Powell and Steve Albini’s Email Exchange


Powell and Steve Albini’s Email Exchange

How producer Powell turned a dressing down from a noise-rock icon into a slice of marketing genius...

They say you should never meet your idols. Perhaps you shouldn’t email them either. London-based producer Oscar Powell (who releases music under his surname) got in touch with infamously spiky Shellac/Rapeman/Big Black man Steve Albini, seeking clearance for a vocal sample from an ancient live recording. The response was curt. But brilliant.

Powell, Insomniac

Oscar Powell © Resident Advisor

“Sounds like you’ve got a cool thing set up for yourself. I am absolutely the wrong audience for this kind of music. I’ve always detested mechanized dance music, its stupid simplicity, the clubs where it was played, the people who went to those clubs, the drugs they took, the shit they liked to talk about, the clothes they work, the battles they fought amongst each other.” The man who released Songs About Fucking, it seems, is strongly anti ecstasy and talking shit.

Albini continues: “The electronic music I liked was radical and different, shit like the White Noise, Xenakis, Suicide, Kraftwerk, and the earliest stuff form [sic] Cabaret Voltaire, SPK and DAF. When that scene and those people got co-opted by dance/club music I felt like we’d lost a war. I detest club culture as deeply as I detest anything on earth.”

Steve Albini Photo by Bob Bert Chicago 1987

Steve Albini, Chicago 1987
Photo, Bob Bert

Strong stuff, as a fan you’d expect Powell to reply with a sheepish sorry, possibly delete the track — sample and all — from his hard drive. But no, good old Oscar got the correspondence blown up to the size of a ruddy great billboard and pasted it up in Shoreditch. Perhaps taking Albini’s parting shot as inspiration: “In other words, you’re welcome to do whatever you like with whatever of mine you’ve gotten your hands on. Don’t care. Enjoy yourself.”

The track in question, Insomniac (set to be released by XL Recordings) — now carrying Steve Albini’s voice, presumably with no need to pass on any royalties — may still be a mystery to the In Utero producer: “I haven’t bothered listening to the links, mainly because I’m in a hotel with crappy internet at the moment but also because it probably wouldn’t be to my taste and that wouldn’t help either of us.”

Which brings us neatly to the b-side of this story — citing Suicide and Cabaret Voltaire as electronic music he liked, Albini should fucking love Powell’s abrasive, chugging, endurance-testing strain of ‘club music’. In fact, Oscar has previously referenced Alan Vega and Martin Rev’s band as a key inspiration.

“It made me laugh and he was saying things that I believe about music, so it was a chance to say something about the state of electronic music and see what people thought about it. Obviously the bands he lists are some of my favourites, which seems completely lost on people. I liked the tone, the angst, the hatred of so much of what’s going on” Powell explains to The Quietus, clearly a lot less fussed about the whole thing than the internet — which has quickly whipped up a Powell vs Albini shitstorm.

The correspondence has also been worked into a canny video for the track, by Guy Featherstone and Peiter Hergert

“I’ve always been drawn to things that are spikey [sic] and trying to rub up against things. That’s what drives the best musicians, you don’t want to just fit in and be beige, and Steve’s attitude is something I’ve always admired” he continues, “It says something about the state of the music that Steve’s talking about when I’m instantly described as an EDM producer – ‘he makes electronic music therefore he’s an EDM producer’. There’s no distinction any more, it’s become a catch-all thing.”

And that’s just it. From inside Steve’s dusty studio, as he mics-up another drum, de-tunes another bass, perhaps his only contact with contemporary dance music is via the horrifying EDM scenes from Electric Daisy Carnival or Tomorrowland that flood the internet. Perhaps he’s just seen David Guetta’s stupid fucking grinning mug, or Calvin Harris’s Armani commercial. For a division of music so flooded with sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, to the guitar-strumming world, there’s often still a blanket association.

“I believe finding interesting ways to talk about music, rather than just paying for more space on Spotify, is part of the challenge we face today.” A brilliant marketing stunt, yes. But a wider discussion could be opened up by the publicity garnered from it: “undoubtedly he’s not clued into loads of stuff, but there is a lot of shit electronic music around. It’s become this coffee table, festival-going alternative to rock music. I liked the fact that he was attacking that.” Steve probably didn’t expect to meet an ally when he responded to an email from that hotel with crappy WiFi, but he found one.