He Never Sold Out But Held Out

by Alexis Forss

Should I have known? Could I have? From among the voices on the street, one stands out in front of the place that sells pizza by the slice. Half a phone conversation: ‘Pixies, man. Surfer Rosa.’ The dude’s tone is duly deferential, slightly breathless — rueful, I now realise. I think nothing else of it while walking home through my neighbourhood. Sounds of Hackney Wick; last bank holiday weekend we found ourselves at a hardcore punk gig in the tattoo shop around the corner. Liking the Pixies is a mark of good taste, part of a balanced musical diet — Barack Obama probably had them on his iPod — and that album is canonical. Back in the flat I put the finishing touches on an article on punk zines, and then I read the news out of Chicago.

Steve Albini, dead at 61. (Of course: Pixies, man. He produced the shit out of that album. And PJ Harvey’s. And Breeders’. And so many more. You can tell a lot by how a fan would extend that list.) A heart attack. I can only picture him slumped over his mixing desk, the final reel left unspooling. Up until the sudden last it was a life spent making noise. The rest is silence, and the keening whine of tinnitus.

Much has already been written about him, all of it with an alacrity that he would have respected. After all, this was the man who told Nirvana to record In Utero in a fortnight. As a recording engineer — he rejected the title of Producer, posed neither as Svengali nor Auteur — he was not only efficient himself but the cause of efficiency in others. And his services were available to anyone who could afford his flat fee. Royalties were immoral, a sinecure bankrolled by other peoples’ labour. Here was one of those vanishing rarities of modern cultural life. He never sold out but held out.

Once contracted, he produced the goods — and in abundance. A 2018 interview tried to ascertain the size of his discography: ‘It is probably a couple thousand by now,’ he replied. Somehow, he found the time to record his own albums, to front three bands: Big Black and Shellac might need introducing but they require no apology; the other reprehensible outfit we don’t talk about, except to note that wags on Twitter have already rebaptised it Canolaman. He himself called that particular stunt ‘unconscionable.’

Albini had grind. Not just work ethic; listen to that riff on He’s a Whore. It’s minimal and vicious. Albini the guitarist favoured a metal plectrum, but what’s truly remarkable about his work with Big Black is how heartily it swings – somehow because of, and not despite, being built around a drum machine. On that track, and throughout Songs About Fucking, Roland (as the band named their E-mu Drumulator) is given all the space in the world: the beats punch and land but also billow and swirl. Albini’s vocal is couched deep within the din, his jagged guitar crouches and leaps. Gale-force feedback threatens to overwhelm the mics but somehow it’s a clean chaos, each instrumental line unfolding side-by-serrated-side.

That’s the Albini sound: punk doesn’t have to mean disorderly. Instead, it’s ruthless discipline. Creatives of all stripes need an Albini figure in their life, or could benefit from reading up on him. Anxiety, doubt, and the prevarication that calls itself perfectionism can only wither before such work ethic.

And yet he was inclined to take his time over his own material. He died a week before the scheduled release of Shellac’s new album — their first in a decade. The band released six over 30 years, and Big Black called time after two. He worked hard at realising other peoples’ visions so that no one would rush him or force his hand. I had tickets to see Shellac at Electric Ballroom in June, despite only a slight familiarity with their work; Albini refused the call of all streaming platforms, and no doubt the same ghouls that dragged Prince’s corpus onto Spotify are already sharpening their shovels.

So I take in the news, exchange texts with the friend who was going to join me at the Shellac gig, and start listening to Surfer Rosa. Let’s queue up Rid of Me and begin browsing through his production discography. What an archaeological cross-section of alternative music! And it turns out that, among everything else, the man took home not one but two World Series of Poker gold bracelets. My friend replies, paraphrasing Hemingway: he got the work done. ‘Such a legacy,’ he concludes. I reckon Albini would have been happy to leave it at that.