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Steve Albini poses for a portrait at the recording studio Electrical Audio in the Avondale neighborhood in August 2021.

Steve Albini poses for a portrait at the recording studio Electrical Audio in the Avondale neighborhood in August 2021.

Pat Nabong

Musician Steve Albini — ‘provocateur, troublemaker, firestarter’ — had an outsized influence on Chicago’s sound

As a musician, sound engineer and provocateur, Steve Albini was a dominant force across Chicago’s musical landscape for more than 40 years.

He died of a heart attack late Tuesday at 61.

Albini’s influence as a recording engineer and punk sage spanned genres and all levels of the recording industry. He worked on more than 2,000 albums in his lifetime. Many of those were among the most important bands of his generation, from America’s punk underground — with bands such as Slint, Silkworm, Jawbreaker, Pegboy, Tar and the Jesus Lizard — to mainstream stars like Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Cheap Trick, Bush and the Pixies.

In 1997 he opened Electrical Audio, a two-story recording studio in Avondale that became his homebase. He also was a prolific musician who played in a series of bands — Rapeman, Big Black and Shellac. Shellac was due to release To All Trains, its sixth album, on May 17, and the band was preparing to tour North America and Europe this summer.

“Since the late ‘80s until yesterday, Steve was one of, if not the sole torchbearer of integrity in independent music in Chicago and the world. There is no ‘Chicago sound’ without Steve,” said Ed Roche, former label manager with Touch and Go Records, the Chicago label that issued the majority of Albini’s personal recording projects.

Albini “inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of kids to pick up an instrument, try to sing, engineer and enter business ethically,” Roche said.

Rick Rizzo of Eleventh Dream Day posted on Instagram that Albini’s “influence on anybody that made music around here was profound. Anything [else] I could say would be an understatement.” Musician Jason Narducy called Albini’s influence “astounding and carried across platforms.”

Born July 22, 1962, Albini moved to the Chicago area from Missoula, Mont., to attend Northwestern University, where he majored in journalism. He arrived during the height of the post-punk scene, which he readily embraced and shaped a sound known for its pummeling guitar riffs, abrasive and noisy production, that together felt confrontational. As his name grew more prominent, largely due to his work on Nirvana’s commercial breakthrough In Utero album in 1993, he refused to be labeled a producer, instead preferring the more workmanlike title of engineer.

“The contemporary definition of ‘producer’ includes someone who makes music independent of any artists, and that music can be suited to adapt to another musician, or they can release on their own as an artist. That’s a perfectly reasonable use of the language. I’m fond of evolving language and I don’t like people who cling to archaic terminology,” he told a Houston reporter in 2018.

Albini’s stature rose as he worked with an unusual mixture of local Chicago bands, his famous peers and even classic rockers from generations earlier such as Iggy Pop, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. He also became known for his humorous and contrarian essays, media interviews and later social media posts that poked locals on the city’s music and journalism scene and spared no criticisms of the wider recording industry itself.

Metro owner Joe Shanahan, who had a tense relationship with Albini, said both men ultimately made peace in 2019. He called Wednesday “a dark day for Chicago and for the world.”

“Steve, as thorny as he could be, he was a fan of the music. Provocateur, troublemaker, firestarter, yes, but he was a big, big fan and thank God, he was a big fan of Chicago music because he helped put Chicago on the map,” Shanahan said. “He said a lot of things in the press that were very provocative, but he made people listen.”

Musicians who worked with Albini often hailed him for his precise understanding of sound, a passion for analog recording techniques and a healthy respect for genres that went beyond his own interests. Country singer and songwriter Robbie Fulks sought Albini out early in his career and the pair worked on six albums together.

“Antiquated technologies, marginal music, cruel wit, personal friendship and contrarianism make life worth living, and he embodied all of these otherwise unrelated things in his passions and personality,” Fulks said.

“He’d miss sleep, meals and leisure to make your record sound a little better. You’d be the recipient of extravagant gestures if you were his friend. If you were a president of a record company, he’d refuse your call or hang up on you,” Fulks said.

In the studio, Albini “embraced the sickly causes of analog tape and nonautomated mixing back in the 1980s and never let go,” Fulks added. “His advocacy was both principled and extreme, and it took a lot of grit, as well as some money, which he earned from his Nirvana record and many poker competitions, to keep the cause afloat.”

In his later years, Albini spent time on the professional poker circuit, was a baseball fan and he was behind many charitable causes. Letters to Santa, an annual Christmas show at Second City he produced over two decades with his wife, Heather Whinna, raised money every year for Chicago’s neediest families through a 24-hour rotation of performances from both music stars and comedy improvisers.

He once described the moment he read a letter Whinna brought home from the post office.

“These weren’t impish requests for toys or a new bike; mostly, they were desperate pleas from heads of households asking for help. It was staggering,” he wrote. “I couldn’t help but be moved when I read it, and the realization that there were hundreds — no, thousands — of these letters changed something in me.”

As recently as 2021, Albini told the Chicago Sun-Times he was considering retirement.

“I’ve lived my whole life without having goals, and I think that’s very valuable because then I never am in a state of anxiety or dissatisfaction. I never feel I haven’t achieved something,” he said.

“I’ve always tried to see everything as a process. I want to do things in a certain way that I can be proud of, that is sustainable and is fair and equitable to everybody that I interact with. If I can do that, then that’s a success, and success means that I get to do it again tomorrow.”

Mark Guarino is a journalist based in Chicago.

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