There Are A Million Bands: An Interview With Butch Vig
Grammy award-winning producer, drummer, and all around music legend Butch Vig is no stranger to success. With skyrocketing to popularity by producing albums for Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Smashing Pumpkins, Vig didn’t stop there. He formed the band Garbage. With more than twenty years with the band under his belt, Garbage has recently released their sixth studio record, Strange Little Birds. Before their show at Revention Music Center on Friday, September 9, Vig had a chat with Free Press Houston about the band, the industry, and the future.
Free Press Houston: I really enjoy your new record Strange Little Birds, which was released back in June. How have you seen it being received so far? One thing I really liked was the leopard print for the iconic “G”; who came up with the idea for that design?
Butch Vig: I think it’s been received really well. We got some amazing press, which is nice, ya know? We have a tendency to ignore that stuff, just because you could drive yourself crazy reading what people are writing about you. People have “got” the record, if you know what I mean? I think they figured out what we were trying to do. The songs so far have translated pretty well live. We’re in Houston in a few days. We’re just damn thrilled to still be out playing, we still get to put out records that people like. I think the logo was Shirley’s idea. We’ve always liked tactile designs for our covers, even going back to our first record. My drum kit actually has the same pattern — I’m probably the only person in the world with a leopard skin drum kit.
FPH: How do you feel this record differs from your previous work?
Vig: When we came back for our last record — our first time back for a while — we just embraced who we were, rather than just come up with a new sound. We looked around, and there’s a million bands out there trying to be noticed. We realized that we had a really strong identity, and we embraced that. We did, pretty much, the same thing on Strange Little Birds. We wanted to make this one a lot more free-form, experimental, and simpler in some ways. Our debut album was practically made entirely in the studio, and our new one needed to capture some of that, so we took out some of the rock. It’s more orchestral and atmospheric. A lot of songs have space in them, but not all of them. The first single is very much so a classic Garbage song, with the haze of fuzzy guitars.
FPH: Do you have a favorite track on the record or do you pretty much hold them all equal? After a couple of listens, I could say that “Magnetized” is a great tune.
Vig: “Magnetized” is a great track. We haven’t played it live yet because there are a lot of keyboards on it. When we first recorded that, we made a real simple recording. It was way slower. It was just guitar, bass, and drums. It was kind of one-dimensional, but we liked the song a lot. Then, we plugged in this really weird effects pedal that didn’t make anything musical, it just made noise. We decided to play the track with that pedal. That song took a lot of work to get to the point where we were really happy with the arrangement, but Shirley’s singing is fantastic on it.
FPH: The 20th anniversary of Garbage’s debut record wasn’t too long ago, and it seems like now is the time for anniversaries of bands. Based on your experience of seeing bands reunite, some as a true reformation and others a one-time only tour, do you feel that their usually as good as the band itself in their prime? Do you prefer hearing or seeing a band?
Vig: It depends on the band, really. Every single band is different, and I have personally looked at a studio and live recording as two completely different things. As well as we try to sound on our recordings, It’s just a completely different thing when you [play live]. Part of that is having to be spontaneous. We don’t know how the interaction is going to be or where the crowd is going to take us. That’s why I like live shows. Even if a band plays sloppy, I’d rather see that than a band that sounds exactly like their record. That’s boring. I’d rather just go home and listen to it on the stereo.
FPH: Given your stance in the importance of music, I’m sure you’ve been asked about your stance on streaming sites like Spotify and YouTube, but for those who have not heard, how do you feel about it? Are the artists treated fairly?
Vig: Well, to me, clearly, music has taken a backseat to a lot of other forms of entertainment. Kids don’t mind paying 99¢ for an app, but there’s no way they want to pay 99¢ for a song, or I would say 95 percent of the people. There are still some people [who will pay], like me, who will go to iTunes and buy something if I want it, but I’m a different generation than the new one. But it’s the way of the future, you know? Everyone is going to have to accept that now. I don’t really use Spotify very much, but I use it occasionally. I find it valuable if I want to hear a song that I heard on an ad or the radio. If I want to check it out, I can go on there, but if I really want a song, I’ll buy it. Streaming, right now, is the way of the future. It’s also going to be that way for television. I mean, look how successful Netflix has gotten. People don’t need to own the content anymore, they just want to have access to it 24 hours a day. To me, artists have always gotten ripped off in not just music, but also writers. It’s hard to get decent wages. There are painters, poets — artists, in general — that seem to be at the bottom of the totem pole. It bums me out that it’s harder for musicians to make money, especially when people don’t value the content of music anymore. Everybody wants music 24/7, and they hear it 24/7, but they don’t want to pay for it.
FPH: Yeah, for sure. A week-or-so ago, I heard a segment on the radio about Drake, who was on the list of Billboard’s top 100 from August to November of 2015. There seems to be dramatic shifts in the top hits, which are currently — for the most part — EDM artists like the Chainsmokers. Can anyone really predict the next wave of trending music? Side note: “Drake’s “Hotline Bling” steps 2-1 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs (chart dated Nov. 14), earning the rapper his 13th chart-topping hit. The crowning rise is due, in part, by a 58 percent increase in streams (to 20.6 million domestic clicks in the week ending Oct. 29, according to Nielsen Music). The gain follows the wide release of its music video, after a one-week exclusive window with Apple Music. Drake becomes one of only nine artists to score as many No. 1s on the chart. Tied for the most is Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, who each of 20 leaders.” Source: Billboard
Vig: Well, EDM has been hot for a number of years now — that’s just an extension of club music, which has been around since the 70’s, especially when disco became really huge. I mean, people have always liked to go out on the weekend and get crazy and listen to music. It’s also part of the culture — people want to have fun. It can be very communal going to a club. I feel like it will burn out a little bit, like any type of music. It just goes in cycles. Every sort of genre that has become huge, even going back to disco or new wave, or punk rock, or alternative grunge music, or when pop music became huge. People’s taste change, they want something new and fresh, they’ll get burnt out on a certain sound and search for something new. It’s always been that way. If I knew what the next big thing would be, I would put all of my money on it, right now! But no one knows what that is, ya know? Music is such a hybrid of styles right now. You can hear a hip-hop track on the radio that samples sounds from all types of music. Country music is starting to do hip-hop beats. There’s electronic influence everywhere. With the technology now, you can just mix all of the influences together, like Garbage did on our first record! When our first record came it, it really turned heads because, through all of the elements of pop-melody, fuzzy guitars, and hip-hop beats with weird sound effects. At the time, nobody ever thought that we would make a grunge record, because of my history with Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins. I think a lot of people were surprised with the sound of that first Garbage record.
FPH: What is your biggest advice to aspiring musicians, producers, etc.? From your lengthy list of contributions to records including Nirvana’s Nevermind, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and Siamese Dream, records with Sonic youth, the Foo Fighters, and so many more, I know people really want to hear your opinion on how to “make it” in the music field.
Vig: It’s hard to answer that with a simple answer, really. I run into aspiring engineers, producers, and young musicians all the time, and a lot of the time, I can talk technical things with them. In general, there’s so much music out there, you really want to make your mark. You have to stay true to what you believe in and follow your heart, and while doing so, try to find something unique and fresh. There are a million bands, and 99 percent are generic. They sound like other bands who are successful or have come up with some sort of sonic identity. We were lucky: in Garbage, we created a sonic identity. In terms of producers now, everyone can do it. You can get a laptop and get instant keyboard sounds. I get all of these demos from engineers and producers and artists. Some are really good, but they all sound generic. The trick is to find a way to put your imprint that’s unique and sounds cool. You also have to be totally true to yourself. That’s important because if you’re going immerse yourself in art or music or whatever it is, you need to love what you do. If you do it just to start making money, or because you think you’re going to be successful, you are going to hate it. One of the reasons people pursue art is because it makes them feel good. It’s almost a form of therapy, or it has been, for me. If you can do that, if you can follow that path and really love and believe in what you’re doing, then you are going to be successful.
Catch Garbage at Revention Music Center on September 9. You can legally buy Garbage’s new record “Strange Little Birds” here or download here.