Far Out Meets: Butch Vig on Garbage, ‘Nevermind’ and 5 Billion In Diamonds
Butch Vig is a pioneer who, somewhat accidentally, found himself at the forefront of a zeitgeist movement in the 1990s after he produced some of the defining records of the decade and, thanks to his magic touch, the genre of grunge became a worldwide sensation. Following the success of albums such as Nirvana’s Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish, for which Vig worked as ringmaster, he then took a step back from the production desk before stepping into the limelight with Garbage who, in turn, excelled as one of alternative rock’s fiercest outfits.
Last month, Vig shared Divine Accidents from his passion project 5 Billion In Diamonds, the cinematic album is the second record from his band with Bristolian Andy Jenks and Southampton’s DJ James Grillo. The sonic world which Vig has created with his side-project is a far cry from the brand of rock that he makes with Garbage. 5 Billion In Diamonds has provided him with the perfect opportunity to experiment with a new sonic structure which has helped keep his creative juices flowing.
The band released their debut album in 2017 and Divine Accidents offers up a compelling soundtrack to an imaginary piece of cinema which is utterly gripping. Releasing music at a time like this, when the world is in a state of incomparable flux, is a source of anxiety for most artists but because 5 Billion In Diamonds is a passion project, they just want as many people as possible to put their free time to good use by giving the record a spin. Although the pandemic has tried its best to murder the music industry, incredible records have been one of the few tonics for 2020 has had to offer and Divine Accidents acts as a delightful source of escapism from all the noise going on outside.
“People want music,” Vig said on the topic of releasing a record in the midst of a global pandemic to Far Out from his home studio in Los Angeles. “I mean, streaming is up what I’ve been hearing that’s people listening to new music. This is a good time to release because music is an escape for them, so they’re looking for great new music.”
The record has been one that the three-piece have been working on intermittently since November 2018 but because it’s none of their full-time focuses, it wouldn’t be completed until January this year. This is a project that they’ve carefully poured whatever hours possible they can into and thankfully, it was completed before the world turned upside down. The sacred time they spent making the record, was not only fulfilling from a creative standpoint but just the opportunity to hang out together made it a heavenly experience for Vig.
“I’ve known James for 20 years and because of that, I’ve known Andy,” Vig noted as he explained how this peculiar triumvirate began making music together. “James is a unique individual, he has a gigantic collection of vinyl like 20,000 albums and he’s probably got the same amount of CDs. We were out drinking wine one night like four years ago, and I challenged him and said, ‘Why don’t you write some music, James?’ He’s not a musician, but he’s a DJ and knows he knows what he likes musically.
“So we start working on some music. Basically, James would play like a part from a record, like some obscure record I had never heard before, and we would use that as a reference point to start writing music. When Andy, James and I made the first 5 Billion In Diamonds record, we wrote all these sonic landscapes that, in our head, was music that would work in a film soundtrack.”
They then started reaching out to guest vocalists such as The Ocean Blue’s David Schnelzel, James Bagshaw from Temples and Helen White, who used to bandmates with Andy Jenks in Bristol trip-hop band Alpha. This vast array of different artists helped bring a unique spin to 5 Billion In Diamonds — which gives their work an irresistible dynamic feel.
“It was quite a slow process,” Vig noted about making their 2017 debut. “In the end, I think the record turned out great. When we started writing the music for the new album Divine Accidents, we had a much clearer idea of how the process would unfold. We actually wrote pieces of music, specifically for singers like sort of tailor-made for each singer and so the process was a lot easier on Divine Accidents.”
“It’s just sonically the approach that the band (Garbage) takes has a different vibe than 5 Billion In Diamonds,” Vig notes on the differences between the two groups before expanding: “We let James sort of dictate where we’re going sonically, even though he’s not a producer or a musician and I just trust his taste to define where a song should go. It’s fun, we drink lots of wine, we’re in the studio, we take breaks and go on have really nice dinners and at some point, we want to tour.”
Touring was financially impossible to make work on the first 5 Billion in Diamonds record. The cost of creating a cinematic experience which would match the one that comes from listening to the album made the task hard enough, then accounting for taking singers on the road and paying crew fairly, it would eclipse whatever money was paid through the door by fans. This is something that Butch is determined to change in the future.
“We’ve only played one show,” the drummer recalled. “We played four songs at a show for James’ birthday party and the only reason we were able to do that was because he invited all his friends there. We were all like in the same space it was like, ‘Okay, why don’t we play some songs?’ So we rehearsed very quickly, the night before, it was kind of ramshackle. But man, it was fun,” he said whilst wearing a giant smile as his mind travelled back to the show.
Even if touring still remains out of the realms of possibility for 5 Billion In Diamonds next year, Vig and Garbage will be hitting the road on an unmissable co-headline UK arena tour alongside Blondie. They have got a brand new record that they are ready to unleash on the world in 2021 and the itch to play live is burning bright. The album format remains something that Vig still holds dearly in his heart, however, he’s not naive about being in the minority of modern listeners. The musician is an ardent believer in an artist doing whatever possible to get their music heard. “When I started making music in the ’80s and ’90s, it was verboten to have your music in a commercial or in a TV show,” Vig said on the change in tastes. “Everybody thought you were selling out but now because no one’s selling CDs and streaming pays such a small pittance of a royalty, artists can make some really good income if they can licence your music in TV and film or commercial.
“I still feel like music should be listened to as its own entity,” Vig maintains. “I’m old school. I still listen to an album all the way through. But I know that’s not the way most people consume music anymore. If it can get at a TV show then it’s possible millions of people might hear it. I think that’s a good thing no matter what vehicle it is.”
The record that helped make Vig one of the world’s most sought after producers was Nirvana’s seminal LP Nevermind, a project which was not only a great album on tape but it was relentlessly pushed on MTV. Back then, the network was the vehicle that helped spread the word of Nirvana to the masses who, if it wasn’t for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ being on a constant loop, perhaps wouldn’t have checked out the record and made the band such a bastion of rock. This philosophy of doing whatever possible to spread the word of your music is something that Vig can champion from experience.
“Nevermind was a special record,” Vig fondly recollected. “I mean, the band had been playing really well and they were really tight and focused when they came into the studio. Kurt had written a bunch of amazing songs that were super hooky but I had no idea it was gonna be a zeitgeist moment, it just completely exploded, it really was like a revolution. It completely changed my life for the better, everybody I know closely associated with the band will say the same thing. No one saw it coming but we’re all really thankful that we were along for the ride.
“The funny thing is, I started getting a lot of calls from publishers, from managers, major labels and they thought that I had tapped onto some sort of formula,” Vig says whilst trying and failing to contain his laughter. “They thought I could take any type of artist, it could be a blues singer, it could be a folk artist, a country singer, and I knew how to make them sound like Nevermind. Some of the things I was pitched were absolutely ludicrous. I mean, it didn’t make any sense at all.”
This success, however, did provide him with the freedom to work solely with artists that he wanted to and, therefore, not have to compromise in order to make rent. It gave him the platform to form Garbage and have the backing from a label because of his tried and tested credentials, they became one of the biggest bands to emerge throughout the ’90s. Whether they would have the same level of success or even formed, if it wasn’t for the stratospheric success of Nevermind, remains unknown.
Garbage have sold over 17 million records worldwide and 27 years after forming are still as strong as ever, with their relationships being the key to their longevity according to Vig: “First of all, you have to like the people you hang out with. As a producer, I can’t tell you how many bands I’ve worked with there that musicians hate each other’s guts. A lot of bands are run by one person, then everybody else has to fall into place. Garbage is a democracy even though it’s a very dysfunctional democracy, but we listen to each other and understand each other,” Vig proudly declares.
Vig has had a wildly eclectic career that saw him be at the forefront of grunge, but Nevermind is surprisingly not the piece of work from his career that he is most proud of despite it being the one that has had the greatest impact of his life. “Every record I’ve done is like a bastard child. They’re all beautiful in their own way,” Vig jokes before revealing the identity of his favourite child.
“I have to say Smashing Pumpkins’Siamese Dream; I’m very proud of because that was a really difficult record. It was before Pro Tools, Billy and I set the bar really high in terms of how sonically we wanted it to sound. I had to deal with all of the dysfunctionality of them as four people together but I think the record still sounds really good. It has a sound to it that we kind of came up with in the studio and to me, it still sounds as powerful now as it did when I recorded it.”
The sheer number of classic records that Vig is the man behind, from both a production perspective and as a drummer, is awe-inspiring. Despite being 65-years-old, that passion for travelling into new musical landscapes and dipping his toes into unknown territory is perhaps greater now than it has ever been. Vig never set out to sell millions of records but he’s thankful that it allows him the freedom to focus solely on fulfilling his own creative ambitions. Now, 5 Billion In Diamonds has allowed him to expand his horizons even further and learn from new people, challenge himself but, most importantly, having fun in the process.