A Tribute to Steve Albini | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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A recent press photo of Shellac (Steve Albini on far left), surrounded by the covers of albums he appeared on or worked on.

A Tribute to Steve Albini

The Prolific Musician, Shellac Member, and Producer/Engineer Died Unexpectedly on May 7

May 19, 2024 Bookmark and Share

On Tuesday May 7th, we lost an American underground icon, legend, and all-around philosopher Steve Albini, who passed away in his long-time home of Chicago at the age of 61 from a heart attack.

After coming to the Chicago area to study at Northwestern University in the early 1980s, Albini made a name for himself by founding iconic ’80s noise/industrial/punk legends Big Black along with Ruthless Records, which he started with other Chicago punk rockers in 1981 (including the also recently departed John Kezdy of The Effigies, a group he’s had a long association with), but took over in 1984 until its end in 1990.​​

And as Big Black ended in the late ’80s, he turned to producing (though he hated the term and preferred to be called an engineer), establishing a studio in his home and recording many bands, including most notably Pixies (1988’s Surfer Rosa), Jawbreaker (1994’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy), PJ Harvey (1993’s Rid of Me), and of course, Nirvana’s final studio album In Utero (also from 1993). Never one to be content with resting on his already considerable laurels, he continued this until his death, recording such notable 2010s classics as Screaming Females’ 2012 double LP Ugly alongside releases by artists like Ty Segall, Neurosis, Nina Nastasia, Code Orange, and many others. In fact, he would work with anyone who hired him, often at rates that were a fraction of what many other producers of his ilk would charge.

His punk principles guided him through life, as evidenced by a fiercely independent attitude expressed by his 1993 Baffler magazine column entitled “The Problem with Music,” widely shared in underground circles and central to the then important scene debates about whether or not indie/punk rock bands should sign to major labels. He also famously refused to take producer “points” for In Utero, thus in essence losing millions of dollars in the process.

All the while, he continued playing his own music, first with the provocatively-named Rapeman (after a Japanese comic book, but designed to shock and offend) and then with the long-running Shellac, who just released a brand new album and were set out to go on tour as well, thus in effect making it Albini’s swan song. Shellac in particular were known as a must-see live act, with Albini, bassist Bob Weston, and drummer Todd Trainer’s on-stage, between-song banter being as much (or sometimes even more) of a highlight as Shellac’s music was.

He was also, notably, a professional, world class level poker player, even winning two World Series of Poker bracelets. And in recent years, he was keen to reassess his acerbic public persona on X (formerly Twitter), showing off a sensitive, vulnerable, thoughtful side that made it clear he had no issues being held accountable for past behavior, unlike so many who double down without truly analyzing their prominent cultural role as someone who influences others. A true renaissance man, brilliant musician, engineer, and overall provaceteur, we will never see the likes of him again. Rest in peace.

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