Steve Albini vs. Dance Music: A Timeline

Steve Albini. Photo: Brian Cassella/Getty Images

Yesterday, the English techno producer Powell erected a billboard on London’s Commercial Street to advertise his next single, “Insomniac,” on XL Recordings. Powell’s music is heavily informed by noisy synth acts like Suicide — not to mention Big Black, the confrontational '80s Chicago indie band featuring Steve Albini (best known for producing Pixies, Nirvana, and PJ Harvey) and a drum machine credited on their albums as Roland (specifically, a Roland TR-606, one of dance music’s staple instruments).

For “Insomniac,” Powell sampled a live recording of Albini introducing a song at a Big Black show, and emailed the producer to ask permission. Albini’s response, in part: “I am absolutely the wrong audience for this kind of music. I've always detested mechanized dance music ... basically all of it, 100 percent hated every scrap.” But he had no problem with Powell using the sample — or with him quoting the email. So Powell put Albini’s full response on the billboard.

Naturally, the music blogosphere had a field day, particularly the dance-music sites: “Crusty Old Punk Producer Steve Albini Hates on Dance Music, Gets Trolled by Powell,” LOLed Thump. Actually, what’s funny is the idea that Albini is doing anything new — for three decades now, he’s consistently talked smack about — among other things — dance music, ranging from disco to industrial to rave and beyond. Here’s a brief chronology through zine interviews, liner notes, and forum posts.

Date: 1986
Source: Liner notes to Big Black's live album Sound of Impact
Quote: “I want to push myself, the music, the audience and everything involved as close to the precipice as possible. Although I'm kinda worried about what we'll find there. All the coolest pioneers of this noise spirit seem to have made the trip to the extreme, been unable, or unwilling, to push on, and tossed in the towel. SPK and PiL on Elektra Records, for Christ's sweet little boy buttfuck murder's sakes. Alan Vega making a disco 12" with Ministry backing him up ... If Big Black suck in a year's time, you can assume there is. And I'd like to apologize in advance for any 12" scratch/dub/breakdance remixes we might make.”

Date: September 1992
Source: Interview in MaximumRocknRoll No. 112
“[In Chicago], there are scenes, but some of them I want nothing to do with. Like the Wax Trax industrial disco scene. And those people all hang out together and play on each other's records and try to come up with stupid band names or whatever. That's a scene, but I want nothing to do with it. It's all based on campy, dress-up humor, taking drugs, and disco.”

Date: October 1993
Source: "Steve Albini ... Thinks We Suck!" — a lengthy Q&A in issue 8 of the Chicago rave zine Reactor (not online)
Quotes: "[Anyone who thinks] that taking ecstasy and dancing with a bunch of teenagers out in the middle of a cow pasture is some sort of political statement ... that's so utterly preposterous on its face that anybody who takes it seriously has got to be completely brain-dead. I suppose while under the influence, even an idea as ridiculous as that can maintain your attention for a short period of time, but there's got to be some hours of the day when these people aren't on drugs."

"If you wanted to take punk seriously on a more significant level, you could. If you pretend to take dance music seriously on a more significant level, that is a delusional pretension. There really is no substance to it. My argument with punk rock is that it is virtually all substance ... Dance music — style is everything. Substance is an appendage used to validate the style."

"Music based on samples bores me silly. It becomes sort of a complex game of spot-the-influence — trying to mentally figure out why it is that this sound you're hearing is reminiscent of something ... It seems to me to be the ultimate in arrogance to think that you can create music that is equally significant by snatching bits of other people's music or from other bits of cultural flotsam and jetsam. The analogy is often used that it's like collage painting, which I think is completely fatuous. Collage painting uses bits of material that may or may not have meaning as textural or visual elements. It doesn't use them for their explicit meaning."

"I don't think I've danced in ten years. I don't know that I have any objection to dancing, I just don't do it. Sort of like sucking other men's dicks. I don't feel that there is anything wrong with it, but it doesn't appeal to me."

Date: July 6, 2007
Source: "Ask a music scene micro celebrity," a thread from the 2+2 Forum (scroll to No. 11088411)
Quote: “There used to be interesting electronic music, before that became a synonym for a special kind of horrible dance music. I enjoyed quite a bit of this pre-disco era: Iannis Xenakis, Morton Subotnick, the White Noise, Silver Apples, Kraftwerk, Suicide, DAF, Tommi Stumpff, S.P.K., Throbbing Gristle, Whitehouse, Metal Urbain, Cabaret Voltaire, Tuxedo Moon, Factrix, etc. There is very little going on now that can compare to the either the creepy dread or the crazy inventiveness of the pre-sampler era. I do admire bands like Wolf Eyes, and I had a single from Arcane Device that I liked, but honestly, dance music really destroyed the whole electronic genre for me, and I no longer even look for it.”

Date: March 5, 2008
Source: Interview with Impose magazine
Quote: "I basically hate dance music, and I don’t mean music of traditional dances like folk music, I mean music made since the disco era for the purpose of dancing drives me insane. When I’m forced to endure that music, it’s about the only music that actually irritates me. It’s anti-functional noise, and such a misnomer as well. If you think of the incredible capabilities of the human body, like what the human body can do, and what dance as an art form can be, and then you try to imagine music that is that broad in scope, that would be appropriate to call ‘dance music’ — it just seems ridiculous that it should be so narrowly constrained. When someone speaks of dance music now, they’re not speaking of music that would inspire dance; they’re speaking of music that is suitable for dancing. I detest camp most of the time, and dance music seems like it’s all camp, as weird or as tough or as crazy as it is."

Date: 2012
Source: Reddit AMA (full thread, specifically this answer)
Quote: “Q: Does electronic music (dance, house, etc) interest you at all? Why or why not?

“A: No, not at all. I detest the vapid club culture of fashion, powders and pills where it originates and I have a hard time separating the two. Not being a big living room dancer or whistle blower I don't have much other use for it.

“Interestingly, here in Chicago the term ‘house’ originally just meant music that would get the room (the house) excited. House music could as likely be deep cuts from old soul records as disco tracks, live hotmixes or Kraftwerk. Like the term ‘punk’ (or most things, really) once it lost its original meaning and got formalized into a single style it lost most of its appeal.”