Butch Vig

Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day... it's not easy making albums that sell in their millions while maintaining credibility with your hard-core indie fans. Steve Sutherland celebrates the producer able to 'shift the units while keeping everything cool...'

The singer was suicidal. All he did in his down time was compile list after list of the songs he wanted played at his funeral. Luckily, if you want to put it that way, there was actually very little down time because the singer was labouring in the studio 16 hours a day under the illusion that what was expected of him was to make, in his own words, 'the next album to set the world on fire'.

The producer remembers it this way: 'Billy wanted to make a record that people would put on and say, "What the f*** was that?"'.

The producer also recalls that the bass player had just split up with the guitarist so she spent a lot of time locked in the bathroom, while the guitarist was so traumatised, he was pretty much struck dumb. The singer had already decided that their contributions weren't up to par anyway so he was insisting on playing all their parts himself.

Which brings us to the drummer. The drummer was losing a battle against heroin addiction so was missing a fair bit of the time. When he did show up, the singer was so incensed, he made the drummer do take after take, until his hands bled.


The band, in case you were wondering, was The Smashing Pumpkins, who were attempting to create the follow-up to their highly acclaimed debut album, Gish. Expectations were high. Grunge was taking off and the record company was stoked. Problem was, the whole shebang was taking far too long and costing far too much. By the last count, they were four months in and running $250,000 over budget because the singer was in the grip of an unhealthy bout of perfectionism that at one point saw him working with the producer for two whole days over just 45 seconds of music. Oh, and some of the songs featured nigh-on 100 guitar overdubs, making it, in one critic's estimation, 'the recorded music equivalent of stop-motion animation'.

Tough Customers
When released, the album, Siamese Dream, was the smash it deserved to be, still pretty much top on any Pumpkins fan's list of singer Billy Corgan's achievements. And the producer lived to fight another day.

How had he managed to hold it all together when all around him were freaking out and falling apart? Because he'd already survived Nevermind, that's how! Butch Vig hadn't actually been the first choice to produce Nirvana's second LP. The band's new record company, Geffen, favoured someone with commercial indie clout like Scott Litt (REM), David Briggs (Neil Young) or Don Dixon (also REM). But Jonathan Poneman of Seattle's Sub Pop Records, who'd nurtured Nirvana thus far, pointed Kurt Cobain in the direction of this guy who'd got some tough customers like Tad (8-Way Santa on Sub Pop) and Killdozer (Little Baby Buntin' on Touch & Go) to sound acceptably loud on record.


This Butch Vig dude had been a drummer in local bands like Spooner and Fire Town in and around Madison, Wisconsin and with a fellow bandmate called Steve Marker, had put together a DIY four- then-eight track studio that was stocked with secondhand gear to keep recording costs down.

Pretty soon, other bands began to take advantage of their Smart Studios, with Vig flying by the seat of his pants learning as the novice producer in situ. In late '89, early '90, his reputation spread through the indie grapevine, Billy Corgan's Smashing Pumpkins were just one of growing hordes of hopefuls who called on him to help shape their sound, with the resulting critical and commercial success of Gish furthering his standing as a viable player in the big-time.


Big As The Beatles
With Cobain intrigued, Poneman contacted Vig with the proposal that he take on Nirvana, prophesying that they, 'could become as big as The Beatles'. Vig, naturally sceptical of such a lofty claim, agreed to give them a go. He'd heard 'Love Buzz' when a friend who owned a record store had played it for him and Poneman sent him the band's debut LP, Bleach, which had been rudimentarily produced by Jack Endino (Soundgarden, Mudhoney).

'The vinyl showed up and I put the record on and I liked it, but I was not super-impressed,' Vig remembers. 'I thought it was kind of one-dimensional; you know, they'd get a riff going, then they'd kind of hammer that home. The only song that really caught my attention was 'About A Girl' because to me that sounded like a Lennon/McCartney composition, in the melodic structure and the chords. Even in the way Kurt sang it. I was floored by it.