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Peter Holslin needs a new tape machine.


Steve Albini was the asshole emeritus of indie rock. His music, especially in his early years, was loud, abrasive, and mean-spirited in a way that could be extremely off-putting but also weirdly irresistible.

As the frontman of the noise-rock bands Big Black and Shellac, Albini—who died of a heart attack at age 61 on Tuesday, May 7—paved the way for DIY ethics and underground innovation at a time when indie bands were just beginning to form their own channels for touring, promotion, and distribution across the United States. Of course, he also led a decades-long career as an acclaimed audio engineer, and his refined ear and uncanny bullshit detector helped bring about some of the best punk and punk-adjacent music of the past 40 years. His engineering credits include multi-platinum hits like Nirvana’s In Utero and Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase, acclaimed landmarks like PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, and lesser-known examples of brain-scrambling experimentation—all of it recorded on analog tape.

Famed for his uncompromising principles and indefatigable work ethic, the Chicago miscreant stuck to his guns during the post-Nirvana boom years of the 1990s, and managed to survive (and thrive) through the long industry collapse of the 2000s and onward. Refusing to exploit artists or succumb to rock-star megalomania, he charged bands based on what they could afford and refused to collect royalties on the albums he engineered, no matter how big the project or potentially juicy the payoff. Skepticism and foresight helped him navigate the music industry like a chess player studying pieces on a board: He called bullshit on the CD format early on, in the liner notes of the 1987 Big Black collection The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape, and his methodical 1993 music-biz takedown “The Problem With Music” not only offered a hilarious handbook for surviving the industry in the 1990s but has also proven darkly prescient in the streaming era.

In the essay, Albini caricatures A&R reps as naïve rubes waving “underground rock credibility flag[s]” as they lock bands into bad deals with binding “deal memos.” He also skewers record producers who don’t have experience with actual recording equipment—or, as he puts it, who “don’t have the slightest fucking idea what they’re doing in a studio, besides talking all the time.” But it’s the piece’s final act that is most devastating and timely, as Albini outlines the slippery slope of confusing financial dealings that can make a band go broke even after they sign a million-dollar record deal. As Albini writes it, the trouble happens when an artist starts paying other people to handle things: “He takes his cut, sure, but it’s only 15%, and if he can get them signed then it’s money well spent…”

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The essay’s withering cynicism and sarcastic wisecracks practically define the 1990s anti-sellout ethos, and you could argue that Albini’s argument is a bit of an exaggeration—certainly not everybody got screwed over back then, right? Hiring a manager or a booking agent doesn’t automatically lead to financial ruin. But all these years later, it’s clear that Albini was right for harboring a deep distrust of a business in which the over-involvement of overpriced contractors and hangers-on can make a situation in which they all eat off an artist’s plate before he can have a bite. Needless to say, things are even worse for many artists today, as Spotify and other streaming giants have become the biggest parasites of all.

It’s hard to say how today’s “indie” audiences would react to either of Albini’s best-known bands, Big Black and Shellac. (Let’s not even get started with the short-lived Rapeman—a name that never passed the vibe check.) In current underground circles, plenty of crate diggers, clubgoers and rock heads have gravitated to softer sounds, nodding to New Age synth pads and feel-good Yacht Rock melodies. Alibini was never about any of that. In Big Black, he took the breezy, funky-sounding Roland TR-606 drum machine and turned it into a bone-cracking bludgeon. He covered Kraftwerk but hated Steely Dan, rejecting their aloof perfectionism. When I saw Shellac play at FYF Fest in 2016, barely anybody was watching. The trio’s wiry rock-riff viscera was as intense as ever, but they looked pitifully small on the big stage, a seeming anachronism compared to the rest of the eclectic lineup.

Still, every time I fire up Albini’s music, especially Big Black, I get a jolt of devilish joy. Albini had an impeccable ear, he knew how to groove, and he had jokes—all of which helps explain the appeal of a jam like “Bad Penny,” a devious Big Black anthem from their 1987 opus, Songs About Fucking. “I think I fucked your girlfriend once / Maybe twice, I don’t remember,” Albini nonchalantly intones in a mid-track monologue, playing the part of cuckolding supervillain. “Then I fucked all your friends’ girlfriends / Now they hate you.”

That’s some evil shit, obviously. But it’s a smirking, cartoonish evil—and when you combine it with that pummeling TR-606, plus shimmering sheets of distorted guitar and fuzzed-out bass, the track becomes a cathartic rush. It works on the same level as later demonic favorites like Three 6 Mafia’s “In Da Game” and Tyler, the Creator’s “Yonkers,” suggesting that this form of angry release will always have some appeal.

Albini was a beloved curmudgeon to the very end. Recent years saw him go through a period of self-examination as he disavowed his worst edgelord-y flirtations and impulses. But he still used Twitter as a venue for his caustic wit. He kept playing music too: A new Shellac album was announced in March. As I think about his death, it occurs to me that someone really should put together a book of Albini quotes or interviews, if it hasn’t already been done. Steve Albini was uncompromising in his beliefs and tastes in a way that has become incredibly rare. In some ways, his standards are impossible to live up to, as economic pressures and social media mechanics have forced all creatives into increasingly desperate circumstances. But his ideas about music—and his unvarnished way of expressing those ideas—are well worth preserving, because those were some of his greatest contributions.


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