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In Utero, in utero
September 26, 2013 9:26 AM   Subscribe

"If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody's fucking up." Take a moment to read the letter that Steve Albini sent to Nirvana prior to the recording of 1993's In Utero. It puts everything in context, encapsulates the spirit of the album, and makes a case for it better than a thousand 20th anniversary encomiums could.

In the letter, Albini seems to anticipate possible interferences and reactions from the band's label, Geffen. Most of them came to pass as Geffen and Nirvana brought in Scott Litt to remix "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies." While Albini was not pleased with the decision, he seems to have made peace with it today: "I'll reiterate what I've said a hundred times elsewhere. Whatever my concerns at the time, the record in the stores is the one the band wanted you to hear, and I'm totally fine with that. It's their record. It's not my place or anybody else's to say they were wrong about their own music. If ever a band can be given complete credit for an album, it's this band and this record."

The recording took place over 12 days, and most of the songs were recorded in one or two takes, capturing the raw intensity of Nirvana at their peak. The newly released deluxe set of In Utero includes Albini's original mixes, as well as a new mix he made earlier this year with input from the remaining members of the band.
posted by naju (67 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
> "If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody's fucking up."

I bet Some Kind Of Monster is Albini's favourite movie.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:33 AM on September 26, 2013 [11 favorites]


Did he really use a quote from the Jerky Boys? I think he did.
posted by orme at 9:33 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


That letter made me like Steve Albini a lot more than I'm used to. Hell, he even called out my amp for praise.

As time passes, In Utero's really the only Nirvana album that still has much resonance for me.
posted by COBRA! at 9:35 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't always agree with Albini's opinions or the ways he chooses to express them, but when it comes to music production philosophy, I love him. This letter should be posted on the wall of every recording studio in the world.
posted by The World Famous at 9:38 AM on September 26, 2013 [7 favorites]


I can't wait to have the super deluxe set in my hot little hands. I love this album so, so much. Now if we can just the music videos released in HD, please?
posted by entropicamericana at 9:40 AM on September 26, 2013


It just had to be so completely punk as to be photographed instead of scanned, with blurry shots and not always perfectly in frame snaps of the pages. Metal.
posted by cavalier at 9:46 AM on September 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


I remember seeing Nirvana for In Utero. I think Helmet and the Butthole Surfers opened for them... I think even Sepultura was on the bill. They were all awesome. But Nirvana was a bit of a letdown. Very somber.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:50 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Remixing is for talentless pussies who don't know how to tune a drum or point a microphone.

I would really like a Mario Batali Voice update!
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 9:53 AM on September 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


If you haven't seen it, the Red Hot Chili Peppers documentary Funky Monks is a great look in to capturing the energy of a young band (though it was their 5th album), on tape, while trying to ignore the trappings of recent success.

Ruck Rubin is a significantly different producer than Albini, but the 'hands off and let you guys do your thing' runs through both of them (a little too much with Rubin). The recording took a month, so it's a little more laid back than albini's approach, but an excellent documentary for those, like me, that nerd out to this kind of thing.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 9:56 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I know it makes me a pariah, but I prefer Litt's mixes to Albini's, for the most part. I like a record to sound like a record--which, to me, usually means that it's not a faithful recreation of the way a band sounds live. I want a record to be larger-than-life: shinier, heavier, bigger.

Albini knows how to get what he wants--and, I suppose, what the band wants--out of a band, but I'm really not with him on idea of reproducing a moment on tape. Even the best records done that way aren't really the same as a live performance, so I think that treating them differently makes sense.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:57 AM on September 26, 2013 [11 favorites]


Here in the future we get to play Imaginary 1993 Record Executive and decide among the release we know and the release we may have gotten and a new one to boot.

What has struck me listening to it over the last couple of days is just how much the album has stuck with me. Granted that's because it was the Nirvana album that came out at an important (read: shitty) time for me so it was over listened all the time, but it's imprinted on me so much that I can tell the differences in the mixes -- and I really wouldn't consider myself a "diehard fan" and am no music producer.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:57 AM on September 26, 2013


This is SO good -- how did BBG get their hands on this?! In Utero is such a fundamental support beam for my existence, I can't imagine life without it.

I especially love the part where he's all, "yeah, I have a reliable tech I work with if we need one, this guy Bob Weston, no big deal." And this:
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 the 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.
Classic Albini.

But man, I had no idea that Pachyderm had shut down and further, that Matt Mueller had passed away. The property went into foreclosure and wound up selling for $370,000 in the summer of 2011. It was supposed to re-open last year under the guardianship of John Kuker from Seedy Underbelly, but I can't find anything confirming it actually exists. Wonder where that beautiful Neve wound up...
posted by divined by radio at 10:01 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Came to echo cavalier. This is an excellent complement to our last post on Albini, but I can barely make out anything past the first page. Very punk rock, especially on mobile.

It looks like this scan has only been on the net for about a day (source? or just a Reddit repost), but can we swap out the first link for a plaintext version of the letter that some superfan will most assuredly transcibe?

Anyway, Albini rules and In Utero was my Nirvana record: as a contrarian little shit back then, I hated Nevermind because it was everywhere and it just felt like the dictionary definition of "sellout", a word used with the greatest contempt at the time. Now I don't mind those songs so much, but it still doesn't seem to capture what was interesting about those guys as musicians (as opposed to their manufactured image).
posted by Chichibio at 10:09 AM on September 26, 2013


Just re-listening to Hole's Live Through This for the first time in nearly 20 years... Man, it is slickly produced, and it's hard to believe this was considered subversive back in the day. Still very listenable, though, and it's sad to think that Cobain killed himself just before Live Through This was released.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:09 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Some day I'm going to talk the Jesus Lizard into going up there and we'll have us a real time.

Ah, the 1990s .....
posted by blucevalo at 10:09 AM on September 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


I would really like a Mario Batali Voice update!

I read that as "Mario Balotelli Voice" update and was really excited, and then crushed when I realized I was wrong.
posted by The Michael The at 10:10 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hated Nevermind because it was everywhere and it just felt like the dictionary definition of "sellout", a word used with the greatest contempt at the time. Now I don't mind those songs so much, but it still doesn't seem to capture what was interesting about those guys as musicians (as opposed to their manufactured image).

It's Beatlesque pop produced by a band that was, in their own way, as charismatic as the Beatles.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:10 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


What an awesome little slice of music history.
posted by rachaelfaith at 10:11 AM on September 26, 2013


This [letter] is SO good -- how did BBG get their hands on this?!

It's reproduced in the liner/book of the new reissue, somebody just snapped shots of the pages.
posted by anazgnos at 10:12 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


The shininess and sparkle of a lot of those grunge-turned-major-label records absolutely dates them. Nevermind sounds more dated than In Utero, which essentially has a timeless quality to the recording.
posted by naju at 10:12 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, it sounds like some of you have an actual copy of the Super Deluxe set - if someone cares to make a nice scan, that would be wonderful!
posted by naju at 10:13 AM on September 26, 2013


This year is also the 20th anniversary of Bikini Kill's first EP.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:17 AM on September 26, 2013


I really wish my excuse for not getting back to someone sooner was that I was in the middle of making a Fugazi album.
posted by mcstayinskool at 10:19 AM on September 26, 2013 [29 favorites]


As time passes, In Utero's really the only Nirvana album that still has much resonance for me.

For me it's Bleach. I've been re-aquainting myself with a lot of 90s "grunge" stuff (I sort of made a mental connection to it while listening to a bunch of Ty Segall recently), and man...Bleach is one loud, angry record.
posted by Hoopo at 10:21 AM on September 26, 2013


This is SO good -- how did BBG get their hands on this?!

It looks like it was taken from a book. (Aside from the unusually glossy paper, the inset photo on the last page is the big giveaway.) Possibly the one included with the In Utero rerelease?

Or, what anazgnos said.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:22 AM on September 26, 2013


I can't make out the photo at the end... are his feet on fire?
posted by ardgedee at 10:30 AM on September 26, 2013


It's reproduced in the liner/book of the new reissue, somebody just snapped shots of the pages.

Aww! Thanks for the heads-up. The mega-blurriness and hurried look to the photos gave me the immediate impression that someone had actually gotten their hands on the original instead of just the photos from the book, but I should've known better. And now I am going to buy copies of this for all of my high school Nirvana buddies.

Fun fact: the record store mentioned in the AVC article linked in the FPP is none other than Atomic Records, the inanimate love of my life, which closed in 2009. Woe betide to the douchebag who rented out the space immediately afterward in order to turn it into a head shop called Atomic Glass. They left all of the original decor intact and duplicated all of the old record store logos for use in their new business' advertisements. I will shake my fist at an uncaring sky about this approximately forever.
posted by divined by radio at 10:35 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is seven kinds of wonderful. Nirvana are a cornerstone of my youth, and In Utero is an amazing album.
posted by arcticseal at 10:45 AM on September 26, 2013


It's Beatlesque pop produced by a band that was, in their own way, as charismatic as the Beatles.

I suppose I can recognise that now (although I always liked the explanation that they were Boston crossed with Sabbath) yet at the time they were just three cocky fucks who I could blame for ruining my scene, man. That was pretty instrumental in eventual self-analysis around my teenage insecurities however, so my young self should be more grateful.

This year is also the 20th anniversary of Bikini Kill's first EP.

Now there's a record that deserves an indulgent box set celebration (though that wouldn't be in keeping with their ethos, or KRS's budget).
posted by Chichibio at 10:47 AM on September 26, 2013


The 4CD Nevermind reissue from two years ago is mostly pretty ridiculous but hearing the pre-Wallace mixes (which they sort of undersold/obscured as the "Devonshire mixes" - apparrently Vig didn't want to totally take credit for them as though they were some kind of director's cut, since some of them seem to be work-in-progress mixes) - the recordings Vig made are actually not miles away from Albini's approach - a pretty dry, straight-up live band sound at heart, with just a bit of layering and texture in the overdubs. Leaving aside that '91 Nirvana was directly aiming for big shiny pop in a way that '93 Nirvana was not, it made it clear that most of the slickness of Nevermind - that goopy, chromed, flangy reverb sound - was down to Andy Wallace.
posted by anazgnos at 10:48 AM on September 26, 2013


Really cool find. I always forget about the "behind the scenes" communications and other stuff that happens before a record is made. Kinda sucks the box set is north of $100, but I guess I shouldn't be too surprised.
posted by antonymous at 10:55 AM on September 26, 2013


Jesus he refused all royalties up front? I fucking love Steve Albini.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:02 AM on September 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Instead of getting a large amount of money in a timely manner, you're counting on cashing in big with somebody else's hit... and counting on the record company being honest and timely with their payments.

Albini's written at length and frequently on what a sucker's bet that is for the bands; I can't imagine he'd have a different point of view on it simply because he's on the engineer's side of the console. If he's more polite here than in his published essays, well, he's also selling his services to a prospective client; running off at the mouth about that to somebody who's made their millions within the system is not a good pitch.

What impresses me is his up-front deference of a large cash payment. Although without having any idea of what an industry standard payment is for that, I couldn't guess whether he's, again, handling a sales prospect and to what extent he's earnest about it.
posted by ardgedee at 11:15 AM on September 26, 2013


Part of it is that, as I understand, Albini sees himself primarily as an engineer, not as a "producer." You wouldn't give an engineer points--they don't have a creative stake in the project. From that point of view, taking a reduced rate and no points is in harmony with how he thinks records ought to be made.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:22 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Listening to the whole thing, I can't imagine why "Sappy" was left as a b-side. It's one of their best songs, period. And the 2013 Albini mix makes it sound as damaged as anything on the record.
posted by naju at 11:27 AM on September 26, 2013


I really prefer the dynamic range of the Albini mixes over the Litt remixes, BUT... Albini was in a phase of his career then where he tended to occasionally bury vocals. PJ Harvey's Rid of Me had several tracks with this problem. So I completely understand why Nirvana wanted a few tracks redone. I've been told (though have not yet heard for myself) that Albini's 2013 mixes of the In Utero tracks feature the vocals more to the front of the mix. So maybe he even agrees with me, up to a point.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:33 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Listening to the whole thing, I can't imagine why "Sappy" was left as a b-side. It's one of their best songs, period.

The multi-track master for Sappy was going around a few years ago, and it's really something. I didn't listen carefully enough to tell if these were the tracks that wound up on the B-side mix, but if nothing else, Albini knows how to get a really powerful live sound. The drums are just massive.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:38 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


BUT... Albini was in a phase of his career then where he tended to occasionally bury vocals. PJ Harvey's Rid of Me had several tracks with this problem.

Can we put "problem" in quotes? Some of us love buried vocals. I bring vocals to the front in my mixes only because I know other people will complain and critique if I don't.
posted by The World Famous at 11:44 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but why would you bury PJ Harvey's vocals? That's just wrong.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:49 AM on September 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


Ooh, here's an entire chapter dealing with "Sappy" in the 33 1/3 book on In Utero. "He had some kind of unattainable expectations for it, I don't know."
posted by naju at 11:52 AM on September 26, 2013


Yeah, but why would you bury PJ Harvey's vocals? That's just wrong.

Some people like buried vocals, man. No matter how good the vocals are.
posted by The World Famous at 11:55 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can't wrap my head around it. PJ Harvey is dead sexy, and it's all because of her voice.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:57 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Burying the vocals just makes them sexier.
posted by The World Famous at 12:02 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but why would you bury PJ Harvey's vocals? That's just wrong.

Well, take Nirvana as an example. When I first heard their music, all I could hear was the distorted guitar. I could barely make out the singing. Now when I listen to them, it seems like the vocals are the main thing I hear.

Your brain is eventually going to dig out those vocals, no matter how deeply they're buried.
posted by straight at 12:03 PM on September 26, 2013


Burying the vocals just makes them sexier.

*stares off into space, thinking dreamily of Bilinda Butcher...*
posted by sparkletone at 12:04 PM on September 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


Previously
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 12:10 PM on September 26, 2013


Albini like one kind of record, and thinks everyone should make that one kind of record, and if they don’t they’re doing it wrong. But he also has a good business telling people what they want to hear.
posted by bongo_x at 12:24 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyone know why Fugazi decided to re-record the album they did with Albini?
posted by orme at 12:45 PM on September 26, 2013


Anyone know why Fugazi decided to re-record the album they did with Albini?
“We did go up to Chicago and recorded a bunch, if not all, of the Kill Taker songs with [Albini] at his pre-Electric Audio home studio,” Picciotto recalled. “We crashed there and spent, like, a week hanging out, playing dice, eating homemade pasta, and recording. Our original plan was to just do a single or an EP up there, maybe two or three songs, but we were having such a good time that we kept rolling tape and did a whole album’s worth of songs.”

But in the final analysis, the band didn’t find the results good enough to keep. "When we got home, we realized that as enjoyable as the session had been, we sort of fucked up on our end of things. Some of the songs hadn’t had time to get fully baked, and a lot of the singing was not up to snuff," said Picciotto. "Still, we learned a lot from doing it, and more importantly, it was the beginning of a long friendship with Steve and lots of shared shows with [Albini’s band] Shellac. He’s an inspiring person, an incredible engineer, and a very smart guy all around - I’m glad we had a chance to work together.”
source
posted by dfan at 12:48 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


A transcription has been posted on "Letters of Note"
posted by davey_darling at 12:50 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I thought the change would be subtle, but these new 2013 mixes sound incredible. "All Apologies" is stunning. This is the definitive way to listen to the album.
posted by naju at 12:53 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Albini like one kind of record, and thinks everyone should make that one kind of record, and if they don’t they’re doing it wrong.

People seem to think this, but it's demonstrably false. I mean, he's engineered records for Mono.
posted by kenko at 1:11 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Albini talks about the Fugazi record in this interview posted on the Blue.
posted by mykescipark at 1:18 PM on September 26, 2013


I've been listening to the 2013 mixes all day today with headphones and have found a new appreciation for "In Utero" that I didn't have when it originally came out. The buried (and muted) vocals and punched in guitars of the Albini '93 mixes make "Heart Shaped Box" and "All Apologies" that much more depressing and suffocating than the limp, radio ready dreck Scott Litt churned out.

Now I want to go home and listen to the "In Color" recordings Cheap Trick made with Albini in '97.

This might be blasphamous to say, but I still think the drum sound Albini got on "Razonblade Suitcase" is so much better than what he captured on "In Utero".
posted by playertobenamedlater at 1:50 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


You made me remember Bush, and now you must die.
posted by entropicamericana at 2:02 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Albini talks about a "chunk"--is that music industry lingo for something, like how a point is one percent of revenue?
posted by infinitewindow at 2:43 PM on September 26, 2013


If He Had Lived, by Derek Erdman: I | II | III
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:47 PM on September 26, 2013


Albini talks about a "chunk"--is that music industry lingo for something, like how a point is one percent of revenue?
I assumed it was short for "chunk of change"; that is, a substantial amount of money.

In other words, "Kurt suggested paying me a fair amount of cash up front, which I would consider full payment, and then, if you really like how it turns out, paying me a bonus amount." The amount isn't being specified here.
posted by Shmuel510 at 2:52 PM on September 26, 2013


> Yeah, but why would you bury PJ Harvey's vocals? That's just wrong.

On the title track of Rid of Me, she's lying under the earth waiting for you to pass along, and then when the drummer starts smashing everything in sight her hands thrust up through the dirt and grab your ankles and she's a banshee howling and hell if she's not swinging you around in a circle and you have no idea what will happen when she lets go.

Why would it be better if she sounded like she was standing on a stage in front of a band and singing into a microphone?
posted by ardgedee at 3:42 PM on September 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


The version of Kill Taker produced by Albini is high on the list of nonexistent art that I want to exist, like the Caddy chapter of The Sound and the Fury. Can't wait to listen to this version of In Utero.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:03 PM on September 26, 2013


Yeah, I'm listening to Rid of Me for the bazillionth time today and it's perfect. Vocals more forward would ruin it. Now I really want to hear what Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea would sound like mixed by Albini.
posted by The World Famous at 5:03 PM on September 26, 2013


What? That would be just wrong.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:05 PM on September 26, 2013


Wrong? Nah. I'd be cool. Wouldn't be better than the mix we have, but it'd be cool to hear.
posted by The World Famous at 5:30 PM on September 26, 2013


In the letter, Albini quotes the "normal" producer's fee on a 3 million unit selling record as about $400K, which was a good estimate, wikipedia says it sold 3.58 million units in the USA. This link references that he was paid a $100K flat fee, that number coming from Azerrad's book. Good pay for two weeks of work, but I would be interested in how the band came to that number.
posted by roquetuen at 9:06 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


The version of Kill Taker produced by Albini is high on the list of nonexistent art that I want to exist

It does exist! I'm listening to it now. It's a shitty cassette rip though. Feel free to DM me for the Dropbox link.
posted by naju at 9:06 AM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Giving the original album a listen for the first time in eons. Still have the original CD I bought all those years ago.

Random thoughts on each song:

Serve the Servants: Bored and old in one's mid 20's. That floors me at my age.
Scentless Apprentice: Loud and angsty goodness.
Heart Shaped Box: One of the poppier songs on this album. (Checks liner notes.) Ah, Scott Litt. Okay. :)
Rape Me: This song was all too timely for me when it hit airplay. *sigh* Still takes me back to Spring of '94, which was a trainwreck.
FFWHHROS: I don't miss the comfort of being sad, thanks to medication. I kinda wish Kurt had been able to find better living through chemistry. Though I can't imagine him alive today.
Dumb: I'm still not like them, and I can't pretend.
Very Ape: Probably my favorite track. Certainly a favorite of mine to groove to. :)
Milk It: Great example of Nirvana as a whole.
Pennyroyal Tea: Reminds me of the pregnancy scare I had at the end of Spring '94.
RFUS: Ah, mental illness and relationships. I can relate now.
Tourette's: Nirvana's starting to remind me of The Beatles.
All Apologies: Wow, I can still identify with this song, but for different reasons than I did back then.

Overall impression: Kurt really was writing from a place of pain and angst. When I was a teenager I identified with the angst. As a thirtysomething, I identify with the pain. Brilliant album that stands up to the test of time. I don't know why, but some of the lyrics feel very John Lennon-y, some very Brian Wlson-esque, and some feel very Steely Dan-ish.

I'd love to get my hands on the boxed set. I forgot how much I love Nirvana.
posted by luckynerd at 1:06 PM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


It does exist! I'm listening to it now. It's a shitty cassette rip though. Feel free to DM me for the Dropbox link.

I meant the version Fugazi could have gotten behind, but I couldn't find a way to add that part without losing concision. I might take you up on that, just the same.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:42 PM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


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