The Recording Secrets of Nirvana’s Nevermind Revealed by Producer Butch Vig

Peo­ple fig­ured out that I’d tapped into some­thing in mak­ing that record; a lot of labels came call­ing because they want­ed to see if I could bring that mag­ic to what­ev­er artists they had. But I found it sor­ta annoy­ing in some ways, because peo­ple thought I had a for­mu­la, that I could take a folk artist or a blues gui­tarist and make them sound like Nir­vana.

The pop cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non of Nirvana’s Nev­er­mind caught every­one involved by sur­prise — from the band, to the label, to Butch Vig, just then mak­ing a name for him­self as a 90s alt-rock super­pro­duc­er by releas­ing Nev­er­mind and Smash­ing Pumpkin’s Gish the same year and help­ing define the sound of gui­tar rock for the 90s. “It was per­fect tim­ing com­ing out when there was a shift in music and it felt like a rev­o­lu­tion,” Vig tells Spin. “Despite being a great record, it would not have the same cul­tur­al impact” if it were released today.

Vig offers a few rea­sons why it’s dif­fi­cult for an album to have the same influ­ence. “Every­thing is so instant that it’s hard to build up some mys­tique. When you real­ly want some­thing but can’t quite get your hands on it, that makes it all the more pow­er­ful.”

Fans could even­tu­al­ly get their hands on the album with­out much trou­ble in 1991. (Gef­fen orig­i­nal­ly shipped only 46,521 copies in the U.S. in antic­i­pa­tion of low sales); but they couldn’t get enough of Kurt Cobain, who became a com­mod­i­ty before social media turned every­one into an aspir­ing com­mod­i­ty, a role con­tem­po­rary stars like Bil­lie Eil­ish now talk about open­ly in terms of the toll it takes on men­tal health.

Revis­it­ing Nev­er­mind on its 30th anniver­sary offers an occa­sion to dis­cuss what made the album, the band, and Cobain so major­ly appeal­ing at the time. It also gives us a chance to talk about what hap­pens when media com­pa­nies and record labels seize on a unique event and dri­ve it right into the ground. These are worth­while dis­cus­sions, but if we’re talk­ing to Butch Vig — super­pro­duc­er and founder and drum­mer of 90s jug­ger­naut Garbage — our time is bet­ter spent ask­ing the ques­tion he’s best poised to answer: what, exact­ly, made Nev­er­mind such a great album? What did Vig hear behind the mix­ing desk that has so cap­ti­vat­ed lis­ten­ers for 30 years?

In the videos here, you can see Vig — with com­men­tary from sur­viv­ing Nir­vana mem­bers Krist Novosel­ic and Dave Grohl — demon­strate how sev­er­al tracks came togeth­er, and how he enhanced and expand­ed the sound of the trio with­out need­ing to do much to make them sound absolute­ly huge. As he tells Ker­rang in a recent inter­view, when the band first hired him:

A cou­ple days lat­er, a cas­sette showed up in the mail, with a hand­writ­ten let­ter, and I put it on and heard Kurt going, ​Hey Butch, it’s Kurt, we’re excit­ed to come and rock out with you. We’re going to play a cou­ple of new songs, and we’ve got Dave Grohl, and he’s the great­est drum­mer in the world.’ And then I hear the gui­tar intro to …Teen Spir­it, and when Dave hit the drums, it just com­plete­ly destroyed every­thing.… I thought, “Wow these songs are great,” even though the record­ing qual­i­ty on that cas­sette was hor­ri­ble.

The mag­ic was always in the songs, whether cap­tured on a boom box or the stu­dio gear of Gef­fen records after the band left their indie label Sub Pop. (It’s worth lis­ten­ing to the Sub Pop founders tell their sto­ry on the How I Built This pod­cast.) Hear Vig talk about how he bot­tled it above, and see more of his Nev­er­mind mak­ing-of pro­duc­tion videos here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Nirvana’s Icon­ic “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” Came to Be: An Ani­mat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by T‑Bone Bur­nett Tells the True Sto­ry

Watch Nir­vana Go Through Rehearsals for Their Famous MTV Unplugged Ses­sions: “Pol­ly,” “The Man Who Sold the World” & More (1993)

Nir­vana Refus­es to Fake It on Top of the Pops, Gives a Big “Mid­dle Fin­ger” to the Tra­di­tion of Bands Mim­ing on TV (1991)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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