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Big Black - Profile

  by Mark Rowland

published: 21 / 11 / 2002

Big Black - Profile


One of the guiding lights of the US hardcore scene, Steve Albini fronted the controversial Big Black, and also produced Nirvana's 'In Utero'. Mark Rowland examines his extraordinary career

From early, humble beginnings as a fanzine writer, Steve Albini has since become something of a legend in alternative/ punk circles. Over the last twenty years, he has formed three bands, split up two of them, and produced countless numbers of albums, including seminal records by the Pixies, Nirvana and Slint. Albini first emerged onto the US hardcore scene in the early 80's with the release of Big Black's six song debut EP, 'Lungs, in 1982. This was essentially just Steve and a Roland drum machine, but already it had all the elements there that made Big Black stand out amongst the hordes of sloppy, thrashy teen hardcore bands that were dominating the independent scene at that time. For one thing, using a drum machine in a rock band was then unheard of, and this plus Albini's minimalist buzz-saw guitar style produced a semi-industrial sound while still sounding punk. By the time of its next EP, 'Bulldozer, which came out in 1983,Big Black was a proper band, the sound beefed up considerably by bassist Jeff Pezzati and guitarist Santiago Durango, though drums were still provided by 'Roland'. Subject matter for songs here included everything from bored kids amusing themselves in an abattoir to bored kids amusing themselves by setting fire to things. Two things that you'll find in all Big Black songs, however, is plenty of anger, but also a dark sense of humour (throughout his career, Albini has never really taken himself too seriously). Two subsequent releases later, the 'Racer X' mini album and the 'Il Duce' single (both 1985), and Pezzati was replaced by Dave Riley on bass, who gave the band a slightly funkier sound. In 1986, the band released their first full-length album, 'Atomizer'. It was to be their defining moment. This featured the awesome and much covered 'Kerosene'. Basically the band's signature tune, it combines a messy, dark riff with unsettling harmonics, and, once again, a recurring theme for the band, is about setting things on fire. The rest of the album is on similar musical territory, but, more varied than you might imagine, even has, while they too could not be described as exactly easy listening, a few more lighter-hearted songs. New wave influences, which have been twisted into new, scary shapes, can be heard on tracks like 'Bad Houses' and 'Bazooka Joe'. A second album, 'Songs about Fucking',followed a year later in 1987, but then Albini decided to split the band. After a quick farewell tour of America and Europe, Big Black was finished. Its spirit, however lives on and it continues to influence many bands today. "It meant nothing to us if we were popular or not, or if we sold either a million or no records, so we were invulnerable to ploys by music scene weasels to get us to make mistakes in the name of success" wrote Albini about his time in Big Black, "To us, every moment we remained unfettered and in control was a success. We booked our own tours, paid our own bills, made our own mistakes and never had anybody shield us from either the truth or the consequences." This candid way of talking about the music industry would do much for Albini's notoriety and revered cult status in the underground in the years to come. Not long after Big Black split, Albini found himself open to a whole new area in the music business- he was becoming in demand as a producer, or as he prefers to be known, a recorder. Albini had always 'recorded' Big Black's records, and had become very adept at making the quiet bits very quiet and the loud bits EXTREMELY loud. He also knew how to get a powerful and distinctive drum sound. His recording skills first came to light when he took the Pixies into the studio to record their first full-length, 'Surfer Rosa' (1988). To many people, this is an incredibly influential alt. rock landmark, a combination of surf and punk guitars, with vocals that veered from crazed screaming and sweet singing- occasionally in Spanish- and which featured lyrical themes about molestation, violence and love in equal measures. To Albini, however, the Pixies made "blandly entertaining college rock." This comment was a surprising one at the time, but this kind of straight talking was to become something of a habit in the years to come, as Albini was to make similar comments about other bands he produced, including Nirvana and Bush. At about the same time that 'Surfer Rosa' came out in 1988, Albini put together a new band that caused an immediate outcry with their name.Rapeman took their name from a controversial Japanese comic book charcater. The project was short-lived, however,and released only one album, 'Two Nuns and a Pack Mule' in 1992, which featured such pleasant little ditties as 'Kim Gordon's Panties' and 'Steak and Black Onions ("We don't hate vegetarians, we just think they're funny")'. Steve was still producing a lot of records as well. He produced Slint's debut album 'Tweez' in 1989 ; PJ Harvey's second album, 'Rid of Me'(1993), and one of the greatest rock albums of the nineties, Nirvana's 'In Utero' (again 1993). The album is Nirvana's definitive statement, combining all their best elements, the angular punk, the hooks, the tender, quiet moments, the hard rock influences, all of which were given a jagged yet sophisticated edge by Albini's production. Albini was a surprising choice for the band at the time, having described them cyncially as "R.E.M. with a fuzzbox." After recording the album,however, he found that he liked the album (and the band members !) once it was completed more than he expected. "I've found myself listening to it of my own free will, occasionally" he said at the time, though when Nirvana brought in Scott Litt (the producer of R.E.M., ironically) to mix a couple of tracks, Albini had some pretty strong objections. Albini now records and plays with Shellac, who are much more lo-fi band than his previous two bands. They have released three albums, 'At Action Park' (1994), 'Terraform (1998)', and '1000 Hurts' (2000). '1000 Hurts' is recommended the most out of these three, being the most focused work of the band, but the other two records are also well worth searching out. There are many things that Albini has been involved as well, both as a producer and as a writer, but those are the subject of many more articles. He remains one of the biggest influences in alternative and punk rock.

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Big Black - Profile

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