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

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Kurt Cobain performs with Nirvana on "MTV Unplugged" in 1993.

"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.

Butch Vig, a Wisconsin native and former student at the University of Wisconsin, dropped out to pursue a career in music. After playing drums in local bands, he began dabbling in recording and later opened Smart Studios in Madison, Wis. He initially started working with Nirvana while the band was still on Sub Pop, before teaming up with the group to produce Nevermind. Its success opened the door for Vig to work on early-'90s releases by the Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, L7 and Gumball, among others. In the mid-'90s, Vig formed the band Garbage with Shirley Manson, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker. The act has sold more than 17 million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and is at work on a new record. Vig, who lives in Los Angeles, sat down with Billboard's Mitchell Peters to talk about Nirvana's seminal album.
How did you end up working on Nevermind?
Butch Vig: They came to Smart and recorded what at the time was going to be an album for Sub Pop. We finished six or seven tracks and they were going to come back. But at that point, they started getting interest from major labels. So they eventually jumped ship and went to Geffen. First I got a call from the band asking if I wanted to engineer the record. They were going to work with another producer. ... The band met with three or four other producers, and they didn't like any of them. So with about two weeks before they went into the studio, they called and asked if I wanted to produce the record, and I said, "Absolutely." It was kind of my first major-label project.

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Had you been aware of the Seattle scene at that time?
Vig: Sub Pop had been a hot indie label for several years. In fact, I was a member of the Sub Pop Singles Club. Every month they'd send out a cool split single between two artists. There were a lot of great bands coming from there. Nobody had any idea they were going to explode into the mainstream.
Were you a fan of Nirvana prior to producing Nevermind?
Vig: The funny thing is, when they came to Smart, Jonathan [Poneman] from Sub Pop sent me Bleach, the first record Nirvana put out. And to be honest, I was not that impressed. I thought the album was kind of one-dimensional -- except for the song "About a Girl," which to me sounded like Lennon/McCartney writing. Great chords and great melody -- it was super hooky. I thought that showed a lot of promise. As it turned out, Kurt [Cobain] was starting to write much more melodically when we went in to do Nevermind. I think that's one of the reasons the record is so great -- it's chock-full of great vocal melodies. And Krist [Novoselic] came up with great bass hooks and Dave [Grohl] came up with great drum fills that are hooks, too. They were writing with more of a pop sensibility.

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What was the vibe in the recording studio during the making of Nevermind?
Vig: The only hard thing was dealing with Kurt's mood swings. He was extremely bipolar and you never had any idea how he was going to be at any given moment. But they were really focused and had practiced a lot. We worked in preproduction to tighten the songs up and they were having fun, man. They were signed to a major label for the first time in their life; they had a little money. They were staying at the Oakwood Apartments, and they all said that the rental apartment was the best place they had ever lived in their whole life. And they were going to see shows. They dropped mushrooms and went to the beach all night long. We did the record really fast. I think we were in the studio maybe 16 or 18 days. So it wasn't really a labored effort in any way.
Kurt especially had no patience. You had to be ready to go. So I'd go into the studio every day and work on tuning up the drums, or whatever we were doing -- getting the guitars or amps set up. So when they came in around 1 or 2 in the afternoon, we would start recording. They were pretty focused.

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Did you have any sense at the time that Nevermind would have such a huge impact?
Vig: I knew the record was good, because I thought the songs and performances were great. It wasn't really until the time we finished that I started playing some rough mixes for people and they would stop what they were doing and say, "Play that again." And then I started getting a few calls from people who'd say, "I heard about the Nirvana record -- could I hear something?" It started getting this buzz building up, mostly from people I know or people in the industry.
And then they played a show at Jabberjaw, a little tiny club on Pico (in Los Angeles), right when we were finishing the mixing. And it maybe held 150 or 200 people. It was just packed. People were going crazy inside. They played a lot of the new songs and the crowd had this intensity, like something was going to happen. I guess I hadn't really seen anything that felt that electric primal that was ready to explode to a certain extent. That kept swelling up more and more after the record was done.
I remember going home and I was working back at Smart with some bands that came over for a Fourth of July picnic and I put the Nirvana record in my BoomBox. There were probably 30 or 40 musicians hanging out. They all stopped and crowded around the BoomBox to listen. And when it was done, I remember there was silence. And somebody said, "Oh my God, play the record again." Everybody stood there and I played it all the way through. It was weird for me to sit and watch how everybody listened to it and the reaction that they were having. At that point, I think I knew the record had an X-factor that none of us knew when we were it.

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Was there a moment when you realized Nevermind was a smash?
Vig: I went to see the band around the week the record came out at the Metro in Chicago. ... When we rolled up to the Metro, there were like 2,000 people lined up trying to get in. It was already sold out. And there was this electricity in the air. They came out and started with the Vaselines' "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam." I'd never heard that song and I thought, "Oh, my God, Kurt wrote another great song."
Before the show I saw Dave and he said, "F---, I hate these drums." And I said, "Well, your manager is here, so why don't you just smash them up and they'll have to get you a new drum kit." And lo and behold, I think that was one of the first times they trashed Dave's kit at the end of the night, and dragged it all over the stage. Sure enough, he had to get a new drum kit the next day.
And there was an after-party at Crash Palace. The band was so psyched. It was before the burden of success starting to weigh on Kurt. They were just enjoying themselves so much. It was exciting to be there at that moment and feel the energy coming from the audience that knew they were watching something special. The next time I saw them, I could already see that they were completely worn out. That was maybe five months later in New York and they were completely fried because of all the touring and press they had been doing.

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.