Among the extras included in the newly released Nirvana In Utero 20th anniversary box set is a letter that the album’s producer Steve Albini wrote to the band before he signed on to work on their record. Albini has Fugazi-esque ethics and distrust of the music industry, and they come out loud and clear in his four page letter. Besides the historical value of this letter, it also provides a few good lessons. Here’s a few:
The Quote: “Making a seamless record, where every note and syllable is in place and every drum beat is identical, is no trick. Any idiot with the patience and the budget to allow such foolishness can do it.” He wanted the band’s sound on the album to be like their live sound, and that was certainly not neat.
The Lesson: Perfection and uniformity isn’t everything. In fact, it may not be very important at all.
It’s a good thing he didn’t join the military (although he probably would have the discipline for it), but he’d be a great teacher, coach or parent, who would encourage individual growth (while expecting excellence).
The Quote: “In my experience, remixing has never solved any problems that actually existed, only imaginary ones… Remixing is for talentless pies who don’t know how to tune a drum or point a microphone.” Unfortunately, Albini didn’t get his way here: Scott Litt (who had worked with R.E.M. and the Replacements) ended up remixing some of the tracks. Albini’s original mixes are included on the box set, allowing fans to decide if the record label made the right call in ordering remixes.
The Lesson: If something’s wrong, fix it now; don’t procrastinate or avoid dealing with it.
So, yeah, he doesn’t demand perfection, but also don’t wait to fix something later. Get it how you want it now.
The Quote: “You guys need to decide and then articulate to me what you want to sound like, so we don’t come at the record from different directions.” Certain producers have a signature sound that turns up on all their records (Phil Spector and Daniel Lanois are two examples of this).
The Lesson: I’m here for you.
Even though Albini was (and is) a producer that has worked with some of the most credible and prestigious artists (including the Pixies, the Breeders, PJ Harvey and Jimmy Page & Robert Plant), his job is to encourage your creativity.
The Quote: “I would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it’s worth… the record company will expect me to ask for a point or a point and a half. If we assume three million sales, that works out to $400,000 or so. There’s no f****** way I would take that much money. I wouldn’t be able to sleep.”
The Lesson: It’s not all about the money.
It’s a view that may seem quaint in today’s climate, but the fact is, he’s produced over ten recordings a year for over a decade, and its likely that he makes a decent living. If someone makes the argument that “everyone” goes for all the money possible, cred be damned, Albini is a guy who has never done that.
The Quote: “Some people in my position would expect an increase in business after being associated with your band. I, however, already have more work than I can handle, and frankly, the kind of people such superficialities will attract are not people I want to work with.” It’s worth mentioning that, three years later, he worked with a band that certainly paid attention to Nirvana (and were accused by their harshest critics as being straight Nirvana rip-offs): Bush.
The Lesson: Beware of fair-weather friends.
Just because you do something that gets you invited to the “cool-kids” table, doesn’t mean you should care.