In case you were living under a rock or underneath the bridge, Nirvana’s seminal album Nevermind turned 25 on Saturday, an event that was marked by everything from a cover night at Sunnyvale to a recreation of the album cover featuring its now 25-year-old baby. There’s not much left to say about the album that led pretty much every suburban kid to buy a guitar and smash his entire Columbia House cassette collection with it, but there’s plenty left to be said about Smart Studios, the Madison, Wisconsin facilities where an early version of the record was recorded. Luckily, a new documentary is coming along to fix that. The Smart Studios Story, directed by Wendy Schneider, will screen at St. Vitus on Nov. 13.
If Smart Studios doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps the name Butch Vig does, if only because he recently shared his memories of the making of Nevermind. For grunge nerds, he was the guy who produced records by L7, Tad, Dwarves, Smashing Pumpkins, and his own band Garbage. When Sonic Youth’s album Dirty turned 23 last summer, we shared the story of Vig insisting that the band record “Theresa’s Sound-World” in the dark.
In The Smart Studios Story, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, one of the many musicians interviewed, puts his finger on what made Vig an appealing producer to such bands: “Die Kreuzen or bands like Sonic Youth, I’m sure, had a love of some sort of pop music,” Grohl says, “but couldn’t really recognize that element in what they do. But Butch managed to find it and say, ‘No, it’s okay, do that four times, don’t just do it twice,’ and ‘Simplify’ and ‘Make it sweeter,’ and ‘Double that.’”
Elsewhere in the film, Grohl tells how this rubbed off on Nirvana: “You have these bands that are teetering on the brink of chaos and there’s a beauty inside there somewhere and Butch knows how to target that and just yank it out and blow it up.”
After Nirvana achieved fame thanks in part to Vig’s punk-pop sensibility, they used their newfound creative capital to make a much more jagged and naturalistic album, In Utero. Apparently, the album’s producer, Steve Albini, used to criticize Vig by saying he just wanted to make every band sound like the Beatles. In the documentary, Vig admits there’s some truth to that.
Still, The Smart Studios Story makes it clear that Vig wasn’t some rich kid whose parents gave him a mixer for Christmas and scored him an apprenticeship with George Martin. His operation sprouted organically, after Vig and his friend Steve Marker started messing around with a reel-to-reel tape deck that Marker got from a summer of mowing lawns. Eventually they opened a proper studio by moving into the second floor of a warehouse space and putting 1,000 cardboard egg holders on the wall for soundproofing. The first band they recorded, in 1982, was the Tar Babies– “the Chili Peppers before the Chili Peppers,” per Billy Corgan.
In the studio’s early days, Vig cultivated a collaborative “clubhouse feeling,” wearing a vest over his t-shirt to make things at least somewhat official. Photos show him and Marker messing around on a Macintosh SE, with six packs at their side. In the days before sampling, they produced sound effects by, for instance, smashing those beer bottles for a Killdozer record.
Killdozer was one of the bands that “shaped the musical identity of Seattle,” according to Jonathan Poneman, who should know. He was co-founder of Sub Pop, the label where Nirvana got its start. When Killdozer’s album Twelve Point Buck came out on Touch and Go in 1989, Poneman took notice of its “sludginess and sense of humor.” Vig was tapped to produce a Nirvana album, tentatively titled Sheep, and recorded early versions of the Nevermind songs with then drummer Chad Channing. A bootleg of the so-called “Smart Sessions” made it into the hands of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, who passed it on to Geffen Records, and soon Vig and Nirvana (minus Channing and plus Grohl) were signed to a major label and rerecording the songs at Sound City Studios in California. (If Sound City sounds familiar it’s because Grohl released a documentary about it in 2013.) The album version of “Polly,” however, is from the Smart Sessions.
Everyone knows about Nirvana’s fatal struggle to reconcile punk-rock cred and mainstream fame, but few people know that Smart Studios suffered a similar fate as Vig became a coveted producer thanks to the one-two success of Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins.
Poneman notes in the film that as grunge took off, “it was like a gold-rush mentality– it stopped being about music and art and culture and it became about being rich.” Smart Studios soon professionalized, staffed up, and renovated its facilities in a way that, according to Corgan, destroyed the “perfect mistake” of its original space. And, of course, the world moved on from grunge— the most painful evidence of which is that Corgan is now an Alex Jones regular and pro wrestling impresario.
Smart Studios closed in 2010, but you can relive the magic when The Smart Studio Story screens at St. Vitus as part of its national tour. Tickets for the 3pm screening on Sunday, Nov. 13 are $8 and available here. A DVD will be released on Record Store Day Black Friday, Nov. 25, along with a vinyl album, American Noise Vol. 1, featuring cuts from Killdozer, Tar Babies, Die Kreuzen, and Vig’s first band, Spooner.