Born c. 1956, in Viroqua, WI; married; wife's name, Patti. Education: Received degree in communication arts and film from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, c. 1978. Addresses: Management--SOS Management, 6161 Santa Monica Blvd., #303, Los Angeles, CA 90038; Discography information--D. Benton, MMX, 600 Williamson St., Madison, WI 53703.
A long time ago someone told a young musician named Butch Vig not to put all of his eggs in one basket. He didn't. This plan paid off in 1992 when he was catapulted to fame as the hottest new music producer on the planet. The man behind the production of Nirvana's breakthrough album Nevermind was given much of the credit for making alternative music mainstream and inventing the grunge sound. Of course overnight success stories usually reveal years of hard work, and Vig is modest about just what impact he's had on music.
"I was always obsessed with music. My mother was a music teacher, and ours was a musical household," Vig wrote in RIP. Born around 1956, Vig grew up in the small town of Viroqua, Wisconsin. "My parents listened to everything from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass," he continued, "to the Beatles to Frank Sinatra to Thelonious Monk, top 40 radio and classical music. My mother was always singing along to music with gorgeous melodies, songs crafted around what the hook was. Because I was inundated, it couldn't help but influence me." The love of a well-crafted hook turned Vig into a pop music freak.
He started in on piano at an early age, but when he saw the Who smash up their gear on TV, he knew he just had to be in a rock band. In junior high he played drums in a band, in an orchestra, and in the school's marching band. From there he added numerous instruments, including guitar, some woodwind instruments, keyboards, and organ, although he says he doesn't shine on any of them.
But when Vig enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1974, he set aside the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five for when he got into communication arts and film. Eventually Vig became fascinated by synthesizers and spent about two years of his college career in an electronic music studio. By then more and more of his fellow students were asking him to score their films, a task for which he developed quite a flair.
College was also important for another reason. It was there that Vig met two men who would become very much involved in both his personal life and career: Duke Erikson and Steve Marker. With Erikson, Vig began the band that became Spooner in 1979. Vig and Marker spent hours recording on Marker's four-track tape recorder in his basement. That was the nascent beginning of Smart Studios.
When Spooner hooked up with another Midwest band, the Shoes, in 1980, it was Shoe Gary Klebe who suggested to Vig that he branch out. Consider yourself more than a drummer, he suggested. So Spooner formed their own independent label, Boat Records, in 1984 in order to record and distribute their own music and to later support other acts they enjoyed.
Spooner received some major label interest, but no offers that excited the band enough; hence, the decision to form their own label. Meanwhile in a side project, the band Fire Town evolved with Vig, Marker, and some others. Where Spooner was more of a pop band, Fire Town--originally called First Person--was "an edgy, dark rock band," according to Vig in Goldmine. Both Spooner and Fire Town had gained critical acclaim and small financial success with their releases on Boat, when in 1988 Fire Town was signed to Atlantic Records.
Production of The Good Life was apparently a nightmare for the band. "I think it was difficult for us, because we'd always done everything on our own terms," Vig told Goldmine's Jim Berkenstadt, "and all of a sudden we had people telling us what we had to do." But as he later explained to Berkenstadt, "there were things that I learned about the recording process that really helped me. I also learned a lot about politics. Dealing not only with artists, but in terms of the label and the psychological game of making records."
All the while that Vig pursued his own music, he produced anybody and everybody interested in working at Smart Studios in Madison. Over time Vig gained a reputation on the independent scene as an excellent producer. Many of those young bands, including Killdozer, Tad, and Urge Overkill, started making noise on the underground scene. This led to work from some more choice indie labels, like Sub Pop in Seattle, Washington. It was for Sub Pop that Vig first recorded Nirvana in 1989. Nirvana's music started a ruckus on the underground music scene and on college radio that began a bidding war by the major labels. When Nirvana decided to go with Geffen Records, that label wanted a slick major-label producer. But according to Rolling Stone, "the band held out for the trademark 'Is it live, or is it Vig?' sound." The result was 1991's Nevermind.
Nevermind's slow build reached epic proportions. Suddenly this dirty distorted sound--grunge, as it was dubbed--was everywhere. What was once underground saw the light of day. When in January of 1992 that album reached Number One on the charts, it changed music history. Many credited Vig. He shrugs it off. "Nevermind was just starting to take off," Vig told Musician. "I was talking about this whole grunge thing with a friend ... when 'Helter Skelter' [by seminal pop band the Beatles] came on the juke box. I said: 'Here's the first grunge song, listen to it!'... So it wasn't really anything new. I didn't invent grunge. And Seattle didn't either."
Everyone wanted to work with Butch Vig after that. His choices were wide raging, from punk harsh to pop sweet. After one period of remixing songs from bands including U2, Nine Inch Nails, and House of Pain, Erikson, Marker, and Vig were together listening to the leftover remixes and samples. They thought, as Vig told Musician, "This s--t sounds like garbage." It occurred to the three that this might be a nice time to take this garbage and work with it together.
The band Garbage formed in late 1993, but didn't truly get off the ground until they became enamored of Shirley Manson, the lead singer of the soon-to-be defunct Scottish group Angelfish, whom they saw on MTV early in 1995. Once the four were together they were finally able to create the album Garbage in August of 1995. The huge success of the band finally made Butch Vig, at age 40, a rock star. Rolling Stone heralded the album with a four-star review and it eventually went platinum. Although the flamboyant Manson became the most visible member of the group, this band is definitely a democracy, backed by three old timers of the industry.
Butch Vig is still spreading his talents in many areas of music. Besides enjoying his Garbage fame, he is still full of ideas about the different sorts of music he wants to produce and create-- perhaps even beyond album production. But as he told Goldmine, "I'm not just going to stop doing records because I'm a glutton for being in the studio. I mean, I love it! Sometimes I question why I enjoy it."
by Joanna Rubiner
Butch Vig's Career
Formed Spooner with Duke Erikson, 1979; founded Smart Studios with Steve Marker, late 1970s; began Boat Records, 1984; formed Fire Town with Steve Marker, mid-1980s; Fire Town signed to Atlantic Records, 1988, and released major label debut album, The Good Life, 1989; produced Nirvana's Nevermind, 1991; formed group Garbage, 1993, and released self-titled debut album, 1995.
- Selective Works
- As producer Tar Babies, Face the Music, Bone Air, 1983.
- Killdozer, Snakeboy, Touch & Go, 1985.
- Nirvana, Sliver (seven inch), Sub Pop, 1989.
- Urge Overkill, Americruiser, Touch & Go, 1990.
- Smashing Pumpkins, Gish, Caroline, 1991.
- Young Fresh Fellows, Electric Bird Digest, Frontier, 1991.
- Nirvana, Nevermind, DGC/Geffen, 1991.
- Sonic Youth, Dirty, Geffen, 1992.
- L7, Bricks Are Heavy, Slash, 1992.
- Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream, Virgin, 1993.
- Sonic Youth, Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, Geffen, 1994.
- Freedy Johnston, This Perfect World, Elektra, 1994.
- Soul Asylum, Let Your Dim Light Shine, 1995.
- As performer Spooner, Cruel School (EP), Boat, 1979.
- Spooner, Every Corner Dance, Mountain Railroad, 1982.
- Spooner, The Fugitive Dance, Dali/Chameleon, 1990.
- Fire Town, In the Heart of the Heart Country, Boat, 1987.
- Fire Town, The Good Life, Atlantic, 1989.
- (Also producer) Garbage, Garbage, Almo Sounds/Geffen, 1995.
- Billboard, March 13, 1993; March 23, 1996.
- Goldmine, October 27, 1995.
- Guitar Player, August 1992.
- Melody Maker, March 4, 1995; August 12, 1995.
- Musician, January 1996.
- People, September 9, 1996 RIP, February 1996; June 1996.
- Rolling Stone, May 14, 1992; July 9, 1992; September 17, 1992; September 21, 1995.
- Spin, April 1996.