Butch Vig

No other record producer on earth is as intimately familiar with the drumming beast as Butch Vig. His industry credentials read like a who’s who of platinum acts: Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Muse, Green Day, and the list goes on. Couple that to his duties as the drummer of his band, Garbage, and you have a producer who can walk the walk, talk the talk, and own the groove from behind the kit. Beyond his own drumming, working with Taylor Hawkins, Dave Grohl, Jimmy Chamberlin, and Tré Cool has taught Vig the value of experience.

“I am lucky,” Vig says from his home in Silver Lake, California. “When you work with those drummers, they make the recording process easier and fun because they’re really good. You can just tell them, ‘That kick pattern doesn’t work,’ or, ‘Maybe you need to double-time that part,’ and they get it. They can adapt.

“One of my strengths as a producer is that I am a drummer,” Vig adds. “I get focused on how the groove feels. But trust me, I can hear timing and feel better than I can physically play! I call it the autistic part of my brain. To me, fills are okay if they push. If the drummer is playing right on the click sometimes the fills won’t feel right. It needs to have a little natural push to it. There are all sorts of things that are constantly going on in my head while recording a record. Working with a great drummer makes a lot of the process so much easier.”

The Meaning Of Greatness

After 17 million records sold, Vig and Garbage have returned with Not Your Kind Of People, six years after their last release, 2005’s Bleed Like Me. Pioneers of industrial pop rock, where live and programmed drums mesh to form bionic rhythms of fiendish power and purpose, Garbage recaptures on this album the fury of their 1995 self-titled debut, and shows the band has lost nothing to time.

“I play pretty simple,” Vig admits. “I was never one of those guys to practice fancy muso stuff. I was more interested in guys like Mick Fleetwood and Charlie Watts. I love Keith Moon; he’s the reason I took up drums. I’ve always played within the context of the song and that’s been a good influence on me as a producer to always make sure that the song is first, not the individual musicianship.”

Vig’s method for working with newer bands and inexperienced drummers forms a primer that any musician can learn from.

“The first thing is you always have to pay attention to the arrangement and the instrumentation,” he says. “If it’s a simpler band it’s okay if the drums are noisier and busier. But if there’s a lot going on in the track you have to pare it down and keep it simpler to let some of the instrumentation speak. It’s obviously a band-by-band judgment, but also a song-by-song thing. I can’t just go in and be a fan and say, ‘Let’s play this crazy fill here.’ As much as drumming is a big part of my background I am able to departmentalize it in a way. It’s one part of the big picture, and that part has to fit into the big picture.”

Vig’s approach is very methodical, honed after years of recording and producing bands. And, being a successful drummer in his own right, Vig has a special insight. He knows what works, and more importantly, what doesn’t.

“When I’m producing a new band I work through demos and preproduction to realize the arrangements,” he says. “You can’t afford to spend days getting a drum take. So you have to be focused and know your parts. When we did the Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light, we did so much preproduction that Taylor had 98 percent of the grooves and fills worked out. That is the same method I do with younger bands.

“When I worked with Against Me, I told them, ‘By the end of preproduction I will know every single note that everyone plays in every bar of each song.’ They were like, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, and you will, too.’ They’d play the song in rehearsal while I’d take notes and record them on a handheld recorder. Then I’d ask just a couple guys to play the song, to hear them. I’d take more notes, and maybe tell them, ‘This is too busy here,’ or, ‘Maybe you need a better fill,’ primarily focusing on the drums. Then I’d play back the recording and they’d be shocked. I can always see the look on their faces when they hear the song and it’s really stripped down. A lot of bands never practice like that.”

Along the way, producing such seven-figure sellers as Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown, not to mention six Garbage albums, Vig has learned a thing or two about getting the ultimate snare drum sound.

“The perfect snare drum crack is part of your style,” he says. “It comes from your wrist. Great drummers can make drums speak without flailing their arms around. I only hit rimshots for effect, but a lot of drummers like to catch the rim for that crack, and that is a skill unto itself. You could put ten drummers in a room and have the same kick-snare and record them and they will all sound different without touching anything on the mikes. That is the individual human influence that everyone brings, and everyone will sound different. That is what makes drumming so special. If you ask ten guitarists to hit a power chord thorough a Marshall cabinet, chances are they will all sound the same. But the drums are so sensitive. The slightest grace note or change of dynamics, whether you’re pushing or pulling ahead of the groove, all these subtle things are what gives a drummer his signature sound.”

Butch Vig with his team working in the studio

Becoming Butch

Vig got his first $75 drum kit when he was in the fifth grade. Having studied classical piano for six years, he could read music and play orchestral percussion. By the time of his freshman year, Vig quickly moved past older students to fill the first chair in the percussion section playing tympani and bells.

“I got flack for that because I was a freshman but I knew more about music and drums than any of the seniors and juniors,” Vig recalls. “They picked on me.”

Before taking up drum set, Vig studied orchestral snare drum, and even took awards in regional championships for his solo prowess. But as soon as he received that first kit, it was hello Keith Moon and Charlie Watts, goodbye Bach and Beethoven, George Lawrence Stone and Benjamin Podemski.

“I became fully enamored with rock and roll and let the lessons and studies slide,” Vig says. “I’d play with bands after school in my basement, covering Deep Purple, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Grand Funk Railroad, and Black Sabbath. And I’d play along with Charlie Watts and The Stones, learning to do simple patterns and emulate the fills and the grooves on those records. As you’re playing with headphones you’re starting to figure out why a song works arrangement-wise. I advise young drummers to play along with their favorite records until they know every single part of the song, then they’ll begin to appreciate not only the dexterity of the drummer but the arrangements of the songs, and you’ll understand why things work. That’s going to be invaluable moving forward in terms of if you are going to do your own thing and get into a band.”

After dropping out of the University Of Wisconsin to pursue work on the Madison music scene, Vig eventually met future Garbage guitarist Steve Marker. He also began playing with local band Spooner, which included another future Garbage member, Duke Erickson. In 1984, while playing with Spooner and driving a cab at night, Vig and Marker founded Smart Studios.

“Even when I was young I would listen to records and try to figure out how they got that sound, or what did they do there, or how did they mike those strings and percussion? Before I knew how records were made I always assumed it was always people playing in a room together. As soon as I figured out what you could do with the technology I was sold. It was a drug.”

A year and a half later Vig returned to college to study music and electronic composition. “That course was a big influence on me as a producer,” he recalls. “I was already interested in recording. It was all intertwined at the same time that I was into music and film. I spent hours in the electronic studio. I made a lot of soundtracks for my fellow students.”

Spooner eventually recorded three forgettable albums — 1982’s Every Corner Dance, 1985’s Wildest Dreams, and 1990’s The Fugitive Dance — but even then, Vig was developing his skills.

“Spooner was pretty much live drums,” Vig says. There’s a couple songs with drum machine. ‘Fugitive Dance’ had a big kick and a clap, then I overdubbed a standup bass with brushes on a snare drum.”

Vig blended acoustic and programmed drums more seriously in his next band, Fire Town, which released two albums, 1987’s In The Heart Of The Country, and 1989’s The Good Life.

“On Fire Town’s first record I overdubbed cymbals and hi-hat over an Oberheim drum machine. The original tracks were meant to be demos so I just got a beat going on the drum machine and we added guitars and all of a sudden it sounded good, so we added real cymbals. People liked it and we got an offer to put it out on Atlantic Records. The second record was all live drums.”

One year later Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novaselic walked into Smart Studios and recorded Nevermind. Butch Vig’s life would never be the same.

“Nevermind was a pretty cheap record to make,” Vig laughs. “About 60 grand when it was all said and done. Right away, Dave was unbelievable. The best hard rock drummer I’d ever worked with. Just rock solid, and he’s an example of somebody who hits the drums hard but they sound really good. He had impeccable timing and great taste in drum fills. He would write fills that became hooks in the songs. That’s a gift.”

Brand New Garbage

The smashing success of Nevermind lead to production work with Urge Overkill, Smashing Pumpkins, Gumball, Sonic Youth, Helmet, Soul Asylum, and many others. In 1994, Vig joined with Marker, Erickson, and Scottish singer Shirley Manson to form Garbage. Their 1995 debut launched the band into the stratosphere with the hit singles “Only Happy When It Rains,” “Vow,” “Queer,” “Supervixen,” “Stupid Girl,” and “Milk.” Garbage went double platinum in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and gold around the globe. The band’s combination of killer songs and gritty acoustic-electronic production turned them into international superstars. But after four albums, and the surging popularity of such retro rock bands as The White Stripes, Garbage’s innovative, effects-laden music seemed passé. But with death comes rebirth.

Butch Vig playing on drums

“The approach on Not Your Kind Of People was a little bit looser,” Vig says. “We didn’t go into any big studios. There’s a combination of live drums and programming and we’d chop up stuff and process it. I recorded my DW kit in my home studio. I used six mikes on the drums: kick, snare, rack, floor, two overheads, then I set up a mono mike down the hallway in the bathroom. I’d crank that and compress it like mad. That was the sound of the drums. ‘Blood For Poppies’ was live drums over a drum machine, then cranked through SoundToys Decapitator, a distortion box that I would put gates and filters on. There’s a lot of layers in the songs. On ‘Control’ I played a simple John Bonham–styled pattern; I cranked up the room mike until I got that big boom-crack, kick-snare pattern. I used a Dunnett titanium 14″ x 6.5″ snare drum — it’s really light but it has a great sound.”

Not Your Kind Of People blows through more drum production sounds than a Transformer destroying a city. “Automatic Systematic Habit” and “I Hate Love” rev up full-on torture techno beats; “Big Bright World” bounces and bubbles like a syncopated serpent; “Blood For Poppies” drops distorted dub tom fills amid a smoking reggae pocket; “Battle In Me” rages and rocks on like Mr. Grohl himself. With drum sounds constantly morphing from acoustic to electronic, from triggered to programmed, how does Vig maintain a balance when writing songs?

drum set

Vig’s Setup

Drums DW
1 22″ x 18″
2 14″ x 6.5″ Snare Drum
3 13″ x 7″ Tom
4 16″ x 16″ Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
A 14″ New Beat Hi-Hat
B 10″ A Splash
C 19″ A Medium Thin Crash
D 22″ A Custom Ride
E 18″ K Custom Dark Crash

Electronics Ddrum
F Pads (’90s vintage)
G Ddrum 3 module

Butch Vig also uses DW 9000 series hardware, Hart Dynamics triggers, Vic Firth 5A sticks, and Remo heads (Coated Emperor, toms; Emperor X, snare; and Ambassador, resos).

“Compared to when we began, now I know how to make records,” he laughs. “I will usually play to some sort of click or loop from day one. It’s rare that I will just set up and play live without a click or a loop. Part of that is so we can cut and paste easily, and we have a tempo reference to get an idea of what we’re going to do. It’s part of our songwriting process. So much of it is built in bits and pieces, so starting out I keep my mind open to try anything. That’s a real part of our sound. It’s using a combination of live drums and programmed drums and manipulating that sound, whether it’s live or programmed. I like to do something to it and not have it sound normal. We have to f__k it up a little bit!”

Vig assimilates a John Bonham feel for one groove, and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason for the title track. “On ‘Control’ I wanted to get something heavy,” he explains. “I thought of John Bonham. Then I played that harmonica part. Sometimes I’ll remember a fill or a sound or a groove from something and try to bring that in. That’s what we did with ‘Big Bright World,’ which is pretty live, over a kick and snare loop. In ‘Not Your Kind Of People’ I was trying to channel Pink Floyd’s ‘Breathe.’ It doesn’t sound like Pink Floyd but you can hear it as a reference point. ‘Blood For Poppies’ is a live drum take over a drum machine. It’s all been processed so it’s hard to tell what’s what. ‘Automatic Systematic’ — there’s a big techno kick and snare on that, and I played live drums. When we mixed it we cut it up more for an electronic feel. ‘Battle In Me’ is all live drums. The kit on that track is heavily compressed, so it’s got that big boomy sound.”

On older Garbage material the band had less programming and editing software at their fingertips, but the approach remained the same. Perform, slice, dice, chop, edit, and re-edit.

“‘Silence Is Golden’ was live drums over some percussion. ‘Vow’ was live drums over programmed drums, and we ran the drums through a Boss pedal, and the whole kit through some weird filters. A lot of the first record the drums were run through lo-fi processing. ‘Only Happy When It Rains,’ there’s some live drums on top of these weird distorted samba loops from one of those cheap rhythm boxes. Then we ran a drum machine kick and clap and then I played kick and snare and hi-hat over top, overdubbed crashes later. ‘Stupid Girl’ samples The Clash’s ‘Train In Vain.’”

All this brings up a pressing question: How can understanding programming make drummers better musicians?

“With programming you can come up with ideas that you can’t possibly play!” he laughs. “And if you do that then you have to figure out how to play it, whether it’s chopped up or a pattern you would never play normally. Sometimes it’s good to have a non-drummer program a drum machine by hitting some pads. You’d be surprised what they come up with. It’s wrong and off in terms of a natural feel but sometimes they will come up with something that sounds interesting and fresh. And whenever you program something you can’t play, you have to figure it out. ‘Can I play that? Or at least figure out something that will work with that, then play over the top of the programmed part so the two parts work in sync?’ That can be an exciting thing, to free your head up from things you would normally fall into.”

The Closer

Butch Vig is in the rare position to work with the best drummers in the business while he helms one of the world’s greatest and most enduring rock bands. And like many drummers, he sees himself as a supporting member, the glue that holds the ship together. He’s a curious soul with a broad mindset and a mad talent.

“I always put my drumming lowest on the totem pole after producing and songwriting,” Vig says. “But I’m always learning about drums and rhythms and how they work in the context of a song. Often on Sirius radio I hear great arrangements in songs from so many interesting young bands. Sometimes things come out of left field and they inspire me. Every time I hear something new on the radio that excites me it reminds me why I love making music. There’s still so much uncharted water out there. Hopefully I can still keep my ears and eyes open and find some of that uncharted water to help make me a better producer and a better drummer.”

Groove Analysis

Even though Butch Vig was a drummer long before he was a producer, that later career track did nothing but help his understanding of song structure and the drummer’s role. His playing with Garbage mixes treated and often distorted acoustic and electronic drum sounds to create a synthetic sound that fits the band perfectly. On Garbage’s latest release, Not Your Kind Of People, that trend continues, and Vig’s approach sounds that much more evolved.

“Blood For Poppies”
This track begins with a heavily distorted fill and follows it with a funky drum groove. Vig varies the beat in the second line by adding some open hi-hat notes that lead into each backbeat. At the chorus, the pattern changes to a sixteenth-note hi-hat pattern for more energy.

butch's music notes

“Not Your Kind Of People”
The title track has a slow and funky ride-cymbal groove with just the right amount of swing to give the song a sultry quality. The groove has some unusual snare-bass interaction for a pop song that continues at the chorus.

Not Your Kind Of People music notes

“Man On A Wire”
This track starts with a heavily compressed and distorted snare playing a version of the “Motown Beat” originated by Funk Brother Benny Benjamin. At the chorus, the groove turns to a more traditional rock feel with the snares returning to 2 and 4.

Man On A Wire music notes