Butch Vig is well-versed in documenting legendary recording studios thanks to his involvement in Dave Grohl projects such as Sound City and the Sonic Highways series on HBO. But giving that treatment to Smart Studios, the facility he co-founded and operated with Garbage bandmate Steve Marker in Madison, Wis., felt like a bit of a stretch.
“I don’t think we thought there was a very compelling story to tell,” Vig tells Billboard — although with The Smart Studios Story premiering on Wednesday at the South By Southwest Film Festival, he now acknowledges they may have been too modest.
Smart Studios, which was open from 1983-2010, was the birthplace of legendary recordings by Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins (Gish), L7 (Bricks Are Heavy) and Everclear (Sparkle and Fade), as well as projects by Fall Out Boy, Soul Asylum, Death Cab For Cutie, Sparklehorse, Tegan and Sara and scores of others. It’s also where Vig and Marker started Garbage and recorded its first four albums.
Director Wendy Schneider saw the promise for a Smart Studios documentary even if Vig and Marker didn’t. When the studio’s closing was announced, she began gathering stories from artists who worked there, ultimately prevailing upon Vig and Marker that it would hold up as a film. “Hollywood likes to have a narrative arc, and we didn’t think that was there,” Vig explains. “Really, the story is more about a scene, a snapshot of time in the Midwest and how we started the studio and the bands that came in were very underground, very do it yourself. We were so far removed from the East Coast and West Coast we were left to our own devices, and slowly the bands that recorded there started to make some noise, which led to bands that exploded in the mainstream like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. The great thing Wendy has down is put that all together into an interesting story.”
No album out of Smart was more impactful than Nevermind, though Vig notes that “when I went to make that (album) I had no idea it was going to profoundly change my life. None of us had any idea. I think those sessions were fun because none of us had any expectations.” They did have standards, however — particularly Kurt Cobain, and Vig learned to navigate his mercurial temperament.
“There were moments that were hard,” Vig recalls. “Kurt would have intense mood swings and just shut down. He would just go sit in a corner and disappear into his own space. Krist (Novoselic) would say, ‘He just goes into these moods and he’ll come out in awhile.’ So we’d find something to do for a couple hours, tweak the drums or work on bass sounds, and all of a sudden Kurt would pick up his guitar, ‘Let’s go.’ He’d be back, fully engaged. I just had to gauge when the timing ws right to go for takes.”
Watch Dave Grohl and more talk about the Nevermind sessions below from The Smart Studios Story, which Billboard is premiering exclusively below.
The one-two punch of Nevermind and Gish gave Vig a vaunted stature in the music world, and opened the door to many opportunities. “I had a lot of offers,” he says. “I had some manager who wanted to put me in big studios with the The Rolling Stones or whoever it was. But I didn’t really want ot move to the East Coast or West Coast. I wanted to work at my own pace and work with bands I was interested in. Nirvana allowed me to do that. (Nevermind) really drove a lot of young bands to want to come and record there. I felt really proud seeing that first cut (of the film) that we were part of that moment in time and managed to make some noise and be part of history in some way.”
Vig and Marker are now based in Los Angeles, where they’re still using some of Smart’s gear. Vig is waiting for word from Grohl about the second season of Sonic Highways; meanwhile, he and Marker are back in Garbage world having finished Strange Little Birds, the group’s new album, which is due out in early June (with summer festival dates and a fall North American tour to follow).
“I think it’s quite different for us,” Vig says of the album. “It’s very cinematic and there are a lot of sonic moments on the record that are not necessarily typical Garbage. We sort of took the rock out and deconstructed the songs, made them more vulnerable-sounding. Some moments get completely crazy, completely blown out. I think it’s one of those records people are going to listen to the first time and go, ‘Wow, what was that?’ They’re gonna need to hear it a couple times to get into it. But we’re really happy with it. We hope Garbage fans will find it as interesting as we do.”