Legendary musician, producer Steve Albini dead at 61

Steve Albini, an alternative-rock pioneer and legendary producer who shaped the musical landscape through his work with Nirvana, the Pixies, PJ Harvey and more, has died. He was 61.

Brian Fox, an engineer at Albini’s studio, Electrical Audio Recording, said Wednesday that Albini died after a heart attack Tuesday night.

In addition to his work on canonized rock albums such as Nirvana’s In Utero, the Pixies’ breakthrough Surfer Rosa, and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, Albini was the front man of the underground bands Big Black and Shellac.

He dismissed the term “producer,” refused to take royalties from the albums he worked on and requested he be credited with “Recorded by Steve Albini,” a fabled label on albums he worked on.

At the time of his death, Albini’s band Shellac were preparing to tour their first new album in a decade, To All Trains, which releases next week.

Other acts whose music was shaped by Albini include Joanna Newsom’s indie-folk opus, Ys, and releases from bands like the Breeders, the Jesus Lizard, Hum, Superchunk, Low and Mogwai.

LISTEN | Steve Albini talks to Q about Nirvana’s final album, In Utero: 

Q39:42Producer Steve Albini on Nirvana’s In Utero

This month is the 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s multi-platinum final album, “In Utero.” Released months before the death of lead singer Kurt Cobain, “In Utero” was the last musical statement from one of the biggest bands in the world at the time. The producer of the album was Steve Albini, who was sought out by Kurt himself as Nirvana wanted the record to be the opposite of their biggest album, “Nevermind.” Steve tells Tom about recording the album and reflects on his iconoclastic career as one of the most divisive producers in rock.

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Albini was born in California, grew up in Montana, and fell in love with the do-it-yourself punk music scene in Chicago while studying journalism at Northwestern University.

As a teenager, he played in punk bands, and in college, wrote about music for the prescient indie zine Forced Exposure. While attending Northwestern in the early 1980s, he founded the abrasive, noisy post-punk band Big Black, known for its mordant riffs, violent and taboo lyrics and drum machine in lieu of a live drummer.

It was a controversial innovation at the time, from a man whose career would be defined by risky choices. The band’s best-known song — the ugly, explosive, six-minute Kerosene from their cult-favourite 1986 album Atomizer — is ideal evidence of that, and not for the faint of heart.

Then came the short lived band Rapeman — one of two groups Albini fronted with indefensibly offensive names and vulgar song titles. In the early ’90s, he formed Shellac, a ferocious, distorted noise-rock band that was an evolution from Big Black, but remained punctuated by pummelling guitar tones and aggressive vocals.

In 1997, Albini opened his famed studio, Electrical Audio, in Chicago.

“The recording part is the part that matters to me — that I’m making a document that records a piece of our culture, the life’s work of the musicians that are hiring me,” Albini told the Guardian last year, when asked about some of the well-known and much-loved albums he’s recorded. “I take that part very seriously. I want the music to outlive all of us.”

‘A heartbreaking loss of a legend’

Albini was a larger-than-life character in the independent-rock scene, known for his forward-thinking production, unapologetic irreverence, acerbic sense of humour and criticisms of what he saw as the music industry’s exploitative practices — as detailed in his landmark 1993 essay The Problem with Music — as much as his talents.

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Later in life, he became a notable poker player and apologetic for his past indiscretions.

“Ugh man, a heartbreaking loss of a legend. Love to his family and innumerable colleagues,” wrote actor Elijah Wood on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Farewell, Steve Albini.”

Author Michael Azerrad, who included a chapter on Big Black in his comprehensive history, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991, also posted on X.

“I don’t know what to say about Steve Albini’s passing,” Azerrad wrote. “He had a brilliant mind, was a great artist and underwent the most remarkable and inspiring personal transformation. I can’t believe he’s gone.”

Albini is survived by his wife, Heather Whinna, a filmmaker.

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