The Daily Swarm Interview: Steve Albini on Recording 2,000 Albums, Nirvana, How Geffen Tried to Put Him Out of Business, & Disregarding the Listening Audience... 'I’ll Literally Work With Anybody'...
Steve Albini is likely your favorite rock band’s favorite producer. However, you better not call him a producer as he prefers to receive no credit on album sleeves or if he is required to be credited at all, he simply prefers “recording engineer.” Also, despite common industry practice, Albini accepts no royalties for his contributions.
Nonetheless, since he began recording in the late 1970s, artists have flocked to him to make albums with a visceral sonic impact that they can’t seem to get with anyone else. By his own estimation he has recorded nearly two thousand albums including some of the most influential music by Nirvana, Pixies and PJ Harvey, plus classic albums from Urge Overkill, Pussy Galore, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Breeders, Jesus Lizard, Superchunk, Jawbreaker, Pansy Division, Oxbow, Neurosis, High On Fire, Will Oldham, Robbie Fulks, Dirty Three, The Ex, Gogol Bordello, Mogwai, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Electrelane and Cheap Trick, plus the most recent records for Mono, Om, The Stooges, Joanna Newsom, Manic Street Preachers and Jarvis Cocker.
He got his start as a punk rock fanzine writer and to this day he continues to be an outspoken presence in the music press. Meanwhile, he has also been a member of such controversial bands as Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac in addition to currently running his own recording studio, Electrical Audio, based in Chicago.
The Daily Swarm: It’s been known that you don’t like to be called a producer. Yet even if you don’t consider yourself actually to be one, how would you define what a record producer actually does and how does it differ from what you do?
Steve Albini: The technical job description of what a record producer does is the guy that makes the final procedural and creative decisions in making a record. In my case, the band I’m working with makes those decisions.
In a conventional producer arrangement, the producer would be making the decisions regarding play it faster, play it louder, let’s put fiddles on it, change that part, add another chorus, crap like that. I’m not smart enough to make those types of changes in other peoples music. I’m barely capable of making decisions regarding my own music. I don’t adopt that kind of responsibility. I feel I would do a bad job if I did and also I feel like it’s presumptuous for anybody to tell a band what their music should sound like.
Did you ever try to act as the traditional producer and it not work out?
Uh, no. I haven’t actually tried to do that. I guess when I first started I may have been a little more headstrong so I may have been a little more snide in the studio and that might have had a chilling effect, which might have turned into a production effect by default.
There have been some instances when a band has been in a complete quandary on how to finish something and everyone in the room is spouting off suggestions off the top of their heads and I’ll join in just like the wives and girlfriends. I have an opinion just like anyone else but it’s not an ambition of mine to put my fingerprints on other people’s records. I have my own band and if I want to express myself I have that as an avenue.
Has there ever been a problem when an artist really wanted your continual guidance on a record and you were not willing to offer it?
There are some people who are used to being bossed around and those that are simply neophytes in the studio. In both of those cases, I find that if you demonstrate some options or talk about some possibilities, they can always come to a conclusion on their own.
However, even as an engineer, some people believe that you do in fact have a signature sound. Do you think you have a signature sound and if so and how would you describe it?
It’s a bit of misnomer since I’ve worked with quite a few bands that have similar aesthetics so it sort of makes sense those bands will gravitate toward similar sonics. If those records have anything in common you can hear a natural relationship between the instruments where you can imagine a live performance. Quiet things sound quiet, loud things sound loud, drum kits sound like drum kits, guitars sound like guitars, singers sound like singers. So I guess it’s about a lack of stylization.
I understand there is an aesthetic of abstraction that some people want to bring to bear on their music and I’m comfortable with that but I feel like it’s applied externally to a lot of music where it’s inappropriate. A lot of bands left to their own devices would not have records that are as abstract as they end up with.
In a lot cases, I find bands have to justify their own aesthetic within their own records and I find that offensive. When a band goes into the rehearsal room and works on their music everyday for a year they are making a lot of concrete decisions on what their music sounds like. I feel those decisions have merit and ought to be reflected in the band’s record. And when the production is brought to bear on it in a way that thwarts those decisions in favor of a stylized version of it, some abstraction of it, everyone involved is being cheated.
So do you require a band be well rehearsed before they come in the studio with you?
No. I’m comfortable making any kind of a record. If a band wants to come in and fly by the seat of their pants and knock shit off the top of their head, that’s totally fine by me. I don’t have an absolute of what constitutes a good or bad record. I have a very wide window of acceptability.
Some of my favorite records in fact are total train wrecks. They are records that are a product of a sort of mania. I enjoy the open frame of mind that allows things like that to happen.
Lots of people travel to record with you in Chicago but you also travel around the world to other studios to work. How important is the studio environment in your process?
The biggest consideration regarding a studio is that the technical capabilities of a studio affect what’s possible. I’ve gone on record as saying if I have working tape machine and a band that has their shit together, I could make a record in a coalmine because the studio is not a limiting factor.
But there are a lot of studios where the fuckin’ tape machine doesn’t work, the mic lines are half kaput or the console is on the fritz. I do find myself in some very famous studios wondering where they get the balls to charge money for a bunch of broken down shit.
How far do you go to make a band comfortable in the studio?
The majority of the bands I work with are independent bands and don’t have to be pampered. They don’t have the budgets to blow and they are more concerned with getting the job done efficiently and expediently. Creature comforts be damned.
Most of the time I feel like people are most comfortable if you are honest with them. They can tell if you are concerned with getting the job done rather trying to establish dominance.
You make it clear that they have to hold up their end and you’re going to hold up your end. What makes bands comfortable is not being bullshitted.
In my experience if the band has good sightlines and a good headphone mix and can play normally and naturally then they will be comfortable. Shit like whether there is incense burning or mood lights that’s Hollywood and that doesn’t have anything to do with making a record.
However, I have heard people make an argument for the “vibe” aspect. But if you think of the records that have super-heavy vibe like Beatles records and Pink Floyd records and Studio One Jamaica records, people wearing neckties and lab coats made those records on the clock 9–5 under fluorescent lights. There is no vibe external to the band or the music. The band brings the vibe with them.
How has your experience being in a band informed your abilities recording other people’s bands?
By me having been in a band I totally understand the internal band dynamics. I totally understand that the new guy is gonna be kind of ginger about voicing his opinion but he might very well have a perspective that’s valid one because he’s a fan of the band first.
And just the day-to-day slog of being in a band. I’ve had to haul my shit up the stairs for the opening slot gig and then haul it back down and go to work in the morning.
I feel like my sympathies being with the band go a long way towards me helping bands get to where they want to go in the studio because they don’t have to explain much to me. On first listen I get it.
You’ve been making your own music while simultaneously helping other people with their records. What motivated you to want to help people with their careers while yours was in progress?
Nobody ever thought of it as a career when I first got into a band. Nobody had any commercial aspirations. I was participating in ‘band culture.’ It was a social thing like being on a bowling team. The same way that if a friend was having a cookout and needed to borrow your grill, of course you’d let him borrow your grill and of course you’d go to the cookout and of course he’d offer you a hot dog.
How did you get start recording bands?
I got recording in the late 1970s when I was in garage band in Montana and we wanted to make a demo recording of ourselves and somebody had to figure out how to do that. I knew that the guitar shop would rent a 4-track machine for $25 for the weekend. So I screwed my balls on and I rented the 4-track machine and I starting to learn how to use it.
Once my band had made a demo, I moved to Chicago and I was comfortable with how to do that and then I started doing it for all my friend’s bands. It was a very natural development for me. I never had aspirations to run a recording studio, to be an engineer or to have this be a profession.
Shortly after leaving college, I had a regular straight job. I’ve always had sort or straight job in addition to being band member. I was able to buy a house and as a matter of convenience I built a rehearsal room in the basement of that house for my band, and then as an extension of that I built a small recording studio.
Once I had done it, it become more useful for other bands as well. And once it became useful to other bands and it began to eat more of my time. Eventually it generated enough money that it allowed me to create a business and move the studio out of my house to where it is today.
Without any aspirations to make music a career, is the way your career has turned out something that you’re happy with?
Well I put a stick in the sand 14 years ago when I bought my studio. I kind of committed. I said for the next 20–25 years I’m gonna be here doing this. So once I committed to doing that, it would cease to matter if I had any regrets, so I decided I wouldn’t have any.
However, I don’t consider myself to be a particular good businessman. I don’t like being responsible for having to generate thirty grand a month to pay the costs of running this business and it weighs very heavily on me. If we don’t do well, the employees here might not be able to make their rent and the bank will come take all of out stuff and I don’t like that aspect.
But in terms of the process of making records, I couldn’t be happier. The kinds of bands I get to work with cover a wide margin of styles. Generally speaking, musicians are the nicest people you encounter in the music scene. There’s a great satisfaction that comes with working on something that is someone else’s fondest dream. Like getting to see somebody realize his life’s ambition is really a satisfying thing. There’s something really gratifying about being part of that. That will never get old and I’ll never tire of that.
Just being in the company and culture of bands, I feel like they’re my comrades and we’re all sort of brothers in arms in this culture war. The fact that I can still do it and it still gives me the same sense of community is a worthwhile thing.
Was there an artist or recording that inspired you to make music your life?
I did have a light bulb moment when listening to the Ramones as a teenager. It was kind of a slow motion epiphany. It took about two weeks of constant immersion with the first Ramones record when I realized virtually any kind of music could be made incredible. That record was really a defining artifact of my mental state.
When I first heard the first Ramones record I thought it was hilarious. It seemed like an inept band trying to play bubblegum music. The more I listened to it the more I realized it was actually its own unique thing and not only that, it was probably the best record ever.
That’s when I realized it was possible to make something that was both absurd and awesome and in the process carve out a unique space. I think that gave me a lot of confidence to do things my own way in the future.
I’ve read that you’ve recorded around 2000 albums. To prevent burnout do you ever take a few months off?
I don’t have that luxury. The bills don’t stop coming if I decide I’m tired. If you hold your breath and dive under water and you have to pick something up off the bottom of the pool, you can’t think I’d like to take a breath right now. It’s just not a possibility so it doesn’t cross your mind.
However, a few years ago we decided that I was going to take one day off a week so I no longer work on Tuesdays and that’s worked out great. The other thing is that if you pace the sessions so that you’re not grinding a way everyday and stop at a reasonable hour that helps too.
I used to be able to pull out multiple all-nighters to get through with a session. But then I realized I wasn’t gaining anything from it, as I’d have to redo a lot the next day anyways.
While you’ve never stopped recording, you are most associated with the late 80/early 90s alternative rock of Pixies, Nirvana and PJ Harvey. Why do you think music of this era continues to resonate with new audiences?
Every year there’s another generation of older brothers going to college and either handing their records to their kid brothers or their kid brothers have to go and buy those records again. That’s how Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Black Sabbath got popular when I was a teenager. When my brother went to college, that’s how I picked up on all that music.
Another thing is that when you think of the kind of music that has a lot of shelf life, it’s music that doesn’t have a lot of gimmick. It’s a straightforward presentation of the music “as performed” rather than stuff that’s all dolled up and fancy.
The sort of straightforward performance based rock music is structurally very similar to the things that have endured on their own for a long time. It’s the sound of a band playing their songs. There are no gimmicks that require you to have a decoder ring to get into them. What I feel is true about any durable music is that it could be from any era.
I’m sure you always get asked about what it was like to work with Nirvana. What are your feelings on being so personally associated with Nirvana and their legacy?
I wasn’t really part of their fan base before I started working with them. They were one of a bunch bands from Seattle or the Pacific Northwest who had a very similar aesthetic and they weren’t really big on my radar. I knew they were popular but beyond that I didn’t really think about them very much.
Having gotten to work with them, I came to respect them quite a bit. I think they were a solid band. I think Kurt was an interesting and unique songwriter. He had a fantastic voice and his attitude about his band at the time, who knows what happened before and after, but at the time his attitude toward his band, the music, the way they wanted to make a record was totally solid. I had no reservations about him.
I am flattered to be associated with a band that is that important. I feel like I did the band a solid job by doing the record the way they wanted to. I got beat up by their management and their record label after the fact. Geffen tried to put me out of business afterward. They were offended by the work. I think they felt I conspired with the band to thwart their managerial aspirations towards the band and made a point of waging a publicity war against me.
I am pleased that it didn’t have that big of an effect. My core clientele survived and I was still able to carry on. However, they did actually have a pretty significant impact with my client base for a while. I kind of went broke shortly after doing that record but I was able to rebound from that.
It’s a complicated issue for me. I felt like Nirvana were a band like any other band that I dealt with but they were under unusual circumstances. When anyone is under that kind of pressure, they are going to behave erratically, like anything under extreme conditions. So I don’t really have a clear perspective on that band.
I feel like my relationship with that band was an honorable one. I feel like I tried to do right by them and I felt like under different circumstances we probably would have had the same sort of relationship as I’ve had with a lot of the bands I’ve worked with. I don’t know if we would have done more records or what. However, I do feel like during the period I worked with them, I thought everyone involved behaved honorably and I thought they made an interesting record.
Growing up on punk rock in the 70s and 80s, could you ever have imagined that what was once considered alternative culture would be so readily adopted by the mainstream?
Certain stylistic elements have been adopted by the mainstream but you’re not going to hear Throbbing Gristle used to sell Volvos. This notion that the underground or the extreme becomes the norm is actually kind of a mistake.
The bands that get adopted by the tools of commerce as soundtrack music, they are not being used for their cultural importance. They are just being used because they are recognizable music.
You hear Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” being used by Carnival Cruise Lines and that’s a song about heroin and butt-fucking in Berlin and it’s been turned into the family-friendly shuffle board music. It’s beyond ironic. It’s kind of the dulling effect of time on something that was once shocking.
The fact that the Jonas Brothers occasionally have power chords that sound like The Ramones or The Clash doesn’t really mean anything. That’s not the same thing. It comes across as a stylistic affectation through several generations of filtering.
Certain stylistic elements have been appropriated by the mainstream but the content, that which makes it interesting, hasn’t been. I don’t think there’s a significant difference between being in the underground today from being in the underground 20 years ago.
However, perhaps since Nirvana many bands and artists that are celebrated in the mainstream culture make music that at one time would have been considered completely underground.
There are some bands that have aspirations to become part of the mainstream culture and they are going to participate in it one way or the other when those opportunities pop up for them. However, some people are actually comfortable in the underground. And if you’re comfortable in the underground, moving into the mainstream doesn’t have any appeal.
If you see it as somewhat of an irony that someone from your background would be in the mainstream, you’re more inclined to participate in it. My experience has been that the more comfortable that outsiders get saying and doing stupid shit, the more the ironic distance narrows. And the ironic distance eventually narrows to a point of nothing. Then you have this sort of ascendancy where something from the underground, by ironically adopting the mannerisms of the mainstream, becomes the mainstream.
And there’s an ironic defense that people use who want to maintain some perspective on themselves of being outside of mainstream culture that allows them to do crass, gross, grasping things with the idea that “it’s O.K. because it’s me doing it because I’m doing it for all the right reasons. I’m doing it for our team” as it were. That’s the point when the ironic distance narrows and the person becomes the thing he was previously a parody of.
With the presence of MySpace and Facebook it seems that more people are starting bands, recording bands and putting out music than ever before. Do you see the outpouring of so many new bands as a positive development?
The saturation of bands seems to have dulling effect. But what’s awesome about that is that by its ubiquity, this band culture has created a noise level by which bands only of real interest get to pop their heads now. There is something awesome about a band that can make a splash now because you know they had to fight their way through so much crap to get there.
As someone who has been very critical of the business practices of record companies over the years, are the economic struggles of labels something that you perhaps not only anticipated but something that you are pleased about?
It doesn’t particular bother me that record companies are going out of business. But with certain smaller independent labels that were culturally quite important it bothers me they are having a hard time.
But by the same token, the independent labels are surviving better than their major label counterparts because they operate more efficiently. The independent labels have back catalogs that are going to continue to sell, their relationships with their bands are more fraternal and the bands cut them more slack. Those relationships will survive.
How does the changing economics of the music business affect you as someone who runs a studio and makes records?
It sucks because as a recording studio owner you’re not competing with other studios, you’re competing with ‘free’ because just about anyone can do some type of recording on his laptop. So as a studio you have to provide an order of magnitude beyond what people can get for free.
We survive by having repeat business and sort of a wide client base. We’re not limited just to bands that have substantial budgets. We’re available to bands that have virtually no money. Because I’m comfortable working a lot, instead of making one or two records a year for a ton of money, I make quite a few records every year for a little money each.
Even though you’ve personally resisted using digital software in your recordings, what advice would you give a kid today that is interested in making records for a living when the cost to get started on his laptop has become so much more affordable than it ever has been?
If I were just getting started today I’m absolutely sure I’d get a computer and a software program and a couple of mics and maybe wing it from there. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable way to teach yourself to do stuff.
Is analog recording becoming a lost art?
I think that the analog method is valuable to learn because it teaches you a lot of fundamental things about how recording works which then you can apply to the digital domain. However, there are fewer and fewer people that use it everyday on every project but I don’t think we’ll see the end of it in my lifetime.
When you make an album for yourself or someone else, do you keep the expectations of your audience in mind?
As an engineer, the only people I’m concerned about are the other people in the room, the band members. I mean literally everyone else in the world can go fuck themselves.
I honestly don’t care at all what some abstract listening audience would say about listening to a record. They’re not in the band. They’re not there helping us make the record right now.
Occasionally someone in a band, when they are in quandary about what to do, they’ll say “what will people think when they hear this?” My response is generally, “fuck ‘em.” They’re not here right now. If they mattered if they really cared they would be here helping us make the record. If you guess what those people would say, you are going to be wrong because there is no unified opinion in the outside world.
You can only satisfy yourself in the studio and I am also of the opinion that decent records are made with almost total disregard to the listening audience. My favorite records are records that were utterly unique statements and that were the product of some kind of mania. That doesn’t happen by committee or test marketing or focus groups.
You distill the idea behind what you are trying to do down to an action and then you do that action. That’s the only way to go about it.
Did starting your career as a music journalist affect your approach to making records?
Well a big part of being a fanzine writer is thinking you’re right about everything and spouting off the top off your head. But there’s a pretty big difference between being a fanzine writer and working in the studio.
When you’re working in the studio, you’re rooting for the band that you’re working with. It doesn’t matter what kind of music they make. They could be making music I would never buy as fan and it doesn’t matter. I am 100% rooting for them. I want their record to totally kick ass in the way that they perceive kicking ass.
It’s an odd situation to be in but when you’re in the studio working on a record you almost cannot form an opinion about the music, whether you like it or not. If you do, that prevents you from being professional about trying to conclude the session in a way that satisfies the band.
If I allowed myself to care whether or not I like the music I’m working on, I’m going to be miserable because I’m going to be thinking I’m working on this terrible record and I won’t necessarily do a good job because I’ll be distracted by the fact that I’m judging this music, which is absurdity. It’s unprofessional.
There are so many things that I have to do, that I have to get right in order to satisfy the band and their aspirations that I have no business forming an opinion about their music. That’s so far down the list of priorities.
That being the case, do you regularly work with bands you don’t like?
I suppose. Yeah. I’ll literally work with anybody who calls on the phone. Find a band I don’t like, have them call me on the phone and ask to book a session and in five minutes we’ll book a session.
Los Angeles-based writer/musician, Sam J.C. has written for Filter, Vapors, Buzzbands LA and Variety. He can be contacted at samjcmusic [at] gmail.com.