Steve Albini - Biography
By Jeff Huff
When it comes to production and studio engineering, Steve Albini is the Batman of indierock – and not Adam West or George Clooney or Val Kilmer, and definitely not Michael Keaton. We’re talking Christian Bale for sure. When your band’s sound grows listless, what do you do? You have Commissioner Gordon fire up the Batsignal, and Albini just shows up and kicks ass, and he doesn’t do it with superpowers like that sissy Superman; he kicks ass because he’s got all the incredibly good gadgets that only he has and only he knows how to use. Of course, his Batmobile does run on vacuum tubes, but that’s cool. He’s even got that glowering Batman scowl, the mien. Seriously, Steve Albini is a studio genius, the Phil Spector of our generation (he would loathe that comparison, too). You can hear his handiwork from a mile away. It’s unmistakable. He’s also made some pretty good records of his own.
He showed up on the scene with Big Black and three EPs: Lungs (1982 Ruthless); Bulldozer (1983 Ruthless); Racer X (1984 Homestead). However, it’s Atomizer (1985 Touch & Go) that blew off the doors. Two decades on, and it’s still full of savage fury and bombast and while Steve and Santiago Durango make sparks spray from their guitars, Dave Riley’s bass is brutally, bowel-looseningly low, and Roland the drum machine is unlike anything you’ve heard before. Roland is huge. Roland is Mechagodzilla. And while you’re trying to figure out if it’s post-punk or pre-industrial, Albini gets directly in your face with rage and sarcasm and shouts about molestation and murder and self-immolation – and it’s got one of the coolest album covers in the history of rock, drawn by Albini. “Earth. Atomizer. Big Black. Let’s go.”
The follow-up was the Headache EP (1986 Touch & Go); the first version had a photo of a split-open head; and when the band put a sticker on the cover that said, “Not as good as Atomizer, so don’t get your hopes up, cheese,” they meant it. That’s how Big Black rolled. Then it was Songs About Fucking (1986 Touch & Go) and they decided to go out on top and they did. After that, Albini did a brief stint as Rapeman (named after a Japanese comic) in 1988, with Rey Washam and David Wm. Sims, formerly of Scratch Acid. There was an EP, Budd (1988 Touch & Go), and one album, Two Nuns and a Pack Mule (1988 Touch & Go); then in 1992, Albini formed Shellac, a.k.a. Shellac of North America, with Bob Weston on bass and vocals and Todd Trainer on drums and vocals.
At Action Park (1994 Touch & Go) leads the way. Roland pounded away with Relentless Robotic Ruthlessness. Klaatu Barada Nikto. However Trainer and Weston as a rhythm section make for an entirely new affair. They engage in odd, complex time signatures; they stop and pause and exchange aural glances in fits and starts. Albini’s guitar is still the angular attack of a distorto samurai sword, and his lyrics are as sardonic as ever, but Shellac are a minimal, mindful affair; if Big Black were blunt trauma, Shellac are surgery – battlefield triage with no sterilizer in sight, but surgery nevertheless. The atonal kill-kore advances with Terraform (1998 Touch & Go) and 1,000 Hurts (2000 Touch & Go). Excellent Italian Greyhound (2007 Touch & Go) was worth the seven-year wait – these guys have better things to do than be in a band all of the time. Case in point:
Electrical Audio in Chicago is where the magic happens. As recording studios go, it’s an egalitarian, home-grown version of Abbey Road, and a national treasure; a working museum of analog gear, operated with expert craft and skill by Albini, with aid from Weston and others. The signature Albini sound is warm and rich; full of sparkling, crystal clarity; rendered in Cinerama so wide that you can’t even see the edges of the screen. He has a collection of 72 vintage/antique mics and he relentlessly positions and repositions until the sound is perfect. His technique for micing drums is extraordinary. He renders them in thunderous detail. Vocals rest away from the foreground in the mix. It’s an approach that assiduously eschews frills and effects. It’s reality, wrapped all the way around your head.
The Electrical “sound” is magic in a bottle, and has prompted artists to create the highlights of their careers over and over again. PJ Harvey’s sonic boom of a recording, Rid of Me (1992 Island), received the touch, and it remains her best record. The Breeders, Bush, Low, and Guided by Voices all made their way through; and when Cheap Trick and Robert Plant/Jimmy Page wanted to make comebacks, you know where they went. And amidst all the hype and parasitism and venality and the shallow money trench and the long plastic hallway, Albini was the one guy who could and did make Nirvana’s In Utero (1993 DGC) the best record of their brief career.
The Wedding Present's classic Seamonsters (RCA, 1991) was recorded by Albini; their most recent, El Rey (2008 Scopiotones), is the best thing they’ve ever done. Bassist/vocalist/co-author Terry di Castro offered this about Albini: “He works with his eyes shut, I mean, not literally, but he's so used to it all, he just does it, like while he's reading magazines and on his web forum. He's a multi-tasker, and everything he does is supremely pro, and he never fucks it up. He's unbelievably confident . . . He also likes to pooh-pooh things and then do them anyway. ‘Oh, fuck that. We're not doing that.’ Then he'll do it. Like set up the Mellotron.”
Of course he has a Mellotron. It’s Electrical. And fuck it. Go ahead and set up the Mellotron. If Albini records it, it will sound fantastic.