I’m Your Man: An Interview with Butch Vig

The Emperors of Wyoming
The Emperors of Wyoming

Another year has barely started, and Butch Vig is at a crossroads.

The legendary producer and musician isn’t bogged down with something as superfluous as decisions on how to ring in the new year, however. He’s not even concerned with how 2013 will shake down for him; he’s got no shortage of short-term employment opportunities. Vig, a self-confessed gear-head, is concerned with something much more important.

“I’m trying to clean out my media closet,” he says over the phone.

“It’s got a bunch of old turntables, stereos, a couple different CD players, old laptops, speakers. I’ve been cramming everything in there for about ten years. It’s time to purge, otherwise things just keep building up. I’m having a hard time.”

For the 57-year old Wisconsin native, deciding what to focus upon seems like it would be a constant struggle in his professional life. Many know Vig as the man who produced Nevermind, arguably the most talked about record of the 1990s. Yet the last ten years have seen Vig man the controls for a wealth of notable artists, including Foo Fighters and Green Day.

Nevermind may have been the record on which Vig made a name for himself, but it’s not a sound he’s keen to constantly remake. Even when asked about revisiting past records for anniversaries’ sake, as he had to do with the 20th anniversaries of Nevermind in 2011 and more recently, the Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream, Vig’s reluctance is palpable.

“I don’t really look back and think about them too much,” he says.

“I did some press with Dave and Krist and was involved with the box set. It was great to look through some of the old tapes, though.”

Looking through old tapes is about as close as Vig gets to revisiting the past. Even at 57, Vig moves forward with the speed of those more than half his age. Back on the road with Garbage, whom he formed in 1994, Vig is proud of the fact that the band is touring new material. And he’s also found the time to write and record the debut from Emperors of Wyoming, his latest project. Vig drums for the band, a collaboration of old friends.

“In a lot of ways, writing the songs for Emperors of Wyoming was very easy, because these songs, or songs like these songs served as the soundtrack to my life growing up. What I call Americana music; Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, The Band, The Byrds, CCR, even the Rolling Stones to an extent,” he notes.

Vig’s secret to perseverance soon becomes abundantly clear. Revisiting the past takes a back seat to simply remembering it, and drawing from that which first inspired him. In doing so, Vig has allowed himself to move forward without ever turning his back on those elements of his past that maintain a staunch resonance.

“I grew up with a lot of music, but being from a small town in Wisconsin, I heard a lot of country music on the radio, in the bars and at the gas stations,” says Vig.

Soon the floodgates of his memory were opened, and the writing benefited.

“Once we started writing, we recognized the sixth sense that we have; there wasn’t a lot of dissension in terms of how the songs should sound, how they should feel,” he notes.

“The writing was spread out over two years because it was a labour of love for us, but the songs then did come together rather quickly. I do think we share a sixth sense in how we approach a song.”

The idea of stepping away from the control booth, where Vig has become one of the more in-demand producers and making a record that certainly won’t draw as much fanfare may seem like a step backwards to many.

Yet Butch Vig is no ordinary producer. If anything, he understands how important his work as a producer has been to his ability to write and record an album on his own.

“Each band and artist is very different. To me, making a record is 50% psychological. You have to understand an artist’s vision and figure out the best way to get them there.”

Understanding that vision has meant Vig has had to maintain a balance in the studio.

“When I started out I was more focused on the drum aspect of a record, but as I worked more and more I thought about what the singer was trying to say. So I learnt that sometimes you have to guide artists. It’s a balance, trying to figure out when to be their friend and when to shout at them. It’s my job to sort through all this and help people make the best record they can.”

At times, Vig has drawn heat for “over-producing” records; taking a raw, unfiltered sound and polishing it for the benefit of mainstream music listeners. The criticism hasn’t been unfounded. Kurt Cobain was reportedly upset about the glossy feel of Nevermind, and longtime fans of anarcho-punk act Against Me! also voiced displeasure at both New Wave and White Crosses, the band’s accessible major label records.

Vig is unperturbed. You can’t survive for as long as Vig has in the record industry without gaining a hardened shell, and a bit of know-how.

“If you’re going to have success, you’ve got to write a great song and make sure it connects with an audience,” he says blatantly.

“If you’re trying to truly reach a mainstream appeal, you have to play that game a little bit. Because it can be pretty competitive when you’re trying to release pop music.”

As Butch Vig gets older, his role as the go-to producer for acts needing that push towards wider audiences is in threat of becoming marginalised No longer is slick production and an array of hooks the only way to gain mainstream appeal. No longer are traditional venues the only place artists can translate the very vision Vig spoke earlier of.

The record industry’s state of flux does not need to be further analysed, and Vig doesn’t seem intent on doing so.

“As an artist, you can make a recording from your basement and be successful, if the song is good enough. You can post it online and overnight you might have a million people listening to the song. But how that translates to your career is still a guessing game this day in age. No one really knows exactly how to manage being an online success just yet. Do you start playing bigger halls? Do you keep it small? No one knows yet.”

An observation so timid often comes from those whose days in the record industry are numbered. And Vig will openly admit that he’s unsure of his place in the grander scheme of things. But one thing Butch Vig hasn’t lost sight of is the reason he got into the record industry in the first place.

“Music is the soundtrack to our lives; it’s everywhere,” he says without a trace of irony. “People say the album is dying, but people’s thirst for music is stronger than its ever been.”

As the general public’s thirst for music continues to grow, Butch Vig is doing his best simply to keep up. The past is finished and the future may be unclear. But Vig’s just too busy to notice any of that in the present.

“In general, I have a tendency to live in the present and stay focused on whatever I’m working on in the moment. I’ve been working on the Emperors stuff, before that I was on tour with Garbage and before that I was working with Dave and the Foo Fighters, but I never tried to let those tie over. I think like a lot of artists, whatever you’re into at the moment, that’s the prime thing with me.”