One Man’s Trash:
Butch Vig Talks Garbage, Producing, Drumming, and His Scrappy Midwestern Roots
Looking back at it, Garbage seem like one of the unlikeliest success stories of the 1990s. Granted, by mid-decade drummer Butch Vig had made a solid name for himself in the music industry – but primarily as a producer of some of the hottest albums of the era, not as a musician or songwriter. On top of that, the bands he was scoring with were all ear-splitting, guitar-heavy grunge and alternative rock powerbombers like Smashing Pumpkins, L7, Sonic Youth and Nirvana, far removed from the beat-driven crossover pop of Garbage. Vig even initially intended the project to be solely a studio affair, as he felt touring would interfere with his full schedule of production jobs. His bandmates were unknowns – old Madison, Wisconsin buddies he’d played music and recorded with since the ‘70s. The group’s name left them wide open to cheap potshots from critics (“Garbage? That’s accurate!”). And even Shirley Manson was, at the time, an uncertain gamble. Although she’d had some minor success with the Scottish groups Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie and its offshoot Angelfish, how was this Edinburgh firecracker gonna mesh with three dorky ol’ Wisconsin dudes? The whole thing, on paper, just seemed like folly.
Instead, Garbage were an instantaneous success, their 1995 debut album going multi-platinum around the world, spawning hit singles such as “Stupid Girl” and “Only Happy When It Rains.” Released three years later, Version 2.0 was another big selling winner and perennial fan favorite. Comparatively, 2001’s Beautiful Garbage and 2005’s Bleed Like Me sputtered commercially, but listening back to them now they sound genuinely refreshing, full of gems. Citing burnout, they went on an extended hiatus after that, but returned in 2012 with Not Your Kind of People and followed that up with last year’s Strange Little Birds. Showing no signs of slowing down, they just released a new single, “No Horses,” and have been working on their seventh album, eyeing a summer 2018 release. And don’t dismiss them because you’re not hearing their recent songs on the radio like you did their old ones. When was the last time you heard anything good on commercial radio? Truthfully, I went to see them last year at the Tabernacle, for the first time since 1996 when they opened for the Pumpkins at the Omni, and it was one of the best shows I saw all year.
Vig wasn’t even with them for the Tabernacle show – he’d dropped off the tour due to a nasty bout of sinusitis, which affects balance and ear sensitivity. Thankfully, he’s back on board for this summer’s run with Blondie (a perfect pairing, since Debbie Harry and co. are clearly one of Garbage’s primary influences), which brings them to Chastain Park Amphitheatre on Sunday, August 6th.
Butch Vig, who turns 62 on August 2nd, has always struck me as a down-to-earth, beer-drinkin’ Midwestern rock dude, albeit one who has also obviously had a phenomenal career in the music biz. The stature he attained in the ‘90s probably seemed pretty strange to him as well, coming from such scrappy, largely unnoticed beginnings…
Keith Moon was your inspiration as far as taking up drumming?
“That is true, and, uh, I think I was maybe 10 years old or so, I don’t remember exactly. Nine years old? The Who played a performance on the Smothers Brothers show.”
Sure, that’s a very famous early rock TV appearance.
“I had been playing piano. My mom’s a music teacher, and so I was into music, but I saw The Who play ‘My Generation’ and Keith Moon smashed up his drum kit, and I just thought, ‘I wanna do THAT!’ And my parents bought me a $50 Sears drum kit for Christmas. I started playing in the basement, and never looked back. And very shortly I started playing in bands in my neighborhood, and then in my hometown, all through high school and into college. So I’ve been playing music pretty much my whole adult life.”
So how many kids have you smashed up?
“Haha! Not one! You know, the thing is, I love Keith Moon, but if you’ve ever seen me play, I’m a real straightforward, 4/4 style drummer. I realized I can’t play like him. I play more like Ringo Starr or Charlie Watts, and I think that’s who I emulate more, just in terms of playing. But Keith Moon is still…he was a tour de force, man, one of the best rock drummers there ever was.”
Did you ever have a chance to see The Who with Keith before he died?
“I did. In fact in my home studio in Silverlake in Los Angeles, I have tons of pictures up, and there’s some of The Who a friend of mine gave me several years ago. He tracked down pictures from the show I went to – it was the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin. It was probably one of Moon’s last shows. And I went out at 8 a.m. that day with a bunch of my friends, and [waited outside], and we were about three rows from the front of the stage, and it was incredible! It was a mindblowing show. But Keith Moon, he was not doing good that show. I remember… they started a song, and then he sort of fell off the back of his drums. So we were like, you know, “What’s going on?” And so Townshend and Daltrey were bickering back and forth. So they changed the song, and Townshend went into “Behind Blue Eyes,” and right before the drums kick in, the roadies brought Moon back on, propped him back up on the drum kit, and they put this giant fan behind him, like a five-foot fan, just blowing air, and it’s closed all around. But then he just played like a banshee. They must have given him a shot of something to revive him and get him through the set. But it was such an amazing live show.”
Your first noteworthy band was Spooner, of which Doug (“Duke”) Erikson from Garbage was also a member. Gary Klebe from The Shoes produced the first Spooner records, right?
“He did. We became friends with Shoes through Duke’s cousin. He lived down the street from the guys in Shoes, so he knew them. And we were kind of in awe of them because they had done a record on their four-track in their apartment! They got signed to a label called Bomp!, and then they got picked up by Elektra Records in the ’80s. Brilliant power-pop band. So we asked [Gary] if he wanted to work with us. He produced our first couple singles, and he also did the first Spooner [album]. I still keep in contact with Gary, he’s great. He was very instrumental in giving me a nudge to get into the production chair, because he knew I was interested in recording and engineering. I was always asking him questions about what he was doing and why he was doing it when we were making our first Spooner record. [Shoes] were really more of a studio band. They were…very meticulous in terms of getting things right and getting the vocals and all. Of course, this was before computers. So it had to be played perfectly, as close as you could get, to get the sound you were searching for. They were a big influence on my early production and just giving me a lot of confidence going forward.”
You also worked with Steve Marker – who you also formed Garbage with – really early on, on some of your first production work.
“Yeah, I met Steve in film school, at UW-Madison. He was in a band… oh, what were they called? I can’t remember now, but they only played out a few times. They played parties a lot. Steve would say, ‘Hey, we’re having a party at this guy’s apartment…’ And so I’d go up there, and they’d be rocking at a third floor kegger party at some college dorm. And we hit it off. He said, ‘You know, I got a four-track recorder in the basement of my apartment.’ So we started going over there after going out on the town drinking beer and recording all night long. Those were the very early Smart sessions for Smart Studios [which Vig and Marker formerly established in 1983]. In fact, I’m not proud to say it, but that’s where we got the name. Because Steve and I would say, ‘Let’s get smart.’ And that meant going to the Plaza bar and drinking pitchers of beer and then going back and recording all night long in his apartment. We came up with some really crazy tunes there.”
Spooner was more or less a skinny-tie power-pop sort of band. And then in the mid ’80s you and Doug had the band Fire Town, and that was slightly more polished, more acoustic-based heartland rock. But the bands you started producing in the ’80s were, for the most part, really loud, ugly sounding, noisy Midwestern bands like Killdozer, Laughing Hyenas and Die Kreuzen.
“I was never elitist about music. When I grew up in Viroqua, Wisconsin, my mom played everything, from Tijuana Brass to Beatles to show tunes and Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. And jazz. And then on the radio I would hear polka music and country music! My mom would always say, ‘Listen to how gorgeous that melody is!’ And, I’m a pop geek. I love hooks. So I think I gravitated, as a band, into sort of a new wave/power pop mode, because I just like the melodies and jangly guitars and things. But I also love noise. You know, when I went to UW-Madison, I took four years of electronic music, and there were no keyboards or instruments in there, it was just synthesizers, and all you could do is make noise – just like weird abstract art pieces. So I’ve always been intrigued by sound, not just melody. And I think what I heard in punk rock was sound and energy – not necessarily melodies – and I think the reason I started having success was I was able to blend those two together. Even a band like Killdozer, I was somehow able to make them hooky sounding, because it was Killdozer that Billy Corgan discovered, and that Kurt Cobain discovered, and then of course those bands were both, you know, they had a lot of raw energy but they also wrote much more melodically and sophisticated, in terms of their chord progressions. Especially the Pumpkins.”
Around the late ’80s, early ’90s, you produced a string of noisy Australian bands – feedtime, Cosmic Psychos and King Snake Roost – and it was all in the span of around two years. Was there any particular reason that came about?
“Corey Rusk [Touch and Go Records founder] started sending me his bands [to produce]. And as underground as those records were, they got a lot of press, and that’s why the Australian bands started calling, because they liked the sound of those records. So usually what they would do is they would book a US tour, and then in that tour they would book a week, or three or four days, in the studio, and we would record an album. I used to make records really fast back then. Sometimes you’d track everything in one day, overdub all the miscellaneous things like vocals and some extra guitar solos on day two, then mix the whole record on day three and you’d have an album in three days. I made hundreds of records like that.”
In the early ’90s when you started working with bands that had been signed to major labels –Nirvana of course, and Smashing Pumpkins, L7, Soul Asylum, whoever – and you had a bigger budget and more time , did you consciously adjust your methods to go for more of a “radio friendly” sound at that time?
“Well, I think the reason I had to do those records fast early on was just out of budget necessity. No one had any money. But I always wanted to spend more time getting the sound focused. Both sonically and arrangement-wise, and hook-wise. And as the productions sort of made more noise, the indie labels started to get a little bit bigger, and the budgets got a little bit bigger. The first record that I really freaked out over how much time we had was Gish by Smashing Pumpkins. I think we had 30 days to record and mix it. I was thinking, ‘Whoa! We can make a Steely Dan record!’ That’s what it felt like! It was such a luxury and even though it was an incredibly long, hard record – you know, it was very meticulous to work with the Pumpkins – I was in heaven because that’s really what I wanted to do. I love being in the studio and I really wanted to take time to get great sounds and to get great performances.”
You came down to Atlanta in late ’92, early ’93 to record Siamese Dream for the Smashing Pumpkins. I’m sure you have a few stories to tell about that experience.
“Well, we wanted to sort of get off the beaten track and get a little bit more isolated. We didn’t want to do the record in New York or L.A. – too many distractions. And we had done Gish at Smart Studio. So we just wanted to go somewhere else to get a different sound. And we chose Atlanta because none of us really knew anybody, and there was a great tracking studio there called Triclops with an old vintage Neve board, and it was pretty much a one-room facility, you know – just a big tracking and control room, so we’d be the only ones there. But as soon we got there, within day one, [drummer] Jimmy Chamberlain had met every drug dealer and crazy person off the street that you can imagine from Atlanta! There was just a constant parade of weird characters coming and going into the studio. It was a difficult record. The band was really dysfunctional, where they were at each other’s throats. There was immense pressure on them, particularly Billy Corgan, because Gish been successful, but then Nevermind exploded, so everyone kept saying to us ‘The next Pumpkins record is gonna be huge! It’s gonna be huge!’ And nobody wants to hear that! So the band was sort of falling apart. There were several times during the session where Jimmy didn’t show up for days, and Billy threatened to fire him, and I said, ‘I’ll fuckin’ play the drums!’ There’s no way I could play those drum parts, you know, but I had to threaten to do that to get [Chamberlain] to shape up. He’d been missing for three or four days. And he showed up at the studio, we were cuttin’ ‘Cherub Rock’ that day, and he was a mess. By the time he actually started playing it was just really sloppy and terrible. And Billy and I went in the studio and read him the riot act, we said ‘We’re gonna send you home…You better fuckin’ come in here and nail this tomorrow, or you’re out of the band.’ And he came in the next day, and he looked like he’d seen a ghost, but he got behind the drums and fucking killed it! He nailed it on the first take, and that’s a really hard song to play. But Billy came and listened, and pulled me aside and said, ‘I want him to keep playing.’ So, I said – I don’t really like doing this – but I said, ‘Jimmy, you’ve gotta do another take. We’ve gotta top that.’ So we did maybe eight more takes, ’til his hand was bleeding, he played so hard, and yet I knew we had it the first take. I felt really weird about that. But at the time both of us were so pissed at him, because he had just gone AWOL, he cost us three days of studio time. But it’s one of my favorite records I’ve ever produced. It was incredible work. We spent five months recording, pretty much six days a week and in the last month it was seven days a week, you know, 14-hour days. Then we went to L.A. and mixed for six straight weeks with Alan Moulder. And I think there’s an imprint to what we did on it that still sounds as fresh and as exciting now as when we recorded it.”
You don’t seem like much of a “partier” to me. Maybe you were back in the day. But many of the bands you’ve produced, if they weren’t completely fucked up, they definitely had some fucked up members. I’ve heard it said from a lot of producers that at least half the job amounts to babysitting. Has that been true for you?
“I realized very quickly that half of production is being a psychiatrist or psychologist. You have to pay attention to the emotional stability of the band, and what’s going on psychologically between them – how they interact, and are we getting good performances? Or, what do I need to do to push them? Sometimes you have to baby them. You have to troubleshoot a lot of things. Early on I was just concerned with how do I get a good snare drum sound good, or a good guitar sound, [but] today, still, producing is 50 percent psychological, where you really have to sort of figure out who you’re working with. But trust me, I’ve had a lot of beers and cocktails in my life, but I never really did that in the studio. I like to be really in my full senses.”
I know it’s a natural thing for every musician, every rock musician at least, to want to be a rock star. Prior to the formation of Garbage did you ever long to be more recognized for being a musician rather than a producer?
“You know, I never felt like that. The reason I started Garbage came out of some burnout from doing a lot of alternative records. I just got tired of bass, drums and guitars. And by the time. Nirvana and the Pumpkins had success, I had done thousands of records like that, and it was just getting boring to me. I was listening to bands like Public Enemy [and] what they were doing in the studio with samples, so I got a sampler and started doing remixes where I would just manipulate sound and record all new beats and guitar riffs and stuff for bands like House of Pain and Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails and U2. And they started getting notice! People started telling me, ‘You should start a band! This is very cool what you’re doing.’ So Duke and Steve and I were like, ‘Maybe we should get a singer for the music we’re doing. Maybe we’ll get multiple singers for multiple tracks to come in.’ You know, we had no intention of touring, we were only going to make a one-off record. I was going to go back to producing full time. There was no way I wanted to give up my production thing. But I was proven wrong, because once Shirley joined us, I realized how much I liked being in a band. I like the camaraderie and the chemistry of collaborating together. And it gave me a chance to write again – I was writing songs and writing music. That’s always been something that I’d done. So really, Garbage became an incredible creative outlet for me. So I really jumped in, and that band took off and, oh my God, for that first record we toured for 18 months! And we were having fun! We went all over the world. Asia, Australia, South America, all these places I’d never been before. And we still continue to do it. So, it wasn’t because I wanted to be known as a musician or songwriter, it’s really because I was just having fun with Garbage. I liked it, and still do. It’s still an incredible creative outlet for me, and I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re still here as a band. I love being in Garbage.”
Has your enthusiasm or attitude about the band changed at all since the 1990s when you had that initial burst of success? Do you still look at the band the same way now?
“You know, after our fourth album, we hit some serious burnout. We had done four long records, four long tours, and we took a hiatus, and that ended up being seven years before Not Your Kind of People came out. But we needed that. I went back to producing full time, and all of us in the band were able to sort of catch our own lives again a little bit, and live with our families and establish our own identities. But after that, I think we realized how much, like I said earlier, that Garbage is such a great outlet for all four of us. And we’re really close as a band – that’s another reason that we’re still here after 20-plus years, ’cause we’re like three brothers and our weird kid sister. We’re very, very close. So we made Strange Little Birds, and we’re still totally jazzed… As long as we’re still walking, we’re going to keep making music. Like I said earlier, I like being in a sort of club with my bandmates.. If we didn’t get along, none of these bands would have ever survived. But we all share a certain sensibility in terms of music we like, books we read, films we go to see, the food we like, our politics, just art and culture and what we like and what we share. A lot of bands are not like that. Trust me, I’ve worked with some bands that were incredibly dysfunctional. They hate each other’s guts. And somehow they manage to survive for a while anyway, you know, because…I suppose it’s because of money. But we’re not doing it anymore for money or to prove to anybody that we still can be the biggest band in the world, because we realize we’re never gonna be played on Top 40 anymore. We’re doing it because we still love music. “
Photo by Joseph Cultice.