Remembering Indie Rock Icon Steve Albini

I think most people have a memory of the first time they encountered something that seemed grown up and cool. If you were a kid in the suburbs of Detroit in the ’90s it took some digging. Culture wasn’t readily available. But we were in Motown, so independent record stores were. My memory is coming face to face in one of those stores with Big Black’s 1987 studio album Songs About Fucking

You didn’t even have to listen to it — the cover said enough. The title, sure, but the graphics too: the intense chartreuse background, the bright pink text, and the comic-style illustration of a woman’s face, her expression somewhere between anguished and ecstatic. I did listen, though, and it was badass.

Steve Albini, who died of a heart attack on May 7, at the age of 61, was a badass. Although he’s best known as the legendary engineer of Nirvana’s In Utero and a slew of other landmark recordings, I can’t pretend to care about most of those bands as much as I care about his own, Big Black and, later, Shellac.

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In the early 2000s, shortly after Shellac released the brilliant, savage 1000 Hurts, I was working at a weekly paper in Detroit and I scored an interview with Albini. I don’t recall what I asked him (though I still have the recording somewhere), but I remember how I felt beforehand: scared that a guy with a reputation for provocation would be an asshole, intimidated that I’d be talking to an indie rock icon. And after: thrilled that someone so formidable was so nice to a recent college grad at a free weekly, and awed that we’d spoken.

For me, the genius of Shellac, why I keep returning to those albums, is the tension between humor and anger, heightened by Todd Trainer’s austere drumming, Bob Weston’s taut bass, and Albini’s raw guitar and vocals that could range from conversational to confrontational. The last time I saw them live, the seething rage of “Prayer to God” unraveled into a freeform comic prose-poem. 

Shellac songs are layered with irony, but the joke can turn on a dime into a vicious snarl or combative shout: I think of the wiry vitriol of “Watch Song” — a track that has the nervous energy of picking at a scab.

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And the reverse — the pummeling riff giving way to sarcasm — doesn’t relieve the pressure. Instead it gnarls into a spit-take of skepticism. On “Elephant” from 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound, Albini deadpans, “repeat the lie that makes it true,” another lesson in cynicism from a band that made an art of it.

I saw Shellac in concert three times, twice in Los Angeles and once in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the crowd was smaller and more feral. That time I managed to talk to Albini for a few minutes afterward. I probably gushed about how cool I’d always thought he was, and I’m sure he humbly deflected. I told him I was in graduate school and he gave me some good advice. I wish I could remember it now. 

The world was no less brutal a few days ago than it is now, but at least Steve Albini was in it with us.

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