Having produced some of the most significant albums of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and also made his mark on the rock world with Garbage and more recently 5 Billion In Diamonds, it’s fair to say that Butch Vig knows a thing or two about the magic that separates the good from the great in music.
Calling in via Zoom from his home studio in Los Angeles, which is decorated with vintage tour posters from his heroes The Who, he shares his love of Led Zeppelin, his surprising passion for KC And The Sunshine Band, and the aural horror of his former punk band Rectal Drip.
The first song I performed live
I had a band in high school called Eclipse. The first song that we learned was Smoke On The Water. Everybody thinks it’s played with simple bar chords. It’s not. Richie Blackmore plays it a weird way. But our guitarists could barely play, so they were playing these power chords. But it would always get the crowd going. That riff is so monolithic.
The greatest album of all time
Who’s Next by The Who. I saw The Who play on The Smothers Brothers show when I was twelve years old, and that’s what got me into playing the drums. Up until that point I’d been playing piano. I saw Keith Moon and told my mom and dad: “I wanna do that.” The sound, for a three-piece band, had this really widescreen sound to it
The guitar hero
For me it would have to be Jimmy Page, because I love his melodic writing and his arpeggio playing. All of the records have the coolest guitar riffs. He may not be as super-fast, technically, as someone like Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen, but I think Page had a melodic sensibility. Also, he produced all those Led Zeppelin records.
The best singer
If I could be a singer and inherit someone’s voice, I’d say John Fogerty from Creedence Clearwater Revival. I love that rasp in his voice. He’s got that scratchy roar in his throat, and I always wanted to be able to sing like that.
The genius songwriter
I’m going to go with Pete Townshend, because I love The Who so much. I think he’s an amazing songwriter. Jimmy Webb is a close second.
The worst record I've ever made
Hopefully you’ve never heard it. It’s Another Drop In The Bucket by Rectal Drip. Steve Marker and I started recording these songs at Smart Studios when another session would cancel, and whoever was around would play on it with us. There are all these really fast punk songs, all the lyrics were not PC, not very listenable. Luckily it’s out of print.
The biggest disappointment
I am such a huge Radiohead fan. I love The Bends and I love, love, love OK Computer, but I was not a big fan of Kid A. It didn’t connect with me. The songwriting on The Bends is genius. Then when I heard Kid A I was like: “Oh, okay, they’ve crawled up their own bums now, they’re just getting artsy fartsy.”
And that’s okay, I still have immense respect for them, they’re an incredible band, but I thought they kinda lost the plot with that one. But I still love Radiohead. The last time they played here in Los Angeles I went and saw them and they blew my mind.
The ultimate anthem
Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve. I love that song, with the strings swelling and it kicks into that groove. I love Richard Ashcroft’s lyrics. I played that song at my wedding, I love it so much. That’s one that I always wish I’d written.
Saturday night party song
If I was going to see a show, I might play some music by the artist I was going to see, but more often than not if I was going out I would put on The Ramones’ first album. It’s one of my top-ten records of all time, it’s a perfect punk rock record and it never fails to get me adrenalised. It’s so primal and so simple, and so tight and energised, you can’t help but wanna ramp it up.
The guilty pleasure
When disco was happening, I really looked down on it because I was into punk rock. But looking back there’s some brilliant disco songs that are so damn catchy and fun. When I hear KC And The Sunshine Band I’ve just got to groove, man, it’s such amazing pop. It’s party music. Total escapism.
The song that makes me cry
Wichita Lineman, written by Jimmy Webb [a hit for Glen Campbell in ’69]. It’s one of the most perfect pop songs ever. The lyrics are so simple, about someone away from their loved one, and it’s about loneliness and wanting. That line ‘I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time’, that’s one of the best lyrics ever written. Whenever I hear that song it chokes me up. Kills me every time.
My 'in the mood for love' song
I love old soul and funk. I’m going to say Marvin Gaye, Let’s Get It On. That’s a classic. My wife would think I’m slightly corny if I put that on and started shimmying around the house, but she loves old funk and soul like that too.
The song I want played at my funeral
In The Sun, a song by Joseph Arthur. Also a song I had played at my wedding and it’s kind of a bummer song. Bummer songs just make me feel good. When I hear something sad it makes me feel alive.