Film traces life of rock studio and asks what’s been lost
Smart Studios was the base of producer Butch Vig, who recorded Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” the 1991 album that took grunge to a global audience, as well as Smashing Pumpkins’ debut “Gish.”
The studio, in the liberal-minded Midwestern university town of Madison, Wisconsin, was well away from the hubs of major labels — not only in geography, but in its do-it-yourself spirit.
“The Smart Studios Story,” a documentary that premiered last year and recently began screenings, traces the unlikely rise to prominence of the site and asks what has been lost with the demise of so many major studios.
Smart Studios had survived even when Vig and co-owner Steve Marker in the mid-1990s devoted more time to their own band, Garbage, fronted by Scottish singer Shirley Manson.
But Smart Studios finally shut down in 2010 amid the rapid evolution of the music industry.
“Now anyone can record on a laptop in their bedroom with state-of-the-art technology. So why would you go spend $200, $300 or $500 for a day in the studio?” Vig asked.
“The saddest aspect was that sense of community. I’ve recorded in studios all over the world and I don’t have that kind of sentimental bond with any of them, quite frankly,” he told AFP.
The film’s director, Wendy Schneider, said that studios were not only places to record but incubators for music scenes.
Schneider, who worked herself at Smart Studios in its heyday, said that while world-famous studios still exist, she doubted another institution similar to Smart would emerge.
Nowadays, “the investment is in the venue that draw the audience. The warehouse to develop the artists is not seen as important,” she said.
– Community feel –
Raised in the Wisconsin town of Viroqua, Vig moved to Madison to study at the University of Wisconsin and played drums in the band Spooner as he searched for affordable ways to record local music.
Finding the warehouse that became Smart Studios, Vig and Marker lined the walls with abandoned egg cartons to insulate the sound. To make ends meet, Vig would drive a taxi and Marker for a time lived in the studio.
The studio was across from the Friendly Tavern, whose staff and customers would show up after a few rounds to offer backing vocals.
“It wasn’t really a business model that was trying to make money; it was trying to stay open,” Schneider said.
Vig began to draw national attention by recording Madison band Killdozer, whose cluttery guitar and bleak lyricism foreshadowed grunge.
Vig, who would later also work with Sonic Youth and Green Day, created a full, crisp sound through methods that included recording parts twice and giving ample room to drums.
With his mild manner, Vig won the trust of artists. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan in the documentary said that Vig looked like “the guy who comes to clean your pool.”
– DIY spirit –
“Back then, there were very few distractions and you had engineers beyond committed to your record. They weren’t checking their cellphones or their Facebook,” Schneider said.
In an age when record labels still had generous budgets, executives would send artists for weeks or months to record with Vig. The documentary recounts nearly 24-hour sessions as the studio scrambled to finish in time for the next booking.
Vig, now 61 and based in Los Angeles, voiced regret that many younger artists would never get to experience the “hallowed halls” of his and other famous studios.
But he did not begrudge younger artists and engineers who were trying to record on the cheap.
“Everything comes full circle. That was the same attitude we had when we started. Now the tools are out there,” Vig said.