The following is the final of four excerpts from a Q&A I conducted with Butch Vig at Musicians Institute in 2008. Butch has produced albums for legends like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins, Muse, AFI, and Garbage. He remains as active and relevant as ever, having produced the Foo Fighters’ Grammy-winning “Wasting Light” last year, and Garbage’s latest, “Not Your Kind of People”.
Greg: When you’re working with Garbage you have to wear the both the artist’s as well as the producer’s hat. Do you find that difficult and are you able to let others take the reins when you’re playing drums in the studio?
Butch: This is something that has been hard for me, when I’m playing as a drummer, because I’m worried about the song and if the arrangement is right, but then I have to play. I don’t really pride myself on being a great drummer because I never really practiced. It’s the last thing I’m thinking of, which is the main reason I play basic 4/4 rhythms. But on the last record, Dave Grohl came in and recorded on “Bad Boyfriend”. And damn if that wasn’t a motherfucker to play live. He did all these speed-metal drum fills and it took me 2 weeks of rehearsal just to play his part live. He’s great. Also, I played more guitar than I did drums. We would use guest drummers like Matt Chamberlain who lives in Seattle and has done a lot of work with Tori Amos as well as Matt Walker, who used to be in Filter. I prefer to be behind the glass. I would prefer to play guitar in the control room and have someone play drums. I love playing drums, especially live, but in the studio scenario, that’s the last thing I’d want to worry about.
Greg: What advice would you give young bands who are working with a producer for their first time?
Butch: Drummers have to play with a click-track these days. I don’t know of too many producers and engineers who don’t want to use a click track. And young drummers who’ve never done that before freak out. “Dude, you’re fucking with my groove!”. If you’re a good drummer, you’ll still be able to play with a lot of expression. One of the things that I do a lot in pre-production, is I start timing bands playing without a click. I’ll have a BPM counter and note that, for example, the chorus feels really good at 143 and the verse feels good at 141. I’ll then make tempo maps, so that the tempo is not the same all the way through the song. The AFI record I did used click tracks all over the place, but one song might have 15 different tempos within it.
Greg: How was working with Billy Corgan different than working with somebody like Kurt Cobain?
Butch: The difference between Billy Corgan and Kurt Cobain was like this: Billy was unbelievably focused and obsessed. He would spend 12 hours playing a guitar part and another 12 hours getting the sound. I pushed him really hard and he pushed me really hard. At times, we would joke that we were making a Steely Dan record. Siamese Dream doesn’t sound anything like that, but in a way, the meticulous things we put on the tracks just came through. Kurt was just the opposite. He can barely be bothered. He just wants to do things once, even if he knew sometimes that it wasn’t his best performance.
Greg: Do you have any advice for young producer just starting out? How did you get off the ground when you were a total beginner?
Butch: When I started out, they didn’t have any schools for recording. I started getting musician magazines and buying periodicals on how records were made and I just started asking people questions. [/funky_half]
In some of the bands I was in, we would go into the local studios and I would ask the engineer why he’s putting the mic over here or there. When we started Smart Studios, in 1984, with Steve, the guitarist for Garbage, we had a four track in Steve’s basement and we were just goofing around. The reason why we called it Smart, was because it was slang for getting fucked up. We would go out to this bar called the Plaza which was a super cheapo drinking bar. I would say “Steve, lets go get smart tonight,” which meant that we’d go drink beers and go back to his place and record until the sun came up.
I finished college with a degree in film, and I took four semesters of electronic music. At the time, the instructor, Dan Harris, had no keyboards. They only had these old modular synthesizers, which were all patch chords. You had to make sounds by plugging cables in. The very first project he gave us-he played us a 3 minute section of tape and said “here’s your first project”; he chopped it up and threw it on the floor and said “I want you to make something out of this. I’m going to show you how to tape edit.” That’s the first thing we did on day 1. We then had to go out with tape recorders and record things, then bring them back and run them through the synthesizer and make musical pieces. Then we had to explain what the song meant. I remember being scared shitless because I was the freshman in class and a couple of guys in there had been there for five semesters. Everyone was giving these intense discussions and I just said “I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted to make cool sounds”. I could tell the professor liked me for saying that on day-one.
I ended up taking four semesters of that and even though I was making super low-budget student films, I started doing soundtracks for my fellow students. A couple work out here in LA now. Peter Deming is the camera man for David Lynch. Another editor, Mark Halfrick, did the last Die Hard. Anyway, they were in my class and I started making these weird soundtracks for them. They would have no say in it. I would go into the studio at 10pm with a bag of Ruffles and then at six in the morning, I’d come out and say “here’s your soundtrack.” For me, those four semesters of electronic music were really inspiring. It wasn’t theory. It had nothing to do with trying to play keyboards, but it was just sounds. I’ve always had this fascination with weird sounds. You’ll hear that in some of the Garbage records. I like noise and things that fuck up. That being said, when we started Smart, there were a ton of punk bands that we would see live and say “hey-we rented this warehouse, we have an 8 track…you should come up and record”. We would record like twelve songs in a night, and then mix it the next day. I’m lucky, in a sense, that we got a lot of work. Besides doing punk bands, I recorded Polka bands, opera singers, speed-metal bands, country music; everything you could imagine. Anyone that would call up, I would record. I think that was also good for me because I never felt elitist about who I would record, or the types of music that I would work on. It was my job to make it sound as good as I could with what limited time and resources I had. Going someplace where you can be taught is smart at first, but you’ll still have to go and figure out things on your own. But it probably would have sped up the learning process if I had a great facility, because I didn’t know shit when I started.