The Guide to Getting into Steve Albini, Studio Whiz and Noise-Rock Freak
Between his catalogs by Big Black, Shellac, and Rapeman, to his work behind the boards for everyone from Nirvana to Cloud Nothings, the iconoclast has created one of the most impressive bodies of work in modern music.
It’s fairly common for a music producer to become synonymous with a specific sound, but it’s much more rare for them to become the stand-in for an entire ideology. Over the course of his nearly 40 years in music, Steve Albini has become as known for the records he’s made—both as a recording engineer and as a musician—as for his fiercely independent spirit. He’s compared the music industry to a parasite, and has routinely denied credit for the records he’s worked on, meaning that his work has been credited to pseudonyms such “Li’l Weed” or “Buck Naked,” and even his deceased cat Fluss. His no-nonsense approach to making records has become the thing of lore, as he’s known to almost inattentively listen to performances instead of keeping his hands on the dial and attempting to change a band’s natural sound.
Where Albini is often understated as a producer, as an artist, he’s all about big, bold gestures. With every band he’s formed, from the industrial throbs of Big Black, to the noise-indebted Rapeman (named after the controversial manga series, resulting in a spotty catalog on streaming services), all the way to the experimental post-hardcore of Shellac, Albini has used his art to explore the worst facets of humanity. His music is ugly, and his lyrics even uglier. Every song is a way of exploring motivations that aren’t his own, but instead confront the listener with images that are truly heinous. It’s satirical, but it’s played straight, and it’s what makes listening to his music both provocative and compelling.
But while it’s easy to view Albini as an early example of an edgelord, his personal life rebukes such critiques. For the past two decades, he and his wife Heather Whinna have spent their holiday seasons fulfilling children’s letters to Santa, even when the postal service tried to put an end to it. He’s an avowed cat lover and now a World Series of Poker champion, and he still records every band cheaply, making it so his services are always available to those that have an interest in them. He’s a curmudgeon, but a loveable one.
Albini exists in a world of contradictions, and he likes it that way. For as controversial as his work can be, he values art above all else. It’s why he never oversteps as an engineer, able to work alongside everyone from Nirvana and The Pixies to Neurosis and Joanna Newsom and have it make sense. Both as an engineer and musician, Albini has found a way to stand out simply by acting in ways few others would dare.
Steve Albini Does Industrial
Though he’d likely balk at being lumped in with such a genre, it’s hard not to see Albini’s work in the 80s as anything other than an early example of industrial. Formed in 1981, Big Black ran parallel to the emerging hardcore scene in America while also pushing back against it. Albini didn’t have much use for the genre’s increased homogeneity, so much so that in the 2007 documentary You Weren’t There, Articles Of Faith frontman Vic Bondi challenged Albini to a fight over the shots he took at his band in the early 80s. The result was that Big Black sounded little like a hardcore band, even if they’d always carry that association. 1982’s Lungs was effectively a solo endeavor, as Albini recorded all the instruments aside from drums, which were handled by a Roland TR-606 drum machine that would be credited as “Roland” on every Big Black release.
Lungs fit in with the emerging noise scene, though Big Black took a sideways approach to it. Albini’s status as a Midwestern transplant originally from Montana allowed him to largely create in a vacuum, and it gave him a perspective that was divorced from the New York City noise acts. Before long, Albini would find his tribe alongside other weird Chicago punk acts, bringing in Naked Raygun members Santiago Durango and Jeff Pezzatti, as well as Pat Byrne to play live drums over Roland’s beats (this is the only release where this occurred), effectively turning Big Black into an actual band on 1984’s Bulldozer EP.
At live shows, Big Black would open their sets by setting off a brick of firecrackers, filling clubs with the acrid smell of sulfur before launching into their show. Their beloved fireworks would serve as the cover art for Bulldozer, and the music was similarly explosive. Albini and Durgano’s opening riffs barely sounded like guitars, instead taking the qualities of sheet metal being ground down as a drum machine pounded in the back. “Cables” is a perfect example of the band finding its sound, as Albini mines his experience of growing up in Montana and watching kids his age go to the slaughterhouse and watch the gruesome proceedings with gleeful joy. Though it was rare he’d let his own experience show in his music, in the case of “Cables,” it is perhaps the purest distillation of his musical ethos. It was shocking, sure, but it was the way he made his music match the caustic subjects he explored that made Big Black so distinct.
Big Black’s best material would come after Pezzatti left and Dave Riley moved in on bass, as 1986’s Atomizer and 1987’s Songs About Fucking see the band turn Roland’s drum sounds into another layer of raging fury. They are albums that are evocative, as Albini leads the band through some of their most savage compositions. Though Big Black would break up the same year Songs About Fucking was released, listening back to the album now, it retains all of its power. The songs are still confrontational, but deliberately so. And unlike a lot of early examples of industrial, instead of seeming quaint in the present day, it’ll still make you wince.
Playlist: “I Can Be Killed” / “Cables” / “Racer-X” / “Passing Complexion” / “Kerosene” / “The Power of Independent Trucking” / “ Bad Penny” / “Colombian Necktie” / “Ready Men”
Steve Albini as a Heavy-handed Satirist
In 1987, Big Black ended and Albini formed Rapeman. With that band, he’d push his darker fascinations to their most profoundly troubling endpoint. The band would have their shows protested and, after a couple years, call it day. But their material remains strong, because it serves as a bridge to Albini’s modern work. Joined by two former members of Scratch Acid, David Wm. Sims on bass and drummer Rey Washam, Rapeman retained the metallic skronk of Big Black while allowing Albini the space to write songs that played with open space a bit more.
A prime example of what Rapeman achieved was “Budd,” the first song from their debut EP of the same name. The song told the story of R. Budd Dwyer, the Pennsylvania state treasurer who committed suicide on live television. The first words Albini utters are, “Budd, don’t,” taking the pleas heard uttered by the onlookers in Dwyer’s suicide video and places it atop Washam’s stuttering groove. It’s a grueling track that lasts for nearly eight minutes, as the band slinks between notes and lets the uncomfortable silence linger far longer than anyone would like.
In many ways, Rapeman extended Albini’s fascinations with journalism, which is what brought him to Chicago in the first place, having studied at the prestigious Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. It’s easy to see how his lyrics were abstract accounts of real life events and not just the ramblings of some deranged lunatic. The opening track to Big Black’s Atomizer is a prime example, as “Jordan, Minnesota” addressed the child sexual abuse scandal that spread through the titular town in 1985. It’s a chilling song, one that showed how far Albini was willing to go to push the boundaries of taste for the sake of exposing the reality that lingered behind closed doors. In the liner notes to Atomizer he wrote, “You don’t think about it because you’d go crazy,” and that accurately summed up the intent of his music.
After the dissolution of Rapeman in 1989, Albini took a couple years off to focus on engineering. But when he returned in 1992 with Shellac, alongside bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainor, he’d expand into new sonic territory. Taking the expansiveness of Rapeman as a directive, Shellac’s music became a kind of bridge between post-hardcore and post-rock. Similarly, Albini’s lyrics would become as abstract as the music itself, though he’d still find ways to satirize, particularly the macho-driven fascinations of men writ large. Songs like “Prayer To God” told the story of a jilted ex-boyfriend asking the Lord to help him kill his ex and her new boyfriend, closing with Albini repeating the phrase “Fucking kill him” nearly 40 times before closing with a muted, clear-headed “Amen.” While “Prayer To God” is perhaps the sharpest example of what Albini had been working toward since Big Black formed in 1981, every release hits these marks, even when he’s at his most subtle.
Playlist: “The Ugly American” / “Jordan, Minnesota” / “Fists of Love” / “Things to Do Today” / “Precious Thing” / “Tiny, King of the Jews” / “Budd” / “Steak and Black Onions” / “Prayer to God” / “You Came in Me”
Steve Albini Does Post-hardcore
When Albini got Shellac going in 1992, the band’s intent was slightly different than what had come before. While there were still examples of songs that played around with Albini’s brand of social commentary, they weren’t the sole focus. Instead, his interests became more musical, pushed forward by Weston—a mastering engineer—as they shared a love for the art of recording music. They’d publish diagrams of their amp rigs and start albums with a rundown of the nerdy details of the recordings, pushing themselves to the fringes of post-hardcore in the process.
While Albini remained as sardonic as ever, he became a bit less direct as the years went on. 1994’s At Action Park showed he was still capable of spitting fire with the best of them, but by the time of 1998’s Terraform, the band was reaching for something far more textural. The 12-minute opening track, “Didn’t We Deserve a Look at You The Way You Really Are?,” was evidence of the band’s expanding ambitions following The Futurist, the 1997 release the band distributed solely to their friends and has yet to receive an official release.
Shellac has maintained a level of quality throughout their career, with the band members never attempting to change course but, instead, merely exploring a path adjacent to the one they’ve been on for over two decades. They’re still willing to get a little out there though, as 2014’s Dude Incredible is perhaps the strangest record they’ve released yet, showing they had plenty subversive energy left in them. Though they play live sporadically, they’ve dropped some new songs into recent sets, hinting that maybe we’ll get more than one Shellac record this decade, which would be a welcome surprise.
Playlist: “Wingwalker” / “Billiard Player Song” / “My Black Ass” / “Crow” / “Didn’t We Deserve a Look at You The Way You Really Are?” / “Disgrace” / “Squirrel Song” / “Canaveral” / “Steady as She Goes” / “Dude Incredible”
Steve as a Recording Engineer
There’s a reason that Albini became a go-to producer long before he opened his own studio, Electrical Audio, in 1997. He’s had his hands in classic records across assorted genres of music, including Nirvana’s In Utero, The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, Slint’s Tweez, Jawbreaker’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, The Breeder’s Pod, and countless others. Similarly, he’s remained active, working with younger acts like Screaming Females, Meat Wave, and Cloud Nothings, ensuring that there’s always something Albini-related worth listening to.
Sadly, with literal thousands of records bearing his mark, it’s impossible to accurately sum up his work in one concise playlist. Hell, even Wikipedia only has an incomplete list of the records he’s engineered or produced. But that being said, it’s imperative to remember that Albini is less a producer and more of a shepherd, hearing what artists have created and doing his best to capture it on a record. As a result, these releases don’t always have a distinct sound, as he’s malleable in a way a good engineer should be. Though he’s created a drum sound that he might as well own, it’s the product of how he records a room, and usually, that room is one he owns.
Some of the highlights from Albini’s work can be found below, but there are plenty more worth exploring. He’s had a hand in fostering the development of more classic records than most people could dream of, and while he may always deny he did anything substantial, his work remains undeniable.
Playlist: Slint, “Kent” / The Pixies, “Where Is My Mind?” / The Jesus Lizard, “Seasick” / The Breeders, “Hellbound” / Nirvana, “Scentless Apprentice” / Jawbreaker, “Boxcar” / Silkworm, “Couldn’t You Wait?” / Brainiac, “Vincent Come On Down” / Neurosis, “The Doorway” / Don Caballero, “You Drink a Lot of Coffee For a Teenager” / Owls, “Everyone Is My Friend” / Songs: Ohia, “Farewell Transmission” / Mclusky, “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” / Joanna Newsom, “Monkey & Bear” / Cloud Nothings, “Stay Useless” / Meat Wave, “The Incessant”