Although he’s worked with plenty of great bands, Steve Albini is still mostly remembered for producing Nirvana’s third and final studio album, “In Utero.” However, despite what some people may think, the studio work isn’t as magical and full of odd practices and secrets. Speaking to Conan O’Brien for the “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” podcast, along with former Nirvana members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, he had to dispel some of the common myths still spreading around among rock fans.
During the interview, Conan discussed some of the recording techniques used by rock bands. In particular, he remembered some of the Led Zeppelin stories and how Jimi Page messed around with microphone positions when recording drums and allegedly got completely different sonic results. However, Albini had to stop him right there and address the matter, saying (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):
“Let me just cut you off and bum you out by saying that everything that has ever been written about studio techniques and studio lore, and all the fables of things that have happened in the studio on famous records, every single thing in the popular culture that people have heard about happening in the studio did not happen. It’s all bulls***.”
Of course, some of the stories get much wilder than just microphone positions. And those, too, are, in Albini’s experience, nothing but myths. As he explains, there’s no “magic” behind the process but hard work and great musicianship. No matter where such stories originate, Albini doesn’t recognize them as true. He continued:
“There are a very, very, very small number of studio stories like, ‘Oh, they smeared cocaine on the tape’, [laughs] you know, all this. It’s all bulls***. It’s all just completely fabulous stuff that people write because they want to ascribe some sort of magic to the process. There’s no magic to it.”
“In Utero” was somewhat of a departure compared to Nirvana’s previous album and incredible commercial success, “Nevermind.” Although there are obvious similarities, since Kurt Cobain wrote almost all of the songs, you could notice that both Albini and the band members had a different approach compared to what was done with Butch Vig on “Nevermind.”
Now, there are always discussions about how a producer actually affects the final results of an album. And there never seems to be a concrete answer. Some are not even musicians, and some may not even have all of the engineering skills and knowledge, yet they managed to help create multiple incredibly successful and influential albums.
But as far as Albini’s work goes, his main approach was to just let Nirvana do their own thing. He believed in their music and experience. When asked how he approached working with the legendary grunge trio and how he reacted to hearing them for the first time, the producer replied:
“What I wanted was for them to go into a studio and behave normally. You don’t have to just sit there in a room by yourself playing to a click track. You get to play with your band around you like always.”
The process, as he adds, doesn’t have to be super-detailed and complex. To him, it’s all about playing like a band and being what you are. He concluded by adding:
“We don’t have to replace everything with a microscope and tweezers. You can just play like a band. Behave normally, have the normal experience. That is the thing that got you animated about music and got you there in the first place.”
Speaking of which, Kurt has always been known for his somewhat laid-back approach to music and playing. To the point where some would even call him “sloppy.” In an interview from a couple of years ago, Steve Albini addressed this “loose” and “sloppy” feel.
When the interviewer reminded him of this, along with saying how Nirvana were “very tight” as a band despite the “sloppiness,” Albini said:
“Yeah, they had been touring a lot. They had been playing together as a band and toured quite a lot. These songs were well-rehearsed. They had done a demo session when they were on tour in South America.”
“They stopped in a little studio in Rio and did demos of all these songs, so they worked out all the arrangements. There wasn’t a lot in question when they got to the studio. They just needed to, they were basically just executing it.
“So we were done fairly quickly; days didn’t seem stressful or long. They were very productive. There was a lot of material, 18 songs, something like that, but they were more than prepared to do it, and everything went very smoothly.”
When asked about Cobain’s specific playing style, he said:
“He has a certain sense, the dynamics of the song – you can tell in his playing when it’s meant to be sort of gentle and somber – he plays to that emotional intensity on the guitar.
“And then when it’s meant to be raging and explosive, he goes all the way to 11. I don’t think there’s any black art to it, it’s just that he was paying attention when he was putting the arrangements together and when he was writing the songs. ‘This part is gonna be low key, this part is gonna be big…'”