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‘I’m Overdue for a Discussion About My Role in Inspiring ‘Edgelord’ Shit’: A Conversation with Steve Albini

In a recent Twitter thread, the famed audio engineer owned the ugly parts of his past — years of offensive music, statements and posts — and said his generation needs to talk about how culture has changed

Last year, former New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman attempted to interrupt a cycle of cancel culture by offering to educate an offender rather than pile on. When fellow NFL wide receiver DeSean Jackson posted an anti-Semitic quote that referred to Black people as “the real Children of Israel,” Edelman, who is Jewish, offered to take Jackson to the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture so the two men could talk about what Jackson said and discuss its implications.

It was a meaningful response and one that could evince real and lasting change. It was also an example of counsel culture — the idea that conversation and listening can change hearts and minds far more effectively than angry words online. Counsel culture, however, is a process — one that takes willing participants on both sides and starts with a conversation that’s often messy and imperfect.

Which brings me to music producer and recording engineer, Steve Albini, who has worked on albums with thousands of artists over the decades, including Nirvana, The Pixies, Joanna Newsom and Iggy and the Stooges. Recently, Albini has been reckoning with the legacy of his generation, along with his own personal role in shaping music and culture over the decades. He’s come to wonder how much of the negative changes he sees in the world are, in some way, his responsibility.

He recently put his thoughts into a Twitter thread, ruminating on how much men of his generation misunderstood the world they were creating. Albini never understood what it meant to live as a target. Mostly, he says, because he’s a white man. He did, however, help make it seem edgy to target shoot. “I’m overdue for a conversation about my role in inspiring ‘edgelord’ shit,” he declared in the thread. 

For instance, there was the band he was in called Rapeman, or there was his other band, Big Black, which produced a song about a mass child molestation wave in Minnesota. He also sparked backlash just a few years ago for using the n-word in a post complaining about a time he rode in a shuttle with Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future. 

I reached out to Albini shortly after he posted his thread to continue this conversation, and he agreed to talk about the ugly truths of his past, his role in the world that’s come to be and what he’s learned from his mistakes, as well as why it’s taken him so long to learn from them. 

During your time at Northwestern, you sent out an invitation to a hundred people who you identified as friends and a hundred who were enemies, and you invited them all to show up and throw anything that they wanted at you. People brought a bowling pin, yogurt, dog shit, lard. Somebody covered something with phlegm and threw it at you. There were apparently live kittens that were going to be thrown at you, but someone grabbed them. What was the point of all this?

My original idea was to see if I could get behind a pane of bulletproof glass and let people shoot at me. I mean, from my standpoint, it would be incredibly exhilarating to be able to witness somebody shooting directly at you. I had some confidence that I wasn’t going to die. And for the people shooting at me, obviously, same thing — they get to shoot at somebody, which is a kind of fantasy that obviously drives a lot of gaming, and a lot of fiction, and a lot of movies and stuff. 

So that was the original idea. I just couldn’t afford the bulletproof glass. There was no way to sort of engineer that as an experience. At the time, I was very influenced by some of the conceptual artists of the day, people like Joseph Beuys and Chris Burden, who put themselves in situations where things could go terribly wrong. That was the way that they manifested their art. And I was doing a kind of a Boy Scout version of Joseph Beuys locking himself in a room with a wolf.

Stuff like this seemed to inform who you became later as a punk musician and music producer. With your band Big Black, you came out and played music at the audience. You’ve said of your approach, “I wanted to push myself, the music, the audience and everything involved as close to the precipice as possible.” What was the value, for you, to push both yourself and the audience to the edge?

The main thing that I was reacting against was an impulse that I saw in my peers to soften their art and their music so that it would be acceptable within the existing conventions of art and music. What I wanted to do was make music and art that was for its own sake, entirely, and irrespective of what other people had to say about it. It was a reactionary impulse on my part. The music and art that had meant the most to me had always been music and art that had existed for its own sake. The art that seems to inhabit its own universe where other people’s expectations and perceptions had no influence. That’s what I was trying to do. I was striving for an ideal that this music and this art would be a realm of pure ideas, and that it would be unconcerned with convention or acceptance. 

It’s hard for me to articulate, but there’s a friend of mine, Peter Sotos, who’s written extensively about abuse and murder and things of that nature. A lot of his writing is extremely difficult to read. It’s repellent. You’re brought into the mind of a sadist, pretty convincingly. And I feel like that experience, reading that stuff, is shocking to your core in the way that the horrors of the reality of those things should be. 

Whereas this sort of Nancy Grace “bombshell tonight in the child murders of” — that sort of show-business softening of the impact of it, sort of turning it into a fucking board game, and turning it into a police procedural where there are heroes and villains and you’re rooting for people… That whole thing has turned these horrible, monstrous, atrocious things into just another kind of soap opera. That stuff is embarrassing for our culture. There’s something about using that as a vehicle for commerce, as the product that you sell — these existential horrors — and using that as a trinket to get people into a commercial stream. There’s something repellent to me about that.

How is that impulse, though, much different than, say, you naming a band Rapeman? That name also takes an existential horror and uses it as a vehicle for commerce for the product your band sold.

Yeah, I’m with you in that that was an inexcusable choice that band made. At the time, the internet wasn’t a thing yet, so you’d learn about things piecemeal. And one of the things that I learned about was the Japanese rape manga culture. I learned about it by having a friend of ours who worked in the import-export business who was sending us copies of these magazines of Rapeman comics. It was flabbergasting that Japan, which was perceived as being a fairly conservative culture, didn’t have pornography in the way that we did. There were still prohibitions against depicting naked bodies, things like that, so a lot of things were done euphemistically. Because things weren’t permissible in an open way, they festered and became extremely weird. 

So you had these sort of rape fantasies being articulated as a superhero [comic], which is simultaneously utterly repellent and fascinating. That was the frame of mind that we were in when we chose that name. Obviously, it’s the product of decades of repression and misogyny being expressed through a different cultural tradition. But for us Americans, the manga just landed on our couch. But I’m not saying that by way of excusing that choice. 

I admit that I was deaf to a lot of women’s issues at the time, and that’s on me. Within our circles, within the music scene, within the musical underground, a lot of cultural problems were deemed already solved — meaning, you didn’t care if your friends were queer. Of course women had an equal place, an equal role to play in our circles. The music scene was broadly inclusive. So for us, we felt like those problems had been solved. And that was an ignorant perception. 

That’s the way a lot of straight white guys think of the world — they think that it requires an active hatred on your part to be prejudiced, bigoted or to be a participant in white supremacy. The notion is that if you’re not actively doing something to oppress somebody, then you’re not part of the problem. As opposed to quietly enjoying all of the privilege that’s been bestowed on you by generations of this dominance. 

That was the fundamental failure of my perception. It’s been a process of enlightenment for me to realize and accept that my very status as a white guy in America is the product of institutional prejudices, that I’ve enjoyed the benefits of them, passively and actively. And I’m responsible for accepting my role in the patriarchy, and in white supremacy, and in the subjugation and abuse of minorities of all kinds.

This invisibility of white maleness, the presumption that white maleness is like the cultural default — you had to overcome that. How did you make this invisibility of your own white maleness become visible to you? 

It’s just been a long and gradual process of me appreciating, on a day-to-day basis, all of the little things that aren’t problems for me that are problems for other people. The broader my circle of friends become, and the more I choose to listen rather than talk, the more I learn about how good I’ve had it every day of my fucking life. This isn’t a noble thing for me. There is an element of shame here in that I should have been wise enough to realize that the reason that I got along so relatively easily in life was that I wasn’t targeted.

Like with your college art project, where you had to invite others to target you?

Yeah, the absence of being targeted is an element of privilege. And then you look around and you see, like, “Oh, here’s my friend and there are people who hate him. They hate him for these traits that he has and I don’t.” Those things dawn slowly on me. And I feel shame that it took me into my adulthood to recognize that. 

When I was growing up in Montana, it was essentially a monoculture. It’s basically all white people of very similar experience. It took me coming to college and getting involved in the music scene before I had any real diversity in my life. The punk scene in Chicago had a very broad overlap with the gay underground in Chicago. So the queer underground and the punk underground weren’t synonymous, but the re-contextualized diagram was a near circle. 

In our circles, nothing was off limits. So, it took a while for me to appreciate that using abusive language in a joking fashion was still using abusive language. And it was genuinely shocking when I realized that there were people in the music underground who weren’t playing when they were using language like that and who weren’t kindred spirits. They were, in fact, awful, and only masquerading as intellectuals. That was one of many wake-up moments.

You’ve discussed numerous times how liberating it was for you not to care about the opinions of others, how it freed you to be the way that you wanted to be. But then you also ended up naming a band Rapeman. So, these days, how do we find the balance between listening to others and taking their opinions and feelings into consideration but also not becoming a prisoner to their opinions? 

The fundamental truth is that what other people think of me is their business. I’m not trying to influence their opinions of me. I’m trying to maintain a notion of myself that isn’t cruel. And if I realize that I’ve been being cruel, I need to stop — not just for the other person’s benefit, but because I’m responsible for my own behavior. It’s not the case that I’m being deferential to other people’s opinions of me. It’s the case that I’m making a realization about myself. I’m making serial realizations about myself and the way that I’ve behaved that warrant me correcting course.

But to do that, sometimes we have to validate someone else’s opinion over our own. 

What it is is that I was a cruder person back then. We’re all sort of stumbling through things. You’ll develop a sort of muscle memory for how you do things. And that’s true with language and any other kind of behavior, so it’s worth it when someone says, “Hey, you should think about why you’re doing that and the way you’re doing it.” Or, “You should think about what you’re saying there.” It’s worth it to interrogate yourself and try to figure out why you’re doing things the way you are. 

This brings us to your post on the Odd Future message board. You used offensive language — the n-word, to be specific. Due to the way you used it, it seemed clear to me that you were quoting people from a chaotic scene on a shuttle with members of Odd Future that you were describing. But it’s still not your word to use. I’ve seen some of the responses to your post, but what was your response to your own post and the resulting backlash?

I’ll be honest. That [shuttle experience] was a single and extreme scenario where young kids who were really full of themselves were behaving like assholes. My articulation of that whole experience was inexpertly rendered. That’s probably the best way that I can put it. I wrote my account of the afternoon up quickly, without much consideration, and I can appreciate how somebody who’s unfamiliar with me, with Odd Future and with the ideas being brought out in the subtext would be responding to seeing that word in print. And I appreciate that. That was incorrect.

It was basically me not appreciating the distinction between the casual usage and the hard R usage. And that’s my fault. That’s just cultural ignorance on my part. They were behaving atrociously, and I was simply describing their behavior and language, but I did it in a way that portrayed my own cultural ignorance.

In a recent Twitter thread, you said that you “honestly feel like I and others in my generation have not been held to task enough for words and behavior that ultimately contributed to a coarsening society.” That’s an interesting idea to throw out there — “being held to task enough.” What does “enough” look like to you?

I think conversations like this are a good example. 

Have you spoken with others in your generation about this process of coming to terms?

No, I’m sort of stumbling through the process myself, so I’m not in a position to give advice to other people. I feel like everyone is going to make some kind of peace with their legacy, or make peace with their creative output in their own way. Some people do it defensively, some people do it by just refusing to talk about that stuff and some people’s defense is, “C’mon, these are just jokes, don’t take it so seriously.” I bristle at those kinds of defenses because when you were putting this out there, you wanted me to take it seriously. You made it seem like it meant something to you. 

You’ve spoken out against what you called the anti-woke comedians like Joe Rogan and his podcast or Barstool Sports. But comedy can be a violent art, filled with punchlines and uncomfortable truths — and sometimes something can be made funny because it’s true, but only after a confrontation that makes the audience overcome their prior biases or prejudices. So, being punk, how can an artist still be provocative and push people to that precipice, as you like to do in your work, while also being respectful of them, in ways you now understand?

I’m less concerned than I was 30 years ago about trying to make an experience extreme. Specifically regarding the anti-woke comics today, the uncomfortable truths that they’re expressing are genuinely, almost exclusively, childish restatements of the status quo. Or they’re pining for sustaining the status quo that they feel is threatened somehow. I can’t think of a more tragic or trivial comic premise than: Things should stay the way they are. That’s the absence of creativity — it’s a void rather than a creative notion. It’s fundamentally conservative and anti-progress. And I strain at finding humor in the idea that things should not get better. 

I wish that I knew how serious a threat fascism was in this country. At that time [the 1980s under Reagan], there was a phone-in hotline for the America First committee that you could call; they were on the South Side of Chicago, and it would play a racist diatribe as the phone message. Everyone in our circle was dismissive of those as being these ridiculous country bumpkins. There was a joke made about the Illinois Nazis in The Blues Brothers. That’s how we all perceived them — as this insignificant, unimportant little joke. I wish that I knew then that authoritarianism in general and fascism specifically were going to become commonplace as an ideology. 

Have you put a priority on finding and reaching out to artists who may not think to reach out to you, or to take a proactive stance to make it clear to them that you would like to record them and that you find that their music is important? To advance that open-minded future you want to see?

I’m uncomfortable talking about active measures because it seems like I would then be trying to demonstrate bona fides in a way that I think cheapens the effort. I will mention that if you look at the people that my band Shellac chooses to play with, we try to bring people of different backgrounds, and specifically women, on tour with us. But again, I’m somewhat uncomfortable talking about these kinds of decisions. They should manifest themselves rather than be advertised, because it’s easy to create window dressing. It’s difficult to change your behavior.