Remembering Steve Albini, a restless creative who changed rock music forever - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Steve Albini’s music. I was a freshman in high school, just at the age when I was growing tired of the classic rock albums I’d been jamming since childhood and looking for something harder. I’d already found plenty of “lo-fi” and “noisy” albums from internet forums – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Loveless, White Light/White Heat – and while I loved them all dearly, and admired their unconventional production, I never understood why people would describe those records as if they were some great challenge to listen to. Maybe it was my young ears that had grown up listening to music on phone speakers, consuming the news of the ever-worsening world through shaky cell-phone footage. My ears were used to hurting. I figured that I’d never find anything that could really deliver on the ear-torture I sought, that my quest to recreate the electric sensation of hearing a distorted guitar for the first time was completely bust.

Then someone told me to listen to an album called Songs About Fucking. The album cover was simple. The name of the band, Big Black, and in smaller letters, the ridiculously profane title. A green background and a cartoon of a moaning woman. It felt dangerous to have it on my phone. I got the sense that my Mom would be furious if she saw what I’d just downloaded. It felt like contraband. And walking between classes, listening to it on my tiny little wired earbuds, I clicked the first track. I know exactly what part of exactly what hallway in my school I was in when I heard Steve wail out those opening lyrics: “The backBONE of this country is the independent truckers”! I had my volume cranked all the way up and near-instantly got a migraine. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The guitars were so blown-out and treble-boosted they sounded like a swarm of wasps that had gotten hold of a chainsaw. For a few seconds, I was convinced that my earbuds were broken. It felt like I was hearing rock music for the first time again.

Big Black - The Power Of Independent Trucking

Of course, I didn’t know that I’d heard Steve Albini’s work before. In fact, most people have heard Albini’s work before, they just don’t know it. If you’ve ever heard “Where Is My Mind” or “Heart-Shaped Box,” you’ve heard Albini. If you’ve ever heard any song from a 90s alt-rock artist and thought, “why does this sound so raw?”, you’ve heard Albini. A prolific producer and a prolific musician, Steve Albini’s influence on music was too deep to summarize in a retrospective. Everyone I know has found a different way to pay tribute to him. At the XPN office, I hear the shrill guitars of “Kerosene” ringing out of someone’s computer speakers. Friends text me and tell me what they’re jamming in his memory. For some, it’s Shellac’s At Action Park, a nervous and dissonant exercise in minimalist rock that seemed to flay open the guitar and lay all of its contents bare for generations of noise addicts. Others are reminding me of his work producing lesser-known classics, like Songs: Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co. or The Wesley Willis Fiasco’s Spookydisharmoniousconflicthellride (an absolutely insane punk record featuring outsider musician and Albini’s close friend Wesley Willis on vocals). One friend tells me she’s re-watching the excellent YouTube videos he’s created – if you haven’t checked out Electrical Audio’s YouTube channel, it’s an invaluable resource for any producer, be they working in a studio or a bedroom. Another reminds me of the legendary anti-Steely-Dan twitter rant he went on, which opens, “I will always be the kind of punk that shits on Steely Dan.” What didn’t Steve Albini do? He was a two-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, too.

That’s what I hope Albini is remembered for – not just as an in-demand producer for smash-hit records like In Utero, but also as a revolutionary guitarist and a strongly-opinionated spirit. Albini was a notoriously vocal critic of the music industry, a staunch defender of analog recording, and an undying hater of pop music. Look deep enough and you’ll find an Albini take that pisses you off – to me, it’s part of his charm. In his later years, he welcomed criticism and dialogue surrounding his “edgelord” past, and has since been an outspoken critic of bigotry and systemic oppression. Albini also championed independent musicians throughout his life, offering surprisingly affordable rates through his Electrical Audio studios and frequently writing and speaking about the abuses of the music industry against musicians.

Steve Albini’s passing today at age 61 comes just days before the release of Shellac’s To All Trains, their first album of new material in a decade. True to Albini’s spirit, the tracklist contains a random dig at post-punk band The Fall and closes with “I Don’t Fear Hell.” Pointing out the cosmic irony of such a track title would seem in poor taste if I were writing about any other musician, but one can only assume that Albini would find the coincidence absolutely hilarious. It’s a fitting send-off to a beloved provocateur whose work has touched the lives of countless musicians and music fans. Guitar music never sounded the same. In the words of Wesley Willis: Thank you, Steve Albini.

For more on this legendary figure in music, last year World Cafe’s Raina Douris interviewed him on the show’s Sense Of Place series about the Chicago music scene. Listen to the episode below.

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