Steve Albini kept things honest. “Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context,” begins his seminal 1993 essay, “The Problem with Music.” “I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit.” Albini went on to describe how this trench is the gauntlet that new bands must endure, in competition with one another, to gain a recording contract that is held by a music industry exec at the other end. Providing a litany of insider detail, including a sample budget and balance sheet that underscore the corporate exploitation involved, Albini concludes, “Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.”

Albini, who died last week from a heart attack at age sixty-one, knew the music business from all sides — as a musician, as a sometime music critic, briefly as a label manager, and, above all, as a highly regarded recording engineer. He worked on numerous canonical albums that defined an entire era of music, including releases by the Pixies, Slint, PJ Harvey, the Jesus Lizard, the Breeders, and, most famously, Nirvana. Equally important, he led several influential bands, namely Big Black and Shellac. In short, Albini experienced firsthand the recording industry’s opportunities and its systemic inequalities. He engaged its entire edifice, from playing music to recording music to writing and pontificating about music. Few can claim the same credentials. They fundamentally informed his artist-centered approach.

The man never seemed to lack ambition. Inspired by the Ramones, Albini started out as a musician during high school in the unlikely surroundings of Missoula, Montana, which, as a college town, nonetheless provided an important crucible of record stores. He first learned the bass because it had fewer strings, and he thought it would be easier. When college beckoned, Albini headed to Chicago and Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, where he founded Big Black at the age of nineteen. Their first EP, Lungs (1992), had Albini playing all the instruments apart from a drum machine, sardonically listed as “Roland” (after its corporate manufacturer) in the credits.

Listening to it today, Lungs is a characteristically prickly and uncompromising affair, establishing an enduring ethos that Albini would abide by for the rest of his life. Big Black would go on to release two LPs, Atomizer (1986) and the less delicately titled Songs About Fucking (1987). As if that wasn’t offensive enough, Albini went on to front the short-lived project Rapeman, reportedly named after a Japanese manga superhero who committed said act. Albini’s youthful abrasiveness could cross the line into graceless belligerence. In early publicity photos for Big Black, the skinny, bespectacled Albini looks both awkward and unamused, even scary, like he might rip your head off if you approached him the wrong way.

Working behind the boards provided a pathway to maturity without sacrificing his principles in the process. Albini notoriously hated the term “producer,” preferring the term “audio engineer.” His own father was, in fact, an aerospace engineer who studied at Caltech. Yet, as explained in “The Problem with Music,” Albini found many self-declared producers to know next to nothing about the actual techniques and equipment involved in recording music. (Though unnamed, someone like Rick Rubin comes to mind.) In Albini’s view, being an engineer meant knowing the capabilities of different microphones, how to operate a mastering deck, how to tune instruments, managing gain and distortion, and dealing with other technical matters. A particular expertise was needed. A certain kind of labor was demanded.

That said, the recording process Albini advocated was fast — typically less than a week — and minimalist. He had little patience for studio tricks and exhaustive multiple takes, which informed his open hatred of bands like Steely Dan. Albini was the precise opposite of producer auteurs like Brian Eno or Nigel Godrich, whose production and remixing on albums by U2 and Radiohead deeply shaped their sound. In contrast, Albini favored a less intrusive approach. Band members would perform in the same room with careful mic placements proximate to the instruments and amplifiers determining the sound. Excellent musicianship was required under these unadorned conditions. On occasion, he would even leave his name off an LP’s credits or provide a pseudonym.

What exactly was so special about this method? An authenticity and truth emerged in the music. Small human mistakes could be evident. Furthermore, there is frequently a spatial quality to the albums he worked on: the room the band is playing in could be audible. A good example is the intro to “Bone Machine,” the first track on the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa (1988), in which David Lovering’s drum kit is foregrounded, clearing space for the instruments that follow. When Black Francis, the lead vocalist, eventually enters, it sounds like he is shouting from the back of the room. This informal reorganization of how instruments and vocals are typically placed imparted an effect of tangible realism, as if you were in the same room listening to the band live.

In this way, Albini’s technique shared a stronger affinity with the field recordings of Alan Lomax than with, say, Phil Spector’s calculated wall-of-sound approach. It worked extremely well with musicians who wanted a stripped-down, unvarnished sound. PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me (1993) and Will Oldham’s Viva Last Blues (1995, recorded under his early moniker Palace Music) exemplify the possibilities of this aesthetic, being bracingly harsh, spooky, and vulnerable all at once. Albini managed to transfigure the rawness of punk into a recording style and listening experience. His unembellished method dissolved the boundaries between artists and audience, allowing for a surreptitious element of shared humanism to enter.

This approach also brought numerous bands to Albini’s studio door, seeking his imprimatur. His letter to Nirvana has circulated widely the past several days. It reads like a pithy ransom note infused with the rancor of a manifesto. What is important to remember is that, given their precipitous fame, Nirvana approached him to record their successor to Nevermind (1991). Furthermore, he provided them with his terms, not the opposite. Immediately recognizing the tacit hierarchy involved, Albini quickly turned the tables from the start, not out of antipathy toward the band — he has since fondly recalled his time working with Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic — but out of his principled stance against corporate music labels and their extractivist schemes. As regularly noted, he took no percentage of the royalties from In Utero (1993). Albini referred to himself as simply a “plumber” who had a job to perform. (The man, bless him, never abandoned his scatological worldview.)

However, beneath this self-characterization resided a deeper philosophy about how the world worked and how it should work. Albini never spelled out his attitudes and views in any systematic fashion, but there are countless instances when he expressed his anti-corporatism, citing the brutality that capitalism could mete out to the individual artist. Taken further, he saw himself as a worker — the first song on Lungs, unsurprisingly in retrospect, is titled “Steelworker” — and he saw musicians as fellow workers. As such, they should not be alienated from the fruits of their labor. His rejection of percentages was integral to his aggressively ethical stance against this kind of corporate theft that happened day in and day out in the music industry, destroying artistic careers before they even started, in addition to bankrolling passé musicians and antiquated bands who had long outlasted any sort of vitality that could make meaningful artistic contributions.

Steve Albini held people, including himself, to a high standard. He placed a premium on vocational excellence, whether that vocation be performing music or operating a mixing console. The hundreds of albums he worked on amount to an intergenerational archive that will remain a lasting source of artistic and intellectual inspiration. His generosity of spirit crossed over into other areas as well, including working for anti-poverty initiatives in the Chicago area, which he wrote movingly and seriously about.

It’s easy to be overblown in a moment like this, but it feels like the end of an era. Steve Albini was an irreplaceable part of the very firmament of punk rock, indie rock, alternative music, whatever you might want to call it. As a staunch arbiter of taste and an opinionated voice for musicians, it seemed like he would be around forever, ready to lay into an elitist platform or lend a hand to an up-and-coming band. And now, forever, he is gone.

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