Will Oldham on Steve Albini: ‘He elevated the quality of the human experience’

Will Oldham on Steve Albini: ‘He elevated the quality of the human experience’

I met Steve Albini in 1985, when I was 15 years old. Me and some friends had driven up to northern Kentucky to see Big Black perform at a club, which we had to create fake IDs for. Afterwards, Big Black, myself and a couple of other folks from Louisville all retired to the same apartment to sleep on couches and floors, which was the thrill of a lifetime – to be in their company after they’d blown us away. We were more properly introduced in the morning and Steve recognised my name as somebody who had sent him a cheque for a record and T-shirt: “Will Oldham, I owe you a T-shirt!” A T-shirt I still have today, which my wife wears sometimes.

Big Black did these song concept sheets instead of lyric sheets – a blob of text that was not the lyrics, but prose that augmented the experience of listening to the songs. Which I still find to be wonderful and unique. And it’s a good example of the way Steve would approach things, in kind of a beneficently deconstructive fashion. He had the inclination to question – and to question with the idea that if you’re going to ask a question, you need to be prepared with something resembling a workable answer. Steve had the idea that there’s no end to the amount of work you can put into your music, and that it can be fun! That the work doesn’t have to be just gruelling and harsh. The making and playing of music, the recording and distributing of music, and the design of the covers – those are the infrastructure on which we can base our friendships.

We did three proper full-length recording sessions in the 1990s, and I wanted to do them in studios that were away from Chicago so that I would have Steve’s full and undivided attention – because as a true egalitarian, he was likely to place equal amounts of attention on whatever might come across his path. So I’d say: let’s go to Alabama, Minnesota, California.

Each time we went into a studio, he spent the first day taking all the gear apart and putting it back together, because it wasn’t up to his specifications. We were working on budgets of time and money and yet [laughs] it seemed like a crucial part of the activity to do that. He would good naturedly, but very firmly and strictly, be cursing under and over his breath the dimwits and idiots who were responsible for creating this technical havoc that he was then forced to deal with and clean up. But I kind of revered Steve from childhood, and trusted him, because his opinions were considered, and even as they seemed more intense, more extreme and oftentimes more off-putting than other people’s opinions, because they were always backed up and considered, I always felt in good hands with Albini.

In 2022, I’m guessing, maybe 2021, there was an anniversary event at a local record store here in Louisville called Surface Noise. Steve was invited to read his fiction – his fiction is good – and Catherine Irwin, Matt Sweeney and I were invited to perform. Steve got here a day early, and Sweeney and I were rehearsing in the living room where I am now. Matt and I are singing these songs, and my daughter is here. And she’s three. And Steve is here, and Steve is … just … [pauses] sitting in the living room listening to us make music. Steve was able to witness her experience of the music. It’s crazy because how noisy Steve was, in so many ways, and yet, knowing and trusting blindly from childhood as we watched him think and work, this was not a scenario that was unrealistic or impossible, for Steve to be sitting quietly in the living room with a three-year-old and listening to this quiet music. And that it was perfect and wholly appropriate and integral to ways in which Steve understood his relationship to music and his friends. That’s all you really want sometimes in the world.

He was a human being who elevated the quality of the human experience. He expected more of himself and other people, but also knew it was possible. There was nothing outrageous. Just the idea of being able to continue to work within the music business and maintain such humanity, in the face of what almost everybody says: well, it’s impossible to do things right, because this is just the way you do things. For Steve: no, there’s not another way to do it besides doing it as right as you can do it.

Getting to know him through his work, and then direct contact with his person for so many years now, from such an early age – it all serves to support that idealism could be a practical venture for me. And in order for idealism or altruism to survive, it needs to contain contradictions, and he contained the contradictions. It was: I’m going to confront some of the uglier things that I’ve seen in the world head on, with the idea that you can’t avoid them, and it’s not right or healthy or productive or constructive or honest to pretend that these things aren’t there. I’m going to be these big loud things, because the big loud things aren’t going away and there’s nothing I can do about them, but I’m going to rail against the things that we can do something about, which is human behaviour. And as long as people have brains and ears, we might as well take advantage of that fact and yell into them. And try to shake some sense into people.

‘They blew us away’ … Big Black.View image in fullscreen

In recent years, he’s addressed that at times in his ignorance – because we’re all born not sinful, but ignorant – he misstepped, with the full force of ignorance behind him. And he came to understand through a complex and rich and considered existence, that there are things that work and don’t work. He was trying to address things, and realised later that some of the methodologies weren’t well considered or well founded. But he rarely spoke mindlessly or off the cuff. I always thought I had something to learn from what came out of his mouth.

He tried to be as objective as possible but he was a very subjective person, and his personal tastes were not necessarily … like, I always found it ironic that he was a staunch supporter of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals. Which, to me, were sometimes mildly offensive events and sometimes deeply offensive events in their very nature. Some guy throwing a bunch of money together to make people go to one of the more dismal physical environments in the western world, to become deeply familiar with the experience of FOMO [fear of missing out]. To see musicians and artists performing completely outside the context of what makes their music powerful and resonant in the first place. But anyway, Steve liked it for some reason. I performed at the Shellac-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties and there were memories from that that affected my life for ever in positive ways, but I still thought it was completely ridiculous. In many ways it was a forerunner of more music festivals that seem to treat music like its department store product. You can get everything for one price! That’s kind of disgusting. But Steve loved it and endorsed it passionately.

The things that he spoke about, that seemed like a personality spouting off, we can see now, in the past couple of days from people’s reactions, that they were deeply considered things; things that resonated, and that people could use. Thoughts, opinions, observations that made a difference. You look at these pictures of him throughout his professional life – how incongruous it is that the world would know who Steve Albini is, or care about anything he did or said! And yet obviously so many people do. I think it relates to a lack of selfishness on his part. And just this kind of respect for the potential of humanity.

We’re experiencing an increasing momentum of things that run counter to seemingly anything that drove human civilisation forward. It seems like it’s kind of coming apart right now at a mind-boggling rate. It feels like Steve’s reward is not having to witness it, and our reward is getting to do our best to fill in the vacuum that his death leaves. He took on a lot of responsibility for everybody, so we didn’t have to think and do, because he was thinking and doing on our behalf. And I feel charged and prepared to move forward alongside Steve’s personal and professional legacy as much as possible. It’s hard for those of us for whom thoughtfulness is a principal virtue. There are few examples to look to, in the way Albini is.

Source: theguardian.com