Butch Vig talks about working with the Smashing Pumpkins

Billy Corgan and Butch Vig in studio.

Songfacts has an interview with Butch Vig which discusses his time recording various albums. He talks in some detail about working with Billy Corgan on Siamese Dream, as well as how he was intrigued with the look of the band. He mentions that he kept a journal during the recording of Siamese Dream which he may one day re-write for a book, and the difference between working with Kurt Cobain and Billy. Butch also says that he and Billy have talked about working on something together in the future.

Songfacts: You produced what I consider the Smashing Pumpkins’ best two albums. 

Butch: Well, Pumpkins are a pretty amazing band. The first time I met them I was taken by their appearance, just how they looked. With D’arcy, there’s this cool looking bass player, and James Iha being Asian, the second guitarist, and Billy was this tall gangly guy – he had long hair at the time. Then they came out and played this incredible psychedelic rock that was just crushing. And Jimmy Chamberlin, an incredible, incredible drummer. I love working with them.

Gish was fairly easy to do, but Siamese Dream was probably the hardest record I’ve ever recorded, just because of the sheer intensity – Billy and I really set the bar high in terms of how we wanted it to sound. There was a lot of pressure on them to make a great record, and the band was really starting to fall apart at the time – a lot of drugs and they just weren’t communicating. We spent five months recording the record in Atlanta, basically recording every day, almost seven days a week.

Then we came to LA and we mixed for six straight weeks, every day, including Sundays. I was mentally and physically completely wiped out when the record was done, but I’m really proud of how that record sounds. I think it’s because of the amazing dynamics: the songwriting is really ambitious and the band was playing at the peak of their powers. Even though Billy ended up doing a lot of the guitar and bass overdubs, the band, when we would cut a song, they would all play live in the studio with Jimmy. And D’arcy and James contributed to the record also by just being there, talking about the arrangements and the performances and stuff. So it was a very intense experience.

I kept a journal making that record. I started to go back and read it, but it was a little too hard for me to go back, because I immediately went back into the zone that we were in in the studio, and there were some dark days in there when we were making that record. But I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

Songfacts: Did you ever show that journal to Billy?

Butch: No, not yet. I’d have to go back and sort of re-write it so it would make sense to someone who was going to read it. And maybe I will at some point. Maybe I should dig it out and start chipping away at it and see if I can get it into some sort of form that would be presentable to fans of the band. And I’m sure it would be, because there are some great stories in there. But I might have to edit some of them. Either that or don’t edit it at all and leave everything in there so it’s all the glorious bits and all the dirt. Just leave it all in there in its glory.

Songfacts: I would absolutely love to read something like that.

Butch: Cool. When I get a chunk of time off maybe I’ll do that. But I don’t have any free time to get into a writing mode at the moment.

Songfacts: Something Billy’s talked about in the press – and I don’t know if you want to confirm or deny this – he’s said that on specifically Siamese Dream that he and Jimmy played the vast majority of everything.

Butch: That’s true. They would go into the big room and cut the song live. But what I was really trying to keep was Jimmy’s drums. And then we would go back and overdub everything.

Billy probably played 90% of the guitar and bass parts. Someone played some keyboards and Billy played Mellotron and we had a cello player come in and play. A couple of string players came in for “Disarm.”

James is a great guitarist and D’arcy was a good bass player, but Billy Corgan is just technically better. He’s better than both of them, and the band knew that and I knew it. So it was like, “Well, if we want this to be as good as it’s going to be, we want the best possible performance out of it.” So Billy ended up doing probably over 90% of the overdubs on the record.

But he had a “feel thing” with Jimmy. He really understood Jimmy’s drumming. Jimmy had this push/pull thing. He wasn’t like a metronomic drummer, you know. He wasn’t like a perfect 4/4 click track drummer – I think we used a click track on one or two songs on Siamese Dream. It moves around a lot, and Billy really understood Jimmy’s playing. It was like a thick fence, almost, but he was really able to lock in with Jimmy, which is not always easy to do when you have to come back and overdub, when you’re not playing live with someone.

Songfacts: What are some similarities and differences between working with Billy Corgan and Kurt Cobain in the studio?

Butch: Well, Kurt had no patience for doing anything more than a couple of times. Contrary to the slacker mentality, he wanted to make a great sounding record. When we finished Nevermind, he loved it. He later had to kind of diss it, because you can’t really retain your punk roots or your punk authenticity and say, “Man, I’m glad we sold ten million records.” So he had to start to diss the record. But when we finished it, he loved it. And then both Dave and Krist Novoselic confirmed that when we were doing all the interviews for the Nevermind 20th.

Kurt wanted to make a very ambitious record, but I’d be lucky to get a couple of vocal takes and get him to go back and double track his guitar. If you didn’t get it in a couple of takes, he would put the guitar down in frustration.

Billy, on the other hand, is more of a perfectionist. He would work on a section of a song for hours or a solo section or whatever. He didn’t care, he would just do whatever it took. I really respected that, because I always wanted to work with someone who wanted to get things as close to being perfect as you can. There’s no such thing, really, as “perfection” in a performance, but there is a way to get a feel that just feels so good you know you’ve got it right. I totally loved and respected Billy’s work ethic.

Songfacts: I interviewed Billy Corgan two years ago for Rolling Stone, and he said he would “love to” work with you again. So would you be up for working with the Smashing Pumpkins again?

Butch: Yeah. He lives part time out here in LA and I bump into him every now and then. We email each other back and forth. They just worked on a box set, and I went back and remixed the first two tracks that we did and the seven inch that came out before Gish came out, with “La Dolly Vita” and “Tristessa.” It was cool. He just sent it to me, I did it in my home studio and mixed it very au naturel. I added very little to the songs. I went back and listened to the original mixes and Billy and I processed them quite a bit. We have this chorus and flanging and a lot of compression EQ and reverb and delays and stuff. It was refreshing to go back and mix it – just put the faders up and put a little echo on Billy’s voice and mix it. And that’s what I did.

Billy was really pleased with the results, and we started talking: “We should do some tracks together at some point.” That was right when I was working on the Garbage record. Between finishing that and then going on tour, that has taken up a big chunk of my time. So yeah, we might do something at some point. I just don’t know when. But I do keep in touch with him.