Butch Vig on Raygun

By Jim Greer

For a man who's overseen - you might even say formented - a fair number of watershed moments in rock's development throughout the '90s, Butch Vig seems remarkably well-grounded. Famously well-grounded, in fact - one music mag called him "legendarily ego-free" in the course of a profile of the latest of his major accomplishments, his band Garbage, and the more you talk to the guy, the more appellation proves apt. But you're a writer, and it's your job to proble and pick at the facade, to find the self-infatuation behind the shell of humility. No dice, jack. Vig is not only unfailingly matter-of-fact towards his own considerable accomplishments, but a nice guy to boot - which is not to say devoid of opinions or unwilling to voice them.

From his homebase in Madison, Wisconsin (a place that may also be described using the words "legendarily ego-free"), Brian "Butch" Vig, a drummer and former film student, began producing bands from his studio, Smart Studios, in about 1987. He became in short order more or less the house producer for renowed Chicago postpunk indie Touch and Go (home of Big Black, and Die Kreuzen, among others), and, partly as a result of his growing rep, began producing records for Sub Pop and other indies. In 1991, following his work on the Smashing Pumpkins' well-received Gish, he produced a major label album for a band from Seattle called Nirvana. The Album, Nevermind, changed the map of mainstream rock and pushed to critical mass, for good or ill, the "alternative" rock "movement." Shortly after its release, he began production on what would be the Smashing Pumpkins' watershed, Siamese Drea which further expanded alt-rock dominance and made Vig almost as much of a household name as his artists. Vig went on to produce records by Sonic Youth and Freedy Johnston, then through a series of events found himself reigniting a hybrid of his own bands (the minorly successful Spooner and Firetown) with Duke Erickson and Steve Marker to form Garbage (after spotting an Angelfish named Shirley Manson on MTV), whose melding of pop and electronica proved not only (again) prescient but wildly successful. Jeez.

RG: When you started Garbage, why'd you decide to go into the direction, musically, that you did? Given your history it wasn't an obvious choice.

BV: When I got caught up in producing the whole alternative/punk thing, it was like record after record, some of 'em in like three or four days. There was the whole Touch and Go scene, and then because of those records I started doing stuff for Sub Pop. And then all of a sudden I worked on these records that blew up and became massive, and uh...besides just working hardcore in bands, I think I wanted to go back and just kind of hang out and play music with Duke and Steve again. I don't know that it was a reaction to that whole thing, but I do know that I was getting tired of recording guitars and bass and drums.

And at the time our management offered me some remixes to do. And she said Shannon O'Shea said, you should just do whatever you want. And instead of me trying to do a club mix, I wanted to turn it into a pop song. That was the first time that Duke and Steve and I started working together again. I'd bring them in, they were playing guitar, and I was like, let's just write a new part for this. We'd basically get a tape and erase everything and record all new parts. And I had so much fun doing that because it was so liberating from having to make sure you get the right guitar sound. We did stuff for nine inch nails, House of Pain, Depeche Mode, and U2.

And after we started doing that, I think that we thought it might be cool to put a band together, and do that, write pop songs, or rock songs, but also being in techno and hip-jazz and whatever. Use the technology to fuck around with the songs. 'Cause to me, that was extremely interesting.

RG: And You'd kind of gotten into the technology while you'd been producing?

BV: Yeah. Definitely. I started using samplers even back on Never- mind. There was stuff where I would pop things in and out, or we would fuck with the guitars a little. But that record's still very much the way the band sounded. Then, when I did Siamese Dream with Billy [Corgan], we got even more into using samplers. Even though, again, it still sounds like a guitar record, a rock record, we were fucking with the sound on it.

RG: All of which points up the fact that people have traditionally slotted these things into differing categories, but there's a lot of crossover.

BV: It's weird. I don't think people have to be elitist about it. It's so like, "Well, if we're making a rock record, you can't do techno," or "Well, this how we play, so you can't manipulate my sound." A lot of artists, and I think more so younger artists, have a tendency to think they have to adhere to some sort of philosophy or direction. Or not even artists, but people who listen to music, they'll say, "Well, I only listen to techno," and they'll snub pop music, or snub hip-hop or jazz or whatever.

RG: Are you still interested in producing other bands at some future point, maybe when Garbage is over or whatever?

BV: Totally. I love working in the studio. I mean, I love working with Garbage, but I definitely want to produce again. We've just been so consumed twenty-four-seven by Garbage that I really haven't had time to do anything.

RG: Who'd be on your wish list for future production work - people you'd want to work with but haven't thus far?

BV: I haven't really thought about the ramifications if I were to actually do that, but it'd be people whose music I really love: I love Radiohead. I love the Verve's record. I love the Chemical Brothers, but what am I gonna bring to them? They're fucking way smarter than I am. I'm not gonna be able to do anything for them. I love Beck. I did that remix for "Jackass" from the last album, and I'd love to be able to work with him, because I love his sensibility. I love what he's doing.