A Conversation With: Butch Vig, Part One
Butch Vig is a very easy person to talk to. On the surface, this doesn't sound so revelatory, except when you consider his pedigree in the rock arena: his alternative outfit Garbage has received numerous awards and a rabid following among critics and listeners alike; he is a talented musician who has played drums for a variety of artists, as well as producing their material. But the one thing he will go down in the history for is helming the landmark album, Nevermind, by legendary (and at this juncture, mythological) band Nirvana. His latest foray finds Vig treading the waters of alt-country with Emperors Of Wyoming, his eponymous band debut – which has already gotten critical praise.
I got the chance to sit down and talk with the multi-talented Vig prior to his appearance at this year's Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame ceremony and concert, where Nirvana was officially inducted. Our conversation was as eclectic and thought-provoking as I would have expected.
DG: I understand the Emperors Of Wyoming album came out awhile ago overseas, and is now being released domestically – is that right?
BV: Yeah – this is the first domestic release. It came out as an album proper in Europe about 2 ½ years ago. We've compiled a couple of expanded editions of the original, including two covers: one is a cover of an obscure Afghan Whigs tune, “Rebirth Of The Cool.” We kinda changed up their version considerably, so I reached out to Greg Dulli via email and shared ours. He gave us his blessing, which was really cool. The other day, some radio station played our cover and a tune off of the latest Afghan Whigs release, Do To The Beast back-to-back, and I thought they really complemented one another.
DG: And what were the musical inspirations behind Emperors Of Wyoming? I've seen my colleagues toss-off labels ranging from alt-country to Americana/roots rock. What bag would you place it in?
BV: I mean, if I have to lump it into a particular category, I guess I'd agree with the alt-country/Americana label. I and fellow bandmate Phil (Davis) both grew up in Wisconsin, and found ourselves listening to country giants on the radio like Johnny Cash and George Jones. Later, we were turned on to folks like Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band and Tom Petty. Those are influences the four of us in the band share. Of course, most people know me for making big, rock records, or are fans of my rock/techno hybrid Garbage, but the Midwestern country influences have been with me since childhood. What was liberating about the project is that we went into it with no agenda, no musical blueprint, and no deadline. Most tunes were recorded simply – only a couple of tracks utilize overdubbing.
DG: Funny you should mention that – as I was listening to the album last night, I could hear the Tom Petty influence, and other tracks reminded me of early Joe Henry, before he switched from alt-country to the blues.....
BV: Joe Henry? Hadn't thought of that, but I can definitely see what you're saying – actually, those are great reference points in terms of our approach to the music on this album.
DG: I also sense a certain resurgence in the popularity of Americana/roots music of late, sparked in part, I think, by the enormous success of groups like The Civil Wars.....
BV: I think music has always tended to go in cycles in terms of popularity, especially what gets played on the radio, but I also think the stripped-down feel of folk and alt-country is a reaction to the prevalence of all the slick rock productions that are out there. That sound and genre will always be popular on the radio, but people crave the unadorned beauty of the human voice, without Auto-Tune and all that other hi-tech crap attached to it. Real country music hasn't lost that authenticity, and there will always be an audience for it. I was speaking with a writer the other day, and we both acknowledged there is a tremendous sense of power and immediacy when a person just walks on stage with a mic and guitar, and connects with the audience in a way that an arena-sized concert event can't.
DG: As someone who immerses himself in the open mic scene, I'd definitely agree: whenever I check out or perform at an open mic, it becomes apparent right off the bat that folk and country are not only held with the upmost respect, but have always been a fixture in that musical landscape.
BV: Exactly. There is no denying that impact is there, and will always be there.
DG: Take us into the making of the album – how did it all come together?
BV: Phil and me write the majority of the lyrics – occasionally, I'll come in with a line or two or contribute to the chorus. Most of the tunes start with Phil giving us a rough demo of him singing over acoustic guitar. From there, I'd load the tune into my Protools software. After seeing my daughter off to school, I'd head down to my home studio in my pj's and start laying down a drum track. That overdubbed track would then be uploaded to a file sharing service we all use. Frank (Anderson) loads what I did into Ableton Live, and adds banjo, pedal steel, accordion, etc. Pete (Anderson) puts on his bass part, and then come the harmony vocals or other embellishments. Approaching it this way allowed us to take our time bringing these songs to life.
At some point, we realized we had enough material for an album. Frank, whom we designated as the “file keeper” brought everything down to a studio in Milwaukee, where his buddy, engineer Alex Molinski helped bring a cohesiveness to our project with his mixing expertise. Obviously, the audio quality varied from the various home environments in which they were recorded, and Alex did a great job adding a uniformity that made it sound as if the whole thing was laid down in the same space. I give him tons of credit for that.
DG: I think it's fascinating how file-sharing on the Internet has opened up so many opportunities for artist collaboration that weren't available before.
BV: Technology has changed immensely over the last twenty years or so. When I first started learning my craft as a producer, the industry standard was analog tape: it seemed like a mysterious process: you had to book the recording time, assemble the musicians, etc. - not to mention the cost of studio time, which caused many to feel as if they were working against the gun to finish something. In many respects, that can be very daunting, especially for an emerging artist. I know that a lot of electronic musicians are using file-sharing as their industry standard these days – I'd hazard to guess we are the first alt-country act to utilize file-sharing to put together an album.
Most folks think, given the nature of our sound, that it's just the four of us, sitting in a room playing together, like in the old days. Twenty years ago, this option would not have been available to us, but I think the advent of this technology makes it possible to level the playing field – folks can create entire finished works on a laptop that are comparable to going into a basic studio environment, and there's lot to be said for that. But the fact that I know these guys so well, and we share the same musical background made it possible for us to integrate our individual performances as a whole – on some level, I feel we are all of the same mind, which also contributed to the uniformity of our sound, as if we had been in the same room.
DG: Considering your various music projects, I sense you are equally eclectic, musically-
speaking. Who are/were your influences, particularly as a drummer?
BV: Keith Moon was the first drummer that inspired me initially, probably because he was so crazy and flamboyant, and The Who defined how exciting and visually arresting rock'n'roll could be. I never had the patience to be a super technically-skilled drummer – I'm your basic 4/4 rock drummer, but I've also had an interest in songwriting, the art of production and audio engineering. Like most drummers, I started out just playing along to the records I dug listening to. While attending the University of Wisconsin, I found myself embracing the punk/new wave scene – it felt like my kind of music, and was immediately drawn to it. I love Roxy Music, The Sex Pistols, New York Dolls (David Johansen's outfit prior to going solo), The Pretenders, The Ramones......you get the picture. That's when I started seriously playing as a drummer in bands, during the heyday of that period.
DG: And of course, there's your resumé as a producer: looking at your roster, we see the expected rock names – Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, Against Me!, and needless to say, Nirvana (more on them later). But I was surprised to see that you had produced for seminal hip-hop artists House Of Pain (“Jump Around”) back in 1992. That's quite the trajectory......
BV: It started with me doing a remix of “Boomshalaklakboom” - they sent me the master tape of their recording, and told me, “Do whatever you want with it.” So I ended up trashing all the instrumentation and keeping the vocal track, and built it from the ground up. When I sent it back with the new backing tracks I had added, both the guys and their label Tommy Boy were totally jazzed about it. I realized sometime after that, that I was getting a little bored with rock'n'roll. By the time Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana were hitting it big on the radio, it seemed as if record labels went into “send in the clones” mode, and spawned a thousand imitators. I was just so bored by the guitars/drums/bass template, that creatively, I needed to branch out. On the House Of Pain project, I began messing around with samplers for the first time, and ironically that is what led me to wanting to start my own band. From the HOP remix, came gigs to remix Depeche Mode, U2, NIN and others – a light bulb went off in my head: “Maybe I should use this approach, and create a band around it”, and that's what led to me forming Garbage.
Next week: More on Garbage, their upcoming album, and Nirvana's induction into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame.