The following is the first 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: How have you changed as an artist or producer in the last 20 years? What’s changed about the way you approach making music?
Butch: From my point of view in terms of making records, I think that when I first started out, I was obsessed with how things sounded. I wanted to know how to get that certain guitar sound or drum sound; how you can get so much low end on a record without fucking up the mix. Making records and working more as a producer instead of as an engineer however, I’ve come to realize that psychology is more than 50% of making a great record. It’s understanding the artists you’re working with, what their songs mean to them, and what their vision means to them in terms of making those songs happen. And I have to figure out when to motivate them and kick them in the ass, or to lay off and cuddle them and baby them. I think I’m good at it because I’m a musician and I’ve been in bands so I’m pretty sympathetic to what it’s like to go into a studio and make a record. It can be an intimidating experience. Even if you’re alone in your bedroom, sometimes when you know you’re trying to go for it, you can freeze up and be insecure and neurotic about your performances. So, I feel the bulk of my job as a producer is really psychological now.
Greg: Do you ever seek out new artists to work with or do they usually find you?
Butch: I do. I get sent a lot of CDs, but to be honest, 90% are not particularly good. They sound good, but a lot of times, they sound like someone else. And I can completely understand that, because even in my band Garbage, I can point out all the influences of things that we’ve absorbed. I think that when I hear something and I respond well to it, it’s because it sounds fresh somehow. If it’s a band that sounds like they’re doing a punk/funk thing like the Chilli Peppers, maybe they’ve done something with it to put a fresh spin on it. I get so many things that sound like somebody else. Really, the only thing that I respond to is if the songs are good; and I’ll have to want to go back and listen to them again. And that’s the number 1 criteria. Like I said, everyone can make albums in their bedroom, so the most important thing is to figure out an important way to make it stick out. Give it a character that’s unique. And a lot of times, that boils down to what‘s happening in the song itself. It’s not so much getting the right guitar sound, but what you can do to make a song come across and feel special.
Sometimes a song connects with me because of the sound of the singer’s voice; maybe their lyrics aren’t the best, but somehow, the voice and delivery resonate with me. This might be a guy thing, but I don’t always pick up on the lyrics right away. I might pick up on the first line of the chorus, but it’s usually not until the 3’rd or 4th listen where I start focusing on the lyrics. It seems like women are different. My wife, she’ll sometimes start singing along to a song the first time she’ll hear it. At least, with my experience, women get lyrics and understand them easier. Anyway, the production of the track is important but not as important as the general vibe of the song: what the sound of the singer is like, what the lyric is like, the groove, and the melody…
Greg: What are some things an artist should look for when choosing a producer?
Butch: It depends on what kind of record you’re making. If you’re doing hip hop, rock, or pop, that should be part of the criteria in terms of who you want to work with. Not that you should always work with someone who only does that style, but it’s finding someone who really understands your vision. Who’s sympathetic to what you want to do. Because you’re stuck in a room, you’re going to butt heads no matter what you do. And you need to trust that person, that if they don’t like your performance, and if they’re telling you that you can do better, or that riff you’re doing in the end should be put in the chorus every single time because it’s the best part of the song, you’ll have to be able to trust that person to at least try. The only way you can do that is to sit down and talk with them. If you’re going to embark on a lengthy project with a producer, if you have the chance, try and just do one song together. Sometimes that will let you know what the vibe is like, because you might decide that you hate the producer’s guts; and likewise, the producer might feel the same way about you. And that’s better than going into the studio for 3 months and having the worst experience of your life.
Greg: How did you make the leap from working with primarily small local acts in Wisconsin to working with some of the biggest artists in the 90s?
Butch: I had just spent 5 months of sheer hell in New York doing a record with my band at that time, Firetown; we had been signed to Atlantic and they stuck us with a producer who we really didn’t get along with. The album took forever to make and it was a disaster. We went on tour briefly and then lost all our support from Atlantic. So I went home and was left feeling pretty discouraged.
Around that time I got a call from a local band who I had already done a couple records with, called Killdozer. They came in to do what would become their magnum-opus 12 Point-Buck. We went to a bar across from Smart Studios, and Mike Gerald from Killdozer said “we have some riffs and things, but we don’t have any songs”. So I said, “lets drink some beer and go over the chords”. One of the things I had learned recently was tape editing, so I would say “play that riff for a while”, then they’d play a riff for a minute and stop, and then play another riff in a completely different tempo, feel, and key, and I began to take them and cut them together. They were these blunt cuts that didn’t make any sense at all. And then Mike started writing down these lyrics that didn’t make sense at all, and turn out the lights, and after 12 beers, sing these nonsense lyrics. And then I would speed the tape way up as fast as it would go so that his voice went even lower on playback. It sounded like a harmonizer, but it was really from running the tape speed so low. We did the album in 5 days, and on the sixth day, we did a record of all cover songs, and it’s one of the weirdest sounding records I’ve ever made. And that was the reason why Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth called. Everybody heard it and went “there’s something going on on this record”. It only sold about 5,000 copies or so, but all of these indie labels like Sub Pop called and said “Can you start making records for Sub Pop? We love the way 12-Point Buck sounds…” And if you hear it now, its sounds terrible, but it had something unique going on. But basically I exercised all my demons from Firetown in those 6 days of making that Killdozer record, after spending 5 months of hell in New York City.Continue to Part 2…