Butch Vig On Nevermind, Siamese Dream, Garbage, And His History Of Shaping Alternative Rock As We Know It

If you don't think Butch Vig's almost singlehandedly invented two decades of alternative rock as we know it, just look at his resumé: Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World, Foo Fighters, AFI. That's without mentioning his membership in the still-cool Garbage or the fact he produced a little generational totem called Nevermind. From grunge to "electronica" to emo, he's probably building someone's entire adolescence from scratch as we speak. He free-associated for Village Voice about some of his biggest hits, underrated discoveries and Garbage's own new album Not Your Kind of People, which drops this week.

Smashing Pumpkins, Gish

That was the first sort of a big-budget record I ever did. We did the record in, like, 30 days; I'd done hundreds of records in, like, two days or four days—all these punk records for Sub Pop or Touch and Go with no budget basically. Billy and I formed a kinship very quickly. He was very driven and had a vision and I was the same and we pushed each other. That was really the record where people started calling me up for production work because they loved that record so much.

How big of a commercial prospect were Smashing Pumpkins at the time?

I didn't really see it as being that commercial considering the pop music that was on the radio. I knew they would touch the college circuit but I sort of figured that was where they would live and die. But they were a really interesting-looking band and Billy had this feminine quality to his voice. They did not look or sound like any other band out there at the time.

Nirvana, Nevermind
Is there anything still left to know about Nevermind?

That record changed my life. It's pretty easy to sum that up in one sentence. I had no commercial expectations other than I knew the record was great and it was catchy. I called their manager a week before it hit No. 1 and said, "Any chance this is gonna hit No. 1?" And he said, "Not a chance—Michael Jackson is on the charts."

Kurt famously dissed the production later as being "like a fucking Mötley Crüe record," but was he just saying that or did he express admiration at the time?

Well, you hit the nail on the head. He had to disown it because of his punk rock roots, tried to keep some of that authenticity. When he finished that record, he loved it. They loved it, they wanted to be ambitious. Like I said, they rehearsed for months. They wanted to make a tight, great-sounding, really well-focused album. He would make these lists of things he would do when he was a millionaire and famous. So it was that conundrum of wanting it and not wanting it at the same time. What are you gonna say, "I'm so glad we sold 10 million copies?" He had to disown it; it was really all he could do. But I know at the time we made it that he loved it. And he would call me up at the time to bug me "You gotta work with Courtney, she needs you! You could make her into the star she needs to be!" I'd get these calls in the middle of the night where he'd put me on the phone with Courtney and she'd chat with me for awhile.

L7, Bricks Are Heavy
Did people think L7 or Sonic Youth was going to make the next Nevermind?

Unfortunately what happened was a lot of people thought because I made Nevermind I could make that happen with anybody. With L7 I just wanted to take what they are and make them sound big, heavy and focused. That was one of the funnest albums I've ever made. We recorded the basics at Sound City, where we did Nevermind, then they came back to Madison [Wisconsin] and we finished it at my studio. They were there about a month and by the time they left they knew every hustler, junkie, drug dealer, bookie... every single crazy lowlife in Madison was coming into the studio because they were friends with the band.

Sonic Youth, Dirty
What's Sonic Youth's songwriting process like?

Thurston would send me a bunch of demos, and they weren't really demos, just rehearsals. And some of the jams would be like 15 minutes, with a couple of songs, I remember like "Theresa's Sound-World," and there would be three completely different versions. And I'd say which was my favorite version. And that was one of the tricky things—trying to keep that balance, but also keep it loose and let them go off and do their own thing in the studio.

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My favorite Butch-Vig-produced album has to be Chainsaw Kittens’ “Flipped Out in Singapore.”


This interview was cool to read since it was Butch Vig's words. I have enjoyed and been inspired by all those bands(accept AFI and Jimmy Eats World). Garbage is Fuckin' cool! Shirley continues to captivate me...and glad she is titan again. Just saw Sonic Youth again after years and they still ROCK and influence many! Smashing Pumpkins has major influence, I mean have you heard Silver Sun Pickups? Really, insiration is everywhere, both figurative and literally, and unless you know all music made, then you have to realize that all influence is not as literal as "Nevermind". Thanks to B.V. for having the sense to let an artist be an artist as well as giving them the head tools to pull it off! ROCK n ROLL!!!


His bands were sometimes fun, but are they really enduring? I have been listening to The Smiths all morning. 

James Temple
James Temple

His bands? He produced those bands, they're not his. He has been in one band since 94, Garbage, who were pretty good last night at Webster Hall.


To be fair, you're comparing a producer working with dozens of bands on albums and songs to the entire catalogue of a single band. That being said, how do you even define timelessness, and what makes a song/band/album enduring? Does it define a genre, time period, or cultural milestone? Does it inspire cross-cultural appreciation? Does it carry emotional resonance throughout generations? Does it change our preconceived notions about what music can do?

If it's any or all of those things, Vig can rest his case on Nevermind.

Nevermind is more important than the entire Smiths catalogue. I love The Smiths, but nothing they recorded came close to impacting mainstream culture or the direction of music the way Nevermind did.

The rest of Vig's "catalogue" isn't as important, and neither is the rest of Nirvana's.  I happen to think In Utero is a better album, but I only listened to that because of Nevermind. Enduring music isn't necessarily what we think is the best, but it is what our culture refuses to let go.

Johnny Deep
Johnny Deep

I fucking hate the fucking Smiths, but I would say you're not taking into account how much the fucking Smiths changed British culture. And that would be a lot. God what a shite band.


 I am sort of a musical polyglot and am a fan of all sorts of music. I also have a collection of brass band music from Moldavia, but I have always associated the smiths, Madchester music scene, as being connected to Alt-Rock, sort of like "My Bloody Valentine". The Smiths also has a Socialist lean to it, being about working class youth, and that is always a powerful message if you incorporate that into any music or art, such as Gilbert and George. A really rocking alt-rock song is "You Made me Realize" by My Bloody Valentine.


You're probably right, because I don't know that much about England, and was sort of talking out of my ass.

Nevermind, though, has had an undeniable international impact, which was part of my overall point about "enduring" music, though it doesn't really matter. Nevermind is a masterpiece, Garbage has released some really cool music, and Butch Vig is alright by me.

But you have to admit that "How Soon Is Now?" is a fantastic song.

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