Vig got his first $75 drum kit when he was in the fifth grade. Having studied classical piano for six years, he could read music and play orchestral percussion. By the time of his freshman year, Vig quickly moved past older students to fill the first chair in the percussion section playing tympani and bells.
“I got flack for that because I was a freshman but I knew more about music and drums than any of the seniors and juniors,” Vig recalls. “They picked on me.”
Before taking up drum set, Vig studied orchestral snare drum, and even took awards in regional championships for his solo prowess. But as soon as he received that first kit, it was hello Keith Moon and Charlie Watts, goodbye Bach and Beethoven, George Lawrence Stone and Benjamin Podemski.
“I became fully enamored with rock and roll and let the lessons and studies slide,” Vig says. “I’d play with bands after school in my basement, covering Deep Purple, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Grand Funk Railroad, and Black Sabbath. And I’d play along with Charlie Watts and The Stones, learning to do simple patterns and emulate the fills and the grooves on those records. As you’re playing with headphones you’re starting to figure out why a song works arrangement-wise. I advise young drummers to play along with their favorite records until they know every single part of the song, then they’ll begin to appreciate not only the dexterity of the drummer but the arrangements of the songs, and you’ll understand why things work. That’s going to be invaluable moving forward in terms of if you are going to do your own thing and get into a band.”
After dropping out of the University Of Wisconsin to pursue work on the Madison music scene, Vig eventually met future Garbage guitarist Steve Marker. He also began playing with local band Spooner, which included another future Garbage member, Duke Erickson. In 1984, while playing with Spooner and driving a cab at night, Vig and Marker founded Smart Studios.
“Even when I was young I would listen to records and try to figure out how they got that sound, or what did they do there, or how did they mike those strings and percussion? Before I knew how records were made I always assumed it was always people playing in a room together. As soon as I figured out what you could do with the technology I was sold. It was a drug.”
A year and a half later Vig returned to college to study music and electronic composition. “That course was a big influence on me as a producer,” he recalls. “I was already interested in recording. It was all intertwined at the same time that I was into music and film. I spent hours in the electronic studio. I made a lot of soundtracks for my fellow students.”
Spooner eventually recorded three forgettable albums — 1982’s Every Corner Dance, 1985’s Wildest Dreams, and 1990’s The Fugitive Dance — but even then, Vig was developing his skills.
“Spooner was pretty much live drums,” Vig says. There’s a couple songs with drum machine. ‘Fugitive Dance’ had a big kick and a clap, then I overdubbed a standup bass with brushes on a snare drum.”
Vig blended acoustic and programmed drums more seriously in his next band, Fire Town, which released two albums, 1987’s In The Heart Of The Country, and 1989’s The Good Life.
“On Fire Town’s first record I overdubbed cymbals and hi-hat over an Oberheim drum machine. The original tracks were meant to be demos so I just got a beat going on the drum machine and we added guitars and all of a sudden it sounded good, so we added real cymbals. People liked it and we got an offer to put it out on Atlantic Records. The second record was all live drums.”
One year later Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novaselic walked into Smart Studios and recorded Nevermind. Butch Vig’s life would never be the same.
“Nevermind was a pretty cheap record to make,” Vig laughs. “About 60 grand when it was all said and done. Right away, Dave was unbelievable. The best hard rock drummer I’d ever worked with. Just rock solid, and he’s an example of somebody who hits the drums hard but they sound really good. He had impeccable timing and great taste in drum fills. He would write fills that became hooks in the songs. That’s a gift.”
The smashing success of Nevermind lead to production work with Urge Overkill, Smashing Pumpkins, Gumball, Sonic Youth, Helmet, Soul Asylum, and many others. In 1994, Vig joined with Marker, Erickson, and Scottish singer Shirley Manson to form Garbage. Their 1995 debut launched the band into the stratosphere with the hit singles “Only Happy When It Rains,” “Vow,” “Queer,” “Supervixen,” “Stupid Girl,” and “Milk.” Garbage went double platinum in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and gold around the globe. The band’s combination of killer songs and gritty acoustic-electronic production turned them into international superstars. But after four albums, and the surging popularity of such retro rock bands as The White Stripes, Garbage’s innovative, effects-laden music seemed passé. But with death comes rebirth.