The quintessential alternative rock producer looks back on two decades of hit albums, from Nirvana’s Nevermind to Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown, and talks Trash™ about the new album by his own multi-platinum band, Garbage.
There may be no producer more synonymous with the sound and legacy of alternative rock than Butch Vig, whose early-'90s collaborations with Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Smashing Pumpkins rewrote the rulebook for guitar-centric rock production, and whose recent work with the Foo Fighters, Green Day and Muse continues to set the benchmark for top-shelf rock artistry. Ironically, it's Vig's own group, Garbage, who may well have done the most to expand the palette and possibilities of rock production over the last 15 years. Their catchy and infectious hits—who can ever stop whistling "Stupid Girl" or "I'm Only Happy When It Rains"?—belie a densely-layered sound and an eclectic creative team that adroitly blended electronica, big beat, lo-fi, power pop, trip-hop, shoegazer guitars, and avant-garde noise-scapes. While finalizing the mixes for a new Garbage record set for release early next year—their first since 2005's Bleed Like Me—Butch sat down with iZotope at the LA studio of his engineer, Billy Bush, to talk about his storied career, his creative process, his production philosophy, and his ongoing affection for iZotope's Trash.
Let's start with the present: you're close to finishing the new Garbage album. Give us an idea of what to expect.
Well, we've been playing some of the mixes for friends of the band and our management, and everyone's telling us the vibe is very much like the first or second Garbage records. I mean, we were gone for over five years, and when we got back together, we decided that rather than re-invent who we are, let's embrace who we are. The four of us clearly share a certain sensibility, and when we write songs collectively, what comes out is music that sounds like us, like Garbage. We already have an identity, so rather than overthink our creative impulses, we've basically freed ourselves to do what feels good. We love beats, and we love electronica, and we love guitars; we also love atmospheric film moments, noise, and pop melodies over minor chords. So, sure, it's all the elements you heard on the first Garbage records, but it sounds current to me—I think anyone who's a hardcore Garbage fan is going to dig it.
"Still, at the end of the day, what everyone's aspiring to do is to record a song that connects with somebody, that connects firstly with you as an artist or songwriter, and then connects with your audience."
You've said that this record was more inspired by what you haven't heard lately than by what you have.
Y'know, Shirley said that she had been expecting some new bands to sort of come in and fill our shoes, so to speak, considering that we'd been gone for five years. But while there are certainly bands who come close to doing what we do, no one else really combines these various elements the way that we do. Our approach might be to start out a song with a cheap drum machine run through a guitar amp—which might sound a bit like the band Suicide—and then it turns into a big epic with back-and-forth rock beats, crazy bendy guitars, and this glorious vocal—that's literally one of the songs on the new record. It tends to be all these things thrown into a big cauldron, and our job is to stir it all up. It'll be interesting to see how we translate these songs into a live setting. In the studio, we really just do what we're inspired to do, without thinking too much about what we'll do live. Then, to play them live, we have to strip them all down to the core elements of the song, and work out how to flesh them out using technology or sound effects from the mixing console to make it sound like the record. Most importantly, though, the energy on the new album is great, so I'm looking forward to doing some shows and playing these songs out next year.
Your career spans such an interesting time in the development of recording technology, and the ways records are produced; is it fair to say that whether it's analog or digital, pretty much all the tools of the trade are fair game at this point?
Yeah, there's really no right or wrong. You can certainly do something entirely in the digital realm, and make it sound perfect and shiny, and just the way you want it, and manipulate it so that it takes on a new life from how you originally intended it to be. Of course, if you're recording a performance, you still really need to focus on the energy and the kind of vibe you want, and that's totally cool, too. What's great about the recording environment these days is that you can very much do both: you can record to tape and then dump it into Pro Tools and chop it up, or vice versa—take something from Pro Tools and run it into a tape machine or run it through analog stomp boxes or guitar amps. That's exciting. Engineers and producers these days have such a big palette to work from and to choose from—it's mind-blowing.
Still, at the end of the day, what everyone's aspiring to do is to record a song that connects with somebody, that connects firstly with you as an artist or songwriter, and then connects with your audience. So something about that song, whether it's a lyric, a groove, a beat, or a fucked-up sound, something in that song has to jump out and connect the audience or the listener to the song somehow. Ultimately for me, that's what's exciting about making records these days—using that massive palette, and challenging and engaging your brain in order to create a song that successfully connects in that way.
What approaches or techniques have remained constant for you, despite all the changes in recording technology? For instance, it's been said you're not a fan of ambient mic'ing.
Well, that quote was especially applicable to [1993's] Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins. Billy Corgan and I wanted to put the sound right in your face—we didn't want anything to sound three feet away, or five feet or ten feet. With the drums, we did have some extra room mics, and we may have used a few extra with the guitars, but in general, I really found that if you get one mic, put it right in front of the amp, and get the right sound, you simply don't need six microphones placed, y'know, behind the cabinet, around the cabinet, across the room, and all that. That's not the case with everything: even on that record, on some things I may have used a tube mic on one speaker, and a condenser or dynamic on another speaker, and blended them together. But that simple close-miking technique is the sound of that record. The guitars are very in-your-face—they have a very immediate sound. That was the goal.
I should contrast that with how we're doing things for this Garbage record. There are a lot of weird, ambient-sounding guitars, and trashy, roomy drums. I record drums here at my house, in a very lo-fi set-up; I literally have a mono mic sitting in the hallway by the bathroom downstairs here, and it sounds pretty roomy, pretty trashy, but it sounds good. I further mangle things by taking the drum buss and running it through iZotope Trash, and I crunch it out and make it sound even weirder—perhaps all muffled and lo-fi, or I might accentuate the crazy top-end, so you just hear the snare and cymbals ripping through the speakers. And sure, that original drum sound does have an ambience. What I find is that those room noises, that space, when you start running them through compressors, effects boxes, and plug-ins like Trash—that extra compression and distortion really brings out that room sound, the ambient sound, and brings a lot of character to the recording. So I go both ways when it comes to dry versus ambient; there are no rules, really. If anything, on Garbage tracks, there are usually both of those things going on at the same time, it just depends on what instrument you're listening to.
"I further mangle things by taking the drum buss and running it through iZotope Trash, and I crunch it out and make it sound even weirder"
In Garbage, we like to have a lot of layers to the song; sure, there's the main groove, bass, guitar, and Shirley's vocals, but there are also all these textures that we like to put in, because I like to hear those. Perhaps the first time you listen to a Garbage song, you focus on Shirley's vocal and the drum groove, but on repeated listenings, new things, new textures begin to reveal themselves and they really add a new dimension to the music. That's something we've always liked to do, and it's one of the reasons that mixing takes us so damn long! In fact, I use iZotope's Ozone as we make work-in-progress mixes. As the songs keep evolving through the recording cycle, sometimes drastically, Ozone allows me to keep each new rough mix sounding focused. By the way, we also used iZotope Nectar on Shirley's vocals on the recent U2 cover we recorded, "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?"
"I use iZotope's Ozone as we make work-in-progress mixes. As the songs keep evolving through the recording cycle, sometimes drastically, Ozone allows me to keep each new rough mix sounding focused"
On Garbage 2.0, I believe we set the record for the highest track count [in a DAW ] ever, but I believe we've beaten that on a few of these new songs, some of which have around 230 or 240 tracks. They're not all necessarily playing at the same time: there might be a new sound introduced here, a bunch of extra vocals over here, but I know—it's insane! You start scrolling from one end of the Pro Tools session to the other—"Oh, I gotta go check out the kick drum," and it takes a long time to scroll through! It's like, "how could we have so many fuckin' tracks on this song—what are they all doing on here?"
"With the Foo Fighters Wasted Light, you quite literally went back to the garage, and recorded to analog tape, which couldn't be more different from how you do things with Garbage. What was that experience like for you?
With the Foo Fighters we had a specific vision, and that was to do it on tape in Dave Grohl's garage, and we wanted to stick to that. That limited the amount of tracks we could use, so it really had to be about getting the sounds right and getting a great performance. You couldn't do multiple playlists and stack them, chop them up and all that stuff. It challenged me to challenge the band. If you listen to that record, sure, it's fuzzy and scrappy sounding, but it feels really passionate in the performances, and that's what we set out to do. I think it's the most honest record the Foo Fighters have made, and if you hear the band live, those songs sound exactly like they do on the record, and that's a very cool thing to be able to pull off.
The new 20th Anniversary Edition of Nirvana's Nevermind is finally out, and it features your original mix of the album, now known as the Devonshire mixes. What's the story behind that?
Y'know, I started mixing the record as soon as we were done recording it, at Devonshire Studios in North Hollywood. The band was there with me, and it was kind of tough for me to do, because Kurt would sit behind me and say things like, "Turn all the treble off the guitars—I want it to sound like Black Sabbath," or whatever, and I felt kind of hamstrung to a certain extent. But I did get everything mixed, and I didn't do a lot of hyping. I kept the mixes pretty au naturel. But at the time, I think the label thought that the mixes could have a little bit more sheen to them, or they wanted to pump them up a bit more. So they hired Andy Wallace to mix the record. Years later, I pulled out those Devonshire mixes when Nirvana were getting ready to do this 20th Anniversary Edition. I called up that original mix, and thought I would just compress it a little bit, and add a little mastering EQ to it, and all of a sudden it just came to life, and it really sounded great and more competitive. It was really exciting for me to be able to do that, and to send them into the band and management. They loved it, and ended up including it on the record. In the end, my mixes are just a little more primal sounding than the album version, but they're exactly the same performances: guitars panned left and right, Kurt singing with some doubling here and there, Dave singing some harmonies, and bass and drums. That's it. Sure, you can hear some differences between my mix and Andy's mix, and I think it'll be interesting for hardcore fans to listen to.
Did you imagine that 20 years later Nevermind would be such a landmark record?
At the time, I just thought it was a cool indie record. I thought the songs were incredible, and the band was great. I mean, they practiced so much before that recording—they were razor-tight when we went in to record. They wanted to make a kick-ass-sounding record. They were not slackers, there was none of that mentality. Kurt was very competitive. At the time, though, we had no idea it was going to blow up like it did. It changed my life. It changed the lives of everyone who was involved with it. And I think the performances still stand up; the record sounds really good these days. You can't fake that kind of passion, that kind of intensity. Plus, Kurt just wrote super-hooky songs, and when you have that kind of combination, it helps an album stand the test of time.
You seem to have both an ear for fine technical detail as well as a sober handle on the big picture; is this perhaps one of the reasons for your longevity in this business?
I'm lucky that I've had a long career. I work really hard, and I get pretty obsessive about the records I make, and when I'm producing, I do try to adhere to the artist's vision. In fact, I have to remind myself fairly constantly that it's not my record! With a Garbage record, it obviously is mine, and I'm very lucky to have been able to balance both roles over the last fifteen years. But with a Green Day record or a Foo Fighters record or with Muse, I have to remember that it's their record and their vision, and it's my job to help them make the best possible recording they can, and to make the songs as good as they can be. And that's exciting—it keeps me on my toes. If I have any advice for young engineers and producers, I would just say that, while it can be quite overwhelming when considering all the sonic options available in today's recording environment, it's important to always understand the artist's vision, and to pick and choose between all the tools available to help find that vision. Sounds simple, right? But it's not always that easy to do. Try to keep your vision focused!
—James Rotondi is a New York musician, actor, journalist and critic; he's the former Editor-in-Chief of Future Music magazine, and his interviews and essays have appeared in Spin, Rolling Stone, Guitar Player, Mojo, and The Boston Phoenix, among others.