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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