One of the most respected and well-known recording engineers of our time, Steve Albini—who manned the decks for such canonical albums as Nirvana's In Utero and Pixies' Surfer Rosa—insists he doesn't have a signature sound. On the phone after midnight from his Chicago-based Electrical Audio studios, the sharply idiosyncratic Albini is off and running after me for suggesting so. He is like a disgruntled scholar, fed up with the cultural misinterpretations of his work. As he sees it, these things are clear.
"The root of that notion is that I somehow have a template that I force bands into, and it bothers me that that's a perception." Albini explains. His protest is more than a judicious protection of the studio's business, but a genuine response to feeling pigeonholed. Albini went on to note his work on everything from country to free jazz, noise and beyond.
"I can't imagine anyone coming into a record store and saying, 'Give me any record you have as long as Steve Albini worked on it,'" he says. Rick Rubin or Phil Spector, Albini is not. Instead, the long-time Chicagoan strives to take on all prospective clients regardless of stature or style, and often finds himself working six days a week. (In part to spend more time with a girlfriend who he will marry in September, Albini says he recently gave up working on Tuesdays.)
Despite his grumblings, however appropriate they may be, it's impossible to fully divorce Albini from "the sound." As described by Ben Ratliff of the New York Times, Albini's "aesthetics dictate big drums, big guitars, and small vocals." It exhibits a diamond-cutter clarity, the thud of heavy cinder blocks, and very little gloss. Even when the music itself is dirty and gnarled, the recording emerges from a place of almost impeccable cleanliness with incredible punch.
Few bands embody this aesthetic more than Albini's own, currently Shellac, which has been together since 1992. The heavy minor-chord abrasions and angular rhythms are pounded out, as Albini sing-rants from a place Pitchfork's Matt LeMay dubbed "pissed-off geek." And while the band began with in-jokes as their predominant lyrical material, they have expanded slightly inside the oft-violent framework. ("Prayer to God" from 2000's 1000 Hurts is one of the most profound, cathartic, shout-along responses to jealousy and heartbreak ever laid to tape.)
While there's not a new Shellac album on the radar, this short tour will feature some new material. And though their tours are sort of a vacation from work, Albini insists Shellac is more than a way to blow off steam. "It's not a livelihood for any of us, but it's very important to us," he explains. "It's as important to me as a wife and family would be."
As much for his engineering as his music, a devout community has formed around Albini, which allows Shellac to perform and record at vast intervals and still maintain an audience. And although he is often regarded as prickly and contrarian, Albini does indeed take pride in sharing his studio knowledge (on his website message boards Albini has racked up over 4,500 posts) and fighting the good fight (whether writing a scathing critique of the music industry, or combating unfair ticket-pricing practices).
"I'm proud of the fact that Electrical is a useful resource to the rest of the external recording community as well," says Albini. "It's not just my private little domain. I'm not like Dr. Evil up here at my control panel petting my cat. Although I am, occasionally, at a control panel petting a cat."