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Butch Vig: My Favorite Moments in the Studio

The uberproducer breaks down some memories with Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and more

October 17, 1996
Butch Vig
Butch Vig
Hayley Madden/Redferns

Garbage's Butch Vig has produced some of the most important artists of the '90s, including Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth and singer/songwriter Freedy Johnston. Here, Vig talks about a few of his most unforgettable moments in the studio.

Photos: The Rise of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and More

"Something in the Way," from Nirvana's Nevermind (DGC) The quietest song on Nevermind is also the most intense. We attempted to record "Something in the Way" with Kurt [Cobain], Krist [Novoselic] and Dave [Grohl] playing live, but Kurt was singing and playing the guitar so quietly, all I could hear through his microphones was the bleed from the bass and drums. I suggested we isolate him in the control room and record his performance separately. Kurt decided to use his old, beat-up five-string acoustic guitar, which he never bothered to tune. He slumped down on the couch and began strumming the guitar while I was setting up the mikes, and pretty soon he was flat on his back. I unplugged the telephones, turned off the air conditioning, hung a Do Not Disturb sign, turned off the lights, locked the door and hit the record button. His performance stunned me: He had gone deep inside himself and brought out a haunting portrait of desolation, weariness and paranoia.

"Disarm," from the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream (Virgin) Trying to reach the light at the end of the tunnel on Siamese Dream, we were having trouble recording "Disarm" and kept putting it off. With all the other songs completed and our backs to the wall, we attempted to record the song with the full band. We tried various arrangements with the traditional Pumpkins sound: ringing guitars, pulsating bass and pounding drums. But it just wasn't working. Out of frustration, Billy Corgan walked into the control room with his acoustic guitar, closed his eyes and sang the song. It was so simple and emotionally direct, it made the hair rise on the back of my neck. And we both realized it was exactly the kind of feel the song needed. So Billy went back into the studio and quickly recorded an intensely emotional "Disarm." From there we built the song up orchestrally, adding strings, tubular bells and timpani, while trying to keep the focus on his raw, acoustic performance.

"Theresa's Sound-World," from Sonic Youth's Dirty (DGC) We had been recording at the Magic Shop, in New York, for about three weeks when we decided to cut "Theresa's Sound-World." Guitarist Thurston Moore had given me several live versions of the song that were so radically different that I don't think any of us knew exactly what the arrangement was. We turned the lights down low to enhance the trance, the Sonics began playing, and, I swear, I held my breath for five minutes. It seemed like a performance from another dimension: shimmering, hypnotic, raw and intense, dissonant yet beautiful, and unbelievably powerful. As they were cutting the track, I remember whispering to the assistant engineer that we were witnessing a magical performance. I think "Theresa's" is the quintessential track on Dirty because – like the best Sonic Youth songs – it defies categorization.

"This Perfect World," from Freedy Johnston's This Perfect World (Elektra) We were holed up at Dreamland studio, in upstate New York, when Freedy walked in one morning and started playing this new, incredibly haunting song. He hadn't finished all the lyrics, but we immediately went in and worked out a simple arrangement and recorded the acoustic guitar, bass and drums. Guitarist Marc Ribot [who's played with Tom Waits] came in later and overdubbed some shimmering electric-guitar lines. I wasn't sure what the song was about until a few weeks later when Freedy came in and recorded the final vocal, and I realized he had written the centerpiece song for the album. "This Perfect World" is an achingly beautiful song full of contradictions about the past, regret and trying to make your peace in the world. The lyrics pull at my heart every time I hear them.

This story is from the October 17th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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