Read Steve Albini’s 4-Page Fax To Nirvana Asking To Be Producer For ‘In Utero’
Written by Tom Williams on 27th September, 2013
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A four-page fax sent by American musician and producer Steve Albini to grunge-rockers Nirvana around the time that the band were looking to follow-up 1991's record breaking album Nevermind has now surfaced online after being included in the liner notes for the 20th Anniversary reissue of In Utero.
Albini, who eventually went on to produce In Utero and also plays in ‘minimalist rock’ group Shellac, was working with slightly more obscure groups back in 1992, like The Breeders and Pixies. Nonetheless, he reached out to the three Nirvana boys via a fax machine (remember those?), clearly impressed by their previous work and eager to offer them his opinions on producing records.
One of the key points Albini makes in the letter is that he wouldn’t be comfortable recording an album only to have it re-mixed by someone else – which is exactly what happened when the studio got their hands on the rough-and-ready finished product, and Scott Lit was drafted in to rework singles All Apologies and Heart-Shaped Box.
In Utero recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, framed by the release of a mammoth 20th anniversary reissue. These faxes follow in the vein of other Nirvana paraphernalia which have recently hit the web, including their $600 contract with record label Sub Pop from back in 1989.
The four faxed pages of Albini’s proposal are available to view below, as well as a short transcript if your eyes begin to strain too much from the increasingly poor image quality.
Short excerpts from Steve Albini’s four page fax to Nirvana:
I think the very best thing you could do at this point is exactly what you’re talking about doing: bang a record out in a couple of days, with high quality but “minimal” production” and no interference from the front office bulletheads. If that is indeed what you want to do, I would love to be involved.
If instead, you 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.
I’m only interested in working on records that legitimately reflect the band’s own perception of their music and existence. If you will commit yourselves to that as a tenet of the recording methodology, then I will bust my ass for you. I’ll work circles around you. I’ll rap your head in with a ratchet…
I have worked on hundreds of records (some great, some good, some horrible, a lot in the courtyard), and I have seen a direct correlation between the quality of the end result and the mood of the band throughout the process. If the record takes a long time, and everyone gets bummed and scrutinizes eery step, then the recordings bear little resemblance to the live band, and the end result is seldom flattering. Making punk rock records is definitely a cae where more “work” does not imply a netter end result. Clearly you have learned this yourselves and appreciate the logic.
I consider the band the most important thing, as the creative entity that spawned both the band’s personality and style and as the social entity that exists 24 hours out of each day. I do not consider it my place to tell you what to do or how to play. I’m quite willing to let my opinions be heard (if I think the band is making beautiful progress or a heaving mistake I consider it part of my job to tell them) but if the band decides to pursue something I’ll see that it gets done.
I like to leave room for accidents and chaos. Making a seamless record where every note and syllable is in place and every bass drum beat is identical, is no trick. Any idiot with patience and the budget to allow such foolishness can do it. I prefer to work on records that aspire to greater things, like originality, personality and enthusiasm. If every element of the music and dynamics of a band is controlled by click tracks, computers, automated mixes, gates, samplers and sequencers, then the record may not be incompetent, but it certainly won’t be exceptional. It will also bear very little relationship to the live band, which is what all this hooey is supposed to be about.
I do not have afixed gospel of stock sounds and recording techniques that I apply blindly to every band in every situation. You are a different band from any other band and deserve at least the respect of having your own tastes and concerns addressed. For example, I love the sound of a boomy drum kit (say a Gretach or a Camco) wide open in a big room, especially with a Bonhammy double-headed bass drum and a really painful snare drum. I also love the puke-inducing low end that comes of an old Fender Bassman or Ampeg gutiar amp and the totally blown sound of an SVT with broken-in tubes. I also know that those sounds are appropriate for some songs, and trying to force them in is a waste of time. Predicating the recordings on my tastes is as stupid as designing a car around the upholstery. 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.
Where we record the record is not as important as how it is recorded. If you have a nice studio you’d like to use, no hag. Otherwise, I can make suggestions. I have a nice 24-track studio in my house (Fugazi were just there, you can ask them how they rate it), and I’m familiar with most of the studios in the Midwest, the East Coast and a dozen or so in the UK. I would be a little concerned about having you at my house for the duration of the whole recording and mixing process (if only because you’re big celebrities, and I wouldn’t want word getting out in the neighborhood and you guys having to put up with a lot of fan-style bulls**t); it would be a fine place to mix the record though, and you can’t beat the vicinity.
I explained this to Kurt but I thought I’d better reiterate it here. I do not want to and will not take a royalty on any record I record. No points. Period. I thinking paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible. The band write the songs. The band play the music.. It’s the band’s fans who buy the records. The band is responsible for whether it’s a great record or a horrible record. Royalties belong to the band.
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 f**king way I would ever take that much money. I wouldn’t be able to sleep.
I have to be comfortable with the amount of money you pay me, but it’s your money, and I insist that you be comfortable with it as well. Kurt suggested paying me a chunk which I would consider full payment, and then if you really thought I deserved more, paying me another chunk after you’d had a chance to live with the album for a while. That would be fine, but probably more organizational trouble than it’s worth.
Whatever, I trust you guys to be fair to me and I know you most be familiar with what a regular industry goon would want. I will let you make the final decision about what I’m going to be paid. How much you choose to pay me will not affect my enthusiasm for the record.
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. Please don’t consider that an issue.