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Never Say Disc: Steve Albini

Many years ago, more than I care to count, my girlfriend at the time accused me of saying that "everything cool was invented by Pink Floyd, the Melvins, or Steve Albini." Up to that point, I was unaware of the degree to which I was singing his praises, but it's no surprise that I was doing so to the point of annoyance - at the time, I was listening to his catalogue with alarming regularly... much to the chagrin of anyone who happened to be riding in the car with me. And while that girlfriend did end up a Melvins fan before long, I don't think I converted many members of my captive audiences to Albini's music.. their loss. But then, this week was everyone's loss.


I suppose I got to see the news of Steve Albini's death a little before it entered the general consciousness - I'm friends (in both the original and social media senses) with enough musicians and music fans, people who appreciated for him for himself and his work, rather than his adjacency to legendary artists or his (not entirely deserved, or at least outdated) notoriously prickly public persona, all sharing the news with each other. With the new Shellac album coming out next week and a fresh set of videos from his Electrical Audio studios, I'd gotten accustomed to seeing the standard photos of him in my Facebook feed lately, so it took a moment before I processed the text of this particular post... and I sat there staring, my mouth hanging open for - it really does happen that way. It may have been the middle of the work day, but I immediately jumped over the Electrical Audio forums, once my preferred internet home, to check. It had been long enough that my account was deactivated, but I soon found the thread as a guest and began reading through. There were only a few posts of "wait until we get confirmation" before that confirmation did arrive... Steve Albini had died earlier that day of a heart attack at 62, ten days before To All Trains, Shellac's first album in a decade, was to be released.

The time I spent at the EA Forums is a big part of why this hit me so hard, to a degree that even the recent deaths of other beloved musicians has not. For a while, I was a daily visitor - not always posting, but regularly reading, especially anything posted by Albini. It was the most involved in an online community I had been since the days of dial-up BBSs. Keep in mind, too, that this was before the days of Twitter access to celebrities... but Steve never came across as a celebrity on the forums. Since this was a group based around the creation and enjoyment of music, that's was discussed the most, but we also got a lot of his thoughts about cooking, woodworking, baseball, and life in general. He made Homestar Runner references. It was him and the other forum members that got me into Achewood. But mostly it was the nitty-gritty of recording and playing music. Occasionally you'd get the superfan who would come in and ask what it was like working with Nirvana - specific questions would be answered, and there would be a polite suggestion to engage with the forum as a whole rather than a conduit to someone a step removed from the absent legend.

The forums were a community, and while I didn't post often, I read a lot of what people said there. Steve wasn't a boss there (even with moderator powers), just another voice in the conversation, with stories to tell, references to make, and advice to give. And there was a lot of that, Steve Albini was always direct with his philosophy and the reality of living it out, not just in the forums but everywhere. He made the music he wanted to make and helped other people do the same. And that was something I needed in my life, regardless of when I was listening to him talk or play - there was an influence through attitude as much as actual sound. I think it was one of those car trips when I was giving a lift to a drummer I'd been playing with at the time and subjecting him to Big Black. "I don't understand how you play the way play with the music you listen to," he said. It shouldn't a be a surprise that project didn't last.

One thing you got with Steve on the forums, and that in more recent years publicly through interviews, was a sense of self-reflection we don't often get to hear from "provocative" artists. While the interview that's been making the rounds recently was many years after I had moved on from the forums, it's entirely consistent with the way he presented himself there. He had an awareness of how his youthful edginess (being part of the indie underground press meant that the kinds of screeds people my age had put on Livejournal have lived on print far longer than anyone at the time could have imagined) comes across to other people then and now, rather than whine about PC "woke" culture and how you "can't say anything" any more... something he addresses specifically in the interview. I've seen a number of people say that it's this aspect of his that they admire the most, and that it's helped them grow and become better people.

Me, it was the music first and foremost. I was lucky enough to see Shellac twice, only a few years apart but still at very different stages of my life. Both times, they were fun, bantering like the old friends they were but also taking the music incredibly seriously, like playing it meant the entire world to them. Early on, I only borrowed from Steve Albini in one Disco Stu song, the unfinished "Yvan Eht Niaj," but I was regularly trying to ape his sound in the years following that second performance... luckily most of it has been lost to time. I'm sure I'll stumble on his sound again, but his approach... that I want to keep close to my heart forever.

It's been frustrating, in the days following his death, seeing article after article, thumbnail after thumbnail, referring to him as a "celebrity producer" or, worse, "In Utero producer." Sometimes they call him a "noise rock pioneer," which, while somewhat more respectful, also feels achingly reductive. The man did a lot, and it meant a lot to me. And no matter where he's recognized, or how, I know my life was better for him having been in it, even at a remove. Thank you, Steve, for all that you did and all that I learned. 

- B

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