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Jun. 10—Butch Vig is one of the most humble icons in the music industry. The drummer from Garbage, which is releasing its latest album, "No Gods, No Masters," on Friday, produced Nirvana's "Nevermind" — which altered the musical and pop culture landscape — the legendary Sonic Youth and alt-rock heroes Smashing Pumpkins.
Vig, 65, chats up "No Gods, No Masters." The laidback percussionist details what it was like to work with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. And he also reveals what supergroup almost existed, what it's like at a party hosted by Dave Grohl and his experience at a Spokane strip club.
How did you end up recording such an electro album this time?
We did some recording in Palm Springs and jammed. Much of it was orchestral. We were headed into a more atmospheric, noir-ish direction. (Vocalist) Shirley (Manson) started writing lyrics. Everything took much more of an edge, (guitarists) Duke (Erikson) and Steve (Marker) and I matched what Shirley was singing. Shirley was singing about the world in her eyes.
The tone of the album is different from any other Garbage album.
It is the most social and political record we have ever made. We had fun with distorted synths. We created sonic chaos behind Shirley's singing. We made the album we wanted to make since these songs are never going to be on top 40 radio. We wanted to make music that resonates with us.
How many songs were written and recorded after the pandemic commenced?
About 25% of the album was written and recorded after March 15. You can hear how some of the songs sound claustrophobic. The pandemic definitely filtered into the record.
Songs like "The Creeps" and "Wolves" are catchy but so intense.
We get to take some sonic chances and detours with songs like "The Creeps" thanks to Shirley, who is our MVP. There is so much freedom to roam.
The songs are their own entities.
Kind of like how the songs are on our third album, "Beautiful Garbage," which is like a mutant cousin to this project.
What was it like producing Nirvana's "Nevermind"?
I remember not being impressed with their prior album, "Bleach," which was fairly one-dimensional. But when I heard the demos for "Nevermind," it was obvious that Kurt raised the bar. He was writing more melodic songs with more interesting song structures.
What was your commercial expectations for "Nevermind"?
I thought I was making this cool indie rock record. I thought maybe it'll sell 500,000 copies like a Pixies album. Then it became this zeitgeist moment, and it changed my life.
What was it like working with Cobain?
Kurt was complicated. He had these really intense mood swings. When he was on, he was smart, funny and witty and totally engaged and focused. Kurt was ambitious. He wanted to make this tight, amazing-sounding record.
But he would just put his guitar down at times and sit in the corner or walk out of the studio. (Nirvana bassist) Krist (Novoselic) would say, "Don't worry, he's just in one of his moods. He'll snap out of it in a couple of hours." Then he would come back and pick up his guitar and say, "Let's go."
I'm surprised you didn't produce Hole's "Live Through This," since it was Courtney Love's album.
I would get calls while I was producing the Smashing Pumpkins' "Siamese Dream" in Atlanta. Kurt would call at 10 at night, and if I wasn't recording with Billy Corgan and the band, I would take the call. Kurt would say, "You have to do Courtney's record."
I had another album project right after the Pumpkins' album, but I thought, 'Do I really want to produce the Hole album?' I knew Courtney was a handful. Billy Corgan said, "You don't want to do Courtney's record. She'll drive you insane."
How did you produce Sonic Youth, a left-of-center band that was critically infallible?
I was intimidated by them. I thought they would be really arty and cerebral, but they were funny and self-deprecating. (Vocalist-guitarist) Thurston Moore sent me 10 tapes each with 8 1/2 -minute jams. I had to sift through the tapes and say, "I like this, and I like that." It was a different experience than anything else I've worked on.
For years, I would tell Chris Cornell that I imagined him fronting Sonic Youth since he had such a massive set of pipes, and Sonic Youth would have been fascinating with someone who could sing. What's your take on supergroups?
When (Nirvana drummer/Foo Fighters frontman) Dave Grohl was doing his Sound City documentary, we set up for Neil Young to come in and do an interview and then play with Krist and Dave. I know for a fact that if Neil jammed with Krist and Dave, he would have said, "This sounds pretty good, let's go on tour."
We set up for Neil to play, but he was stuck in San Francisco. He never jammed with Krist and Dave. It would have been amazing, Ed! It would have been Crazy Horse on steroids.
Krist and Dave played with Paul McCartney.
I was at the session. It was amazing talking with Paul. He'll talk endlessly. I asked him about his "Band on the Run" sessions, and he responded with, "Let me tell you ... ." I had to break it up. "Hey guys, are you ready to make some noise?" I said.
I remember when he was getting ready, Paul would say, "Test, test, Butch, can you hear me?" I remember thinking, "This is Paul McCartney, don't lose it, Vig." He had so much fun playing with Krist and Dave.
Dave is a monster drummer.
And he throws great parties. There was a party after the Grammys at his house. There was Tom Petty, Joe Walsh and Bruce Springsteen. I'm standing there talking with Paul McCartney. Someone slipped my wife a laced chocolate almond. She had a few drinks and went up to Paul and said "I love you" and kissed Paul on the lips. He said, "Wow, that's a surprise." It could have gone badly.
I can't imagine how different it would have been if someone did that to Billy Corgan.
But, it worked for my wife, who kissed a Beatle.
What's your favorite memory of Spokane?
We were on tour with Girls Against Boys, who were such a cool band. After a show, they asked Shirley and I to go to a strip club just outside Spokane. Well, you know how some strip clubs are, well, classy? Well, this place wasn't. It was gritty, but I remember Shirley hanging out in the front row. I wonder if that strip club is still there.