In Memoriam
Steve Albini Sasha Frere-Jones

In remembrance of the sound and voice of the indelible musician
and recording engineer.

Steve Albini, backstage, New York City, 1985. Photo: Gail Butensky.


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The new Shellac album, To All Trains, is coming out today, ten days after guitarist Steve Albini’s death due to heart attack at the age of sixty-one. Albini was the first musician I ever interviewed. I talked to him in 1995 for Ego Trip magazine and tried to draw him out on the topic of race in popular music, particularly in relation to how his band, Big Black, used drum machines. I was very, very nervous and he was not. I talked way too much and he spoke in complete paragraphs. He reminded me of someone addressing the United Nations, in that I know he knew what I meant, but he decided that outfoxing me was the prudent move. I had hoped to do a thirtieth anniversary version of our interview in 2025, as it seemed like Steve’s position might have shifted by then, but that won’t be possible.

Rigor and fairness were important to Albini, a journalism student, guitarist, poker player, and engineer who lives in my head primarily because of his voice as a writer—of kind emails, coruscating letters, unforgivable tour diaries, recipes for his beloved wife, Heather, and tweets, more than you might expect from someone who was sometimes disdainful of digital life. His collected interviews will be of great use, and his 1993 article for the Baffler, “The Problem With Music,” is still the most practical text to offer a musician who has mistaken the idea of signing to a major label with getting a job.

Big Black (Santiago Durango, Steve Albini, and Dave Riley) on the way to CBGB, 1986. Photo: Gail Butensky. 

I bought a Big Black T-shirt when I saw them first in 1986, at a CBGB’s gig where their drum machine broke. I wore it last week and it is very soft. Albini was as important to me as anyone in music I have come across. His ability and willingness to examine and individuate and map the various nodes of a consciousness indebted to and invested in music was something that made me think that an oversensitive and highly excitable person could maybe be a musician who also wrote. The music, though, was how I found him. I still have a ringtone I made from the opening of the 1986 song “Kerosene,” which cuts through anything, so it is good for emergency situations and doing the laundry. (I am happy to send it to you.)

Albini’s guitar tone is a thing of torqued splendor and unfathomable intent, like the inside of a machine that should never have been opened being amplified and broadcast through a cheap bit of conduit. I first heard that tone when I bought Big Black’s Racer-X EP in 1985 at J&R Music World, only because the cartoon of an exploding car on the cover was so carefully executed. Merciless drum machine, protozoic two-note bass line, grumbly vocals mixed very low, and a guitar sound that suffered from tinnitus before you could. The title track was about a cartoon: “Regular guy, Rex got a need, Rex, Racer X.” If you’re distracted, you might miss a lyric that shows how loosely Albini played with provocations: “Little cartoon nips.” Yes, as in a slur for Japanese people. Was he ventriloquizing monsters here, as he did on “Jordan, Minnesota,” where he acted out the rape of children? Ill-informed or wrongheaded as the lyrics might have been, the larger project was catharsis, a rare result for bands to chase now, but common to underground culture then. Consider the writing of Dennis Cooper, or go to the pop charts and look at Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor. Big Black’s 1987 album, Songs About Fucking, contains many of the sounds and impulses that Reznor mainstreamed.

Santiago Durango, Dave Riley, and Steve Albini backstage at Danceteria, 1985. Photo: Gail Butensky.

Albini’s band after Big Black was called Rapeman, a decision he has renounced several times since. Their only album, the 1988 release Two Nuns and a Pack Mule, is viscerally exciting in a way that little else is. A trio, this band featured David Sims on bass and Rey Washam on drums, both of Scratch Acid. “Monobrow” is a felicitous example of Albini’s articulate jagoff mode, lyrics just personal notes waiting for the dawn of internet annotation: “I saw Todd Trainer singing in German / Scared the shit out of me / And I don’t scare easily.” The music is preposterously tense, Washam rolling between bar lines like he is going to lose possession of his drums for a month and needs to play as much as he can before the repo truck comes. The middle of the song collapses into a modified disco breakdown while Albini makes his guitar hold long bendy whoops, not unpleasant at all. And then he screams, which people did a lot in the ’80s.

Albini is often mentioned in newspapers for producing well-known albums like Nirvana’s In Utero and The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase, all of which he would insist that he did not produce but rather engineered, a distinction we can grant him—with a loving asterisk. Having Albini in the room was absolutely as significant as any other musician being there; and the most accurate description of anyone, talented or not, who helps make a record is that they have joined the band, the way an editor joins a piece along with the writer.

You can identify an Albini recording easily, once you’ve heard a few of them. There are very few filtering interventions and a great deal of what is known as “room sound,” what feels a bit like a recording of the air itself, the reflections and distant echoes of the amplifiers that you usually only hear very close-up. This approach often heightens the sense of people making music together, not just sound signals. Albini was, ultimately, interested in other people, which manifests in his recordings, and the dozens and dozens of testimonials to his friendship that have been published in the short period since his death. His stubborn belief in things made by people, by hand, with care, be they loaves of bread or albums or copper guitar picks, made Albini suspicious of revolutionary modes of music production like sampling, which he described as “lazy.” He apologized explicitly for his edgelord behavior in the ’80s, but I am not sure he changed his mind about sampling.

Shellac performing live, Teragram Ballroom, Los Ángeles, 2018. Photo: Gail Butensky.

There is not so much screaming in Shellac or attempts to shock his peers out of their complacency. This band, in business for thirty years, is a secretly sweet proposal. Shellac’s drummer is Trainer (of the monobrow) and the bassist is Bob Weston, also an engineer. For a recent cover story for the Wire, Albini told Emily Posthast: “Primarily we’re friends, and we want to hang out with each other, and we want to play music together and we want to do shows and write songs and record.” Because Shellac never sent out promotional review copies, we will have to take Weston’s word for it, as told to Posthast: “It just sounds like another Shellac record.”

Steve Albini, San Francisco, 1991. Photo: Gail Butensky.

Albini was not a friend exactly but a warm and prompt correspondent whom I consulted every few years. His last email, sent on January 2nd, read, in full: “I am canceling/blocking all subscriptions and communication with Substack for platforming Nazis. You should migrate to a non-fascist platform.” (I did.) He was as emotionally sober as he was resolute in his convictions, so it seems right to send him off the way he saluted others on Twitter: requiescat Steve, followed by the most wholesome of emojis—a red balloon.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York. His memoir, Earlier, was recently published by Semiotext(e).

In remembrance of the sound and voice of the indelible musician and recording engineer.
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