✯ Mike's Site

A world without Steve Albini

Apparently I'm only inspired to write when someone dies? But this is a tough one. Steve Albini was a guy who affected me musically long before I heard Big Black, though that was a truly formative experience for me as a musician and a music nerd.

He of course recorded Nirvana for In Utero and was famously rebuffed by their major label. He then recorded the jillion-selling "Nirvana with the punk rock all sanded off" Bush, who were inspired by In Utero in the same way that Kurt and Krist were inspired by the Pixies' Surfer Rosa and Pod by The Breeders.

Big Black

But it was the first spin of "Steelworker" from the debut Lungs that really did it for me. Not only was this a song that used a drum machine with heavy guitars years before Godflesh's debut or Ministry's pivot to metal, but lyrically it was a marvel. He was clearly inhabiting a character. But rather than a purely sympathetic view of a blue-collar man or a portrait of a hillbilly as racist and ignorant, it was a multi-dimensional piece of writing that really got under my skin (much like the "great big thing crawling all over me"). I ate up the rest of the discography, though I got into Shellac a good bit later.


In the subsequent years, I found a Steve Albini recording credit to be the mark of a certain type of band or artist. Whether it's Joanna Newsom or Sunn O))), if you seek him out there are certain things you're looking for, and most of all it's probably a punk-informed dedicationt to making a band "sound like they sound." No tricks, no double-tracking, minimal overdubs — he even eschewed compression most of the time in favor of the full dynamic range of the amps and drums sitting in his studio's mud-brick rooms. As much as he'd deny it, there is a sound to his records, but it's primarily that sound of Electrical Audio and its walls, not of a producer imposing an aesthetic on bands.

Becoming better

One thing most people knew about Steve Albini, a perception that he had a hard time changing, is that he was a prickly, opinionated individual with a knack for trash talk. This, combined with the, uh, boundary-pushing nature of a lot of his musical and related output (see both "Rapeman" as a band name and the Forced Exposure articles that are getting him gotcha-branded posthumously, accusations I'm not really gonna take seriously), made him the perfect candidate for the project that he undertook in the last few years: reckoning with his past as an OG edgelord. I think it's reasonable to say that he provides a good example for anyone who really feels punk rock values but may have gotten caught up at one time or another in the more "fuck you, mom" aspects of punk culture, and a template for living with principles. Bonus, it's a template for all dudes, white people, and cis people who might've thought that they could get away with certain stuff because of the way they feel in their hearts or whatever. In a dual interview with Vish Khanna, he comes down on Ian Mackaye of all people for falling into the trap of thinking that punk rock shouldn't be "PC," by defining "PC" as pretty simply as conservative rebranding of "not being an asshole."


Albini seems to have been quite generous. He spent the last twenty years raising money and personally delivering needed presents for the most down-and-out Chicagoans on Christmas. And he regularly shared his knowledge of making records, trying very hard to be practical and demystify not just his, but all practices of recording sound. Not just in expensive meet-the-masters type courses, but in countless freely available videos on YouTube.

All of this adds up to a person I felt I could be inspired by, and who was loved by most people who knew him. It's going to be a strange world without him.