Friday, December 19, 2008
Madison. The 80's.Not many record producers are known by name. Phil Spector is one and, to a lesser extent, Mutt Lange is another (although his fame with the general public is more as the ex Mr. Shania Twain). However, people everywhere seem to know who Butch Vig is. He has many monikers, "The Godfather of Grunge Music", "That drummer guy in Garbage who produced Nirvana's first record..."etc etc. To me, Butch is a true lover of classic whiny power pop, afternoons spent slugging down icy cold beers on the union terrace, a big fan of The Green Bay Packers and, I would like to add, one hell of a Polka drummer. He was also a guy who toughed it out through endless pickup bands, underfunded recording projects and lean times with little or no money. He first learned his craft in a small basement recording setup run by his future Garbage bandmate, Steve Marker. This was followed by a move to an empty office space in the former Gisholt Machine Co. Building on East Washington Street which would lead to the studios final move to a modest brick building across the street. This was, and is today, Smart Studios - another instantly recognizable name to musicians and music fans around the world. For us, it's a living, breathing monument to local music history. It's our Sun Studios. In the 1980's, Madison had a vibrant music scene. Bands were finally being courted by labels and many long standing local groups were peaking in popularity. None were more popular than Vig's band, Spooner. Their shows were one big wall to wall dance party. Spooner's lead singer and songwriter was Nebraska native Doug Erickson. As the decade progressed, Spooner would disband and Erickson and Vig would join forces with Phil Davis and Tom Lavarda, both alumni of a popular mid 70's Madison band called Buzz Gunderson. The band they formed, Firetown, scored a strong regional hit off an LP that Vig produced. The song was "I'll Carry The Torch For You". A record industry bidding war followed and Firetown soon found themselves signed to Atlantic Records, a major record company with a storied past. Two LP's (the company picked up the first record and released it nationally) and a touring schedule followed. Things didn't work out. Shortly after the release of the second LP, the band folded and Vig, armed with a little extra knowledge gained from watching a so-called big time record producer at work during the second Firetown recording session in NYC, returned home to concentrate on his own production work at Smart Studios. His style, most clearly defined by his work with Madison's Killdozer and later, The Smashing Pumpkins was instantly recognizable - a layered, very dense, pop sound. I remember many Butchism's from this time. I hope he doesn't mind my using a couple. They stick in my head as examples of (1) his production technique in the late 80's, "When in doubt...overdub." And (2) his Wisconsin boy approach to any problem, "It's nothing an icy cold beer couldn't fix." Butch hit the big time for real in the early nineties when he produced Nirvana's Nevermind, a national #1 culture changing, hair band destroying, smash hit that ushered in a new era of music. A few years later he and former Firetown/Spooner bandmate Erickson rounded up long time recording partner/guitarist Steve Marker, brought singer Shirley Manson over from Scotland and created the band, Garbage. More hits, more international success and a James Bond movie theme followed. At present, Garbage, having completed a good 10 year run, is no more. Butch Vig continues like always when he is between bands - he's a busy record producer now working out of LA.
Pictured at the top are three members of Firetown, L to R - bassist Tom Lavarda(Lomira,Wis), Butch Vig(Viroqua, Wis) and Phil Davis(La Crosse, Wis). The bottom photo shows Smart Studios at it's former Gisholt Machine Building location. Steve Marker (looking like he'd rather be somewhere else) and Phil Davis listen to a playback. Tom Lavarda is far more than being merely "an almnus of Buzz Gunderson". A virtuoso bass player, he is the son of Lomira cheesemaker and ace jazz guitarist, Gino Lavarda. Tom began his music career in the 60's. He played bass for the popular Vilas Craig and the Viscounts, moved to San Francisco with Madison's Mendelbaum Blues Band and scored a major deal recording on the Warner Brothers label with Lamb, a California band. In the 70's and 80's, he played with dozens of top Wisconsin bands, The Beans, Out of the West and Buzz Gunderson among them.
In 1982, I married The Former Soap Box Derby Queen in Neenah, Wisconsin. We had a Polish wedding. The band was accordionist Cliff Bentz and his Polkateers. Phil Davis from Firetown was there. So were Tom Lavarda and Butch Vig. Tom and Butch were the Polkateers. They were excellent.