What Are They Doing in That Magic Space? A Conversation with Butch Vig

by Morgan Davis

Butch Vig Smart Studios

We were very fortunate to get the opportunity to speak to superstar producer Butch Vig during SXSW this year. Vig is in town to promote the new documentary The Smart Studios Story, about the legendary space he and Steve Marker founded in the ’80s in Wisconsin, where classic works like NevermindBricks Are Heavy and Gish were recorded, as well as a number of albums from seminal Midwest acts like Killdozer, Soul Asylum and Tar Babies. The Smart Studios Story had its world premiere yesterday, but you can catch it again tomorrow, Friday March 18th at the Ritz Drafthouse at 11:00 am. Until then, please enjoy this interview with Butch Vig about how production has changed with the evolution of recording technology, the time a backhoe crashed into his studio and how creating a space to hang out with his buddies led to his eventual status as one of the most respected producers in music.

Morgan Davis for Ovrld: I actually haven’t had a chance to watch the documentary about your studio, The Smart Studios Story, because it’s making its world premiere at SXSW today…

Butch Vig: That’s okay!

Ovrld: I think it’s interesting that it’s premiering at SXSW here in Austin, because we’ve had a lot of studio and venue closures. And one of the big issues for us today is the loss of the regionalism that helped define scenes back when Smart Studios was operating and the development of the almost international approach bands have to take today when they start out.

BV: Well, the world was so different, with technology raising the bar up to a completely different level than when I started. Smart was a very DIY studio and we were completely in a bubble. We had no sort of formal training about recording. I didn’t even know what a producer was. I would look at album jackets and go “How did they get that sound? What are they doing in that magic space?”

We were so far removed from the East Coast and West Coast and I don’t think we necessarily followed trends. Everything was a mystery to me. How do you get a record deal? How do you distribute a record? How do you get a song played on the radio? I think it was for everyone.

Cut to 2016, everyone has all that at their fingertips. You can write a song and record it on your laptop on a Sunday night and on Monday post it and it can go viral! Just instantly find a worldwide audience! That is an amazing aspect of music because it doesn’t make it, elitist anymore. It seemed like there were gatekeepers you sort of had to buy into or get their respect, whether it was with a label or a publisher or a manager and now you don’t need to do that. Bands are really smart. They also know how to make records now. Like I said, when I started engineering and producing, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just making it up. I never went to any school or had any formal training. All of our early records sound pretty shitty [laughs]. It was a trial by fire, but that’s okay!

 

Ovrld: Do you think your geographic isolation helped you guys get your signature sound?

BV: I think it did. Some of the bands that came through Smart were a rare and weird breed. Bands like Die Kreuzen, Killdozer—they weren’t really punk, they weren’t indie rock or metal. Die Kreuzen was like Jane’s Addiction before Jane’s Addiction. All these things they were sort of into, like speed metal and punk, thrash, psychedelia, just really good hard rock riffs, they sort of blended it all together. They had a really hardcore fanbase in the Midwest, in that no one knew who they were on the East Coast or the West Coast. They signed to Touch and Go, and I know at one point they had a couple labels in New York that were interested but that never happened for them. I thought they were amazing. They had their own really unique sound.

Ovrld: It seems like a lot of the acts you worked with would end up at labels like Touch and Go, and eventually influence a lot of what happened with the grunge scene. Then you, of course, were directly connected with that through Nirvana. What do you think it was that you were doing that appealed to that part of the West Coast?

BV: I think a lot of people came to Smart because we were getting good sounds there dirt cheap. Steve [Marker, co-founder of Smart] and I had a reputation for being very easy to work with. We’re both super laid back. Neither of us ever approached record making from a dictatorial standpoint. I’m not a yeller or a screamer.

We always made the studio like a clubhouse. In fact, that was why we built the studio, to have a place to hang out and make music. And then we realized we had to sort of run a business in order to pay our bills and buy more gear, basically. I think bands started coming there because some of those early punk records sounded good.

I was raised on pop music. I’m a super pop geek. Even if I was working with a band like Killdozer or Tar Babies, or whatever, I wanted it to sound hooky. In the middle of all that chaos and thrashing, I was really sharpening the guitars, or making sure the drum fills really popped out of it, and I started suggesting to bands “I think the track might sound better if you double up that riff there.” It was just suggestions, but that was the start of me really producing. I didn’t know what a producer did but it ended up that was what I was doing, just offering up opinions. And I think that’s how we got a lot of work, because we were making dirt cheap, good sounding punk rock records.

When you can do a record and have a band come in in a day and mix it the next day and do the whole record for $500, you get a lot of work.

Butch Vig in the early years at Smart Studio

Butch Vig in the early years at Smart Studio

Ovrld: To connect back to what we were talking about with the digital stuff, it seems like now affordability isn’t as much of an issue, since bands can more easily record on their own. But that also seems to have made certain producers more valuable because they bring that expertise and mentorship. How have you seen your role shift as the result of that change in technology?

BV: Well, I’ve always been a tech nerd, so to me, understanding MIDI and then computers and ProTools and all the digital platforms, I love all that. I’m not a purist. I don’t record to analog tape. I still love tape, too, but that’s just a choice, they’re both great at what they do. The great thing about digital recording is that it’s so easy to do anywhere. Like you could set up a band right here [gestures to the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel] with a handful of mics and have a band record and it would probably sound pretty badass, just because how great all the gear and the microphones and the technology are now. Again, that goes back to what I said earlier, I think it’s great because it has leveled the playing field. There’s no elitism about it anymore, you don’t have to be signed to Warner Brothers. You don’t have to have a million dollar budget to try to compete with Rihanna. Well, to compete with Rihanna I guess you would have to have a million dollar marketing budget though [laughs]. But most artists don’t and aren’t interested in doing that anyway. They just want to find their own path and hopefully make a living.

I see an analogy in the current artists with the do it yourself mentality we had at Smart when first started out because we just did it. We set up the studio because we wanted to have a place to record. And a lot of people we talked to said “You can’t do that.” I had a lot of barriers when I first started. I think that was a lot of the reasons that I really felt motivated to get a studio going, to record music. I wanted to record my bands and I wanted to record other bands. And to this day, there were a couple guys in Madison who had studios, bigger studios, that were like $100 an hour, 24 track set ups, and they both failed. When we opened Smart, we were charging $5 an hour. If you didn’t have any money, we’d tell you to just come over and bring a reel of 8 track tape and a case of beer and we’d record you for free on a Saturday night. That’s what we did. We just wanted to record, man.

Ovrld: I also understand that a lot of what happened at the end of Smart were almost comical mishaps, like a backhoe that crashed into the studio…

BV: Yeah, it was a dangerous building! [laughs] That backhoe went through the wall, and we had a crazy flood one year. That year the Mississippi River flooded, the water table in Madison elevated. We’re on a bunch of lakes and the ground water got higher and higher and then it rained straight for like three days and underneath the studio the subpumps couldn’t get the water out and all of a sudden six feet of water completely flooded the whole downstairs. Like literally tapes were floating [laughs]. It was shocking and a fucking disaster, the clean up was a super pain in the butt. Running a studio is a dangerous occupation [laughs].

Ovrld: Was there a specific moment where you guys realized Smart was a successful venture? Or just a specific moment that opened your eyes to how well you might be doing?

BV: It’s funny, it was when I had done a couple Killdozer records and Steve and I came to SXSW a couple years in a row and we would press up these cassettes with like 12 artists, just whoever we thought was cool locally, and we would give them out. We gave out like 200 of them. We’d just walk up to bands we’d seen and we’d say “Hey, you guys want to record? We run a studio in Madison.” And we were literally going up and down handing out cassettes. I was in a hotel going to meet someone for a beer and a couple of these writers came up and they heard me talking and they said “Are you Butch Vig?” I said “Yeah?” and they said “Oh my god, Killdozer! You produced Killdozer!” and one of them turned and said “This guy produces Killdozer!” and a bunch of people came up and went “We love 12 Point Buck!”

That is the record that really got a lot of attention, I think just for the way it sounded. That’s why Billy Corgan called, that’s why Kurt Cobain came. They heard that particular record, and it’s a god awful weird sounding record. But I remember people coming up and saying “You did 12 Point Buck? It’s fucking amazing!” And I’m like “Yeah, okay, it’s a pretty weird album…” But that was right around that time when there was a buzz, and we got really busy. We had a second room that we opened up, like a smaller mixing room in the studio, and we very shortly after that went to our first 24 track machine. And shortly after that we had 24 track in both studios.

 

Ovrld: Spinning off that, is there a particular band you’re most proud of your work with? Not to make you pick favorites…

BV: Oh god, it really is hard for me to pick because every band is so completely unique. I love those Die Kreuzen records, going back and working with Wendy [Schneider] on The Smart Studios Story and listening to all of the tracks and some of the unreleased stuff and covers…plus all of the live stuff. I’d go and record bands live every now and then, in place of demos, because I wanted to hear new material and what they sounded like. There’s a ton of archival stuff we dug through. It’s so hard to say because everybody, each artist, had their own crazy, unique personality.

Ovrld: You also used Smart as a home base for your own project, Garbage. I was curious about the differences with working with artists you’re not involved in but are producing versus trying to get your own sound, with your own group, and get it to match what you want.

BV: Well, it’s an interesting head space, because they’re two kind of completely different things. When I am producing someone else, it’s really important to me to remember it’s their vision and their songs. And I think I am really good at doing that. And in Garbage, I’m the songwriter and I’m the drummer and I’m the engineer and I’m the producer. I’m all those things. Or I can be the guy who just goes and gets the beer. That is a more of like being in a little club with my friends. There’s a sense of camaraderie. And for some reason I am able to flip really easily between the two.

When I started Garbage, a lot of people told me I was really stupid to quit producing full time, especially if Garbage failed. A lot of people said that if Garbage failed I wouldn’t have a career because no one would want to work with me after putting out a record that flopped. Luckily, I took a leap of faith because I thought we had a good record, but also more importantly because I like being in bands. I was hanging out with my mates. Steve is my partner in Smart and a good dude. He was my best friend. We had been in bands since I was like 18 or 19 years old. It was like hanging out with my buddies. Then we met Shirley [Manson] and she fit right in. Or kind of fit in. She’s Scottish, so she’s a bit nutty [laughs]. We’re still very a close, we have a new record coming out in June, we’ve been together twenty years. We enjoy each other’s company, and I think that’s rare for bands.

But I realized when I started that I just like being in bands. I really am a studio rat, I love being in a recording studio, that’s like my second home, but there is something about being in bands. I’ve been incredibly lucky to do both. I think I would get bored if I couldn’t do both. Luckily I can ping pong back and forth and it keeps life more interesting that way.


Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.