“Smart Studios Story”
In the winter of 2010, Butch Vig stepped out into the bitter Madison, Wisconsin air and latched the metal door before him for the last time. In that moment, the fuzz of money, cigarette smoke and thunderous drums, which defined the past few decades, dissolve into the present moment as the wind whips his face. For many musicians considered underground at the time, this particular door was the way into Smart Studios, Vig’s DIY-turned-world-class recording studio. Originally cobbled together as a means for Vig and friends to achieve the ends of recording the music they wanted to hear, Smart Studios would later become the forging ground through which many of grunge, punk and alt rock’s pivotal albums and tracks were mastered. Such is the story told in Wendy Schneider’s latest documentary, aptly titled The Smart Studios Story, which kicked off this year’s Chicago International Movies & Music festival (CIMM Fest for short), debuting at the Music Box Theatre last night.
Although the Midwest often falls by the wayside when thinking about influential places in grunge, Butch Vig and Smart Studios saw to it that America’s breadbasket would hold its own place in musical history. After finding inspiration from a The Who performance on the Smothers Brothers variety show in the 60’s, Vig would discover his passion for percussion during his early years and go on to be an integral member of Garbage and Spooner, both definitive grunge bands of their era. Initially, Vig catered to a wide spectrum of acts that were pretty rough around the edges. Many poured out from the University of Wisconsin in order to get their demo recorded, yet others appeared in caravans from surrounding states to score a few affordable hours in the studio. From Britpop-inspired outfits such as Tar Babies, to some off-kilter solo acts that rival Andy Kaufman in terms of sheer strangeness (look up The Singing Irishman on Spotify, I challenge you), Vig and his crew would be happy to help you out as long you had some cash in hand and a passion for what you play.
Once the disheveled warehouse that Vig and his crew initially set up had run its course, they moved across the street to what would become the iconic Smart Studios building on the corner of Washington Avenue and Baldwin Street; the building with the white door. Although having been practically raised on the sounds of the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, a deep chord was struck for me when seeing Billy Corgan and Dave Grohl on screen talking about how their time at Smart Studios shaped their career and how it felt like home. If Columbia Records was the hyper, greasy haired guy with a coke spoon who you could never quite relax around, Smart Studios was your high school buddy who’d chip in for beers at the bodega before lounging around on a Sunday. It was just a fun environment to record in from day one.
This is also not to mention the kind of outside help that Vig and friends could turn to if need be. Just up the street from Smart Studios sits the Friendly Tavern, your typical small-town watering hole. If Vig needed some back up vocals for a track he was recording, he and his engineers would drop in and ask anyone from the patrons, to the bar owners to lend a hand. Smart Studios was truly a community effort, which is what made it an embodiment of the Midwest spirit and grunge music as a whole. In Vig’s words, slightly paraphrased, living in the Midwest was never about making money since you didn’t need a lot of it to get by. It was about focusing on the other things around you like your family, land and town. It was with this mentality that Butch Vig started Smart Studios, knowing that it was about the sounds being made and those you were recording alongside that truly made the experience significant.
Butch Vig locked the door to Smart Studios for the last time in the winter of 2010, but the legacies he helped establish certainly won’t fade any time soon. The Smart Studios story is one that defines the raw nature of grunge music in America and what it takes to get recognized for whatever it is you’re passionate about. For anyone like myself who have a soft spot for bands like Garbage, L7, Nirvana, or more modern acts that recorded there such as Death Cab for Cutie, check out Wendy Shneider’s The Smart Studios Story wherever you can, just make sure to come as you are.