Steve Albini, Big Black and Shellac Frontman and Nirvana Engineer, Dies at 61

by 24USATVMay 8, 2024, 6 p.m. 26
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Steve Albini, a leading light of indie-rock’s sound and morality as frontman of Big Black and Shellac and recording engineer for Nirvana, PJ Harvey and many other artists, has died at the age 61. The news was confirmed to Variety on Wednesday by Taylor Hales, who works at Albini’s Chicago recording studio, Electronic Audio; no cause of death was provided.

Albini first rose to acclaim in the early 1980s as the frontman for Big Black, the Chicago-based trio known for aggressive guitar-based rock that worked with a drum machine rather than a live drummer, a rarity for the time. Yet he was also well known for his equally aggressive criticism of musicians and others who he felt were in it for money or popularity rather than the music — and he walked it like he talked it. He reviled the term “producer,” even if that’s arguably what he did on many recordings, and insisted on a “Recorded by Steve Albini” credit and refused to take any “points” — i.e. royalties, a common financial bonus for most top producers — from the recordings he worked on.

His at-times iconoclastic stance — and his galvanizing work on the Pixies’ landmark 1988 album “Surfer Rosa” — endeared him to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who insisted that the band work with Albini on its second major label album, 1993’s “In Utero,” to the chagrin of their label, which was hoping for another speaker-shattering blockbuster similar to the group’s breakthrough, “Nevermind.” (“In Utero” was plenty loud, but not in the radio-friendly way they’d been angling for.) Around the same time, Albini also recorded PJ Harvey’s sophomore effort “Rid of Me,” which had a similarly aggressive sound.

Albini also worked with acts such as the Breeders, Slint, Helmt, the Jesus Lizard, Jon Spencer, the Dirty Three and even former Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on their 1998 album “Walking Into Clarksdale.” The latter album in particular benefited from Albini’s spare, no-frills sound, which was at odds with the duo’s elaborate latter-day recordings.

Later in the In the 1990s he formed the band Shellac, which released five studio albums over the years and was preparing for a tour later this year to support their sixth full-length — and first in a decade — “To All Trains,” which is scheduled for release next week.

Albini was also the founder, owner and principal engineer at Electrical Audio, a recording studio complex in Chicago. Even now, Albini was still consistently taking up production gigs for a flat fee, refusing royalty payments in a show of support with his indie artists.

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