Steve Albini talks 15 years of Manics’ Journal For Plague Lovers in final interview

On Wednesday May 8, Steve Albini, one of indie and alternative rock’s most revered and beloved engineers and musicians, died after suffering a heart attack. He was 61 years old. Just a few short weeks before his passing, in what we believe to be his final interview, Albini joined Headliner for an in-depth chat about the 15th anniversary of Manic Street Preachers Journal For Plague Lovers record, as well as the role he played in, as he puts it, “changing the paradigm” of the music business. Here, his customary wit, humility, and boundless knowledge flows freely as ever, as he reflects on an album that remains a genuine outlier in both the Manics’ catalogue and his own towering body of work.

It’s a bright, Spring afternoon in London when the face of Steve Albini materialises on the laptop screen before us. Sporting a grey beanie hat, a pair of round, dark-rimmed glasses, and his trademark navy blue overalls, he cuts an unmistakable figure. Typically, when interviewing Albini via video call, he can be found in the control room of his Chicago studio, Electrical Audio. Today, he informs us, he’s in the “business office” of the facility. It’s a non-descript room, save for a landline telephone beside him that he answers once or twice during our conversation, seemingly fielding calls and inquiries about studio bookings. It’s impossible to imagine other producers - a term he famously rejects – of his standing in the rock world adopting such a workman-like approach. When phoning the studio, he’d be the one to pick up. When emailing its generic contact email address, it’d typically be Albini responding. Though strange in and of itself, it’s all rather typical of the man himself.

In almost every way, our final conversation bears every standard Albini hallmark. As expected from a man who refused a production credit and royalty payments for his work on one of the most critically and commercially successful records of the ‘90s with the biggest rock band on the planet, he is keen as ever not just to downplay but extinguish any plaudits thrown his way when discussing his role on any given record.

Unexpected, however, is the realisation just a few weeks later that our interview may well be the last he ever gave. In a career spanning over four decades, the impact he had on the lives of those he worked with was indelible. As indeed it was for those who adored the records he conjured into being. For all of his modesty – “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,” he once told Headliner – his masterful ability to extract the purest essence of a band and preserve it in its most pristine form is unrivalled. From alt rock giants like Nirvana, Pixies, The Breeders, PJ Harvey, Bush, and the Manics, through to the hundreds of underground punk rock bands he worked with through the years, including his own bands Shellac and Big Black, his oeuvre is not only peerless but testament to his lifelong passion for capturing bands at the peak of their powers.

It is for all of the above that the Manics saw fit to approach Albini to work on an album that would prove to be one of the most highly anticipated records of their career. Released in 2009, Journal For Plague Lovers was constructed around a boxful of unused lyrics left behind by the band’s former chief lyricist and figurehead Richey Edwards, who disappeared shortly after the release of their incendiary third album The Holy Bible (1994). Having vanished on the eve of a promo tour to the US in February 1995, Edwards has not been seen since, and on November 23, 2008, was officially “presumed dead” by police.

Had Richey been there with them they probably would have done it the same way. Steve Albini

His disappearance only added to the notoriety of the record, which was lyrically entrenched in themes of death, murder, and mutilation, while its raw, no frills sonic blueprint pushed the Manics into musical territory not trodden by the band before or since. As such, it is often cited by fans and the band themselves as a creative high point in their career.

Unsurprisingly, when the announcement was made that Journal For Plague Lovers would be made up of Edwards’ leftover lyrics and engineered by Albini, it was quickly dubbed The Holy Bible Pt II by fans and immediately leaden with intrigue and expectation, not to mention much speculation over whether the band would be able to recapture the spirit of The Holy Bible some 15 years after its release.

“As is generally the case I just answered the phone one day,” Albini begins, describing how he first came into contact with the band. “I can’t remember if it was James or a manager who initially contacted me but they got a hold of me and said they wanted to do an album. My typical response when I’m approached about things is, if it’s a genuine inquiry where they are specifically interested in me working on their record, I try to say yes. If it’s coming through management channels and not the band themselves, like a received wisdom scenario, then it’s a lot easier for me to find other things to do with my time. I don’t want to be foisted on anybody.

“Because of some of the records I’ve been associated with, there are other cultural associations with having me work on records. Sometimes management or record company people can get a bee in their bonnet about attaching those associations to the band. I’ve gotten a few weird requests where someone has inquired about me working on a record and it seems fishy, so I’ll say, OK, have the band contact me and I’ll talk with them. If I don’t get to speak directly to the band that’s usually a red flag as it’s someone cooking up a scheme and trying to foist me on the band. That wasn’t the case here at all. They were familiar with records I had worked on, their music would be appropriate, and from speaking with them we had a lot in common and everything about it felt like a natural association.”

His opening gambit about being “foisted” on bands begs the question, is this something he’s encountered often?

We were simpatico on a number of levels. Politically they are progressive and leftist and so am I. Steve Albini

“No,” he asserts with a smile. “I try to be diligent about that. But I once did a record with a band from Ireland who had supposedly spoken to their management about trying to get me to work on their record. This was in the period post the Nirvana album. In the ‘90s I worked on a Nirvana album that became notorious in record business circles,” he says, explaining the well-documented background to In Utero rather than assuming we’ll already be familiar with the story. “The band kind of went off into the woods and made a record on their own, brought it back to the label and said, ‘this is our record’, and the record label didn’t like that procedure. So they did everything they could to tank the record. They ended up having to release it and it was a success and is now highly regarded, but at the time it was something of a paradigm shift as I was seen as a trouble maker for the record business. I was seen as disturbing the normal flow of work where the people at the label choose the producer and attach them to a project and the band has to put up with it. My behaviour with Nirvana was seen as defeating that paradigm.

“Anyway, there was a band at the time who was signed to a big label and they said they wanted to use me for their record. I was never contacted and their manager had said to them, ‘you want to use the guy that recorded the Pixies, well we’ve got him for you’. And when the band showed up to the studio to start work, it turned out it wasn’t me but another person who had worked on a Pixies album that they wanted to hire [laughs]. That kind of behaviour is much less common now. Labels are much less powerful now and bands are much more in control of their own careers.

“But getting back to the Manics, we were simpatico on a number of levels. Politically they are progressive and leftist and so am I. Their history is very much a self-made enterprise; they didn’t have a star figure the band was constructed around. They weren’t one of those British music industry sensations where a band is nominated by the press to be the next big thing. They came by their success organically and that suited me perfectly. We just got along really well.”

When it came to preparing for the sessions, Albini states that his lack of awareness of The Holy Bible and its legacy proved beneficial in enabling him to view the record from a fresh perspective. He was also immediately aware of the time and consideration the band had invested in the project.

“I wasn’t familiar with their music,” he explains. “I had to do a refresher course on that and get up to speed with what they had done. I listened to The Holy Bible, that’s as much as I can say. My appreciation of this gesture on their part came from talking to James and Nicky. They wanted to honour their friend in a way that was respectful and didn’t seem like they were grave digging. That’s a fine line to walk. You make your bones with a certain line-up and a key figure disappears, so from a cynical perspective I can see how after a few years it might seem a suspicious move to boil the bones of that soup again and see if we can make another pot of soup out of what we used to have. But it was very clear to me it was genuine on their part. They wanted to reinvigorate their relationship with their departed friend. Had Richey been there to work on the record with them they probably would have done it in pretty much the same way.”

On asking what Albini’s first impressions were of The Holy Bible were on account of its abrasive intensity, he quickly responds, “we probably have different standards for intense and abrasive [laughs]. It seemed like a normal energetic rock band. It just felt like four guys banging it out”.

My behaviour with Nirvana was seen as defeating that big label paradigm. Steve Albini

When it comes to the recording sessions at Wales’s legendary Rockfield Studios, Albini is eager to point out that there are significant gaps in his memory due to personal difficulties he was experiencing at the time. He recalls that the songs were essentially complete upon arriving at the studio, requiring little in the way of tweaks or last-minute rewrites.

“There are a couple of things clouding my memory,” he says. “My wife was going through a serious health thing while I was gone. I left for Wales and a couple of days into it I got wind of this thing happening at home in Chicago with my wife’s health. And because we weren’t married, I couldn’t get any information out of her doctors and they couldn’t release any information. So I had to deputise her friends to check up on her and all this kind of stuff. It was a very stressful period. That probably made me less in the moment than I would have been otherwise.”

He continues: “I remember James sent me a few practice room demos, then more significantly there was an outline and production details that needed to be coordinated. That’s more important from a technical level than me trying to suss the vibe of a song. That’s not my department. They had written and rehearsed the music as it was meant to be and then came in and chopped it out.”

At this point in our conversation, he recalls his initial observations on the duality that resides at the heart of the band with regard to James and Nicky’s distinct personalities.

“There is a very specific dichotomy between James and Nicky,” he says, a slight smile spreading across his face. “James was a busker, very self-sufficient, does his own gear, sets his own stuff up. Nicky admitted he’d never tuned a bass and he didn’t know the names of the notes and stuff like that. So there was a distinct difference between those two in terms of their approach to life as a musician. One lives and breathes playing music, the other plays bass now and again [laughs]. I remember Nicky was doing a video diary of the making of the record. He was posting updates and almost none of it had to do with the music. It was walking in the fields, what we had for breakfast, musings on rock music in Wales.”

As for the studio itself, Albini notes a particular fondness for Rockfield, a converted house which has been used to record some of the biggest names in music, from Queen and Oasis to Black Sabbath, Iggy Pop, and Robert Plant.

“I really liked the layout of it,” he states. “I’m fond of studios that are not built as studios, like converted houses and barns. They tend to have more interesting acoustics than places built from the ground up as a studio. They are often more comfortable as a physical setting, and a studio that is built as a studio can be uncomfortable for anything other than making a record. Now, most of the time that’s what you’re concerned with, but there are eight or 10 hours in the day where it’s nice to have a yard to go and throw a baseball around or a lounge to watch movies in or a farmhouse kitchen where you can have some toast and jam.”

Outside of the sessions, Albini recalls that one of his most vivid memories from the period was an excursion to London to play poker. An accomplished player since his teens, he has won two highly coveted WSOP (World Series Of Poker) bracelets, cementing his reputation as a highly competitive professional.

“We had a couple of days off where James had some obligations in London, so we piggybacked off that and went to London,” he remembers. “I played cards at the Grosvenor Vic Casino and Card Club, which is one of my favourite places to play cards. Almost all card rooms have a range of games, from small stakes played by amateurs to high stakes games played by professionals where a lot of money can change hands. In a lot of card rooms there is a very strict division between these classes of games. What I love about the Vic is that at the time there would be a £1 game and one table over would be a game with all the famous UK and European poker players and celebrities, all yards away from each other. I really love the atmosphere in that card room. I happened to have a good night and made a bunch o money but that’s secondary [laughs].

As he informs us that he needs to depart to start work on a session, we loosely arrange a catch-up for later in the year when he can tell us about some of the projects he has recently been working on that are yet to be released.

“Forgive me, but I’m circumspect about speaking about other people’s records; I’m very self-conscious about tarring other people with my name,” he remarks with a knowing, self-deprecating smile. “The band I’m in, Shellac has an album that is imminent, but I don’t have an exact date for you today.”

Shellac’s new album To All Trains will be released posthumously on May 17.

Manics photo: Alex Lake

Steve Albini photo: Francesca Colasanti

You can listen to this interview below.