“He was always right, even when he was wrong.” Thurston Moore and PJ Harvey share memories of their friend Steve Albini

Thurston Moore, Steve Albini, PJ Harvey
(Image credit: Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images for Fender Musical Instruments Corporation | Jim Bennett/WireImage | Burak Cingi/Redferns)

Thurston Moore and PJ Harvey have paid touching tributes to their friend Steve Albini, the iconoclastic musician and much-in-demand recording engineer, who passed away suddenly on May 7. Vocalist/guitarist with Chicago noise-rock trio Shellac, Albini died after suffering a heart attack at his recording studio Electric Audio. He was 61. 

Moore's former group, Sonic Youth, were contemporaries and former labelmates of Albini's first band Big Black, both becoming influential key players in the development of the US underground rock community.

In a lengthy, beautifully-written post on his social media pages, Moore affectionately hails Albini "as a person of passion and contradiction."

He writes: "Like the music he adored and devoted his life to – punk and experimental action, suspect and resistant to any semblance of exploitation – Steve Albini was a person of passion and contradiction. He seemed to have a bemused realization of his own staunch judgement towards factionalism, us versus them, the capitalist colonization agenda of the recording industry coexisting with the socialist minded independent music world. He could articulate, from a surprisingly young age, with intelligent and intellectual passion, reasons not to set foot in the manipulative cogs of “major” label indignity. While wholly serious in his analysis he also seemed to be able to write it all off at the end of the day as being alive in an absurd universe.

"Alongside his set-in-stone scowl was always a genuinely soulful smile. I remember meeting Steve when Big Black first came to NYC in the early 80s. Byron Coley and Jimmy Johnson from Forced Exposure had driven down for the gig and we all gathered in whatever the Danceteria dressing room hovel was. Byron and Jimmy had recently. sat down with Sonic Youth to interview us for their zine around that time and I had just gotten to know those two, connecting to their wide open, record collecting mania, their exuberance of attitude in critiquing the nascent explosions of post-punk and post-no wave and post -hard core, introducing avant-garde jazz and other musics to so many green and hungry minds, mine included. I recognized immediately their fascination with this voice from Chicago – Steve Albini – who immediately proved himself to be as vociferous and cutting and acerbic and hilarious as they were. Big Black made sonic manifest the tenor of this crossfire. That zine-conscious gathering sparked off a life-long camaraderie between us goons, along with so many other self-made wildly-opinionated minds – Gerard Cosloy, Lydia Lunch et al – regardless of whatever personal ups-and-downs would occur throughout the subsequent decades.

"Steve began writing for FE with Big Black and SY sharing stages and kipping on apartment floors together while crisscrossing the planet. He would become utterly disenchanted at SY for signing on with Geffen in 1990 considering it an abandonment of principle. Of course, we’d argue this; the transparent accounting and health care offered by a corporate label versus the artistic freedom of an independent label where day-to-day operations could, many times, be a mystery. His analogies of a recording engineer not being any more important than a plumber came across as certainly endearing. But Steve was not a plumber.

"He was an artist, a musician, a recording engineer, a high functioning decoder allowing for a plethora of poker winnings and pool table mastery. He loved the clean, solid, stylish simplicity of a classic Zippo lighter.

"Steve, like the many other inspired people he admired, was drawn to, and would find himself working with – be it Whitehouse or Nirvana – was an authentic visionary, a person alive with the delight of creative impulse. And no matter how many times he'd sign off his written and oral missives with a middle finger raised high in the air he seemed to absolutely love the world and its people. While his recent self-analysis on social media would express regret for youthful insolence it never proffered apology; his writing, as such, was always humanist, knowing that our lives are in a constant state of flux and learning. If any ideology could be seen as essential to Steve I always saw it to be communitarianism. Fighting the good fight. At least that’s the sense I got from knowing him back in the old days.

"Button pushing moves by naming his band the worse name imaginable or album and song titles intended to trash whatever nihilist energy they claimed to own were obviously the audacious actions of a provocateur. Publicly chastising his contemporaries alongside the dinosaurs of high-profile culture was an invitation to discourse (if not outright humiliation). He was always ready to throw down. His music, his guitar style, his amp settings, they were all primal attacks, and they were all with a huge heart of love behind the machine, well-oiled and assured.

"Steve seriously listened, studied, watched. No matter what level of intimacy one would have with him through the years (we hardly connected much after the mid 90s or so – only crossing paths on various festival shows, saying hey, knowing each other well enough like cousins through the years) there’d always be some propensity for an enlightened exchange whether it be in regards to the values of variable genres of music and nature, or the distinct vagaries between the myriad options of Chicago taquerias, Steve had answers and he had pronouncements. He was always right, even when he was wrong.

"A huge, huge light, a stick of dynamite in shredded low-top sneakers, skintight ripped dungarees and a torn Rudimentary Peni t-shirt in our micro-community of marginalized music has moved on. Yesterday’s news was a shock, heartbreaking, we will truly miss him here."

Polly Jean Harvey, who worked with Albini on her second album, Rid of Me, recorded at the same rural Minnesota studio to which the acclaimed engineer would return to record Nirvana's In Utero album, described the late Shellac frontman as "a great friend - wise, kind and generous."

"Meeting Steve Albini and working with him changed the course of my life," the English singer/songwriter posted. "He taught me so much about music, and life. Steve was a great friend - wise, kind and generous. I am so grateful. My thoughts are with him and his family and friends as we suffer his loss."

News of Albini's death broke yesterday, May 8, and was followed by a wealth of tributes from peers, fans, and music industry figures.

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.