Nirvana Producer Reflects on 'Nevermind's' Legacy, Kurt Cobain's 'Mood Swings,' Band's Early Days (Q&A)

Kurt Cobain performs with Nirvana on "MTV Unplugged" in 1993.
Kurt Cobain performs with Nirvana on "MTV Unplugged" in 1993.
 Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

"That's the one thing that makes me sad ... all the promise Cobain had," says Butch Vig, who went on to work with the Smashing Pumpkins and help form the band Garbage.

What role did Nevermind play in moving the Seattle music scene forward?

Vig: It's hard to state an exact tangible way that Nevermind influenced the scene. It did open up a lot of doors for the bands to get played on mainstream radio. And it made some bands more cognizant of the idea that it was OK to write hooks and to write great choruses and that a song didn't necessarily have to be crazy or f---ed-up sounding or really left-field to get your point across and have a lot of attitude. Nevermind had tons of attitude and raw, visceral performances. But the songs were hooky. That was the thing that probably influenced a lot of bands -- not just in Seattle, but bands all over the country. 

How did working on Nevermind raise your profile as a producer?
Vig: The record completely changed my life. It opened up so many doors. I had been doing a lot of underground work with independent labels. And all of a sudden, all of the major labels were calling and I was able to pick and choose the projects I wanted to do. It's safe to say that the record changed the lives of those who were closely involved. Early on it sort of freaked me out, because I realized that I'd never have a record as big and commercially successful. You have to sort of put it over on one side and say, "I still want to make music and move forward."
If I hadn't done that record I don't know if I would've been able to work with Sonic Youth or Smashing Pumpkins. And I wouldn't have been able to start Garbage and do that, because it opened so many doors and allowed me to have an interesting career that I'm still luckily having -- knock on wood.
When was the last time you actually sat down and listened to Nevermind?
Vig: I've been listening to it quite a bit over the last couple of months, because I'm helping with the box set that's coming out. So we remastered the record. And there were some outtakes, some mixes from Smart Studios that we did for the original Sub Pop sessions -- some mixes I did at Devonshire that we unearthed and had mastered. I think some of those are going into the box set, too. So I'm listening to a lot of the music in various forms from that album.
It still sounds fresh. In my opinion, I don't think it sounds dated. One of the reasons is because it's guitar, bass and drums. There isn't a keyboard sound from the '80s -- sometimes you hear a sound on the radio and the production sound dates it. I don't really hear that in Nevermind. It's drums recorded in a room with bass, guitars and vocals. I think it sounds as fresh and exciting now as it did back then.
Did any memories from the recording session trigger while you listened? Is there anything on the album that you wish you could change?
Vig: Nah, there's not really too much I would change. What I usually remember are the funny little moments, like doing back vocals. Usually the anomalies are the things you remember from records. It's all the quirky things. I remember at the start of "On a Plain," where Kurt took in this little train. He had all these little toys on there and he was playing with them during the song. I remember saying, "OK, are you ready for the vocals?" And he said yeah, so I started rolling the tape and recorded. But he didn't sing; he just recorded all these odd little things through the song. And I thought it was interesting. Then I'd say, "Are you ready to do a vocal?" And he said, "OK, Butch, I guess so."
I also remember Dave trying to hit the high vocals on "In Bloom." Dave's voice sounds amazingly like Kurt's and it blended really well. He said, "I have to pull a Keith Richards." So he'd take a sip of Jack Daniel's and a puff from a cigarette. He'd get halfway through a line and his voice would start to break up. I remember all of us laughing and laughing. By the time he got the vocal done, I think he had drank half a bottle of Jack Daniel's.
Nirvana's follow-up release, In Utero, sounded much grittier than Nevermind. What are you thoughts on that album?

Vig: I think there are some great songs on it. In retrospect, I think Kurt needed to work with someone like (producer) Steve Albini to sort of reclaim his punk ethics or cred. When we finished the record, the band loved it. And later Kurt kind of dissed it in the press. But he was just saying that, because you can't really go, "Hey, I love our record and I'm glad it sold 10 million copies." That's just not cool to do. And I think he felt like he wanted to do something more primal. So working with Steve was good, because he basically just records a song. He doesn't really do any production. "Heart Shaped Box" is one of my favorite Nirvana songs and also one of my favorite videos they did.
It would've been cool to work with them again, but at that point I was deep in the frying pan with Smashing Pumpkins making Siamese Dream, which turned into a really long project. I don't even know if I could've cleared time out of my schedule to work with them.
Every now and then, people ask me if Kurt would still be making music. And the answer is, of course he would. He loved writing and drawing. He was constantly doodling and picking up the guitar and writing things down. I have no idea what kind of music it would be. But that's the one thing that makes me sad when I was listening to Nevermind -- all the promise he had. He was such a talented artist. All of us wish he were still here, because I'm sure he would be making incredible music.

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