For those of you unfamiliar with the work and public persona of Electrical Audio studio owner / operator Steve Albini, here’s a quick primer: A towering figure in underground rock, Albini engineered many of the movement’s most revered albums, including key works by Pixies, The Breeders, The Jesus Lizard, Slint, Superchunk and Jawbreaker, as well as better-known major-label work with Nirvana and PJ Harvey.
He’s also been the vocalist and guitarist for three bands—Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac—that have endured much controversy and fanfare throughout the years, due in part to provocative lyrics targeting the mundane underbelly of American society. Also, several of Albini’s missives on analog recording techniques and the corrupt nature of the music industry are notorious for their bluntness and puritanical attitude.
As such, he’s often looked upon as independent rock’s pre-eminent asshole, partly by his own design, but partly by default. He’s often quoted bashing bands whose albums he’s engineered and receives just as much attention for his outspoken opinions as he does for his work.
Albini drew more attention than he has in years for a recent interview with GQ, wherein he had less than complimentary things to say about the career decisions of musical peers Sonic Youth.
During the interview, Albini threw around the words “sellout,” “mainstream” and “credibility,” leading me to temporarily believe I was transported back to 1995, when the lines between “indie” and “mainstream” actually existed (to some people, anyway).
But what really has message boards and online commenters up in arms is Albini’s criticism of how Sonic Youth approached their major-label deal with Geffen in the early-’90s.
Albini says, “They chose to join the mainstream culture and become a foot soldier for that culture’s encroachment into my neck of the woods by acting as scouts. I thought it was crass and I thought it reflected poorly on them. I still consider them friends and their music has its own integrity, but that kind of behavior— I can’t say that I think it’s not embarrassing for them.”
To many, Sonic Youth are untouchable icons of cool.
And despite admiring their work prior to signing with Geffen (Sister, in particular), I feel like they’ve been treading water for nearly 20 years, so I chuckled to myself while reading Albini’s interview. Knowing his acerbic sense of humor, I imagine he gets off on baiting the public when it comes to taking on sacred cows, especially when they’re his peers.
But the article is level-headed above all else, especially when he says things like: “A lot of people that end up being in bands give themselves license to act like assholes because they’re involved in music. If they didn’t see the music world as separate from the real world, most people would continue to behave honorably in the music scene. I don’t think that what Shellac does is remarkable, really. I feel like it’s just normal.”
I was directed to the piece by a link on avclub.com, which led with the headline “Steve Albini adds Sonic Youth to the list of things he’s pissed off about today” and offered an analysis of the interview that painted Albini as an aging, snobbish prick.
The avclub post suggested that this was all fun and games—both Albini’s comments and their analysis— and not to be taken too seriously. But other sites that linked to the GQ piece picked apart what Albini said based solely on his reputation.
After reading enough of these, Albini responded on Electrical Audio’s message board (electrical.com), saying, “I feel bad about the way it has been framed by opportunistic new media douchebags with an agenda and a lust for controversy.”
“Credibility” may not mean much to this generation of listeners, but at 48, after his lifetime of experience with musicians, it might help to take some of Albini’s words to heart, even those who think he’s a jerk-off.
The man put it best himself: “I’ll happily go to the mat with anybody about what I do and say, and the reasoning behind it. Any time.”