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'Nevermind' Turns 25, Butch Vig Reflects on Producing Nirvana's Classic: 'They Wanted to Be the Biggest Band in the World'
What’s left to say about Nevermind? As Nirvana’s major label debut faces its 25th anniversary Saturday we’re faced with a bit of a puzzle: We know it changed the face of music -- there’s no doubt of that -- with how it dethroned hair metal, pushed punk to the surface and pushed Baby Boomers’ grip on the industry towards Generation X. Even Jay Z admitted it was great enough to delay hip-hop’s eventual cultural dominance. But glance at today’s Hot 100, Spotify charts or (televised) VMAs and there’s virtually nothing that sounds a lick like it.
Still, Nevermind outlasts the grunge movement it created. Today’s kids have kept the aesthetic going: the flannel, the Nirvana shirts, shouting them out in a very deliberate millennial anthem. “It defined that particular time,” says Butch Vig, who produced the album in 1991. “[Kurt Cobian] was singing about things that we don’t even understand, but somehow you can hear him trying to fight through that frustration and rage, his fragility... all those complex feelings he expressed at the time still resonate today.”
Nevermind changed the life of its producer, much like it did Nirvana’s members'. Vig, then 36, had played in and produced punk bands for years and the gig, at first, started off not unlike those with the Sub Pop bands he’d worked before. On tour with Garbage, Vig chatted with Billboard about Nevermind changed music and changed his life, along with plenty of details only he can share: how he pushed Cobain to greatness, how he pushed Grohl to be a true studio drummer and even how the Smashing Pumpkins felt when they first heard it all.
The public obviously has a lot of nostalgia for Nevermind. But how often do you go back and listen?
You know, I never put the album on. I really, kind of disengaged a little bit from it after the massive success back in the day, especially after I formed Garbage. On the first Garbage tour we would go out and no one knew who we were and we would do an interview and I could see the journalist just waiting at the end to ask me about Nevermind, which was totally understandable. And it wasn’t really until about the 20th anniversary that Dave Grohl, Krist [Novoselic] and I got together a lot and we did a lot of interviews and press for the 20th. And we went back and dug through all the masters, we had the album re-mastered and then we found some outtakes.
That was the point I really re-embraced the album. It obviously changed my life profoundly and I’m still really proud of it.
So thinking back -- when was the first time you heard Nirvana’s music?
The first time I ever heard a Nirvana track was one of the Sub Pop singles, maybe “Love Buzz.” And a friend of mine who ran a record store in Madison, MadCity Music, had the Sub Pop singles collection -- he was a member -- so every month I’d go in and he’d play me whatever new music Sub Pop was putting out.
But I had been producing some bands for Sub Pop -- The Fluid, and Tad -- and I had produced some songs that had been on Sub Pop Singles and then Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop called one day and said, “You should work with Nirvana, they’re an amazing band,” he goes, “They could be as big as the Beatles.” I was sort of like, that’s quite a statement to make, and I said, “Well I’ve got time next month, why don’t we book something?” And he said, “OK, cool. I’ll send you [1989 debut album] Bleach so you can check out the band. So a couple days later the vinyl showed up and I put the record on and I liked it, but I was not super impressed with it. 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, it sounded a little Beatles-esque and I was absolutely floored by it.
And then about a week before they came to Smart Studios [in Madison, Wisconson], 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, I think. 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 fucking 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. And they planned to come back three or four months later to finish the record. But that never happened.
What did these demos sound like?
At the time they weren’t demos, they were going to be a Sub Pop album. Some of the songs sounded very much like the tracks that would appear on Nevermind -- except that Dave Grohl wasn’t drumming so they had a completely different feel. I thought we were going to finish a record and then the band took the mixes I did and they pressed up 100 cassettes and gave them out to their friends. So they essentially bootlegged themselves and then all the major labels heard about them and they got into a bidding war and eventually signed with Geffen.
How did they link up with you again after the bootleg session?
There was a big chunk of time where I didn’t really know what was going on. I was busy recording Gish with Smashing Pumpkins and so I was pretty deep in the thick of being a studio rat. Billy Corgan kept asking me, “You gonna work with Nirvana?” and I said, “I don’t know, I haven’t heard anything so I’m assuming not because it’s just been silence for quite a while.” Right towards the end of the Gish sessions I got a call from Krist and he asked me if I would be up for engineering because they had talked to four or five producers -- big name rock producers at the time -- but they were really comfortable working with me.
How did you first hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?
Kurt said, “Hey Butch, we’re going to play some new songs, we got the best drummer in the world -- his name is Dave Grohl.” And then they went into “Teen Spirit” and I could hear the intro guitar riff very clearly and as soon as Dave kicked in with that drum fill it just flattened the sound of the cassette; it just went to complete distortion. And I could sort of hear the “Hello, hello,” part; I could kind of hear the chords and things. They were terrible-sounding recordings, but it gave me a sense of where they were going. There were nine or ten songs on that cassette -- some of them brand new -- and I was very excited. Kurt had been writing even more melodically and that was a fantastic progression for him.
The first day I met [the band featuring Grohl] was in the rehearsal space in North Hollywood. The first song they played was “Teen Spirit.” It was the first time I saw Dave Grohl drum and his playing just floored me. I remember just pacing around the room thinking, “This song is fantastic.”
What were their personalities like in the studio?
Dave was this really 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. Krist just had a really cool chill-out vibe to him and 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. During these mood swings I’d just be more focused talking to Dave and Kris and that’s kind of how those sessions were.
But basically, they were thrilled to be in Los Angeles. There was a budget, they were getting per diems, they were staying in a warm apartment -- the apartment they’d been living in in Seattle near their rehearsal space was a piece of crap and had no heating.
For mixing Nevermind, the band eventually went with Andy Wallace. Why do you think they backed away from your mixes?
I was just going to mix it really straightforward but the band came to all the mixing sessions and honestly they didn’t really know at the time how to mix. 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 shit.
The band’s manager called and they said, well why don’t we look at some other mix engineers and honestly, I was really excited about that, because you have to remember I was still learning how to make records.
They sent a list to me 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 and it said "Slayer," and he said, “Call this guy.” Andy had also mixed Madonna, but it didn’t say Madonna.
From you vantage point, what was it like watching Nevermind and “Teen Spirit” blow up?
I flew home to Madison around the 4th of July; I think the Pumpkins were back at Smart recording some B-sides. We had a barbecue in the backyard and it was like, members from Killdozer and a bunch of other Madison bands and the Pumpkins. Somebody said, “Hey put the Nirvana record on,” so I put it on the boombox on the picnic table -- you know, we were cooking some brats on the grill -- and everybody gathered around and didn’t say anything and the record played all the way through and then stopped and no one said anything. Then somebody said, “Play it again.” When it was done everybody looked at me and said, “Oh my god did you realize what kind of record you’ve made?”
The next day I went into the studio and there were all these messages on the answering machine from people I didn’t know, like, “Dude, I’m a radio programmer in Atlanta and blah blah blah, we just heard ‘Teen Spirit’ and it’s going to blow the doors off rock and roll!”
They played a show at the Metro in Chicago right before Nevermind came out. There was a massive line around the block to see Nirvana play and when they went onstage it was like Beatlemania. People were screaming in the audience, I was just blown away how people were freaking out about the band. None of us had any idea it was going to explode like that, but within a couple weeks, Nevermind was released and [by that January] it went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
What did those sessions teach you about your later work?
One thing I knew about the band -- particularly Kurt -- is he had no patience, so I had to be ready for each song we were going to track. I would always go in a couple hours early and make sure that the drums, guitars and amps were ready because when the mood struck them, I wanted to make sure we got it. Almost all of the songs they got in one or two or three takes.
One that was tough was “Lithium.” We tried in vain to track one afternoon and it just didn’t feel right and that’s when Kurt went crazy after the third or fourth take and they launched into that bonus track on Nevermind, “Endless, Nameless.” It just came out of the blue. And I’ve never seen so much rage and frustration coming out of someone; you could literally almost see Kurt’s vocal chords coming out of his throat he was screaming so hard. Then he smashed his left-handed guitar, which ended the session for the day.
Speaking of [“Lithium”], I suggested to Dave that maybe he could try it with a click track. And he told me later that it broke his heart at the time because he had never played to a click track. He just thought, “Man, I’m not good enough to be a session drummer.” Well, Dave went home that night and I always have a little drum machine with me so I can set tempos and figure out what bands are playing -- if they need to have some sort of timing reference that’s what I would use -- and I gave it to Dave and he took it back to their apartment. The next day he came in and we played “Lithium” and he nailed it in one take, perfect.
It sounds like you learned how to coax great performances out of difficult personalities.
Yeah, Kurt was ambitious but he was ambivalent about selling his soul to a big major corporate label. He wanted success. He didn’t want to acknowledge it, but he did want it. If you ever looked at his journals he always had, “What we’re going to do when we play mega stadiums.” They wanted to be the biggest band in the world, no doubt about that. And for a while they were the biggest band in the world. Then for a while, when I think all his dreams came true, that made it really hard for him to face some of his inner demons because all that success didn’t necessarily make him any happier.