Steve Albini on working with Nirvana and Manics: “I feel weird when somebody says I had a massive influence”
Steve Albini has spoken to NME about his time recording Nirvana‘s ‘In Utero’ – as well as working with the “smart, unpretentious, and really funny” Manic Street Preachers.
Speaking from his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, the outspoken Albini – who has also worked on cult and classic records by Pixies, Breeders, Yourcodenameis:milo, Slint and PJ Harvey – said that being forever associated with Nirvana due his work on their 1993 final album ‘In Utero‘ was no albatross.
“It’s totally normal, it’s perfectly reasonable,” the producer and audio engineer told NME. “If you had never heard of me before and someone is trying to introduce me to you, they are going to name the famous records that I worked on – and ‘In Utero’ is the most famous.”
Albini said that working on the follow-up to the internationally successful ‘Nevermind’ was “fairly normal”, though he ensured that all knowledge of the sessions were kept secret.
“There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about the sessions,” he said. “I mean, apart from them being extremely famous. I had to do everything I could to keep it under wraps to make sure that we didn’t get overrun by fans and the added nonsense. That was the only thing that was weird about it.”
Recorded about 50 miles outside of Minneapolis in a studio outside of Minneapolis, Albini and the band sought to work on a record “in a place where people weren’t going to be predatory” following Nirvana’s phenomenal fame.
“It was far enough away from anybody that the band knew socially, and we wouldn’t have a fucking TV crew out front every day or any drug dealers trying to do business,” said Albini. “We had to make sure that word didn’t get out. The studio was an independent studio and there was only a small number of people working there. I didn’t really want to trust them with the secret, so I booked the studio on my account under the pseudonym the ‘Simon Ritchie Band’, which was of course Sid Vicious’ real name.
“Until the flight cases started arriving from the cartage company the day before we started, nobody knew. The cases had Nirvana spray-painted on the side of them, but until that happened, even the people who owned the studio didn’t know that Nirvana was going to be recording there.”
Albini, who refers to himself as a “recording engineer” rather than a producer, said that working with the band was a smooth process and remembered one particular encounter with Cobain particularly fondly.
“When my band Big Black did a farewell tour years before the ‘In Utero’ sessions, the final show was in some industrial space in Seattle,” he said. “It was in a weird building with a makeshift stage. It was a cool gig and at end we smashed up all of our gear. I distinctively recall some kid asking me if he could take a piece of my guitar off the stage and me saying ‘go ahead its garbage now’.
“Many years later when we were working on ‘In Utero’ at the studio in Minnesota, Kurt showed me this little piece of this guitar that he had saved. He had brought it with him after all those years. He had been that kid.”
Albini also teamed up with the Manics for their 2009 album ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ – which celebrated its 14th anniversary last week. The album, that returned to the post-punk sound of 1994’s seminal ‘The Holy Bible’ featured lyrics left behind by missing and later declared dead band member Richey Edwards, was recorded at Wales’ legendary Rockfield studios.
“My first exposure to them was just communicating with them about doing the record,” he remembered. “They gave me the run-down on the concept and I was like, ‘Man, this sounds like a really lovely tribute to your friend, to use his lyrics and pay respect to him and his words by making a record with them’. That was such a beautiful gesture.”
He continued: “Their attitudes were great, I really loved hanging out with them. They were nice, really smart, really funny, unpretentious, and engaging people.”
The Manics and Albini also bonded over their similar political beliefs. “I’m a leftist, they are leftist, so we aligned that way socially,” he explained. “More importantly, we’d had similar foundational experiences of being in bands, touring, being broke and having to make do, and doing things in a kind of home-made way.
“They had achieved enough success where they were sort of on this professional plain. They appreciated it all the more for having had to work their way up through it, you know busking on the street, playing crappy gigs, playing squats, working their way up to a point where they were a headline act. They were enjoying that, and they deserved to.
“No qualms whatsoever about just spitting on their hands and making their record, they didn’t need fluffers or hangers-on!”
The Manics were long-time admirers of the 60-year-old Albini, and although he has fond memories of working with them, he said the experience was marred due to his wife falling ill during the recordings.
“I really enjoyed those sessions in Wales. I feel a little bad and slightly self-conscious that my head wasn’t 100 per cent in the game whilst we were doing that record,” said Albini. “My wife got complications from food poisoning, and this was early enough to be before instant communication. I don’t think I even had a cell phone. So, it clouded the experience of working with the Manics a little as my mind was elsewhere for a lot of the time. I think the album turned out brilliantly anyway.”
The modest Albini also played down his influence on both records, saying that with figures like Cobain and Edwards, the press just look for additional stories to add myth to the music.
“I feel like there is kind of an impulse in the secondary parts of the music scene,” he said. “The critics, record companies, and the publicity people try to find an extra story. Like, ‘Oh, this guy Steve Albini was involved in these records, let’s see if there is a plot-line there that we can follow as another part of the story’, when honestly most of it is very surface level.
“I’m not as steeped in the mythology of Richey as much as people in the UK are. I know that Welsh people in particular hold that band as a kind of talisman, and I totally understand that. I am probably the wrong person to speak about that legacy. In any case, my role in both of those records is kind of a footnote. I was there when the records were made, and I did my bit.”
Albini argued to put more of an onus on “a good band” with “good songs that they believed in” when it came to these classic records, rather than his own influence.
“I feel weird when somebody says I had a massive influence on anything,” he said. “It’s like, if you’re in a stadium during a sporting event, you have no influence on the outcome really. It was an experience for me, I was there when it happened, but I wasn’t on the field. I feel like I get a lot of undue attention for records that I worked on where the record was going to be good no matter who was sitting in the chair.
“If I was the secret weapon, the magic fairy dust, then all of those other records I made that year would’ve been huge and influential hits. You know, I probably made 100 records that year (1993)…”
The politically vocal Albini also said he was buoyed by the recent victory for the Democrat Brandon Johnson in the recent Chicago mayoral election – describing the mayoral race as “a kind of watershed” but also “just a minor victory in Chicago” for the city.
“The Republican candidate Paul Vallas, who is an extraordinary piece of shit, had enormous amounts of money put into his campaign,” he argued. “He’s a typical Republican; pro-police, conservative law and order, the typical right-wing Chicago politics. He came up against a guy who was a former educator, county commissioner and teacher’s union member.
“Johnson represented the progressive wing of the political scene in Chicago, the part that I identify with. It was really gratifying to see the political will of the people of the city overwhelm the kind of machine politics where you just infuse enough money into the chosen system and that guy wins. It was really great to see that defeated, it gives you hope.”
And of his own future, he added: “As long as I have got all my facilities about me, I want to keep working.”
Meanwhile, Albini’s band Shellac are set to perform at Primavera Sound in Barcelona, Madrid and Porto in the coming weeks. Visit here for tickets and more information.