Steve Albini

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Steve Albini
Steve Albini playing guitar, wearing a black t-shirt and ripped blue jeans
Steve Albini performing at ATP Music Festival in May 2007
Background information
Birth name Steven Frank Albini
Born (1962-07-22) July 22, 1962 (age 51)
Pasadena, California, United States
Origin Chicago, Illinois, United States
Genres Noise rock, post-hardcore, punk rock, alternative rock, math rock
Occupations Recording engineer, musician, producer, singer-songwriter, music journalist
Instruments Vocals, guitar, bass, drums
Years active 1982–present
Labels Touch and Go
Associated acts Big Black, Rapeman, Flour, Shellac, Nirvana
Notable instruments
Travis Bean TB500

Steve Albini (pronounced /ælˈbni/; born July 22, 1962) is an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, record producer, audio engineer, and music journalist. He was a member of Big Black, Rapeman, and Flour, and is currently a member of Shellac.[1] He is the founder, owner, and engineer of Electrical Audio, a recording studio complex located in Chicago.

Early life[edit]

Albini was born in Pasadena, California, the son of Gina Albini (née Martinelli) and Frank Addison Albini, a wildlife researcher.[2][3] Albini has a brother and sister.[4]

He is Italian American, with part of his family coming from the Piedmont region of Italy.[5]

In his youth, Albini's family moved often, before settling in Missoula, Montana in 1974. Albini said that growing up in Montana affected his taste. "Montana has a kind of an open attitude about experience. It's a big empty place so everybody is expected to...figure out how things work. It's not a particularly controlled environment. I think that anybody that's comfortable in Montana is comfortable with a certain degree of uncertainty about what's going to happen and about what's permissible." Albini said, because it is a college town there was a progressive mindset.[4]

While recovering from a broken leg, Albini began playing bass guitar. 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.[4][6]

He took bass lessons in high school for one week and started playing in bands. He played with drummer Joey Cregg, son of former Mayor Bill Cregg, in the punk band Just Ducky, which quickly disbanded. While 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, Fugazi and Killing Joke.[7]

Albini has "a slightly deformed right leg. I was in a car accident when I was 18, so my right leg was rebuilt. There's a big piece of steel in there, and my right foot sticks off to the side slightly. Occasionally, when the weather changes, it hurts like old people."[8]

After graduating from Hellgate High School,[4] Albini moved to Evanston, Illinois, to attend college at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he got a degree in Journalism.[9] Albini said he studied painting in college with the late Ed Paschke, someone he calls a brilliant educator, "one of the only people in college who actually taught me anything."[10]

In the Chicago area, Albini was active as a writer in local zines such as Matter (and later the Boston zine Forced Exposure), covering the then-nascent punk rock scene, gaining a reputation for iconoclasm and outspokenness that continues to this day. Around this time he began recording musicians. He engineered his first album in 1981.[11]

Albini said he had a "straight job" until 1987 working in a photography studio as a photograph retouch artist. He did that for about five years.[12]

Career[edit]

Musician[edit]

Big Black (1982–1987)[edit]

In 1982, Albini formed Big Black, and recorded the Lungs EP.[13] Jeff Pezzati and Santiago Durango of Chicago band Naked Raygun joined shortly thereafter, and the trio (along with a drum machine credited as "Roland") released two more EPs: Bulldozer (1983) and Racer-X (1984). Pezzati was later replaced on bass by Dave Riley, with whom the group recorded two sparse albums: Atomizer (1986) and Songs About Fucking (1987), as well as the Headache EP (1987), and two 7" releases: Heartbeat and He's a Whore / The Model. Influenced by PiL, The Birthday Party, Killing Joke, Wire and Gang of Four, they gained a reputation for confrontation, sarcasm and abrasiveness, breaking up in 1987 on the eve of the release of their second album.

Rapeman (1987–1988)[edit]

Albini went on to form the controversially named Rapeman in 1988, with former members of Scratch Acid, Rey Washam (later of Didjits), and David Wm. Sims (later of The Jesus Lizard). They broke up after the release of two 7"s (one on the Sub Pop Singles Club), one EP, Budd, and an album, Two Nuns and a Pack Mule (1988).

Shellac (1992–present)[edit]

Albini formed Shellac in 1992.[14] 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, Uranus and The Bird is the Most Popular Finger. Those were followed by four studio albums: At Action Park (1994), Terraform (1998), 1000 Hurts (2000) and Excellent Italian Greyhound (2007). All were released, as before, on vinyl, as well as CD.

Recording engineer[edit]

Steve Albini on right, with Ani DiFranco and RZA at The New Yorker festival in September 2005

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,[15] or to be credited as a recording engineer if the record company insists on any credit at all.

Influences[edit]

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.[16]

Albini has mentioned an admiration for Alan Lomax in particular before. "There was a guy who was really important to me when I first started making records—Iain Burgess. He was an English engineer who lived in Chicago. He eventually opened a studio in France called Black Box. It was really a terrific studio. He died a few years ago, but his bedside manner, for lack of a better word, was really fantastic."[12]

"There's another engineer, a guy that was a supremely good technical engineer and also sort of prided himself on being a sharp businessman—that was John Loder. He ran Southern Studios in London, which later became Southern the record label and SRD the distribution company. But when he was just an engineer, just making records, he made some astonishing, really great-­sounding punk-rock records for almost no money with almost no resources. Big Black made a record with him when he was deeply embroiled in the business part of making Southern into a big company. He had complete command of his equipment, but he never made the equipment the focus of the attention. I was just really impressed with how he was able to take the scrappiest, crudest sounds and assemble them in a way that made them not just listenable but really an exciting representation of what was happening."[12]

As for peers who make great sounding records, Albini likes Bob Weston. Also Brian Paulson, from North Carolina, but came up in the Minneapolis punk-rock scene. And Matt Barnhart from Texas.[12]

On Chicago: "The thing that’s unique to Chicago that people who don’t live here won’t understand is the amount of ball-breaking that is done among very close friends. I think that it’s built into the music scene here. In Chicago people display their affection for each other by the amount of abuse and ball-breaking that they do among their closest friends. When someone is really riding you about the way you look, or behave, or any sensitive personal thing in your life in Chicago that person can very likely be a close friend rather than an enemy carping at you from the outside. There’s a sort of enforced humility here, which means that nobody ever really gets bigger than their britches and if they do everybody else will let them know about it. It keeps the mood very light and low key and you don’t end up developing divas in Chicago. In Chicago you end up with a bunch of people who are working on something trying to make a difference and do something solid, but the focus is never on the personalities."[17]

Unlike any other engineer/record producer with his experience and prominence, Albini does not receive royalties for anything he records or mixes; rather he charges a flat daily fee when recording at his own facility, described by Michael Azerrad[7] as among the most affordable for a world-class recording studio. In fact, Albini initially charged only for his time, allowing free use of his studio to friends or musicians he respected who were willing to engineer their own recording sessions and purchase their own magnetic tape.[7] When recording elsewhere, Albini uses an admittedly arbitrary sliding scale:

I charge whatever the hell I feel like at the moment, based on the client's ability to pay, how nice the band members are, the size and directly proportional gullibility of the record company, and whether or not they got the rock.

—Steve Albini, The Penguin book of rock & roll writing[15]:410

Albini is prolific. He estimates that he has engineered the recording of 1,500 to 2,000 albums, mostly by rather obscure musicians. More prominent artists that Albini has worked with include Nirvana, Pixies, The Breeders, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Helmet, Chevelle,[18] Robert Plant, Fred Schneider, The Stooges, Mogwai, The Jesus Lizard, Owls, Don Caballero, PJ Harvey, Manic Street Preachers, Jarvis Cocker, The Cribs, The Fleshtones, The Wedding Present, Bush, Joanna Newsom, Nina Nastasia, The Frames, Jawbreaker, The Membranes, Superchunk, Low, Dirty Three, Cheap Trick, Motorpsycho, Slint, mclusky, Labradford, Veruca Salt, Zao, Neurosis, The Auteurs and Cloud Nothings.

Albini states his priorities: "the fact that I have long standing relationships with people I’ve worked with over the years is much more important to me than any particular record. I don’t work on records that are hits and I don’t work on records that win awards; I just try to do as good a job as I can and make sure the band for whom I’m making the record gets every penny of their money’s worth out of me."[17]

Methodology[edit]

Albini in 2008

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. In 2004, Albini summarized his opinions about record producers: "It always offended me when I was in the studio and the engineer or the assumed producer for the session would start bossing the band around. That always seemed like a horrible insult to me. The band was paying money for the privilege of being in a recording studio, and normally when you pay for something, you get to say how it's done. So, I made up my mind when I started engineering professionally that I wasn't going to behave like that."[11]

Nevertheless, albums recorded by Albini bear a distinctive sonic signature. In Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad describes Albini's work on Pixies' Surfer Rosa, but the description applies to many of Albini's efforts: "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."[7]:344 Another Albini trademark is his habit of generally keeping vocals "low in the mix," or much less prominent than is usual in rock music. This is said to have been a point of contention by the label during the recording of Nirvana's In Utero (Cameron, 2001).

On 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 (see multi-track recording for more information). However, Albini prefers to record "live in the studio" as much as possible: the musicians perform together as a group in the same room. Albini places particular importance on the selection and use of microphones in achieving a desired sound, including painstaking placement of different microphones at certain points around a room to best capture ambience and other qualities.

Studio[edit]

Albini bought his current studio, Electrical Audio, in 1995.[19][16]

The impetus for the move to the current studio was the lack of privacy for Albini and his wife. The former studio was in their house, a typical Chicago bungalow, which means "basically they'll have a front room with a swinging door that goes between the bathroom and kitchen. There will be a bedroom off the kitchen and two bedrooms off from there." Albini said that the "whole house had been taken over by the studio. The basement was the playing area, the attic was the control room, the front bedroom was the business office and the back bedroom was the repair shop and tape storage. So, in terms of privacy, we had the bedroom that we slept in. That was it. There were people there every day. There was literally no privacy."[19]

Albini said he "got a total steal on the building and I borrowed money to do construction. Then I borrowed a bunch more money to finish construction; at which point I sold my house. The deepest hole was very close to a million dollars. It sounds insane, but when you think about it people were spending that kind of money just on a house. Here, I've got this massive building with two studios and a bunch of employees."[19]

Before Electrical Audio, Albini had a studio in the basement of his house on Francisco. Musician Robbie Fulks recalls the hassle of "running up two flights of stairs all the time from the tracking room" to where Albini was.[12]

Punditry[edit]

I don't give two splats of an old negro junkie's vomit for your politico-philosophical treatises, kiddies. I like noise. 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.

Forced Exposure essay, 1986[20]

Albini is famous (or notorious) in the indie world as an opinionated pundit on the music industry and on trends in indie music, beginning with his earliest writing for zines such as Matter and Forced Exposure, to his commentary on the poor ethics of big record labels, and how their practices filter through to the independent labels.[11]

He has been a strong supporter of labels who have tried to break the mold, especially Touch and Go Records, with whom all of his bands have released recordings. On that relationship: "We’ve just been dealing with Corey [Rusk] and Touch and Go for so long it’s really integral to the way we’ve conceived of the band. Touch and Go started out as a small, entrepreneurial record label and it gradually became a really important fixture in the independent music scene doing manufacturing and production for a lot of other labels. Then when the physical distribution of records started to decline and it was obvious that that was not going to be a survivable business model Corey pulled the plug on the large part of Touch and Go, reserving the option to still be a small entrepreneurial record label the way the company started. We couldn’t be happier with that because that’s precisely what we’re looking for. We’re looking for a record label that doesn’t have 900 employees, that has two employees. A place where if you want to get a question answered you can call the guy who runs the whole show and he’ll answer it for you. That’s the kind of record label that we’re most comfortable working with anyway. Touch and Go is a fantastic, small record label, so we’re glad that we’re giving Corey and the label an opportunity to do the thing that they do best one more time."[17]

He 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 of the LP Atomizer and the EP Headache was released under the title The Rich Man's 8-Track Tape, further making his opinion of the format abundantly clear.

Albini has recently succumbed to technological pressure of modern recording as his Electrical Audio Studios has installed their first digital setup for recording, although Electrical Audio engineer Greg Norman has stated that Albini refuses to use or even talk about the digital setup at the studios.

That said, when asked about digital recording of the latest Shellac record, Albini has an archival concern for the master: "I don’t stick with analog recording because I’m some kind of a nutball..... I’m not doing it to be recalcitrant or reactionary. I genuinely think that making records on tape is the best long-term solution for creating a survivable master tape, and I have yet to encounter any limitations on the medium that would make me regret making records on tape. So I carry on doing it, I know there aren’t many people that do but those of us that do understand that there are practical and long-term reasons why recording on tape is the best way to make a permanent record for a band."[17]

On bands making awesomeness: "Pretty much all decent records are made in, if not complete disregard... significant disregard, for everybody who isn't in the band..... If they tried to dumb it down for other people it wouldn't be as awesome because it wouldn't be as complete an exposure of their mania."[4]

Albini said that the "fundamental distinction between the way I look at making records and the way most of the rest of the administrative end of the music business looks at making records. Like they all think that they are the geniuses and the bands are just supplying them with raw material from which they will sculpt sensations. Whereas I, as a music fan, and as someone who has been in bands, I think the bands are awesome, and the music they make, the more genuine it is to the way that their internal logic is, the more awesome it is, the more my relationship with them is complete."[4]

On the current state of the industry: "The big institutional record labels and pretty much the whole infrastructure of the professional mainstream music business is collapsing.... Radio doesn't matter anymore...is disappearing. The retail sales of physical CDs are declining. Music is proliferating in a million different free exposure markets. It is becoming easier and easier for bands to access those audiences on their own with no administrative interference from anybody." Albini thinks this is a terrific development.[21] The fundamental relationship between the bands and their audience is more direct. Though he doesn't know if there's money to be made professionally.[4]

Other activities[edit]

He writes a cooking and food blog. Albini explained the origin of the blog: "This is what I made Heather for dinner. The name comes from the way I bring her food in bed and present it to her using an imitation of Mario Batali's voice from TV. When she posted pictures of her dinner on her Facebook I would write a little description and conclude it with the tag (/mariobatalivoice)."[3]

Albini is an avid poker player, winning a 12th-place finish in the 2013 World Series of Poker Seniors Championship. He said he was "taught poker by my great-grandmother when I was 6 or 7 years old, she taught us to play poker using novelty toothpicks that had different colored crinklers at the top.” His love of poker comes from his family: "My family is a card playing family,” Albini said. “The games we played as a family were cribbage, pinochle and poker. My father was a bridge master who played tournament bridge when he was younger.” “Basically since a teenager, I’ve had a home poker game or private game where I could play for amusement.” As to the seriousness of this hobby: “I play poker somewhat seriously because I enjoy it and get something out of it, but I’m not particularly competitive,” Albini said. “I’m not a tournament player by nature. I don’t play many of them. I basically only play tournaments when I’m out for the WSOP.”[22]

Personal life[edit]

Albini is married to film director Heather Whinna. They work and live in Chicago.[12]

On his religious views, Albini called himself an atheist.[23]

Works or publications[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Bush, John. "Biography: Steve Albini". AllMusic. All Media Network, LLC. Retrieved September 6, 2011. 
  2. ^ Kovacs Henderson, Andrea (2009). American men & women of science : a biographical directory of today's leaders in physical, biological, and related sciences (eBook, biography) (26th ed.). Detroit: Gale. p. 71. ISBN 9781414457260. Retrieved 10 January 2014. 
  3. ^ a b Shatkin, Elina (2012-01-24). "Steve Albini Has A Food Blog". LA Weekly. Retrieved 2013-08-25. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Thorn, Jesse (December 6, 2007). "Podcast: Live in Chicago: Steve Albini" (podcast). Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  5. ^ Albini, Steve (May 30, 2011). "Strozzapreti-Gemelli with Tomato, Shallot and Mint" (blog). Mario Batali Voice. Retrieved 10 January 2014. 
  6. ^ "Looking for a Thrill : An Anthology of Inspiration". Thrill Jockey. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c d Azerrad, Michael (2001). Our band could be your life : scenes from the American indie underground 1981-1991 (1. ed. ed.). Boston: Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316063791. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  8. ^ Gillette, Amelie (June 14, 2000). "Steve Albini". A.V. Club. Onion Inc. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  9. ^ "Staff & Friends - Steve Albini". Electrical Audio. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  10. ^ Carlson, Jen (September 28, 2011). "Nirvana Producer Steve Albini Tells Us How He Really Feels About NYC". Gothamist. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  11. ^ a b c Young, Andrew (March 12, 2004). "Steve Albini" (Originally published in MTSU Sidelines, March 16th, 2004. This is the unedited final draft of the story, with unpublished material.). Lecture at Middle Tennessee State University. Retrieved 11 January 2014. "Records became more and more produced, and more and more layers of more abstract sounds were added" 
  12. ^ a b c d e f Margasak, Peter (January 6, 2014). "Artist on Artist: Robbie Fulks talks to Steve Albini". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 10 January 2014. 
  13. ^ Cress, Jim (January 1, 1983). "Big Black: No Grey" (Matter (zine)). Dementlieu. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved 11 January 2014. "Taken from Matter, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 1983. Possibly the first print Big Black received?" 
  14. ^ Christe, Ian (2008). "The Hard Golden Tone of Shellac: An Interview with Steve Albini". Crawdaddy! - Wolfgang's Vault. Archived from the original on February 9, 2009. Retrieved 11 January 2014. "Originally published in Warp, 1994" 
  15. ^ a b Heylin, Clinton (1992). The Penguin book of rock & roll writing (1st ed.). London: Penguin Group. ISBN 9780670845590. Retrieved 10 January 2014. 
  16. ^ a b Tingen, Paul (September 2005). "Steve Albini: Sound Engineer Extraordinaire". Sound on Sound. Retrieved 13 January 2014. 
  17. ^ a b c d Mlinaric, Jessica (September 11, 2013). "Interview: Steve Albini Talks About Shellac, Chicago, And The Specifics Of Remastering Nirvana's 'In Utero'". Chicagoist. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  18. ^ View The Point #1 EPK, starring Albini, Chevelle and Fred Armisen. 1999. Squint Entertainment.
  19. ^ a b c Crane, Larry (January 15, 2012). "Steve Albini: 'I’ve made a lot of records.'". Tape Op. Retrieved 10 January 2014. 
  20. ^ As reprinted on sleeve notes of the Big Black album Sound of Impact. Dementlieu.
  21. ^ Lake Smith, Aaron (September 29, 2010). "The Verge Q+A: Punk Pioneer Steve Albini on Music Festivals, The Future of Radio and Why He Wants GQ To Fail". GQ Magazine. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  22. ^ Oresteen, Paul (August 2013). "No gold records, no gold bracelets: From Post Hardcore to Post Flop, Steve Albini is just playing to play". BLUFF Magazine. Bluff Holding Company. Retrieved 10 January 2014. 
  23. ^ Ryan Kohls: "I was wondering, is there a spiritual or religious side to Steve Albini?" Steve Albini: "No, not at all. I’m an atheist. You could say that I’m agnostic, but that’s just a certain kind of atheist (laughs). An atheist is someone who lacks a belief in a supernatural, and that’s me. I can’t say with absolute certainty that there is nothing beyond the material world, but there’s no reason for me to think there is. If I were a gambling man I would put all my money on there not being anything other than this universe." Ryan Kohls, Steve Albini, Jun 3, 2011.
  24. ^ Wyman, Bill (1994). "Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music Press Stooge: The Great Steve Albini Letters-to-the-Editor Debate". Chicago Reader (Hitsville). Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  25. ^ Lavery, Lisa (January 10, 2014). "A Quietus Interview: Great Records Will Find An Audience: Steve Albini On Jason Molina". The Quietus. Retrieved 15 January 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]