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Steve Albini, alt-rock musician and producer, founder of Chicago recording studio, dies at 61

Steve Albini, alt-rock musician and producer, founder of Chicago recording studio, dies at 61

Steve Albini, alt-rock musician and producer, founder of Chicago recording studio, dies at 61


CHICAGO (CBS) — Steve Albini, an alt-rock musician, audio engineer, and producer who recorded albums for bands like Nirvana and Pixies and founded the Chicago recording studio Electrical Audio, has died at the age of 61.

Brian Fox, a fellow producer and engineer at Electrical Audio, confirmed Albini passed away Tuesday night from a heart attack.

“We are not ready to make any other statements yet. Maybe in the next few days, we could talk about his impact, which was immense,” Fox said in an email.

Albini’s death came little more than a week before his longtime band Shellac was set to release a new album, To All Trains, on May 17. It will be the band’s first album since 2014.  

Primavera Sound Madrid 2023 - Day 3
Steve Albini of Shellac performs on stage during day 3 of Primavera Sound Madrid 2023 on June 10, 2023 in Madrid, Spain.

Aldara Zarraoa/WireImage

Albini was both revered and influential in the world of indie rock. He elevated the genre in its heyday of the 80s and 90s to a standard that still resonates today.

First developing an interest in punk after being introduced to the Ramones as a teen, Albini voraciously consumed all the new music he could find growing up in his hometown of Missoula, Montana, and played in his earliest music projects. After graduating high school, he moved to Evanston, Illinois, to attend journalism school at Northwestern University, immersing himself in the scene as a fan and a writer for local music magazines.

Albini began his music career in 1981 when he formed the punk rock band Big Black while a student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

He later went on to form two other bands, the controversially named Rapeman and Shellac, with the latter the longest-existing and arguably the most important band of his career as a performer. For Shellac, he performed vocals and guitar alongside bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer.

He also helped record and track some of the most influential albums of the alternative rock era in the 1980s and 1990s, including Nirvana’s “In Utero,” Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa,” PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me,” Veruca Salt’s EP “Blow It Out Your A** It’s Veruca Salt,” and multiple albums for Urge Overkill and The Jesus Lizard.

He also helped record music for legends such as Cheap Trick, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and Foo Fighters, who recorded their hit song “Something from Nothing” at his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago.

An “icon of iconoclasm”

In a Chicago Magazine profile published 30 years ago this month, writer Mark Jannot described Albini as “the music industry’s avatar of opposition, its icon of iconoclasm.” The profile documented Albini’s quest for perfection in the recording studio as he sought to make recordings that emulated a band’s live sound as faithfully as possible – as well as the unabashed “streams of bile” he directed toward not only the record industry, but bands of which he disapproved.

On his meticulousness in the studio, Albini was quoted: “I honestly just feel that music like this deserves to be taken seriously. And that means people who record them should be as concerned about quality as if they were recording the f***ing Chicago Symphony.”

“I think his approach to recording artists was really influential – you know – and it was, ‘I want to capture the band the way they sound in the room, as if you were sitting five feet in front of them and having your hair blown back by the power,” music critic Jim DeRogatis said Wednesday.

The 1994 Chicago Magazine profile also referenced a famous screed that Albini wrote directed at rock critic Bill Wyman of the Chicago Reader – not to be confused with the former bassist from The Rolling Stones. Wyman had sung the praises of three Chicago area acts that had made it big – the Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Urge Overkill – in a 1993 year-in-review column, for what he called “an explicit rejection of much of the insularity that increasingly characterizes underground music and the fringes of alternative music in America.”

Ablini fired back in a letter to the paper and dismissed all three acts as generic and mainstream – calling Phair “a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a f***ing chore to listen to,” and comparing the Smashing Pumpkins to REO Speedwagon while calling them “ultimately insignificant.”

He also wrote, directed at Wyman: “Music press stooges like you tend to believe and repeat what other music press stooges write, reinforcing each other’s misconceptions as though the tiny little world you guys live in (imagine a world so small!) actually means something to us on the outside.” In Jannot’s article, Wyman was quoted that his comment about “insularity” in underground music, had, in fact, been a jab at Albini and what he perceived as Albini’s elitism.

Just last year, Albini was the subject of another profile by Jeremy Gordon in The Guardian. Gordon wrote that while Albini may have come across as an unpleasant person, he was at the end of the day someone who “defended punk’s credos – don’t sign to major labels, reject authority, say what’s on your mind, make a lot of noise – with uncompromising passion at a time when the counterculture was increasingly being assimilated, marketed and sold by the powers that be.”

Jannot’s story included a quote from Albini, “In a lot of ways, you spend the last 50 years of your life trying to get over the first 12.”

“A blue-collar ethic”

The grief from Albini’s passing was felt across the music industry.

The news quickly spread to friends and fans, who gathered outside his Electrical Audio studio in the Avondale neighborhood Wednesday.

his impact was significant with fellow musician Alison Chesley who opened for his Big Black in the 90s.

“He changed my life as a musician and as a person, and he was a good person,” said Chesley. “He had a kind of a prickly reputation, but he was the sweetest, most loving person.”

Joe Shanahan, the owner of Metro Chicago in Wrigleyville, took to his marquee to honor Albini on Tuesday. Albini played at the Metro countless times with his band.

Shanahan also couldn’t deny that Albini had a sharp tongue.

“He was brutally honest. We’ll say that there,” Shanahan said. “He did not hold back.”

But by all accounts, Albini was more than a caustic curmudgeon. DeRogatis also emphasized how Albini stuck strictly to the underground ethical aesthetic in the recording studio, by keeping the focus on the musicians he was recording and capturing their sound – not centering himself.

“He wore these industrial overalls in his studio on Belmont just off Western, and he said, ‘You hire a plumber, and they come and they fix your toilet.’ You hire me, and I capture what you do. I don’t put my thumbprint on it. I don’t take royalties from the recording,'” said DeRogatis, “which set him apart from 90% of big-name producers.”

But this also meant the musicians didn’t get any indulgence they desired either, DeRogatis said.

“Many big-name bands tried to hire him, and he worked with a few. He worked with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin,” he said. “But they had to work his way, which is: ‘We’re not going to do a million overdubs. We’re not going to have caviar catered to the studio. I’m going to wear my overalls. I’m going to mic things the way I think they should. I am not going to give you my opinion unless you ask for it. This was a very Chicago attitude.”

Shanahan said Albini’s legacy will significantly lean on his impact in Chicago.

“The indie and punk rock scene of Chicago has his fingerprints all over it,” Shanahan said. “Steve was a mechanic. You know, he was a worker – a blue-collar sort of like ethic.”

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