BY JAKE WOOD
Butch Vig is a man known primarily for two things: He’s the drummer for alt-rock band Garbage and he’s the producer for Nirvana’s top-selling album Nevermind (he’s been dubbed the “Nevermind Man” in the engineering world). Being a drummer, he says, gives him advantages as a producer, noting that it has made him much more aware of a song’s feel and rhythmic timing.
“I want it to be tight,” he says. “I want the band to be aware of the timing. I want it to feel good with the vocals. One thing that the drums bring is the feel.”
Like many producers and engineers, Vig got his start in the recording world by working on his own projects. When his first band, Eclipse (from Viroqua, Wisconsin), was ready to record a tune, he reached out to a studio in the closest big city around and was rejected—the studio manager told them they weren’t ready.
So, in true DIY fashion, Vig wired up a borrowed two-track recorder to the band’s mixing board. That was when the production bug set in. Shortly thereafter he found himself at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he would take four semesters of electronic music courses. There, he met fellow Garbage-man Duke Erikson, and they began recording songs with their own DIY approach.
Vig is typically very hands-on when it comes to producing. He likes to get in as much pre-production as possible. He’ll typically get recordings of rough demos or rehearsals, take them into Pro Tools, and then cut them up and paste them around. He’s quick to add that he doesn’t like polished demos, as that can lead to the incurable, very real affliction known as “demo-itus.”
“I fall in love with the first thing I hear, as do most artists,” says Vig. “So I say to them, ‘Please make your demos sound really shitty.’” When making a record, he says, “You want to be able to improve on the demo. You want to be able to top it. Give me something where I can hear the chords, the melody, the lyrics. If you need to put strings on it, go ahead, but use some awful string patch.”
Though his realm of producing may be primarily in the straight-ahead rock genre, Vig is no stranger to experimentation in the studio. When recording drums he’ll set up extra microphones in the room and process them through stompbox pedals. He’ll also have drummers play some freestyle stuff, possibly to chop up and loop later. In fact, he’s even had the legendary drummer of James Brown’s band, Clyde Stubblefield, play on a few Garbage tracks. Some of Stubblefield’s loops appear in the songs “Queer” and “Not My Idea.” (This James Brown-Garbage connection might come in handy at your next trivia night.)
When asked about sound replacing becoming rampant in today’s records (some critics have speculated about its use in Nevermind), Vig’s eloquence comes through. “If it works, it works.”
He’s also quick to note that he has his own sound replacing strategy. “After we’re done tracking the drums for a song I’ll have the drummer play single hits. Maybe three or four on the snare, maybe some grace notes. Then I’ll take one or two of those snare samples and line it up with the backbeats. That cuts out all the hi-hat bleed, all the cymbal bleed, and then you can really process the snare how you want.”
Before becoming a producing legend, however, Vig was just a kid taking piano lessons. Until he saw The Who, at which point he knew he had to play drums. Vig quickly realized he couldn’t play like Keith Moon (very few can), but instead could play like Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts. As he moved more into producing, these influences manifested in his drum parts. “I play pretty simple drums,” he says. “They have to work with the songs. They’re usually meant to accent something vocally, or maybe a guitar riff. I play to serve the song.”
For the aspiring drummer-producers out there, Vig has some career advice that hinges not on engineering skills or drumming chops, but on the ability to play other instruments. “I learned how to play guitar, and I took piano lessons, and I can play some very simple bass lines, and having that background has really helped me,” he says. “It’s been invaluable for me.”