Steve Albini is something of an anomaly in the record making industry, or at least the idea of Steve Albini is. In the eyes of many he is one of the most influential producers in the world of alternative and punk rock. Some view him as a contrarian, an anti-establishment icon hellbent on setting the mainstream music business alight and revelling in its embers. Others, an uncompromising audio purist who rails against his ‘producer’ label as some kind of affront to his hard-earned technical expertise. When Headliner USA joins him virtually in his Chicago studio Electrical Audio via Zoom, we simply meet a modest, affable engineer generous with his time and happy to talk candidly about any given subject. And he is very much an engineer - not a producer.
“A producer has responsibility for all the artistic decisions on a record, they answer to their superiors and the world at large for the aesthetic and execution of a record. I don’t do that,” he says, explaining the distinction. “I’m happily insulated from those decisions by leaving them in the hands of the band I’m working with. I’ve seen some producers in action and I’m happy not to be associated with that kind of behavior. It’s not that I prefer not to be called a producer, it’s that it’s incorrect and misleading.
“If you listen to the records I’m best known for and think that I’ve done a good job, what you’re hearing is what the band did. I’m not in there playing or making that music. I’m making a recording that allows you to hear that as it was.”
Among those records he is best known for are some of the most revered albums of the past three decades. Defining records by the likes of Pixies, PJ Harvey, The Breeders and, of course Nirvana, which we’ll come to shortly, all bear the Albini name and have sonically inspired several generations of artists. Central to his approach is a commitment to capturing the most authentic representation of the band, which, he says, is not always front and center of some engineers’ minds.
“There are things that recording engineers do almost by default that falsify the sound a little bit,” he continues. “If a band comes to a fancy studio and they have all their old equipment with them, the producer or engineer might say ‘you should use this much nicer gear that’s already mic’d up’. Or ‘I see you have this quaint, strange little guitar amp, let me introduce you to the world of my Marshall stack’. Or the bass player, who is used to playing next to their amp and feeling the basslines, is plugged into a direct box. Or you might be used to playing together in the room and the first thing they do is set up a click track for the drummer. So, it’s no mystery that when you take a band with an identity formed through live playing and remove all of the elements that are under their control, they end up with a record that doesn’t sound natural. I start from a basis of not doing any of these destructive interventions. If the band is used to playing altogether at the same time, let them do that.”