In Conversation: Butch Vig
Those lucky enough to make a career in music always have a tale For two to tell, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone with more to offer than producing legend Butch Vig. Over a four-decade career, Vig has helped some of the biggest names in alternative rock become the stars they are, not to mention earning a few platinum records himself with Garbage.
This month sees Vig and British bandmates Andy Jenks and DJ James Grillo drop 5 Billion In Diamonds' sophomore effort. It's another cinematic delight, soundtracking an imagery film while gleefully bouncing around genres. Clash caught up with Butch for an in-depth chat on the album's creation, what it feels like to perform a Bond theme, and how his work in 1991 changed his life.
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Firstly, congratulations on the new album. For those who missed your self titled release back in 2017, if you wouldn't mind going over how Andy, James, and yourself got together. Bristol and LA are not normally mentioned in the same breath.
Well, I'm good friends with James and Andy. I spend once or twice a year every holiday coming over there. James lives in Southampton and has a massive record collection. He probably has 20,000 pieces of vinyl or CDs and 10,000 DVDs. He has tons of movies, too, has this huge wealth of musical knowledge. We were talking about a film score one day, and I sort of challenged James. I was like, 'Why don't we start a band so you can write some film music?' and he goes, 'Yeah, ok, I'll take that challenge.' We were sort of kidding to each other, but the way we initially started, James would play a record, and we would hear a vibe of something that we liked; it could be an obscure B-side from an early 70's folk singer, and we'd hear a little loop in there, and we'd capture the loop, and we'd start playing on it.
After we had like seven or eight pieces of music, we were thinking like 'Well, who do we want to sing? Let's approach somebody,' and James suggested Ebbot from The Soundtrack of Our Lives right away, and we're all huge fans of that band, and as it happens, Garbage was playing a festival in Sweden, and The Soundtrack of Our Lives was also playing. So James and I, after having several glasses of wine, just bum-rushed them backstage, went right up and go 'Ebbot! Ebbot! We have a band, and we want you to sing with us!' and he was like, 'Well, I guess I should. Of course, I will.' Literally, six days later, he was in Bristol singing with us.
We did the same with David Schelzel. We were big fans of his band Ocean Blue. He played a show in Silver Lake, right down the hill from where I live, and James flew all the way over for a day, from England, and we went and saw him that night, and I did the same thing, and bum-rushed him after the show and said 'David we're massive fans, we have this band. Would you want to collaborate with us and sing in two of the tracks? He said 'Sure.' We found that when you ask someone, it's actually pretty easy.
In that first record, we wanted to reference a lot of film scores, especially John Barry. We love the chords in the music that he writes and the tones that he uses. He uses a lot of horns and woodwinds. It was tricky to get the singers to find their right fit. Sometimes we'd give a song to Ebbot, and it didn't quite work for him; he didn't know what to do with it, so we'd give it to Helen (White), and she'd work on it, maybe come up with a verse, and then we'd give it David, and he'd work on it. It was a bit of a process, and in the end, I think it all got very glued together, but it was a somewhat difficult process.
When we started making ‘Divine Accidents,’ we knew we had a much better template for how to work, and I sort of knew as a producer what sonically would fit people better, where their comfort zone was. So when we started writing the pieces of music, we would write a piece of music, 'This is for Ebbot.' We're not going to play it for everybody and see how it fits. Or 'This is for David,' or 'This is for Helen,' or this is for James Bagshaw from Temples. We literally wrote pieces of music for people, and it was much easier because I think the music sort of fit them more like a glove and so it's easier for them to interpret it and come up with lyrics and a vocal line.
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Where did the album title come from this time around?
We were watching a documentary on Orson Welles, and about two-thirds of the way through the documentary, he says, "The best thing about filmmaking are the divine accidents. And when a divine accident falls in your lap, you must use it." With that, we each went 'Divine Accidents.’ That's pretty good - and also coming from Orson Wells, and considering we have some film references in our music, we thought that was perfect.
Did you guys have any soundtracks or films in particular that you kept going back to for references? This album's still got that gorgeous sweeping 60's feel, but then there are these nice 80's synth touches.
We watched The Wicker Man. Incubus with William Shatner, it looks like an Ingmar Bergman film. In Cold Blood, which has a Quincy Jones score, which is amazing. Just the use of horns, jagged horns. James went mad for flute on this record.
I think besides the film references, and the late 60's early 70's psych folk-rock, I hear bits of the 80's seeping in, even a bit of the 90's seeping in. One of the songs David sings, ‘Into Your Symphony,’ I hear The Cure, The Smiths, you know, I can hear the tones and the synths in the melody. Just the way that David sort of sings reminds me of the late '80s. It still sounds like 5BID. A lot of that is because Andy, the way he plays his keys, he gets really spacy keyboard sounds. Often, we'll be finishing a song, getting ready to mix it, and James will say, 'We need some 5BID fairy dust', which means Andy needs to put keyboards on. Noodly things and spacey, twirly things and, you know, stuff that spaces it out and makes it a bit more freaky, and he's great at doing that.
How much of this was started pre-COVID?
Well, we were lucky; we started early 2019 and had pretty much finished it by the end of the year. I started mixing in December and finished mixing in January. We were lucky that we had it done before the lockdown. We do file share sometimes; if I get an idea, I'll just send him a file, and Andy'll send me one back, but it's much better to be in a room collaborating because you make decisions so fast. As soon as you have to start file sharing, it just slows the process way down. You might not be excited about something, you might not hear back from someone until the next day, and then your head might be in a different space, so it's just tedious. Plus, when we're in a room together, we like to drink wine. We drink a fuck load of wine. And we talk movies and, you know, it's not all work. It's work and play, which is one of the reasons I love being in 5 Billion In Diamonds.
It seems like wine is a powerful fuel for this project. Definitely, I tried to figure out how many cases of Sauvignon Blanc we went through in the process, and there were quite a few.
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You've got the brilliant Helen White back for this album. Can you tell us some more about the new artists you're collaborating with?
Helen's back, I did a duet with her, ‘Formaldehyde.’ ‘Formaldehyde’ is about a serial killer basically, but it's a love song to his dearly departed who he keeps in a tube, a bottle, up in the wall. That was really fun to do. Then we brought in Martin Barnard from Alpha, who has a really lovely voice. We weren't going to use it, that song, ‘The Unknown,’ and then Martin heard it and said 'I think I can write some words to this,' and so he came back the next day and pretty much did it in one take, and it's truly lovely because he has such a great tone to his voice, and it really fits perfectly with the sound of the track. It's all really spare and very orchestral.
James Bagshaw from Temples joins us on a track, and that was really interesting because I had started writing a piece of music here on keyboards and normally I write on guitar, I'm not that great of a keyboard player, but I started writing with a sound that was sort of a little bit like Tame Impala. I wanted to write a sort of a Tame Impala song because I love Tame Impala. It had a little bit of an electro vibe and almost a bit of a Motown feel.
James says, 'Let's call Kevin Parker and see what he wants to do' and I said, 'He's not going to do this. He's way too busy'. And I said, 'Who do we know in the UK that has a voice like that?' And James loves Temples; I do too. And he said 'we could call James Bagshaw, and see if he's interested.' I wrote him an email and he came to London and met James, and we took out to lunch and hung out for an hour and he's just lovely. He sang, but he also played guitar, put a lead down, he played bass, played some synth, and he played drums. He was pretty much a one man show.
This year has been a bit of a nightmare for everyone, well arguably the last few years, but this album has a certain sense of optimism and a reflective slant. Was that an intentional thing you guys set out to do when you were pulling all the material together?
For this song ‘Formaldehyde,’ I wanted it to be a celebration even though the guy's completely insane. You know, he's killed his lover. But it's meant to feel like a party. I was sort of inspired to do that from ‘Psycho Killer’ by the Talking Heads. I also wrote most of the lyrics to ‘Weight Of The World’ that Ebbot sang, and that was meant to sound celebratory too. Like the word has gone to shit. Everything is just ponying down on you, but somehow, the way Ebbot sings it, he's happy, you know? He's sort of embracing it. Like when it kicks into those big strummy sections, it's like the sun is shining down, or maybe it's piss that’s coming from the heavens on him, but he loves it. It's meant to be optimistic.
With the current situation touring is not an option. Are you guys planning to build some more material in the interim, or are you going to wait until it's a bit more feasible to get back together and enjoy a drink?
We were hoping to go on tour sometime this Summer or Fall, but obviously, that's been pushed back. We want to tour because I think it would be a gas. Not only that, we have two albums too. I think we could go out and do a 75-minute show or an 80 or 90-minute show and use all the singers and put a really dynamic performance together. I think it would be fun.
Moving on to other aspects of your career but tying into the cinematic theme, you graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in Film Studies. Jump forward two decades, and you find yourself doing a Bond theme tune with Garbage. I mean, how does an opportunity like that even arise, and what was that like?
It blew our minds. As a band, we're all huge fans of the Bond canon, and God bless Sean Connery, who just passed away. You know he to me he will always be the number one Bond, maybe because he defined it so well early on. But we got a call from David Arnold, who was the composer, and he was a Garbage fan and really liked Shirley's voice. He called Shirley, and I think she went and met him in a cafe and he said 'Shirley, would you like to sing a Bond theme?' She just started screaming. I remember coming back to the dressing room at the venue we were at, and she was like, 'Oh my God, we just got asked to do a Bond theme,' and we were like, 'What?!'
It took a bunch of work. Because we were on tour, we initially had to start making phone conversations in hotel rooms with David to try to make sure the key was right, I think it's either an F or F Sharp, but we wanted to make sure that the key was OK - so that Shirley could hit the notes low but could hit the notes high. He kept flipping around keys until we felt like we had one that worked for all the dynamics. Then as a band, we started tinkering around with some ideas on my laptop; I just had a little recorder thing on my laptop, backstage in dressing rooms just trying to think what we wanted to do with it psychically.
We played a show about a week later in France, and after the show, we ran off the back of the stage, down this field, and there was a private jet. We hopped in, and it took off from this field and flew over the English Channel to Heathrow, and we landed and we went straight to a recording studio. I think we went to; I want to say it's Metropolis, a great studio. David was there, and Don Black, the lyricist, was there, and some of the people from the Bond production were there, and there was a film crew there and, you know, and we're all sitting there a little intimidated especially when we're dead tired.
At this point, we'd been on tour for like six months or something too so we're pretty fried out. It was pretty heavy. We had to come up with the music on the spot in the room, and we managed to kind of get the rhythm section down, and we really worked on getting the guitar riff. The guitar, we really wanted something that sounded like John Barry, and there's that little guitar riff ‘The World Is Not Enough' those little half step notes. John Barry uses a lot of half step notes in a lot of his music, especially in the Bond guitar riffs. That simple guitar riff connected it to the classic Bond themes.
Then we did our usual Garbage, you know, we put textures in and things, and we were very keen on it sounding like a proper Bond theme but also sounding like Garbage, and I think that we nailed it.
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Scarily 2021 is looming on the horizon, and with that comes the 30th anniversary of both ‘Gish’ and ‘Nevermind.’ These albums have been dissected and mythologised endlessly. Still, I've always been interested in your viewpoint on this cultural shift. You're producing these two bands, and within a matter of months, the records come out. Suddenly the alternative scene has been rammed into the mainstream and you've just had a hand in soundtracking this new youth subculture. ‘Gish’ came first. What was it like to work alongside Billy Corgan producing?
I had a great working relationship with Billy, and I was thrilled because it was the first record where I actually had a decent budget. I think we booked 26 days or 28 days in the studio, including mixing, but up until then, I'd been doing records in three days or four days. A band would come in and track everything one day, and then the next day, they would come in and mix it.
I had done a single with them (Smashing Pumpkins), so I knew how talented they were, and Billy and I had been talking on the phone, and he really wanted to raise the bar. He just wanted everything to sound really focused; he wanted the dynamics to be over the top, all the performances to be spot on, and so I pushed him hard, and he pushed me, and it really captured a sound for them. I think I was able to sort of corral that gigantic roar that they had. Well, they could also bring their music down to a whisper when they sang but then go back to roar, and that was one of the hardest things to capture, those dynamics, but I think we nailed it.
While I was doing that record, I got a call from Sub Pop, and then Sub Pop ended up doing a deal with Geffen, because Nirvana went to Geffen, and I got a call from Chris saying 'Hey, man. Do you want to do the Nirvana record?' and I was like, 'Yeah, I'd love to.' So I finished ‘Gish’ and maybe three weeks later, four weeks later, I was in LA doing ‘Nevermind.’ That was kind of the opposite. That was done really fast in 16 days, and the band was in really good form. They were so happy; they had money from signing a record contract, they were staying in these posh apartments; condos, we called them the Cokewoods because a lot of young Hollywood actors were staying there. But they were in good form, man, and I didn't notice at the time, but they had practiced a shit load, like every day for six months, so they were really tight.
It was pretty easy. I could suggest 'Let's change that drum feel there or let's maybe cut this section down a little shorter,' and they were like 'Ok.' I think after the third day of rehearsal, we had another day scheduled, I said 'I don't even want you guys to come in. I think you're ready to go. Let's take the day off.' The hardest thing was always dealing with Kurt's mood swings because he could just shut off in the blink of an eye. It was like a light switch went off, and he would withdraw into himself. Sometimes he would leave the studio; sometimes he would go sit in a corner.
I knew this earlier because he'd come to Wisconsin and worked in my studio, and the first time that happened, Krist came over to me, pulled me aside, and said, 'He's ok; he gets in these moods. You just need to leave him alone, and he'll snap out of it.' and he would. So when he'd snap out of it, I'd make sure everything was ready to go, everything was tuned up, the drums were mic'd up, everything was ready, and we were ready to hit tape and record.
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Obviously, ‘Nevermind’ drops and hits like a sledgehammer. It knocks Michael Jackson off the number one spot. What was it like for you? The fallout? One moment you're quickly producing this three-piece, you're really proud of the record, and then suddenly there's this absolute tsunami of attention and praise.
I remember calling John Silver, their manager when the record was at number three, or something, and I said 'John, does ‘Nevermind’ have a chance to get to number one?' and he said 'Not a chance, Butch. Michael Jackson's number one.' And then next week they beat Michael Jackson and, I remember the first thing I did. I called my Mum and Dad because my Mum was a huge supporter of mine, my Dad reluctantly was. He wanted me to go into a proper profession, like be a dentist or a doctor or a lawyer or something. But they were both really excited for me.
When I got to the studio that morning, the phone just kept ringing. I was getting offers to do crazy things. Like people wanted me to fly, set me up in a studio in LA or New York or London, set up your own production company. I had all these managers calling me who wanted to manage me. These labels were calling; they thought I had this secret recipe to take a band and make them sound like Nirvana. Some of it was laughable. Like I'd get a demo tape in the mail, and it would be like a jazzy folk singer that they wanted me to morph into Nirvana.
I was kind of able to start picking and choosing what I wanted to do at that point. I decided to stay in Madison because I felt really comfortable working there. I really didn't want to get sucked up in Los Angeles or New York City. I'd been in those cities before, and I thought it was just easier to work when there are less distractions. So with the success of Nirvana, we were able to sort of upgrade the studio too, and we eventually put in two 24 track rooms and put in automation mixing, bought more microphones and gear. So we just upped the game there.
Their record, ‘Nevermind,’ changed my life. It opened up all these doors for me. I wouldn't have been able to do Garbage without having done ‘Nevermind.’ We sort of got a free pass card to try this somewhat experimental band.
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Re-listening to the first two Garbage albums, it’s really interesting how you blended genres, which now is quite a normal thing for pop music to do, especially in the age of streaming. What was the reaction when you dropped the debut - mixing in all these electronic elements and interesting percussive touches?
People were very surprised. When they heard my name was attached to it, pretty much everybody thought it was going to be a grunge record and sound like a rock record, like Nirvana. But before Garbage happened, I'd spent a year and a half doing a lot of remixes for U2 and Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails and Beck and Alanis Morissette. In these remixes, I would strip everything away except the vocals, and I'd use samplers to put in beats and weird sound effects and keyboard lines, and that became the template for Garbage.
I really got into using samplers because you could manipulate the sound. I think quite honestly; I got burned out on doing guitar, bass, and drums. By the time Nirvana hit, I'd probably done a thousand bands like that, and I was just looking to do something different. So using the samplers in the studio just gave me a different sonic palette. That first Garbage record, a lot of the instrumentation went through those samplers. And it has an odd sound to it.
But I think that's one of the reasons it's kind of interesting sounding. We tried to write these sort of sonic moments, but we also wanted there to be good songs. So we worked pretty hard on the songs, and I'm really lucky that there were three or four that got played on the radio. ‘Only Happy When It Rains’ and ‘Stupid Girl’ were big singles for us. So, cut to 18 months later, we went on an 18-month tour all over the fucking world. It was crazy!
Has Garbage got anything lined up for 2021?
Yeah, we just finished mixing our new album, and I think it sounds awesome. It's quite dark. I think it's somewhat eclectic. It reminds me a little bit of a mutant cousin to our third album, ‘Beautiful Garbage’ because each song is kind of its own thing. A lot of Shirley's lyrics are about the crazy world we live in right now, although she wrote most of them before we went into lockdown. There are some Talking Heads references in a couple of songs, some Roxy Music references. I think it's good and It'll probably come out next summer, we hope. And we hope to be on tour maybe by August or September next year.
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'Divine Accidents' is out now.
Words: Sam Walker-Smart
*Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity
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