Producer Butch Vig remembers the making of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Nirvana's Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain, and Krist Novoselic in 1991. (Photo: Paul Bergen/Redferns)
Nirvana's Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain, and Krist Novoselic in 1991. (Photo: Paul Bergen/Redferns)

Over the past 25 years, drummer and producer Butch Vig has established his band Garbage — who just released their critically heralded seventh album, No Gods No Masters as elder statespersons of alternative rock. But Garbage actually represents Vig’s second successful music industry venture. Long after Garbage found success, Vig was still being asked regularly about his career in the ’90s as a record producer — and about his most legendary project, Nirvana’s Nevermind, which turns 30 on Sept. 24.

For years, Vig downplayed talking about the album; he had his own music to promote, after all, plus it was just too painful to talk much about Nevermind and the late Kurt Cobain. However, now that enough time has passed, Vig is looking back at the past with renewed fondness. Here, in his own words, he recalls working on one of the biggest alt-rock releases of all time.

(as told to Jon Wiederhorn)

My relationship with Sub Pop Records started when I produced a couple albums for them. One of them was Tad’s Eight Way Santa, which the label was quite happy with. While I worked with them, the guys in Tad were saying, “Oh, you’ve gotta work with Nirvana. They’re amazing!” And I’d say, “Yeah, OK, maybe,” Not really expecting it to happen. Then one day, Jonathan Poneman, the co-founder of Sub Pop, called me and asked me if I would produce a record for Nirvana. “You should work with these guys. They could be as big as the Beatles,” he said.

I thought that was a pretentious statement for him to make — but in a way, it turned out to be true. He sent me their first album Bleach so I could check out Nirvana, and to be honest, I was sort of unimpressed. A lot of the sounds were cool and the record had a great vibe, but I thought the songs were pretty one-dimensional — except for “About a Girl.” To me, that sounded like a Lennon/McCartney composition. The way the melody was juxtaposed over the chord progression sounded brilliant. There was a real sophistication in the writing and, as it turned out, that’s where Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were headed. They wanted to get much more ambitious with how they approached song structure and melody.

I told Jonathan I’d love to work with them and they showed up about three or four months later at the door of [my place in Madison, Wisconsin], Smart Studios. We were ostensibly making an album for Sub Pop. Chad Channing was on drums, and he, Kurt, and bassist Krist (then Chris) Novoselic showed up in the Sub Pop van. The guys were pretty grubby. They had been playing shows through the Midwest and probably hadn’t had a hot shower for a week. But we just got right to work.

We loaded in on a Monday and started setting up, and by late afternoon we started tracking. Kurt was outgoing, funny, and very witty, but he could also get extremely moody. Those sides of his personality flipped back and forth the whole time I was working with him. Sometimes a light switch would go off in his head and he would go sit in the corner and wouldn’t say anything for a couple hours. Chad was cool on the drums, although he seemed to be having some issues right off the bat with Kurt, who wasn’t particularly pleased with his drum parts. Even on the first song “Sappy,” at one point Kurt got up and said, “No, you should play something like this,” and he tried to show Chad how he wanted the part to go. It was frustrating for Chad because Kurt obviously was not a good drummer. But I could understand Kurt’s frustration because Chad wasn’t quite getting the arrangement down the way Kurt heard it in his head. There was definitely some tension between them.

Krist was great because he was really easygoing, funny, and he rolled with whatever was happening. He kept the sessions really loose. No matter what kind of darkness fell on Kurt in the studio, he would help him get back out of it by joking around or just talking to him.

We had six or seven days scheduled to record before they had to do more shows, so we jumped right in. Nirvana really wanted to get takes of the songs that were tight and had a good flow. They didn’t want it to drag or rush too much, but I could tell that Kurt didn’t have a lot of patience. I’m one of those guys who can do a lot of takes until I feel like I’ve gotten the best performance I can from an artist. But if Nirvana didn’t get a good take in three or four tries, they had to move on. We struggled with a couple of songs — especially when Kurt wasn’t happy with one of Chad’s drum fills — but by day four we had done eight songs: “Sappy,” “Lithium,” “Dive,” “In Bloom,” “Immodium” [later renamed “Breed”], “Pay to Play,” the Velvet Underground cover “Here She Comes Now,” and “Polly.”

Right after they did “Polly,” they played a show at Madison at a club called Bunkys and it was downstairs in an Italian restaurant. It held, maybe, 120 people, and the room was packed. I went to the gig and they were amazing. I had never seen them play live before and they were incredibly intense. But they had a really crappy PA and horrible monitors, so Kurt sang even louder then he normally did and he completely blew his voice out. By the end of the set he couldn’t even sing. We couldn’t work on any vocals the next day. We tried to do a track but no noise came out of his mouth when he tried to sing. We kind of had to blow off the last couple days of vocals, and I spent that time cleaning up and mixing the songs that we had done.

The whole time we were in Madison, Nirvana were serious and dedicated. They didn’t really seem like a band that wanted to go out and party. Krist liked to drink beer and Jack Daniel’s, but they didn’t seem interested in going to a club or a bar to chase girls or anything. They were pretty focused on the music. There was a corner bar right across from Smart Studios, and they had cheap beer there and really cheap food. You could get a grilled cheese and a cup of tomato soup for $1.50 and get a big beer for another 50 cents. They were into that. But Kurt didn’t seem to be much of a drinker. Even then I could tell he was having some problems with his stomach because he would always have Maalox or antacid that he would take pulls off of to try to calm his stomach down.

Before they left Wisconsin, Nirvana planned to come back in two months to finish the recordings. They were happy with how the tracks we did sounded and Sub Pop was certainly happy. Jonathan Poneman flew out on the last day to see how things were going and he loved the mixes. I finished the mixes and sent them to Sub Pop and I sent some copies to the band.

Nirvana pressed up 100 cassettes and ostensibly bootlegged themselves. They sent them out to all their friends, who made more copies and sent them to their friends. All of a sudden people were coming up to me and saying, “Hey man, I heard the Nirvana sessions.” And I said, “Well, that’s funny. We haven’t even finished recording it.”

But enough people at the big record labels heard it and that led to a bidding war. It got on Sonic Youth’s radar and Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were huge fans, which is one of the reasons Nirvana signed with Geffen. They had much respect for Sonic Youth. Then, on my end, nothing happened for a while. Initially, I thought I was going to be doing a second session with Nirvana because that’s what Sub Pop requested. But things changed after all the major labels jumped on board. At that point they were just interested in signing to a major label.

Kurt wanted his band to be very successful. He was very ambitious. If you’ve ever looked through any of his notebooks you’d see that he used to make drawings of the band playing these enormo-domes for 100,000 people. And he put together lists of what he was going to do when they were massively successful. He had a pretty intense work ethic when it came to songwriting and rehearsing. Nirvana may have come across as punk slackers, but that’s definitely not who they were. But at that point I could never see them becoming these huge rock stars. There was no way to know something like that could even happen.

Before Nirvana called me again they talked to three or four other big-name producers, who I knew and respected. At one point they checked with me about the possibility of me engineering for one of those guys because they felt comfortable working with me. I didn’t know if I wanted to engineer for someone else, and luckily the band held out for me to produce. But I didn’t really know that, because Nirvana had kind of fallen off my radar at that point.

Butch Vig today.  (Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
Butch Vig today. (Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

I had just finished doing Gish with Smashing Pumpkins. Their vocalist Billy Corgan was well aware of what was going on with Nirvana and he kept asking me if I was going to work with them. And I said, “I don’t know if I am. It doesn’t seem like it.” Then I got the call and booked a flight to go to Los Angeles a week later. The day before I left, I received a tape from Kurt that they had recorded in their rehearsal space. It started out with the message: “Hey Butch, we got a new drummer, Dave Grohl. He’s the best drummer in the world. We’re gonna play some of the new songs.”

And then they clicked into “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I could hear the guitar, but as soon as Dave kicked in with the drums, the boombox recording became unbelievably distorted so I couldn’t hear any finesse at all in the songs. But I could hear the riff and I could feel the rhythmic power. And I could hear the “hello, hello” back and forth with the vocal part, which I liked.

They ran through 12 or 13 songs on the cassette, and even though it sounded horrible because of the distortion, I could tell that Kurt’s songwriting had jumped up another step. It was quite powerful to hear “Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are” even in their really crude form. I flew to Los Angeles and went straight to a rehearsal studio in North Hollywood with the band. The hugest difference I could tell right way was the way they sounded with Dave on drums. He was so rock-solid in terms of his groove and he hit the drums really, really hard. It made their sound way more powerful than I had ever heard it in any sort of live setting in the studio. And Dave brought this great levity to the band because he was such a goofball and he had this manic energy. That’s just part of his personality and he’s really a joy to be around, because he has this incredible lust for life and music.

The band was riding high. They had just got their first credit card. We put them in the Oakwood Apartments on Barham Avenue, which is right over the 101 as you cross over the Hollywood Hills. Everyone always called it the “Cokewood” apartments because there were a lot of B-actors and actresses who always stayed there. We got Nirvana a three-bedroom apartment and the band Europe was staying there. They were working on the follow-up to their album The Final Countdown. They were good-looking blond guys from Sweden. Nirvana would go and sit by the pool in their long, grubby flannel shirts, tattered jeans, and unkempt hair, and the comparison between the two bands was ridiculous. Nirvana were miles away from the post-glam metal that had been dominating rock music for the last three or four years. As they were sitting there and quietly making fun of the guys in Europe, no one knew that a profound change was going to happen in music.

While they were staying at the Oakwood complex they totally trashed their apartment. Kurt wrote all over the walls and they had these big food fights. Kurt told me he had never lived in place that spacious and well kept. He felt like he was living in a mansion, even though it was just a corporate apartment.
We did three days of rehearsals in North Hollywood, and that was when I met Dave Grohl. We had set them up in a pretty big room to practice and Kurt said, “We’re gonna play that new song ‘Teen Spirit.’” It was the first song on the cassette they had sent me, so I said, “Cool, man. I dig the song. Let’s hear it.” And they kicked into the song and it was so f—ing loud and intense it completely floored me. I got up and I was pacing around listening to them. I kept thinking, “How am I gonna harness this energy in the studio?” They finished the song and Krist said, “Wha’dya think, Butch?”

I said, “Man, this sounds great. Play it again. Play it again.” Then I settled in a little bit, calmed down, and was able to focus. I watched Dave’s drumming to see how they were interacting. We did a few things to the arrangement, but they were very subtle. We just tightened up a couple sections. At the end there’s a little break when they come out of the chorus. There’s a musical part and then Kurt goes, “Yeah,” and they go back into the rest of the riff. They did that over and over and over again — sometimes four or eight times. I said, “That’s cool, but just do it two times as a little transition. Get out of the chorus and get right back into the verse.” That was one of the final arrangements we did that day. There were a couple options for how Kurt was going to sing the melody for the verse of “Teen Spirit.” He tried them all for me and I told him I liked the one he wound up using, which moved around more and I thought it was more like a Paul McCartney melody, which fit the song well.

After three days of pre-production we went right into Sound City to record the album. We had 16 days, which seemed like plenty of time. I would get in at noon and the band would roll in at around 1 or 2 p.m. We’d record all afternoon into the evening and then they would go out at around 10 p.m. By that point they had developed a taste for going out at night. We saw the Butthole Surfers play at the Palladium. Kurt saw Rick Rubin and chased him around making comments about Rick’s beard. That was the night Krist got arrested.

We had tracked in the day and Kurt did some vocals while Krist dove into a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. We knew we were going to see the Butthole Surfers so we stopped working at about 7:30 p.m., and for some inexplicable reason we all decided Krist was fine to drive. He drove the van over one of the canyons to get down from Ventura Blvd. all the way to the other side. I was in the passenger seat, and it was the scariest ride. Krist was talking crazy and cranking the Meat Puppets really loud. When we got there, I got the keys from him and told Dave, “You cannot let him drive!”

I lost them during the show. The Buttholes had these strobe lights onstage that made it impossible to see, and we all got split up. I got a ride home from a friend. The next day I went to the studio and didn’t hear anything. At about 3 or 4 p.m., I called Nirvana’s management and said, “Where’s the band? Has anyone seen them today?” Then I got a call back informing me that Krist was in jail. He had tried to drive and got pulled over and arrested. They left the van there along the freeway, and in the middle of the night Kurt walked back to the hotel, which was probably five miles from where they had been. So they were all exhausted the next day, and they didn’t come in the studio until 6 p.m.

Another night, they were hanging out with L7, and they all went to the beach in Santa Monica and took mushrooms and tripped all night long. I was in the studio going, “Where’s the band, where’s the band?” And they showed up at about 5 in the afternoon kind of sleepy-headed.

Nirvana had their fun when they were in the studio, but when it came to recording they were pretty focused. I didn’t know it at the time, but Dave told me later that they had rehearsed every day for six months and they wanted the songs to be really tight. So I didn’t have to do a lot. I just gave them some suggestions for arrangements here and there if I thought something was too long. Sometimes I’d suggest a drum fill to Dave. Kurt had some alternate areas where he could sing melodies, but they were all really good choices. It wasn’t like I had to struggle to whip the band into shape.

I had heard “Come as You Are” on the boombox cassette demo tape they sent me, but it was so distorted that I couldn’t really hear the part when Kurt plays the riff clean. We really liked the idea of keeping the guitar trippy and watery-sounding and waiting until the bridge to really kick into the heavy guitars and let those carry it through till the end. I got Kurt to double-track his guitar. And then I got Krist to double-track the bass. The biggest battle was getting Kurt to double-track the vocals.

They recorded a lot of the songs live, and we overdubbed some guitars. I would keep the live vocal, but I always liked Kurt to go back and redo the vocals because I could get a clean performance without any bleed from the rest of the band on the microphone, so you can really control the vocal sound in the mix. Kurt didn’t want to double-track all of his vocals because he was afraid they would come out sounding too produced and polished.

I said, “That’s what John Lennon did, Kurt.” And he paused and said, “If that’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.”

We had some problems at first recording “Lithium.” For some reason the band kept speeding up, and it took away from the power of the song. After the fourth take that didn’t come out right, Kurt went right into “Endless Nameless.” He didn’t even tell anyone he was going to do it and the rage and frustration on his face was so f***in’ scary. All of us were like, “Whoa!” The band just went into it with him, and I was rolling tape so I recorded the whole thing. And then Kurt smashed his guitar to bits at the end of it.

The beginning of “Territorial Pissings” starts with Krist doing a really smarmy version of the Youngbloods’ song “Get Together.” That was my idea. He sang it after he had about a half a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in him, so it’s kind of loose. It was supposed to be a little bit of a knock against hippie flower power and it set the song up nicely.

It was very different from a song like “Drain You,” which to me has this joyful melody that’s almost like Mozart. The way Kurt sings it sounds sort of celebratory, but the lyrical content has a lot of pain. And I think that’s one of the reasons Nevermind connected with so many people. Even though they didn’t know what Kurt was singing about necessarily, they could hear the fragility and pain and frustration coming through his vocal cords. Yet the melodies were these super-upbeat pop hooks, and no one was really writing anything like that at the time.

After we were done recording I went to Devonshire Sound Studios in North Hollywood to mix. That was a bit of a disaster because when I had mixed the Sub Pop stuff I did it on my own. The band was not around. It was impossible to mix with the band there. Kurt would come up to the console and say, “Turn the treble off everything. I want to hear it more like Black Sabbath.” And he’d come up and turn the treble all the way off, and it sounded terrible. He didn’t know what he was doing from an engineering standpoint. So the mixes sounded flat. The label thought they could make the recordings better, so they sent us a list of all these hot mixers. I was excited to get it because I figured we’d be able to get someone really good. We started going down the list. There were the names of the best guys mixing rock music. And Kurt kept saying, “Scott Litt. No. I don’t want to sound like R.E.M. No to Ed Stasium. I don’t want to sound like the Smithereens.” He kept going down the list. And at the bottom it said, “Andy Wallace: Slayer.” Now, it turns out Andy also did Madonna, but Slayer was the first name on his credits, so Kurt said, “Call this guy.”

So Andy came to L.A., mixed the album, and did an amazing job. They weren’t really that different from my mixes, he just put a little more fairy-dust on there, but they’re still pretty dead-simple mixes. When I listened by to the recording I thought it came out great. I knew they had written some amazing songs, and I thought we captured them well, but I was already starting to focus on my next project. I was back in Madison and the Smashing Pumpkins came in to finish some B-sides at Smart. They were there on the Fourth of July so we had a barbecue. At one point somebody said, “Hey, put that Nirvana record on.” I had a cassette of it, so I put it on the boombox on the picnic table in the backyard. There were 30 or 40 people there, and while it was playing no one said anything. It sort of made me nervous. It ended and someone just said, “Play it again!” And during the second run through someone said, “Oh, my God, this is going to change the world.”

I said, “Really? It’s a good record, right?” I think people were starting to hear something that I couldn’t be objective about. And the next day, I was back in the studio and there were all these phone calls on Smart’s answering machine from people I didn’t even know. Marketing guys from Geffen called to tell me how much they liked it. They kept piling up — all these calls. And I was like, “Wow, something’s going on here.”

Then they played a show in Chicago at the Metro. I called up an artist friend of mine, Bill Rock, in Chicago and asked him if he wanted to come with me to the show. And he goes, “Who’s Nirvana?” We got to the gig and there was a massive line around the block. It was oversold and there were a thousand extra kids trying to get in. There was an insane buzz in the air. The started out with a cover of the Vaselines’ song “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” and it was like Beatlemania. It wasn’t even their song, and there were people in the audience crying and freaking out. That was the first time I realized the record was going to take on a life of its own. And it changed my life completely.

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