No other record producer on earth is as intimately familiar with the drumming beast as Butch Vig. His industry credentials read like a who’s who of platinum acts: Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Muse, Green Day, and the list goes on. Couple that to his duties as the drummer of his band, Garbage, and you have a producer who can walk the walk, talk the talk, and own the groove from behind the kit. Beyond his own drumming, working with Taylor Hawkins, Dave Grohl, Jimmy Chamberlin, and Tré Cool has taught Vig the value of experience.
“I am lucky,” Vig says from his home in Silver Lake, California. “When you work with those drummers, they make the recording process easier and fun because they’re really good. You can just tell them, ‘That kick pattern doesn’t work,’ or, ‘Maybe you need to double-time that part,’ and they get it. They can adapt.
“One of my strengths as a producer is that I am a drummer,” Vig adds. “I get focused on how the groove feels. But trust me, I can hear timing and feel better than I can physically play! I call it the autistic part of my brain. To me, fills are okay if they push. If the drummer is playing right on the click sometimes the fills won’t feel right. It needs to have a little natural push to it. There are all sorts of things that are constantly going on in my head while recording a record. Working with a great drummer makes a lot of the process so much easier.”
After 17 million records sold, Vig and Garbage have returned with Not Your Kind Of People, six years after their last release, 2005’s Bleed Like Me. Pioneers of industrial pop rock, where live and programmed drums mesh to form bionic rhythms of fiendish power and purpose, Garbage recaptures on this album the fury of their 1995 self-titled debut, and shows the band has lost nothing to time.
“I play pretty simple,” Vig admits. “I was never one of those guys to practice fancy muso stuff. I was more interested in guys like Mick Fleetwood and Charlie Watts. I love Keith Moon; he’s the reason I took up drums. I’ve always played within the context of the song and that’s been a good influence on me as a producer to always make sure that the song is first, not the individual musicianship.”
Vig’s method for working with newer bands and inexperienced drummers forms a primer that any musician can learn from.
“The first thing is you always have to pay attention to the arrangement and the instrumentation,” he says. “If it’s a simpler band it’s okay if the drums are noisier and busier. But if there’s a lot going on in the track you have to pare it down and keep it simpler to let some of the instrumentation speak. It’s obviously a band-by-band judgment, but also a song-by-song thing. I can’t just go in and be a fan and say, ‘Let’s play this crazy fill here.’ As much as drumming is a big part of my background I am able to departmentalize it in a way. It’s one part of the big picture, and that part has to fit into the big picture.”
Vig’s approach is very methodical, honed after years of recording and producing bands. And, being a successful drummer in his own right, Vig has a special insight. He knows what works, and more importantly, what doesn’t.
“When I’m producing a new band I work through demos and preproduction to realize the arrangements,” he says. “You can’t afford to spend days getting a drum take. So you have to be focused and know your parts. When we did the Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light, we did so much preproduction that Taylor had 98 percent of the grooves and fills worked out. That is the same method I do with younger bands.
“When I worked with Against Me, I told them, ‘By the end of preproduction I will know every single note that everyone plays in every bar of each song.’ They were like, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, and you will, too.’ They’d play the song in rehearsal while I’d take notes and record them on a handheld recorder. Then I’d ask just a couple guys to play the song, to hear them. I’d take more notes, and maybe tell them, ‘This is too busy here,’ or, ‘Maybe you need a better fill,’ primarily focusing on the drums. Then I’d play back the recording and they’d be shocked. I can always see the look on their faces when they hear the song and it’s really stripped down. A lot of bands never practice like that.”
Along the way, producing such seven-figure sellers as Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown, not to mention six Garbage albums, Vig has learned a thing or two about getting the ultimate snare drum sound.
“The perfect snare drum crack is part of your style,” he says. “It comes from your wrist. Great drummers can make drums speak without flailing their arms around. I only hit rimshots for effect, but a lot of drummers like to catch the rim for that crack, and that is a skill unto itself. You could put ten drummers in a room and have the same kick-snare and record them and they will all sound different without touching anything on the mikes. That is the individual human influence that everyone brings, and everyone will sound different. That is what makes drumming so special. If you ask ten guitarists to hit a power chord thorough a Marshall cabinet, chances are they will all sound the same. But the drums are so sensitive. The slightest grace note or change of dynamics, whether you’re pushing or pulling ahead of the groove, all these subtle things are what gives a drummer his signature sound.”