Steve Albini, Legendary Rock Producer and Musician, Dies at 61

The Shellac and Big Black frontman recorded iconic albums by Nirvana, Pixies and more

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished May 8, 2024

Steve Albini — the frontman of Shellac and Big Black who was also a notable producer of albums by Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey and more — has died. Staff at Albini's recording studio, Electric Audio, confirmed to Pitchfork that he passed away of a heart attack. He was 61.

As a producer and engineer, Albini is estimated to have worked on several thousand albums over the course of his career. When credited, he preferred the term "recording engineer," and declined to take a cut of royalties from bands who recorded with him, feeling it would be unethical.

Albini notably laid out this belief and his greater recording methodology in a four-page letter to Nirvana in 1992, aiming to work with the trio on material that would form their third and final album, 1993's In Utero. In the letter, Albini outlines how he likes to "leave room for accidents or chaos," his belief that "99 percent of the sound of a record should be established while the basic take is recorded," how "predicating the recordings on [his] tastes is as stupid as designing a car around the upholstery," and how he "would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it's worth."

"Most contemporary engineers and producers see a record as a 'project,' and the band as only one element of the project," Albini expressed in the letter," going on to share how his approach was "exactly the opposite": "I consider the band the most important thing, as the creative entity that spawned both the band's personality and style and as the social entity that exists 24 hours out of each day. I do not consider it my place to tell you what to do or how to play/ I'm quite willing to let to my opinions be heard (if I think the band is making beautiful progress or a heaving mistake, I consider it part of my job to tell them) but if the band decides to pursue something, I'll see that it gets done."

Albini's extensive production and engineering credits also include albums by Low, Neurosis, the Breeders, Joanna Newsom, Cloud Nothings, Ty Segall, KEN Mode, Foxy Shazam, Screaming Females, Mclusky, Liturgy, Code Orange, Laura Jane Grace, Sunn O))), Zao, Gogol Bordello, Ben Frost, Manis Street Preachers, Om, the Stooges, High on Fire, Leftöver Crack and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Born in Pasadena, CA, Albini and his family moved often during his childhood before settling in Missoula, MT. He credited his pursuit of music to being introduced to the Ramones by a schoolmate, reacllin to The Quietus, "I was baffled and thrilled by music like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Were Ubu, Devo, and all those contemporaneous, inspirational punk bands without wanting try to mimic them."

After playing in bands during his teenage years, Albini would move to Evanston, IL, to pursue a degree in journalism at Northwestern University. In the Chicago area, he documented the local music scene as a writer for local zines, and began recording and engineering for bands in 1981.

That year saw Albini form Big Black, playing nearly every instrument on the group's 1982 debut EP Lungs, released via Ruthless Records, the Chicago punk label he was co-managing at the time. The band would make its full-length debut with 1986's Atomizer before releasing second and final LP Songs About Fucking the following year, having already decided to disband before the album was recorded.

Albini would then form the band Rapeman in 1987, releasing a lone studio album the following year in Two Nuns and a Pack Mule. Albini would express regret for the band's choice of name — taken from a Japanese comic book — decades after the outfit's disbandment. In 2021, he reflected via his X (formerly Twitter) account, "I a lot of thing I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful and regret them. It's nobody's obligation to overlook that, and I do feel an obligation to redeem myself... I expect no grave, and honestly feel like I and others of my generation have not been held to task enough for words and behaviour that ultimately contributed to a coarsening society."

In 1992, Albini formed Shellac alongside Bob Weston and Todd Trainer. The band would release five albums during Albini's lifetime, including 2014's Dude Incredible, which Albini broke down track-by-track for Exclaim! upon its release. Shellac will share their sixth full-length To All Trains on May 17, marking their first album in a decade.

Many artists have paid tribute to Albini. Read their memorials here.

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