Difficult Listening: Steve Albini

Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago. Photo by Jen Carlson

The following is a personal essay about former Big Black frontman and super-producer Steve Albini.

During my senior year of college, I earned honors by producing a 25-page collection of original poems. The project began inauspiciously: I wrote a fairly unprofessional project proposal peppered with “Doctor Who” and Velvet Underground references, then, to my surprise, I was approved to enter the honors program and had to actually write the thing. By October, I had contracted a crippling case of writer’s block and sought advice from my academic advisor.

My advisor was impressed by the work I had produced so far, but noted that all the poems I’d written were autobiographical. Maybe I could try writing from other people’s perspectives, he suggested.

“You mean like Steve Albini?” I replied.

My advisor, an admittedly hip poet on the cusp of middle age who has been known to enjoy Pavement, hadn’t heard of Steve Albini, so I gave him a brief introduction. Steve Albini founded a noise-rock group called Big Black in Evanston, Illinois in 1981 and spent the next several years writing songs from other people’s perspectives. He wrote a song from the perspective of a Minnesotan man who sexually abuses his five-year-old child. He assumed the persona of a man who lights himself on fire for fun. He warped himself into a whole chorus of misogynists, racists, rapists, and murderers, all clamoring to be heard over screeching guitars and a furious Roland drum machine. In short, he took satire and black humor to frightening new levels.

Big Black, Atomizer, 1986

Before I wrote the poetry collection, a good friend of mine had written an essay about Big Black. About a year and a half ago, he introduced me to “Kerosene,” a blistering six-minute track about the aforementioned self-immolator. It’s perhaps the most well-known track on Big Black’s debut LP, Atomizer, because St. Vincent covered it at the Our Band Could Be Your Life 10th anniversary concert at the Bowery Ballroom last year. “There’s only two things to do [in small-town America],” Big Black bassist Dave Riley once explained. “Go blow up a whole load of stuff for fun. Or have a lot of sex with the one girl in town who’ll have sex with anyone. ‘Kerosene’ is about a guy who tries to combine the two pleasures.”

Indeed, there’s something more than a little disturbing about the eroticization of a can of flammable liquid (“There’s kerosene around, she’s something to do”). “Passing Complexion” sounds uncomfortably upbeat; I almost want to dance to it, just like I almost want to dance to “Isolation” by Joy Division. The first time I listened to Atomizer in its entirety, I spent half an hour alternately cringing and chuckling–which, I’ve been told, is a fairly typical reaction. I simultaneously wished I had never heard the album and couldn’t wait to play it again. To borrow a line from “Jordan, Minnesota,” Atomizer is the kind of record that “will stay with you until you die.”

While copies of Atomizer are difficult to come by these days (the album was only released on vinyl and has been out of print for years), I did manage to purchase Big Black’s second and final LP, Songs About Fucking. The CD format is one of many things Albini hates about the music industry, so I opted for the record, with the life-size face on the cover and the big black insert. As the album’s title suggests, many of the songs are about sex. Satyriasis (“Bad Penny“), rape (“Precious Thing“), eroticized trucks (“The Power of Independent Trucking“)–it’s all there. Yet on Songs About Fucking, the lyrics seem secondary, as Albini’s vocals are barely audible over his and Santiago Durango’s chainsaw-like guitars, credited in the liner notes as “Guitar Skinng” and “Guitar Grrr,” respectively. These guys made hardcore punk bands sound harmless.

Big Black, Songs About Fucking, 1987

After Durango left for law school and Big Black called it quits, Albini stayed active in the indie music scene, forming two other bands (Rapeman and Shellac) and engineering some of the most influential albums of the last 25 years. Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, Nirvana’s In Utero, and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me all bear his mark–and just when you thought Albini was all aggression, he teamed up with Australian instrumental trio Dirty Three to create songs like this. More recently, Albini has made headlines for feuding with Odd Future, started his own food blog, and engineered one of 2012’s most highly acclaimed releases: Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory. The bespectacled nerd who once recorded an album in his Northwestern dorm room over spring break is now one of the most respected figures in indie music, not to mention one of the forefathers of what we now call “industrial” rock.

Albini’s story has a positive ending and, thankfully, so does mine. I finished my honors thesis by late April, held a small poetry reading, and survived a slightly intimidating thesis defense. One week before the final draft was due, I wrote a poem about time travel and things I’d “had, but couldn’t keep.” I wrote about how much I missed the friend who introduced me to Big Black, who had graduated from college the year before and moved back to his hometown on the other side of the country. But I couldn’t bring myself to write a poem from the point of view of a child molester or a homophobe. I suppose I don’t have Steve Albini’s talent, or his courage.


Dave Riley is quoted from “Our Band Could Be Your Life” by Michael Azerrad (Little, Brown & Co., 2001, p. 331).

–Hallie Santo


  1. Interesting story. Well written. Fact checking is a little off. Atomizer is available along with some singles on the CD collection “Rich Man’s Eight Track.” It is available in most stores that sell used music as well as online places for cheap.

  2. Thanks for the compliment! The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape features 9 of the 10 songs from Atomizer — “Strange Things” is missing, so it isn’t quite the same. I’m currently on a mission to track down a vinyl copy of Atomizer, but have yet to find it in a record store. If you know of any places where I can find it, let me know! I’d really appreciate it!

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