In the new documentary The Smart Studios Story, making its world premiere next week at SXSW in Austin Texas, Director Wendy Schneider takes a look back at the legacy of the legendary Madison, Wisconsin recording studio founded by Butch Vig and Steve Marker: Smart Studios. We caught up with Wendy ahead of the premiere to find out more about the film, her relationship with the studio, the modern music industry and more. Read on:
Growing up in the 90’s, I would devour the liner notes that came with every CD I would buy, so I have been aware of Smart Studios for a long time. Before working there, how did you first become aware of the studio?
In 1992 I was a live sound engineer for a ska band in Madison, WI called The Weaker Youth Ensemble – The drummer of the band knew I had a production background and suggested I give this “cool” studio a call to see if they were hiring. I called, was invited over and hired – all in the same day. I remember asking the studio manager if he’d like a copy of my resume and he replied, “we don’t really do resumes here…” That was my introduction to Smart.
As a fan, I would have thought that a studio with a such a stellar history as Smart Studio has would be around forever. With the music industry ever changing, why was it was difficult for a studio like Smart to stay around as long as it did, and what lead to its eventual closure?
A lot of studios began to struggle when digital technology became affordable and accessible to musicians in the 90s. The industry was changing for everyone and while this gave rise to a new, DIY approach to recording, it put a strain on studios like Smart because a significant amount of the business was from local bands. You don’t get records like the ones recorded at Smart by ordering a workstation for 199.00 and setting it up in your bedroom.
Every recording at that studio was the result of years and years of the craft being refined by talented engineers, producers and techs who poured themselves into making records sound a certain way – and that sound was contingent on the people and the space. The landscape was slowly changing and I think the economics of home recording began to decrease the value of booking time at a recording studio – Smart had the option of diversifying by marketing to other areas of media like, advertising, but in the end everyone at the studio was there to make records with bands – it would not have been the same otherwise.
I understand you have a very personal connection to this story, working at the studio during the 90’s. Being involved at a location that was producing such amazing music as such a pivotal time, was there a pressure that grew with the delivery of these amazing, genre defining albums coming out of Smart Studio’s? Did Butch and Steve and those involved in the studio feel all eyes were on them, or were they able to keep a lid on it?
Regardless of what was going on outside the studio, or Madison, or on the Billboard Charts… the intention behind everyone’s efforts at the studio was always to make the best record possible. At Smart that meant anything from working a 30-hour day to shooting M80s off in the basement to get a certain sound on a song. It was full-spectrum dedication on everyone’s part. Butch and Steve’s approach was completely band-centered. They didn’t consider the afterlife of an album while they worked on it and I believe that all of the engineers who worked at Smart were strongly influenced by that, I know I was.
From the press release it sounds like you jumped head first in to this documentary as soon as you heard about the closure of Smart Studios. Why did you feel this was a story that had to be told?
In 2010 when Smart announced it was closing I had a sense of what it was going to mean for people. I had worked at Smart in the early nineties but my band had also chosen to record there – it was a part of my life and a huge part of other people’s lives. Objectively though, and whether or not it was realized at the time, we were all about to lose a point of access to one of the country’s most important spaces for recording music. With every year Smart had been open, the history was that much richer but in 2010 the evolution of that history was about to stop. I felt that the period of time that would come to be known as The Smart Years would need defining and I decided to contribute to that by making a documentary.
Did you expect to spend so long working through its story? Did it develop into something even bigger than you expected?
After working on the film for about six months I began saying to people, “this is the story you didn’t know that you didn’t know!” That sounds strange – but the more I interviewed artists and engineers connected to Smart a new connection to the history of American rock was emerging for me. Most people went right to Nirvana when they heard the name Butch Vig or Smart Studios – I knew there was more.
Was there anything that came out of the process of making the doc that you weren’t expecting?
Making a film like this is so challenging that when it all starts to fall into place, you’re surprised by that. So, I guess I didn’t expect it to come together – only because it was the most difficult project I’ve worked on so far.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
The Smart Studios Story peels back the first layer of a rich and complex history that includes independent music in the Midwest, the DIY ethos, and Butch Vig’s contribution to the sonic landscape of the modern rock era. Each time I watch the cut, I’m drawn to something new and different that I hadn’t considered before. I imagine the takeaways will be as varied as the music and people in the film. I’m looking forward to hearing about what people takeaway from the film.
Finally, do you have a personal favorite moment from your time at Smart Studios or from the process of making the documentary?
In the 6 years of working on the documentary, two moments stick out for me: The first was when the Kickstarter ended and the project secured editing funds – that was monumental. The second was receiving an email from Janet Pierson that the film had been accepted into SXSW – we were going to have a World Premiere and people were going to get dosed with one of the coolest histories I know.
The Smart Studios Story is making its world premiere on Friday, March 18th at SXSW as part of the 24 Beats Per Second program. To get all the details on when and where you can see the film at the festival, head HERE.
Questions by Kerrie Geier and Larry Heath