Steve Albini R.I.P.

Published on 09 May 2024


Anyone who is a music fan would’ve seen the news all over their social media yesterday afternoon. Steve Albini has died at the age of 61. Steve Albini, a man whose attitude was as influential as his stellar work - both as an engineer and as an artist - and who always led by example in regards to how he went about his life's work.

It’s a sore one, particularly for my generation, who were slightly too young for the Pixies (first time) but were exactly the correct age to hear Nirvana’s In Utero in all of its raw, huge, kinetic enormity. Drums never sounded better; guitars never as simultaneously lacerating and weighty; the ensemble sound was one of a band fizzing with energy in some small room, just like we would’ve been at age 11 or 12.

As I say, it’s a sore one.

Steve Albini hated the term ‘producer’ and preferred ‘engineer’ or ‘recordist’. He charged bands directly on the basis of how much he liked them, so Bush were charged loads and the Jesus Lizard hardly paid a dime for their sessions. That’s a level of integrity that can’t be joked around, and it encapsulates how Albini went about a lot of things. He loved analog, he put on overalls to work, he put out his own music with Shellac, Big Black and Rapeman and he basically took care of business.

It’s a sad thing to note the death of an influential musician and engineer, particularly at the young age of only 61. But then I think about what Albini-produced (sorry, engineered) songs to include here as a small tribute, and I’m flooded with amazing energy. This is music that stays with you forever, and you didn’t have to have ‘been there’ at the time to appreciate it: fire on these songs now and consider yourself initiated into the Albini-worship group. We meet every day through headphones and speakers, and man is it gonna get loud…


Six Albini Greats

Pixies - Break My Body

Nirvana - Scentless Apprentice

Jawbreaker - Boxcar

PJ Harvey - Rid of Me

Jesus Lizard - Boilermaker

Shellac - The Watch Song


Pixies - Break My Body

Kurt Cobain famously commented once that he was ‘basically ripping off the Pixies’, and perhaps that’s why he sought out Albini for Nirvana’s In Utero record. The Pixies, who came out of nowhere (well, Boston) in the mid 80s with a sound unlike anything before, are easily one of the most influential bands of the era.

Their debut record Surfer Rosa was engineered by Albini in ten days for a fixed fee and no royalties, something he made a point of doing throughout his career. Surfer Rosa put that Albini drum sound on the map, and also showed the world that there was infinite life within that old rock setup of two guitars, bass and drums.

(Fun trivia: listen at the end of the tune Oh Golly for a classic Albini studio windup, captured on tape)


Nirvana - Scentless Apprentice

Nirvana’s followup to mega-selling Nevermind took a direction that all great art does: uncompromisingly into the weird. In Utero is the sound of a very famous band treading a dark, strange path, aided and abetted at all times by Albini.

I’ve chosen Scentless Apprentice here for a couple of reasons: the drums (again) are magnificent, punchy and explosive; and it wasn’t one of the songs that were subsequently remixed for single release. All of the raw ferocity Nirvana had is on display here, which is surely the sign of a great recording.


Jawbreaker - Boxcar

Apparently, when Albini agreed to record 3rd album 24 Hour Revenge Therapy for Jawbreaker, he actually thought it was Jawbox who were going to turn up. Who, in fact, did turn up too!

Albini had Jawbreaker plugging into those tiny pocket-sized Marshalls that you can attach to your belt, proving that great sounds are neither obvious nor expensive. On Boxcar, the Jack Kerouac sample you can hear was captured by playing a cassette of the dialogue on a boombox and holding a mic up to it. The recording credits are also assigned on the record’s cover to Fluss, who was Albini’s cat. Class!


PJ Harvey - Rid of Me

PJ Harvey has adopted a variety of sounds and styles throughout her career, but one of her best ‘moments’ was the Rid of Me record, engineered by Albini.

Slightly less of a solo album since it was written by Harvey and her bandmates, Rid of Me was recorded in two weeks, with the bulk of the tracking done in three days. Speaking of this time, Harvey is clearly another fan of Albini’s drum sounds:
"He's the only person I know that can record a drum kit and it sounds like you're standing in front of a drum kit. It doesn't sound like it's gone through a recording process or it's coming out of speakers. You can feel the sound he records, and that is why I wanted to work with him, 'cause all I ever wanted is for us to be recorded and to sound like we do when we're playing together in a room".

Harvey also said this about Albini’s methods: "The way that some people think of producing is to sort of help you to arrange or contributing or playing instruments, he does none of that. He just sets up his microphones in a completely different way from which I've ever seen anyone set up mics before, and that was astonishing. He'd have them on the floor, on the walls, on the windows, on the ceiling, twenty feet away from where you were sitting... He's very good at getting the right atmosphere to get the best take."


Jesus Lizard - Boilermaker

Albini’s personal favourite band was the Jesus Lizard, a post-punk ensemble who inspire huge devotion from their fans. Vocalist David Yow is one one rock’s most unique frontmen, and Duane Denison is easily one of the most underrated and inspiring guitarists. (See my Duane Denison interview for more!)

Variously described as independent noise rock, post-industrial etc etc, The Jesus Lizard are in fact a rack band, just one with their one sound, pace and attitude. What a sound, though! If I've mentioned Albini’s drum recording a lot, it’s perhaps time to single out his ability to create an almost perfect electric guitar sound. Check out anything played by Duane and recorded by Albini: it’s metallic, forceful and expressive, but never overly distorted or ‘vague’. There’s a clarity there, and it’s an incredible thing to hear.


Shellac - The Watch Song

Talking about great guitar sounds, why not end this celebration of Steve Albini by checking out his sound? It’s a great one, played on a guitar with an aluminium neck and utilising punchy dynamics to create a sound that’s basically awesome.

The tune itself is a riot - a faux confessional about a timid man finally breaking and wanting to unleash fury on some aggressor - but it’s the sound itself that I keep coming back for, on top of the humour. I think we’ll all miss this guy, but at least we can put on a huge body of incredible music that he engineered and continue to enjoy that attitude and attention to detail. I’m going to put on Surfer Rosa: what are you choosing?

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I'm a musician and artist originally from the South West coast of Scotland. I studied Visual Arts and Film Studies at...

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