You could easily make the case that Butch Vig is the most influential record producer of the last 25 years. With Nevermind, he and Nirvana ushered in a new era of alternative rock. In 1994, as both drummer and producer for Garbage, their brew of pop, electronica, industrial music, random samples, and goth-like lyrics redefined the boundaries of the genre. He also produced the Foo Fighters' (mostly) all-analog album Wasting Light.
Still, at 56 he remains something of an under-recognized hero; he maintains a low profile and a Midwestern modesty. The upcoming Garbage album Not Your Kind of People (due in May) is the band's first studio effort in seven years. We spoke to Vig between rehearsals for the tour, which kicks off with two sold-out shows in L.A., tonight and tomorrow night, April 9 and 10.
Early Garbage songs, like “Only Happy When It Rains” and “#1 Crush”, have aged well; they don't sound as dated as some 90s music does today. Why do you think the songs continue to sound so fresh?
I think a lot of bands and artists these days incorporate a lot of different styles in their music…We were one of the first bands to use a very big sonic palette, in terms of how we arranged and wrote songs, and we've always done that. I think we've been somewhat of an influence on younger bands over the years, and we take it as a compliment. But I hear a lot of artists doing that nowadays, so in some ways I think the sound of Garbage sort of fits in.
Not Your Kind of People is strong–possibly the best Garbage record yet.
When we started making the new album, we decided we did not want to reinvent ourselves. We wanted to just embrace exactly who we are and what we like to do and just sort of update it sonically for 2012. For better or worse, when we approach a song, it's going to end up sounding like Garbage. I think we have a strong sonic identity, and I think that's an asset these days.
What's the most obscure sample that's ever made it onto a Garbage record?
“Beloved Freak” [on Not Your Kind of People] has a sample by Klaus Nomi.
He came through Madison in the early 80s, and Steve [Marker] and I saw him play at a club called Merlin's… He came over to Steve's apartment afterwards and hung out. I remember he was going through Steve's drawers trying to see if he had some drugs or something in his house. Anyway, Steve found a sample from it called “The Unfinished Symphony,” and we started putting a song together with that opera.
The lyrics Shirley [Manson] wrote are about people being an outsider, feeling like a freak, and not fitting in and trying to come to terms with that it's okay to feel like you're an outsider. Klaus was definitely a freak and an outsider, and so it makes perfect sense to us that we wrote that song with that sample in mind.
Your former manager Shannon O'Shea once called you the “Godfather of Grunge” because of your work with Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. What's your take on that?
I was really lucky that I got caught up in that scene… At the time, none of us even thought really that we would have a chance of having any means to success. When I did Nevermind, I knew the record was great. It was exciting to listen to, and people that heard it were blown away. A lot of times, music gets boring, and something comes along and turns it on its head. That's what happened with Nevermind. It just blew open these floodgates. I think that music was sounding very calculated and clinical and soulless in the '80s, and Nevermind sounded real.
Every now and then, a record like that happens, where it just touches a spark and then sets off a fire and ignites a whole new generation of fans that have a passion for a particular band or a style of music, and I was lucky that that happened with me.