Steve Albini, influential record producer and musician, dies at 61 (2024)

Steve Albini, the record producer and engineer behind generation-defining rock albums by Nirvana, the Pixies and PJ Harvey, died Tuesday. He was 61.

A representative for Electrical Audio, Albini’s Chicago recording studio, confirmed Albini’s death following a heart attack on Tuesday. The representative did not have available a further statement or a list of survivors.

Albini was a giant of punk and experimental rock music from the ’80s to the present day. He produced (or as he preferred to call his job, “engineered”) Nirvana’s final studio album, “In Utero,” selected by the band for his raw, uncompromising aesthetic. Albums like the Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa” and PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” felt bracing and dangerous then, and continue to inspire young rockers today for their seething energy and defiance of pop audio convention.

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“I’ve gotten exactly one phone call out of a No. 1 record,” Albini told The Times in 1993. “It shows how pack-like these major-label people are. They all think the same thing: ‘That Albini guy is trouble. Stay away.’”

Albini, raised in Missoula, Mont., was the son of a rocket scientist father and inherited his engineer’s meticulousness. The young Albini, smart and disenchanted with the local conservative culture, discovered punk through music magazines and found safe harbor for misfits. After moving to Chicago to attend Northwestern University for journalism, he rose to scene prominence as an artist in the scabrous groups Big Black and Shellac, which emerged from the fertile post-hardcore underground alongside bands like Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers and the Minutemen.

Snarling and sneering through big eyeglasses, yet just as ambitious and uncorruptable as he was abrasive, Albini became a star in the underground. “How many boys want to be whipped by Steve Albini’s guitar?” Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon told the Village Voice in 1988.

“Big Black introduced one of the indie world’s foremost characters,” wrote Michael Azerrad in the definitive indie-punk scene biography, “Our Band Could Be Your Life.” “A person who would define not just the sound of underground music through the next two decades, but also its discourse — the irascible, outspoken, intelligent and relentlessly ethical Steve Albini.”

Shellac in particular was a formative influence for countless punk, metal, electronic and noise bands. The group’s 1994 LP “At Action Park” was a brutal read on post-punk, its minimalist yet seething power-trio instrumentation slinking with menace.

Albini paired his dedication to the most vicious, arresting sounds possible with a workmanlike professionalism as a producer in his studio, Electrical Audio. He was famous for wearing a mechanic-style jumpsuit to sessions, an overt gesture at how he saw his role.

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“I’ve always had a fairly standard method,” he said of his recording techniques. “I have a straightforward, documentary approach to recording music, and I’ve never been tempted with my own bands or with anyone else’s band to suddenly go production-happy. If you let the band sound natural, then the record will sink or swim on its own merits. ... The things I like most about rock bands are simplicity and straightforwardness, and those principles guide my recordings.””

He was a ferocious advocate for artists. A famous essay in the Baffler, “The Problem With Music,” laid out the perfidies of the major-label system, at the time still in a post-Nirvana feeding frenzy for young rock acts.

“Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context,” Albini wrote. “I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying s—. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end, holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed.”

“In Utero,” Nirvana’s followup to the the epochal “Nevermind,” bridged the gap between the underground music Kurt Cobain loved and the expectations placed on the biggest band in the world. “Feeling uncomfortable with this new world of Nirvana fame,“ drummer Dave Grohl said in an interview last year. ”When things did become huge, we all sort of clung to the things we felt most attached to. We had always listened to records Steve had made.”

Albini’s catalog spans decades of fierce and fearless rock and experimental records, from Slint and Jesus Lizard to Low, Mogwai and Joanna Newsom. He wrote and recorded up to his death. Shellac was about to tour around its first album in a decade, “To All Trains,” which will be released next week.

“What matters to me is that I do things in a way that I feel is — for lack of a better word — righteous,” Albini told The Times. “Everything that I do, I do basically with the same goal: I want to make better, cheaper punk-rock records today than I did yesterday.”

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Steve Albini, influential record producer and musician, dies at 61 (2024)
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