Steve Albini Dead At 61

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Steve Albini Dead At 61

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Steve Albini, one of the most important figures in the history of American underground rock, has died. Pitchfork reports that he passed away from a heart attack yesterday. Albini led the bands Big Black, Rapeman, and Shellac, the latter of whom will release To All Trains, their first album in many years, next week. He also engineered tons of great, influential albums from acts like Nirvana, Pixies, and PJ Harvey, and he operated the Chicago studio Electrical Audio. Albini was 61.

Steve Albini was born in Pasadena, California, and his family moved around a lot when he was young. After settling in Missoula, Montana, Albini discovered the Ramones and Sex Pistols as a teenager, and he played in a few punk bands before moving to the Chicago area to study journalism at Northwestern. There, he wrote famously withering pieces for zines like Forced Exposure, helped manage the local punk label Ruthless Records, and started engineering albums. In the decades that followed, he worked on literally thousands of recordings.

In 1981, Albini formed Big Black, a band who came out of the Midwestern punk scene but who developed a scraping, abrasive sound that was all their own. In Big Black, Albini barked out harsh, ugly character studies over queasy guitar riffs and drum-machine booms, and their sound helped inspire generations of noise-rock and industrial bands that followed. Big Black’s debut EP Lungs came out in 1982, and they cranked out a ton of shorter records before releasing two absolutely classic albums, 1986’s Atomizer and 1987’s Songs About Fucking.

Big Black were a fiercely independent band. They released music on important labels like Homestead and Touch And Go, but they paid for all their own recordings and booked their own tours. In 1987, Big Black announced their breakup. That same year, Albini formed Rapeman, a new trio with two former members of Texas post-hardcore band Scratch Acid. Rapeman took their name from a Japanese comic book character, and Albini later grappled honestly with the edgelord tendencies that he exhibited when he chose that band name and wrote some of the nastier lyrics for both Big Black and Rapeman. Rapeman released one album, 1988’s Two Nuns And A Pack Mule, before breaking up.

Albini never liked to be known as a producer, preferring the title engineer. In the mid-’80s, he engineered records from bands like Urge Overkill and Slint. In 1988, he manned the booth for Pixies’ debut album Surfer Rosa, his first of many canonical classics. Albini later insulted that album, but his dry, harsh production style proved formative on the next few generations of American alternative rock. Over the next few years, Albini also engineered albums from Bitch Magnet, the Poster Children, the Jesus Lizard, Pussy Galore, Boss Hog, Whitehouse, Superchunk, the Wedding Present, the Breeders, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, among many others.

In 1992, Steve Albini formed the power trio Shellac with bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer. Shellac’s debut album At Action Park came out in 1994, and the band kept working for the next three decades, though they often went quiet for long stretches. Shellac’s sound is harsh but exploratory, combining Albini’s intensity with deep instrumental interplay — minimalist stabs, off-kilter rhythms, unpredictable changes in time signature. If you ever saw Shellac live, you’ll never forget them.

In 1993, Steve Albini engineered Nirvana’s In Utero, the album that truly solidified his place in rock history. Nirvana, unmoored by their newfound fame, wanted to make something harsh and intense, and they knew that Albini could help them find that sound. The decision led to clashes with the band’s label, and Albini himself wasn’t always laudatory about the band’s efforts, but they got their way. R.E.M. producer Scott Litt remixed the In Utero singles, but the album retains the immediacy of Albini’s sound. That same year, Albini also engineered PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me and Jawbreaker’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, two more records that would become canonical classics, and wrote “Some Of Your Friends Are Already This Fucked,” an intense takedown of the entire major-label system, for Maximumrocknroll. That essay, retitled “The Problem With Music,” continues to circulate.

Steve Albini hated major labels, but he still did business with them. In the ’90s, Albini engineered big rock records from bands like Bush, Veruca Salt, Cheap Trick, and the reunited duo of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. He famously refused to accept producer royalties, even on hugely successful records like In Utero. He continued to work with underground artists, helming huge numbers of bracing, visionary albums. In the ’90s alone, Albini’s name appeared in credits for Don Caballero, Silkworm, Melt-Banana, Six Finger Satellite, Screeching Weasel, Gastr Del Sol, the Amps, Oxbow, Brainiac, Low, Scrawl, Smog, Pansy Division, Dirty Three, the Ex, Bedhead, Neurosis, and Palace Music and Will Oldham’s many other offshoots, as well as countless others. In 1997, he opened his Electrical Audio studios in Chicago.

In the ’00s, Steve Albini became known as a kind of cantankerous raconteur who was always good for a quote, and he took a lot people’s money at poker. (He competed in multiple World Series Of Poker tournaments and often won.) As an engineer, Albini continued to work, keeping his rates low enough that unknown bands could work with him. This century, Albini’s arguably got as many classics to his credit as he did in the ’90s. He’s the credited engineer for albums like Low’s Things We Lost In The Fire, Mclusky’s Do Dallas, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Yanqui U.X.O., Songs: Ohia’s The Magnolia Electric Co., Joanna Newsom’s Ys, and Cloud Nothings’ Attack On Memory. In recent years, he became an unexpectedly genial Twitter presence. He lived an amazing life.

If I started posting classics that Steve Albini engineered in this space, I would never stop. (In 2012, Stereogum ran a list of the 20 best albums that Albini engineered, and it already seems hopelessly tiny.) But listen to some of the songs from his different bands below.

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