Sometime in February 1993, Nirvana was preparing to record In Utero, their third — and what would sadly be their final — album. The band was working with musician and record producer Steve Albini. Interestingly, on the night before the recording session, Albini offered his production services for free, but only if Nirvana beat him at a game of pool. The catch? They needed to pay him double if he won. The band ultimately declined this offer, as the production fee was at $100,000, and they did not want to take the risk. For Albini, however, it did not matter whether he gets paid double or he works for free. What matters most to him was music — and playing pool.
Credit: aagotaa, Albini-Shellac-16, CC BY 2.0
Since the early 1990s, Steve Albini had built a reputation as a local music producer advocating for underground bands and going against major record labels and the commercialization of music. He started playing bass when he was a teenager, after listening to the music of the Ramones. To this day, he credits his entire music career to the punk rock band’s first self-titled album.
After he obtained a journalism degree at Northwestern University, he became an active writer covering the budding rock scene and gaining a reputation for his critical articles. In 1981, he started working with musicians and engineered his first album. Forty years later, he estimated that he has worked on several thousand albums, including those of Nirvana, Foxy Shazam, Joanna Newsom, Nina Nastasia, The Cribs, and Manic Street Preachers. The Music
In mid-1992, rumors that Albini was tapped to work with Nirvana on their next album ran in contradiction with Albini’s reputation as an iconoclastic producer. After all, nothing screams sellout more than signing with a major record label. He was quick to dispel those rumors, even initially rejecting the opportunity when the band’s representatives finally reached out to him. Later on, he accepted the job because he understood that bands like Nirvana are only at the mercy of their record companies. However, his experiences of working with big labels did not stop him from criticizing the field. For starters, as he once stated in his four-page proposal to Nirvana, Albini stood firmly with his belief that paying producers royalties from album sales is unethical, as their only role is to record the music according to the artists’ desires. Moreover, despite the music industry going digital, he was vocal about supporting analog recording, even labeling the use of digital files as audio masters as irresponsible. In his 2015 essay The Problem of Music, he also criticized music producers who lack the background and understanding of music engineering and who simply work with whatever is trendy at the moment.
Apart from music and journalism, Albini also partakes in other endeavors. In March 2011, he started a food blog called Mariobatalivoice: What I made Heather for dinner. He is also an avid poker player, having learned from his great-grandmother in 1969. In fact, Albini ranked twelfth at the 2013 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Seniors Championship. He went on to win a coveted gold bracelet and $106,000 in prize money at the 2018 World Series of Poker (WSOP), one of the premier poker events in the United States. Albini beat more than 300 players at the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino, where the WSOP has regularly been held, but despite the accomplishment, the decorated producer remains humble. He believes that there is hope for everybody to win, as he is “ecstatic that a player as mediocre as me can outlast all of these better players and end up with a bracelet.”
Recent Works These past few years, Albini is has continued to produce music for underground rock artists. In the throes of the pandemic, he produced and recorded on analog tape the insanely cathartic album of the Balkun Brothers, called Here Comes the End of the World. With Steve Albini’s magic on it, the result is nothing but outstanding — honest music that perfectly depicts the dystopia that was 2020.