Along time ago someone told a young musician named Butch Vig not to put all of his eggs in one basket. He didn’t. This plan paid off in 1992 when he was catapulted to fame as the hottest new music producer on the planet. The man behind the production of Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind was given much of the credit for making alternative music mainstream and inventing the grunge sound. Of course overnight success stories usually reveal years of hard work, and Vig is modest about just what impact he’s had on music.
“I was always obsessed with music. My mother was a music teacher, and ours was a musical household,” Vig wrote in RIP. Born around 1956, Vig grew up in the small town of Viroqua, Wisconsin. “My parents listened to everything from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass,” he continued, “to the Beatles to Frank Sinatra to Thelonious Monk, top 40 radio and classical music. My mother was always singing along to music with gorgeous melodies, songs crafted around what the hook was. Because I was inundated, it couldn’t help but influence me.” The love of a well-crafted hook turned Vig into a pop music freak.
He started in on piano at an early age, but when he saw the Who smash up their gear on TV, he knew he just had to be in a rock band. In junior high he played drums in a band, in an orchestra, and in the school’s marching band. From there he added numerous instruments, including guitar, some woodwind instruments, keyboards, and organ, although he says he doesn’t shine on any of them.
But when Vig enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1974, he set aside the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five for when he got into communication arts and film. Eventually Vig became fascinated by synthesizers and spent about two years of his college career in an electronic music studio. By then more and more of his fellow students were asking him to score their films, a task for which he developed quite a flair.
College was also important for another reason. It was there that Vig met two men who would become very much involved in both his personal life and career: Duke Erikson and Steve Marker. With Erikson, Vig began the band that became Spooner in 1979. Vig and Marker spent hours recording on Marker’s four-track tape recorder in his basement. That was the nascent beginning of Smart Studios.
When Spooner hooked up with another Midwest band, the Shoes, in 1980, it was Shoe Gary Klebe who suggested to Vig that he branch out. Consider yourself
For the Record …
Born c. 1956, in Viroqua, WI; married; wife’s name, Patti. Education: Received degree in communication arts and film from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, c. 1978.
Formed Spooner with Duke Erikson, 1979; founded Smart Studios with Steve Marker, late 1970s; began Boat Records, 1984; formed Fire Town with Steve Marker, mid-1980s; Fire Town signed to Atlantic Records, 1988, and released major label debut album, The Good Life, 1989; produced Nirvana’s Nevermind, 1991; formed group Garbage, 1993, and released self-titled debut album, 1995.
Addresses: Management —SOS Management, 6161 Santa Monica Blvd., #303, Los Angeles, CA 90038; Discography information —D. Benton, MMX, 600 Williamson St., Madison, WI 53703.
more than a drummer, he suggested. So Spooner formed their own independent label, Boat Records, in 1984 in order to record and distribute their own music and to later support other acts they enjoyed.
Spooner received some major label interest, but no offers that excited the band enough; hence, the decision to form their own label. Meanwhile in a side project, the band Fire Town evolved with Vig, Marker, and some others. Where Spooner was more of a pop band, Fire Town—originally called First Person—was “an edgy, dark rock band,” according to Vig in Goldmine. Both Spooner and Fire Town had gained critical acclaim and small financial success with their releases on Boat, when in 1988 Fire Town was signed to Atlantic Records.
Production of The Good Life was apparently a nightmare for the band. “I think it was difficult for us, because we’d always done everything on our own terms,” Vig told Goldmine’s Jim Berkenstadt, “and all of a sudden we had people telling us what we had to do.” But as he later explained to Berkenstadt, “there were things that I learned about the recording process that really helped me. I also learned a lot about politics. Dealing not only with artists, but in terms of the label and the psychological game of making records.”
All the while that Vig pursued his own music, he produced anybody and everybody interested in working at Smart Studios in Madison. Over time Vig gained a reputation on the independent scene as an excellent producer. Many of those young bands, including Kill-dozer, Tad, and Urge Overkill, started making noise on the underground scene. This led to work from some more choice indie labels, like Sub Pop in Seattle, Washington. It was for Sub Pop that Vig first recorded Nirvana in 1989. Nirvana’s music started a ruckus on the underground music scene and on college radio that began a bidding war by the major labels. When Nirvana decided to go with Geffen Records, that label wanted a slick major-label producer. But according to Rolling Stone, “the band held out for the trademark ‘Is it live, or is it Vig?’ sound.” The result was 1991’s Nevermind.
Nevermind’s slowbuild reached epic proportions. Suddenly this dirty distorted sound—grunge, as it was dubbed—was everywhere. What was once underground saw the light of day. When in January of 1992 that album reached Number One on the charts, it changed music history. Many credited Vig. He shrugs it off. “Nevermind was just starting to take off,” Vig told Musician. “I was talking about this whole grunge thing with a friend … when ’Helter Skelter’ [by seminal pop band the Beatles] came on the juke box. I said: ’Here’s the first grunge song, listen to it!’… So it wasn’t really anything new. I didn’t invent grunge. And Seattle didn’t either.”
Everyone wanted to work with Butch Vig after that. His choices were wide raging, from punk harsh to pop sweet. After one period of remixing songs from bands including U2, Nine Inch Nails, and House of Pain, Erikson, Marker, and Vig were together listening to the leftover remixes and samples. They thought, as Vig told Musician, “This s—t sounds like garbage.” It occurred to the three that this might be a nice time to take this garbage and work with it together.
The band Garbage formed in late 1993, but didn’t truly get off the ground until they became enamored of Shirley Manson, the lead singer of the soon-to-be defunct Scottish group Angelf ish, whom they saw on MTV early in 1995. Once the four were together they were finally able to create the album Garbage in August of 1995. The huge success of the band finally made Butch Vig, at age 40, a rock star. Rolling Stone heralded the album with a four-star review and it eventually went platinum. Although the flamboyant Manson became the most visible member of the group, this band is definitely a democracy, backed by three old timers of the industry.
Butch Vig is still spreading his talents in many areas of music. Besides enjoying his Garbage fame, he is still full of ideas about the different sorts of music he wants to produce and create—perhaps even beyond album production. But as he told Goldmine, “I’m not just going to stop doing records because I’m a glutton for being in the studio. I mean, I love it! Sometimes I question why I enjoy it.”
Tar Babies, Face the Music, Bone Air, 1983.
Killdozer, Snakeboy, Touch & Go, 1985.
Nirvana, Sliver (seven inch), Sub Pop, 1989.
Urge Overkill, Americruiser, Touch & Go, 1990.
Smashing Pumpkins, Gish, Caroline, 1991.
Young Fresh Fellows, Electric Bird Digest, Frontier, 1991.
Nirvana, Nevermind, DGC/Geffen, 1991.
Sonic Youth, Dirty, Geffen, 1992.
L7, Bricks Are Heavy, Slash, 1992.
Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream, Virgin, 1993.
Sonic Youth, Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, Geffen, 1994.
Freedy Johnston, This Perfect World, Elektra, 1994.
Soul Asylum, Let Your Dim Light Shine, 1995.
Spooner, Cruel School (EP), Boat, 1979.
Spooner, Every Corner Dance, Mountain Railroad, 1982.
Spooner, The Fugitive Dance, Dali/Chameleon, 1990.
Fire Town, In the Heart of the Heart Country, Boat, 1987.
Fire Town, The Good Life, Atlantic, 1989.
(Also producer) Garbage, Garbage, Almo Sounds/Geffen, 1995.
Billboard, March 13, 1993; March 23, 1996.
Goldmine, October 27, 1995.
Guitar Player, August 1992.
Melody Maker, March 4, 1995; August 12, 1995.
Musician, January 1996.
People, September 9, 1996
RIP, February 1996; June 1996.
Rolling Stone, May 14, 1992; July 9, 1992; September 17, 1992; September 21, 1995.
Spin, April 1996.
Alternative rock group
When a group of three full-time producers and part-time musicians decided to find a singer and make a record, the name "Garbage" had, unbelievably, not yet been used by another band. The singer the trio hired was a Scottish woman with the equally unlikely name of Shirley, and their 1995 debut sold a million copies in its first year, earning the band a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Jason Cohen, writing in Rolling Stone, called Garbage's genesis "a tale of friendship, experimentation, and a fateful symbiosis of music and personalities." Shirley Manson concurred. "If I wasn't in this band, I would go, 'Yeah, right, three producers and a girl,'" she told Cohen. "But we found a chemistry that I don't think you can predetermine. It was just absolute luck."
"Manson's stardusted glamour seemed out of place when Garbage arrived in 1995, but then everything about them did," wrote Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield. Newsweek's David Gates likened them to "a self-consciously corrupted '90s version of Fleetwood Mac." The band originated in the Madison, Wisconsin, ware-house that is home to Smart Studios, a successful enterprise founded in 1984 by Butch Vig and Steve Marker. Vig and Marker had met at Madison's University of Wisconsin, where Vig majored in film but spent a great deal of time composing soundtracks. With another friend, Duke Erikson, Vig had enjoyed minor local success with a band called Spooner. When they disbanded in 1987 after three records, they occasionally played in another group called Firetown, but devoted their time to producing records for other bands.
Discovered Singer on MTV
Vig's star rose as a producer, especially when a number of bands from America's West Coast like Killdozer and Tad began trekking to Wisconsin to work with him. His resume would eventually include several platinum-selling alternative records, including Nirvana's Nevermind and Siamese Dream from the Smashing Pumpkins. The Vig-Erikson-Marker trio also loved to work on creating barrages of samples and found noise, which they worked into remixes for the likes of U2 and Nine Inch Nails. Eventually they had so much leftover material that they finally decided to merge it with their occasional one-night live projects and force a real live pop band into existence. Yet since they all were less than enthusiastic about fronting a band after spending so many years behind the scenes, they knew they would have to find a singer.
One Sunday night in Madison, they saw a video for an obscure Scottish band called Angelfish on MTV's Sunday night alternative video showcase 120 Minutes, and decided to contact its redheaded singer. They found Shirley Manson, then under contract to Radioactive Records, living in Edinburgh, and extended an invitation for her to audition for them in Madison. "I was in way over my head," Manson recalled to Jancee Dunn in Rolling Stone, of the first takes she did in their studio. She was nervous and felt inept as a singer, and they were shy. They would leave her in a sound room and go to the mixing consoles on another floor. "And they were like, 'Make up some words,'" Manson said. "I'd never officially written anything with people, so to ask me to ad-lib was a living nightmare."
A native of Edinburgh, Manson had dropped out of school at the age of 15 to work in a clothing store. She was a self-described rebel who came of age in the early 1980s and was, as a teen, a huge Siouxsie and the Banshees fan. "At the time, I felt totally inadequate, totally inarticulate," Manson said in another chat with Dunn. "I felt things but couldn't put them into words. Then I heard one of her records, and she was saying it for me." She got involved in music herself when she joined a band simply because she had a crush on its lead singer. She wound up dating him and staying ten years with Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie, a decade that "gave me no satisfaction. Zero," Manson told Dunn. She explained that she had little creative input, and her relationship with the lead singer was traumatic for her because of his constant infidelity. "It literally broke me," she recalled in Rolling Stone.
Manson formed her own band, Angelfish, around 1994, and it was their video for the song "Suffocate Me" and its sole spin on MTV that put her in touch with the three producers in Madison. Despite a rough beginning, the quartet clicked and Manson began a long and involved process of writing lyrics and recording with her new best friends. Though they often kept the first takes, there were many willful clashes. "That creative tension is ultimately what winds up on the track," Vig told Cohen. The result was an eponymous pink-covered CD from a group of unknowns with an almost corny name. But Garbage contained a passel of songs that became alternative-radio staples throughout 1995 and 1996, including "Stupid Girl," "I'm Only Happy When It Rains," and "Vow." Not surprisingly, the first track was titled "Supervixen," and the redheaded Manson became an object of mass adoration almost overnight.
For the Record …
Members include Duke Erikson (born Douglas Erikson, 1950), guitar, keyboards; Shirley Manson (born August 26, 1966, in Edinburgh, Scotland; married), vocals, guitar; Steve Marker (born 1960, in Nebraska; attended University of Wisconsin at Madison), guitar, bass; Butch Vig (born Bryan Vig in 1957, in Viroqua, WI; attended University of Wisconsin at Madison), drums. Education: attended University of Wisconsin at Madison
Band formed in Madison, WI, 1994; released debut album, Garbage, Almo Sounds, 1995; released Version 2.0, Almo Sounds, 1998; released Beautiful Garbage, 2001; toured with No Doubt, 2002; released Bleed Like Me, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Almo Sounds, 360 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048-1928. Website—Garbage Official Website: http://www.garbage.com.
Garbage's music also earned accolades despite their lack of pop pretensions. Rolling Stone's Sheffield declared that the band transforms "subcultural energy into pop flash with a fabulously twitchy singer." Cohen declared that Garbage's team of four "have masterminded a confident collection of emotionally sharp-shooting songs." Originally, the Scot and the three producers had no plans to take their project live, but found themselves surprised by the album's overwhelming critical and commercial success. When they made the video for "Vow," "we played live, and after the first take, the crew was clapping," Vig told Dunn.
Garbage embarked on a heavy tour schedule in support of their debut over the next two years, and wrote new material in their spare time. Manson also returned to Edinburgh and married her longtime boyfriend. In Scotland, as elsewhere, she had become an instantly recognizable semi-celebrity, but in her hometown, as Dunn noted, people leave her alone. "I get a genuine sense that in America, people like to see people do well," Manson told Dunn. "Where I come from, it's quite the opposite. People think success is vulgar."
After a three-year hiatus, Garbage's much-anticipated follow-up was released, impertinently titled Version 2.0. It was met with somewhat mixed reviews, but found assured commercial success with alternative-radio-friendly singles like "Push It" and "I Think I'm Paranoid." Again, the producer-majority talents who wrote much of Version 2.0's music infused it with samples borrowed from the Beach Boys to the Beatles to the Pretenders. "They root through goth, techno and hip-hop, swipe whatever they can use and leave the rest on the floor," declared Sheffield.
Though Time's Christopher John Farley found some of the melodies "weak," as well as a reliance on studio wizardry that he deemed "at times, overbearing," he conceded that "Version 2.0 boasts "a unique, expansive sound that fills the speakers and the ears. The songs are hormonal yet thoughtful, mostly morose but always energetically so." Though Sheffield faulted the electronic effects on the album, he added, "It's rare to hear a rock record so carefully put together that still sounds so fresh and playful." Manson was again the focus of much of the critical attention. Writing for Stereo Review, Brett Milano faulted the singer for her emotional range, which he declared could be characterized by two attitudes: "sexy and sexier." Milano also remarked that "it would be tempting to dismiss Garbage for making pure ear candy, if only the band weren't so good at it."
Village Voice writer Rob Tannenbaum praised the singer and her varying persona: "In her cool chrome voice, Manson declares herself to be: a bonfire, a vampire, a demon, an addict, a lunatic, pregnant, angry, not like the other girl, complicated, and 'mental.' She nearly distills songwriting to its exhibitionist essence." In the end, however, Tannenbaum declared that the second record covered the same ground as the first. "If Garbage were honest, they'd call this Version 1.1 instead of Version 2.0, because it's a better rendition of the first record, a classic upgrade rather than a dramatic reinvention."
The band toured for Version 2.0 throughout 1998, and some wondered how the heavily produced songs on the record would work into live translation. Judy Coleman reviewed a Los Angeles performance for Spin, and felt that it worked well. "Despite the complex beauty of Garbage's textured sounds, this concert made it difficult to deny that rock is the heart and soul of both albums," Coleman declared. "Even the poor sound quality at the Palladium … could not muddle the undeniably searing riffs of 'Push It' and 'Stupid Girl.'"
In 1999 the band opened for Alanis Morissette across North America, after picking up two Grammy nominations, for Best Rock Album and Album of the Year. Manson described their new level of celebrity to New Musical Express's Victoria Segal as "unbelievably, mind-bogglingly thrilling!."
Garbage released its third album, Beautiful Garbage, on September 4, 2001, just a week before the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. Due to the national tragedy, the band felt that promoting the new album in interviews and tours was inappropriate. When Garbage returned to the road with U2, the band experienced some bad luck when drummer Butch Vig contracted a case of Type A hepatitis and temporarily left the band. To complicate matters even more, Manson lost her voice and required surgery to remove a cyst. Even though a number of critics considered Beautiful Garbage to be the band's most accomplished effort, the succession of events halted much of the momentum the band had gathered since 1995.
In 2004, after many false starts, Garbage began recording its fourth album, Bleed Like Me. At first the band attempted to record with producer Brother John King, and while "Bad Boyfriend" would make the final album, the group was dissatisfied with its progress. Taking a hiatus from one another, Garbage returned to the studio, determined to produce the album themselves. "It's like we'd been married for ten years," Vig told Rolling Stone, "and it was worth it to try one more time." By the time the band released Bleed Like Me in 2005, the members had renewed their commitment to Garbage and planned to tour to support the album. "It's very gratifying after everything that we went through to know that we stuck together," Manson told Steve Baltin in the Los Angeles Times, "and now have been able to enjoy the fruits of that effort."
Garbage, Almo Sounds, 1995.
Version 2.0, Almo Sounds, 1998.
Beautiful Garbage, Interscope, 2001.
Bleed Like Me, Geffen, 2005.
Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2005.
New Musical Express, July 11, 1998.
Newsweek, June 1, 1998.
Rolling Stone, October 5, 1995; October 17, 1996; November 13, 1997; May 28, 1998; January 27, 2005.
Spin, September 1998.
Stereo Review, August 1998.
Time, May 25, 1998.
Village Voice, May 19, 1998.