DS Remembers: Reflections on the Life of Music Icon Steve Albini

Feature Photo by Paul Natkin

The death of Steve Albini on May 7, 2024, due to a fatal heart attack, sent shockwaves throughout the music world. None more so to those who called Albini a friend, a mentor, or a collaborator in making their music.


CHRIS CONNELLY

Scottish-born, Chicago-based musician Chris Connelly has known Steve Albini for decades. He recalls the 2 weeks spent in Minnesota, in 1991 with Albini. He sent me this reflection and calls this time the Mouse and the Elephant.

“In the summer of 1991 I went to Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, about 40 miles outside of Minneapolis, to record what would be the first and only album by the somewhat volatile Murder Inc, a band which was basically Killing Joke minus Jay Coleman, and with the addition of myself and original drummer Paul Fergusson along with later drummer Martin Atkins. We had toyed around with some song ideas in Chicago and Steve was going to record us.

I already knew Steve, through my friendships with various Jesus Lizards, Butthole Surfers, Naked Rayguns, etc, this was Chicago in the very early 90’s, it was a hotbed of vicious talent, it was a great place to be after fleeing the often baffling blue eyed major label soul boys of the Scottish music scene. Chicago had teeth and fangs.

I was not a part of the music writing or recording: My choice, I would go into the studio late in the day and listen back to what we had done and write accordingly. It was just myself and Steve, he was honest to a fault, blunt, not rude, not opinionated, I soon learned that he was serving the record, not me, not the band, but the album: truth be told, I had worked with many engineers who were often yes men, so this was refreshing. I have repeated this phrase Steve said to me once whilst recording and I mentioned something I wanted to try “SURE! It’s your album! If you wanna go ahead and ruin it, go right ahead!”, to which I laughed so hard…

The “title” song “Murder Inc.”was a long groove, about 6 or 7 minutes of organic sounding angular lopsided funk, and I wrote the lyric and came into the studio and told Steve it was “kind of a rap,” his face fell and he said “oh GOD!”, but I went ahead and tried it, a little sheepishly, understandably, we were hovering at the border of rap/metal, it could have been a horrible idea, BUT after I did the pass, Steve was noticeably relieved, more John Cooper-Clark than Ice T, …the day was saved.

We spent many a night having a great time, he had me sing a vocal lying on the ground, another one where he rigged a 3-foot square of plywood unevenly balanced on a couple of bricks whilst I jumped up and down on it as if throwing a toddler tantrum, and another one where he found the most expensive vocal microphone in the place and had me swing it around my head as if I was trying to coral a wild horse. This became the song “Mrs Whisky Name,” an ode to my favorite whisky, which at the time, I was too drunk to remember, so that’s what Steve wrote on the tape box…

Late evenings were spent with the band and Steve having dinner and drinking (not Steve, no, but the band, YES) stories were swapped and jokes told, Steve had an endless supply of great ones, including the legendary MOUSE AND ELEPHANT joke, which I cannot for the life of me remember, but it was a great one (if you know it, let me know!)

Honest, adventurous, inspiring, and a hell of a storyteller, these are some ways I would describe Steve, and in my very long career in music, these 2 weeks in rural Minnesota were a shining highlight for me.  Thank you Steve!


MARC RUVOLO

Author and Musician Marc Ruvolo shared numerous memories of his friendship with Steve Albini. He permitted us to share them here: Posting those memories here as he did on Facebook:

COMPILING ALL MY ALBINI MEMORIES INTO ONE PLACE AGAINST THE DAY MY BRAIN FINALLY BRICKS (Not in chrono-illogical order). My heart goes out to Heather Whinna, and anybody else that adored him. ????

1. Steve recording dOUBT in his original home studio. We were in the basement and he was upstairs. Never heard a home studio sound so good. His house was like a dragon’s hoard of cool shit: books and records and movies and posters and porn (erotica!). I looked on the back porch which was filled with records and saw a box of the limited edition Big Black “Headache” EPs with the original shotgun suicide cover. 

2. Steve introducing me to Fluss, his cat, he credited much of his production work to. He also used these producer aliases, which always made me laugh: A Skinny Bespectacled Guy, Arden Geist, Buck Naked, Ding Rollski, Don Moist, Engineer, Frank Francisco, Harry Schnell, King Barbecue, Lenard Johns, Mr. Billiards, Reggie Stiggs, Robert Earl Hughes, Some Fuckin’ Derd Niffer, Terry Fuckwit, The Li’l Weed, The Proprietor, Torso Man, Whodini.

3. Steve flying back early from recording Bush’s “Razorblade Suitcase” to finish the Traitors record because he promised us the date and then we of course didn’t have all the money to pay for the session so he kindly put us on a payment plan.

4. Steve, Heather, Ethan, Kim and Kelly Deal and I sitting around playing wholesome party games, eating snacks and laughing our asses off before the Breeders show because Kim and Kelly wanted to stay away from drugs and alcohol.

5. Steve letting me bang on his Travis Beans through his amps and play with his vintage mellotron. When he recorded dOUBT I was kinda embarrassed to be playing through a Peavy Bandit but he was stoked to record it and said he loved Peavy because you could beat the hell out of them. He even made it sound kinda good.

6. Steve inviting Traitors to play shows on a Shellac tour he booked where they only played in Comedy Clubs and had standup comedians for an opener. In SF, he and I were sitting outside some pizza place shooting the shit when he said he was going back to his hotel. As soon as he walked away, some weirdo ran over and grabbed the plastic chair he was sitting on and ran away yelling, “I got Steve Albini’s chair!” Earlier at the show, people in the audience were spitting (gobbing?) on him while he played and he stopped playing and said, “What the fuck? Stop that shit. This isn’t 1978!”

7. Seeing Big Black reunite at the Hideout Block Party (Touch & Go 25th) and after they were done Steve saying to the crowd, “See? They’re just songs. You didn’t miss all that much not seeing it until now.” or something to that effect.

8. Steve giving Gar Brandt a free car. Steve was incredibly generous with his money and time and loved 80s Subarus and would drive them until they were about to die and then sign the title over to whoever wanted them. The back seat well of this particular one was filled with hundreds of unmarked black tapes, all various mixes of bands he was recording. You could just pick one up at random and pop it in the tape player and try to figure out who it was. A bootlegger’s dream, and we had such a ball driving around listening to that shit.

9. Steve taking dOUBT to record for an overnight session at Chicago Recording Company (where they recorded Eye of the Tiger, turned out it was designed more for commercials than music= no fun) and when we didn’t like the way it came out he told the studio we were some crazy Belgian band who stiffed him on the bill and skipped the country so we didn’t have to pay.

10. Steve generously helping me try and salvage the only copy of a No Empathy song from a broken DAT tape, failing, and then gently telling me what an idiot I am for not making a backup and that DAT tapes were not meant to sit in a moldy box for ten years.

11. Steve blowing off firecrackers on stage at Metro and getting banned.

12. Steve keeping the actual physical copy of “Two Nuns and a Pack Mule” porn magazine on his toilet tank so anyone could read it while they took a shit.

13. Shellac playing Fireside not on New Year’s Eve, but on New Year’s Day–at NINE A.M. in the damned morning. It was sold out, of course. Steve bought coffee and pop tarts and asked if we would man a table, toasting them and handing them out, which we did, feeding the whole crowd.

14. Steve showing us around the under-construction Electrical Audio [Albini’s Chicago recording studio], culminating with the incredible reverb bed he was having built in the basement.

15. Shellac playing on Halloween as the Sex Pistols (with David Yow as Johnny Rotten) and Steve wearing a handkerchief hat like Glen Matlock. Steve was amazed I could play full barre chords for so long. I never realized he didn’t play almost any barre chords. He said he never built up the stamina in his hand. On tour Traitors relentlessly made fun of Shellac because they had a Sex Pistols chord book to learn these three chord songs. I asked Steve to show me the chords to “Copper” once and he showed me these jazz chords and I said “can’t you just play it as barre chords like this?” And he said, “Where’s the fun in that?”

16. For some unknown reason, Traitors appealed to Steve. I remember one show he attended and in the midst of the usual sweaty drunken stupidity orgy that was our “music performance,” I saw him sitting in the back, drinking an espresso, with a big smile on his face. When we played with Shellac he always seemed to sit behind the Traitors merch reading a book so that anyone who wanted to talk to him had to look at our records first. We never discussed it, but I believe the now-famous silkscreened Electrical jumpsuits were inspired by the Traitors jumpsuits (you can see Steve wearing what was probably one of the first in the pic below. This was a sound check at Lounge Ax). We both liked the idea of putting on the work clothes to do the job of making music. Chicago in a nutshell. Godspeed Steve, it’s a real kick in the nuts when good, honest people go early while the evil asshats seem to live on and on.


NICK NOVAK

Steve Albini and Nick Novak. Photo by Tash Cox.

Nick Novak, Lead Engineer at Smashed Plastic, and Staff Engineer at Mystery Street Recording Company, once worked for Steve Albini at Electrical Audio. In his Facebook bio, Novak describes his role at that time as “Steve Albini’s Minion.” For Novak, Steve Albini was a great and generous mentor. Novak shared his reflections on the time:

I interned for Steve several years ago. I was there for maybe 7 months [2017-18].

I was very fortunate to have learned from him. He was always very generous with his knowledge. Any question he would have a very thorough and well thought out answer. Steve’s technical knowledge was incredible and he had no hesitation to share what he had learned over his decades in the studio. No question was a bad question to him. 

I don’t think Steve got the credit he deserved for how humble he was. He went to great lengths to not ever take or accept credit for the success of any project he had worked on. He saw himself as a facilitator for bands. His goal was to capture an accurate representation of the music and allow musicians to achieve what they wanted with their music. He refused to ever take any credit for other people’s art. 

He truly believed that every single client matters. When on the topic of how he handles working with major bands and artists he made it very clear that every client, big or small, should be treated the same. He felt he could be doing a “disservice” if he treated any of his clients differently from any other. This client could be recording for their first time ever, recording for the last time ever, or this could be their only opportunity ever to record. So he needed to treat every project, every client, with the same level of care, skill, and professionalism.

Steve was a person who showed me that you can run a business ethically in an industry that often isn’t. It was always his goal to serve the band. He made sure that everyone who entrusted their music with him got their money’s worth.

Steve was great. He was truly a “no dumb questions” guy. There’s nothing you could ask him that he wouldn’t give a thorough and well thought out response to. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from him.


DARYL WILSON, M.D.

Daryl Wilson, founding member and singer for The Bollweevils, is also a medical doctor in the emergency department at Edward Hospital in Naperville, IL. He sent us these recollections of Steve Albini, including the time The Bollweevils recorded with him:

The recording session was pure Albini. He believes you sound like you sound. Bob [original bass player Bob Skwerski], and Ken [guitar player Fitzner] were fighting the whole recording session. I was just fascinated talking to Albini about life and anything but music. He was big on everything being on physical media because he was adamant about things being real. Digital stuff was just vapor is what he was preaching. He is so right. He had me record vocals in a bathroom shower. The first mix sounded pretty good, then Albini hit some stuff on the board and the mix sounded horrible to Ken and Bob. He just said, “that’s how you sound”. I find that funny as hell looking at it. We played straight-up punk rock. We weren’t some 80s hair metal band or anything like that. What were we supposed to sound like? A punk band. He was spot on. RIP.

There are some great stories about him hearing our cover of Naked Raygun’s “I Lie”.  He was in Reckless Records and it was playing over the speakers.  He looked up and just shook his head. Hahah.

He called out folks on their bullshit and that is the best.  He was real.  100% of the time.  That is the most admirable quality a person can have.

STEVE SILVER

Writer Steve Silver and Steve Albini had a complicated relationship at the start. But eventually, it was one of mutual respect. Silver recalls the invaluable advice he received from Albini.

Steve and I did not like each other when we met. For sure. I was the muscle head door guy at Exit and he was the pretentious prick band guy who wrote nasty shit in fanzines. 

But those were titles other people had saddled us with, and soon after we met through mutual pals, he was the first to drop the curtain on all that foolishness.  He decided I was ok, and I did the same for him, because we actually talked about dumb shit, and we liked that the other guy wasn’t backing down from his opinion. 

He told me once he pushed people just to see if they would blink because he was using his intelligence OR band shit to intimidate them. And if he did cave too easily, he never really forgave that much. He liked strong opinions. He and other people. 

I sit in a weird spot in all of this. I wasn’t what I would ever call close to Steve, we just knew each other forever. And it wasn’t always fun being around me. I had some bad years of my own doing and I sort of disappeared for a lot of years. But, when we reconnected, it was nice and Steve actually at the beginning of our reunion, said he had no idea how bad I had been and he was so glad I could put it behind me. Which was really my first time noticing that HE had really changed for the better since our long-ago days.

Everyone is talking about how Steve would do the most unexpected, nice things to help musicians and engineers get better at the craft. Or, how he would answer the phone or door at his studio and spend a ton of time giving his perspective on things (I think he hated to use the word advice, it sounded condescending to him I think) but the world is filled now with stories like this about him. 

Steve and I never, ever had that kind of relationship for a simple reason…..I wasn’t in a band, I was never going to produce or engineer music. I did a long stretch as a roadie or security for a bunch of bands, then I became a tour manager. It’s going to sound too simple, but the truth of the matter is, we never were going to need anything from each other like that, and I think it freed us up to just be our idiot selves when we were young and appreciate where we were when we reconnected later in life. 

Here’s the funny part though….. he did completely ALBINI me at a time when I really needed it.

I had just finished writing my first book, and because it was a DIY publishing thing, and because I had no fucking idea how things worked in the business of being a writer, after it came out, other than Facebook, I had no way of getting it out there. 

I sent Steve to the book page on Facebook and he wrote back in seconds that he was happy I had finally done it. And he asked how it was going. And I told him bookstores didn’t want me to do events and literary events only cared about letting writers with publishing deals do their showcases. I was basically lost with what to do next. I should have been out of my mind with happiness and I was so fucking angry and frustrated I couldn’t see straight.

He asks me…“you want to be famous or do you want to be a writer?” 

A writer. 

He proceeds to explain to me that I have the opportunity to do the whole punk rock work ethic thing but for my book. He reminds me of how the first punk shows weren’t in established places, we used gay bars or rented cheap nights in the week at VFW halls and bowling alley lounges. We made our spots until it made sense for the people with money to let bands play at their places or sell the records. He tells me, I am sitting on a goldmine that is only available to me as a writer and really no one else. “You know everyone who owns nightclubs and bars. You know some gallery owners. you know all the bands from the old days. Read there, tell stories before they go on, MAKE THE SPOT FOR YOURSELF.” 

And, I do. Slowly but surely. And one night at Live Wire he catches a few minutes towards the end of my reading. Smiles at me and says “I fucking told you so!” 

He continues to give me the same as he gives bands…. “Do it yourself, don’t follow the money, own the entire process. DON’T SIGN ANYTHING with a publisher who says they know what’s best to sell you. Fuck that.

Write, tell stories, pester your friends to open, sell books at bars, sell your t-shirts. Build what you want on your own. 

When he first told me this stuff, I told Claudia my wife and editor, a writer of her own, and she lit up immediately. She knew he was right. He fucking was. 

And later, he would tell me, “All these writers running around, you have something the will never have. 

He was fucking right. Again. 

We chatted online a bit. We got into fights with trolls on Twitter a lot, which I loved and when my friend John invited me to Bluesky. John was my first connection and Steve was my second. I didn’t add anyone else for months.

Recently, I was asked to tell some stories before Deep Tunnel Project played for the vinyl release of their album. It was a huge honor for me. John Mohr is an old friend and this record is as Chicago as fuck. John had a lot to do with the trajectory of my new book, and that happened at the service for our old friend John Kezdy after I spoke. 

And then, four days before that show, Steve passed away. The world, especially Chicago was stunned. A huge hole was ripped out of our lives and we were adrift in disbelief and absolute shock. 

The four guys in Deep Tunnel Project were all very close to Steve, had all worked, played, argued, and yelled with him for decades. Actual friends. Lifelong.

We weren’t sure that the show would happen. The decision was made by the band to go ahead.

And that’s how I found myself in a great record store, packed to the rafters, band standing right there, telling some Steve stories, and just some in general stories I thought fit. I spoke for what seemed an eternity, hoping to ease some pain. Then, the band played this amazing set of beautiful, loud, magnificent music that has Chicago and Steve stamped all over it. A grown-up punk rock gathering that helped everyone there heal a little bit.

John Mohr used the word “prescient” several times to describe that show that day. 

First of all, nice to have a smart rockstar around. 

Secondly, and more importantly, he was right. 

And, because Steve was Steve, he really did set those wheels in motion. If I never do anything else with my writing, I will have that day when we all came together and healed a tiny bit. Just a tiny bit. 

He’s going to be missed. He already is. His kindness and generosity will never be forgotten, and we all will try our best to pay back the debt we owe him. 

Im gonna miss that Jagoff. You are too.

Yes, we will.

One more thing to add: in 2015 Steve Albini wrote about Christmas with his wife Heather Whinna and how Letters to Santa came about. Whinna is the president of the non-profit whose mission statement is:

Poverty Alleviation Chicago is a nonprofit organization on a mission to use Art as a conduit to transform passive compassion into immediate assistance through the distribution of money given, without expectation or judgment, directly to families experiencing poverty.”

All of us at Dying Scene extend our deepest condolences to Steve’s wife, Heather Whinna, and all of his family and friends.

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