One reason I let almost 40 years go by without reaching out to Steve Albini is that our last conversation was so engrained in my mind. It was the summer of 1982. I bumped into him at Norris Center, Northwestern's student hangout, and he showed me this little electronic drum machine he had just gotten. I told him that I was leaving soon for my first job in Los Angeles. "Well, don't die," he said tersely, and walked away. Coming from Steve Albini, that remark was the equivalent of a teary hug from anyone else, and I doubted I'd do any better than that. But perhaps driven mad by COVID isolation, I leapt across the chasm, and was glad I did. A smart man, and there aren't enough of those around. I only wish I could have printed more of our conversation.
“Do you feel successful?” I asked Steve Albini, at a taco place near his Belmont Avenue recording studio, which readers visited Monday.
Albini is successful, by any measure. A legendary sound engineer — known for producing Nirvana’s last album. Notorious lead man of Big Black, “some of the nastiest noisemakers in rock” according to Rolling Stone, and, more recently, Shellac of North America. They tour the world.
But those tough on others, as Albini certainly is, are often hardest on themselves. So I was curious. Does he consider himself a success?
“To the extent that I could care about that, I would say yes,” he replied. “I’ve lived my whole life without having goals, and I think that’s very valuable, because then I never am in a state of anxiety or dissatisfaction. I never feel I haven’t achieved something. I never feel there is something yet to be accomplished. I feel like goals are quite counterproductive. They give you a target, and until the moment you reach that target, you are stressed and unsatisfied, and at the moment you reach that specific target you are aimless and have lost the lodestar of your existence. I’ve always tried to see everything as a process. I want to do things in a certain way that I can be proud of that is sustainable and is fair and equitable to everybody that I interact with. If I can do that, then that’s a success, and success means that I get to do it again tomorrow.”
COVID-19 has turned many friendships into slag heaps of cold ash. It seemed perverse to seek out Albini, whom I hadn’t seen in decades, who doesn’t suffer fools and can summarize your failings with a precision that’ll haunt you to your grave. Driving to lunch, I wondered if I was ready for his notorious scrutiny, conjuring a potential headline: “Steve Albini explains why I suck.”
I told him I have a hard time sharing his perspective.
“I can’t conceive of somebody who’s done what he’s wanted to do every day for four decades, published books and still writes a daily column and have that person think of himself as anything other than a success,” he said.
That was unexpected.
“You’re mellower than when we were in school,” I said.
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