“‘He’d offset the intensity by setting his feet on fire’: PJ Harvey, Mogwai and more on Steve Albini”

Features contributions from Bob Bert, Jon Spencer and Julie Cafritz.

Full Article: https://www.theguardian.com/music/article/2024/may/13/pj-harvey-mogwai-sunn-wedding-present-jon-spencer-on-steve-albini

Bob Bert, Pussy Galore and Sonic Youth

Pussy Galore was one of the first bands that Steve recorded. It was 1987 and we were working on the album Right Now! I was playing a drum kit half constructed from a junkyard. The snare was two metal plates wired together on a snare drum shell. He couldn’t get a good sound out of it, so he brought out an S&M cock ring and wired it to the top to create a much better rattle and it remained there throughout the band’s existence. Albini’s cock ring travelled the world with me.

He stayed with me at my apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, two different times for a week – I spent a lot of time with him, hearing about his obsessions like billiards and his favourite candy: Skittles. He was a one-of-a-kind personality, and could get a drum sound like no one else on the planet.”

Jon Spencer

Steve taught me so much about the recording studio and making records – things like getting sounds on to tape, mixing, mastering, packaging design, and manufacturing and distribution. But he also taught me how to run a band: booking shows, promoting your shows and records, reading a contract, navigating a deal. All DIY!

He showed me the recording studio could be approached in the same way as a guitar or any other instrument. Do you know how to play it? Who cares. Do you have something to express? Go for it! What’s most important is the band and the record you want to make. You could ignore “rules” or “the correct way”. In fact, almost nothing was wrong or off-limits, which was very empowering. However, Steve totally knew how to work in the studio the “correct” way. He was an excellent engineer and extremely knowledgable, particularly in microphone selection and placement.”

Julia Cafritz, Pussy Galore

Jon [Spencer] and I were such incredibly devoted Big Black fans. That band was so powerful and sonically interesting. And so we weren’t thinking of, “Steve Albini, the recording studio engineer.” We were really drawn to him by the sheer talent that we saw in what we thought of as his main gig. I had a very strong, visceral impression, both of his guitar playing and his personality. It was so explosive. He was such a live wire. He was clearly bristling with intelligence. And, like Pussy Galore, really transgressive in that dumb, stupid way that young punk rockers were, when you want to take down society, so you say the most horrible thing.

When we arrived in Chicago to record with him, I was struck that he was a bundle of contradictions. But maybe that’s wrong – because maybe it’s just all the natural contradictions that somebody with such a strong personality and worldview and artistic sensibility has. Like all of this is part of the stew that is Steve Albini.

We met him at his domicile at the time, and he’s in the back yard, bleaching glass bottles, because he was about to embark on bottling his own root beer. Meticulously bleaching them – rinsing them, wiping them with a little cloth at the edge of his apron to keep the bleach off his already-bleached jeans, and then placing them in crates. And I was just like: “Oh my God. What a nerd!” [laughs] But the thing is, I was a nerd. I didn’t drink, I didn’t to drugs; he didn’t drink, he didn’t do drugs. And yet we had these outsize, really hardcore personalities.

He brought his intensity – that intensity of focus, that gaze, that meticulousness, that sort of doctrinaire way of being and approaching life – to every endeavour. You might think that somebody like that would not necessarily be the best collaborator in the studio. But it was really fun.

We recorded a song [Pussy Stomp from the album Right Now], and Jon wasn’t happy with the recording. But he was happy with the way it sounded when we played it in our van, which had much shittier speakers. We ran cables all the way out of the studio into the back alley, where Jon turned on the van, put the cassette in, and then blasted the music. And Steve recorded the sound of that track with two mics coming out of the stereo in the van. To me, that was everything a studio experience was supposed to be. It was creative, rigorously intellectual in its own way; it was fun. To me, that’s everything you need to know about Steve right there: really game and really excited by other people’s ideas.

He wisely grew out of a lot of the sort of dumb shit that we all do when we’re young. But then he replaced it with really smart shit. He was an extraordinary human being in terms of sheer intelligence and the power of how he would focus that. Everything was quick. And I knew him when it was all brutal. What’s interesting to me is that as he grew older and softer, he didn’t lose any of that edge. It just was put to better use.”

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