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July 21, 1992: Madison's Butch Vig: How He Did It

Credit:Brent Nicastro

Nirvana's producer is Butch Vig, who co-owns Madison's Smart Studios. Vig became the producer of Nevermind through a series of lucky coincidences, and he was shocked when his first project for a major label ended up selling nearly 2.5 million records and hit number one on the Billboard pop album chart.

Vig had started producing a Nirvana record for Sub Pop Records, an alternative label, in the summer of 1990. But when the Seattle group left Sub Pop and signed with Geffen Records, the new label balked at using Vig. He could engineer, they decided, but someone with a track record would be found to produce. Negotiations fell through with several better-known producers, however, and Vig got the nod last spring.

He says Nevermind was not an easy record to make. "The band wanted it to be really raw and punk," says Vig, who lives in Madison. "So I had to try to make them happy, yet keep in mind that the record company wanted a record that would get some radio airplay."

Nirvana wasn't always easy to work with, either. "Kurt Cobain is a great songwriter, but he doesn't always give you a sense of what he wants," Vig says. "Sometimes he doesn't even know. He can be real outgoing and then turn reticent and uncommunicative. And he's very impatient. He didn't ever want to do anything a second time. So I had to figure out ways to motivate him. Any time the band was doing anything, I had the tape rolling. Then I'd edit things together later to capture as many performances as I could."

Vig says he was a little worried when he turned in the finished album to the record company. "I was afraid they'd think it was too raw, he admits. "But as it turned out, that raw element was maybe the most important thing.

It didn't hurt that there was a big buzz about the band even before the record was released. "Everywhere I went, people wanted to hear it," Vig says. "For example, the band the Sidewinders were recording in the studio next to us, and it turned out they were huge Nirvana fans. When Nirvana wasn't around, the Sidewinders would come in and ask to hear the tapes."

Eight months after making Nevermind, Vig's production career continues to soar. Currently producing Sonic Youth in New York, he's entertaining big-league offers from artists as varied as the Cult and the Pursuit of Happiness. Success, it seems, begets success.

"But you know what's the coolest thing about all of this?" he says. "The coolest thing is that a punk band finally went to number one."

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