Shellac frontman and legendary alt. rock engineer Steve Albini dead at 61

Steve Albini in 2014
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Steve Albini, one of the best-known personalities in US underground rock, frontman of Shellac and the recording engineer on classic albums by Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, The Jesus Lizard and more, has died, aged 61.

Albini died of a heart attack last night (May 7), staff at his Chicago recording studio Electric Audio confirmed to music website Pitchfork.

Born in Pasadena, California, Albini grew up in Montana, before moving to Evanston, Illinois to study at NorthWestern University. While studying journalism at the university, Albini initially carved out a reputation as an acerbic fanzine writer, before forming, in 1981, Big Black, a band who would become one of the most influential, hard-hitting acts in US alternative rock.

The liner notes the notoriously outspoken Albini penned for Big Black’s posthumous live album Pigpile may have referred specifically to that band’s modus operandi but they also laid out the basic principles which informed his life’s work, from his days as a fanzine writer through to his career as a musician and studio technician.

"Treat everyone with as much respect as he deserves (and no more)," he wrote. "Avoid people who appeal to our vanity or ambition (they’ll always have an angle). Operate as much as possible apart from the 'music scene'. Take no shit from anyone in the process."

Like so many US musicians of his generation, Albini was turned on to punk rock by the Ramones. Speaking to this writer three years ago, Albini said, "I didn’t know anything about music except what leaked out of the popular consciousness, so when this band appeared, fully-formed, that played directly into the obsessions of me and my dorky friends – horror films and trash culture, general adolescent misbehaviour and transgressive thoughts – I took to them like a fish to water. It was inescapable that this would be the band and the scene for me. Rock music at the time had a lot of pageantry and pomp attached, and a lot of it struck me as affected nonsense. Then the Ramones appeared, dressed like me and my friends, with no robes or smoke machines, and that seemed so much more powerful."

He initially formed Big Black as a one-man dorm project, once claiming that the group started life as a solo project because he couldn’t find like-minded musicians "who didn’t blow out of a pig’s asshole": he subsequently recruited guitarist Santiago Durango and bassist Dave Riley to play in the band alongside his trusted drum machine, 'Roland'. The group's two studio albums, 1986's Atomizer, and 1987's Songs About Fucking, are both regarded as alt. rock masterpieces, and deal with humanity's darkest, most deviant impulses. With graphic lyrics dissecting child abuse, domestic violence, racism and misogyny allied to sheet-metal guitar riffing and harsh, skittering drum machine beats, the group were every bit as brutal, confrontational and provocative as Albini's fanzine writing.

Fellow music writers at the time were simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by Big Black's scabrous songs, detecting a deep moral core buried beneath the layers of feedback, filth and fuzz. Reviewing Atomizer, a forensic dissection of the ugly urges churning beneath the surface of Ronald Reagan’s whitewashed America, esteemed critic Robert Christgau noted, "Though they don’t want you to know it, these hateful little twerps are sensitive souls – they’re moved to make this godawful racket by the godawful pain of the world."

Big Black split in 1987, when Durango left to attend law school, after which Albini formed the shamefully-named Rapeman, titled after an extreme Japanese manga comic. That band released one studio album, Two Nuns and a Pack Mule, in 1988, before dissolving: that its best song was a cover of ZZ Top's Just Got Paid tells its own story.

Speaking to this writer for a 2021 Kerrang! interview, Albini admitted, "The name of the band was obviously an inexcusable, indefensible mistake, but at the time I was deaf to those criticisms. There’s nothing I can do to make up for that former perspective that I had, other than to say that I was wrong. I was in a privileged position in that I was a dude surrounded by other dudes who were keen to encourage each other to do transgressive things, and it seemed like there was a boundary that people would not go beyond, and I decided to go beyond that.

"Apart from the name of the band, I’m quite proud of everything that Rapeman did," he added. "We made good music and we operated in a way that was fair and generous to everyone we dealt with, but I regret choosing that name."

Having already worked with Pixies, Slint, Urge Overkill and more in the late '80s, between Rapeman’s dissolution in 1989 and the formation of Shellac in 1992, Albini recorded albums for the likes of The Jesus Lizard, Tar, The Breeders, Pussy Galore and Tad. He always refused to accept the term ‘producer’ in connection with his studio work, viewing his role as being that of a sound engineer, and kept his focus on rendering the sound of the musicians playing live in the studio to tape, always to tape, unfiltered. He later went on to record PJ Harvey's Rid Of Me, Nirvana's In Utero, Walking Into Clarksdale by Page & Plant, Bush's Razorblade Suitcase, and literally hundreds of lesser-known records. Each and every recording session he helmed was conducted for a pre-arranged flat fee, with Albini steadfastly refusing to take 'points' on any album, thereby passing up the opportunity to earn literally millions of dollars in royalties, which he viewed as immoral and unethical, believing it to be essentially stealing from the artist. This principled stance also ensured that Albini was never motivated by money when working with bands. Equally, he did not allow his personal tastes to dictate which artists he would record at Electric Audio.

"It’s not my place to be the arbiter of culture and say, 'No, you do not deserve to make a record'," he stated in 2002. "If I feel like a band’s motives are genuine, then the question of whether I like their music artistically becomes immaterial."

Albini's reputation as a masterful studio technician was second to none, and led to him working with acts as diverse as Mogwai, The Frames, The Stooges, Jarvis Cocker, Code Orange and Neurosis. Talking about working with Albini on Nirvana's swansong In Utero, Dave Grohl said, "More than the intention of making a great record, we wanted to impress Steve Albini. He was our hero. He was making albums that sounded so real and so powerful with such a signature sound, sonically he was just untouchable."

Albini formed Shellac in 1992 with fellow audio geeks Bob Weston (bass) and Todd Trainer (drums). The trio never made a bad record, and were set to release To All Trains, their sixth album, and first since 2014's Dude Incredible, on Touch and Go on May 17.

Speaking in 2021, Albini touched upon his reputation as a thorn in the side of the mainstream music industry, stating, "I think that reputation is partly because people ascribe judgements to me that I’m not making. I can be critical of the system of the music industry without being critical of artists who finds themselves entrapped in it.

"My sympathy is always with the artist. But I don’t get a say in what other people think of me. I’m comfortable with that."

Steve Albini: July 22, 1962 - May 7, 2024

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.