Steve Albini’s letter to Nirvana
A three-disc reissue of Nirvana’s classic third album In Utero was recently released to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Among other things it contains the original mixes of the album’s singles, ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’ by the album’s producer, Steve Albini, whose work on them was deemed too rough by the band’s label and then polished up for the version of In Utero released back in 1993. As well as all the alternate versions, demos, live recordings and B-sides you expect in this kind of reissue, the boxed set also includes a letter. Four pages long, it’s a missive from Albini to the band before they’d settled on him as their producer in which he outlines how he works and what he’d like to do for them. It’s a fascinating insight into the story behind an album that’s passed into legend.
The letter begins with Albini apologising for being busy working with Fugazi and explaining that Nirvana’s early ideas for the record are exactly the way he wants to do it: “bang a record out in a couple of days, with high quality but minimal “production” and no interference from the front office bulletheads.” While that was the plan, with surprising prescience he then outlines something much closer to what would actually happen.
“If, instead, you might find yourselves in the position of being temporarily indulged by the record company, only to have them yank the chain at some point (hassling you to rework songs/sequences/production, calling-in hired guns to “sweeten” your record, turning the whole thing over to some remix jockey, whatever…) then you’re in for a bummer and I want no part of it.”
Later on in the letter Albini recommends Pachyderm Studios, which is where they recorded the album, and explains that he doesn’t want to receive royalties and would rather be paid with a single upfront amount. “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 dollars or so. There’s no fucking way I would ever take that much money. I wouldn’t be able to sleep.” According to an article in Mojo written after the album’s release Albini was paid $100,000 for In Utero and if he’d accepted royalties he would have earned five times that. Still, that’s $100,000 for a week’s work and a clean conscience.
Albini signs off with “If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s fucking up.” Then there’s a Polaroid of him with his shoes on fire, which is a trick he used to perform to keep musicians entertained in the studio. You can see him burning his feet for PJ Harvey while they were recording Rid Of Me in her documentary Reeling.
Read the full letter below, after you watch Albini’s shoe trick at the 2.43 mark, of course.