It’s hard to determine whether Steve Albini’s long-standing reputation as one of rock’s great contrarians has been a cumbersome burden or a blessing in disguise. The near mythical status the Chicago native has obtained over the past three decades as some kind of audio outlaw dealing in a sonic currency inaccessible to the masses has no doubt contributed to his edgy cool among those who rail against the synthetic sheen that coats so much contemporary rock and pop. Indeed, to discover the words ‘engineered by Steve Albini’ – never ‘produced by’ – lining the notes of a record is to discover a badge of indie honour; a hallmark decreeing that precisely zero compromise has been made in delivering the truest representation of the artist’s vision.
For the uninitiated, the root of Albini’s status as a provocateur stems largely from his swift and economic approach to engineering. From day one he has refused to acknowledge himself as a producer, claiming that his job is to record and represent the sound of the client as purely and accurately as possible – nothing more, nothing less. To be clear, this stance is not, and has never been, an exercise in false modesty or punk rock posturing. He famously doesn’t take royalties on the records he engineers, favouring what has been described as a highly affordable one-off payment on a project-by-project basis. It is a decision that has demonstrably resulted in a lack of earnings relative to what he could have earned over the years otherwise. When he once described producer credits and royalties as “an insult to the artist”, he meant it.
Unsurprisingly, his devotion to aural authenticity has proven particularly popular with staunchly independent artists opposed to the more frivolous trappings of mainstream production techniques. This approach generally involves a no frills recording style, little to no post production tampering or double tracking and a strong emphasis on getting things done as quickly and efficiently as possible. This business-like attitude has seen him engineer thousands upon thousands of records, ranging from his own band Shellac and a wealth of local underground bands and personal friends, to bona fide rock legends like Nirvana, Manic Street Preachers, Pixies, The Breeders, PJ Harvey, The Stooges and, most recently, California garage rock poster boy
However, his intolerance for record label interference combined with an unfiltered contempt for the mainstream music business has unquestionably prompted consternation in certain quarters. Indeed, there have been instances where records bearing the Albini name have been hampered by his association. Just last year, The Cribs’ Ryan Jarman, who worked with Albini on their 2017 album 24/7 Rock Star Shit, told PSNEurope that a UK radio station that had traditionally supported the band would not give the record any air time simply because its bosses deemed Albini records “too lo-fi”.
Such accusations are nothing new for Albini, whose most famous work, Nirvana’s 1993 masterpiece In Utero, was met with hysterical shrieks of commercial suicide when it was revealed that the band would be following up their 1991 collosus Nevermind with a record helmed by one of rock’s most divisive figures. Twenty-five years and 15 million shifted units later, it’s fair to say that In Utero – of which there’ll be plenty more later – hasn’t fared too badly in light of Albini’s involvement, yet its success did little to quash his notoriety as an anti-establishment icon.
Based out of his Chicago studio, Electrical Audio, Albini’s economical recording process is now arguably more of a draw than ever before. In his formative years as an engineer, there was little indication as to the fate that would befall the studio sector some 30 years later. Now, with record label purse strings pulled suffocatingly tight and self-sufficiency the predominant form of survival for artists, time truly is of the essence.
“There is a moment of realisation people have fairly quickly that if they are indecisive it’s going to cost them a lot of money, and that goes a long way toward shaping people up,” Albini affirms as he reflects upon his career over the course of a lengthy and wide-ranging phone conversation with PSNEurope from Electrical Audio. “Twenty or 30 years ago, musicians were somewhat insulated from the cost of their recordings because budgets were being provided by record labels. People were more inclined to be indecisive because they weren’t having to pay out of their own pocket – ultimately the cost did reflect back on them due to the book-keeping practices of the labels. Now, pretty much every artist is funding their own record. If there is a budget available it is going to be modest. The financial reality of wasting time dawns on people very quickly.”
Despite these financial constraints, Albini is adamant that this trend has not hindered the state of contemporary rock, and may have even elevated it.
“I cry no tears about the death of the corporate record business,” he declares. “Bear in mind that the records made under those self-indulgent conditions in big fancy studios were awful. The good music was being made rough and ready and that aspect hasn’t really changed. The people who labour over their records endlessly and torture themselves over every decision… those records are awful. People who can make a record in a fairly direct manner can execute it in a way that satisfies their expectations, because they have been willing to define their expectations. They will stick a stake in the ground and say, This is my aesthetic, this is what I want to do.”
He continues: “What has changed is the economics for studio owners. Studio owners used to love pampered, indulged artists who couldn’t make up their minds, because the budgets were available for them to waste a bunch of time and they profited from it. My client base and the people that I’ve worked with my whole tenure in the business have been independent artists spending their own money and were conscious of the costs. The democratisation of the music making process is such a universally good development that I have a hard time finding fault with the fact that it is costing me money. Yes, it does put pressure on studios, as they now have to scrabble to get clients to fill their hours. But our client has always been this independent artist anyway.”
Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
In February of 1993, Nirvana commenced work on what was to become their third and final studio album. Less than two years before, the band’s Butch Vig-produced second record Nevermind hauled the Seattle trio from relative obscurity and thrust them into the spotlight in a way that not even their most ardent followers could have predicted.
A sparkling set of power pop singles infused with Beatlesque melodies, Sonic Youth’s noise rock aesthetic and the breakneck ferocity of the Pixies’ quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamic saw Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl catapulted from the confines of friends’ studios and dank dive bars to the top of the charts and festival headline slots the world over.
With major label backing and a now legendary Reading Festival headline performance in 1992 behind them, the pressure being exerted upon the band from fans and record company executives to deliver an equally crowd pleasing follow up was immense. Cobain and co, however, had other ideas.
Already a fan of Albini’s work with alt rock luminaries Pixies, PJ Harvey and The Breeders, Nirvana set about recruiting his services for In Utero, a record that, while still in possession of the pop sensibilities and anthemic angst that made Nevermind such a widespread smash, was an altogether different, harder-edged beast.
Recorded not at Electrical Audio but Minnesota’s Pachyderm Studios in trademark Albini style, In Utero was recorded and mixed in just 12 days and presented Nirvana’s music in all the unadulterated glory of their frenetic live shows. The sound of Cobain’s threadbare, guttural screams combined with his frazzled guitar tones served up an eviscerating assault on the eardrums, while the album’s now iconic and much sought after drum sound delivered the aural impact of having Grohl’s entire kit assembled immediately around the listener’s head.
According to Albini, despite the band’s standing as one of the biggest acts on the planet, they approached the recording with all the amiability and diligence of his typical client roster.
“Everything about that session was consistent with all the other sessions I had been doing,” he explained. “The band set up to play live, they knew the material and there wasn’t a lot of writing or arranging done on the spot. Everything proceeded in a very straightforward pattern. I was using the same live band recording methodology I’d been using with all my friends’ and peers’ bands that I still use today.
“The one remarkable thing about that session was the way Kurt conducted the vocals. We had set some time aside to get started on the vocals not knowing how long it would take, and he basically sat down and in one session sang the entire album. He did a couple of test recordings to get comfortable with the sound of the room and the mics, and then sang the album in one go. There were a couple of things that were redone that may have stretched out over two days, but it was extremely efficient and obviously a very taxing process for him, and he did a remarkable job.”
Albini also recalls an accidental stroke of good fortune in Cobain’s vocal sessions that helped embellish the record.
“One of his comfort mechanisms was that he always wanted something in his hands, “ he elaborates. “He was playing with instruments the whole time that he was doing the vocals. At the start he was using a rainstick – a percussion instrument – but the sound of it coming through the vocal mic was obviously imposing on the session and he didn’t like it, so he ended up redoing those takes. But he eventually settled on having a somewhat broken acoustic guitar to hand, so that acoustic guitar you can hear in the vocal sections of the songs is not a separate overdub but the sound of his guitar while he was recording the vocals.”
While In Utero divided fans and critics upon its release, it still landed in the US albums chart at No.1 and has since gone on to sell over 15 million copies worldwide. The recording process also helped win over Albini, who confesses that he was not “actively a fan” prior to commencing work on the record.
“It would be too much to say there was a rivalry, but there was an awareness of the different personalities of the different locales of the music scene at the time,” he notes. “New York and LA bands were often seen as driven by hype and image. The Seattle bands were reacting against that but had also embraced some of the trappings of the hair metal and glam rock culture that the Midwestern punk identity was in opposition too. The bands I cut my teeth on, like The Effigies, Naked Ray Gun and Killdozer, were absurdist bands, either ignorant of or in opposition to the show business and image plays of other scenes. So Seattle’s musical identity was that it had taken the garage rock sound and applied to it some of the trappings of the glam era in a very crude way. I felt like Nirvana were a competent band but they were not my favourite expression of that identity and I wasn’t familiar with their music until I started working with them. But having come to know them and see them in action for a couple of weeks and hear them at the peak, my respect grew immensely and I consider them a great band of the era.”
He continues: “They were firing on all cylinders. They attained a level of success where they didn’t have to ask anybody’s permission to do anything, so they made a record to suit themselves and Kurt’s vision for his music and his voice for that record were intensely personal, and I feel like he wasn’t handcuffed in any way.
“It’s not just the biggest record I’ve ever done, it’s the biggest record I’ll ever do. And they behaved exactly the same as all of their peers in the underground. They were prepared, they were well rehearsed. When they came into the studio Kurt had a notebook full of lyrics that were fully fleshed out. Their approach was very matter of fact and they got in and chopped wood. They worked with the same urgency as a band that was spending their rent money on their first record.”
The future of rock
At the time of Albini’s work with Nirvana, the pairing of the two was no doubt a controversial one. Today, however, Albini sees such partnerships as a far more common prospect, especially given the lack of money powering the record industry.
“As the vertical monopoly model of the music business collapsed, more and more bands had to become self-reliant,” he says. “So it is now more common for bands to work under conditions that Nirvana worked under at the beginning of their career. The record I did with Nirvana was done in 12 days. That’s the sort of schedule an independent band would have allowed themselves. And it was a fraction of the amount of time and money that the record label wanted them to spend. There are political reasons for them wanting the band to spend more, because it allows the label to throw more money around and it increases the power and status of the people making those decisions. But I don’t think that move was being done politically on the part of Nirvana. They were just comfortable working that way. I know some people make that presumption about them, but I don’t believe that was the case. They just wanted to spend as much time and money as necessary and not more.”
Though there is plenty of weight to Albini’s claims that rock bands of today are more likely to be accepting, and indeed, adept at working in shorter, more
cost-effective time frames, there are still those whose aspirations drift towards the so called ‘super producers’ of the age in a bid to reach the widest possible audience. Over the past year, Grohl’s Foo Fighters took to the studio with Adele producer Greg Kurstin to make their latest album Concrete And Gold, while desert rock icons Queens Of The Stone Age called upon the services of Mark Ronson to produce their latest outing Villains. So what does Albini make of this trend? Are today’s rock heroes more concerned with commercial viability than exercising their rock ‘n’ roll credentials to create something a little more edgy?
“Those two [bands] are in the second or third decade of their career,” he counters. “That’s not an established practice, it’s an event in the long arc of the career of somebody who’s been in music their whole life. They want to try everything, and one of those things is working under flashy pop circumstances.”
As for facilities of Electrical Audio’s ilk, Albini believes that they continue to offer the artists of tomorrow a top class studio experience that is both affordable and highlights the benefits of working in a ‘proper studio’.
“It’s important for studios like ours to maintain accessibility to people who don’t have indulgent champagne budgets, but who can make a record for the cost of a weekend vacation. I also think it’s important that studios like ours and other studios in our position offer artists a satisfying experience, so they don’t feel like the bit of extra money that they have to spend to go to a proper studio is being wasted.
But I can’t speak to the cultural psychology of why bands do what they do. Anyone who has ever made a pronouncement like that has been wrong. The reason I say that is because I am in a band and whenever anybody says we’ve done something for a specific reason they have been wrong.”
With the studio clock quite literally ticking down on our time – an undisclosed client has just arrived in the room next door – talk turns to the subject of those aforementioned superstar producers and whether or not he himself has earned himself such an accolade, albeit as an emblem for the alternative as opposed to the mainstream.
“I don’t really know anything about that world,” he says. “I have never had ambitions of being a record producer, I’ve only ever seen a few record producers in action. I don’t understand the mentality of being directorial towards somebody else’s music – I don’t get that as an ambition. I am happy to let those people conduct themselves the way they want, and I also recognise that I’m not one of them.”
For now, it’s back to business as usual for Albini. He wouldn’t have it any other way.