Steve Albini: Serve The Servants Page 2

To briefly summarize the controversy: Nirvana's management, Gold Mountain, and their record label, Geffen Records, were not happy with the band's choice of Albini as engineer. Although Albini had only spoken with Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic on the phone, all went well when at last they met, at Pachyderm Recording Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, and recording proceeded with ease.

"The studio portion of making that record was effortless," Albini said. "We were done and dusted in 12 days. Everybody was happy as clams. The process of making that record was absolutely normal. I'm working with a band that have their material well arranged, well rehearsed, they were playing at their peak power because they'd been touring, they were very confident. Kurt was clear-eyed and level-headed."

According to Albini, the basic tracks for In Utero were recorded as whole takes, the band all playing together in the studio. Cobain's vocals for the entire album were reportedly done in six hours.

"I'm not a proponent of breaking an organic unit down into its constituent parts and recording them independently. I've never had good results doing that. And I feel like you lose a lot of the personality of the band when you don't hear the interplay between the different members—like when everybody raises an eyebrow, so they hit the accent at the same time.


"You can make things more metronomically perfect by doing them independently, but I'm convinced that people don't listen to music that way. I've never listened to a record and thought to myself, 'Well, I would have liked it, but they sped up a little bit there.' I don't think little technical or academic flaws like that are significant. But I'm also definitely not a proponent of the Anti School, when there are noises, out-of-tune notes, tape hiss, and obvious edits—when it has obvious flaws and that somehow makes it better."

In Utero was mixed in less than a week. The resulting master tape was criticized by Geffen, by the band's management, and perhaps eventually by even the band members themselves, for being too raw and abrasive for release. Although Albini received a producer's credit on the album, he steadfastly maintains that he was only the engineer for the sessions, and that he kept his views to himself. Still, comments he made to several news outlets at the time, and since then, show that he deeply believed in the way In Utero was first conceived and recorded.

"I liken it to something like a barber, where somebody comes in with a full head of hair and they tell the barber how they want their hair cut. The barber should not try and talk them out of their haircut—the barber should give them what they want. Ultimately, if the band wants to make a heavily abstracted, Spielbergian fantasy record, then that's the record that they should get. It's a service industry."

Albini refused to tweak In Utero's mix and sound, and Scott Litt, R.E.M.'s producer, was brought in to remix several tracks, including "'Heart-Shaped Box," and generally smooth out some of the rougher edges. The debate over whether the record was better as originally recorded and mixed did not end with Cobain's suicide, in 1994.

"It was evident from the music what the sound was supposed to be," Albini told me. "The instrument sounds play the biggest part in establishing the sort of tone and feel of the music. And there was a contrast between the sort of modesty and sweetness of the spoken and sung elements, and then the strained and burned quality of the screamed, screeched, and shouted parts in the lyrics. And there was an absolute parallel to that in the dynamics in the music.

"If you listen to Dave Grohl's playing, he's known as a very powerful drummer—and he is a powerful drummer—but for a solid 30 or 40% of that record he is really doing some very modest timekeeping, and that creates a dynamic movement where it goes from a downbeat verse to an extremely aggressive or explosive chorus or bridge.

"The same is true of Kurt's guitar playing. In a lot of the songs, in the verses he's singing almost unaccompanied, or accompanied by this very meek-sounding acoustic guitar. Then there will be a dynamic change, and the whole band will come crashing in at full volume, and the personality of the music will change. That kind of dynamic is intentional. That was baked into the music when they walked in the door. I'm not responsible for that. The band did that. The arrangement did that. And the overall aesthetic of the record did that."

In striking contrast to the controversy about In Utero, and even to the music on that album, is Albini's most populist recording experience: the five months in 1997–98 he spent at Abbey Road Studios making Walking into Clarksdale, the second and, likely, final recording by the duo of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

Certainly influenced by the record-label meddling that had occurred with In Utero, Albini says he signed on with Plant and Page because he would be dealing directly with them, and not with their label, Atlantic Records. He suggested that they convene for a short recording session to see if everyone's ideas and working methods meshed. When that worked, they decamped for Abbey Road.

"I love working at Abbey Road," Albini said. "I've done maybe a dozen records there, and it is truly a fantastic place to work. The professionalism of the staff, the acoustics, the degree of attention paid to the installation and maintenance of the equipment, the history—everything about it is first-rate, a really great experience."

In contrast to In Utero—where, despite his protestations to the contrary, Albini was involved in some creative decision making—old pros Plant and Page knew what they wanted to hear on the tape; they just needed Albini to use his ears and capture it the best he knew how.

"When someone can tell you what they want in terms of sound quality or production, and they can hear the results and tell you whether you've done it or not, that's really a terrific arrangement. Jimmy Page is one of the most attentive listeners I've ever worked with. He can literally hear every note in a very dense orchestral arrangement. The way I have described it before is, he can see every bird in the flock. No matter how dense or how chaotic the moment is, he knows what the desired effect is, and he knows when it's acceptable and when it isn't. So he's very easy to work with. He's a demanding guy, because he has worked in the very highest echelons of the studio world since he was a teenager. There are no surprises in the studio with Jimmy Page. When he hears something, he knows what he needs to do to execute it, and he knows what you need to do, as an engineer, to satisfy him as a listener.

"If they were still working together and asked me to do another record, I would drop everything."


rschryer's picture

...and great article. But WTF is an impressive rÇsumÇ??

DougM's picture

It's obviously a typo and is meant to say resume.

John Atkinson's picture
rschryer wrote:
...and great article. But WTF is an impressive rÇsumÇ??

Coding error on my part, Robert :-(

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture

Some of my friends in indie music from the early 90's regard Albini in unkind terms, as a tech whiz, but unpleasant otherwise. I'll hand it to him for working with Polly Jean Harvey, Veruca Salt, and the early Pixies, and staying true to his commitments to good sound.

m-sevs's picture

I'm surprised that his work with The Breeders wasn't mentioned. Title TK isn't just a seminal record, it sounds like rock'n'roll. Plus also, Shellac is, like, the dopest live rock'n'roll show around. And those Lp's sound amazing too.

dalethorn's picture

Kim got a nice boost playing with the Pixies, but there was some friction with Frank Black as far back as Surfer Rosa, so she left and did some things, but worked again with the Pixies. Some of the Breeders tracks I have are demos, but given all the low-res stuff I collected in the 90's, those demos stand up pretty well.

supamark's picture

like Big Black, Rapeman, etc it's pretty obvious why he likes analog so much more than digital. Just as some people are really into bass and love a rich bottom end in their music, Albini (and a few others I've met) really seem to love a treble heavy mix with a lot going on (like multiple gtrs playing harmonics into distortion pedals - generates a f-ton of treble info).

He started recording in the 80's and CD quality back then just didn't do treble well AT ALL. digital is much better now (both with moving to 24/96+ and with significantly better DACs), but still doesn't do treble the same way analog tape does (and I suspect he's pretty stubborn). Don't think he uses noise reduction (like Dolby SR) either, sure doesn't sound like it.

AudioMan612's picture

It is worth noting that Albini has said in other interviews that his reason for sticking to analog recording is not at all about the sound. He has stated that he prefers the workflow and that he feels that it's the best way to archive music, due to digital quality changing over time.

Also, as others have said, his work with The Breeders is fantastic. Also, Dude Incredible is one of my favorite rock albums in recent years.

FredisDead's picture

favorite "artist bios" I've ever read in S'Phile and it's been over a thirty year span. What I think is most notable about Steve Albini and only lightly touched upon is that he is famous for saying "yes" to virtually any band that wants his services. To this day, despite his palmares, he works with musicians who are just starting out and are therefor unheard of.

jporter's picture

Big Black was one of my favorite groups during my High School years. Steve's music was intense, angry, funny and honest. It was so different from the music that ruled the rock airwaves at the time (i.e., Bon Jovi, Quiet Riot). I'm glad he still is stubbornly authentic. Thanks for featuring him.

hilzer's picture

Love your piece on Linda. I never saw her in Tucson, but was introduced to her by friends in college (in Boston no less). I grew up in Arizona so I was too cool to listen to Cuuuntreee.

Ya feel me?

I've never had the opportunity to tell you, but you and your music made a significant impression on me when we were working at gold ol boy New Times together. Thank [the Lord!] that the music and I stayed together instead of us. Text me back if you want to chat about the old days. Kisses and hugs. Maybe I'll come to NYC and visit you one of these days. LOL