SXSW Interview: Butch Vig reflects on his former studio and its new documentary The Smart Studios Story

Over some 30 years, Smart Studios, founded by Garbage members Butch Vig and Steve Marker, helped changed the landscape of music. Six years after it closed, director Wendy Schneider has brought the story of the studio to the big screen with her film The Smart Studios Story. At its premiere at SXSW, Larry talked to producer Butch Vig about the documentary.

There’s this feeling to the film like we’ve been transported back into an MTV 1990’s documentary and all that was missing was Kurt Loder doing the narration. There’s a certain style to the film that gives it that sort of aesthetic, did you like the way that [Wendy] approached it in that respect?

Yeah, I think Wendy did a great job. I mean the film is a time capsule, going all the way back to when we started and you know, that do-it-yourself mentality sort of forced us to do things that we had no idea what we were doing. We were very lucky that we tapped into a scene that grew into a bigger local scene, and then a regional scene, and then bands like Gallows were attracted, Billy Corgan and Kurt Cobain, and then those bands took off and went into the mainstream.

You know, we were part of that and yet at the time that it was happening you’re not really cognoscente of what’s going on, so to go back and see what happened over 30 years and how it was put together is pretty cool. It really is, for me, a total time capsule. She’s done a great job tracking down all the content and getting everyone’s permission to use all the footage. It was funny when the studio closed, I didn’t really feel sad, ‘cause I thought we were a moment of time and everything comes to and end, you know? Bands come to an end, we all are unfortunately going to come to an end, but to have been part of that was really special.

I’m really glad that Wendy came up with the idea to make the documentary because it really was her idea. Steve and I sort of had to be convinced… “Really? Is there a story here?” Because there’s narrative arc like Hollywood has, a start and then a chase scene and then boy meets girl or girl gets boy at the end, you know? Hollywood always likes those narrative arcs. This is really [a series of] snapshots of a history and I think she did a great job with it.

It is a pity that is has to be a history story, that we are at a point where there’s all these great documentaries being made about record studios that aren’t there, really taping into the nostalgia of it, but also showing that there is a lot of interest in it – interest in that style of recording even if the kids today aren’t doing it that way. Do you think that a resurgence of vinyl and the interest in these sorts of documentaries might in the next ten years bring things back in a different direction?

I mean, young artists and musicians have so much technology and so much available at their fingertips now to make great records, and to get them out there instantly. You know when I started out it was all a mystery. I had no idea what a producer was, or how to record drums or how to do anything. And who’s a publisher? What does a music manager do? You know, we just sort of figured it out. I think the learning curve is so much easier now. As a young artist, you can figure out how to make a record on your laptop on a Sunday night and if it’s good you can hit send on Monday and a million people can hear it – or it can go viral in 24 hours.

That’s really cool because that’s sort of leveled the playing field, there’s not these elitist gatekeepers who would pick and chose [whether] you got to be out in the mainstream. You can do it on your own now, and if you write a good song you can be playing in front of 10 000 people within weeks or months if you tap into an audience. I think that’s really cool exciting.

I think because of all that new technology, the artists who are going to make the biggest noise ultimately still have to write great songs, because anybody can get a good drum sounds now, you can program stuff really easily, there’s millions of synths at your fingertips inside a laptop. At the end of the day the song has to have some sort of personal or sonic connection or something that draws the listener in. But it’s exciting times.

Here at SXSW there’s so many cool bands here and it just dawned on me the other day that it’s been 30 years. We came here back in ’87, ‘88, and ’89 and made cassettes from Smart, with like ten bands on it. It was Smart Studio’s demo, “we want to record at our studio, call us”. Steve and I would walk up and down the streets and if we saw a cool band we would go up and say, “hey man, if you want with Smart, check us out.” And we got work that way, so it’s really cool to come full circle and have The Smart Studios Story premiering here at SXSW. I really feel that this has kind of come full circle.

I’d love to hear that mix tape now [laughs].

Wendy tracked down one…I think there was a brief snap of one in the film. Those cassettes, we did them every year. We had these cassettes that we’d call “Not for Geeks” and we’d put a local sample every year, what we thought was cool, on it and it was quite eclectic. It was not just punk rock it was weird polka and harp music and what we thought was experimental stuff, and opera singers, and …every type of music was on it. Then we’d just give them out to people. I don’t really have any of those anymore unfortunately.

They’d be worth a bit of money now. The last question is about the music today. Coming to something like SXSW, what does excite you as a producer and as a music fan?

You know, today is really full on with the film, I’m not really going to get a chance to see any music but I have all day off tomorrow. I have a couple of meetings in the morning. I’m not even really sure of what I’m going to do, I was just so overwhelmed looking at all of the artists here, I’m not really sure what I’m going to see yet. I want to go see Iggy and Josh, they played last night and tonight but the premiere’s on so I’m going to miss it. I’m not sure, I’m going to be out and about tomorrow though, I’ll see if I can even get it. I even remember, God, 20 years ago sometimes you’d have to stand outside the door and listen to them, and that’s cool.

Hopefully you get to discover something new, as for all of us, and congratulations of the film.

Cheers, thanks.

Find more information on The Smart Studios Story and other screenings at SXSW here.