Butch Vig

by Greg Prato

Behind the drum kit of the band Garbage (fronted by the Scottish thunderbolt Shirley Manson), sits Butch Vig, who as producer of landmark albums by both Nirvana (Nevermind) and Smashing Pumpkins (Gish and Siamese Dream), led the '90s grunge/alt-rock revolution.

How did Butch develop those golden ears? As we learn here, the man who burnished "Smells Like Teen Spirit" into a hit grew up on West Side Story and "MacArthur Park."

Butch produces Garbage and writes songs with the band, also comprised of guitarists Steve Marker and Duke Erikson, and augmented by former Jane's Addiction bassist, Eric Avery. They formed in 1995, but have never issued a full-length live performance on DVD. That has finally changed with the release of One Mile High…Live (via Eagle Rock Entertainment). Filmed at the Ogden Theatre in Denver on October 6, 2012, it was recorded while the band was touring in support of their first new studio album in seven years, Not Your Kind of People.

Butch says that one thing you won't hear on the DVD is perfection. Finding this balance between perfection and feel is the touchstone of a Butch Vig production, and according to Butch, this pursuit of perfection also marks the fundamental difference between Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's discuss the new DVD, One Mile High…Live.

Butch Vig: Well, it's a pretty honest representation of what we sound like live. It's a pretty simple live DVD. There's not a lot of extra backstage footage, there's nothing fancy about it other than we just wanted to do a proper DVD where we're playing live. So you hear what the tour was like for us last year. I think we ended up doing 150 shows worldwide and we did this about halfway through the tour. It's pretty obvious when you see it that Shirley is definitely the focus of the band. She really controls the show, she's the ringleader.

The crowd was great there. We're pretty happy with how it sounded. Being a producer, I know that a lot of live DVDs, the bands go back and re-record everything and fix everything so it's perfect, but we didn't do that. So you hear us "warts and all." There are lots of little mistakes in there, but that's part of what's fun about playing live: no matter how many shows you do, there's always going to be something a little bit different every night.

But we're pretty pleased with how it turned out, and the mix I think turned out good, too. It's always good if you can crank it up on a 5.1 system.

Songfacts: Which songs would you say shine the most in a live setting on the DVD?

Butch: Hard for me to be objective about that. We've been there and played pretty much everything at some point on a tour from our new album, Not Your Kind of People. Because they're new songs, those were always the most fun tracks for me to play. But some of them are always good, like I still love playing "Stupid Girl," and I still love playing "Push It" - that was a big track from Version 2.0 for us and still gets my adrenaline going every night.

Songfacts: And something else really cool about that tour and the DVD, I've always felt that Eric Avery is one of rock's best bassists. How is it playing with him as part of the rhythm section?

Butch: Eric's amazing. He makes me a way better drummer because he is just absolutely rock solid. He also plays with a great feel. We're pretty much a four/four rock band, but he has this great sort of grindy feel, and he gives it just enough swing so the songs, they breathe a little bit. He's also just one of the coolest guys to hang with. He's a foodie, and one of the perks of getting to travel all over the world is you get to go to really good restaurants. He's a total star and it was awesome to tour with him last year.

Songfacts: It was kind of a letdown that he's not going to be touring with Nine Inch Nails, after they announced the touring lineup was going to include him and also Adrian Belew.

Butch: Yeah. He literally spent a year on tour with us, and to walk off stage and go into rehearsals and then go back on tour for 18 months, I think it may be he just needed to chill out some and be able to get into his own head space for a while.

Songfacts: Looking back, how would you say you write your best songs? I've heard artists in the past say that some of their best songs come to them the easiest, whereas other people say it takes a while, and then others like to write on their own and others like to collaborate.

Butch: Oh, man. Well, every song really has a life unto its own and its own story. There's no set way that I write or Garbage writes. Some songs come really quickly, some are hard bursts and you have to really slave over them. Usually, to me, though, the songs that you work on really hard don't always turn out as good: if there is something not quite right, that's why you have to work on it so much. To me, the songs that happen quickly are the ones that become the better songs, maybe because you're less self-conscious about it when it happens that quick. Not really sure.

I'm just trying to think in the back of my head over our records... "Bleed Like Me," I came up with that song idea in about five minutes and just started playing it on acoustic guitar. When I showed it to the band, we recorded the song really quickly. It's on the Bleed Like Me album, our fourth album.

"Stupid Girl" started when Steve sampled a drum loop by The Clash. We started putting down this bass groove over it to try to get something kind of groovacious. And then Duke started playing that little [music sounds - play the clip]. Shirley started singing, and the whole song was written in about 30 minutes.

"Not Your Kind of People," the title track from our new album - I live in Los Angeles, and I was stuck in a typical LA traffic jam on the 10 Freeway, not moving, with six lanes of cars on either side of me. I just had this title, "We are not your kind of people." I felt like there was a certain feeling of alienation sitting amongst all these cars: no one's conversing and everybody's in their own world.

All I had was that title, and I texted Shirley, and said, "I think I've got a title for a song, 'Not Your Kind of People.'" And that night she started writing all these words and we came in the next day and sat down around this little coffee table - Duke and Steve and I and Shirley - and we wrote the song in about 15 minutes. Just with a couple of acoustic guitars and Shirley singing. Again, it just came from having a title in that case. There was no music.

Once we wrote that, we felt like it was the cornerstone for the new album. It helped us define where we were going to go with some of the other songs.

Songfacts: And since you were discussing some Garbage tunes, what led to the writing of the song "Special"?

Butch: Steve came up with the chord progression. He was just playing that on electric guitar. We had gone up to a friend's house in Friday Harbor north of Seattle for a writing session. We went up there for about three weeks. We set up a little makeshift studio and we were sort of jamming on ideas. Steve was playing that chord progression, and Shirl had been listening to The Pretenders a lot, because we're all huge fans of Chrissie Hynde. She started to channel some of Chrissie Hynde into the way she sings that song, and there are even a couple of lyrical references to The Pretenders.

Then when we actually started recording the song, Duke put down that jangly twelve string riff. Between that and Steve's chorus, that was basically how the song was written. When we finished the song we realized that because it had some references to The Pretenders, maybe we should call up Chrissie Hynde and make sure she's cool with it. So we sent her the track - Shirley knows her - and she loved it. She said, "Just do your thing, man. I love the song." So it was cool.

When that tour for Version 2.0 came, we played Wembley in London and she came up on stage and sang with us. When Chrissie Hynde came up, that was a real treat, man, because she's one of our heroes.

Songfacts: Yeah, the first couple of Pretenders albums are among my favorite all time rock albums.

Butch: Yeah. They're amazing.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Butch: Well, I'm really a pop geek. I listen to all kinds of music. My mom is a music teacher, so when I was really young I got exposed to all sorts of styles of music. I've never felt elitist about just rock music or whatever. I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and the Tijuana Brass and The Beatles and polka music and country western and musicals. A lot of musicals, like Camelot and West Side Story. I've always been a sucker for a good hook, whether it's a lyric or a melody or a drum fill or a guitar riff.

But I still love a lot of classic songwriters from the late '60s that I was exposed to early, especially people like Jimmy Webb, who wrote "MacArthur Park," which has that brilliant line, "Someone left the cake out in the rain." The imagery of that line is what sticks in your head when that song is over. I'd never heard anybody write a lyric like that before. And he also wrote "Wichita Lineman," which is probably one of my top ten favorite songs of all time.

But there are so many different ways that you can write. My parents listened to Simon & Garfunkel a lot, so I was exposed to their music early on. Paul Simon is just an absolute genius songwriter. Even though they recorded folk records - they both had really beautiful, lovely voices - there's a lot of socio-political things going on in Paul Simon's lyric writing, and especially in a song like "America," which is again about dissatisfaction of the views back in the late '60s. Their parents probably didn't understand it, but a whole generation of people who were following Simon & Garfunkel did. To me those are the kinds of songs that really resonate - they can sort of reflect. Great art reflects on what's happening in the culture and what's happening in the world around it at the time.

And I'm a sucker for a great throwaway pop song as much as anybody, like "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy." But from a lyrical standpoint, it doesn't have any weight at all.

Songfacts: You've been interviewed a lot about Nirvana's Nevermind, but I'm just curious, do you ever find yourself thinking to yourself, "Holy shit… I'm the person who produced Nevermind!"

Butch: Well, that record changed my life. I didn't talk about it for a while, especially when I started Garbage, because I got tired, quite frankly, of people asking, "What was it like to work with Kurt Cobain?" And then a couple of years ago we started working on the 20th anniversary [of Nevermind], the box set. I'm good friends with Dave Grohl, and we started going through a lot of the archives and finding unreleased tracks and rehearsal tapes and alternate mixes and things like that. And Dave and Krist [Novoselic] and I did a lot of press for it when it came out. It was really cool to go back and revisit the record, especially going through photos and a lot of the different tracks. It was a pleasure to work on the box set.

When we went on this tour for the last year in Garbage, I did a lot of press for Garbage, but almost every time we would do a meet and greet, there would be a lot of fans that would bring Nirvana CDs or vinyl to sign. And I have no problem signing that, because I'm really proud of that record. It fundamentally changed my life.

Songfacts: You produced what I consider the Smashing Pumpkins' best two albums.

Butch: Well, Pumpkins are a pretty amazing band. The first time I met them I was taken by their appearance, just how they looked. With D'arcy, there's this cool looking bass player, and James Iha being Asian, the second guitarist, and Billy was this tall gangly guy - he had long hair at the time. Then they came out and played this incredible psychedelic rock that was just crushing. And Jimmy Chamberlain, an incredible, incredible drummer. I love working with them.

Gish was fairly easy to do, but Siamese Dream was probably the hardest record I've ever recorded, just because of the sheer intensity - Billy and I really set the bar high in terms of how we wanted it to sound. There was a lot of pressure on them to make a great record, and the band was really starting to fall apart at the time - a lot of drugs and they just weren't communicating. We spent five months recording the record in Atlanta, basically recording every day, almost seven days a week.

Then we came to LA and we mixed for six straight weeks, every day, including Sundays. I was mentally and physically completely wiped out when the record was done, but I'm really proud of how that record sounds. I think it's because of the amazing dynamics: the songwriting is really ambitious and the band was playing at the peak of their powers. Even though Billy ended up doing a lot of the guitar and bass overdubs, the band, when we would cut a song, they would all play live in the studio with Jimmy. And D'arcy and James contributed to the record also by just being there, talking about the arrangements and the performances and stuff. So it was a very intense experience.

I kept a journal making that record. I started to go back and read it, but it was a little too hard for me to go back, because I immediately went back into the zone that we were in in the studio, and there were some dark days in there when we were making that record. But I'm really pleased with how it turned out.

Songfacts: Did you ever show that journal to Billy?

Butch: No, not yet. I'd have to go back and sort of re-write it so it would make sense to someone who was going to read it. And maybe I will at some point. Maybe I should dig it out and start chipping away at it and see if I can get it into some sort of form that would be presentable to fans of the band. And I'm sure it would be, because there are some great stories in there. But I might have to edit some of them. Either that or don't edit it at all and leave everything in there so it's all the glorious bits and all the dirt. Just leave it all in there in its glory.

Songfacts: I would absolutely love to read something like that.

Butch: Cool. When I get a chunk of time off maybe I'll do that. But I don't have any free time to get into a writing mode at the moment.

Songfacts: Something Billy's talked about in the press - and I don't know if you want to confirm or deny this - he's said that on specifically Siamese Dream that he and Jimmy played the vast majority of everything.

Butch: That's true. They would go into the big room and cut the song live. But what I was really trying to keep was Jimmy's drums. And then we would go back and overdub everything.

Billy probably played 90% of the guitar and bass parts. Someone played some keyboards and Billy played Mellotron and we had a cello player come in and play. A couple of string players came in for "Disarm."

James is a great guitarist and D'arcy was a good bass player, but Billy Corgan is just technically better. He's better than both of them, and the band knew that and I knew it. So it was like, "Well, if we want this to be as good as it's going to be, we want the best possible performance out of it." So Billy ended up doing probably over 90% of the overdubs on the record.

But he had a "feel thing" with Jimmy. He really understood Jimmy's drumming. Jimmy had this push/pull thing. He wasn't like a metronomic drummer, you know. He wasn't like a perfect 4/4 click track drummer - I think we used a click track on one or two songs on Siamese Dream. It moves around a lot, and Billy really understood Jimmy's playing. It was like a thick fence, almost, but he was really able to lock in with Jimmy, which is not always easy to do when you have to come back and overdub, when you're not playing live with someone.

Songfacts: What are some similarities and differences between working with Billy Corgan and Kurt Cobain in the studio?

Butch: Well, Kurt had no patience for doing anything more than a couple of times. Contrary to the slacker mentality, he wanted to make a great sounding record. When we finished Nevermind, he loved it. He later had to kind of diss it, because you can't really retain your punk roots or your punk authenticity and say, "Man, I'm glad we sold ten million records." So he had to start to diss the record. But when we finished it, he loved it. And then both Dave and Krist Novoselic confirmed that when we were doing all the interviews for the Nevermind 20th.

Kurt wanted to make a very ambitious record, but I'd be lucky to get a couple of vocal takes and get him to go back and double track his guitar. If you didn't get it in a couple of takes, he would put the guitar down in frustration.

Billy, on the other hand, is more of a perfectionist. He would work on a section of a song for hours or a solo section or whatever. He didn't care, he would just do whatever it took. I really respected that, because I always wanted to work with someone who wanted to get things as close to being perfect as you can. There's no such thing, really, as "perfection" in a performance, but there is a way to get a feel that just feels so good you know you've got it right. I totally loved and respected Billy's work ethic.

Songfacts: I interviewed Billy Corgan two years ago for Rolling Stone, and he said he would "love to" work with you again. So would you be up for working with the Smashing Pumpkins again?

Butch: Yeah. He lives part time out here in LA and I bump into him every now and then. We email each other back and forth. They just worked on a box set, and I went back and remixed the first two tracks that we did and the seven inch that came out before Gish came out, with "La Dolly Vita" and "Tristessa." It was cool. He just sent it to me, I did it in my home studio and mixed it very au naturel. I added very little to the songs. I went back and listened to the original mixes and Billy and I processed them quite a bit. We have this chorus and flanging and a lot of compression EQ and reverb and delays and stuff. It was refreshing to go back and mix it - just put the faders up and put a little echo on Billy's voice and mix it. And that's what I did.

Billy was really pleased with the results, and we started talking: "We should do some tracks together at some point." That was right when I was working on the Garbage record. Between finishing that and then going on tour, that has taken up a big chunk of my time. So yeah, we might do something at some point. I just don't know when. But I do keep in touch with him.

June 18, 2013. Garbage's official site is at garbage.com. Follow Butch on Twitter at twitter.com/butchvig.
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Comments: 3

  • Tim Barrett- Krock 101.5 from OahuGarbage...Nirvana...Smashing Pumpkins...Foo Fighters.....Take a break Butch, you deserve it! Thanks for the great work! I would read that journal too!
  • King Of The Horseflies from Brushton, NyHow lucky it was that Billy's perfectionism appealed to Butch Vig. He spent so many hours on that record and that is why it is (IMO) one of the best albums of all time. Actually it's tied in first place with Mellon Collie.
  • Shawnerz from Any, MdGreat interview. It's really cool to know what goes on "behind the music" so to speak. ;)
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