Brian Liston (left) brings out the big scissors for his studio's grand opening.
The battered brick building at 1254 E. Washington Ave. will finally hang a sign out front this summer.
The former Smart Studios has a brand new gig: Veteran recording professional and lifelong musician Brian Liston opened Clutch Sound in September, with plans to focus not only on music production but also advertising, television and independent film. He's also giving the decades-old building a sign, something Smart never had.
Liston, 45, produced projects at Smart, and he means no disrespect. The music industry has changed dramatically since those heady days of high-budget sessions with major-label artists. A sign will simply be good for business.
Butch Vig and Steve Marker opened Smart Studios in 1983 by converting an old factory space into a place for local punk and alt-rock bands like Tar Babies and Killdozer to make records. It was here that Nirvana laid down the first tracks for their game-changing 1991 album Nevermind, which led to major renovations by renowned studio designer Russ Berger and put Smart in high demand by the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and Death Cab for Cutie. Garbage, the band Vig and Marker formed in 1993 with fellow Madisonian Duke Erikson and Scottish vocalist Shirley Manson, also recorded their first four albums at Smart before the studio closed in 2010.
Liston leases the 2,800-square-foot building and has big plans for the space, which contains two recording rooms and a jam lounge.
"I get a smile on my face every day," Liston says. "Think of all the positive vibes that have risen out of here."
He wants to prove that the history of the building isn't its only draw. (Vig admits in the trailer for the forthcoming documentary The Smart Studios Story that some people used to think the place was a crack house.)
Clutch Sound has recorded six full-length albums already, including Junk Sparrow, a new release by Madison's all-female Americana group Little Red Wolf, and the debut by the Gran Fury, a local metal band. Liston also spent eight days recording UW mathematics professor Jordan Ellenberg, who narrated the audio version of his new 480-page book, How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.
Liston does a significant amount of film and sound work for corporate clients, and his credentials include Super Bowl ads and the short-course truck-racing series TORC: The Off-Road Championship.
"By expanding the capabilities, I've opened up the doors to a lot more clients," he says. "It was a bummer when Smart Studios closed, but this place is purpose-built for recording, so to make it anything other than a studio would be a crime. It's something like you'd see in New York or Los Angeles, and I'm trying to emulate the level of service that I see there."
When Smart Studios announced its imminent closing in 2010, Liston, who has lived in the Madison area for 17 years, tried to purchase the building from Vig. Ultimately he ended up leasing it from a local landlord.
Liston updated the wiring, repainted the walls and added a partial shelter to the second-story deck. He wants to refinish the wood floors in the main-level studio, where Nirvana recorded.
"I've made the place a lot more efficient, because bands don't have a million dollars to make an album anymore," he says. "I'd be willing to bet I've done more repair work in the last nine months than was done in the last nine years."
Liston acknowledges that Clutch Sound must live up to massive expectations. And he's aware that some people may always call the place Smart.
"Madisonians are very passionate people, and this building has been a big source of pride for the city. It put us on the map, nationally and internationally," Liston says.
He adds that Vig, who now lives in California, is aware of the changes. "Butch was very supportive. He told me to keep this place rockin'."