Read the Uncompromising Letter That Steve Albini (RIP) Wrote to Nirvana Before Producing In Utero (1993)

Today, Steve Albi­ni, the musi­cian and pro­duc­er of impor­tant albums by Nir­vana, PJ Har­vey, the Pix­ies and many oth­ers, passed away in Chica­goat the all-too-ear­ly age of 61. In trib­ute, we’re bring­ing you this clas­sic 2013 post from our archive.

Jour­ney­man record pro­duc­er Steve Albi­ni (he prefers to be called a “record­ing engi­neer”) is per­haps the cranki­est man in rock. This is not an effect of age. He’s always been that way, since the emer­gence of his scary, no-frills post-punk band Big Black and lat­er projects Rape­man and Shel­lac. In his cur­rent role as elder states­man of indie rock and more, Chicago’s Albi­ni has devel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as kind of a hardass. He’s also a con­sum­mate pro­fes­sion­al who musi­cians want to know and work with. From the sound of the Pix­ies’ Surfer Rosa it’s Joanna Newsom’s YsAlbi­ni has had a hand in some of the defin­ing albums of the last thir­ty plus yearsand there is good rea­son for that: noth­ing sounds like an Albi­ni record. His method is all his own, and his results—minimalist, dynam­ic, and raw—are impos­si­ble to argue with.

So when Nir­vana embarked on record­ing their final, painful (in hind­sight) album In Uterothey asked Albi­ni to steer them away from the more major-label sound of the break­out Nev­er­mindpro­duced by Butch Vig. True to form, the typ­i­cal­ly ver­bose Albi­ni sent a four-page typed let­ter in response. The let­ter (first page above—see the rest here) is a tes­ta­ment to per­haps the most thought­ful pro­duc­er since Quin­cy Jones and lays out Albini’s phi­los­o­phy in very fine detail. Two sam­ple para­graphs serve as a the­sis:

I’m only inter­est­ed in work­ing on records that legit­i­mate­ly reflect the band’s own per­cep­tion of their music and exis­tence. If you will com­mit your­selves to that as a tenet of the record­ing method­ol­o­gy, then I will bust my ass for you. I’ll work cir­cles around you. I’ll rap your head with a ratch­et…

I have worked on hun­dreds of records (some great, some good, some hor­ri­ble, a lot in the court­yard), and I have seen a direct cor­re­la­tion between the qual­i­ty of the end result and the mood of the band through­out the process. If the record takes a long time, and every­one gets bummed and scru­ti­nizes every step, then the record­ings bear lit­tle resem­blance to the live band, and the end result is sel­dom flat­ter­ing. Mak­ing punk records is def­i­nite­ly a case where more “work” does not imply a bet­ter end result. Clear­ly you have learned this your­selves and appre­ci­ate the log­ic.

Albi­ni decries any inter­fer­ence from the “front office bul­let­heads,” or record com­pa­ny execs (his feuds with such peo­ple are leg­endary), and makes it quite clear that he’s there to serve the inter­ests of the band and their sound, not the prod­uct of a mar­ket­ing cam­paign. While Albi­ni has issued many a surly man­i­festo over the years, this state­ment of his craft is maybe the most com­pre­hen­sive. He is dri­ven by what he calls a “kin­ship” with the bands he works with. And his pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to musi­cians and to qual­i­ty sound makes him one of the most artis­ti­cal­ly vir­tu­ous peo­ple work­ing in pop­u­lar music today. For more on In Uteroread Dave Grohl’s Rolling Stone inter­view here. Below, see Dave Grohl, Krist Novosel­ic and Steve Albi­ni dis­cuss the now-famous let­ter to Nir­vana.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Music Pro­duc­er Steve Albi­ni, Direc­tor God­frey Reg­gio & Actor Fred Armisen Explain Why Cre­at­ing Is Cru­cial to Human Exis­tence

An Awkward/NSFW Inter­view with Nir­vana Pro­duc­er Steve Albi­ni (Plus B‑52 Front­man Fred Schnei­der)

Vis­it “Mar­i­o­batal­ivoice,” the Cook­ing Blog by Steve Albi­ni, Musi­cian & Record Pro­duc­er

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness



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