesthetic.
Albini has mentioned an admiration for Alan Lomax in particular before. As for peers who make great sounding records, Albini likes Bob Weston. Also Brian Paulson from North Carolina, but who came up in the Minneapolis punk-rock scene. And Matt Barnhart from Texas.
Albini's work on Nirvana's final studio album In Utero received a large amount of media attention and, in the prelude to the release of the 20th anniversary deluxe edition in September 2013, a press release stated that "Steve Albini's recording laid bare every primal nuance of the most confrontational yet vulnerable material Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl would ever record." Following the 1993 release of the original album, Rolling Stone writer David Fricke stated that the album "is a lot of things—brilliant, corrosive, enraged and thoughtful, most of them all at once. But more than anything, it's a triumph of the will."
Albini has been asked about the challenges that accompanied the recording and release of In Utero, but has clarified that the record label was responsible for the difficulties that marred the trajectory of the album.
Released on September 24, 2013, the deluxe reissue was mastered into copper discs, using a process called Direct Metal Mastering, and Albini explained that the method "gives you better immediate fidelity." He also referred to the conflict with the record label during the original recording process as "old injuries" and said that he found it "gratifying" that his amenable relationship with Novoselic and Grohl remains intact.
Albini bought Electrical Audio, his personal recording studio, in 1995. The impetus for the move to his own studio was the lack of privacy for Albini and his wife. His 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 where Albini was.
Albini does not receive royalties for anything he records or mixes 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.
Following 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 free-of-charge.
Albini's opinions on the music industry, as well as on trends in indie music, have received considerable exposure. His earliest writing was for zines such as Matter and Forced Exposure, and he later wrote a significant article on the conduct of major record labels for the art and criticism journal The Baffler in 1994.
In the 1994 article, Albini was severely critical of the manner in which major labels were treating musicians. He named young A&R scouts that he perceived with disdain at the time, claiming that they each had an "underground rock credibility flag" to wave: Lyle Preslar, former guitarist for Minor Threat; Terry Tolkin, former New York independent booking agent and assistant manager at Touch and Go; Al Smith, former soundman at the New York CBGB club; and Mike Gitter, former editor of XXX fanzine. He further explained that when he hears producers and engineers use "meaningless" words like "Punchy”, “Warm”, “Groove”, “Vibe”, “Feel”, he feels he needs to "throttle somebody."
At a 2004 Middle Tennessee State University presentation, Albini reaffirmed his perspective on major labels, explaining that he was opposed to any form of human exploitation. He was asked about file sharing in June 2014 and he clarified that, while he doesn't believe that the technological development is the "best thing" for the music industry, he does not identify with the music industry. He considers "the community, the band, the musician" as his peers, and is pleased that musicians can "get their music out to the world at no cost instantly".
In November 2014, Albini delivered the keynote speech at the Face the Music conference in Melbourne, Australia, where he discussed the evolution of the music scene and industry since he started making music in the late 1970s. He described the pre-internet corporate music 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 bands (except for "monumental stars") 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 allowed musicians to make a reasonable income due to the system's greater efficiency.
As part of the Face the Music speech, Albini noted that both the corporate and independent industry models had been damaged by internet file sharing; however, he praised the spread of free music as being a "fantastic development," which allowed previously ignored music and bands to find an audience (citing the protopunk band Death as one example); 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, thereby boosting bands' income.
While in Australia in November 2014, Albini spoke with national radio station Double J, which described him as a "bona fide music industry legend". In addition to asserting that music will always be made due to its role in human expression, Albini explained 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 he made comments about Amanda Palmer's Kickstarter campaign, stating: "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 critiqued Jay Z's subscription-only, lossless audio streaming service Tidal in an April 2015 interview with Vulture.com, arguing that streaming services would eventually be usurped by a more convenient technology, that "if you want your music to play at the push of a button, convenience is going to trump sound quality 100 percent of the time", and that audiophiles would prefer vinyl to streaming. He made the point that the internet has a history "of breaking limitations placed on its content" by making paid-for products freely available.
Albini is a supporter of analog recording over digital, as can be evidenced by a 1987 quote on the back cover of the CD version of Big Black's Songs About Fucking: "The future belongs to the analog loyalists. Fuck digital." A CD issue, consisting of the full-length album Atomizer and the EP Headache, was released under the title The Rich Man's Eight Track Tape, providing him with another outlet for his support of analog. In a September 2013 interview, he reaffirmed his preference for analog over digital, insisting that his choice is not because he is "some kind of a nutball," or because he wants to be "recalcitrant or reactionary." He also says he does not like and does not want to produce pop music, telling 2SER Sydney "pop music is for children and idiots."
Albini is an avid poker player and ranked in 12th-place at the 2013 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Seniors Championship. Albini also regularly engages in public-speaking appointments for the audio industry. In 2004 Albini was always responsible for dealing with bands directly at Electrical Audio and answered the phone in the studio.
Records became more and more produced, and more and more layers of more abstract sounds were added
Taken from Matter, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 1983. Possibly the first print Big Black received?
Originally published in Warp, 1994
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