It's safe to say that the landscape of alternative music would be wildly different without the efforts of producer, engineer, and drummer Butch Vig.
In the 1980s, Vig positioned himself as an up-and-coming wunderkind behind the mixing boards. With a flair for diving deep into the soul of the artists he worked alongside, Vig extracted massive sounds through an open-minded yet disciplined approach.
"When I started making records, the biggest thing was trying to make them sound good," recalled Vig when I spoke with him in a previous interview I had with him. "Especially because our gear was so limited when we started, and we had no money. We were buying cheap, secondhand microphones and didn't have a lot of outboard effects, so we had to figure out ways to be creative. And I was trying to figure out how to get a good drum sound, how to get a guitar sound, and then saying, 'Okay, how do you mix a song?' I was learning how to engineer and produce, and you can hear that in the progression of records I've made."
As the man who proved pivotal in harnessing the mighty sounds of watershed '90s records such as Smashing Pumpkins' Gish (1991) and Siamese Dream (1993), Nirvana's Nevermind (1991), and Sonic Youth's Dirty (1992), Vig's approach to production transitioned toward a focus on both sonic and psychological dynamics.
"As I went along, I got better as an engineer in terms of figuring out how to use the studio as a tool," Vig recounted to me. "I realized that producing records is 50 percent psychological, maybe even more so. So now, the biggest part of making records was understanding the artist, their vision, and how they function. It doesn't matter if it's a solo artist or a band, it's important that I get in there and understand that dynamic, so I can pull out the best performances I can get. And I didn't understand that early on; I just thought, 'Well, I've just got to get good drum and guitar sounds. that's how I'm going to make this record.' But that's only the tip of the iceberg, and that's the biggest thing that I've learned along the way."
The flipside to Vig's production exploits was his equally-important tenure as founding member, drummer, and producer of the ever-fresh and hyper-interesting alternative outfit Garbage. Not afraid to pull double duty, Vig's vision to shake up a stagnating scene manifested once he synced up with Shirley Manson (vocals, keyboards), Duke Erikson (bass, keyboards), and Steve Marker (guitars, keyboards).
"Garbage came out of us wanting to do something different than stick to only drums, guitar, and vocals," Vig said. "We were influenced by everything around us – not just rock – but we loved all genres of music. We really did want to embrace the technology, which was kind of lo-fi in how we approached it at the time. But we've always been a techie sort of band, even up to our last record, No Gods No Masters. When we make a record, there's always a little bit of sound design and some freaky sonics going on because that's so deeply ingrained in our DNA."
During a break from the musical madness, I got another chance to talk with Vig about Garbage's latest Anthology project, what it was like to work with Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan, his love for vinyl, and what's next as he moves forward.
Andrew Daly: What was the genesis of the Anthology project?
Butch Vig: Well, we put out Absolute Garbage after the first four records, and that did great. Since we've had three more albums since then, we recently wanted to look back on the band's entire history. We just decided it was time to do another retrospective and went back and remastered pretty much everything on there. There are [also] some new things on there and some new mixes, and we just felt like now was the right time to get this out there for the world to hear.
AD: What was your approach during the remastering process?
BV: So, typically, I go back and listen to how the original tape sounded and go from there. But a lot of the early stuff was all mixed to analog tape, and the last few records were all mixed digitally in Pro Tools, and so, when we were putting all this stuff together, I knew that it needed continuity. So, we took all the older stuff and newer stuff and worked to give it a vibe where it's all connected. If you go back and listen to the original masters of all our records – they're all mastered separately – there are some sonic differences. So, finding that continuity was the most important objective.
AD: What are some challenges of remastering tracks recorded to tape instead of digitally?
BV: Well, the funny thing is that back in the day, we would print mixes to tape, but we'd print a bunch of them. You'd have the final vocal, the instrumental, and then sometimes I'd do a radio mix, a video mix, or maybe a radio edit. And a lot of times, some of the decisions that went into the final master on the album were made when we would edit between different takes. So, while we were putting the Anthology together, Billy Bush, our engineer, and I would have to listen to a version of a song and go, "Well, none of the actual mixes sound like that this. Is this a composite from three different mixes?" So, it was a bit of a head-scratcher for us to go back – especially through the first four records – and find which versions we originally used and compiled together to develop a final master.
AD: Do you prefer analog or digital?
BV: I've always really liked the sound of analog tape. But digital is so good now that I no longer have a preference. To me, they both sound great. I know some people swear by analog, and some people swear by digital; they both have their strengths and, in some instances, flaws. But I embrace both mediums moving forward, and as I said, the last few records Garbage has done have been completed within Pro Tools. And I'm really pleased sonically with how the tracks sound, so I think digital is great.
AD: Does your approach change when mastering specifically for vinyl?
BV: Well, I still love listening to vinyl. And part of the reason is that I like that I need to commit a chunk of my time to the music. When you put a record on, and it's approximately 20 minutes per side, you're going to sit there and listen to the music. And then you walk over, flip it over, and commit again. But when you're mastering, you have to be careful; you can't hit the levels like you can with a digital ceiling. So, you have to leave more dynamics, but I think that's a good thing for vinyl. So, usually, when we are prepping the masters to be sent out to the mastering engineer, there are two: one for digital files and one for vinyl. Because, like I said, you have to leave some room for dynamics; you can't just use a flat line fed into a compressor like a lot of digital mixes are. And that's why vinyl sounds so good, because it has more openness and more dynamics.
AD: When you reflect on Garbage's second era (around 2012 to the present) compared to its first, from about 1995 – 2005). how do you measure the band's progression?
BV: When I listen to our first record, I love it, but it sounds bizarre to me. We were pushing ourselves in terms of what he could do sonically in the studio, and that whole record is built around using samplers. And this was before Pro Tools, so we'd record to tape and then add drum loops and sound effects into samplers and manipulate them. And then we'd go back to the analog tape, and eventually, we would mix it all in. But now you can do all that within Pro Tools, so it's much easier than it was back then. So, when I listen back to everything, I hear a much more confident band, especially in Shirley's [Manson] writing and singing.
When we did the first few records, we were still figuring out who we were as a band. But now we know who we are and have a sound we've worked to achieve. I can't really articulate what that is, but when you hear a track on the radio, you know that it’s Garbage. It's a sensibility for how we play together, and I think the decisions that we make in terms of sonics, the vibe, and Shirley's voice, glue it all together. Shirley's writing and singing are just so powerful, and she has so much confidence now. And you can hear that in the tracks and how Garbage sounds now.
A young Butch Vig in the studio. Courtesy of Steve Marker.
AD: In many ways, Garbage seemed like a retort to the traditional guitar music of the '90s. Was that the intent?
BV: By the time we went in the studio to make the first Garbage album, I think I had done like 1,000 rock records. (laughs). Because before Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, I recorded all these bands on indie labels like Sub Pop, Touch and Go, Mammoth, Frontier Records, and a lot of bands in the local Madison, Wisconsin scene. And I was getting bored of the guitar, bass, and drums format, and I knew I wanted to do something fresh and new with my own music. I was excited by records by artists like Public Enemy, that were making these crazy soundscapes using samplers in the studio. That direction just sounded so intense, and I wanted to embrace the new technology, bring that into the studio, and use that as part of the writing process. So, that's why we made the first Garbage record the way we did; we didn't want to make a traditional alternative grunge rock record.
AD: You've been pulling double duty for a long time as both a producer and a drummer. What is the line of demarcation between being a drummer and a producer?
BV: It's interesting wearing two hats as a drummer in a band and being a producer working with other artists, as they're two totally different things. When I'm in a band, I can play drums, guitar, and keyboards. I can write music and contribute to writing lyrics. I can be an engineer, and on any given day, I can order the meals and decide what wine we're going to drink. (laughs) Or I can do nothing and sit back and let Shirley, Duke [Erikson], and Steven [Marker] take over and enjoy being in the band. But it's our music, and that's fulfilling in a very different way than when I'm working strictly as a producer. As a producer, I always have to remember this: it's the artists' music and their vision. And so, I see it as my job to help the artists find that vision. So, they're two different things, and I have to separate myself from it all and look at it objectively. I also need to remember to understand psychologically what the artist is going through. I have to measure where their headspace is, why, and what kind of record you're trying to make. But I'm fortunate that I've been able to do both successfully in my career because it's good for my brain to flip between the two rather than be just a drummer or producer. There is something about going back and forth between the two that has really been healthy for me.
AD: What first sparked your interest in the drums?
BV: Very early on, I fell in love with Keith Moon, but I quickly realized that I couldn't play like Keith Moon. (laughs) But I could play [like] Charlie Watts or Ringo Starr, so I used to play along to my mom's Stones and Beatles records. I would put headphones on and play along, and that's how I started to home in on my style. I think it's interesting, though, because when I look back on it, I think drumming was instrumental in my becoming a producer.
When I realized how musical Ringo's drum parts were and that they fit in with the songs so perfectly, that was huge for me. Because when you look at someone like Keith Moon, he basically played a drum solo over the entire song. (laughs) He was brilliant, but he just played fills all over the place, and that's why he was so exciting to watch. It worked within the context of the Who, but the Who's music is a lot different than most pop songs.
So, I came to appreciate drummers like Ringo because the drums fit into the song. I took that to heart, and of all the bands I've been in, if you listen to my drumming, it's pretty simple. I don't really play too fancy; I stick with musical parts that serve the song first and foremost. It's now in my nature to keep stuff simple and make sure that the drums work in the context of the music.
AD: One of your earliest bands was Spooner. What lessons did you take away from that era of your career?
BV: Spooner was instrumental in my becoming a music producer because we made all those records DIY. We had to finance those early Spooner records and then go into the studio and work with engineers. And when we did that, I absorbed everything I could because I was interested in producing. And as we kept evolving as a band and writing songs, I eventually became the de facto producer of Spooner. I liked that it gave me a chance to experiment in the studio.
Spooner's records were done on an eight-track unit, and it was good for me because I had to learn to keep it simple. I didn't have unlimited tracks, so I had to make decisions that were in accordance with that. And sonically, we were very limited with what we had in the studio in terms of gear, so we had to figure out ways to be creative to get the records to sound interesting. I learned a lot from it. It was instrumental for me to produce those Spooner records because I learned a lot of tricks that I would need going forward.
AD: What was your template for the Smashing Pumpkins album Gish?
BV: Oh, man. I was totally thrilled to work with the Pumpkins. When I met Billy [Corgan], I realized we had a lot of common ground, and we shared a vision that led us to push each other in the studio, and the results were amazing. So, when we made Gish, I think we spent about 42 or 43 days recording and mixing it. And for me, that was like making a Steely Dan record at the time because I had made so many indie rock records really fast, in like two, three, or four days.
But suddenly, we had the luxury of spending time getting the sounds and performances perfect. We could home in on the vocals, guitars, and drums and then spend time mixing all of them. So, we raised the bar pretty high. But I always felt like one of the reasons that those records sounded so good is that Billy and I shared a lot of sensibilities in terms of what we thought the Pumpkins could be. And like I said, he pushed me really hard, but I pushed him really hard, too, and it worked.
In Part Two, we’ll talk with Butch Vig about his work with Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, and Vig’s plans for the future.