Remembering Steve Albini in quotes, albums, songs

Steve Albini, bandleader, writer, audio engineer, and producer of some of the most impactful indie/alternative rock albums of recent decades, has died. He was 61 and suffered a heart attack at his Chicago recording studio, Electrical Audio. Staff members first confirmed the news to Pitchfork.

Along with engineering or producing albums such as Nirvana’s In Utero (he famous stuck to a flat engineering fee for that album, vs. opting for a producer’s royalty rate – “I would like to be paid like a plumber“), PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, and the Breeders’ Pod, Albini led bands of his own including Shellac, Rapeman (problematic name for sure, and he owned it later), and Big Black. Shellac was preparing to release their first album in a decade, titled, To All Trains, and support the release with a tour later this year.

shellac to all trains album cover steve albini
Album cover for To All Trains

“One of the many things that differentiates Albini from other famous music producers,” writes Jeremy Gordon in the Guardian, “is that he disdains the term producer. He prefers to be credited as an engineer, because it more accurately describes his belief that the job is simply to record the band, not shape their sound.”

Albini founded his recording studio, Electrical Audio, in 1997 and worked with a massive number artists large and small from across genres, from punk and rock to the orchestral folk of Joanna Newsom and, more recently, the heavy drone metal of Sunn O))). He supported artists on the rise, often took a ‘straightforward’ approach to audio mixing. As he told Conan O’Brien, his approach was formed “doing budget records for dead-broke bands in a short amount of time.”

That wide range of artists and genres he worked with, though, didn’t include much in the way of pop music. As he said in a 2015 interview, “In the circles I travel in, pop music is considered preposterous and ridiculous. It’s music for children and idiots.”

He was also an outspoken critic of the music industry itself, calling it a “parasite” in a 2015 address at Primavera Pro in Barcelona. “This administrative business structure that’s syphoning money out of that whole scene has always seemed artificial and unnecessary,” he said, “and I’ve spent my life trying to remove its influence.”

His ‘tell it like it is’ attitude may strike some as abrasive, but when it comes to his studio presence, artists from Kim Deal to Joanna Newsom to Robert Plant have sung the praises of working with Albini.

The same goes for Warren Ellis. “Steve Albini gave me some words I live by when we recorded Ocean Songs with Dirty Three in 1997,” he said in an Instagram post. “We were lost in the middle of recording and about to give up. We were trying to make a quiet album and we were anything but quiet. Steve recognised the creative struggle ‘Don’t forget what you came in here to do ‘. That album’s existence as it is is down to his advice in a fragile moment of doubt.”

To honor Albini and his massive impact on music, below are 13 albums from a wide range of artists produced (or rather “engineered”) by Albini.

Pixies, Surfer Rosa

pixies surfer rosa album cover art

Albini helped shape the sound of the debut album from this seminal band, released in 1988. It was also one of his first times working outside his mostly Chicago-based circle of friends and associates. “Ivo [founder of the Pixies’ label 4AD] had an ear out for this guy’s sound, and it turned out to be a great match,” said Joey Santiago for the podcast Life of the Record. Albini had praise for the band, too. “They were naturally gifted musicians. They were well-rehearsed, they were in great shape to make a record when we did it. So going into the studio, I wanted to prove my value to them because they would have had reason to be suspicious of me. Not knowing me, and, you know, basically taking their record label guy’s word for it, that I would be a good idea.”

The Breeders, Pod

breeders pod album cover art

Albini then worked on the debut album by the Breeders, the band founded by Kim Deal of the Pixies and Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses. Donelly went on to form Belly, while Kim brought her twin sister Kelley on board in 1992. “There’s nobody I admire in music more than Kim,” Albini told Life of the Record. “She is the most relentless in pursuit of a very specific sound or idea of anyone I’ve ever worked with.”

The Jesus Lizard, Goat

jesus lizard goat album cover art

Albini engineered a string of Jesus Lizard albums, including their second, released in 1991. “I had such respect for his recording sensibility,” said singer David Yow. Albini returned the compliment: ““When I think of the Jesus Lizard, I think of the greatest band I’ve ever seen.”

Superchunk, No Pocky for Kitty

superchunk no pocky for kitty album

Released in 1991, Albini is uncredited as producer, but the band had sought him out. ““He had theories about recording that aligned with ours,” said bassist Laura Jane Ballance. “We weren’t so much looking for a producer as someone who could record us in a way that sounded big and loud.”

“Making No Pocky For Kitty with Steve in 3 nights at Chicago Recording Company — recording and mixing from 6 pm-6 am — changed our band and our lives,” writes Mac McCaughan on Instagram. “He made us sound huge, much bigger than we were in real life.”

PJ Harvey, Rid of Me

PJ Harvey rid or me album

Released in 1993, Harvey’s second album is raw and riveting. Though not everyone was a fan of the album’s sound. “For me, the record sounds like shit,” said Elvis Costello. “That guy doesn’t know anything about production.” But that didn’t bother Albini one bit. “If he doesn’t like my stuff, that’s fine,” he replied. “Opinions about me are for other people.”

As for Harvey herself, she posted this statement after his death: “Meeting Steve Albini and working with him changed the course of my life. He taught me so much about music, and life. Steve was a great friend – wise, kind and generous. I am so grateful.”

Nirvana, In Utero

nirvana in utero album cover

Albini didn’t producer Nevermind (that was helmed by Butch Vig), but he did in many ways pick up where Vig left off on the band’s much-anticipated followup album, In Utero. The band loved his no-nonsense approach – see the letter he famously wrote to the band outlining his approach, should they choose to work with him – though folks at their label Geffen weren’t quite as pleased.

“Neither the band nor I felt any pressure while making the record,” Albini said of the experience in a 2023 interview. The pressure was all on the industry people, the people who were terrified of losing their status, influence, and income if the record wasn’t a success. The band knew they had a good record in them, I knew they were doing a great job in the studio. We all knew it sounded great.”

Palace Music, Viva Last Blues

viva last blues palace album cover

The third album for Will Oldham and company under the name Palace (previously Palace Brothers, then Palace Music and/or just Palace) showed Albini was adept at bringing his punk-rock sensibility to a band with a folkier sound and style. “In Steve Albini’s absolutely brilliant recording,” writes Michael Fremer in a 1996 review of the album, “you will hear every carefully considered lick, every deftly placed note, laid out in three-dimensional space.”

Robbie Fulks, Country Love Songs

Chicago artist Robbie Fulks is country all the way down, but both he and Albini understood the common ground punk shared with the genre famous for “three chords and the truth.”

“Antiquated technologies, marginal music, cruel wit, personal friendship and contrarianism make life worth living, and he embodied all of these otherwise unrelated things in his passions and personality,” Fulks said about Albini.

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Walking into Clarksdale

Walking Into Clarksdale Page and Plant cover art

Having heard Albini’s previous work, Plant sought him out to work on what turned out to be his only album with Page as a duo. “He really caught what was in the room,” Plant said of Albini. “And he got it all sounding really good in the shortest space of time. Without any pain at all.”

Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Yanqui U.X.O.

Albini took the instrumental soundscapes of this Canadian group to new heights, moving away from field recordings and giving them a soaring, beefier sound on their third album.

Low, Things We Lost in the Fire

low things we lost in fire album cover

This was the fifth album by Minnesota group Low, released in 2001. “The recordings represented a turning point for the band as they built the songs up more than they had in the past with guest musicians, lush string arrangements, layered harmonies and keyboard textures.”

Joanna Newsom, Ys

joanna newsom ys album

Harpist Joanna Newsom enlisted Albini to engineer her second album, a multilayered, intentionally meandering, folk-orchestral opus that was produced by Newsom and Van Dyke Parks and mixed by Jim O’Rourke. “I was in this small room with Steve Albini and nobody else,” Newsom told writer Rob Young of the recording experience, “and I was playing the songs exactly as they are, and it was a pretty intense time.”

Sunn-O))), Life Metal

The drone metal band chose Albini to record and mix their eighth studio album, which was recorded entirely on analog tape. As band cofounder Greg Anderson explained, “I like working with [Albini] because he approached Sunn O))) in a way that a cinematographer would.”

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