Butch Vig: The 10 Records That Changed My Life

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“I was getting tired of recording guitar, bass and drums,” says drummer and producer Butch Vig, speaking of the period in 1994 when he reigned as the hottest record maker on the planet, having helmed not one, but two genre and era-defining smashes, Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. “By the time anybody heard those records, I had already produced 1,000 punk rock records. I needed a change.”

That creative restlessness coalesced into a plan: Along with a couple of crafty, multi-instrumentalist mates, producer/engineer and mixer Steve Marker (with whom he had co-founded Madison, Wisconsin’s Smart Studios) and Duke Erickson (a longtime cohort from the bands Spooner and Fire Town), Vig put together Garbage, a forward-thinking unit that would push alternative rock into a new realm with the use of samplers.

“I had heard a Public Enemy record, and I realized they were using samplers to make loops and process the sounds,” Vig explains. “It was really exciting. I bought a couple of samplers, and that’s what we used on the first Garbage album. Those samplers create a sound all their own – it’s kind of weird and strange. The album didn’t sound like a proper studio recording, certainly not like the things other people were doing, and that’s what we wanted.”

One final key component was the addition of a front person. Once the idea of Vig on vocals was nixed, the band members latched on to the notion of a female singer. “There were certain types of singers we envisioned and discussed,” Vig recalls. “Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and Siouxsie Sioux – all really strong, unique personalities.” Marker had seen a video of the band Angelfish and was impressed by their Scottish singer, Shirley Manson. After a couple of try-out sessions, Manson was invited to join the new group.

“In talking to Shirley, we discovered that all the singers we had been tossing around were among her favorite artists,” Vig says. “That’s one of the reasons we clicked so quickly, because we all shared a similar sensibility. Shirley really got what we wanted to do.”

Released in August 1995, Garbage’s self-titled debut album – a sublime mix of electronica, hip-hop, punk, funk, alterna-rock and pop – scored a chart bulls-eye, with three of its singles, Stupid Girl, Queer and Only Happy When It Rains receiving massive radio and video play. “It was a surprise to us that Garbage was well received critically and was also a commercial hit,” Vig notes. “After years of marginal success with bands I was in, it was something that we didn’t take for granted. I think the best part was touring all over the world, going to places I’d never dreamed I’d get to visit.”

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of their groundbreaking debut album, Garbage have just released an expanded edition of the disc, and they’re performing the whole shebang from top to bottom on their 20 Years Queer tour (currently in the US, the European run starts October 31 in Cologne, Germany). Below, Vig runs down a host of albums that helped shape his music-making ethos – the “10 records that changed his life.” Reflecting on how his own work has impacted listeners across the globe, he says, “I don’t know if I have an objective view of how the albums I’ve produced have affected other people. I’ve been lucky to have worked with some amazing artists over the years, and I think some of the albums I produced still sound really good – hopefully not too dated.”

The ClashLondon Calling (1979)

“I was a fan from their first album on – I think I bought The Clash in 1977. I knew they were a special band. There was a local punk rock bar, Genna’s, that played White Riot and Police and Thieves all the time.

London Calling is truly the Clash’s masterpiece. I think I’ve probably played it 1,000 times over the last 35 years. I just never get tired of it. It’s so ambitious in its scope, but everything the band attempted they pulled off completely.

“The Clash came from a punk rock background, but London Calling had elements of ska, funk, pop, soul, jazz, rockabilly, reggae. There seemed to be no limits to what they could do. And it was all done with a great loose vibe. It felt so energetic, real and passionate.

“Plus, it has one of the best album covers ever, with Paul Simonon smashing his bass on the stage. They were nicking a bit from Elvis Presley with the lettering, but it wound up looking iconic.”

Roxy MusicCountry Life (1974)

“Back in Madison, Wisconsin, I was president of the Roxy Music Fan Club. There were only seven members, but I was voted president because I was completely obsessed with the band.

Country Life is a brilliant record. Out of the Blue is the first song I heard from the album. It got played on the radio, and it made me go out immediately and buy the record. The opening track, The Thrill of it All, has such an epic quality to it –I’ve always loved it. There’s elements of German Oom-pah in Bitter-Sweet, an Elizabethan flavour in Triptych, and a sort of boogie blues feel to It Takes All Night. One of my favourite tracks is Casanova, which is almost funk. There’s a lot going on.

“I bought all of Roxy Music’s albums, along with bootlegs, live recordings and all the individual solo records by the band members. I was just a massive, massive fan. They were so far out of left field and so distinctive. They wrote pop songs but they were a rock band, and they looked like they were from Mars. I loved Bryan Ferry’s overly dramatic vocal style, along with Brian Eno’s warbling synths on the first couple of records. All of their albums are great, but in my opinion, Country Life is their best.”

TelevisionMarquee Moon (1977)

“I consider this to be one of the greatest rock guitar records ever. It doesn’t sound like Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix. It’s as if you stuck your finger in a wall socket and you got a jolt from this jarring, fractured, punky guitar playing. It’s just so unusual and interesting sounding – it kind of takes you by surprise at first.

“I love the production on this record. Andy Johns recorded the album, but he made it sound as if the band is right there in your living room. It’s dry and in your face, with a tense, relentless energy that doesn’t let up for a second. And, of course, every track is fantastic.

“When I hear this record, I think, ‘This must be what electricity sounds like.’ The way Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd played guitars together is so fascinating to me. A very influential band.”

RamonesRamones (1976)

“It’s the album that started and ended punk rock, the definitive word. Two, two-and-a-half minute pop songs with shout-along choruses, dead-simple production and guitar playing. Nothing more was needed.

“I don’t think there’s any punk band before or since that will equal the Ramones. For me and a lot of fans, this is the album that kicked the whole thing off. So many of the British bands that came out of punk saw the Ramones on their first tour. After the Ramones played in the UK, suddenly the country had 200 punk bands. They were all trying to do what the Ramones were already doing.

“The production is groundbreaking. It’s lo-fi, but it sounds brilliant, so on that level it’s influential. But that wouldn’t matter if the songs weren’t there, and these songs are tremendous. The Ramones wrote wonderfully hooky pop songs, and they played them hard and fast.”

U2Achtung Baby (1991)

“It’s my favourite U2 record. I’ve always loved the band, but I think this record is groundbreaking in the way that they completely transformed their sound. Not many bands can do that sort of thing, and U2 pulled it off beautifully.

“The band was starting to dabble in electronic dance music, industrial alternative rock, and there was even some funk and hip-hop elements. The songs are great, but what’s cool is how each track is given its own unique sonic landscape. The textures on the drums, guitars and on Bono’s vocals are mind-blowing – brilliant use of all these distorted effects pedals.

“Quite honestly, this album was a big influence on the first Garbage. When I was making it, I was in love with Achtung Baby and all the brilliant sounds on it, so it definitely crept into what we were doing. I’ve got to give U2 a lot of props.”

The WhoWho’s Next (1971)

“Classic rock! I’ve got to have a classic rock album on my list, and Who’s Next is one of the best. By the way, I should mention that Keith Moon is the reason I took up drums. I saw the Who play on the Smothers Brothers show when I was about 10 years old. That did it for me.

“Pete Townshend was really developing as a thematic songwriter here – this was after Tommy. The songs on Who’s Next were originally supposed to appear on a project called Lifehouse, another rock opera that they were going to turn into a film. That got scrapped, and so they made a traditional album, but they also made one of their greatest.

“Getting in Tune, My Wife, Bargain – every song is incredible. Behind Blue Eyes is a beautifully moving track. I’m sure Pete was writing about himself there. And on Baba O’Reilly and Won’t Get Fooled Again, he used sequences from an ARP synthesiser that he was beginning to master. Performance-wise, the whole band is on fire – the playing and singing is all phenomenal.

“It’s pretty astonishing that something recorded over 40 years ago can sound just as powerful as when it was released. I think that’s a real testament to a brilliant record.”

Neil YoungHarvest (1972)

“One of my favourites. I’ve always loved Neil Young. I could probably pick a lot of his records, but I chose Harvest because I think every song on it is gorgeous. I put this one right up there with Who’s Next as one of the best classic rock albums ever made.

Out on the Weekend, Old Man, Are You Ready for the Country?, Harvest, The Needle and the Damage Done – all incredible. Of course, there’s the big radio hit Heart of Gold, and that’s amazing, as well. Neil had such confidence in his songwriting and singing. He always had this delicate, fragile voice, but he puts it across with such strength and emotion here.”

R.E.M.Murmur (1983)

“I love R.E.M. They’re the band that launched 1,000 college rock bands, and I myself probably listened to Murmur 1,000 times. It’s one of the greatest albums of its era, and to me it defines who R.E.M. are as a band.

“It’s so mysterious and dreamy. The lyrics are very elliptical and enigmatic, and all the songs are hooky but sort of strange sounding. Pilgrimage, Sitting Still, Talk About the Passion, and obviously Radio Free Europe – they still give me goosebumps.

“Don Dixon and Mitch Easter co-produced it, and it’s like they created this singular atmosphere for the band to work in. Nothing else sounds like it. The album takes you to another place, an alternate world or universe. That’s pretty special.”

World PartyGoodbye Jumbo (1990)

“I just have to put this album on the list because I love it so much. My wife and I still listen to it when we’re riding in the car. Every track on the record is great, and I think Karl Wallinger is a beautiful singer.

“The record is like an ode to all of Karl’s influences – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Sly & the Family Stone – but he puts them all together in his own distinctive style. [sings] ‘I’m way down now, I’m way down now…’ Man, Way Down Now is one of the best Britpop songs ever, although it ends up sounding like the Stones with that ‘ooh-whoo, ooh-whoo.’

“It’s got Put the Message in a Box, which was a bit of a radio hit here, and there’s Is It Too Late, Ain’t Gonna Come Till I’m Ready, Take it Up, When the Rainbow Comes – they’re all terrific. Sinead O’Connor does a guest spot, and she’s wonderful. This is my under-the-radar pick, but it’s one that I think is pretty special. If you don’t know this record, you should get it and play it over and over.”

(Tie) RadioheadThe Bends (1995) and The VerveUrban Hymns (1997)

“Iconic British bands. These albums came out fairly close together, and I love them both. I played Bittersweet Symphony at my wedding – that’s how deeply I feel about that song. Sonnet is another great one, and so is Catching the Butterfly. The Drugs Don’t Work made me cry when I first heard it – it’s so gorgeous. The Verve really hit a home run when they made Urban Hymns.

The Bends is the best Radiohead album. It is. This is right when they started distilling their songwriting, right before they started experimenting with OK Computer, which is a brilliant record too. But to me, The Bends is as good as it gets because the songwriting is impeccable.”

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