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Steve Albini, the Facilitator

Steve Albini, who has died aged 61, was one of the most uncompromising figures to ever defend art against its corruption by market forces, and for musicians to be considered as workers who deserved the full fruits of their labour.

Steve Albini (1962-2024)

Bands came to Steve Albini to sound like themselves. The engineer – who died this week of a heart attack aged 61 – outlined his approach to Nirvana in a letter before he recorded In Utero, stating that he was only interested in capturing the band exactly as they were, right then and there. ‘If you will commit yourselves to that as a tenet of the recording methodology,’ he wrote, ‘then I will bust my ass for you. I’ll work circles around you. I’ll rap your head with a ratchet.’ Like many of the ‘couple thousand’ records he recorded over a four-decade-plus career, In Utero had no filter. Instead of forcing himself in between the listener and the band with production tricks and tampering, he closed the gap and brought the songs closer to us.

Albini — who also fronted his own uniformly excellent bands Shellac (whose now final album To All Trains is scheduled for release next week), Big Black and the unfortunately named Rapeman — was egalitarian in both practical and philosophical terms. He famously refused royalties for In Utero, and he duly kept his prices low throughout his career: in 2023, his day rate was $900 plus tape costs and studio hire. He was willing to travel, but he largely worked from Electrical Audio, the analogue recording studio that he established in Chicago in 1997. Anyone could book a session with Albini, no demos required, so any band or artist with the budget could access the same recording expertise as Nirvana. In the same year that he oversaw Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s post-Led Zeppelin comeback album, he also cut records with little-known Irish punk bands and underground performance artist Vaginal Davis.

He may have liked a lot of the music he worked on, but an Albini credit wasn’t a co-sign or a status symbol like so many celebrity producers today. He was a gun-for-hire, but he was pretty much the best gun a few thousand bucks could buy. He was blunt and straightforward in the studio, committed to making every client he worked with make the best possible record, which meant the most true record; embracing their limitations and leaving accidents on the tape. His records are characterful, unfussy and real. He never called himself a ‘producer’, instead preferring the more practical ‘engineer’. He was a mirror that talked back; a documentarian gently guiding the action. More than anything, he was a facilitator.

Tributes to Albini, and specifically his engineering genius, are naturally gravitating towards seminal records like In Utero, the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, The Breeders’ Pod and Low’s Things We Lost in the Fire — but because he worked on so many records with the same determination, any Albini top ten could realistically be swapped out two or three times. Among the couple dozen records he made in 1993 are In Utero and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me — another of his most celebrated albums — but also 24 Hour Revenge Therapy by California punk band Jawbreaker. The production lends equal weight to hard and soft, melody and angst, exemplifying how skilled Albini was at lending spatial dimensions to his recordings. He allowed bands to be multitudinous and multidimensional; to hold all their truths at once. Before the album’s release, the band re-recorded a few of the songs, but Albini didn’t hold a grudge.

A handful of bands returned to Albini again and again. He had long working relationships with songwriter Jason Molina, whose indie rock projects Magnolia Electric Co. and Songs: Ohia feel almost uncomfortably emotive thanks to Albini’s light touch. After recording their celebrated debut Pod in 1992, Albini returned to work with The Breeders in the 2000s, encouraging their increasing idiosyncrasy after their mainstream peak. 2008’s Mountain Battles is a somewhat overlooked gem which alternates between wide-open wonder and tense, looping paranoia, as though Albini were letting the air in and out of the room between songs. Albini recorded all of singer-songwriter Nina Nastasia’s albums; the complex truths of her astonishing latest, Riderless Horse, are laid bare thanks to their decades-long trust.

Some other favourites come from bands that Albini only recorded once. When queercore legends Pansy Division decided to make a stylistic shift from bratty pop-punk to lush indie-rock, they called on Albini, resulting in the underrated 1996 album Absurd Pop Song Romance. That album’s scrappy but beautiful dime-store girl-group sound can also be heard on Barriers, the gorgeous 2019 album by My Chemical Romance guitarist Frank Iero. Where his previous solo albums were sonically airtight and masochistic in their introspection, Barriers saw Albini throwing the windows wide open. Emphasising his status as a worker, Albini tends to wear a boiler suit in the studio — a uniform that Iero’s band adopted on their subsequent tour.

The beauty of his approach means that almost everyone has a different favourite Albini record. My personal all-timer is Journal for Plague Lovers, recorded by Manic Street Preachers in 2009 using lyrics left by their missing guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards. In its claustrophobic moments, the album is recognisably the sibling of 1994’s The Holy Bible, Edwards’ last album with the band which was recorded in an equally fuss-free environment. But where some of The Holy Bible sounds like it’s being played by machines, the guitars and drums on Journal are organic and distinctly human. Albini helped the Manics confront the complicated work of making music with(out) their absent friend by encouraging them to be who they were at that very moment, with all their age and experience and contradictions present in the room.

As with so many prolific, working artists who die, mourning the person includes mourning the work that is left unmade. With Albini, who helped bring so many other people’s art to life, it hurts that bit more. Among the many tributes from collaborators, Low’s Alan Sparhawk tweeted, ‘He INCLUDED us/you in his brilliance. What a gift’ His generosity will be deeply missed.