Steve Albini

If you hate most producers, talk to Steve Albini. For over 20 years, he’s been the most famous “anti-producer” in the business, making an art out of leaving art alone. And of the over 1500 records he’s recorded, one of his most famous accomplishments was the second record for an up-and-coming artist called P.J. Harvey. EQ took some time out of Albini’s busy day to hear him reminisce about the watershed record Rid of Me.
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EQ: So Rid of Me, recorded over 10 years ago, is still considered one of the best records you’ve recorded. You’re known as a very hands-off engineer, but your approach also gives records a certain sound. How much credit does your recording deserve for a record’s acclaim?

Steve Albini: The lion’s share of the responsibility of how a record comes out is in the hands of the band. If you’re working on a record in a technical capacity you can screw the pooch; but you can’t elevate something that’s not already really good. It’s a case where you can f*$& up a record real bad, or you can avoid f*$&ing up a record. You can’t take a record that’s not great and make it great.

EQ: Well, conversely, when it comes to complaints about a record, what role do you accept? Rid of Me has been criticized for the vocals being too quiet. . . .

SA: When they make their own record they can make the vocals as loud as they want. I don’t really remember having a conversation on it; the vocals ended up where they did on any given song because when we were listening to it that’s where they settled— everybody thought it sounded good there. I don’t remember there being a conscious decision about the vocals being loud or quiet. Every time you play a tape, you pull the faders up and it sounds a little different every time, and at some point along the process someone said, “yeah it sounds good that way.”

EQ: You recorded the album at Pachyderm Studios, where you also did Silkworm, Failure, and Nirvana. Why that particular facility?

SA: It was a nice studio for a long-term project because it’s a residential studio. There’s a nice house you can live in while you’re there. It’s a comfortable environment and it’s also relatively secluded. In order for anybody to go on a bender, or have a drug binge, or go way late at a night club, they’d have to make a concerted effort; you’d have to work pretty hard to get in any serious trouble.

EQ: You try to record bands as live as possible. For the setup of PJ Harvey, where Polly sings and plays guitar, did you go the extra mile and record vocals live as well?

SA: Occasionally I’ll do that, but not on that record. It’s rare, but it does happen. I’ve done records where every stitch of music was tracked live, but not for a rock band where you have vocals that are fairly “important.”

EQ: The drums have an attack that really drives the record, especially the snare. Did you try anything different for the setup?

SA: It was the normal set up for me— a kit in the big room with the amps hived off in the isolation rooms on the side.

EQ: So, when you go back and listen to records you’ve done in the past. . . .

SA: I have to admit that I don’t listen to records that I’ve done very much. You end up spending an awful lot of time on a record while working on it. It might be the case where you’ve heard all you need to hear. There’s also something vaguely narcissistic about listening to records you’ve worked on.

EQ:Rid of Me has been shown to be a very polarizing record. People either love it or hate it in comparison to PJ Harvey’s later material.

SA: Those records are way more important to Polly than anyone else. Other people can pass judgment, but that’s all for their amusement; Polly has to wake up every morning being Polly. She has to be comfortable with the way her records came out, and I don’t really concern myself too much with what other people’s opinions of her records are. It’s trivially simple for somebody to say “I used to like the first couple of records, but I haven’t really liked the last couple” or “I didn’t really like her when she was a rock musician, but now I really think she’s gotten somewhere.” I think all that sort of critical monologue you hear from everybody is totally meaningless. You like the records? Terrific. You don’t like them? I suggest you don’t buy them. Anything beyond that is nonsense.