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Remembering Steve Albini, rock musician and engineer, who died at 61

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An important figure in shaping the sounds of the 1980s and '90s has died. Steve Albini helped to create albums by Nirvana, PJ Harvey, the Pixies and others.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART-SHAPED BOX")

NIRVANA: (Singing) She eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak.

INSKEEP: Albini was also a respected musician in his own right. He died earlier this week at 61 of a heart attack, and NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG BLACK SONG, "BAD PENNY")

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Steve Albini founded the band Big Black in 1981. He was an undergrad at Northwestern University. Soon, seeing a show by Big Black became something of a defining experience for young musicians entranced by the power of hardcore experimental rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANNIE CLARK: It's kind of physically painful in a really wonderful way.

ULABY: That's Annie Clark of the band St. Vincent on NPR in 2011, remembering when she saw Big Black in the late 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CLARK: It's just, like, lacerating guitar and this noise and this thing that kind of expresses all of your suburban angst and rage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD PENNY")

BIG BLACK: (Singing) Ought to know what a liar I am, ought to know me by now.

LEOR GALIL: Steve Albini was one of the most important figures in the subcultural international punk scene since the early '80s.

ULABY: Music critic Leor Galil works at the Chicago Reader, a few miles from Steve Albini's recording studio. Albini founded Electrical Audio in the mid-1990s.

GALIL: His work as an engineer is what he's best known for. He produced - he hates the word - he hated the word produced, but he recorded Nirvana's "In Utero" album. That was their big punk album after they broke through nationally.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIRVANA SONG, "SCENTLESS APPRENTICE")

ULABY: True to his punk rock ethos, Albini was known for rejecting royalties on principle for albums he'd recorded.

GALIL: That money was made for the musicians who recorded it. He saw himself as kind of another tool in the studio for bands to take advantage of to capture their best sound.

ULABY: A sound raw and real.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RID OF ME")

PJ HARVEY: (Singing) 'Til you say don't you wish you never, never met her? Don't you, don't you wish you...

GALIL: It was about capturing the noise in the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RID OF ME")

PJ HARVEY: (Singing) Never met her. Don't you, don't you...

ULABY: Steve Albini, by his own estimate, recorded more than 1,000 albums, including PJ Harvey's "Rid Of Me." He talked to NPR in 2011 about the lessons he wanted to pass along.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STEVE ALBINI: You don't get anywhere by mimicking the people who did it poorly in the mainstream. You accomplish things by working within your means and by keeping as much control of your own existence as possible.

ULABY: Albini's austerity meant no publicists, no hairstylists and no managers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ALBINI: Those people are unnecessary. They're frivolous. They're an insult to the efficiency of the underground.

ULABY: That's Steve Albini being restrained. For a long time, he was known for epically tearing into his foes in the music industry. His insults were sometimes racist and sexist. But over the years, Albini apologized for things he'd said. The Chicago Reader's Leor Galil says he mellowed into something close to a mensch.

GALIL: He has done a tremendous amount of work with people who have no name, everyone from the Foo Fighters to my friends' bands recorded over the weekend.

ULABY: Steve Albini, he said, worked with anyone who shared his ferocious commitment to discipline, independence and old-fashioned integrity. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY IN 3'S")

THE BREEDERS: (Singing) He's an ape, he's an angel. Only in threes, oh, oh, oh, oh. Only in threes, oh yeah. Only in threes, oh, oh, oh, oh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: May 9, 2024 at 9:00 PM PDT
In this report, we incorrectly say that Annie Clark of St. Vincent remembered seeing the band Big Black in the late 1990s. In fact, in the audio clip used, Clark was recalling when she first heard Big Black, not when she saw the band. Big Black was not touring in the 1990s.
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.