By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
"Because as a producer I've stayed behind the scenes for the most part, there's this certain sort of mysterious enigma built up around what I look like and what I do," says Butch Vig, studio sorcerer and anchor of the eccentric pop band called Garbage. "And I think people kind of make up in their heads what they think that is. When we do meet-and-greets, we meet kids after shows, and a lot of them come up to me and are like, 'You're not what I thought you were going to be.'"
Indeed, many fans still expect rock producers to resemble Beatles board man George Martin circa 1967: tall, gaunt, distinguished-looking, suit-wearing, middle-aged--the type of fellow whose sophistication and maturity contrast starkly with the appearance of his youthful charges. But Vig, whose name was on the credits of Nirvana's groundbreaking Nevermind disc (as well as platters by Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Freedy Johnston, L7 and loads of other famous folks), hardly conforms to this stereotype. Only his frequent use of the word "kids" to describe listeners hints at the number of years he's got under his belt. Moreover, his longish hair, scraggly beard and perpetually dazed expression leave him seeming little different from performers in the outfits he's supervised.
Now, with Garbage, Vig's literally a part of such a group, along with vocalist/guitarist Shirley Manson and multi-instrumentalists Duke Erikson and Steve Marker. However, he concedes that the act, represented by an intriguing self-titled CD on Almo/Geffen, was conceived as a one-off rather than a going concern.
"When Shirley joined us, we were adamant with the record company that we were not going to tour," he notes. "In fact, we didn't really know what we were going to do. We hadn't finished any of the songs--all we had were ideas. But then we invited Shirley to come and sing on a couple of songs, and we liked her so much--and I think she liked us enough--that she decided to work on the whole record. But it was only over the course of making the album that we began to feel that we had become a band and that the chemistry really worked between us. That was the point where we decided that we needed to go out and meet our public and prove to people that this is not just a hobby."
Actually, that's not quite accurate. At first Vig hoped that the Garbage offering would leap off store shelves on the power of music and videos alone. And in some ways, that proved to be the case; the album earned strong reviews, decent airplay and respectable sales. But for Vig, a man who's grown accustomed to shepherding recordings that sell in the millions, not the thousands, this modest success wasn't enough. "We were probably being naive thinking that we could put a record out and the kids would go out and buy it just because they liked the songs," he allows. "We discovered that you still have to go out and do that grassroots thing and find your audience--that old formula where you go into a city and do press, talk to radio stations and play live. It works.
"People want to see it's for real. They want to see that there are people behind the music and there's passion in it. There's flesh and blood--it's not just concocted in someone's mind."
Despite his Svengali image, Vig has participated in music projects as often as he's overseen them. Raised in small-town Wisconsin, he began taking piano lessons before he was out of elementary school and later added drums to his resume. But he initially saw music as more of a lark than as a viable career. He entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison determined to become a doctor, then spent the next two years realizing that it wasn't a very good idea. He subsequently dropped out in order to serve as the drummer for Spooner, an act that featured Erikson on guitar and vocals. When he re-enrolled in college a short time later, it was as a film student.
"The movies I made were more experimental," he discloses. "Nothing that ever saw the light of day. But over my last two years of school, I also made soundtracks for other student films. And I really got caught up in the sound aspect of film. I loved being in the studio, working all night playing with sound." He adds, "There were no keyboards in the studio--you had to plug in oscillators and filters and make sound purely through manipulation. And that was invaluable to me. It taught me how to create ambient textures and how you can change moods with things that didn't fit into the twelve-tone scale."
Vig got a chance to further develop his studio skills with Spooner. He and Marker, a Spooner fan who recorded some of the combo's early songs, invested in an eight-track mixing board and rented warehouse space that was dubbed Smart Studios. Together they recorded three Spooner albums, plus discs by other area punk bands. By the mid-Eighties, their reputation had spread beyond Wisconsin to signees at numerous indie labels, including Sub Pop, Tough and Go and Twin Tone. But it was Nevermind that lifted Vig into the front ranks of cutting-edge producers and established a sound that still echoes from every modern-rock radio station in the country. The key to the album's sonics, Vig believes, was the decision to eschew the totally naturalistic production beloved by most punks in favor of something more ambitious and complex.