If you don’t think Butch Vig’s almost singlehandedly invented two decades of alternative rock as we know it, just look at his resumé: Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World, Foo Fighters, AFI. That’s without mentioning his membership in the still-cool Garbage or the fact he produced a little generational totem called Nevermind. From grunge to “electronica” to emo, he’s probably building someone’s entire adolescence from scratch as we speak. He free-associated for Village Voice about some of his biggest hits, underrated discoveries and Garbage’s own new album Not Your Kind of People, which drops this week.
Smashing Pumpkins, Gish
That was the first sort of a big-budget record I ever did. We did the record in, like, 30 days; I’d done hundreds of records in, like, two days or four days—all these punk records for Sub Pop or Touch and Go with no budget basically. Billy and I formed a kinship very quickly. He was very driven and had a vision and I was the same and we pushed each other. That was really the record where people started calling me up for production work because they loved that record so much.
How big of a commercial prospect were Smashing Pumpkins at the time?
I didn’t really see it as being that commercial considering the pop music that was on the radio. I knew they would touch the college circuit but I sort of figured that was where they would live and die. But they were a really interesting-looking band and Billy had this feminine quality to his voice. They did not look or sound like any other band out there at the time.
Is there anything still left to know about Nevermind?
That record changed my life. It’s pretty easy to sum that up in one sentence. I had no commercial expectations other than I knew the record was great and it was catchy. I called their manager a week before it hit No. 1 and said, “Any chance this is gonna hit No. 1?” And he said, “Not a chance—Michael Jackson is on the charts.”
Kurt famously dissed the production later as being “like a fucking Mötley Crüe record,” but was he just saying that or did he express admiration at the time?
Well, you hit the nail on the head. He had to disown it because of his punk rock roots, tried to keep some of that authenticity. When he finished that record, he loved it. They loved it, they wanted to be ambitious. Like I said, they rehearsed for months. They wanted to make a tight, great-sounding, really well-focused album. He would make these lists of things he would do when he was a millionaire and famous. So it was that conundrum of wanting it and not wanting it at the same time. What are you gonna say, “I’m so glad we sold 10 million copies?” He had to disown it; it was really all he could do. But I know at the time we made it that he loved it. And he would call me up at the time to bug me “You gotta work with Courtney, she needs you! You could make her into the star she needs to be!” I’d get these calls in the middle of the night where he’d put me on the phone with Courtney and she’d chat with me for awhile.
L7, Bricks Are Heavy
Did people think L7 or Sonic Youth was going to make the next Nevermind?
Unfortunately what happened was a lot of people thought because I made Nevermind I could make that happen with anybody. With L7 I just wanted to take what they are and make them sound big, heavy and focused. That was one of the funnest albums I’ve ever made. We recorded the basics at Sound City, where we did Nevermind, then they came back to Madison [Wisconsin] and we finished it at my studio. They were there about a month and by the time they left they knew every hustler, junkie, drug dealer, bookie… every single crazy lowlife in Madison was coming into the studio because they were friends with the band.
Sonic Youth, Dirty
What’s Sonic Youth’s songwriting process like?
Thurston would send me a bunch of demos, and they weren’t really demos, just rehearsals. And some of the jams would be like 15 minutes, with a couple of songs, I remember like “Theresa’s Sound-World,” and there would be three completely different versions. And I’d say which was my favorite version. And that was one of the tricky things—trying to keep that balance, but also keep it loose and let them go off and do their own thing in the studio.
Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream
Was the band really pissed off to have to sit back while Billy did their parts on Siamese Dream?
It was probably tough for D’Arcy and James because they were great musicians, but they weren’t as good as Billy. And Billy had such a good feel playing with Jimmy Chamberlin. We would always cut the songs live in the studio, but other than two spots where D’Arcy played bass and James played guitar, Billy did probably did 90% of the record. I think they had to learn to accept the role and it wasn’t easy, they got frustrated. But they did always communicate as a band and D’Arcy and James would add feedback into how it sounded. D’Arcy was a pretty big critic of him, and I think he needed that. So we relied on them for feedback more than their expertise at playing their instruments.
Sonic Youth, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star
This isn’t one of Sonic Youth’s most talked-about albums, but it’s one of my favorite records of all time.
Right off the bat, the band said we don’t want it meticulous with overdubs like we did with Dirty, they wanted to keep it spare and skeletal. I just remember laughing every day. Some of the songs on that record are amazing, “Bull in the Heather,” “SST Superstore”… I can’t even remember the right title.
Soul Asylum, Let Your Dim Light Shine
I thought the Soul Asylum record was underrated as well. It was kind of the right record at the wrong time because it came a few years before alt-country became a thing.
I think it’s underrated too. The songwriting is amazing on it, there’s some incredible songs. [Vig starts singing a bit of “To My Own Devices”] That was a difficult record to make because… they had all this success with “Runaway Train” and all of a sudden Dave was dating Winona Ryder, they were playing at the White House. And it was hard to get them to focus and start on the record. That was by far the biggest budget record I’d done. Pirner could almost be a street bum, he’s such a character and so off in his own world, but I think he’s an amazing songwriter. But they kind of fell by the wayside, it didn’t have the same kind of success as Grave Dancers Union.
One thing I always admired about Garbage is there’s no assumption that, like, Shirley controls the band or the producers control the band. Everyone sounds equal, all the parts can be heard.
There was an unfortunate statement that one of our publicists or maybe even our management put out: “Three producers and a singer!” And honestly, Steve and Duke are producers but they’ve never done it full-time like me; they’re musicians. And early on people thought we were this mastermind Frankenstein kind of thing, that we broke this template down. And it’s not true; as soon as Shirley walked into the studio and started singing, we knew we were a band. We had no intention of touring but by the time we’d make the record we were so close-knit that we wanted to go on tour together. The album was done pretty guerrilla-style. We didn’t have a computer so it was all done with samplers and tape. Nowadays you can use Pro Tools but we did it by the seat of our pants. So there’s a looseness to it, kind of a lo-fi, weird quality. A lot of weird little accidents helped give it a vibe.
Garbage, Version 2.0
With Version 2.0 I’ve rarely heard a record that tried to sound like the future and at the same time had these winks to the past, the Beach Boys, the Pretenders…
We’ve always worn our influences on our sleeve, and that’s something we have embraced because we’re all pop geeks. We embrace where it’s come from, all music, not just punk rock: Glen Campbell and the Beatles and Frank Sinatra and the Tijuana Brass. Any reference point that might inspire us we’ve tried to toss in the hat. The whole “Don’t Worry Baby” [allusion in “Push It”]—when we play that live, Steve actually samples the Beach Boys and plays that in his sampler.
That’s the most eclectic album we’ve made; every song is like its own little world in a way. It wasn’t received that well, but at the time we just needed to make that record. We had all these ideas of how we wanted to approach songs and that was the record we did that on. The single came out the week before September 11, and we were supposed to do a three-week European press tour and of course that got shut down. There was no one in the airport. It felt completely worthless to try and talk about a rock record—there’s no importance to it at all when you’re watching this horror on TV every night. All the European journalists were asking, “What does it finally feel like to have terrorists on your soil?” They didn’t want to talk about pop either.
AFI, Sing the Sorrow
I went and saw the band play in this little punk club on the beach in California and the crowd went crazy, singing all the songs at the top of their lungs. They had what I’d call these “AFI moments” of like, proggy punk where they’d go off on a tangent when you least expect it.
Jimmy Eat World, Chase this Light
Great songwriters and they really know their way around the studio—it was done at their own studio. I was involved in more an advisory role than working with them on a day-to-day basis. Emo is a term that they probably… I’m sure they understand that they have that tag on them. And Jim [Adkins’] songs are about tapping into an emotional core in yourself and finding that in songs the audience will find with you. They’re not exactly singing about political revolution.
Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown
I’d known the band for a while. They had so much success with American Idiot that they were trying to figure out where to go with the new record, and it took a long time; they did a lot of rehearsing and a lot of preproduction until we found where to go with the record. Billie Joe [Armstrong] didn’t know whether to embrace his roots or do an acoustic record or make an ambitious record. I thought they had set a template with American Idiot and that they should push that even farther and not take a step backwards. We spent over a year—13 months—on just preproduction. They’re kind of unique unto themselves, very tight as musicians and they finish each other’s sentences.
Against Me!, New Wave/White Crosses
It absolutely amazes me that White Crosses was somewhat of a commercial disappointment.
I thought they were gonna be as big as the Clash! I love the band, I love Tom Gabel*—he’s like a brother or son to me and we’ve gotten very close over the years. He really came into the studio and wanted to learn how to make records and I wanted to keep his vision intact. You know? He doesn’t write simple pop songs; they’re very wordy, and he’s got a lot on his mind and a lot to get off his chest. So it’s a balance to try and capture the music but make sure the lyrics get his point across and I love both those two records.
Garbage, Bleed Like Me/Not Your Kind of People
Bleed Like Me, we deliberately tried to lay off the loops and electronics and make more of a guitar record. It’s kind of stripped down and was influenced by us trying to play live. Then we needed to sort of go away and what we thought was a two-year break turned into a five year break.
When we started Not Your Kind of People, we realized there is no one else who sounds like us out there. We did not want to reinvent ourselves, we just wanted to go into the studio and do the things that we like to do. Use beats and pop melodies and buzzsaw guitars and atmosphericss and mix all that together and put Shirley’s voice on it. That’s what we did on the first and second record and the looseness reminds me of the first record. It doesn’t sound the same; to me the new record sounds like 2012, but there’s an energy and a vibe that sounds like the first record.
What’s the most underrated record you’ve ever worked on?
This Perfect World by Freedy Johnston. An amazing singer-songwriter, I’m very close to him still; he sang at my wedding. The song “This Perfect World” is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever recorded. At the time I did that, people were taken aback because he’s just like, a folk singer. It takes a couple listens to get used to his voice—he’s got that high Midwestern twang—but there’s some beautiful, beautiful songs on it.
*This interview was conducted prior to the announcement that Tom Gabel would begin living as a woman under the name Laura Jane Grace.
Garbage play at Roseland tonight.