Butch Vig on the 25th Anniversary of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ and the ‘Mediocre’ State of Music

The legendary producer sat down at SXSW to discuss his production of the Nirvana classic, the Nirvana/Neil Young album that wasn’t, and much more.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

He is the George Martin of grunge: a mild-mannered Midwesterner in glasses and a vest, surrounded by young fellas in tattered T-shirts and jeans. And over the years, in addition to serving as a founding member in the bands Garbage, Spooner, and Fire Town, Butch Vig has established himself as one of the preeminent producers in rock music, overseeing albums for the likes of Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Foo Fighters, and more.

Many of these albums were recorded at Vig’s recording studio, Smart Studios, in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. The history of the studio, one that played an integral role in the rise of grunge rock, is chronicled in Wendy Schneider’s new documentary The Smart Studios Story, which had its world premiere at SXSW.

“I think it turned out pretty good!” says Vig, seated across from me at a bar in Austin, Texas, the day after the film debuted.

Vig’s lorded over so many great albums, from The Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream to the Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light, but he’ll always be remembered for producing the Nirvana classic Nevermind, which turns 25 this year. Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl famously laid down the tracks at Smart Studios, with Vig ironing out the album’s crisp-yet-raw sound.

The Daily Beast sat down with Vig to discuss the 25th anniversary of Nevermind, the current state of music, and more.

There’s a scene in The Smart Studios Story where, after Nirvana lands a big magazine cover, you seem to be particularly proud of vanquishing hair metal. Was that a point of pride for you and everyone involved in the grunge scene? Before I did Twelve Point Buck [with Killdozer], I was in a band called Fire Town and we went to New York and spent about four months there making a pretty expensive record at the time for Atlantic. We were a sort of jangly Midwestern pop band, like Tom Petty or The Byrds, but Atlantic was having all its success with acts like Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister, and Skid Row. They completely ignored us when the record came out. We went on tour and they pulled the plug on the record about six weeks later. I hated hair metal. So when Nirvana came in and drove the nail in the coffin of hair metal, there was a bit of satisfaction and payback there.

Do you feel the same way about EDM right now? I thought it would’ve burned out by now, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It’s hot right now, but I think it will burn out. There’s always been club music. The EDM just turned a lot of the DJs into superstars where they can walk in with their laptop and get paid a half-million dollars for pressing play for 90 minutes. Hey, more power to ’em. I wish I could do that!

It does seem to be having an effect, though, on music. Now, kids are probably less likely to form a rock ’n’ roll band when they can make music from their bedroom on a laptop, pressing buttons to create synthetic hi-hats, drums, and guitar. I think there is so much music out there that is mediocre—not just EDM, but folk music, hip-hop music—because there’s so much music out there. Before, it was hard to put music out. So at the end of the day, you have to put out something that’s good. Whether it’s EDM or folk music, if it’s going to resonate some way you’re going to find an audience. And how many bands are on YouTube now? Ten million? You go through SoundCloud and check out all the EDM tracks out there and every now and then one sounds interesting, but a lot of it is really soulless. There’s no human passion in it, and it’s just a mixture of interesting sounds. I think people are going to get bored with that. Nirvana happened at the end of the ’80s because a lot of the music that was dominating the charts was very slick, and when Nirvana came along, it was so visceral and primal that it freaked people out, you know? They thought, ‘Wow, this is the real thing.’ The reason that record was so big is the timing. If Nirvana came out now with Nevermind, it would not have even remotely the same impact.

The timing did seem to be perfect. Nevermind was released in ’91, and seemed to signal the end of the ’80s, a time of cultural and financial excess epitomized in Wall Street, and the beginning of the ’90s.Yeah, it was the end of Ronald Reagan. We were really lucky in a sense that we just caught on a scene that happened to be blowing up in Madison on a local level, which then turned into a regional thing. It was really good timing. Timing in art is so important because it’s a reflection of the culture, and you can’t predict it.

You know, there are bars you can still go to in places, even in Paris, where it’ll reach a certain time of night and they’ll just crank Nevermind and everyone will go nuts. Albums come and go, especially today. Why do you think it’s held up so well after 25 years?Part of it is that the performances are amazing-sounding, really intense, and very focused. But the songs are super hook-y. They’re gloriously hook-y pop songs dressed up with punk attitude, so you can sing along to pretty much every song at the top of your lungs. Great choruses. It’s real simple production. I know people groused at the time that it was too slick, but it’s not slick. It’s drums in a room, a guitar, and bass. Sometimes we double-tracked the guitar and sometimes we’d add a few harmonies and Kurt would double-track his voice, but it was dead simple production.

I read that you tricked Kurt into double-tracking his vocals on songs like “In Bloom” by telling him, “John Lennon did it.” [Laughs] I had to convince him to double-track, yeah. But back to what we were talking about, when you record something simple like that, I don’t think it gets time-stamped. I think some of the EDM stuff is going to sound really dated in five years because there are certain sounds they use where it’s just going to sound passé. You’ll think, oh, this is so 2015 or 2016. But if you record with the actual instrumentation—bass, drums, and guitar, which has been recorded a zillion times—and just make it sound good, it’s not going to seem dated.

There were the Smart Studios Sessions on Nevermind, which occurred back in 1990, and then they reconvened the following year to actually record the album after test-running a lot of the material. I think we recorded about eight tracks during the Smart Studios Sessions, and “Polly” was the only one that made it on the album. We also did a couple of covers, including “Here She Comes Now” by The Velvet Underground.

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What was your first impression of Kurt and the guys when they rolled into the studio for the first time?

They were pretty scruffy and grungy when they showed up! They had been driving in the Sub Pop van—Sub Pop always had a “band van” that bands would use, since a lot of bands didn’t own their own van, and it was pretty beat up—so they had been playing shows, and by the time they got into the studio they were in dire need of a shower and a hot meal. But they were in good form, man. Kurt was awesome to work with, but he was incredibly moody. That was the thing, was to figure out when he was going to be focused, or when he was going to disappear into himself.

Right. I heard that Kurt would have these pangs on inspiration, where he’d be really focused for an hour or so, and then at other times, he’d sink into a corner of the room and wouldn’t want to talk to anyone. Exactly. I just had to learn how to pick and choose those moments, and figure out when was the right time to track something or record something. When I went to do Nevermind, I had an idea of what it was going to be like. I just knew I had to be ready to go, and when Kurt was on his A-game, we had to hit ‘record.’

And they were very hard-working in the studio, right? Contrary to the “grunge” ethos, these guys were working eight to 10 hours a day perfecting their craft. You know, some songs were very last-minute. “Come as You Are” and “Teen Spirit” were written very shortly before we recorded them. They didn’t write them in the studio—they had rehearsed them a bunch of times during pre-production—and the band sounded very tight. They had been practicing every day. They were not slackers and really put the time in. When we did pre-production, I didn’t want to make them rehearse every day for two weeks. It was a waste of time. We did three days of rehearsals, and we’d only rehearse for a couple of hours. We’d set up stuff and just have them run through it. I had a few changes in the arrangements that they’d work on, but pretty simple stuff, tightening things up here and there. And with most of the songs on the record, we’d usually get them in two or three takes.

There are contradicting reports concerning the nature of Kurt and Dave’s relationship. Some reports sort of paint it as a Michael Jordan/Bill Cartwright relationship, where Kurt was always on his case about his quality of play, while others claim they were on friendlier terms. How did they interact in the studio during the recording of Nevermind?Dave was a breath of fresh air because he had this goofy sense of humor. He was so young. He brought this great energy, sang a lot of the background vocals, and had this great voice. There really was no tension at all between Dave and Kurt. All we had to do was capture when Kurt was focused and there 100 percent.

And apparently Kurt was unhappy with the way Nevermind turned out? He once famously said, “Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I’m embarrassed by it now. It’s closer to a Motley Crue record than it is a punk rock record.”

[Laughs] When we finished the record he loved it. Absolutely loved it. We did some playbacks and he said, “Oh my god, this is fucking incredible.” Cut to a year later when it’s sold 10 million records, and you have to disown it. You can’t have any punk ethics and go, “Man, I love the way our last record sounds and am so happy it sold 10 million copies!” Dave, Krist, and I talked about it at the 20th anniversary and we all agreed, Man, that record sounds fucking amazing. And it does. People complained that Andy Wallace’s mix was too slick, but it isn’t. If you compare it to anything you hear on the radio, it’s still raw-sounding.

Exclusive: Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ Outtakes of Kurt Cobain and Co.

Is it true that a lot of the songs on Nevermind were about Kurt’s ex, Tobi Vail? That’s what Kurt’s biographer claimed in Heavier Than Heaven.

Oh, no. That’s just a rumor. Each song had its own thing. Kurt borrowed references from all over the place. He got the title for “Teen Spirit” from a deodorant that he saw written on a wall. It didn’t really mean anything, he just thought it was stupid!

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a game-changer. With the music video and everything, it seemed to symbolize a changing of the guard, and was also, in a way, a call to arms for a generation of disillusioned teens.

It was a zeitgeist moment, you know? It turned people’s heads. Those records don’t come along very often. I feel like the world is ready for one right now, you know? And I don’t know what it will be. It could be a hip-hop artist that sings like Bob Dylan, or something. I don’t know. I’ve been reading all this press about The 1975, and it just sounds like INXS to me and records that were made in the ’80s. But a lot of young fans have never heard that before, so to them it sounds fresh. But it’s like they’re recycling things they probably heard their parents play 20 years ago.

The band really pulled for you, too, on Nevermind. At one point the label intervened and wanted them to go another direction, but they held on for you.

Yeah, they held on for me. They met with a bunch of other big-name producers, and they didn’t like any of ’em. I know their names, but I’m not going to name ’em! Some of them I knew, and at one point they asked me if I wanted to engineer for one of the big-name producers, and I thought, hey, that could be cool because it’s a big producer and I’ll probably learn a lot, but then I thought, nah, I don’t wanna do that. Then they called me a week later and told me they wanted me to do it. So it’s probably smart I said no at that time!

I’d say so. You said earlier that if Nevermind came out today, it wouldn’t have the same impact. Why is that?It’s a completely different world out there. Bands are so smart now that they can record albums in their basement and fix everything through production. So you don’t have to be a good-sounding band to make a good-sounding record now. Back then you had to play. We were recording on tape and you couldn’t manipulate it as much, so you had to have your shit together. That feel of a band playing in the studio, that’s what makes Nevermind so powerful. A lot of rock records now, yeah, they sound good, but it doesn’t sound as vibe-y to me as records made pre-digital. Tape is not so much about the sound but that you have to commit to a real performance, and capture that performance in real time. A big part of why Nevermind sounds like it does is because it wasn’t manipulated digitally.Did the band ask you to produce In Utero? I think they could’ve used you on that album. It’s considerably more uneven than Nevermind.

I kind of had to turn it down because I was doing Siamese Dream [by Smashing Pumpkins], and that was a long record. It took five months and I was in Atlanta when they went up to Minneapolis to start recording In Utero. Kurt kept calling me on In Utero and saying, “Butch, you’ve gotta do Courtney Love’s record [Live Through This]! You’ve gotta do it!” And I said, well, I’m not done with the Pumpkins’ record until April or May, whenever it was. And Billy Corgan was like, “Do you really want to work with Courtney on this?” I mean, I know Courtney, and god bless her, but I was pretty burned out after working on Siamese Dream.

So now I’ve gotta ask: Did Kurt write Live Through This? That’s always been the rumor.

[Laughs] It’s an amazing album. But I don’t know… I think Kurt might have helped her with some of the music, but those are totally her words. And hey, if your husband is a great songwriter, why not get a little help?

What bands are you digging now?

[Scrolls through phone] There were a couple of tracks Built to Spill put out last year that I liked, Best Coast, this British band Wolf Alice, I loved Courtney Barnett’s record. What else have I got here? I love Parquet Courts. There are some cool tracks on the new Silversun Pickups album. And there’s a band called Unloved where I’ve heard a few tracks. It’s pretty ’60s-sounding, but cool.

We all go through musical phases, but what bands were the most influential to you during your formative years?

I heard a lot of classic rock because my mom bought a lot of records when I was really young, but I felt I came into my own around the time of college with New Wave and punk because those were my peers. I had a band and I was aspiring to make records like they were. So the New Wave movement as well as the No Wave movement, with all the bands from New York like Talking Heads and The Ramones and Television and Patti Smith, really inspired me. I felt an affinity with those bands. You didn’t have to be a superstar like Jimmy Page on this pedestal to make a record. You could put a band together in your basement and make a record. It seemed more blue-collar and less elitist. The Beatles and The Stones were rock stars—they were untouchable—and I could never be like that. They’re gods among mere men. But then you see a band like The Ramones and think, man, I could do that! Or something like that.

These days, a lot of attention is paid to a handful of artists—Kanye, Beyoncé, Adele, Taylor Swift, etc.—that dominate so much of the cultural conversation, so I feel like now it’s harder for a young act to carve out their slice of the conversation.

[Laughs] Well, and Kanye’s $53 million in the hole, man! I don’t believe it, but who knows how fast he spends money.

Well hip-hop production is a totally different beast. They’ve got a dozen producers in different rooms doing their thing.

Oh yeah. They have all these different rooms making beats, and it’s really expensive. It’s the same with making a Rihanna or Beyoncé record: It’s an army of people making them. But it’s tough, you know? Most people don’t sell a lot of records anymore. Unless you’re Beyoncé or Adele or Taylor Swift, most people can’t make a living selling your music, so you have to either make a living on tour, which is fuckin’ hard and expensive, or you can try to license it to TV and films—which everyone is trying to do now, so it’s very competitive. As a young artist, man, it’s hard. And since there are so many bands now, in order to rise above the noise you have to be really special and write a great song, otherwise it will be washed away in a sea of mediocrity.

The producer Hudson Mohawke recently went on a rant about Kanye, Drake, and hip-hop production in general. Basically, he said you’ll go into the studio and do a ton of work, and then the artist may just add a few hi-hats and manipulate it ever so slightly, cutting you out of a production credit. And you’ve got people like Beyoncé getting songwriting credits when they don’t really write, cutting songwriters out of publishing.

It goes back, though. Look at Elvis Presley. Elvis didn’t write any of his songs but he owned all the publishing, so Colonel Parker would say, “Well, you could have your song recorded by Elvis and it will be a big hit, or you can not have it be recorded by Elvis and nobody will ever hear it.” So a lot of people signed their publishing away. And a lot of people want the opportunity to have Kanye or Taylor Swift or whoever it is record their song, because it will give them a lot of exposure, and if they’re lucky they’ll get cut in on a small amount of the publishing. But better to have a small sliver of a song that Taylor Swift releases than no song that Taylor Swift releases, right?

What purpose do the major record labels serve nowadays? Bands can record their own albums and release them online, so for a young act, do they interfere more than they help?

I don’t know if it’s beneficial to music, but they’re gatekeepers for pop—and pop culture. There have always been pop stars, dating back to Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and the public always wants those, to a certain extent. The major labels are great at mass-marketing someone. They can get ’em on TV shows, magazine covers, etc. If there weren’t a need for pop stars then they would get ignored. Most artists don’t need a major label because they can’t really do anything that they can’t do on their own, between the Internet, digital marketing, social networking, and digital distribution platforms. You can get your music out there really easily, but how do you get noticed? You can write a great song, or you can get signed to a major label and have them market the hell out of you. And there are a lot of heavily marketed pop songs that are pure crap, but that will always be the case.

What’s next for you? I hear there’s a new Garbage album coming out this summer.

There’s a new Garbage album coming out June 10. We’re just starting rehearsals in about a month, and going to start playing shows in May. We’ll probably be doing a U.S. tour in the fall. It’s an interesting album. It’s a departure for us, I think. It’s more cinematic and atmospheric. It’s quite dark. We mixed it so it’s kind of confessional, almost confrontational. On a lot of songs, Shirley’s voice sounds really loud, in your face, and really dry. There are not a lot of effects. There are some moments on the record that get really huge, but a lot of it is really intimate. I think our fans are going to find it interesting. It might be polarizing! People will probably say, Oh, it doesn’t sound like their first album. But we get that on every record.

The Foo Fighters recently made some headlines by announcing they’re going on hiatus. You produced a couple of their latest albums. Does this mean Dave Grohl is going solo? [Laughs] I just met with Dave and he’s been writing some songs, but there are no plans for more Foos. I know he talked about another Sonic Highways, but nothing’s come to fruition yet. But did you see the clip online? You gotta go check it out. It’s Dave Grohl’s new solo record. He released a little video, and it’s… it’s funny. But hopefully I’ll be in the studio again in the fall. If I’m back in with the Foo Fighters again, that… I don’t really know.

Are there any projects you regret missing out on? Did, say, a David Bowie come to you to produce his/her album but you were too busy with so-and-so to do it?

I turned down a lot of stuff. I turned down working with The Rolling Stones, and whatever. Projects I just didn’t feel there was a reason I should be doing them. The only project I’m bummed didn’t happen was when we were doing Sound City, Dave Grohl was inviting people in to jam in the studio and we had set up a session for Krist and Dave from Nirvana to play with Neil Young. It would have been fucking awesome. And I know if Neil Young played with them he’d go, oh, let’s go on tour and play some shows together! It would be like Crazy Horse on steroids. But then it didn’t happen. Neil Young had a book coming out so he was on a book tour, and Dave had to go interview him somewhere else. It’s a bummer, man.