Butch Vig produced Nirvana’s Nevermind. That’s how you know him. Or you might know him as the drummer for Garbage. He’s that too. He’s also operated Smart Studios for over 20 years. In addition to being behind the board for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Vig and/or Smart Studios produced records like The Smashing Pumpkins Gish and Siamese Dream, Garbage’s debut, Version 2.0 and more, Fall Out Boy’s Take This To Your Grave, Death Cab for Cutie’s Plans and Narrow Stairs and way more records from bands you’ve never heard of.
Smart Studios is gone. It closed in 2010. Filmmaker Wendy Schneider documented the studio in her film The Smart Studios Story. It screens tonight at Black Cat.
Brightest Young Things: Since we’re talking about the film and it’s kind of about the past I feel like we should talk about the past even though it might be incredibly annoying for a human that’s had to answer the same questions for 25 years.
Butch Vig: No, that’s totally cool.
BYT: Smart always had a really good reputation. It was you guys and Electrical, those were the only two studios anyone who wasn’t in bands knew about. But unlike a lot of Electrical people you didn’t seem nearly as nostalgic or precious as certain types of gear. Do you believe in the magic of the board or the magic of the room or is that all bullshit?
BV: Well, yes and no. I’m a gear head. I love gear. But because we started up by the seat of our pants using really crappy equipment I realized I’ll use whatever I can. If I have the choice, of course I’d rather use a great microphone, a Neumann microphone and a vintage Neve board.
I made so many recordings with junky mics and crappy mixing consoles, you have to use what your tools are and in some ways that’s been inspirational. Definitely we carried that MO when we made the first Garbage record. The first Garbage record sounds bizarre, it’s not a pristine sounding album. We ran everything through stomp boxes and through samplers and that definitely gave it a vibe.
I’m sitting here in my home studio in LA and it’s just a funky studio, a bedroom studio but I have some really nice microphones that I love to use. And they don’t get used. When Shirley comes in to record she just picks up an handheld mic and that’s what she likes to use.
BYT: You also don’t seem to be that precious about tape versus digital.
BV: I love analogue tape and I love digital, they both have pluses and minuses and I don’t really feel like I have to use one or the other. I love digital because it’s really great for songwriting because you can just cut and move choruses around and pull chunks of songs. It’s really easy to hear quickly “Oh, maybe the arrangement should be like this.”
What I love about analogue is it really forces you to go for a performance. It’s really starting to lack in a lot of performances. I hear these young bands play perfect and they’ve been manipulated so much that there’s not much personality to them. It’s taken away some of the rawness and immediacy you get from a human performance.
BYT: Do you feel that it’s odd that its getting cheaper and easier to make a better recording but we’re listening on less quality devices? So even if you are making something tape based without Pro Tools it’s degraded by just listening to it on iPhone headphones?
BV: Most kids, most young kids, out there don’t give a shit, they just want to hear the song, they just want to hear it now from their phone. I think if they had the choice and they could all sit in a room with amazing speakers and they could hear super high res digital wave file they would do that but that’s not how they consume music. It’s all done, as I said, through low res mp3 and $5 earbuds and so I think as a producer or a band you want your music to sound good in that medium. Sometimes when I’m doing a mix I’ll listen to it on my laptop, on the crappy speakers on my laptop. It lets me know what the tracks gonna sound like if someone else listens to it that way.
BYT: I’m hesitant to ask about the nostalgia stuff because you’re still an active musician, you’re still an active producer. Do you think about how people view you?
BV: I don’t really. It’s funny, I don’t really feel that nostalgic. I only recently started putting up some photos from some of the sessions I’ve done over the years and some of the Garbage sessions because my daughter, who’s 10-years-old, when she was about 6 or 7 she was more curious about what I do. I have all these platinum records and stuff, they’ve all just been in boxes in storage for years but I started just digging through those things because I sort of want her to be aware of my past. I never really put the old recordings on and listen to them and go, “Oh that sounds great.”
I’m constantly working on something new, whether it’s a Garbage song, or for someone I’m producing or a song for film or TV whatever it is. I guess I’m sort of living in the moment and moving towards what I’m doing next. I think most artists are like that. I sort of feel I’m only as good as the last record I made. I was on as soon as I finish it I immediately put it aside and move on to the next project.
BYT: You had a child pretty late in life.
BV: I did
BYT: Someone that’s associated with you and also had a child later in life is Billy Corgan. I’m a big Siamese Dream fan. That record sounded like a nightmare to make and I’m wondering if both of you had children at the time would you have even put up with the amount of time you spent guitar tracking?
BV: I seriously doubt it because I’m trying to be present in my daughters life as much as I can. I didn’t have any kids or really any family. I have a family but I just dove into work 1,000%. I think as an artist when you’re young like that, when you move into your 30’s or 40’s if you have time to focus on that you need that time. It’s part of that. What’s that book outliers? You need 10,000 hours to figure out how to be good at something and I agree with that to a certain extent. It’s like everything you do to lead up to a great recording or great performance is everything you’ve done in the past and you can’t just, it’s rare that someone wakes up in a void and goes and wakes up and makes the most brilliant recording or performance. There’s a history of how they got to that point, and if you have a lot of distractions in your life, and those distractions can be good whether it’s a family or another job or whatever it is, that gets in the way, and if you can just focus on creating your art whether that’s music or writing a book or painting trust me it is really hard to balance that with a personal life. You have to be willing to sacrifice sometimes things in your personal life if your ultimate goal is to pursue things as an artist.
BYT: Garbage took its hiatus around the same time you were having your kid. It’s back to full time, correct?
BV: It is, although we’ve found a way to balance better. Strange Little Birds took us about two years but we didn’t work straight for two years we worked for two weeks then we’d take a month off. Work for two weeks or three weeks then we’d take a month or six weeks off and everybody would go and do their own thing. I’d work on Garbage or I’d edit a song or writing here, but I was able to do a lot of things with my family. There are things outside of Garbage, the whole band has come to realize that we need things like that. That’s why we took that break. Garbage had swallowed us up and had become a full time obsession for us and we needed to escape that and reclaim our old lives.
I found when we released Not Your Kind of People four years ago it was hard for me to go back on tour, especially when we had some runs that were 7 or 8 weeks in a row and I wouldn’t see my family the whole time. It has gotten easier with the internet you know because you can Skype or get on Facetime and connect with your family. It was much harder to do that when we started Garbage 20 years ago. There weren’t even cell phones when we started Garbage, we’d have to pull over to the side of the road and use a payphone to call the venue to make sure you knew where you were going and now of course everything is completely changed. I think it’s important to try and find a balance between your art and your personal life and we’ve tried to maintain that in Garbage.
BYT: It also helps that all the men in the band were a little bit older than the front woman in the band. You were successful after you became thirty. I think that also has something to do with it.
BV: If I had had success when I was early twenties I’m sure I would have lost my mind, I would’ve just partied like crazy and probably blown everything I had. I think because I worked really hard before I had any kind of success it kept me grounded. You just don’t know how long that success is gonna be there. I think also just being from the Midwest, you know my dad was a stoic Midwesterner, he always told me never take anything for granted and you have to work for what you get so. That’s funny because in the film my friend Frank Anderson said something really funny he goes, “A lot of the people from the midwest are the laziest shits I’ve ever met.” And he’s right. I know some. You can’t say its a stereotype that only people from the Midwest are that way because there are definitely people I know who hate to work and just want to hang out and drink beer.
BYT: I’ve also learned that a lot of people in the Midwest don’t necessarily follow their dreams wholeheartedly. Did you ever feel like your location was holding you back?
BV: I didn’t. I guess part of it is was being naive and just working in whatever context we had in the Midwest and in Madison and just discovering there was a wealth of things to do there and try to tap into that. I think that as a creative person you can find it anywhere on the planet. Especially now with the world being such a global community, the way the Internet has sort of leveled the playing field because you have so many things that are instantly accessible. It used to feel that way though, this outside pressure that you had to go to New York or LA or actually Nashville if you’re into country music to succeed. But obviously we didn’t and I didn’t move to LA til after I had established us. I think it’s easier for people to do it these days just because of the global world we live in.
BYT: Do you think that its good for your daughter to have a parent in a band but with a feminist icon? Does it ever come up?
BV: Well she’s 10-years-old so she’s probably just gonna start to figure out what that means in the next couple years. She just knows Shirley as auntie Shirley. We don’t really let her come to that many shows because they go too late but she’s been to the start of a lot of our shows and she’s been to sound checks. She’s been on tour with us in Europe and ridden with us on the tour bus which she doesn’t like much, she goes, “Uh dad, the tour bus kinda sucks, doesn’t it?” I think its fun when you get on the first time then when you’re on it for 8 hours driving from somewhere in Germany to southern Italy yeah this is not really much fun. She just went to her first full concert with 3 of her classmates, her girlfriends, last week, she went to the Hollywood Bowl and saw Dolly Parton.
BYT: That’s great.
BV: She went on at like 8:45 and played til 11 and she didn’t get home til midnight which is the latest she’s been up for a show and she came up to me and said, “Dad, no disrespect but that was the greatest concert I’ve ever seen.” And I love that. I just think it’s great that she was with her friends, it’s her thing. It’s not having her dad’s band kind of pushed in her face.
BYT: That’s lovely. Let’s get back to the film really quick. There’s a bunch of bands that most people have no idea about, like Killdozer. Are there any bands that aren’t in the film that had worked around you that are in Smart Studios that you just you don’t understand why it didn’t click and you don’t understand why they didn’t become Nirvana or the Pumpkins?
BV: Oh there’s probably a lot of bands like that but I think Killdozer is probably the prime example although if you listen to their music it’s a god awful acquired taste, you know? It’s just this durgy, grungy roar, like your drunken uncle falling down the stairs playing a guitar.
There was also in the film Die Kreuzen and I felt like they’re really special band and they could have been, a band like Jane’s Addiction they were a little bit before their time and no one really understood them. At least the labels and the major press didn’t understand who they were and yet they were as good as those bands that sorta came out of that genre.
I think that any scene from any sort of time period like that there’s always gonna be bands that fall between the cracks. That’s true for not just the Midwest but the East Coast, Boston, Memphis and Los Angeles and San Francisco too. There’s bands that could’ve been there but just never happened and that’s the nature of the music business.
BYT: You dealt with Against Me! on their first major label record and they were one of the last bands that still had the tag that, we-are-DIY-we-are-the-underground, and Tom, now Laura, went through a lot about that, I know a lot of that’s a big part in her new book. I was wondering if you were able to give them any advice because you worked with them on both major label records.
BV: Well I love Laura Jane and Against Me! is one of my favorite bands in the world. I think New Wave and White Crosses are both terrific albums and obviously slicker sounding than their DIY albums that they’ve made but still the songwriting is terrific, the performances are terrific. We told the band, when we were making New Wave, you have to stop reading blogs because you’re gonna drive yourself crazy. I think they were just used to communicating all the time with their fanbase. It kind of drove them all a little bit insane and I told them, just stop going on the Internet, do not go to punkrock.org, just don’t go there. You don’t need to.
I think Laura has sort of learned how to do that. I think the whole major label experience was hard for them because we felt like we made great records and then Warner had a hard time trying to figure out what to do with them. Again that sort of goes back to what you said before, there’s a lot of bands that fall between the cracks, but they have not fallen between the cracks, they have an insanely passionate fan base and continue to do their own thing. And if you’ve ever seen them live, I mean, they’re one of the most terrific bands out there, they put on incredible shows and it’s very much a 50/50, almost communion with their audience when they play. You know how the fans are so into the band.