Behind The MusicWords Paul Watson
Though he might not have known it at the time, those 16 days recording Nevermind would change Butch Vig’s career forever, paving the way for a truly remarkable musical journey, and a bunch of hit records with The Smashing Pumpkins, The Foo Fighters, and Vig’s own band, Garbage, which has sold more than 17 million records over the last two decades. This legend of the game reveals some of his trade secrets, and shares some fond, unforgettable memories...
Your career speaks for itself, but first up, how did it all begin for you?
Well, I played in bands in high school in a small town in Wisconsin, and then I went to University in Madison. I started getting into the local music scene, and joined a band, which was sort of a power pop, new wave band called Spooner; and Duke [Erikson] from Garbage was the guitarist and lead singer at the time. I also got a degree in film, and ended up doing a lot of music for film; a lot of synth and abstract music, and that’s where I kind of got the recording bug. When I started Spooner with Duke, we were into our music and wanted to record, but we didn’t have any money, so we started going into some really funky demo studios - four-track and eight-track studios - and I just took an interest in the recording. I eventually got a four-track and put it in my apartment, and ended up doing sessions with Steve Marker, just for fun; and when we graduated from college, I was still playing in a band, but I decided to invest with Steve, and we rented this space on the east side of Madison, and that’s when we started Smart Studios in 1983. We each saved up about two grand, bought an eight-track, got a bunch of used gear, and moved into this funky warehouse and started recording punk rock bands [smiles].
And with no formal training, right?
I’d taken four semesters of electronic music, but that was really learning how to use Moogs and ARP 2600 synthesisers. I learned how to do field recording, going out into the real world and recording sound, and taking it back and manipulating it, like abstract film sound music. I found that really exciting, and I still love weird noises and odd things, which I try to squeeze into Garbage songs all the time.
How did you make a name for yourself in the early days?
It was around ‘89/’90 that I started to get noticed for my production work, in particularly by a band called Killdozer; they’re an acquired taste, but [Smashing Pumpkins frontman] Billy Corgan heard them and loved them, and called me; and then [Nirvana’s label] Sub Pop heard them, so they sent Nirvana to my studio. Really, Killdozer opened up all those doors for me, and of course Nirvana and The Pumpkins changed everything, and that allowed me to pick and choose my projects. That was around ‘91 and ‘92, and I was unbelievably busy. At that point, when Nirvana and The Pumpkins had been successful, I had probably done 1,000 records, working for indie labels, doing singles, demos, all sorts. I was kind of bored of guitar, bass, and drums, and I’d heard the Public Enemy records, and really loved the way that they were using samplers, so I bought an Akai S1000 sampler, started screwing around with that, and came up with the idea of using that on remixes. This led to me remixing for Beck, U2, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails; I would erase everything on the tape except for the vocals, and record all the music, and a lot of it was going through the sampler, so I could manipulate it. That was how the idea to form Garbage came about.
Garbage was really one of the first bands that embraced using the technology that way; the first record was still done with tape, but we had a couple of samplers, an Akai S1000 and a Kurzweil K2500, and a lot of things went through those; we used beats, hip hop, electronica, fuzzy guitars, weird noises, pop melodies - a lot of electronic stuff and programming.
You use a lot of plugins today; how much has that changed the game for you?
Plugins are leaps above what they were 10 years ago. People didn’t like the sound of plugins back then, and they had a point, as digital did not sound good. They’d use hardware, like an 1176, instead. Waves in particular uses a lot more sophisticated technology now to model the instruments, so when you pull up the plugin, a lot of them sound exactly the same as the hardware units. Technology is continually getting better and better, and it’s now higher resolution, so there’s less digital distortion and phasing going on; to me, Waves plugins are so musical, and the whole digital realm is now much more musical, too. I am always using the Waves CLA-76 compressor, and the C4 compressor; and I am a huge fan of the Renaissance AXX, especially on guitars – it’s great on electrics, but it’s absolutely phenomenal on acoustics; it’s a really nice, idiot-proof compressor – so straightforward to use. Also, something I call up all the time, especially when Shirley is doing her vocal in the studio, is the Waves RVOX. It works so good. For a fast compressor, you literally just put it on, and pull the threshold down, so it’s kicking down 4 or 5dB, and the peaks are 6dB, and it helps it sit right in the track. Again, it’s just really, really musical, as is all of the Waves kit.
What drives you the most?
To me, the most exciting point is when the song is not necessarily finished, but when it’s kind of coming to completion. That early state when a song becomes real - where it comes into its own being, and exists. In your head, you also start imagining what you can do with it, and what you’re going to add. When a song starts to fall into place, that’s my moment... And long may that continue!