Steve Albini, “The Model,” and the lingering power of mistakes

Steve Albini.


Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

When I was 15, my first boyfriend gave me a burned CD with the words “cool music” written in Sharpie across the bottom. It contained over a dozen songs, the kind you’d expect to receive from a brooding indie rock-minded teenager with a gutterpunk streak; the track I’d play on loop was a cover of Kraftwerk’s “The Model.” Steve Albini’s punk band Big Black had transformed it into something unapologetically intense and so unafraid of its imperfect emotion that it was willing to be mistaken for an exorcism. Despite being a cover, no one could ever mistake it for the tidy, mechanized original; it was a song that stood on its own. The absolute contempt in Albini’s voice was coiled just like the spiky knot of rage in my chest which grew larger each time I was hurt and told to temper my “bad attitude” for the sake of other people. Across a career as an artist, producer, and recording engineer that changed the shape of modern rock music, Albini turned messy anger like mine into high art. He rejected perfection and taught a generation of musicians and fans how to scream back at the assholes who preached otherwise.

Albini’s titanic stature over modern music gives his sudden passing at 61 — on May 8, of a heart attack — a surreal bent. The instant outpouring of tributes from record labels, venues, and artists of all stripes helped to capture how Albini’s work in D.I.Y. punk and ‘90s indie rock clashed so heavily with the dominant musical landscape. Throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, the radio was replete with catchy, overproduced songs written for a rotating cast of singers signed to major labels. These relatively inoffensive and hyper-polished tunes were the soundtrack for an age of accelerated branding, large-scale production, and consumerism, with marketing expert, Dr. Anders Parment, describing the ‘90s Generation as the first to truly “grow up in a branded society overcrowded with commercials.”

However, a different vision was being realized inside the walls of Albini’s legendary Chicago recording studio Electrical Audio. Always preferring the title of “engineer,” Albini’s D.I.Y. production choices popularized a humble approach toward recording, using minimal effects and a light touch to maintain that raw authenticity of a first take on groundbreaking albums like Nirvana’s In Utero, PixiesSurfer Rosa, The Jesus Lizard’s Goat, and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me.

“I have a straightforward, documentary approach to recording music, and I’ve never been tempted with my own bands or with anyone else’s band to suddenly go production-happy,” Albini told The Los Angeles Times in 1993. “If you let the band sound natural, then the record will sink or swim on its own merits.”

He added, “The things I like most about rock bands are simplicity and straightforwardness, and those principles guide my recordings.”

On a technical level, Albini’s productions were considered “messy,” with lots of “mistakes” and missed opportunities for studio trickery, but that was their soul. This anti-sheen philosophy extended to his deep distrust of the music industry’s Faustian promise of stardom. He writes about the constrictions of a record in his revered 1993 instructional “The Problem With Music,” using a “faceless industry lackey” holding a contract on the other side of a septic trench as an allegory for a greedy industry that pits young talent against each other — only for the winner to be held hostage in a state of creative limbo.

“He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says, ‘Actually, I think you need a little more development,’” Albini continued. “‘Swim it again, please. Backstroke.’”

Imperfection was a constant marker of Albini’s public persona, at times overshadowing his artistic contributions. His defiance of the establishment metastasized into a long-standing reputation as an actively offensive asshole who made a point of being off-putting and rude, as noted by Jeremy Gordon in a profile for The Guardian last year. Among his most notorious and undeniably disgusting ploys for attention: his decision to name his second band Rapeman and, later, form a short-lived project that contained the N-word. He would acknowledge the ugliness of his past mistakes in a 2021 Twitter thread. “A lot of things I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful and I regret them,” he wrote. “I’m overdue for a conversation about my role in inspiring ‘edgelord’ shit.”

Throughout this, the knowledge that Albini had done things like mock alleged victims of a later debunked child sex ring lingered in the back of my mind like a dull ache. It felt like rejection, but this time by the man I thought was my advocate in a world that treated me like an outsider, who also seemed to think I was unworthy of respect or being heard. The only thing I could really do was to try and not think about it.

The sincerity of his apology helped to soothe — if not entirely heal — some wounds I’ve nursed throughout my life as an Albini fan. In college, long before Albini’s Twitter atonement, I was a campus DJ at Northwestern at WNUR 89.3, the same radio station Albini used to work at. I programmed from the same stacks he did while surrounded by his work for Songs: Ohia, Trash Talk, and Smog, getting absorbed in his discography, even if my deep connection to these records started to make my heart ache in a slightly different way.

Now that he’s gone, I’m forced to reflect, and I feel as though I can finally shut the book on a persistent hurt. Besides, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t admire his ability to be so in-your-face while also owning every mistake he’s made, both personally and musically. Those were the things I’d loved the most about “The Model” and hearing my own disdain for mainstream conformity in his bitingly sarcastic, pseudo-robotic delivery. That song began teaching me the lessons I’d relearn as I followed more of Albini’s work: the importance of authenticity, vulnerability, self-advocacy, and fearlessly making mistakes while taking accountability for the harmful ones. No matter how curled your sneer is, you’re not too messed up to be saved. You’re just a human like Steve Albini.