Thursday, May 9, 2024

Steve Albini RIP

Shocked and shaken by the way-early death of Steve Albini.  

Saddened too.

People I've met through this music thing are thinning down in number, it feels like. 

I interviewed Steve three times.

The first time was with the rest of Big Black, somewhere in North London, in 1987.

The second time, a photographer friend instigated it. The location was a Lower East Side bar and it was a thorough and very interesting interview. But for some reason I never wrote it up - perhaps there wasn't a hook to hang it on. This would have been 1989, or 1990 - maybe he was between bands? 

(Some while ago I made a list of a lifetime's interviews-never-even-transcribed-let-alone-written-up - and it was larger and more shaming than I'd anticipated). 

The third time was when Big Black's discography was being reissued, or perhaps first-time-issued on compact disc - including all the earliest Albini-alone stuff, plus a live concert of them at their peak. This took place late summer '92, I think. Location was a recording studio in North London (Southern Studios in fact - home of the record label). He was there to remaster the records being reissued, 

Another thing I hazily remember is that Steve was also copying,  for his personal aural delectation, hours and hours of  never-released master tapes of music, or anti-music, made by members of Crass before punk. That's how I remember it. Did he play me any? Was it droning dimly in the background? I have the faintest memory-trace of something in the vicinity of Metal Machine Music or perhaps even Roland Kayn. Abstract, abrasive, atonal - but this aural  after-image may just be a phantom memory. Or even a dream (I can't be the only one who's had dreams about imaginary albums - in my case always by actually-existing artists).  But I distinctly recall him saying that was what he was up to in the studio, while also remastering. I wonder what he could have been talking about? 

At any rate, here is Steve Albini being forthcoming and forthright, drily witty and rigorous in his logic, as he was in the earlier two encounters. I liked him a lot, even though some of his opinions I found fairly incomprehensible. 

Melody Maker, November 21 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Reissue-mania rages unabated. And now it's getting eerie, for they're dis-interring the recent past, stuff I
wrote about at the time. To whit: the entire Big Black catalogue: from the early EP's ("Bulldozer", "Racer X", "Lungs",), right up the band's final out-with-a-bang-not-a-whimper performance at London's Clarendon, captured in the form of the album/video Pigpile.

But what you really need to hear is Big Black's two LP's Atomiser (1986) and Songs About Fucking (1987). Combining catharsis-through concussion noise with a morbid interest in the extremities of human experience, Big Black were an absolute pinnacle of the sickfuck /ear-gouge aesthetic.
"Songs" like "Jordan, Minnesota", "Kerosene", "Bad Penny" still chafe your eardrums and pummel your guts something grievous. And then there's the Big Black legacy, which stretches from Hole (Courtney Love recently put "Kerosene" at top of her Top Ten Records That Changed My Life) to the
English skronk scene (Silverfish etc) to the ghoulish thrash of Therapy?. Ah well... I guess, like most great bands, Big Black's influence has been largely dire and occasionally productive.

Anyways, here's Steve Albini, all set to appraise the "living legacy", his acquaintance with his own oeuvre refreshed after eight hours of remastering at Southern Studios in North London. I've interviewed him a couple of times, but it's easy to forget how likeable he is, easy to assume he's identical with the twisted, obsessed geek that so often inhabits the songs. In reality, he's an appealing fellow. His virtues include admirable rigor and fastidiousness of thought, a dry sense of humour, scrupulous
honesty, and against-the-grain contrariness: he says that far from objecting, he'd rather I smoke, because he prefers the company of smokers - "they tend to be more tolerant and less judgemental than non-smokers".)

Re-listening to his own music, it transpires, was not always a comfortable experience. "I haven't heard those early Big Black records for five years, and it's horribly embarrassing, like if someone uncovered your high school year book pictures and wanted to publish them nationally". The embarrassment abates a bit when Big Black ceased to be the 19 year old Albini "fucking around on my own with a drum
machine", with the arrival in 1982 of guitarist Santiago Durango and, a bit later, bassist Dave Riley. "When it was just me it was far more stylized and affected than when it was performing rock band that wrote songs as a collective."

The way Albini tells it, Big Black's collective identity was based not on convictions about how rock bands should sound but how they should conduct themselves. "We had an ideology about how we dealt with people inside the music scene, the way we'd operate as a team internally. We constructed an archetype of a perfect rock band, which we tried to live up to."

That ideology was basically the punk belief in "complete control". "We were inspired more by what punk rock purported to be, rather than what it actually was. The exemplar of independence and ethical conduct today are Fugazi, where they call their own shots, don't have a manager, don't have a
booking agent. And we did all that stuff ourselves. It's actually quite easy."

It was this ferociously uncompromising idealism that culminated in the decision to end Big Black at the height of its white-hot fervour of creativity, critical esteem and popularity in '87. The pretext was Santiago's long-delayed decision to become fulfil his familial obligation to become a lawyer. But really, Big Black were sick of the problems generated by their burgeoning success. And so they opted for
one of the great feats of bloodymindedness in rock history, a premature auto-destruct rivalled only by Jane's Addiction.

"As we got bigger, people tried to make plays for the band, appeals to our vanity or our ambition, or tried to coerce us into doing things. And it was obvious that the only way to short circuit that was just to break the band up. We were never comfortable with the notion that there were people
in the audience that we didn't know personally. Finally, we'd play a show to several hundred and it'd be a real stretch to find three we'd want to talk to. In the beginning there's a sense of kinship with the audience. As it gets bigger, that community gets diffuse, and you can either accept the fact that you're a star entertainer. Or you can completely sever yourself from the audience, like we did."

Albini is sceptical about the notion of a Big Black legacy. 

"See, what I considered the most important thing about the band was the way we conducted ourselves, not the series of noises that came out of the speakers. To me, the least significant part of any band is the stylistic elements. Any truly great band is going to have consistent stylistic elements. But they're also going to have ideals underneath that are the foundation for the style. Unfortunately with Big Black it's the superficial elements that've been mimicked." 

According to Albini, the list of culpable copyists who grabbed hold of the substance but not the spirit range from Godflesh and their grindcore ilk to "a lot of the disco- industrial stuff" (Wax-Trax etc). Nor can he see many examples of a positive influence. "There are people that think similarly, but I think it'd be awfully presumptuous of me to say they'd been inspired by us. As well as Fugazi, there are many smaller American bands doing things completely indepedent of the music industry/alternative scene."

It's strange to think of Big Black as idealists, when so many of their lyrical obsessions seemed to partake of a brutally nihilistic worldview, a vision of human life as governed by power-relations of domination and submission. 

"When I think of Big Black I think of our motivations and ethics. The lyrics are paid an undue amount of attention, I'm not joking when I say they were largely an afterthought. It was whatever we happened to be interested in at the time. We were disenfranchised middle class Americans, and so we had
the same sort of death and freak obsessions that everyone from that era had. I do think that those themes are universal, to an extent. De Sade explored a lot of the same territory. I don't actually share de Sade's worldview, but I think it's sort of fun to put on that hat and actually think that way. That's where the personalities in the songs came from. I was interested in imagining the motivations for extreme behaviours that appear totally preposterous."

Big Black's anti-Romanticism was signalled very clearly in the sleeve note salutation on Songs About Fucking to "all bands who don't write love songs", which recalled the Futurists' proclamation that the nude in painting was an exhausted idiom, sentimentalized and enfeebled.

"Every so often you'll find someone who has an angle on the love song that isn't completely beaten to death. But it just seems like such a small domain for 90 percent of pop to be centred on. I don't know why there aren't more songs about three-cushion billiard, which I think is the most beautiful, graceful thing a human being can do. I don't understand why there aren't songs about taxidermy or fly fishing. There are so many things that people do for satisfaction, that don't centre on rubbing genitals."

By 1987, the post-hardcore/noise-horror bands' fetishisation of real life at its most graphic and ghastly
seemed to have reached a dead end. There seemed like there was no way to up the shock effects, the torturous noise levels. And so the aesthetic petered out (until it's recent resurrection with the grunge movement). By '87, the obsession with psychopaths and serial killers seemed to be just another kind of conformist cliche, a stock narrative.

"I agree to an extent, although those themes go back a long way, to the blues and Appalachian murder ballads. I don't think we actually did it to an obsessive degree. But the bands that mimicked Big Black and our peers, did develop a "let's write about 'grody' things" aesthetic that very quickly burned itself out."

At times it seemed like hardcore bands identified with serial killers as the ultimate heroic outsiders. Albini denies that BB ever celebrated "lowlife" or psychosis. Nonetheless, the characters in songs like "Kerosene" (a bored man who combines his small town's two sources of release - blowing things up and screwing the local slut - in a single self-immolatory catharsis), or "Power Of Independent
Trucking" (a fuck'em, forget'em redneck nomad) did come across as vaguely impressive figures. Their singlemindedness is almost heroic, because they're decisive, they act. 

"What interested in me in those subjects was examining the scenarios in detail and finding the degree of absurdity or obsession that was expressed. The ultimate interest lay in seeing how close these characters were to you, coming to accept that everyone is capable of extreme, absurd, and preposterous behaviour like that, under certain conditions."

Along with limit-experiences, Big Black struggled to reach the extremities of aural punishment. At the time, Albini declared that even though he was losing his hearing in the right ear, he could never get the band to sound loud enough. He still feels that "when I see a band I like, I want to be overwhelmed, pinned to the wall, induced to vomit."

For many, the bankruptcy of this sado-masochist aesthetic, with its concealed machismo and latent misogyny, was finally revealed in the name of Albini's post-Big Black combo, Rapeman. Albini is still unperturbed by the outcry that surrounded that ill-fated band (whose music, incidentally, he rates higher than Big Black!). He shrugs it off as a very local-to-England knee-jerk response on the part of the tattered remnants of left-wing politics.

"The idea that Rapeman or Big Black were misogynist seemed completely misdirected to me. The songs were all personas. If the persona adopted for a song happened to be a sexist pig, I don't see how that relates to my personal politics. But that's a leap that people make all the time. Accusations of proto-fascist ideology, sexism and machismo were much more appropriate for heavy metal than the scene in
which we operated."

After R***man, Albini's pursued a very successful career as a producer. He grimaces at the idea: ".... It's such a pejorative term, one I associate with a mode of thinking, a way of life, that I shun and abhor." For all his protestations, the list of bands Albini has sprinkled his glitterdust upon is legion: from "big names" like the Wedding Present, Breeders, Pixies to a swarm of minor post-hardcore bands (many done for love rather than money, like Jesus Lizard). Most recently he's scuffed up Silverfish's
latest ball of scree. 

Albini's has long contributed rants and (excellent) fiction to the influential US fanzine Forced Exposure, Most recently he penned a column of "Eyewitness Record Reviews", the idea being that these were the only truly informed reviews ever written because he was involved in making the
albums. Picking only on bands who'd ignored his request NOT to be credited on the sleeve, Albini passed vitriolic verdicts on the platters and the personnel behind them, concluding with the fee he charged.

Albini has similarly trenchant opinions on the state of the rock underground. "Until about six months ago I thought we were in the absolute fucking depths. But very recently, there's been an upswell of unknown bands, and my opinion of the rock community has improved significantly." He cites
eccentric labels like Drag City, and "really independent" bands like Arc Welder, Shorty, The Dijdits, Slint, Jesus Lizard, The Idiot, as the wave of the future.

"Nirvana's success has triggered a buying frenzy on the part of the record industry. On one hand that's bad, 'cos some good bands will be tempted to sign to the majors and will of course be destroyed as all good bands are. But on the other hand, it's good: a whole load of real horseshit bands will be taken out of the picture. Bands that sign to a major have typically eighteen months: a year of being treated
like kings, then the album comes out, it fails to meet the sales expectations, they spend six months in limbo and then the band collapses. But there is a population of bands who recognise the stupidity of signing to major, like Jesus Lizard, who've told them to get fucked. And I think those bands will be the foundation of the next significant phase in American music. We're in the shit now, it's going to be
horrible, a lot of indie labels are going to form unholy alliances with majors and they'll be crushed. But the end result is going to be very positive. It'll destroy the incentive the majors have to eat up indie bands, and wipe out the bands who are weak enough to think they can cash in."

Albini admits, with a twinge of ruefulness, that he's sorely tempted to get back into the fray himself. "Not a day goes by where I don't miss being in a band. Personally it would be hugely satisfying to just do it. But I also think the one thing that's missing in the music scene is restraint; people are constantly releasing things".

Instead, Albini has a new focus for his energies: three cushion billiards, a game which he finds has almost Zen-like properties in terms of the discipline and focus it demands. "It's very humbling, especially if you're used to the instant gratification of playing rock. Executing a particular shot,
you either have the right stuff or you don't. It's completely unforgiving. I'm good enough to make a fair game with someone who's national tournament calibre. But it takes 50 years to be good at this game. I'm 29, and I've only been playing for three years."


In truly eerie timing, Albini and his band Shellac are cover stars of the new issue of The Wire, pegged to their new long-awaited album To All Trains.

Here's a much older Wire piece  - 1994, thirty fucking years ago - with Albini doing Invisible Jukebox and scattering caustic opinions hither and thither.

Unless I'm misremembering, the interviewer Jakubowski is an alias then used by Nick Terry of Lime Lizard / The Lizard / Terrorizer renown.


Ed said...

RIP. One of the pleasures of following Steve Albini on social media in recent years was the way that that personality came out: idiosyncratic, funny, and surprisingly warm-hearted.

He was one of the very few people who have actually enhanced their reputations by tweeting.

Ed said...

He was also a thoughtful critic of his own career. He once described 'Jordan, Minnesota' as possibly "the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever had to own up to". After Atomizer was released, it emerged that the horrific scenes described in the song were likely to have been figments of a crazed prosecutor's over-active imagination.

Stylo said...

This was a review I wrote for Atomizer. I stand by it.

The current stereotype of the American small town serves as a handy illustration of the Hegelian dialectic (although the standard formulation of the Hegelian dialectic came from followers of Hegel rather than Hegel himself). Nice, clear introduction, that!
For those without the foolishness to get philosophy degrees, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a 19th-century German philosopher noted for his obscurancy. Indeed, his obscurancy has led plenty to denounce him as a charlatan (and may well lead me to make some howlers in articulating his views), but he also proved a decisive influence on modern European philosophy. Anyway, focusing on one aspect of Hegelian thought, Hegel asserted that history followed a rational process of progress, a process that became formalised as the Hegelian dialectic. That is, a central thesis gets formed, and the opposite to that thesis, the antithesis, generates in reaction. The thesis and antithesis come into conflict, out of which emerges a synthesis, which retains the rational aspects of both the thesis and antithesis whilst rejecting the pair's irrational aspects. This synthesis in turn becomes the thesis in another round of the Hegelian dialectic. Everyone following? In honesty, it doesn't really matter if you're not.
So, American small towns. In 1984, you get the movie Footloose, where wackjob preacher John Lithgow bans dancing and it's up to Kevin Bacon's nifty pins to boogie apart Lithgow's neighbourhood tyranny. So here, John Lithgow represents the thesis and Kevin Bacon the antithesis. I won't spoil it, but you can guess what the synthesis is. And Big Black's Atomizer, with its abrasive guitars and crass lyrical themes, is basically Kevin Bacon (Yes, I knew I had a point to all this!). Now, a lot of parpings has been whaffed out regarding the iniquities of the American small town, and how all the young people get so bored with their parents' genteel Christian fascism that they spend their time putting meth up each others' bottoms and nailing themselves to passing cars. I tend to find such depictions tawdry and rather dishonest: some teens do get mashed up on toad secretions, but most actually just graduate.
Speaking of which, the central figure to Big Black, Steve Albini, got himself a degree in journalism before forming Big Black. Nowadays, Steve Albini has more renown as a recording engineer. The job title is significant: Albini refuses the tag of "producer", considering his role to record the act faithfully without contamination from his aesthetic sensibilities. Over 1500 acts have sought his ministrations, most famously Nirvana with In Utero. Of course, I can't speak about the totality of his work as an engineer, but I have loved much of the most prominent work he's engineered.
The perceptive might have noticed that I have waffled on something chronic with scant mention of the album. That's because the album is insubstantial to the touch. It's an okay punk album cursed with rather a lack of spark, and yet more evidence to my argument that America never really understood the potential of punk. I do not concur at all with the notion that this is noise at its rawest. Each song sounds fine (not great) in isolation, but the frenzy dissipates as song follows song, and in the end you both feel both drowsy and unfilled. Along with this, the oh-so-adult nature of the lyrics often strikes one as a product of quite cheerless immaturity. That this immaturity was intentional, the punchline for a killing joke, is of no relevance whatsoever. You may consider a song about some teens setting themselves on fire for shits and giggles to be profound, but not me, I've read Hegel. And I've seen Footloose. 3/5

Isn't Footloose Liz Truss' favourite film?

Anonymous said...

In addition to morbid coincidence of the Wire piece, the Invisible Jukebox takes place around the time of Kurt Cobain's death (presumably beforehand - its not mentioned in the "Teen Spirit" discussion). I was initially surprised that Albini hated Sabbath, but on reflection it makes sense - the trebly, frenetic restlessness of Big Black/Shellac is poles apart from the lurching stoner/quaalude stomp of Ozzy & co.

Albini has been a constant presence throughout my entire interest in music from the late 80s onwards ...from Surfer Rosa to Sunn (((0s most recent album. American underground rock would be considerably different - and a great deal worse - without his contribution.

Ed said...

The Footloose analogy / comparison is brilliant. Someone should make one of those fan cuts of Footloose with Atomizer as the soundtrack.

Could throw in John Cougar Mellencamp as a premier mythologiser of small-town America, with ‘Jack and Diane’ and, er, ‘Small Town’.

Contrast Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’ which has not a shred of affection in it. Jimmy Somerville 🤝 Steve Albini => seeing small towns as hell-holes.

Stylo said...

Is it actually possible to demolish every single album involving Steve Albini by whispering halfway through the opening song, "Footloose"?

Louis Pattison said...

Sounds like that pre-Crass music Albini was copying would have been Exit - a sort of Fluxus/performance art thing Penny and Gee did in the years prior to Crass. John Loder, founder of/engineer at Southern Studios, was also involved, so it'd make sense if the tapes were present.

Haven't heard a lot of it, but there's a track of it over here:


Wow, nice detective work Louis

So it's not some kind of dreamed false memory then!


ICES 72 - ah that makes sense!

There was a whole book about that one festival done by insanely prolific music-book author Dave Thompson

Ah and the poster for the festival was designed by Gee Vaucher

How interesting that they'd be doing some so unlike Crass, at least in terms of not having an explicit didactic / agit-prop text element to it.

But I guess the politics of that improv / experimental milieu were small 'a' anarchist / anti-fascist etc etc

I blogged about ICES 72 in the second half of this blogpost

Louis Pattison said...

Yeah, I suppose Penny and Gee had other outlets for that didactic/agit-prop stuff in that period - Penny was a writer, poetry and political pamphlets - Gee obviously an incredible artist working in political collage, she was being published in Rolling Stone and the New York Times in the mid '70s and that became fundamental to Crass' visual presentation.

Penny was (no shade intended!) kind of an opportunist when it came to punk, he was into free improv, classical music, Benjamin Britten, John Cage. But he did (correctly) see it as a vehicle for ideas, voice for the disenfranchised, etc. And of course later on Crass swerve back into that free improv/avant garde thing - Yes Sir I Will is the content of Crass with the form of Exit, perhaps...

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