Steve Albini was a button-pushing musician of uncompromising brilliance

Steve Albini was a button-pushing musician of uncompromising brilliance

There was a story that Steve Albini liked to tell about his senior year in high school. Aged 17, he was involved in a serious road accident: hit by a car while riding his motorcycle, he badly broke his leg. It was while recuperating that he learned his first instrument, the bass guitar, but that wasn’t really the crux of the tale. It was that, while he was in hospital, he received a succession of phone calls from his classmates. They weren’t calling to inquire after his welfare, or to wish him to get well soon: they hated him so much they’d rung up to tell him they were glad he was in pain.

It was a very Steve Albini kind of anecdote. For most of his musical career – and apparently for years before it – he cut a wilfully confrontational, provocative and polarising figure: as Michael Azerrad noted in his peerless history of American post-punk alternative rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life, a lot of what Albini did “implicitly screamed ‘hate me, please!’” There were the spectacularly abusive columns he wrote for fanzines in his adopted home town of Chicago, the subject matter of the songs by his band Big Black, and even the way their records were packaged (Albini stuffed razor blades and fish-hooks into the sleeve of their debut EP Lungs; 1987’s Headache featured a cover photograph of a shotgun suicide victim whose head had split in half).

There was the appalling name of his next band, Rapeman, and his willingness to bad-mouth artists who’d availed themselves of his services as a record producer, usually for failing to live up to his own rigorous standards when it came to shunning commercialism and the mainstream music industry: he publicly dismissed the album that effectively made his name as a producer, the Pixies’ 1988 masterpiece Surfer Rosa, as “a patchwork pinch-loaf from a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock”; Nirvana, who called upon his services for 1993’s In Utero were “unremarkable”. Azzerad interpreted the whole “hate me please!” thing as “the pre-emptive instincts of someone who’s been routinely picked on”. Whatever it was, it worked: when Paul Smith of the British label Blast First went to Chicago to sign Big Black, he was astonished by the experience of walking with Albini through the city: every block, he reported back, someone would yell abuse at Albini, usually calling him an “asshole”.

As Albini freely admitted in his later years, some of his provocations – which involved homophobia, racism and misogyny – looked utterly indefensible in retrospect: “a lot of things I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful and I regret them,” he wrote in 2023. That said, the actual music he made was frequently astonishing. Big Black took a while to get going – their early EPs featured a band slowly inching their way towards finding their sound – but when they hit their stride, on their 1986 album Atomizer, the effect was jaw-dropping. The song lyrics variously dealt with child abuse, arson – perhaps Big Black’s best-known track, the six-minute Kerosene – domestic violence, corrupt policemen and cattle slaughterhouses, the music offered a relentless, pummelling drum machine and low-slung bass and two guitars distorted to the point that they sounded like saws tearing through metal (or, as the credits onomatopoeically put it, went “grrr” and “skinng”), the latter effect amplified by Albini’s preference for playing guitar with a metal plectrum. The effect could alternately be terrifying or cathartic: either way Big Black sounded like no one else.

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If anything, 1987’s Songs About Fucking was even better, but Big Black had already split up, prompted by the guitarist Santiago Durango’s decision to go to law school: “breaking up is an idea that has occurred to far too few groups”, read the album’s sleevenotes. Albini’s next band, the aforementioned Rapeman, proved a provocation too far – their gigs were picketed and disrupted by protesters; Albini later called their name, taken from a Japanese cartoon character, “unconscionable”, the bass player David Sims described it as “the biggest musical regret of my life”; their solitary album Two Nuns and a Pack Mule had its moments of raw, lurching power, but was nowhere near as consistently thrilling as Big Black. They split after barely two years.

But Shellac lasted for the remainder of Albini’s life, receiving unwavering critical acclaim, probably because the standard of their irregular album releases – and their equally sporadic live performances – seldom slipped. Another trio, their debut At Action Park suggested a band more subtle, angular, even mature than either of their predecessors, although such things were relative: it was hugely powerful but you would struggle to describe it as anything other than abrasive, while the subject matter of Albini’s lyrics remained as hair-raising as ever. By the time of its release, he was more widely known as a producer, whose “high quality but minimal” style flew against increasingly prevalent trends – he recorded using analogue equipment (“fuck digital”, he characteristically offered), disdained the increasing use of equalizers and compression, kept vocals low in the mix – doing otherwise, he felt, amounted to “pandering to commercial interests”, concentrating instead on the sound of guitars and punch of the rhythm section – and was big on capturing the “sound” of a room by placing vintage microphones around it. Whatever Albini thought about their music, his work on Surfer Rosa made the Pixies sound awesomely powerful: it feels like the band are playing live, inches away from your face. On PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, his production is the perfect match for Harvey’s shift towards a darker, more visceral tone: it amplifies both the glowering tension in the music and moments of cathartic release.

Not everyone was impressed by his approach: Nirvana hired REM’s producer Scott Litt to remix several tracks from In Utero, much to Albini’s disgust; Fugazi re-recorded an entire Albini-produced album In on the Kill Taker; Elvis Costello once opined that Albini made PJ Harvey sound “like shit”, adding “that guy doesn’t know anything about production”. On the other hand, post-Nirvana, he became a kind of go-to guy for big artists wishing to demonstrate a certain edginess and conversance with underground cool or wanting to cock a snook at their major label paymasters: he worked with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant – one suspects at the latter’s behest – on 1998’s Walking into Clarksdale, and with the grunge-lite band Bush.

If he was being viewed in some quarters as a kind of credibility trophy, he seemed blithely unbothered. He charged a flat fee – more for a major label artist, cheap rates for smaller bands – preferred not to be credited, refused to take royalty points, would apparently work with any artist who contacted him and declined to argue with their decisions: in Luke Haines’s autobiography Bad Vibes, the former Auteurs frontman recalled Albini acceding to any suggestion the band made with the phrase “sure – I’m your whore”. Along the way, he worked with a succession of acclaimed alt-rock luminaries – Low, Mogwai, Plush, Will Oldham, Nina Nastasia, the Manic Street Preachers, Joanna Newsom – as well as a couple of his formative influences: the reformed Stooges and Cheap Trick, whose He’s a Whore Big Black had covered.

Meanwhile, Shellac kept up a very intermittent stream of albums – 2000’s 1000 Hurts, complete with its notorious opening track, Prayer to God, and 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound, home to The End of Radio, a startling eight-minute example of the trio’s grasp of dynamics, are both highly recommended – and Albini was regularly sought for his staunch views on independence from the music industry: no matter how much the music industry changed, he never seemed to waver, just as his own music remained uncompromising. The only thing that seemed to change about him was his view of what the Guardian called “his former bad self”, his willingness to cause offence. “I can’t defend any of it,” he said. “It was all coming from a privileged position of someone who would never have to suffer any of the hatred that’s embodied in that language.”

But there was even something unflinching and uncompromising about his apologies. He made no excuses for himself – “the one thing I don’t want to say is ‘the culture shifted – excuse my behaviour’ … I was wrong at the time.” In its own way, it was a very Steve Albini-ish repudiation, not least in the way he balked at the idea he was doing it to in any way curry favour. “It’s not,” he said firmly, “about being liked.”