Butch Vig on His Friendly Rivalry With Steve Albini: ‘He’d Stick These Little Jabs in Me’

Starting in the Eighties, Butch Vig and Steve Albini, who died Tuesday at 61, had one of the most interesting symbiotic relationships in indie rock. Both were recording bands in their studios, in Milwaukee and Chicago, respectively. Both played in bands. “Neither of us went to recording school,” Vig says. “We just figured it out on the fly.”

Vig produced Nirvana‘s Nevermind, but when the band wanted a less glossy sound for its follow-up, In Utero, they turned to Albini. The famously outspoken Alibi wasn’t afraid to zing Vig as much as he did other musicians or producers. In his influential 1993 article “The Problem with Music,” Albini broke down the costs of making and promoting a record, starting with hiring a producer post-Nevermind: “Butch Vig is out of the question — he wants 100 g’s and three points.” (“Thanks, Steve,” Vig says now, with a laugh.)

But in spite of that surface rivalry, the men maintained a mutual respect over the decades. Vig, in his own words, looks back at Albini’s aesthetic, legacy, and vision, down to his choice of caffeinated beverage.

Here’s a funny story. When I went to New York to work on Dirty with Sonic Youth [1992], we were trying to be very budget conscious and found an apartment not too far from Kim [Gordon] and Thurston [Moore]’s. It belonged to a friend of theirs who was in Europe at the time, and I rented it for about two months while we made that record. It was a three-story walkup, and the first time I walked in, there was a big photo of Steve Albini, grinning, with a knife in his mouth and coming out through his cheek. He and the person who had the apartment were friends and went to punk shows and what-not. Making Dirty, every night I would come back to the apartment, and that’s what would greet me. It was terrifying.

I probably met Steve in the late Eighties or early Nineties. We were both doing a lot of underground, DIY punk records and worked with some of the same bands, like Urge Overkill and Tad from Seattle. I knew him through Corey Rusk, who ran Touch and Go Records, since I produced records for them. I also saw [Albini’s band] Big Black in Chicago. It was so loud. I didn’t have any earplugs and was trying to be cool and not sit there with my fingers over my ears. I was trying to get in the corner where it was a little less loud. It was pretty intense, like jackhammer sheet metal, but it was cathartic. 

I mostly knew Steve as a engineer. I don’t know if it was a competition, but I was aware of what he was doing because I would hear his records and think, “What’s he using on the kick drum? What kind of room mics did he use on the drums on this?” Steve had had a job as a photo retouch artist, where he would scrub-brush people’s faces and get the blemishes off them. I think he just really disliked trying to make something better than it actually was, and I think that aesthetic carried over into how he wanted to record music. He didn’t want to sort of get in the way and try to polish it up and make it into something it wasn’t.

The first time I met Steve in person, he came up to my studio when I was working with Tad on 8 Way Santa. I remember he would just stare at you, like he was analyzing you and watching you. It could be a little unnerving. Before I started the record, Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop said, “You should get Tad to sing and not just bellow. He’s actually got a pretty cool voice.” So I encouraged him to sing more melodically. He still would bellow a lot, but it was probably more of a melodic record than the record [Salt Lick] they’d made with Steve. And I remember Steve was in the studio and heard a couple of songs and was saying, “Why are you trying to get Tad to sing? He’s not a singer.” He’d stick these little jabs in me.

But it was cool, because I always thought he made great-sounding albums. I love that PJ Harvey record he did [Rid of Me, 1993]. I remember the first time I heard it, I went, “Wow.” I was kind of jealous, because he really got those dynamics with her voice and the guitars and they would just explode. He really captured where she was at the time. For me, that was the record that really turned me on to her as an artist, and I thought he did an amazing job recording it.

Steve would play me records that were sort of funny, like bands with a comical punk vein to them. But he did not like pop music. If something was too melodic, whether in a guitar line, a melody or a vocal, that just wasn’t his cup of tea. Maybe he associated pop music with the music business, because if something gets really pop, they’re probably going to try to get it onto mainstream radio. He was so far removed from that and he maintained a DIY aesthetic his whole life, pretty much.

In the Eighties and Nineties, you started seeing his name pop up in fanzines and he’d be doing these crazy interviews where he could be quite acidic, a provocateur. Sometimes it was even about artists he had worked with and didn’t think were very good. I was always quite shocked at what he said. At least for me, there’s sort of been a confidentiality when you work with somebody. You go in the studio and do your job and get it done. You don’t necessarily want to spill the beans on someone if they sucked. But there was also some humor in it. He did sort of famously diss me a little bit. I remember him saying some comment like, “Butch Vig just wants to make every band sound like the Beatles.” And I sort of took that as a compliment, in a way!

But a lot of times he was calling out the bullshit he would see in the music business. That famous article [“The Problem with Music”] was all kind of true. That’s the way it was set up if you went to a major label, with almost every band I knew. I was in a band, Fire Town, and that happened to us; we got signed to a label and pretty soon were $500,000 in debt and not selling any records. So that was the end of the band pretty quickly.

At the time, I was a little bummed when Nirvana didn’t want to work with me [after Nevermind]. Looking back, and I’ve talked with Dave Grohl about this, they had to make a change. You can’t be a punk purist like Kurt and have this massively successful record, so they had to go with Steve, who made a much more raw-sounding record. That’s what Kurt needed to do, and Steve did that. He famously negotiated with their label, Geffen, and then he put the memo on the internet, which I thought was funny, that he wasn’t afraid to publish that stuff.

Also, you would not want to play poker with Steve. He was really fucking good. He would play national and local tournaments, and he said it was one of the ways he kept his studio open; he made a fair amount of money doing that, and the money was totally his. He told me you just have to be really disciplined to play poker. You have to know what your odds are.  

Steve mellowed a bit as he got older. When we were doing the Foos’ Sonic Highway, we went to his studio in Chicago for the first track, and he couldn’t have been nicer. I walked in with Taylor Hawkins on the first day when we set the drums up, and Steve was explaining the drum booth he’d built and how he’d gone to New Mexico to find a particular kind of stone he put in the wall that reflected but was also porous. So the sound is really soft and diffuse; it was absolutely perfect. Taylor said, “Wow, this is the greatest drum sound I’ve ever heard.”


That’s also when I found out that Steve was a foodie. On the first day, he served us coffee and said, “This is the best coffee you’ll ever have.” He said the beans came from monkey poop, somehow. When it went through the monkeys’ digestive track, it removed some of the acid. It was delicious.

The last time we wrote to each other, it was right before Covid. I wanted to get some of that coffee for my studio, but you had to mail-order it. It was really expensive, like $30 a pound, but it was super smooth and there wasn’t a lot of acid to it. Steve was right.