‘To us he was the heavyweight champion of the world’: The Cribs remember Steve Albini

Ryan and Gary Jarman of UK indie rock icons The Cribs join Headliner for an in-depth chat about the late Steve Albini, reflecting on the seismic impact his work had on them as teenagers, through to their own experiences of working with him and the friendship that flourished between them.

You can listen to the interview here or read on below.

It’s late afternoon on Monday May 13 when Ryan and Gary Jarman, co-frontmen and songwriters of iconic UK indie rock trio The Cribs, appear before us via Zoom. The twin brothers are sat side-by-side on a couch in Ryan’s New York home. It’s 11am their time. Gary, who only arrived the previous night, lives on the west coast of the US in Portland.

It’s the first time the pair have been together in person since the death of their friend, colleague, and teenage idol Steve Albini just five days earlier, Gary tells us. “We’ve spoken on the phone every day since,” he says. “It still doesn’t make sense.”

Exactly 24 hours prior, Headliner joins Ryan for a one-to-one chat about his memories and reflections on the legacy Albini leaves, on both a personal level and from the perspective of the indie and alternative rock fraternity. To use his words, “Steve was the heavyweight champion of the world to us. He was the greatest recording engineer ever to do it”.

However, within an hour of our conversation, he contacts us to say Gary will be joining him tomorrow and that it’s worth us taking some time to speak with him, too. “He’s always got a great recollection of stuff,” he says.

Over the course of the two hours Headliner spends in total with Ryan, and the hour or so spent with both he and Gary together, the love, respect, and affection they hold for Albini is made abundantly clear. This, and the sense of shock that is clearly detectable in their voices and demeanour when talking about him, represents much of the feeling permeating the independent music world.

As a recording engineer, Albini was a master of his craft. His technical knowledge was unrivalled, his dedication to recording artists at the highest possible standard likewise. His work with Nirvana on their third and final studio album In Utero has become the stuff of legend, while his role in recording beloved records by the likes of Pixies, The Breeders, PJ Harvey, and Manic Street Preachers – whom he spoke about at length in what is thought to be his final interview – as well as hundreds of underground artists, cemented his reputation one of the finest engineers of his generation.

Yet it was his punk rock principles and outright rejection of music industry convention that made his such a guiding light in alternative music circles. As the Jarmans discuss at length during our time together, he was so much more than simply a skilled studio engineer.

You can’t imagine In Utero being recorded by anyone else. Gary Jarman

“I let Ryan know about his death; I knew he’d be affected by it,” says Gary, describing the moment he heard the news. “I woke up and saw it as breaking news and my brain wasn’t fully processing what I was reading. It seemed so disconnected from reality. I know that sounds a bit esoteric, but I couldn’t imagine Steve not being there. He’s been such a big presence in our lives. Whether it’s been as somebody we respected and used as a blueprint for something, or as a friend. We kept in regular contact and really valued our relationship with him.”

Discovering Albini

As was the case for most Albini admirers who weren’t au fait with his oeuvre pre-1993, Gary and Ryan’s introduction to his work came in the form of In Utero. The follow-up to Nirvana’s colossal commercial breakthrough Nevermind, it was made the subject of much [unwarranted] controversy on account of its raw production values and the band’s refusal to ditch Albini in favour of a more major label-friendly producer. The fallout between the label and Nirvana and Albini has been well documented, yet the record went on to become of the decade’s best sellers, while turning a new generation on to the ‘Albini sound’.

“We spent a lot of time in our teenage years listening to music in our bedroom,” says Ryan. “It wasn’t something in the background, it wasn’t a passive pursuit. We’d put a record on and read the liner notes over and over and look at the images. And the first time I heard a Steve Albini recording was, predictably, In Utero. In the group of friends we had at school someone would have Nevermind and lend it to someone; someone would have In Utero and lend it to someone. Anyway, someone leant us In Utero and we were going to the dentist after school and we sat listening to it in the car park. It was the first time I remember noticing production. Also, with it being called In Utero, I thought it was a live album because of the sound of it, and I assumed it was live in a place called Utero [laughs].”

“When you’re 12 or 13 you have a pretty simplistic world view,” adds Gary. “We didn’t know the difference in production between Queen and Nevermind. Now you can tell a lot of difference but as a kid you have hi-fi and lo-fi. We listened to it in the car park at the dentist and it was the first time we’d been exposed to really abrasive music. You can’t imagine In Utero being recorded by anyone else. It was such a gateway to discovering Steve Albini and it opened up how you discovered other types of music. The rest of our teenage years we listened to a lot of lo-fi music and that’s what prepped us for it. It sounded so much cooler than everything else we were listening too.”

“For every Nirvana fan it created, it also created a Steve Albini fan,” notes Ryan. “It immediately became the touchstone of what a good recording was, and you could never get anywhere close.”

24-7 Rock Star Shit

In 2017, The Cribs released their seventh studio album 24-7 Rock Star Shit. Engineered by Albini, it was an album that saw the band return to their stripped back, raucous roots. A reaction to some of their more recent records, which required longer production processes to what they had been used to, it was a harmonious coming together of shared sensibilities and arguably the purest distillation of everything they represent.

The songs are among the most visceral and explosive they have ever committed to tape, yet there is still sufficient oxygen in the recordings for their melodic prowess to rise to the fore. It’s heavy, poppy, and, like all great Albini works, places the listener in the room with the band.

He was only difficult to people who like and require music industry bullshit. Ryan Jarman

“We’d always hoped to do a record with Steve,” Ryan reflects. “We’d made two records on a major label: we made one record with Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand and mixed it with Andy Wallace, and then Johnny Marr joined the band and he wanted to make a record with Nick Launay. Both of those were great experiences, but they took a long time. You do the recording and then you leave it for a bit and go in and mix it, and by the end of the record you’re a bit burnt out.

“It wasn’t even a conscious decision at first,” he continues. “We had just gone back to being a three-piece after Johnny left, so there was a sense of going back to how we used to be. I remember being at home in my basement and listening to some of the stuff we’d been writing, and it hit me that it was time to do the Albini record. I just went on the Electrical Audio [Albini’s studio] website and sent an email inquiring about booking a week to record. And a couple of hours later Steve called. I said we had about six songs we wanted to record, and he said you don’t need a week, let’s do three days.”

“The whole thing was so refreshing – the fact he just called us direct,” adds Gary. “There was no nonsense. We’d asked for a week thinking that would be the minimum amount of time we’d need, but he was like, I don’t want you to waste your money, let’s do three days. That was our introduction to him - he was direct, economical, and super honest. Really artist focused.”

So, what were their first impressions of being in their studio with one of their heroes?

“When we first saw him, he couldn’t have been more Steve Albini,” Gary smiles. “He had his clipboard, his boiler suit and his pencils in his pocket, and he’s just like, ‘OK, are you ready to record’? It was a working relationship immediately.”

“It was exciting when we were waiting to meet him that morning,” Ryan adds. “You feel like you’re waiting for the heavyweight champion of the world, that’s how you see him. Recording with him, it sounds really good really quickly. We were recording everything live together and we already really liked the songs we had. And when they sound good from the get-go it’s amazing how quickly you can build momentum. You aren’t over analysing everything.”

“In between working we got to know each other and forged a really good friendship in the process,” says Gary of the dynamic that existed between band and engineer. “We were fans of his, obviously, but when you become friends with someone like that your relationship changes. You learn things about each other and you communicate differently.

“Whenever we came home from those sessions, I would be under the spell of it for a little while. He taught us how to do a lot of things. I’d ask him questions and he’d explain things and draw me diagrams, there was no airs and graces about it. He wanted to pass the information on. I’d go home and spend time experimenting with what he taught me. Sometimes it was drum mic-ing, sometimes it was how to make coffee. You were so influenced by those sessions. And you subscribed to his world view essentially. It’s righteous and exciting and cool. He was the biggest name we’d ever worked with but was also the most approachable and normal. That dichotomy is unique.”

If he heard us talking like this he’d cringe! Gary Jarman

Myth busting

As a result of his dealings with the mainstream music industry, most specifically his work with Nirvana, as well as his resistance to any outside influences beyond the artist, Albini’s reputation outside of the punk rock community was that of an agitator. ‘Difficult’ was a word often used to describe him, as were terms like ‘iconoclastic’ and ‘disruptive’.

“It was a myth,” states Gary. “In Utero was probably the first time a record that had such high stakes commercially was entrusted to a legitimate punk rocker. It created this really strange myth around him. He did not have any regard for the opinions of people who commodified music. That sounds iconoclastic or difficult or acerbic, but it’s not. If you’ve grown up in the punk rock or DIY world that’s a view that people subscribe to because it’s completely normal. Steve was put in this really unusual position and the music industry at large wasn’t used to dealing with that.”

“We found him to be gregarious and smart and his views were based on common sense, Ryan asserts. “His reputation was filtered through the music industry. He’s difficult for people who like there to be three layers of separation between the band and the things they need to know. Like their business dealings. There are all these made up jobs that are constructed in the industry to keep a band in the dark and keep stuff opaque. People like Steve cut straight through a lot of the nonsense of the music industry. A lot of those people in the music industry like the bullshit and are protective of it. He was only difficult to people who like and require bullshit. And since people have been recording sound, I think he’s the best to have ever done it.”

As our time together edges to a close, Gary and Ryan discuss their overriding memories of both their working relationship and friendship with Albini.

“What I remember most is his professionalism,” says Gary. “Not the stuff about him being iconoclastic or acerbic. He took the work ethic and the science and the acoustic knowledge of the people who came before him who were focused on fidelity and advanced it. He really progressed that philosophy.

“I almost can’t stand hearing myself talking about him like this,” he notes after a brief pause. “It goes unsaid and if he heard us talking like this he’d cringe! We had such a good rapport, it just feels weird eulogising and discussing him in these terms. Our rapport was based on having fun and just hanging out together.

“He had such a specific sense of humour and demeanour. After we worked together, he was always there for us. He mixed radio sessions for us, he kept in touch, he just felt like a reliable presence. He was such a one-of-a-kind personality. You always thought he’d be there. I can’t imagine that avenue being closed.”

“When we first went to his studio, he asked us what record we wanted to make,” Ryan picks up. “We said we wanted to do it all live with no overdubs. And there was a song I was working on where I said I was going to set up another guitar to double the guitars in the chorus. He said, ‘I’m happy to do it, but you will not be making the record you told me you wanted to make. Are you doing it out of convention’? And I was. I was better off for not doing it. It was so refreshing.

“Also, in the living quarters at the studio, there were three or four bedroom, and someone had put post-it notes on each one and had named the rooms after his cats. There was Pip’s Penthouse, Dynamite’s Dungeon, Bacon’s Boudoir and the Floss Memorial Suite. It must’ve been done as a joke, but Steve kept hearing us refer to them by those names. After we got home from the session I was walking past an engravers and they were selling those metal plates that you put on trophies, so I bought four and had them engraved with each of those names. I sent them to him in the mail and he was really happy about it.

“Another memory was, after the first session we did with him, we were shipping the master tapes back in a drum case and they were loose, and we were a bit concerned about them getting damaged. We were looking for something to wrap them in so he gave us his boiler suit to use. I still have it. It was such a cool gesture.”

“After he died, I was looking through my emails from Steve and I was on the phone with Ryan, and I said it was really touching that the last thing he said to us on email was ‘I always loved having you guys around’,” Gary adds before the pair have to leave. “We were feeling quit melancholic about that and then I realised there was another reply, and the last word he wrote to us was ‘besticles’. It was a classic Albini thing. He tempered this moment of vulnerability with a crass little joke.”

As Gary fittingly closes: “There won’t be another Steve Albini.”