Nirvana producer and Shellac frontman Steve Albini dies aged 61

Nirvana producer and Shellac frontman Steve Albini dies aged 61

Tributes have been paid to indie and alternative rock legend Steve Albini, who has died aged 61.

Albini died of a heart attack, staff at his recording studio, Electric Audio, confirmed to Pitchfork.

Although he was a musician and performer who continued to tour with his noise rock band Shellac, California-born Albini was perhaps best known as a producer. He played a key role in landmark releases in alternative rock as the producer (though he preferred to be credited as ‘engineer’) of albums including Nirvana’s In Utero, Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me.

Shellac were preparing to release their first album in a decade, To All Trains, out on May 17 via Touch And Go. The band appear on the cover of The Wire magazine in the UK, which the publisher now said would serve as a “memorial to Steve”.

The band from Chicago, who formed in 1992, had confirmed a UK tour in June, as well as returning to Primavera Sound Barcelona.

Albini, who was steeped in underground music, started his band Big Black while studying for a journalism degree. He took on audio engineering jobs to supplement his income, although this ultimately became just as central to Albini’s musical artistry as his own bands.

With his punk rock ethos, Albini declined to take royalties from bands but instead worked for a flat fee. He was also notably accessible at Electrical Audio in Chicago, which he ran for three decades.

“I would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it’s worth,” he wrote in his proposal to Nirvana.

Since the late 1980s, Albini had worked on hundreds of albums from acts including Pixies, Urge Overkill, The Jesus Lizard, Fugazi, The Wedding Present, The Auteurs, Smog, Guided By Voices, The Breeders, Joanna Newsom and Low. 

Apart from some post-production compromise on the singles Heart-Shaped Box and All Apolgies, Nirvana’s raw-sounding final album, In Utero, retained Albini’s mimimal (but peerless) production – despite label misgivings. 

However, the effect of that episode was that many major label acts were reluctant to retain his services, while independent-signed bands assumed he was out of reach as a producer. The timing was inauspicious, financially, as Albini had bought the Chicago building that housed his Electric Audio studio.

“I went broke several times, down to my last dollar, building the studio,” he told The Guardian last year. 

A lifeline emerged in the form of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who recruited Albini to produce their first album as a duo, Walking Into Clarksdale (1997), at Abbey Road Studios

Albini and his own bands were often deliberately provocative, and he later expressed regret about some of his pronouncements. His unforgiving and outspoken approach often found its way into his writing and public talks about the music industry. 

Albini’s unpretentious style of production has been defined by analogue recording ("The future belongs to analog loyalists. Fuck digital," stated the liner notes to Big Black’s 1987 album Songs About Fucking) and minimal tinkering. 

He also declined to interfere in the band’s intention for an album or impose his opinons. When Bush asked for his verdict on their 1996 song Swallowed when they worked together, he reluctantly admitted that he didn’t think it should appear on the album (it later became a US hit).

Other UK acts who sought out Albini’s production included Manic Street Preachers, Jarvis Cocker and Mogwai.

Albini also had a separate career as a poker player, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars and a second gold bracelet at the 2022 World Series of Poker.

Tributes have been posted on social media to Albini by artists, industry figures and indie labels – see below for a selection.

PHOTO: Steve Albini performing with Shellac at Primavera Sound 2022 (Getty Images/Jim Bennett/WireImage)


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