The Man Behind Nirvana, Muse And Sonic Youth: Butch Vig Interviewed

Butch Vig's CV reads like a who's who of rock. For his latest project, Butch has got together with some old friends and made one of the most surprising albums of the year.


Musicians often have side-projects. It keeps them busy, and let's them explore outside their usual remit. But when you're one of the godfathers of Grunge and the drummer in Garbage, it might come as a surprise you've gone all country.

Butch Vig's CV reads like a who's who of rock; Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain, Muse, Sonic Youth and Jimmy Eat World just to name a few. But there's no country icons on there. So for his latest album Butch has got back together with some old friends and made one of the most surprising albums of the year.

The result is Emperors of Wyoming. Ten tracks of pure timeless country rock, released on an indy label. Made up of Phil Davis on vocals and guitars, Pete and Frank Anderson on bass and guitar and Butch on drums (though everyone also played about a dozen more instruments, their self-titled debut album definitely sounds like they had fun recording it and making it into an old-timey record. Full up beat tunes, have it on in the background and you'd think you're listening to classic country radio. "Our main aim was to write and record a complete and original country-rock record that we thought was cool and that we thought people who liked certain styles of rock and country might like," explains Phil. "Whereas when we were starting out in the ‘70s playing music, our audiences were confined to a couple of neighbouring counties, now in 2012 our audience is potentially global, anywhere in the world where people like classic American musical stuff."

Aside from playing drums in one of the biggest rock bands around, Butch also a renowned producer. Aside from producing his own work, he's worked on the Grunge classic Nevermind by Nirvana as well as albums by Helmet, Tad and Smashing Pumpkins, and in recent years Foo Fighters and Green Day. Sadly Butch shoots down the (Wikipedia-inspired) rumour that he played keys on an album by Marseille, once led by Art Attack's Neil Buchanan. So it might come as a bit of a surprise to fans that the Emperors of Wyoming exist at all. "I’m a sucker for a good, well written, classic country tune," he explains. Songs by Neil Young, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash are timeless. They set the bar high, and gave us a lot of inspiration when writing the songs for Emperors Of Wyoming."

"I’ve been playing the album for my musician friends in Los Angeles, and everyone has been really enthusiastic about it. Kind of surprised I guess, they really like a lot of the songs." Phil is equally enthused."I think we all LOVE the results. We got it all exactly how we wanted it, and we didn’t feel we were done until we did get it that way," he says. Proper Records [The bands label] UK chief Malcolm Mills heard it and said they all dug it at Proper so much they just wanted to put it out and expose people to it. It was extremely exciting to connect with a true music fan who immediately understood what we were doing musically and also happened to run a record company!"

Butch Vig's CV reads like a who's who of rock; Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain, Muse, Sonic Youth and Jimmy Eat World

This isn't the first time Butch and Phil have worked together though. The whole of the band have history. "I’ve known Phil, Frank and Pete for a long time, we all played in Madison bands when we were starting out," says Butch. In the early 80s Him and Phil formed First Person with guitarist Steve Marker from Garbage), who eventually became Firetown. Before that, the Anderson brothers and Phil played in a country rock band called Buzz Gunderson. "Butch and I started recording together back when he was learning to record using Steve Marker’s four-track, taking our recordings to WORT-FM to play on the air in the early ‘80s, so Butch and I sort of came up together and had worked together well for a long time."

Firetown released two albums in the late 80s before calling it a day, but were they apprehensive about getting together? "I don’t think we had any preconceived worries about where the songwriting would take us," Butch replies. "We wanted to embrace the sensibilities we share, and we wanted to make the songs sound sort of timeless, so we used a lot of traditional instrumentation that could fall under what would be called country." Phil seems equally non-plussed. "I write songs a certain way, in a personal style with certain chords and a melodic bent, and I focus on themes that captivate me. So while there is a lot of country influence in Fire Town songs, there were never any songs like the swamp rock of EOW. I think EOW moves into new ground for me."

Despite their separate lives since the end of Firetown, the guys never lost contact. Peter and Butch even share an obsession with wine, and have collaborated on a Sauvignon Blanc from Napa called Bad Boyfriend. And the reuniting went off without a hitch. "It was actually quite easy. With Butch and I, yeah, we took off 17 years from working together, but we didn’t miss a step when we got back together, except that obviously we’d gotten a lot more experienced."

"I think we’re pretty much the same people now as when we first met," agrees Butch. "It was pretty easy to start writing songs together, almost like we had a sixth sense about where to go with each track." There was also a lack of collective ego within the group, something Phil puts down to 'all being similar Scandinavian (three Norwegians, one Swede) types from small Wisconsin towns.'

Wisconsin hasn't just helped the guys gel, it's a big part of the music. "I think our Midwestern roots have a strong influence on the Emperors songs,"Butch says. "I grew up in Viroqua, Wisconsin, a very small farming town, and the music on the local radio station was country and polka, that was it!"And Phil agrees."I think what makes Wisconsin a great place to create music is you feel like you can do your own thing, pursue your own musical vision, without everyone watching you and judging. It’s liberating; Throughout the making of The Emperors of Wyoming record, we felt like we could do anything, that we could bring in and combine all kinds of influences and sounds, from drum machines and electric sitar to swells of pedal steel to psychobilly electric guitar."

Obviously Butch is well known in rock circles, but he's confident that should be a help not a hinderance. "I guess it might open some doors for us. If nothing else, some people who know my work in Garbage or as a producer might check out The Emperors because they are curious. Hopefully they’ll be pleasantly surprised!" But despite his history with the noisier side of music, Butch exlains it 'was really easy' to start writing songs with The Emperors. "I think one of the first songs we wrote was “I’m Your Man”. The initial references we had were Johnny Cash in the verse, The Rolling Stones in the chorus, and the song came together really quickly, basically overnight."

"I love working with bands like The Foo Fighters and Green Day, I love noisy guitars, but I found the writing and recording process quite liberating with The Emperors. It was challenging but fun to force myself to work within traditional “country” parameters."

Working within those parameters, it took the band from their formation in 2009 until now to finally release an album. "We actually worked on a lot of music that did not make it onto the record," says Phil. "So it was a process of trying things out, completely writing them, performing and recording them and then, often, not finishing or releasing them. And we all had other things we had to do to make ends meet. As Frank, said, life got in the way."

We wanted a look that had a strong vibe, something that gave us an identity. Plus, we look bad-ass in cowboy hats

"There was never any obligation and feeling like we just have to get this done. If the spirit didn’t move you one morning or one night, you just came back another day and started fresh. And it hadn’t cost you a penny. And maybe overnight you got a new idea or came up with a better way to play a riff or change the vocal harmony or verse line."

The album was co-produced by all four members of the band, with Frank acting as a sort of ringleader. Essential the album was recorded in piecemeal parts at their home studios, with Frank handling the final arrangements and mixing with the help of an engineer. "I really enjoyed the process because I was involved on many levels," says Butch"Besides collaborating on the songwriting and drumming, I played electric guitar, 12 String, piano, added synths, programming and “ear candy” to the songs. And I gave Phil a lot of feedback in terms of how he sang on each track. I think we wrote a collection of really strong songs, and I think Phil wrote some amazing lyrics."

Phil's opinion the recording seems equally positive. "This was the most fun of any recording I’ve ever done. In my case, it takes about 10 seconds to get down to my basement studio and everything is set up and ready to go, I can be up and recording in five or 10 minutes. Doing vocals this way was exhilarating. We would play to mp3 mixes of a song’s basic tracks so the arrangement and the tempo was all there and other than that, no rules whatsoever. If we wanted to try a guitar sound, a part, a vocal part, anything, it was easy as pressing Record and trying it."

"Butch is one of the best, and best known, record producers in the world," Phil adds. "His reputation and the work he's done over the past 20 years has been a terrific help. What’s surprising to most people is that while he is deeply involved and a full member of the band, it’s a truly collaborative effort, more like making a film, which is equally collaborative."

The album was recorded while Butch was producing the latest Foo Fighters album, but scheduling didn't seem to be a problem. The band seem confident that their busy lives and families won't stop them from making the band a success. With 25 songs written for the debut, the band are already talking about a second album. "For the next record I think it would be fun to get together for a few days and write some songs and record basic tracks and then take them back to our personal studios and work on them," ponders Phil. "But we will never be a band that moves into a studio for four or five months to record nonstop together. I’ve done that and I’m not going back to it. I think our method worked so well for us because we were always motivated to write and record." But for now the focus is on promoting the debut, as Phil puts it, 'All Systems Go.' The band are working on a couple of videos, directed by Frank. So far, a couple of pictures of a drumset infront of a green screen. But Phil and Butch are scant with the details, Phil only divulging, "It should be visually stunning; Frank is a cinematic innovator and a student of film, so we know it will be real good." Butch does admit however, that one video is inspired by true event that happened to him when he was 16.

The videos should be finished sometime in August, and once the album is out in September the Emperors will be hitting the road, and Butch mentions a possibility of some festivals and a trip to Europe next year. But wherever they play, you can bet can shows will be full to the brim with checked shirts and stirrups, especially on the band. "We wanted a look that had a strong vibe, something that gave us an identity. Plus, we look bad-ass in cowboy hats!"

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