By Rob Putnam
Butch Vig’s production credits read like the roll call at a meeting of platinum record recipients. He’s been the guiding force behind such albums as Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown, Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light––both Grammy winners––and Nirvana’s Nevermind, among many others. In 1994 he co-founded Garbage, a multiplatinum band that recently completed a European tour. Music Connection gets Vig’s take on a number of production issues in this exclusive Q&A.
Music Connection: Do you still enjoy production?
Butch Vig: I do. I’m a studio rat. I love the process of writing, arranging and recording songs. It’s still extremely exciting. I don’t look at it as being tedious or boring. Part of it is that every project is an adventure. My film instructor at UW Madison once said to me: ‘It’s not really the end result. It’s the process.’ To me, that’s what’s fascinating. You can try to predict how a record will flow and what’s going to happen, but inevitably it always ends up being different somehow. And that’s a good thing because surprises are what keep it interesting.
MC: You’ve had some stellar successes. How do you continue to challenge yourself when you begin work on a new record?
Vig: I’m still obsessed with music. I listen to it all the time. I’m constantly writing and fiddling with stuff in my home studio. When I start a project, I dive all in; I don’t take anything lightly or for granted. I’ve been lucky to have a career both as a producer and as a musician. I love making music. It still drives me.
MC: What has changed about how you perceive your own work?
Vig: When I started out, I was obsessed with the engineering and sonic aspect [of recording]. I’ve realized as a producer that much of what I do is psychological; trying to understand an artist’s vision; what you need to do to motivate them and understand how to make the best song or album that you can. Often it’s psychotherapy––being a cheerleader. Sometimes you have to kick the artist in the ass and challenge them. Yet every song and every project is different. I’ve realized over the years that there’s a lot more that encompasses making a great album than the sonic aspect.
MC: How do you know when a record is going in the right direction and when it isn’t?
Vig: That’s the million-dollar question. You have to trust your instincts. If something is bothering me, I’ll say so. Maybe something in the arrangement or performance doesn’t feel right. With an artist, it’s trickier. Sometimes they can be passive-aggressive, sometimes they’re blunt about what they like and don’t like. Other times you have to look for clues or signs to tell you that things aren’t working out. If I had an easy way to describe that, I would. But it’s about instinct; trusting your gut. You have to understand exactly how things are flowing and when you need to make a detour.
MC: How do you know when a record is done?
Vig: When the budget runs out (laughs). I’m guilty of this more in Garbage. I’m co-writing songs with my bandmates and I can get obsessed with details and the possibilities of what can be done. It’s like a big canvas and you keep throwing paint on it. It’s hard to know when it’s done. You can listen to a rough mix and go ‘I have this idea for one more bar in the bridge.’ I’m lucky because I have Shirley Manson, who has no patience for the constant tweaking that Duke [Erikson], Steve [Marker] and I like to do. When I’m a producer [for other artists], I’m looking at their music, not mine. I’m much more objective about their songs, performance and arrangement being good. It’s easier for me to understand that.