The following is the second 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: Can you tell us about how you approach getting the best performance out of a singer?
Butch: The singer is possibly the most neurotic person in the band; and there’s a reason for that. For example, if you’re a drummer, you’re channeling your music through something. If you’re a singer, there’s nothing there; just you and your vocal chords. A lot of times, they’re also the front-person of the band, and they’re also singing the words that others will pay attention to. So, there’s a reason why they’re neurotic. So you have to find out ways to keep them feeling confident because the worst thing you can get a singer doing is questioning whether they’re singing well. You need figure out how and when they sing their best. Is it when they pull back or go all out? Sometimes it’s both and maybe you want the bridge to be pulled back and the verses pushed more. You have to get a sense of what they say, how they react to things, and what their strengths are. And you have to figure out when it’s ok to push them, and then when to lay off and cuddle them.
One problem that happens frequently, is that a lot of time is spent recording the drums and guitars, and then if you’re trying to do a quick recording, there’s not a lot of time for the vocals. When you think about it, it’s the vocals that you should spend the most time on because that’s what most people connect to. Most people don’t care about the snare drum sound. Its funny because with a lot of indie records that I used to make, the singers got short-changed because the budgets were so small and we were trying to do everything so fast. Sometimes that works out to a detriment, but sometimes, when you have a pistol to your head and you’re trying to make something quick, that can be good because you don’t have the time to over-analyze it.
Greg: Do you find that there’s usually an adjustment period in the beginning of making a record with an artist you’ve never worked with before?
Butch: Definitely. I try to spend at least a few days in in pre-production. I go to their rehearsal place, and before we start cutting any songs, we talk about what we like about the demo, or what can be better. I try to go to their rehearsals a week before going in to the studio to fine tune-things and tighten up the arrangements. I usually try and suggest things early-on that I think will be easy. If I hear a lot of changes I’d like to suggest in songs, I’ll try and go easy at the start, so that I can gain their respect. Sometimes I’ll suggest something and they say, “well fuck! I hate that idea,” and then I’ll give them another idea. So sometimes there is an adjustment period where I am figuring out when to push them and when to lay off.
Greg: How do you approach the balance between perfection and emotional honesty in a performance?
Butch: Well, you can obviously make it perfect with Pro Tools now days. I have been found guilty as charged in some of the records I’ve made by trying to make things too tight when I probably should have stopped halfway through because that was good enough. The other day, I heard “Smells like Teen Spirit” on the radio. It has vocals that are really out of tune. And I just left them because they sounded amazing, the way Kurt sang it. And also, because he probably wouldn’t have gone back. On that song, I think he did 3 takes and I was damn lucky that he did 3 takes. He usually only does one. I would also say, “lets do two takes so I could have one if I wanted to double the chorus.” He would then say “I hate doubling my vocal” and I would tell him that John Lennon would always double his vocals. I said that, and that’s why he agreed to that eventually. The same with his guitars. He wanted to adhere to his punk ethic, but I slowly but surely got him to open up to trying some of this stuff, but there’s some vocals that are out of tune if you listen to it. But does anyone care? No. The vocal performance was amazing. That song was not done to a click track. We went back and overdubbed the guitar intro and overdubbed the lead and a second take for rhythm, but basically, we cut that track live in the studio.
Greg: I always thought the drums on Nevermind were some of the punchiest, most powerful I’ve heard. Can you talk a bit about that aspect of the record?
Butch: I was smart enough to have booked Sound City because it had a Neve console, which I love-they’re thick and punchy; they let all the low end in. There’s also a great live room, so you don’t need to do a lot of scientific experimentation by moving the mics around and trying to get the room mics to sound good. That was a big piece of the sound. But really, Dave Grohl was the real reason why the drums sound so good. Two weeks before we started recording, Kurt called me up and left me a message. He sounded liked he was really fucked up and said “Butch, we have the best fucking drummer in the world” and I’m thinking “Fuck, I’ve heard this before, I hope he’s good”. And then, three days later, I got a boom-box cassette tape of their new songs and it sounded like shit. It was so distorted. “Smells like Teen Spirit” was their first song and once the drums came in, you couldn’t hear anything at all. I was driving with my friend in the car and he was like “I think there’s a cool song there”, but I couldn’t tell.
Nirvana had gone through a lot of drummers and I knew Kurt wasn’t happy with any of them. I told John Silva, their manager, that I didn’t want to spend a lot of days in rehearsal because Kurt doesn’t have the patience; maybe 2-3 days tops. We went into a rehearsal place in North Hollywood and Kurt had just gotten some new super fucking loud amp. They ran through some songs and they started playing Teen Spirit and it fucking floored me. It was so loud and intense. The drums were unbelievable; I even had earplugs in but I could feel the room pulsating. It sounds like a cliché to say it, but that’s one of the reasons why that album is so powerful. The songs are great, but Dave Grohl’s drumming is monstrous. In terms of his drums, I didn’t do anything magical. I was in a good studio with a good board and mics.
Greg: Did you record with a click much on that record?
Butch: We used a click on “Lithium”, but the hardest song we did was “Something in the Way” because we tried to cut that live with the band several times and it sounded horrible and Kurt got frustrated. In fact, he got frustrated with “Lithium” and he smashed up his guitar, and it was the only left-handed guitar he had. But when we did “Something in the Way”, Kurt got really fed up with the tracks we did and it just didn’t sound good in the room that we tracked it in. So I said, “play the song how it sounds to you”, and he laid down on the floor in the control room, and started barely singing. I unplugged the fans and the phone and I literally stuck a mic on his guitar and his vocal and did two takes. And from those two takes, I made a master which took me about three days to get where I felt it was good. I probably could have left it raw and scrappy sounding, but I knew it would be impossible for Dave and Chris to go in and overdub to it because it was all feel. So I had to take the two takes and edit them, without a click track, so that it felt seamless. At the time, where was no such thing as Pro Tools, but there was something-I think it was called ADAP. It was a big PC computer. I had to have a technician come down. He didn’t have a lab coat on, but he might have well. I didn’t know how to run it. So we loaded it up and I said, “this doesn’t sound good here, and then over here he missed a string etc…”, but it took days to do. Once it was done, it felt great and it was easier for Dave and Chris to overdub to it.Continue to Part 3…