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Music / Steve Albini

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"It always offended me when I was in the studio and the engineer or the assumed producer for the session would start bossing the band around. That always seemed like a horrible insult to me."
Steve Albini

Steven Albini (born July 22, 1961) is a famous Alternative Rock musician and studio engineer from Chicago by way of Montana. Some of the bands he's worked with include: Nirvana, The Pixies and The Breeders, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Helmet, Robert Plant, Fred Schneider, The Stooges, Mogwai, The Jesus Lizard, PJ Harvey, Manic Street Preachers, Screaming Females, Joanna Newsom, Low, Cheap Trick, and Slint.

If you looked up Invisible Producer in an illustrated dictionary, Steve Albini would be the picture. His style has such hallmarks as recording live with minimal overdubbing, using microphone placement to get some harsh guitar and drum sounds, keeping the vocals low in the mix, and completely averting Executive Meddling: he prefers to not be credited (if the company insists, he prefers the term "recording engineer"), doesn't collect royalties, and lets the artist/band make all the creative decisions. Due to his stereotypical association with producing critically acclaimed harsh albums, there's a degree of surprise whenever he works with more "mellow" artists like Joanna Newsom and Nina Nastasia.

Albini is also famous for having a big mouth, being very liberal with throwing insults and nastiness around (ask The Pixies, Liz Phair, Urge Overkill, and The Smashing Pumpkins about it sometime), harsh criticism of the music industry's practices, and being something of a Luddite: he refuses to record in anything but analog, and back in The '80s he disparaged the CD as being "the rich man's eight-track tape". On the other hand, for several years he and his wife (along with others) have also functioned as something of a secret Santa to cash-strapped families in Chicago, distributing money, clothes, and toys at Christmas. In recent years, he has also expressed sincere regret for his earlier behavior, remarking, "I can't defend any of it. It was all coming from a privileged position of someone who would never have to suffer any of the hatred that's embodied in any of that language." He also has a food blog. YMMV page here, indeed.

As a musician, Albini plays guitar, bass, sings and programs drum machines. He was a member of the following bands:

  • Big Black (1981–87), with guitarist Santiago Durango and bassists Jeff Pezzati and his replacement Dave Riley. Technically a Post-Hardcore/Noise Rock band, their use of a drum machine, distinctive "clanky" guitars and shouty, confrontational lyrics made them a big influence on the Industrial Metal scene.
  • Rapeman (1987–89), another Post-Hardcore/Noise Rock band, with David Wm. Sims and Rey Washam of Scratch Acid on bass and drums. Named after a manga called The Rapeman; predictably attracted more attention and controversy for their name than their music. In a 2020 interview, Albini said it was an unconscionable and indefensible name for which he felt he had "not been held to account".
  • Shellac (1992-present), a Noise Rock/Math Rock band with bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer.

Famous albums he produced

Steve Albini provides examples of:

  • Brutal Honesty: Let's just say that he likes to speak his mind. Even about people he's worked with.
  • The Cameo: He briefly appears in the video for fellow Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy's song "Low Key", as a local resident who rejects Tweedy's attempt to sell him his new album.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: He has discussed in interviews (e.g., with Anthony Bourdain) that the values that contribute to the creation of good art frequently clash with the values of capitalism. This is also a contributing factor to his refusal to charge artists as much as he could get for recording them; his fees are noted in the industry for being quite reasonable. It's probably also why he charges artists on major labels more than he charges independent artists.
  • Caustic Critic: He once described the Pixies as "blandly entertaining college rock". Albini later apologized for these remarks in 2005.
  • Celebrity Resemblance: Harry Potter looks like a younger version of him, right down to the glasses.
  • Credits Gag:
    • He had a habit of occasionally crediting his engineering to his cat, Fluss. The practice was retired after Fluss died in 2003.
    • Overlaps with I Have Many Names; one-off production aliases include "a skinny bespectacled guy," "some fuckin' derd niffer," "Ding Rollski," "Terry Fuckwit," "Buck Naked," "King Barbecue," "Robert Earl Hughes," and "engineer."
  • Deadpan Snarker: Often comes across as one in his writings.
  • Hidden Depths: He's an accomplished poker player, even earning a World Series of Poker gold bracelet for the Seven Card Stud event in 2018.
  • Insistent Terminology: He dislikes being called a "record producer" and prefers being credited as a "recording engineer" (while normally preferring not to be credited at all). This is because he wants bands to have as much creative control over their own music as possible, so he offers minimal input, which is different from most music producers.
  • Invisible Producer: Trope Codifier. Best exemplified by the stories of recording Cloud Nothings' album Attack on Memory where the band states that Albini was hands off during the four days it took to record it, with him either blogging or playing Scrabble, and only interrupted when he heard something wrong.
    • When discussing his methods, he states how he reads "dry, uninteresting" things, rather than listen with furious concentration, because in his early days as a producer, focusing too hard on the music led him to twiddle with it unnecessarily.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The man is known for his vitriolic attacks on performers and the industry, but he genuinely wants the artists he works with to sound as good and have much control over their own music as possible. Also, he and his wife donate money, toys, and clothes to poor Chicago families for Christmas.note  In recent years, the "jerk" part has all but faded entirely, and he's expressed sincere regret for having been one.
  • Loudness War: Even though the bands he records are frequently loud, his recordings usually avert this. This is unsurprising, as he strongly dislikes digital technology, and most dynamic range compression is applied digitally.
  • New Technology Is Evil: Albini records exclusively in analog, and derided the CD as "the rich man's 8-track."
  • Perishing Alt-Rock Voice: As part of his signature style and in his bands.
  • Perpetual Frowner: Albini's version of smiling is when his mouth forms a flat horizontal line.
  • Prank Call: After Jerry Garcia's death, somebody pranked Albini — who loathed hippies — by posting his phone number on fliers, asking for Deadheads to call in, and relate their stories of how Garcia touched their lives.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Every aspect of his musical career.
  • Signature Style: Live recording to analog, microphone placement, vocals low in the mix.