Butch Vig had a front row seat to history. The producer and Garbage co-founder was behind the boards for the recording of Nirvana‘s landmark 1991 album Nevermind, which was initially laid down at Vig’s legendary Smart Studios in Madison, Wis.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the album that delivered such grunge classics as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” “In Bloom” and “Drain You,” Vig sat down with Apple Music Hits’ Strombo to talk about the band’s pre-fame silliness, late singer Kurt Cobain’s mental health struggles, and why Nirvana tried to distance themselves from the LP that has sold more than 30 million copies since its Sept. 24, 1991, release.
“When [Kurt] was on, he was really focused. He was funny witty, and, and grin ready to go,” Vig said of the singer-guitarist who was legendarily intense about the details of his art while describing the trio’s relationship before they became the biggest band on the planet. “So I just had to know. I had to have everything set up in the studio. [Bassist] Krist [Novoselic] has always been really amiable and kind of low key, easygoing, and what [drummer] Dave [Grohl] also brought besides incredible drumming was he was goofy. And he brought a lot of little levity to the band. And quite frankly, they were having the time of their lives.”
In addition to describing how the group created the album that broke open the rock world and rocketed them to superstardom seemingly overnight, Vig dove into the difficult topic of Cobain’s struggles with mental health and crippling chronic stomach pain; Cobain died by suicide on April 5, 1994.
“He never talked about what his personal demons were, you know, he always said he had a lot of stomach pain and that could have been an ulcer, but there’s no way to know exactly,” Vig said of the health issues that plagued the singer. “He never really talked much about what was going on inside his head. I think, for me, I was trying to decipher that in his lyrics.”
Vig said he’d often ask Cobain what he was getting at in the lyrics, and Kurt would give a vague “It’s just what I’m saying” answer, leaving Butch, like fans, diving into the words in an attempt to decipher their meaning to try to get into the singer’s frame of mind. “He never really articulated to me what the songs were about. And in some ways, as a producer — and also as a listener — I don’t think you want to know what the song is about,” Vig said. “There are millions of people who have listened to Nevermind and they’re trying to figure out what Kurt is singing to, but I think somehow they relate to it.”
And, despite the universal acclaim, chart-busting sales and instant-classic status, Vig said the group began to feel a kind of ambivalence-bordering-on-disdain for the very thing that helped them rise from obscurity to omnipresence.
“At the time when they started to diss Nevermind, I understood that because you can’t really be a punk rocker and then sell 20 million records, so you have to sort of disown and walk away from it,” he said. “I think that’s one of the reasons they wanted to work with [producer] Steve Albini and make a raw and simpler sounding record when they did [third album] In Utero.”
Despite that, after they finished the Nevermind sessions and before the album dropped Vig said the three absolutely “loved it,” with Cobain calling him several times to to say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe how great this record sounds.” Even 20 years later, when he worked with Grohl and Novoselic to work in the Foo Fighters’ 2011 album Wasting Light, he said the pair told him, “Man, Nevermind sounds so good, man. You nailed it on the head.”
Geffen/UMe announced on Thursday (Sept. 23) that an expanded 30th anniversary edition of Nevermind will drop on Nov. 12 in a variety of formats, including a Super Deluxe Edition with more than 70 previously unreleased audio and video tracks.
Watch Vig discuss Nevermind below.