Butch Vig Page 2

'And then about a week before they came to Smart Studios, I talked to Kurt on the phone for the first time and he seemed really lovely and engaged and we said they were going to do a Sub Pop album in a week, basically. We ended up recording six or seven songs... After three or four days of recording they did a show in Madison at this tiny little club underneath an Italian restaurant. There were maybe 100 people there but it was packed and they played so loud and intense Kurt blew his voice out. The next day he couldn't even talk.

'So the last couple days they were in the studio, I basically tinkered with the stuff we had and we did some mixing and that was it. They planned to come back three or four months later to finish the record. But that never happened. The band took the mixes that I did and pressed up 100 cassettes and gave them out to their friends. Then all the major labels heard about them, they got into a bidding war and eventually they signed with Geffen.'

Mood Swings
Vig was left in the dark while band and company wrangled over who should helm their follow-up to Bleach. Then, out of the blue, he got the call. The band wanted him back and they'd gotten themselves a new member in the interim. Drummer Chad Channing, whose touch was a little light and jazzy for Cobain's taste, had been replaced by this smart young guy with real muscle.

'Kurt said, "Hey Butch, we're going to play you some new songs, and we got the best drummer in the world – his name is Dave Grohl". The first day I met the band with Grohl was in a rehearsal space in North Hollywood. The first song they played was "Teen Spirit" and his playing just floored me. I remember pacing around the room thinking, "This song is fantastic!".


'Dave was this goofy, carefree soul who just had this amazing energy to him. He brought a real levity to the band. I think he was able to counter-balance some of Kurt's mood swings.'

Ah, Kurt's mood swings. Cobain was nothing if not a complicated character. On the one hand, he was very competitive. 'He wanted to make a kick-ass-sounding record. They were not slackers, there was none of that mentality. On the other hand, he was very wary of success and what might happen to his indie credibility were he to become a big rock star.

'Kurt could be engaged and fully committed and articulate and then a light switch would go off and he would just go sit in the corner and shut himself down.'

The band were set to record at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys where, 'The album was very traditionally recorded, and we did the whole thing in 16 days. They had rehearsed so much, they were super-tight, and they wanted to sound good.' But when it came to mixing, Vig hit a snag that was to become all-too-familiar. 'Kurt kept trying to bury his voice. I kept arguing, "You can't do that. Your vocal performance is as intense as the drums, bass and the guitar".'

Cried Foul
He won the battle but lost the war. 'I was just going to mix it really straightforward but Kurt kept coming up to the board saying, "I want it to sound more like Black Sabbath", and turned the treble off on everything. It sounded like s**t. Eventually the band's manager called and they said, "Well why don't we look at some other mix engineers?".

'They sent a list with maybe 16 or 18 really hot mix engineers… Kurt looked at it and he just went, "No, no, no, no, no," all the way down and at the bottom was Andy Wallace. It said Slayer and he said, "Call this guy". Andy had also mixed Madonna but it didn't say that!'

So Vig's mixes didn't make it onto the album. Wallace it was who gave Nevermind its lauded sonic sheen but Cobain – wanting his cake and eating it – cried foul: 'It's such a perfect mixture of cleanliness and nice, candy-ass production,' he said later, 'I think it's kind of lame'.

'When we finished the record, he (Cobain) loved it. Absolutely loved it,' laughs Vig. 'We did some playbacks and he said, "Oh my god, this is incredible". Cut to a year later, when it's sold ten million records, and you have to disown it. You can't have any punk ethics and go, "Man, I love the way our last record sounds and am so happy it sold ten million copies!".'

Overnight, Nevermind changed Vig's life. Suddenly he was the go-to grunge guy who could shift units while keeping everything cool. Sonic Youth signed him up for 1992's Dirty, as did L7 for Bricks Are Heavy. Green Day came calling in 2009 for their 21st Century Breakdown and Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters hauled him in for 2011's Wasting Light, a project perfectly suited to Vig's expertise.


'We had a specific vision, and that was to do it on tape in Dave Grohl's garage. That limited the amount of tracks we could use, so it really had to be all about getting the sounds right and getting a great performance.


'It challenged me to challenge the band. If you listen to that record, sure, it's fuzzy and scrappy sounding, but it feels really passionate in the performances. I think it's the most honest record the band have made.'

What Vig also did was pretty much the exact opposite of what had made him famous. He became a drummer again and formed Garbage which he claims was, 'really a reaction to all of the bands after Nirvana. The record companies signed a thousand bands that they were hoping would sell records like Nirvana, and I felt I had to do something that made things more interesting for me again. That's why I started Garbage, which is all about writing pop songs and sampling. We love using the studio as a canvas and as a tool, and it's liberating for me.'


Rough Mix
He continues: 'To me, the most exciting point is when the song is not finished, but when it's kind of coming to completion. When the first lead vocal is done, I usually make a rough mix and burn a CD, then play it in the car over and over – maybe 50 times over two days.

'At this point, I'm crazy in love with it, whether it's Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, or Garbage. It's that early state when a song becomes real. In your head, you also start imagining what you can do with it, and what you're going to add. When a song starts to fall into place, that's my moment... And long may that continue!'