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‘Success means I get to do it again tomorrow’

Punk icon and legendary producer Steve Albini contemplates success, retirement.

Steve Albini at Traspasada restaurant, 3144 N. California Ave., in August 2021. Despite his notoriety as a musician and sound engineer, he figures not one Chicagoan in a thousand would recognize his name.
Steve Albini at Traspasada restaurant, 3144 N. California Ave. Despite his notoriety as a musician and sound engineer, he figures not one Chicagoan in a thousand would recognize his name.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

“Do you feel successful?” I asked Steve Albini, at a taco place near his Belmont Avenue recording studio, which readers visited Monday.

Albini is successful, by any measure. A legendary sound engineer — known for producing Nirvana’s last album. Notorious lead man of Big Black, “some of the nastiest noisemakers in rock” according to Rolling Stone, and, more recently, Shellac of North America. They tour the world.

But those tough on others, as Albini certainly is, are often hardest on themselves. So I was curious. Does he consider himself a success?

“To the extent that I could care about that, I would say yes,” he replied. “I’ve lived my whole life without having goals, and I think that’s very valuable, because then I never am in a state of anxiety or dissatisfaction. I never feel I haven’t achieved something. I never feel there is something yet to be accomplished. I feel like goals are quite counterproductive. They give you a target, and until the moment you reach that target, you are stressed and unsatisfied, and at the moment you reach that specific target you are aimless and have lost the lodestar of your existence. I’ve always tried to see everything as a process. I want to do things in a certain way that I can be proud of that is sustainable and is fair and equitable to everybody that I interact with. If I can do that, then that’s a success, and success means that I get to do it again tomorrow.”

COVID-19 has turned many friendships into slag heaps of cold ash. It seemed perverse to seek out Albini, whom I hadn’t seen in decades, who doesn’t suffer fools and can summarize your failings with a precision that’ll haunt you to your grave. Driving to lunch, I wondered if I was ready for his notorious scrutiny, conjuring a potential headline: “Steve Albini explains why I suck.”

I told him I have a hard time sharing his perspective.

“I can’t conceive of somebody who’s done what he’s wanted to do every day for four decades, published books and still writes a daily column and have that person think of himself as anything other than a success,” he said.

That was unexpected.

“You’re mellower than when we were in school,” I said.

“I used to think I knew everything,” he replied. “A pretty common adolescent disease. At the core of my personality I’m sure there is a similar desire to be righteous about things.”

Albini went to Medill, and he asked whether Chicago newspapering is, as it can appear, “inches away from total collapse.” I told him that while the Tribune is indeed circling the drain, gutted by its hedge fund masters, the Sun-Times seems still rolling merrily into the future. Though I’m perpetually bracing to be set out on the curb. What about him? Any thoughts of retirement?

“I have an organically-enforced retirement,” he said. “My hearing is going to go and at that point it would be irresponsible of me to keep working. My father’s hearing started going before he died. I’m already noticing in high ambient noise environments, I’m having a little trouble understanding conversational speech. I feel like my attention span and my acuity are still very good. This is a trick that I believe is sort of endemic in our industry; you compensate for any mechanical loss in hearing acuity which starts when you’re in your 30s. You focus your attention and use your powers to compensate for whatever small fractional loss in your hearing. I know a lot of engineers that did their best work in their 60s, so I’m not concerned, for the moment. But there will come a point when I won’t be able to hear well enough to do my job. That’s when I retire.”

Until then, he’ll do what he loves, every day. Which is the best definition of success I can imagine.

“It’s like when you get married,” Albini said. “You can’t just custom-order one of those really great 50-year marriages. What happens is, after 50 years you can look back and say, ‘Hey, I had one of those 50-year marriages.’ It’s the same with your professional life. You can’t say, ‘I want a long and important career.’ What you can do is keep plugging away doing what you think is valuable, in a way that you’re comfortable with.”