Few figures in music history have made as big an impact on defining the sound of an era as Butch Vig. He is the producer of Nirvana's Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream as well as other '90s touchstones such as Sonic Youth's Dirty, Smashing Pumpkins' Gish, and L7's Bricks Are Heavy. Vig is also the drummer for one of that period's most popular bands, Garbage, whose singer Shirley Manson we spoke to last year.

Prior to all that success, Vig co-founded a music studio in Madison, WI, and a new documentary screening on November 13th at Saint Vitus (tickets here) tells the story of that studio's role in the 1980s underground music scene, its rise to prominence, and then sadly (spoiler alert) its eventual shuttering. In addition to discussing the film, Vig also talks us through the seeming nightmare of recording Siamese Dream, summers in Madison with David Lynch, and what Nirvana's In Utero might have sounded like if he produced it.

I really enjoyed your new film, "The Smart Studios Story", in part because it was not at all what I expected. I had seen Sound City and Sonic Highways, which are mostly about elite figures in music history, but your film is primarily about the American underground scene of the 1980s particularly in the Midwest, which I think has largely been overlooked. Was telling that story part of your motivation for making this film? Well, it was really the director Wendy Schneider who drove the narrative. She started talking to [Smart Studios co-proprietor/Garbage bandmate] Steve Marker and me, and we were like "There's not really much of a story, we had a recording studio." (laughs). As she did the interviews, she realized how the DIY scene grew up, not knowing anything really when we started the studio, and how the bands who we first recorded, much like us, didn't know what we were doing, and then we all just grew up into whatever the world we live in now, even from an artistic standpoint. It's funny, if you listen to the soundtrack of the film, it's pretty darn raw and scrappy at the start, but over 90 minutes it gets better and better. At least from my point of view, we got more savvy in the studio. The bands got better, and there were bigger budgets and more time to make records.

So you can hear the sound of what was happening at Smart evolve, but you can also hear how Steve and I evolved and how DIY evolved and grew up into the mainstream. The best part of the film was you saw a lot of bands started coming to me because they heard the Killdozer records we did, and those are an acquired taste. The way the band played and the sound of the records we made - it was just a godawful roar, but people heard them. Sub Pop heard them and Twin/Tone heard them and Mammoth Records and Billy Corgan heard them. That's why all of a sudden I started getting calls. So even though, like I said Killdozer has this god awful sound, people dug it. And the records coming out of Smart didn't sound like the Washington D.C. sound or the L.A. sound or the San Francisco sound. I was aware of all of those other scenes, but again, we were just sort of doing our thing and part of that was the bands that came in. They just kind of had their own spin on what was going on. 


I listened to Killdozer's Twelve Point Buck recently, and it almost sounds like this missing link between the American underground 80s sound of bands like Big Black and the early Seattle grunge sound of bands like Mudhoney. To my ear it's right in the middle straddling those two worlds. It kind of is, yeah. Well, it's one of the things that straddles that line. That was happening for us in the Midwest, but there were things that were happening in Seattle and Los Angeles. One of the things we talk about in the film is how one of the bands, Die Kreuzen, were to me just a little bit ahead of the curve of a band like Jane's Addiction because they had many of the same elements that Jane's Addiction had, but they never got signed to a major label. They were on Touch and Go and were touring around the Midwest, but people on the coasts didn't even know they existed. That's the way it was for a lot of bands in the Midwest. 

It seems so arbitrary that some of those bands like Jesus Lizard and Mudhoney, who seem no more or less commercial than a lot of the bands from the documentary, were signed to major labels. Who knows the logic of record companies. That's changed obviously to a certain extent, because rock bands don't really sell CDs and they don't really get Top 40 airplay anymore. Punk bands don't either for that matter. It's really sort of a pop game now. And then that's probably okay because it leaves bands with more autonomy to make the records they want to make. It's so easy to do that now compared to when we started out. People can make great sounding recordings in their bedroom with their laptop. I think that's empowering, and that's also part of the movie - how the business of music changes as the technology changes, and that also is one of the reasons we closed our doors. We just couldn't keep enough people coming into the studio, because they can DIY it themselves now, just like we did 30 years ago. 


That was another interesting element of the documentary - how when you were founding Garbage, you were DIYing loops and effects using tape rather than computers, whereas that is done digitally now. That can be empowering like you said, but do you think something can be lost in using digital instead of analog processes? I noticed you used a tape machine in Sonic Highways to record the Foo Fighters. I'm really not an elitist. I love analog, but I also love digital. They both have pluses and minuses. The great thing about digital is it's easy to edit stuff, so it's particularly good for songwriting. Like if you go, "This chorus will be better if we put it here," then you can just cut and paste it in. The thing about analog I've realized is that it forces you to commit to ideas and arrangements, and you also have to go for performance. Bands had to really play to a certain extent.

That's one thing that we sort of realized, or remembered, when I did the Foo's Wasting Light, it's like, "Analog, wow, you've got to really play your ass off." And the Foo Fighters knew that, and they were up for the challenge because like anybody they had been making Pro Tools records, and you can just cut and paste things around until it's perfect, but they didn't want to make a record like that. I think there is a little bit of a lost art to that. A lot of young bands know they don't have to be that good. They can go in and they or the engineer can fix it. They know how to use Beat Detective, which will put your drums perfectly on the one, two, three, four or whatever. Sometimes its better not to do that. You don't want to make it perfect. That's what makes it feel human, and that's what makes it feel emotional. I think that's the best thing that analog brings to the recording process. It forces you to play and leave the human element in. 


I agree. For the recent Garbage albums, have you gone with mostly digital methods or have you done analog? It's usually a combination of both. If something is sounding good we don't try to get too caught up in, "Oh, it has to be analog" or, "It has to be digital." The one thing that I sort of took from the Foos that we brought into our albums Not Your Kind of People and Strange Little Birds is the same thing with performance. Shirley especially took that to heart. There are a lot of takes on the new Garbage record which are the very first take that she did. And they're flawed and they aren't perfect, and we also sort of mixed them that way. If you listen to the first track "Sometimes" or "Even Though Our Love is Doomed", we liked that her voice is really in your face and dry. It's human. It's not perfect, but to me its much more emotional sounding that way. 


I interviewed Shirley Manson last year, and I asked her about how when a band is 20 years into their career, their records are not as vital as their earlier material. But I don't feel that way about Garbage. I like a lot of the songs from the most recent records as much as I do the earlier ones. So I'm just curious about how you're still able to keep making good music when most bands can't? Shirley felt it had to do with maintaining honesty. There are a couple things I think. One, we took a long break after Bleed Like Me, and we needed that break. We were burnt out from dealing with labels and doing prolonged tours. We kind of hit a wall making that record. I think if we had gone in and tried to make a fifth record, that probably would have been it. But we took an almost seven year hiatus, and when we finally got back into recording Not Your Kind of People I think we were all jazzed. And the one thing that we realized is that Garbage has always been a really great creative outlet for the four of us in the sense that we all get to contribute a variety of different things in the process.

We all make songs. We all make production decisions. I play drums, but I play guitar and bass and keyboards and I program. And I'll order the wine. I can be an engineer and a producer and I can just be the guy who sits back and surfs the internet while someone else is working on a part. So we bounce a lot of the same ideas off each other, and on different days each of us will take on a different role. And not many bands are like that. In a lot of bands, the bass player is the bass player. And the drummer is the drummer. And that's what they do. Maybe they do some social networking. But we've always shared a lot of those responsibilities and assets that Garbage brings to our table. And then there's also the fact that once we took that break, we realized that we do get along really well. Obviously I've been playing with Duke and Steve for many years. They're like brothers to me, and Shirley is like a sister to me. The band that eats together stays together. I've obviously produced bands that were so dysfunctional they can't even get in the same room together. A lot of bands become that way because they move in different directions artistically, or their personalities don't jibe.

We have days in Garbage where we get on each others' cases and we disagree about things, but ultimately I think we are kind of on the same wavelength. And I think that's another one of the reasons that we're still here. We're really pleased with how Strange Little Birds turned out. It's probably the darkest record we've made, but we like this cinematic atmospheric stuff, and I think it's inspired us to go even further out into space on the next record. We're not even sure what that is yet, but I think we want to keep challenging ourselves and to see where can we go next to keep it interesting. Hopefully our fans will keep following us.

The cinematic nature of the last record occurred to me, and I was wondering if you ever thought about doing film scores? I have always been interested in that. I've never really had time to sort of sink my teeth into it. Obviously Garbage has done a few bits and pieces of music for film over the years like the James Bond movie, and we've been licensed for some things. We had some music we did for video games, but we've never really done a whole film. I know the band would be up for that, and I would definitely be interested in that too. I was a film major at the University of Wisconsin, which is where I actually met Steve and started playing with Duke in a band. Before I got into sound, I was going to move to LA and try to become a film director or writer or editor, but instead I kind of got into the audio end of it.

If you had a wish list of directors that you could do a score with who might be on it? David Lynch is one. I've always loved his films. He actually used to spend summers out in Madison for like a month. His wife at the time was his editor, Mary, and they had a place right on Lake Mendota. He came by the studio a few times. (Does David Lynch voice:) "How's the new Garbage record going?" And he would come by and we would play him some stuff. And he would sort of walk around the studio and it would be just what you would think of for David Lynch. He would put his hand on the texture of the carpet and the wall and he would look in the corners at some of the gear. He was just fascinated by things.

And then the house I am in right now out in Los Angeles, cut to like 2006 when my wife Beth and I moved in here. We were having some work done and we stayed in a friend's house on Outpost. They were going to Europe and they said, "will you house sit for us?" We needed a place to stay while they were doing some work on the roof, and the first morning I got up and I looked out the window at the place we were staying in and I saw this guy across like 100 feet away bending down looking at grass, and I think, "Fuck me that's David Lynch." And it was. I saw him a couple days later, I say, "David, it's Butch, we're staying here for awhile." He said, "Hey, let me show you some furniture I'm working on." And I went over and he had these three legged chairs that looked like you could not sit on them, like they were going to tip over. But they were actually completely stable. It was quite interesting. Anyway, I think he's an amazing director and writer and I'm excited. I think he's almost done with Twin Peaks, which is coming out soon.

The only thing with picking him is Angelo Badalamenti does really good music for him. True. So I need to find the new David Lynch, whoever that is. If you know who that is, send me an email and I'll give him a call. 

I'll think about it and get back to you (laughs). So there have been a couple cases where you and Steve Albini have recorded the same band, and it's really fascinating to see such different snapshots of the same group from each of your perspectives. And I wondered what In Utero might have sounded like if you had recorded it. Do you think you would've taken an approach similar to Nevermind or do you think it would have gone in the sort of raw, confrontational direction that it ended up being? It's hard to know. Sonically, it would have sounded a bit different. Just because I know Steve, I actually got a chance to hang with him when we did Sonic Highways in Chicago. It was cool. I have a lot of admiration for him that he's really a purist, in some ways. 


No Pro Tools. Yeah, he doesn't call himself a producer. He likes just to record things. I can hear it in his sound. I know the kind of room mics he likes - a lot of ribbon mics - and they kind of have a boxiness to them, a mid-range. I usually don't like that as much, so there's sort of more top end and bottom end and less mid-range in the stuff that I do, just from an engineering standpoint. But I have a feeling that he loved Nevermind when we finished it because I had talked to Kurt and Dave and Krist while the record was blowing up, but they kind of had to disown it. You can't keep your punk rock cred and say "Oh man, I'm so glad we sold 15 million copies." I do know that Kurt wanted to get more sort of primal. The songs were great on In Utero, and the performances would've likely been quite similar, but it probably would have had just a little bit of a different sound. Who knows? 

For Siamese Dream and certain albums like the second Garbage album, there were tremendous expectations even before they came out. In those situations, did you feel a lot of pressure from outside forces or even from yourself, or did you just tune it all out once you were in the studio? We did feel a lot of pressure making Siamese Dream. To the point where people kept saying "Oh, it's going to be amazing. It's going to be amazing." We had some time booked to go into the studio, and then Billy Corgan called me up and said, "I'm not ready." I had gone down to Chicago and hung out with him for a day, and he played me some demos in the car, but he would only play me snippets. I could tell what was going on. Sometimes when you play music for another person, it gives you a different perspective where that music is at. And I'm sure he had heard the demos a bunch, and the band probably heard them. But then for some reason when playing them for me, I could see he was thinking, "I don't want to play this for you right now." Or he'd play it up to a certain point and stop.

Anyway, he said, "I need to finish a couple of these songs." I think about two months went by, and then he called me, and I went down to Chicago and went to a rehearsal and the band ran through a bunch of stuff and it sounded great. And I sat down and Billy played me a bunch of things. And the stuff that he wrote in the interim included "Disarm" and "Today"—some of the key tracks. And I think he just knew "This has got to just be an amazing record." And I knew it too, and the reason we chose Atlanta was to get away from everything. They didn't want to record in Chicago. We didn't want to go to New York or L.A. We wanted to go to a place where we could be left to our own devices. But even there people kept showing up and saying "Oh man, this is going to be so good, it's going to be so good." It was driving us both a little bit crazy. Even before the thing was recorded. It really pushed us though. That was a really hard record to make. It was five months straight of recording. The first three months it was six days a week, and then we went seven days a week because we realized how much work we needed to do to get it to the point we needed to get to. That was before Pro Tools, so everything was analog, so as good as they are as players, especially Billy, it just took a long time. 

That's one case of recording where it seemed to be the work that was the most difficult, but I know that you have had to work with a lot bands that seemingly had wild personalities like L7 and Nirvana. But you seem to have a very Zen, calm demeanor. As a producer, is part of your job to be a psychiatrist or best friend? Totally. I didn't realize that starting out. Some of the very first records I did at Smart, I didn't even know what a producer was. They were like, "Hey, you want to produce this?" and I was like, "Uh, sure." I guess if you have an opinion or idea or suggestion, that's kind of what it is when you start producing someone.

But I realized pretty quickly that sometimes the biggest part of the production is the psychological aspect. You need to get a band comfortable, and it's up to me to figure out what their vision is and help them get there. But I have to motivate them, and I have to get them to let their guard down. Sometimes I have to convince them to try things out of the box that they aren't necessarily comfortable with and let them discover if it's good or not. And a lot of times, even if it's an idea I come up with, I want them to think it's their idea. If it's something I want to hear in an arrangement or an idea in a song, I don't really care if I take a credit. At the end of the day, I just want the performance to be good and the song to have a certain thing. Most producers I think would say that a lot of it is psychological. You've got to figure out how to get inside the band's head a little bit. 

I'm thinking of Steve Albini's approach where he's said you wouldn't want a gynecologist to become emotionally involved with their job, so with recording a band he views himself as a craftsman or technician, very laissez-faire. In fact, he rejects the idea of being called a producer like you mentioned. Yet it seems like you both have some similar goals, where you want the band's vision to be realized, but I think some producers kind of want their own vision of the band to be realized. Totally. Especially these days, there are a lot of producers or teams that go in with artists and they write or co-write a song and they produce it and engineer it. Especially in pop music, with artists like Rihanna or Katy Perry or Beyonce. They have factories set up, writing teams and producers all working on songs that they hope are going to end up on a Katy Perry or Beyonce or Adele record. That's totally cool. It's one form of producing and songwriting, and in a way that kind of goes back to the old Brill Building days in the 50s and early 60s before artists really started to empower themselves and make records. It was all these production teams, the Svengalis, and the songwriters were king. They were the people who were responsible because a lot of the artists didn't write music back then. They were singers or pop performers. 

I saw Muscle Shoals and the same band played on all the albums too. It's an interesting comparison because there's this illusion then and now that the artist singing the song is the one that wrote the music. But it's not really true anymore, unless it's a band like Garbage or Metric where they write all their own music. Do you feel that there is something lost having this factory approach to music? It's seems so disposable and ephemeral, which I suppose the internet largely is, so maybe it's appropriate. Yeah, that's pop music in a way. Here today, gone in an hour. I think artists, if you look at someone like Neil Young or Radiohead or Beck—I have immense respect for all those artists— they are making records that are driven by following their muse, and all three of them have had some difficult records that fans have not necessarily embraced, but they have needed to follow that artistic path because that's what they have needed to do to remain alive as an artist. Pop music is always going to be disposable to a certain extent, but I think really talented artists have always followed their own muse, and I think people who love those artists are willing to go on that path with them. I'm a sucker for a great pop song. I don't listen to Top 40 much, but when I do I really appreciate the craftsmanship, like, "Wow, that's a great melody over the chord progression" or, "I like what they did going into the bridge." I am constantly analyzing that stuff, but I don't really listen to Top 40 radio much anymore. I listen to a lot of internet blog stations, like Gorilla vs. Bear and Aquarium Drunkard and My Old Kentucky Blog, I think there's a lot of great new music on there.

In The Smart Studio Story, you could see how in the 80s people discovered music via an underground network of local bands and venues and record stores, and music was largely spread by touring and word of mouth. The internet has complicated that. Do you think the internet facilitates that kind of thing, or does it prevent local scenes from developing by globalizing everything? One thing I seem to be noticing more and more is how disposable everything is because of the nature of streaming. People want music more so than ever, and they want it 24 hours a day and they want to get it on their phone wherever they are. Because of that there is no tangible thing to hold onto. A couple months ago I read some study that the average person under 25 only listens to like 45 seconds of a song and that they don't actually listen to a four minute version of a song. Once it gets to the chorus, they just go "click" to the next song. I think that is a condition of where the world is at. It's so ADD, just hurry up and move on to the next thing. Making analog records, you'd put on a piece of vinyl and there'd be a 20 minute side, and you'd listen to it. It was kind of a pain in the butt to get up to change the record over and over. You had this moment that you were going to live with that piece of music. I think the internet and the digital revolution has just made everything, everyone's attention span, so much faster. There is a whole generation of kids growing up where it's hard to understand how they are going to be able to hold onto anything tangible. 


I heard another crazy stat along those lines. When young listeners hear both an MP3 and a high quality WAV, they actually preferred the MP3 to the WAV. You know why? Because of the slight harmonic shifting and distortion, they sound brighter. I was on NPR last year, and they had six songs, one was like a Jay-Z, one was a Katy Perry, and there was a Neil Young song. Anyway, they had both high-res and 96K lo-res files of all the songs, and it was hard for me to tell. I listened to them, and I guessed and I got four out of the six right because they sounded duller. I thought, "These are the 96K wav files," and I was right. The two that I got wrong were Katy Perry and Jay-Z because they were so electronic. It was all drum machine beats, and the voices were all vocoded, I couldn't tell because they were all glitchy and distorted anyway. It was a crapshoot. I got four out of six right, but at the end I just guessed. I was like, "I bet that's the 96K because it doesn't sound as bright as the other ones." And I was right. 


You found the singer of Garbage by watching 120 Minutes. How do you think you would've found her now? Probably surfing the internet. Going on these internet blogs, checking out bands, going, "Oh, this singer's pretty cool. Let's call up and see if they want to collaborate on something." It's a very strange story how we met Shirley. It is true they played her Angelfish video once on 120 Minutes and Steve Marker happened to be taping the song that night, and we fell in love with the way her voice was. That sort of started the whole process in motion. 

One more question. Gothamist is a site about New York. I know you've done some recording in New York, a couple Sonic Youth records as well as a ton of shows with Garbage. Is there any experience you had in New York that you might want to share? My first impression of New York was really when I did a Firetown record there. Duke Erikson (of Garbage) and I were in a band signed to Atlantic. We went out there. We made the first record on my eight-track at Smart for like a couple thousand dollars. Then we got signed to Atlantic, and then we did this sophomore record in New York, and everything went wrong. The A&R guy who signed us went to another label. Our management team split up. It was right in the middle of hair metal bands, and we were sort of this Tom Petty/Byrds-esque Midwestern, alt-country band. So it was bad timing. But I spent like four months in New York making the Firetown record, and it was a hard record to make. The day I went home is when I did Killdozer's Twelve Point Buck. I remember thinking "I'm free! I'm free!" But I really didn't get to know New York until I did Dirty with Sonic Youth, and I spent a lot of time hanging with Kim and Thurston. We'd work till like midnight at the Magic Shop then Thurston would go "I'm going to this jazz poetry reading," and I'd go "Fuck, I'll go." And Kim would go "I'm going to see this film playing down at Bleecker Street, and then we're going to a party afterwards," and I'd say, "Okay, I'm in." So I went out pretty much all the time. That was my first really getting a chance to experience New York City, and it was amazing because they were pretty tapped into a lot of things that were going on, especially more counterculture stuff that was going on in New York, and it was a fascinating time. 

Downtown back then was a heyday for the arts scene, but it's all changed since then. Yeah, we were lucky to get into The Magic Shop and work with the Foo Fighters before they closed their doors. 


We're grappling with that now in New York. Manhattan has become Millionaire's Island, and artists are struggling to stay here. Many are moving to L.A. because you can live in a giant place for next to nothing. My wife moved into Silverlake about ten years ago. People keep moving farther east like Echo Park or Highland Park or Atwater. They are cool, thriving neighborhoods. I know tons of musicians and engineers and producers who are living out here thriving right now. But there seems to me to be enough going on for everybody to find something to do. And it's definitely more affordable I guess than trying to make it in Manhattan or even Brooklyn now. It's gotten kind of crazy. 


Even Queens, you'd be surprised. People are being pushed so far out that many are just leaving. Yeah, that's sad. But everything changes. Music goes in cycles. So does culture and arts and when something sort of gets kicked off to the side of the road, something usually comes in to take it's place, whether it's a new indie scene or a new style of music. Someone asked me earlier today, "Could another Nevermind happen?" Of course it could. It won't be the same. It may not be punk rock, but a record like that could come out of left field and completely blow people's minds. It'll happen at some point. If I knew who it was, I'd sign on as producer right now.