The Music Mastermind Behind 1,000 Bands

The Music Mastermind Behind 1,000 Bands

Steve Albini in his Chicago studio, Electrical Audio.

SourcePaul Natkin / Getty

Why you should care

Because if music be the food of love, play on.

Most people never think about the how of sausage. They enjoy the sausage, but don’t think much about the making of it unless some wiseacre journo is talking about congressional business and then it’s all “making sausage” this and “this is how sausage is made” that. Same with music. Except with music there are some who are actively and aggressively pursuing the business of the making of music, despite the fact that for most listeners knowing anything about the how feels totally unnecessary for enjoying the what. But the men and women who work in recording studios? Totally different take. And Chicago’s Electrical Audio? Even more different from most.

“When you get to Electrical, everyone treats you like what you are doing is valuable and important,” says STNNNG singer Chris Besinger, who recorded his band’s newest, Veterans of Pleasure, at Electrical. “Plus, Steve knows how they got that fucking crazy noise on some weird record that no one has ever heard but you.”

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Cap’n Steve Albini on Planet Electrical Audio

Source Photo courtesy of Electrical Audio

Ah, Steve. Or, Mr. Albini to you. He of the bands Big Black (formerly) and Shellac (presently). His were the golden fingers on the boards behind some of the most weirdly significant music of the past 20 years. [Total disclosure: About two decades ago, Albini recorded two records by bands that the author was a member of. — eds.] Which is exactly how long ago he started Electrical. In an old Midway pinball machine factory that he and half the bands he’d recorded at the time had Lil Rascal’d into being, doing most of the work themselves.

By his own estimate, Albini has recorded more than 1,000 bands.

How significant? Nirvana significant. And even deeper than that? Wire, Don Caballero, the Breeders and hundreds of other bands. By his own estimate, Albini has recorded more than 1,000 bands, so the likelihood that you’re listening to his work right now and don’t know it? Possible. If you’re digging guitar-fueled neo-postmodern-pop-rock-post-punk? Pretty damned good.

“I only like to record here and one other place,” Albini says. “I mean, I will record other places, but here and Abbey Road are where I know I will have the fewest problems.”

Albini, who typically shies away from the cognomen “producer,” preferring instead to have album liner notes list what he’s done as “recorded by,” is exacting about what he likes and how he likes it. He suffers fools with no small amount of cutting humor, once telling a hapless studio assistant who had brought him duct tape when he had asked for gaffer’s tape, “If you went to the store and asked for toilet paper and they gave you sandpaper, you’d be a little put out, I imagine.” The assistant left, and subsequently returned with gaffer’s tape.

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Control room randomness

Source Photo courtesy of Ed Bornstein

The reality, though, is that with the profusion of powerful and portable digital recording software like Pro Tools, labels are increasingly balking at what it takes to record in studios that are not one of the band member’s living rooms (especially if by “balking,” you’re talking about not giving bands enough cash). Albini’s preference for analog — that is, recording on actual recording tape versus computer hard drives — is long-standing, and though Electrical does have at least one digital rig for those who might use it — more than likely one of the other four staffers — Albini won’t.

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An Electrical session with Greg Norman at the helm and Russian Circles.

Courtesy of Jordan Wagner

Credit a belief in the lasting power of recording tape (and vinyl) and the right of what he’s documenting to live as long as possible, Albini just prefers not to. And bands that come to him do so for the kind of sound — warmer, usually — that analog delivers. A sound that some producers don’t believe is necessarily tape related. Grammy-winning producer Joe Chiccarelli says, “The sound of a record has more to do with where I place the mic than what it’s recorded with,” but no matter. The bands are hearing the sounds that sound the best with the music that they’re making.

Plus, Albini doesn’t charge an arm and a leg, bands routinely bunk in the apartments above the studios and he steadfastly refuses to take percentage points on a band’s finished “product,” a fairly typical industry standard.

“Look, I don’t even know if he liked our record,” Besinger says, laughing. “But it doesn’t matter. He’s the best at what he does and the supermercado down the street has great burritos.”

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