Awesome Men Throughout History: Steve Albini
I mentioned Steve Albini in this week’s Self Made Man/Entrepreneurs column and realized, after I sent it in, that Albini’s an awesome man. A polarizing man, yes, but an awesome one nonetheless. Albini is an independent/underground music icon and a model for sticking to one’s principles and creative vision through good times and bad. He’s also what happens when bored, weird teenagers have a lot of ambition.
Albini’s creative life has two stages. The first one was Big Black, the band he founded as a student at Northwestern University in 1981. Albini sang, played guitar, wrote the lyrics, programmed the drum machine (credited in their liner notes as “Roland”), and handled most of the band’s business (booking tours and studio time, arranging rehearsals, etc.). Albini was a true supporter of punk ethics, so Big Black never signed recording contracts, took no advance payments, and paid for their own studio time, under the assumption that contracts couldn’t protect bands at their level from getting screwed by a record company anyway.
Albini also represented the band to the media, which was either a good or a terrible idea depending on how you took his personality. Albini had a knack for offensive, biting sarcasm that didn’t give off many signals that he was kidding. For an example, here’s a quote from his 1986 essay in Forced Exposure: “I don’t give two splats of an old negro junkie’s vomit for your politico-philosophical treatises, kiddies. I like noise.” Albini was (and to a lesser extent, still is) a frequent commenter on the music industry and the punk rock scene, and is endlessly quotable.
That same bluntness went into Big Black’s lyrics, which were usually bleak, confrontational narratives about various social ills, or Albini’s observations as a teenager in Missoula, Montana. “Pigeon Kill,” for example, is about a rural Indiana town killing pigeons by feeding them poisoned corn, while “Jordan, Minnesota,” is about a real town whose adult population was part of a child sex ring. Again, Albini’s biting sarcasm and satirical use of abusive language tended to rub people the wrong way, even people whose beliefs he generally shared.
When Big Black split up in 1987, Albini went on to become one of rock and roll’s most respected record producers. He’s worked with artists like Nirvana, the Pixies, PJ Harvey, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Neurosis, and Flogging Molly, just to name a few of the thousands of bands whose recordings he has engineered. True to form, he refuses credit on album sleeves or notes unless the artists’ record labels insist on it, and does not accept royalties for anything he records or mixes.
If you’re wondering whether or not an album you own was produced by Steve Albini, one of his trademarks is keeping the vocals low in the mix, meaning they aren’t so prominent that they overwhelm the backing instrumentation. Albums with his touch on them also tend to have a really aggressive guitar sound and few, if any, post-production effects.
Steve Albini is a national treasure. An asshole too, from time to time, but the world needs more people like him who are always thinking and never hesitate to call people on their B.S. He’s also proof that success can be defined by principle, which is huge when you consider what industry he’s in. He never wavered in his staunch anti-corporatism, and life has rewarded him for it. That’s a good message to spread around.
And speaking of things worth spreading around, I’ll leave you with Big Black’s best song, “Kerosene.”
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.