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Steve Albini, Legendary Producer and Musician, Dies at 61

Chicago-based artist produced Nirvana 'In Utero' and Pixies' 'Surfer Rosa,' among others
Steve Albini
American musician and producer Steve Albini (Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Steve Albini, the legendary and outspoken musician and producer who oversaw Nirvana’s In Utero, Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, among many other classic albums, died last night (May 7) of a heart attack at the age of 61. The news was confirmed to SPIN by a person who answered the phone at Albini’s Chicago recording studio, Electrical Audio.

Albini also worked on projects by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Slint, Superchunk, the Stooges, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, Jawbreaker, Songs: Ohia, Low, Mogwai and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Beyond those credits, Albini was the frontman of influential underground bands Shellac and Big Black. Shellac’s first new album in 10 years, To All Trains, will be released May 17, and the group was planning to make its annual appearance at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound festival on May 30.

Raised in Missoula, Mt., before moving to Chicago for college in the early 1980s, Albini had been an underground figurehead for a decade by the time he was asked to work on In Utero, and he had no compunction about sharing his disgust for how Nirvana’s members were pressured to make a more commercial follow-up to their paradigm-shifting 1991 debut, Nevermind.

“All of the people that were carping at the band from the outside about what a mistake they’d made with this record, that pretty accurately represented what they wanted to do with their music … all of those people [are] parasites,”Albini told the Kreative Kontrol podcast in 2013, the 10th anniversary of In Utero. “They weren’t involved in making the record. They want, somehow or another, to claim authorship of the creative output of these other people who are actually doing the heavy lifting for their career. I can’t have any respect for somebody like that, who’s not involved in the creative process but then decides that they wanna snipe at it from the outside and manipulate people into doing things to suit them. Fuck every one of those people.” 

“All of those people were afraid that if this Nirvana album wasn’t awesome, somehow it would affect them,” he continued. “Their first presumption wasn’t that this band actually knew what they were doing when they went off into the woods to make a record. Their first presumption was, ‘There’s no way this record can be good without us in charge’ — despite the fact that the band had done really well by following their own instincts up to that point.” Despite this, Albini worked on a 2013 In Utero reissue because Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic personally asked him to remaster the LP.

Albini happily celebrated the gradual decentralization of major label influence in the streaming era, telling Quartz in 2014, “record labels, which used to have complete control, are essentially irrelevant. The process of a band exposing itself to the world is extremely democratic and there are no barriers. Music is no longer a commodity, it’s an environment, or atmospheric element. Consumers have much more choice and you see people indulging in the specificity of their tastes dramatically more. They only bother with music they like.”

In 2021, Albini addressed some of the more controversial utterances from his past in a lengthy Twitter thread, admitting “a lot of things I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful and I regret them” — including naming one of his bands Rapeman. “For myself and many of my peers, we miscalculated. We thought the major battles over equality and inclusiveness had been won, and society would eventually express that, so we were not harming anything with contrarianism, shock, sarcasm or irony.”

“In shock at Steve Albini’s sudden passing,” wrote underground music veteran David Grubbs (Squirrel Bait, Bastro, Gastr Del Sol) on X. “Such a brilliant, infinitely generous person, absolutely one-of-a-kind and so inspiring to see him change over time and own up to things he outgrew.”

Added journalist Michael Azzerad, who profiled Albini extensively in his 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life, “I don’t know what to say about Steve Albini’s passing. He had a brilliant mind, was a great artist and underwent the most remarkable and inspiring personal transformation. I can’t believe he’s gone.”

Albini was also an avid poker player, having participated in the World Series of Poker and winning a gold bracelet in 2022 in the $1,500 H.O.R.S.E. event.

More to come…