Culture / Q&A / May 14, 2024

Talking Punk, Nirvana, and the Ethics of Art Under Capitalism With Steve Albini

The legendary engineer, producer, and musician who died on May 7 spoke to Daniel Bessner about his career and the state of the music industry.

Daniel Bessner
Steve Albini poses for a portrait in his recording studio.
Steve Albini poses for a portrait in his studio July 24, 2014, in Chicago. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Last week, legendary musician and audio engineer Steve Albini died at the age of 61. Albini helped define alternative rock in the 1980s and ’90s through work with bands like Nirvana, Pixies, and Jesus Lizard.

Daniel Bessner from the Nation podcast American Prestige got a chance to interview Albini in August 2020 to discuss his career and the state of the music industry today for a forthcoming podcast that will examine the political and economic history of grunge and Nirvana.

Daniel Bessner: Can you give a little background into how you entered into the music business?

Steve Albini: When I was a teenager, I was in a punk band in Montana, and that inspired me to move to Chicago for college, because my presumption was that Chicago would have a good music scene. I got involved in the music scene when I got to Chicago, particularly the underground punk scene.

When you’re in a band, you want to make recordings of your band so that you have something to remember the experiences by. I was sort of the designated person in every band I was in to do the recordings of the band so that we would have something for posterity. All my friends were in bands, and just by default, I became responsible for recording all of their bands as well.

Eventually, I became a professional recording engineer, and I’ve been making records in this basically the same circle of people since about 1981. Now I own a facility in Chicago called Electrical Audio, and over the years I’ve recorded a stupid number of bands. But it’s the formative years of me coming up through the punk circles seeing the independent networking of that world that has informed a lot of my practices in general—not just as a musician, but as a business owner, an employer, and a person.

I came to really value the creative community, and basically all of my interconnections have come from me being an active participant in the music scene. I didn’t have any formal training and I didn’t work my way up through the ranks of the company or anything. I just started recording my band, then carried on recording my friends’ bands, and then eventually that became my profession and I’ve been doing it for a very long time.

DB: Could you talk a little bit about the politics of the Chicago scene in the ’80s? What were you all talking about?

SA: Broadly speaking, everybody generally shared progressive values, but on a day to day basis, the local concerns were way more important to everybody. In Chicago, there was a huge cross-pollination between the punk underground and every other kind of underground. Queer Chicago was a big part of the early punk scene, because a lot of the key figures were gay and a lot of the venues that the bands could use were off-nights at gay bars.

And then it sort of had tendrils going out into every other kind of underground—the criminal underground, drug dealers, prostitutes, and every kind of petty criminal outsider. Every kind of freak and weirdo found a home in the punk scene in Chicago.

At any given show, you would see just the strangest collection of people: immigrants, homeless people, crazies, intellectuals like street-corner anarchists, pamphleteers, trans people, queer activists. If you sorted society by the oddest freaks and gathered them all into one place, that’s what the punk scene was like in Chicago.

And I took to it like a fish to water. It was the most invigorating group of people I’d ever been around.

DB: It sounds like a bohemian scene, which you don’t often get in the United States.

You obviously met with a million bands and toured around. Would you say there is a distinctiveness of the so-called “Seattle scene?” Did these scenes all have a different character?

SA: Well, the thing that’s interesting is that there are a lot of personalities that established themselves or established influence fairly early on. Bruce Pavitt had his cassette fanzine and the regular print fanzine before he even went to Seattle. By the time he ended up there, it made sense that he would become a pivotal figure in Seattle because he was already stirring shit up.

A lot of the early Seattle punk bands, like the U-Men or the Blackouts, who were terrific bands, really exciting and invigorating bands, didn’t have much of a national profile. They were essentially unknown outside the Northwest, just because of the physical location. At the time there was no Internet, so there wasn’t really a good network for getting information out, and so if you knew about one of these bands and they came to town, you’d make a point of going out there.

Both of those bands ended up crashing at my place when they played in Chicago, and I shared a bunch of information with them, so they could find other places to play in other cities. That was just the natural networking everyone in the punk scene operated by. Whenever you’d read about a band in a fanzine or some other band would say, oh man, there’s this band from Winnipeg, you have to go see, they’re fucking insane. Then you would come across that band later and you’d make a connection with those people and you’d exchange your Rolodexes.

There was a lot of networking to use that corporate term, but it was all extremely informal and rooted in this common idea that we were all involved in one big project, rather than it being a bunch of individual, ambitious bands trying to make a name for themselves. Everybody seemed to realize that we were all in this together and that we were trying to make things cool in Sheboygan.

DB: You’re describing it as a sort of communalist ethics—that there’s an idea of a common project of punk with an ethics and ethos in these cities across the country. Was there a more specific politics beyond that?

SA: No. There were people in the scene that would have particular agendas, and everybody was fine with everybody else having their particular agendas. You would find sympathetic ears for radical left politics or anarchists. But the kind of sloganeering and very specific identity stuff and sloganeering didn’t really come into it until the punk scene transmuted into the hardcore scene.

The hardcore scene was just more simplistic on every level. Rather than having a free-for-all, with a million different kinds of freaks, the hardcore scene was codified into a specific type of politics, a specific type of music, a specific look, a specific age bracket. That’s where slang and jargon started to kick in. It was a simplification and a stupidification of the mayhem that was punk rock.

DB: Could you describe that transition a bit from punk to hardcore? I think that’s a really important thing in the mid-to-late ’80s that kids today might not understand.

SA: I don’t know who I’m stealing this metaphor from, but it’s definitely stolen: Punk was like a brilliant flash, an explosion, something that was over in an instant, but it dazzled everybody that saw it, and it burned really long shadows. Every one of us that saw punk happen was changed by it, and we’re all sort of carrying on in these shadows that were cast by that one singular moment. Punk rock was a complete free-for-all. You’d see the weirdest fucking people doing the weirdest fucking stuff, and nobody would bat an eye. The freedom implied by that kind of acceptance, that boundaryless pavilion of perversions inspired me.

Then, there were certain tropes and motifs that started to develop as punk progressed away from this sort of crazy dada beginning; a kind of a reductionist mentality emerged for the dumber people who would see punk rock and think oh, they’re just wearing leather and playing fast. When those dumb people formed bands with other dumb people, they would be wearing leather and playing fast as their entire identity.

From that, certain political insinuations were made and adopted as part of the punk identity. People would be expected to parrot anarchist sentiments or whatever without actually grasping anarchism.

I should point out that I don’t have a problem with any of these things individually, but hardcore became increasingly hidebound to a single style of music, a single look, a single mentality, a single politics. Honestly, of them all, the politics was the part that I could get behind. But the rest of it—the conformity of it, the stupidity of it, just the mind-numbing sameness of it—seemed like a capitulation to me, a regression, when the original idea of punk was that you can get away with anything and then everybody starts doing the same thing. It just seemed ridiculous, like we’ve wasted an opportunity.

Obviously, hardcore was a starting point for a lot of people who then matured and their ideas branched off and you had more interesting things develop after that, but the period where the initial flash of inspiration and creativity that was punk rock glimmered down and was replaced by these formulaic and very interchangeable hardcore bands was a pretty depressing development to me.

DB: Sonically, would you say there was something unique about the bands that were coming out of the Pacific Northwest or associated with Sub Pop? Or did they just sound just like someone from Minnesota and Chicago?

SA: Every scene has their local heroes, and by proximity a lot of the bands in those scenes end up being influenced by their local heroes. You had bands like the Melvins, who were an enormous influence on the Pacific Northwest, and a lot of bands that came out of there ended up having the Melvins in their DNA, just because that’s where they descended from.

In the Midwest, you had bands like Naked Raygun and Killdozer and the Effigies, who were hugely influential in Chicago. A lot of bands that were aping Naked Raygun, who had a kind of a chaotic tribal element in their early days, which was picked up by a lot of local bands. The Effigies had a more straightforward, no-nonsense, tough-guy rock image, and there were a lot of bands that adopted that working-class, hard-hat, lunch-pail mentality.

In Madison and Milwaukee, you had bands like Deep Royston and Killdozer that influenced local bands in that area, and so on. There was a tremendous band called the Appliances, who was single-handedly holding up the scene in Madison. They would play every week, sometimes several nights a week, sometimes several sets a night. They were bringing other bands with them on their short tours and everybody in Wisconsin kind of looked up to them.

In Seattle there were a few genesis bands like Green River and the Melvins, and to a lesser extent, the sort of punkier and poppier bands like the Fastbacks, that had comparable influence on the local scene.

DB: What made the Seattle sound unique?

SA: There was a sort of trashy heaviness to a lot of the bands from Seattle. In other places, there was an emphasis on the nerdier end of the punk spectrum, where you had scratchier, noisier, more minimal music, which was true to an extent in Seattle as well, but it seemed like there was more influence from traditional hard rock means and tropes. Some elements of classic rock that weren’t forbidden there either—like you could have a wailing front man or a bridge in your songs, for example.

DB: Did you associate that with Sub Pop? Was there an idea in other punk scenes of what Sub Pop was in the late ’80s?

SA: Sub Pop tried very hard to create an identity for themselves. They had standardized artwork on their records; they used the same photographer for a lot of the imagery, and so on. Very much in the model of some of the English record labels of the time, they wanted to create an identity that the bands on their label could share, which would create some notoriety for those bands without those bands ever actually having to leave town.

If you became associated with this thing, and that thing was generally pretty good, that would make you predisposed to like that band. They had a good graphic sense and their records always looked good and sounded good.

From a business aspect, keeping records in print and in the hands of stores was extremely difficult during that era, and they were one of the very best at that—keeping records on shelves, making sure that the distributors had copies, making sure that various writers and radio stations across the country had promo copies. They were very good at the sort of administrative aspects of running a record label. Granted, it was all done very dollhouse style on a shoestring budget.

A lot of record labels at the time would press up the records, put them in piles in the garage, and then just hope to sell them. Sub Pop—maybe because they also had a storefront that they could work from—were generally more serious about all of those aspects.

DB: We’ve heard a lot of stuff about that.

SA: I don’t know what their internal logic is, but I know that at the time there was a very long lead time between you selling the records to a distributor and you finally getting paid from the distributor. It takes long enough that you could very easily sell a bunch of records to a distributor, and while waiting for the distributor to pay you, that distributor goes out of business.

I don’t want to absolve Sub Pop of any of their failings, but it was incredibly difficult to get all of the money that you had coming by selling records in the ’80s.

DB: How did you first become professionally involved with any of the Seattle bands? Or become aware of them or want to work with them?

SA: I grew up in Missoula, Montana, and I still had some connections to the local scene there when some of those people migrated to Seattle. I would hear from them what was going on in Seattle. I had a friend, Randy Peprock, who I was in a band with when I was in Montana, and he would send me cassettes from the local bands. I got a Fart cassette very early on because he thought the name was funny.

There were other people from Missoula who moved there, and ended up being involved in the sort of the important Seattle bands like Green River and Mudhoney and Pearl Jam. I didn’t know those people, but I knew the people that knew them and so news would filter in, like, oh yeah, this band Nirvana is going to be real big. Of course I would roll my eyes because no bands were allowed to be real big.

DB: When did you first hear about Nirvana? What did you think of their work up until that point?

SA: I had heard Bleach. It made no impression on me. I remember hearing that Nirvana was going to be real big by a friend of mine who’d moved to Seattle, and I kind of shrugged my shoulders at that, because I thought, no bands get big. And then Nevermind was ubiquitous. You couldn’t escape that record. They were all over MTV, getting played on the radio constantly. Every sound man at every club loved that album and would play it before every band. I have to admit I was fairly deaf to the charms of that record. That record still doesn’t speak to me.

After working with Nirvana many years later, I came to admire and respect them as a band and Kurt as a musician.

DB: What about the album didn’t appeal to you?

SA: I couldn’t really articulate like chapter and verse about what I dislike about the record. All I can say is that it didn’t make much of an impression on me. It didn’t seem special or good to me. I guess there was a kind of ambition about it that struck me as slightly unseemly. By ambition, I mean like grasping for success or sanction, which struck me as uncomfortable.

DB: The politics in the punk scene around the record is also something we’re going to explore.

SA: There was no politics about Nirvana. Everybody knew Nirvana were a legitimate band who worked hard and were embedded in the Seattle scene, but there was no politics.

You will hear some people invent a beef with Nirvana making it big. It’s bullshit. No one begrudged them their success. Nobody thought it was bad that they were successful and made money. That’s all external, critical bullshit that’s been accredited to people in the underground, that they were bitter and that they hated Nirvana for selling out. Absolutely 100 percent not true. I never heard anybody express that idea.

But there were bands that were a sort of bespoke, manufactured grunge that people were critical of. Pearl Jam is probably the best example, where you had a band that was essentially fabricated to shop a demo, which led to a record deal and then were sort of imposed on a listening audience. That was an aspect of the music scene that was entirely top down and corporate driven that people rightly rebelled against.

Over the years, Pearl Jam has gone through great lengths to redeem themselves, and they’ve developed ethics that are considerably above standard for a band in their station. But it’s wrong to conflate people’s distrust of a band like Pearl Jam with the success of Nirvana.

The same with a band like Sonic Youth, who were a touring experimental band, and then they graduated to an extent into a major label scenario. No one begrudged them that. It seemed like a stupid move in terms of longevity of the band because big record labels had a tendency to destroy the bands that signed to them. But it wasn’t bad or evil for Sonic Youth to make money. That’s a straw man argument that’s put forward as a way of delegitimizing any criticism of bands in the mainstream.

DB: Why would ambition be viewed as unseemly? And what was the view of Nirvana within the scene?

SA: What animated us about punk rock is that we were doing it for its own sake; it wasn’t a tool by which we were going to build a career. We wanted the world to be better and more interesting. We wanted all of our crazy, freakish friends to thrive. We wanted to have cool shows to go to, cool artwork to see, cool people to hang out with.

All of our efforts were geared toward expanding and amplifying this oddball, weird, inclusive culture that we were building. So when someone is de facto part of that, but used it as a vehicle for personal aggrandizement or professionalism or ambition, it seemed like a betrayal of the project of making everything cooler by this one person being not cool.

You could identify early on the people doing it ironically. Bands would show up and ironically ask where the cocaine and the groupies were. They’d be playing a squat, and they’d ask for a bottle of courvoisier, something like that.

I remember there was an interview with Jonathan Poneman where he was in his office at Sub Pop, and he had hired a masseuse to come and give him a rubdown on his lunch break. He joked to the interviewer about how corporate and how he was a big fat cat now, because he could get a massage on his lunch break in his office.

There were guys that would dress in a sort of a mock business suit and smoke cigars and pretend to be ostentatious fat cats, that sort of thing. And that’s the beginning of it. There’s this ironic professionalism that would creep into things. And you could tell as soon as that starts, you can tell within a few months, people are going to be doing that for real.

And it absolutely happened to every one of those people. If you pretend to be a scumbag, eventually you forget you’re pretending and you’re just a scumbag all the time.

DB: It’s like that saying, most truth is said in jest, especially initially. It’s what they actually wanted in some way. Going back, since you were not a big fan of Nevermind, how do you get in contact with Nirvana first?

SA: Post-Nevermind, every now and again, I would get a strange, slurring phone call at my home number from someone who I later found out was Kurt Cobain, very high, calling to talk to me. He never identified himself. He just asked me about other bands I’d recorded. He asked me about myself. At the time, it was just a conversation that I had with some drunk or high person on the phone.

Much later, I found out that that was Kurt feeling me out to see if he would like me as a person and see if he could work with me. Then I started hearing rumors. There were rumors that Nirvana were considering me for work on their next album being printed in the British press, which caused me a lot of trouble.

I was getting phone calls from journalists. I was getting needled by other bands. It was a modest but legitimate personal nuisance that Nirvana’s name was being associated with me, despite, as far as I knew, never having spoken to them.

I wrote a letter to one of these newspapers that had published something about me being tapped to work on the next Nirvana record, and I said, “I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but I have never been contacted by Nirvana.” That newspaper published the letter, and shortly after that, Kurt called me to confirm they were interested in working with me.

We then had a fairly involved conversation with him about how I go about making records and how I thought they should proceed. After that conversation, I typed up my side of the conversation into a letter and sent it to the band.

DB: What did that letter say?

SA: Well, a band in their position would normally not be allowed to make very many decisions on behalf of their records. Instead, they will be told which studio to use, who the producer was going to be, yada yada.

They were in a very lucky position in that they had already made a whole shit ton of money and could operate independently. So my advice was that they should operate independently, make the kind of record they want, and then just turn it over to the record label and say, here, this is our record.

I warned that there was a chance that they wouldn’t go for it because that would be a big paradigm shift. If bands got away with that, the record labels would lose a lot of power. In the end, there was profound resistance to that as a working method. The record label tried to get them to scrap the record and do it all again, and they tried to scapegoat me.

But ultimately, the band was able to put out the record that they wanted to, and I considered it a pretty significant act of bravery on their part. They stuck to their guns, and said, “No, we liked the record. We did this record the way we wanted to. We’re putting it out.” Very few bands would have been able to stick to their guns like that.

DB: What was it like to record with them?

SA: They came to the studio very well-rehearsed. They had already done demos of all of these songs either at the Laundry Room or at the studio on Rio. It was a very normal session. That sounds like I’m ducking the question, but they were a band. They arrived with all of their gear. They didn’t get lost in thought ever. Every song had a trajectory that they executed.

Probably the most specific example of their efficiency was that when it came time for Kurt to do the vocals, he essentially sang the entire album in one session. We started in the morning, did a few warm-up takes, made a few adjustments, and then over the course of that day, he essentially sang the entire album.

That’s a testament to his preparedness and also how clear he was about how he wanted everything to sound. He didn’t have to try things a million times and hope that one of them was magic. He just cracked his knuckles and did it, and that is very much a product of having worked your way through the process of being in a band starting from nothing—no support, spare money, or spare time. The practice of efficiency was ingrained.

DB: So all the music was written when they arrived in the studio.

SA: Yeah, and if it wasn’t formally written, they all still knew how all the songs went. I think we were wrapped with all the recording and mixing inside of 12 days—to get that much music done in that short amount of time, even now, would be something of an accomplishment.

DB: Could you describe your recording philosophy at the time?

I’ve always strived for naturalism. I’m not saying it’s like photographic realism, but I like the idea that the playback of a recording should evoke the sense memory of having seen that person play. Every vocalist has a distinctive style, and the more production is brought to bear on a vocalist the more you abstract the sound of that voice and remove that person from what makes them distinctive and unique. I much prefer hearing someone’s singing voice unvarnished as opposed to hearing a studio production using the voice.

I’m the same way with drums. Every drummer has a distinctive style, and the more you mechanize the production, the more you abstract the sound quality and the performance details, the more you lose what makes that drummer distinctive.

I’ll give you another example. Kurt had this broken Fender amplifier that he kept in his closet at home, which he would use for songwriting, and that produced a very strange, distorted quality. Conventionally, you don’t want to use broken equipment in the studio, but Kurt liked the sound of this broken amplifier; of course, he should be allowed to use that on the record. But in a conventional production environment, he would probably have been argued away from it.

DB: I just have to say, before we move on, I think it’s the best drum sound I’ve ever heard on a record. I love the drum sound on In Utero. I think it is so, so cool. I grew up playing drums. It’s the best drum sound still to this day.

SA: I appreciate that you’re thanking me for that, or that you’re crediting me for that, but Dave Grohl is one of the top drummers ever to have lived. I was lucky that he was drumming in a session that I was recording. It made my job pretty easy.

DB: Could you talk a little bit about their musicianship and also Kurt’s songwriting?

SA: I’m not the best person to talk about songwriting, but I do appreciate that Kurt’s lyrics, at least, were intensely personal, and he would burrow into little manias of his in a way that allowed him to articulate them very genuinely.

I think that’s what people are responding to when they think of him as a songwriter. They’re saying, oh, I’m getting a window into this guy’s way of thinking, and he’s expressing himself without candying it. I don’t know anything about any of the formal stuff—verse, chorus, verse, pre-chorus.

Dave Grohl is an absolute monster drummer. I’ve said this before: He’s a very good general musician, as is evidenced by him playing guitar and singing and all running a band, but he’s a singularly great drummer. He’s credited with being a very powerful drummer, and that’s true, but I think his sense of dynamics and his subtlety are underrated. In a lot of the songs, he’s playing something very simple, just like a simple timekeeping with the bass drum and high hat and playing it very modestly. But what that does is it gives him headroom to make the bigger parts bigger, and that’s a subtlety that’s lost on an awful lot of drummers.

Krist Novoselic is a childhood friend of Kurt’s, and you can tell because his bass playing seems completely integrated into the way Kurt moves on guitar. There’s no surprises between the two of them. They seemed very wedded together, and I think that that’s a very flattering combination when you have bass playing that is as distinctive as the guitar playing, but seems to come from the same set of inspirations.

DB: Distinctive in what way?

SA: A lot of the standard ways to play bass are sort of theoretical—every downbeat should have a bass note and every chord change should be marked by a root note. There can be the occasional pickup or decoration, but the bass playing is meant to be sort of structural. Krist’s bass playing was much more fluid than that.

If Kurt had a riff, there would often be a bass counterpoint riff that would run in parallel to it. That’s what I mean by [saying] they were integrated together. It also wasn’t the sort of hyperactive bass playing that seems to be paying no attention to the rest of the band. I think it’s a very subtle and uniquely good relationship between the bass and guitar on that record.

DB: Could you say more about Kurt’s guitar playing and particularly the vocals? I’ve spoken to scholars of grunge, and they all highlight the vocals. What makes him so distinctive?

SA: I think Kurt as a guitar player is a very functional guitar player in that he learned how to play guitar well enough to execute his idea, and didn’t feel the need to try to impress people by going farther. I think that’s an element of the sort of modesty or anti-virtuoso mentality that was pretty prevalent in the punk and the underground scene, that if you’re just doing fancy stuff to show off, you’re embarrassing yourself.

So one way of avoiding that is by never developing the skills that would allow you to do fancy stuff, and so that was a practice of many people in the underground was that you get good enough to do the things that excite you and don’t learn techniques and don’t learn like skills that would be intrusive if you were to ever use them.

One way to think of it is like if you’re going shopping, you need a shopping cart, right? You don’t need a Maserati to go up and down the aisles of a supermarket. And in fact, if you have a Maserati, it’s probably way worse and if you really uncork the Maserati and find yourself like doing 130 down the aisles at Kroger, it’s going to be a fucking disaster. So that’s the way I would describe the sort of utilitarian playing that a lot of punk musicians have; it’s perfect for the setting and anything more would be a liability.

As for the vocals, I liked the sound quality. I like the tonality of his voice, and he seemed very good at conveying the emotional content of the text. Beyond that, I can’t talk academically about singing. I don’t know anything about it.

DB: Could we get your story on the drama that surrounded the record?

SA: I don’t have the whole story. I have what I was subject to, which is that I had a conversation with Kurt after he turned in the record. He said everyone hates the record; they want us to do it all over. When he says “everyone,” what he means is his management team and all of the people that he was interacting with at the record label.

I said, “Well, how do you feel about it?” And he said, “Well, there’s some things that we could do, there’s some things I think we could improve on.” I said, “Tell you what, I’ll listen to my copy of it, and if I think I can do better on anything, I’m happy to try to do some remixes for you.”

I spent a day listening to the master, taking notes on it, and I called Kurt back to say I thought that, sure, there may be moments here or there where this one vocal line could be louder or that one drum hit could be quieter or whatever, but that the overall thrust of it is fantastic. And I feel like if we get involved in this nitpicking process, that it’s going to be endless.

If you succumb to the anxiety that makes you want to remix things, eventually, the whole thing is going down the toilet, and I just don’t want to be a part of that. And I said very specifically, if you guys want to try to do some mixes on your own to see if you can do better, you have my blessing.

Prior to the record’s release, I had gotten a phone call from this music journalist who I had known for years, and he said he just got off the phone with Gary Gersh, the president of the record label. He says that they can’t release the Nirvana album, and it’s your fault. Can you comment? And I said, well like, what am I going to say? It’s their record. They do what they want with it. I did my best.

What bothered me about the whole thing was that there was a concerted attempt to get the band to do things differently, and the mechanism that they used to try to get the bands to change their mind was they tried to embarrass them by going to the press saying that Nirvana have made an unreleasable, unlistenable, terrible album, and it’s all Steve Albini’s fault, and all we want them to do is make a normal record and they won’t do it.

That was unconscionable to me. Every single person involved in that decision chain that brought them to the point where they were trying to discredit their own band should be ashamed of themselves forever.

DB: And so how did your relationship with the band and the record proceed?

SA: I mean, they just suffered all of this bullshit from all the people that they worked with, and they put their foot down and said, “No, we like our record. We’re putting our record down.”

Everyone around them was sort of begrudging that decision. It wouldn’t have surprised me if somebody inside the record company tried to torpedo that record, but I don’t think that that happened. They were the biggest band in the world at the time, and it was their new album, so of course it was going to be successful. But I think there were some attempts to paint it as some kind of a disappointment because it didn’t sell 20 million copies or something.

DB: It’s my favorite record of all time. So thank you for producing it, recording it.

SA: I got paid to do it, so I was fine with it.

DB: I think Nirvana was the last super-mainstream guitar rock band. What’s your take on them and that whole scene looking back on it now?

SA: After Nevermind got super huge, record labels started pirating bands willy-nilly out of local scenes in hopes that they would turn out to be the next Nirvana. It was an enormously destructive thing. A lot of bands got signed on a whim, their records never came out, and the bands got destroyed. That period was enormously destructive to the underground.

I don’t blame Nirvana for that. What I blame is an institutionalized profiteering mentality that made it so that big record companies thought it was their obligation to try to vacuum up any available talent, and then if that talent that they vacuumed up wasn’t successful, it was their obligation then to destroy those bands so that nobody else could be successful with them later.

That whole corporate working method was incredibly toxic, and I saw it play out in my friends’ circles. There’s not a lot good to say about the sort of corporate era of alternative music. It was really uncomfortable to be around people who were genuinely trying to advance culture, who were working in the underground to create a sustainable alternative lifestyle, sustainable alternative to a commercial entity, and then to see the corporate version of it—smash and grab and destroy an awful lot of bands.

DB: It’s almost like capitalism destroyed it. It’s interesting that the movement didn’t have more of a critique of capitalism.

SA: If you talked to the bands on MTV that were riding this gravy train briefly, all of them would say, yeah, this is great that we’re on MTV. Two years later, of course, the band didn’t exist, and their records didn’t sell. No, those people weren’t critical of it because they thought they were exploiting it.

Everyone who was in the legitimate underground recognized it for what it was. We saw it as a sham, we weren’t shy about saying it, and we took a lot of heat for it. But I’m still here doing the same things that I was doing then.

I’m not particularly gratified that I was right that all my friends’ bands were going to be destroyed by this sort of creeping professionalism, but I do think that it’s worth noting that there were people dismissed at the time and later proven right who identified this as an awful development.

DB: When you’re critiquing corporations, is there a criticism of capitalism as such, or is it just a specific corporation?

SA: It is possible to conduct yourself ethically within a capitalist framework. However, to the extent that you are a capitalist, you are corrupted, but it is possible to conduct yourself honorably, as I try to within a capitalist framework that I’m forced to operate in. But I have a healthy suspicion of capitalism.

I would make a distinction between small-scale entrepreneurial capitalism, which I’m uncomfortably finding myself part of, and large-scale capitalism. The latter is about making money for the people who already have money.

Small-scale capitalism, like mine, is like a guy who wants to make bicycles, so he opens a bike shop. As a byproduct of that, money is going to have to change hands, and so he is de facto operating in a capitalist system, but the enterprise is he wants to make bikes.

I want to make records in the studio, so I own a studio and I conduct business in a studio. I’m not doing it so that I can make money. I’m doing it so that I can make records. That’s the difference between operating as an ethical person in capitalism and being a capitalist where really all you’re concerned about is making money. And so it’s possible to operate ethically within capitalism, but it’s insane not to be suspicious of it.

DB: Would you say all of that stuff destroyed underground guitar rock as a mainstream phenomenon?

SA: You can’t have an underground thing as a mainstream phenomenon, but what happened was that some of the aspirant people in the underground who got their turn on the stage of the mainstream got smacked down and disappeared. Those people who were committed to playing guitar, carried on playing guitar; those people who were committed to being in bands, carried on being in bands. A significant number of them realized that it was better to stay in the underground, where all of your problems are manageable and all of your interactions are honorable, rather than try to graduate into mainstream success. Very few people made it to a mainstream point of mainstream saturation and remained stable and happened there. Very, very few of them.

Listen to the conversation in full here:

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An Interview with Steve Albini (2020) | American Prestige
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On this special episode of American Prestige: In light of the untimely death of engineer/producer/musician Steve Albini, we wanted to share an interview Danny did with him for an upcoming (non-American Prestige) podcast on grunge music. This was recorded in August 2020.

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Daniel Bessner

Daniel Bessner is an historian of US foreign relations, and cohost of American Prestige, a podcast on international affairs.

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