Butch Vig: “I looked at bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin as these untouchable rock gods… But when punk came out, I thought, ‘I could do that’”

Legendary producer and Garbage drummer Butch Vig looks back on a life in alternative music with Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana and his 5 Billion In Diamonds project…

Butch Vig: “I looked at bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin as these untouchable rock gods… But when punk came out, I thought, ‘I could do that’”
Paul Brannigan
Bo Violet Vig

In April 1994, Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson came to London for a meeting with Korda Marshall, the founder of Infectious Records, a boutique indie record label then best known as the home of Ash and Pop Will Eat Itself. Friends for over a decade, Butch, Steve and Duke had been producing and engineering albums at their own Smart Studios recording facility in Madison, Wisconsin since 1983, and had started receiving commissions to remix tracks by music industry heavyweights including Nine Inch Nails, The Cult, Depeche Mode and Beck, which, in turn, led to discussions with Infectious about the trio initiating their own musical project. Ordinarily, the idea of three faceless studio technicians pitching for their own shot at the limelight would have seemed fanciful, but there wasn’t a record executive in the world who was unaware of Butch’s recent CV, given that the unassuming mid-westerner had produced hugely successful albums for Nirvana (Nevermind), Smashing Pumpkins (Gish, Siamese Dream), L7 (Bricks Are Heavy) and Sonic Youth (Dirty, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star). If Butch and his friends could parlay even a fraction of that success into their own project, Infectious Records could potentially have a hit record on their hands, as Korda Marshall understood.

The trio also had related business to attend to in London. Earlier in the year, while watching MTV’s alternative rock showcase 120 Minutes, Steve Marker had come across a video by a new Scottish band called Angelfish and been struck by the sultry vocals and charismatic presence of the group’s singer Shirley Manson. Steve felt sure that Shirley’s voice could perfectly complement the instrumental tracks he, Butch and Duke were writing, and the 27-year-old Edinburgh-born vocalist was sufficiently intrigued by the prospect of collaborating with the American trio to accept an invitation to lunch in London on April 8 for an initial meeting.

Butch remembers walking away from that lunch feeling excited about the prospect of working with Shirley. Indeed, he might have stayed longer with the smart, effervescent Scot if he hadn’t already scheduled Friday night drinks with producer pals Flood and Alan Moulder, best known for their work with U2/Depeche Mode and My Bloody Valentine, respectively, in a pub elsewhere in the capital. From the moment Butch greeted his friends, however, he sensed that something was amiss.

“I sat down and they were all looking at me,” he recalls, speaking to Kerrang! via a Zoom call from his home in Los Angeles’ fashionable Silverlake district on the morning of the U.S. presidential election. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ And they said, ‘Did you hear that Kurt Cobain is dead?’ I was just shellshocked. I left my pint, took a cab back to our hotel, went to Heathrow airport, and got the next flight back to America.

“On the same day, then, I met Shirley for the first time and found out that Kurt was dead. That, literally, was the change of guard in my life. Nirvana was a big part of my life, and though I didn’t know it at the time, Garbage, with Shirley, was about to become a big part of my life. That was the crossing.”

It’s now 25 years since Garbage’s self-titled debut album breached the UK Top 10: every successive album from the quartet, from 1998’s UK chart-topping Version 2.0 through to 2016’s Strange Little Birds, has been a global success, too. Next year, the group will release their seventh studio album, which is already recorded and mixed. But before then Butch has more new music to bring to the world, in the form of Divine Accidents, the eclectic and beautifully atmospheric second album from his side-project 5 Billion In Diamonds, a collaboration with British producer Andy Jenks and DJ James Grillo, which plays out like the coolest film soundtrack you’ve never heard. As we’ll discover over the course of a 45-minute conversation, it’s just the latest chapter in a fascinating life which Butch himself seems scarcely able to believe at times.

Let’s start at the beginning: who were the artists who first fired your love of music?
"I was lucky, because my mom was a music teacher, and she played everything, so I grew up listening to The Beatles alongside musicals and Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, so I was also inundated with polka music in the mornings and country music in the afternoons. But when I was in fourth or fifth grade I saw The Who on the Smothers Brothers [TV] show and saw [drummer] Keith Moon, and decided that I wanted to be in a rock band. I’d been learning piano, but somehow I convinced my mum to buy me a drum kit, and she did, and then I stopped playing piano – which I wish now I’d kept up. Then when I went to college, I discovered bands like the New York Dolls and Roxy Music and David Bowie and Slade… I loved Noddy Holder’s voice and I thought they were an awesome band. Around that time, I started playing in bands, too, and I met Duke."

Did making a career out of music seem possible then?
"Well, when I was growing up, I looked at bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin as these untouchable iconic rock gods, while I was just a normal human being. But when punk and new wave came out, I thought, ‘I could do that.’ The band that Duke and I started, Spooner, started writing our own music straight away, and started figuring out how to record, and that led to us making records for a local label in the Madison area. Eventually, when I finished university, I started a recording studio with Steve, the other guitarist in Garbage, and that led to tons of things, from recording punk bands to Killdozer and eventually on to The Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana."

While you were producing bands, were you still harbouring dreams of becoming a successful musician?
"Well, I’ve always liked being in bands. When I was in high school I was in a band called Eclipse, and after that I played in bands in Madison, none of whom had any success. Spooner got pretty popular on the local scene in Madison – we could play a club and put 500 people in there – and then Duke and I started a band called Fire Town, and we got signed to Atlantic Records. We made the record in my eight-track studio for about $5,000, and although we’d never played live, we made a video which got on MTV, on 120 Minutes, and then all the labels started calling. And then we went on that ride where we got a manager and a publisher and made a really expensive sophomore record – it cost about $400,000 – and everything that could go wrong happened. It was a tough experience. That record came out when hair metal bands were dominating the charts, and we were this Tom Petty-esque mid-western rock band, and so the record flopped miserably. The day I finished that ride I flew home to Madison after four months in New York and the very next day I started making the 12 Point Buck album with Killdozer, and we did that record in six days. I remember starting that record and thinking, ‘I’m free! Free, free at last!’ We had so much fun making that record. And that’s the record that Billy Corgan heard, and that Kurt Cobain heard: it’s a God-awful mess to listen to, but it turned a lot of people’s ears."

You worked with The Smashing Pumpkins on their 1991 album Gish. What were your initial impressions of Billy Corgan back then?
"They came up first to do a Sub Pop single, featuring Tristessa and La Dolly Vita, and we did it over a weekend. I was sorta blown away by how they looked; they looked like such a cool, exotic rock band, and when they started playing they were clearly not a punk rock band, their music had so much more beyond that. Billy was really driven and we hit it off right away. He would spent extra time to get a guitar sound, he would spent extra time to get a part really tight, and that was quite different from a lot of the punk bands that I would work with, who wanted to get things done fast and didn’t have the patience to devote time to making things perfect. When the Pumpkins came back to do Gish, Billy wanted to book 25 days to make the record, and another week to mix it, and I was thinking, 'Thirty days to make a record? Holy cow!’ I was overjoyed. Because up to that point I was doing the typical thing of using one day to track everything, doing all the lead guitars on vocals on day two, and then mixing everything on day three, and the record is done. I did hundreds of records like that. So to have a month making a record felt like we were making a Steely Dan album or something!"

Before you produced Nevermind for Nirvana, they demoed eight songs with you – including Lithium, Polly and In Bloom – at Smart Studios in April 1990. What was your first impression of those tracks?
"Sub Pop had sent me the first Nirvana record, Bleach, and I thought it was a good record, but overall, kinda one-dimensional. Except for the song About A Girl, where I heard a real Lennon/McCartney sophistication in Kurt’s songwriting. But they had more melodic, hookier songs in reserve – In Bloom could have been on the Sub Pop record – and I could tell that Kurt was really expanding his writing, melodically, and in terms of what he was doing with his voice, and the arrangements were getting a lot more sophisticated. So I was excited to work with them. There was some tension with Chad [Channing, drums], I sensed some frustration on Kurt’s part with Chad’s timing. Chad was a good drummer – you can hear that session and it sounds good – but when Dave Grohl joined the band, that brought a whole X-factor that no-one saw coming. He took Nirvana and put them on steroids."

Didn’t you get the call to produce Nevermind really late, like in the same week that the band were due to start recording at Sound City?
"Yeah, it was maybe 10 days from when we started recording, or maybe just a week. I’d been in the studio with Billy Corgan, because we were finishing some B-sides after Gish, and he kept asking me, ‘So, are you gonna work with Nirvana?’ because he knew I’d done that Sub Pop session, the Smart Sessions. And then I got a call from [Nirvana bassist] Krist Novoselic and he said, ‘Hey Butch, we really want you to do the record, but because Geffen doesn’t know who you are, would you be interested in engineering it and we’ll work with a big name producer?’ I asked who they were thinking of working with, and he rattled off names like [Ramones/Living Colour producer] Ed Stasium, and [R.E.M./Smithereens producer] Don Dixon, and other guys I knew, and I was thinking that it’d be great, I was sure that I’d learn a lot.

"So then I didn’t hear anything for three or four days, and then Krist called back and said, ‘We want you to do the record. We met with a bunch of those guys and we don’t like any of them.’ He was like, ‘Okay, so can you be in LA a week from Sunday and we’ll meet you there?’ I asked if I could hear the songs, and he said they’d send me a tape. A couple of days later, a cassette showed up in the mail, with a handwritten latter, and I put it on and heard Kurt going, ‘Hey Butch, it’s Kurt, we’re excited to come and rock out with you. We’re going to play a couple of new songs, and we’ve got Dave Grohl, and he’s the greatest drummer in the world.’ And then I hear the guitar intro to …Teen Spirit, and when Dave hit the drums, it just completely destroyed everything. They were recording on a boom box, and so there was unbelievable distortion, but I could sorta hear the song underneath the white noise static, like the ‘Hello hello hello’ part in …Teen Spirit. And then they played a bunch of other songs that ended up being on Nevermind, and I thought, 'Wow, these songs are great,' even though the recording quality on that cassette was horrible."

You’d met Kurt and Krist when they came to your studio in 1990, but what were your first impressions of Dave?
"He seemed kinda funny and goofy. We went into a rehearsal space in North Hollywood, a way bigger room than they were used to, and the first thing I noticed was that Dave didn’t have any mics on his drums, which was unusual. So I said, ‘Play me that first song that was on the cassette.’ And they started playing …Teen Spirit and it just exploded, it was so fucking loud and Dave was hitting the drums so hard. I remember just pacing around the room going, 'Oh my God, this is incredible.' And when the song ended Kurt said, ‘So what do you think, Butch?’ I was like, 'Just play it again!' I was blown away by how tight they sounded and how powerful Dave was and that they all seemed really, really focussed."

Nevermind became a hugely successful album, selling 10 million copies in the U.S. alone by the end of the ’90s. But as it exploded, the band started becoming a little dismissive of the sound of the record. Did that hurt?
"Well, none of us knew it was going to sell 20 or 30 million records, and I can understand why the band needed to distance themselves from that success because you can’t really be a punk rocker and then say, ‘We’re so happy, we’re selling millions of records.’ I know that when we finished the record, they loved it. And actually, when we did the 25th anniversary edition of Nevermind, I got to hang with Krist and Dave quite a bit, and they said, ‘Man, that record sounds so good, you did such a great job.’ It did hurt a little bit when in the press they were saying that I tried to make them sound like Wonder Bread or whatever. If you listen closely to Nevermind it’s a really simple-sounding record, there’s not a lot of over-production on it, it’s just recorded well and they played really well."

You gained work because of it, but did you lose some jobs because of it, too?
"No, I don’t think so. People figured out that I’d tapped into something in making that record; a lot of labels came calling because they wanted to see if I could bring that magic to whatever artists they had. But I found it sorta annoying in some ways, because people thought I had a formula, that I could take a folk artist or a blues guitarist and make them sound like Nirvana. I was pitched a lot of projects that did not make sense at all, and I turned them all down. The success of that record allowed me to pick and choose who I wanted to work with, and that was a great blessing."

When you first met Shirley Manson, what did you think of her?
"Well, first of all, I couldn’t understand her damn accent! We met her in this posh hotel – I think she thought we were staying there, which wasn’t true, we were in a much more low-brow place – and we drank some cocktails, had lunch for about three hours, and we talked about music and art and books and culture and politics. We just really hit off."

Garbage were a success right from the release of your second single, Only Happy When It Rains. After all your years in the background, and your previous struggles in other bands, did you enjoy being in the spotlight?
"Yeah, when Garbage took off it was fun. It was heady time. None of us expected the record to do so well, and none of us expected to tour that much – we had never played a live show together before we made the record – and all of a sudden we’re trying to figure out how to play these songs in front of an audience. We got to travel all over the world and I’d never had success like that even though I’d been in bands for my entire adult life. It was a thrill ride. I don’t think any of us thought it would last this long, but it’s 25 years later and we’re still together as a band, which is kinda mind-blowing. Making each Garbage record we kept setting the bar higher, and they’d take anywhere from nine months to a year in the studio, and then we’d tour for 18 months or longer, and suddenly two-and-a-half years would have gone by on one record. I didn’t produce very much for the next 10 years, really; 95 per cent of my time was devoted to Garbage."

Garbage took a hiatus after 2005’s Bleed Like Me, and it later emerged that the band had actually split in secret before during the making of the album. What happened?
"We were just burned out after 10 straight years. We needed that break. The music industry was changing, alternative rock wasn’t doing as well at radio or on the charts, and there was just a lot of negativity from labels, who were telling us, ‘Oh, you should be doing this now,’ because our music didn’t really fit in with what was topping the charts. I thought it’d be a year-long break, but it stretched into six or seven years. All of us needed to reclaim our sanity, and our own personal lives. If we hadn’t taken that time out and gone straight into making a fifth record, we probably would have split up."

Were your friendships suffering at the time?
"We had moments where it was difficult for us to be in the same room as each other. And I think part of that is because we were so close to each other, and in each other’s face all the time, that you start arguing about things like, 'What are we going to have for lunch?' You stop arguing about the music, and start arguing about everything else. It makes for some tense moments in the studio. Making Bleed Like Me there was a point where I just walked away from the sessions, because I felt like nobody was communicating – me too, none of us were getting along. So I flew back to LA and we took four or five months off, and then we brought in an outside producer to see if that would help. And straight away we realised we didn’t need anyone else, because we’re all way too opinionated. And so that gave us the perspective for the four of us to get back in a room together and write. But even that tour was tough, we needed to get home."

When you made the first 5 Billion In Diamonds album, what was the impetus there?
"I’m really good friends with James Grillo and Andy Jenks. James lives in Southampton and Andy lives in Bristol, he has Christchurch Studios there, and James has a huge record collection – probably 20,000 pieces of vinyl and 15,000 CDs, and another 10,000 DVDs. He has an affinity towards obscure folk and psych-rock artists, and film scores from the late ’60s and early ’70s, and he’s really opinionated about music. At one point I said, ‘James, you’re so opinionated, why don’t we try to write our own film soundtrack?’ So, it initially started out like we were going to make up an imaginary film in our heads, and write music to it.

"There wasn’t necessarily going to be a band with different singers, but after we got six or seven pieces of music together, we felt like it’d be cool to give them out to different singers and see what they’d do with them, and make it into more of an album. Sometimes the ideas didn’t work, and it could be a bit awkward, but by the end of the record I think we found a really good groove, and I really liked how the record sounded. So when we started Divine Accidents we had a much more clear understanding of the process and we specifically tailored the music for each singer, and we gave the musicians who played on it – Alex Lee on guitar and the rhythm section, Sean and Damon, who play in Massive Attack – a lot more leeway with their parts, because we knew they’d bring a really cool X-factor to each song."

Did you always envisage that there’d be a second album?
"I think I did because when the first record came out, Andy and James and I were already writing new music. Usually it’ll start with James playing me some music and saying, ‘I really like the vibe on this,’ or the sound, or the groove, and then Andy and I will start coming up with little musical beds, and send them back and forth. And really quickly we had 20 plus pieces of music, so it was exciting. We didn’t even say, 'Are we going to make a second record?' We were already into it by the time the first album was being promoted."

And we’ll have a new Garbage album from you next year. Is it true that you were literally finishing the record at the point where the first COVID-19 lockdown kicked in?
"Yeah, we were lucky, because the last day in the studio for the four of us was, I think, March 15, and LA went into lockdown the next day. There were a few things that weren’t done – Shirl had to finish some lyrics, I had some ear candy editing things to add here and there – but the core of the music was done. The plan was to have it mixed and mastered by May 1, but obviously because of the pandemic we had to do everything via file sharing, and that just slowed everything down. But it’s done, and I was listening to the master last night – in fact when we finish talking here I’ve got to type up a few last-minute tweaking notes for the mastering engineer – and I’m totally psyched about it. I think the record sounds really cool."

Standardly, with a new album on the horizon, you’d have the next 12 months of your life mapped out, in terms of touring and promotion. So is it challenging putting out music right now without being able to bring it on the road?
"Well, with the new 5 Billion In Diamonds record we talked to a couple of radio pluggers and promo guys and they said that people are listening to music now more than ever and they really want new music, partly, of course, because they’re stuck at home. A lot of people don’t know who 5BID is, so I think it’s a good time for us to be coming out, because maybe we might find an audience that might have missed us at another time when they were busy leading their regular lives. With Garbage, I guess we’ll release that in the summer, and fingers crossed we’ll be back to playing shows then… I know shows are being booked, at least. We’ll see how this all plays out, but I’m itching to get out and play in front of an audience again. I love being in a recording studio – I’m lucky that I can work from home in my studio here – but there’s something about being on a stage and feeling that connection with an audience, that you can never, ever duplicate in a recording studio. And I miss that right now."

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