Definitely Not Garbage: Smart Studios & Wisconsin’s DIY Ethic
With the City Series, TIDAL investigates the local music scenes of U.S. cities. Enlisting the expertise of a locally-based music writer, we explore the past, present and future of music in each town. In our first spot on Madison, Wisconsin, Andrew Brandt tells the story of Butch Vig and Steve Marker’s legendary Smart Studios.
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It’s nearly impossible to pin a regional—or even local—music scene down to a core sound.
Yet thanks to the recent and rightful successes of Wisconsin acts like Bon Iver, Field Report and PHOX, the Midwest appears to be waving a folk-styled flag to the rest of nation.
Which is fine: Us here in the Midwestern United States do generate an arguably truer brand of folk than you’ll find on either coast. But one of the seemingly infinite great things about music is that it’s not created by regions, but by individuals. And since the word individual literally means single or separate, no one sound can reign over every single artist creating music in a specific space.
This writer will argue, however, that scenes can have a core set of ethics or practices.
The essence of the Midwest, as much now as it’s ever been, is that we can do it too. Here in Madison, that Do-It-Yourself attitude became most visible in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, thanks to Steve Marker, Butch Vig and Smart Studios.
Steve Marker and Butch Vig met while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The two bonded over music and film, and quickly began recording bands in Marker’s basement. Subsequently, they created Boat Records, a label used to release the music of local acts they were interested in.
In 1983, Marker and Vig ditched the basement and rented some space in a warehouse on Madison’s Eastside. In what would eventually become Smart Studios, the two began recording, mixing and remixing rock ‘n’ roll until the studio was shut down in 2010.
When fellow Madisonian Wendy Schneider, who was a production intern at Smart Studios in the ‘90s, heard that Smart Studios was going under, she was moved to action.
“When Smart closed in 2010, I went back to some of the earlier artists that recorded at Smart, essentially asking them what Smart meant to them,” Schneider explained to me this week. “And, you know, it was really a manifestation of a really interesting and diverse music scene that was happening here in Madison back then.”
Back then—in the budding ‘80s—Marker and Vig were focusing on local acts like hardcore-punk trio Killdozer. According to Schneider, Smart Studios was a spot-on outlet for unrest felt in Madison, as well as the rest of the Midwest.
“You could see that in hardcore scenes around the country: music began to reflect an energy of dissent,” Schneider said. “That was happening everywhere. Madison wasn’t necessarily unique, but it was great what was happening here.”
Marker and Vig worked tirelessly recording bands live, thus capturing that “energy” onto tape. And by the middle of the decade (in what Schneider calls “one of those wonderful domino effects”), the creators of Smart were working with bands that hailed from all over the Midwest region.
Just as Vig and Marker’s workload boomed in the late ‘80s, Schneider found herself with a bigger project than she expected after her initial run of 70 interviews in 2010. She began focusing her efforts to flip those interviews into a documentary, The Smart Studios Story.
“Making a film like this is daunting and it’s really exciting, because you’re trying to present a version of history through Smart,” she said. “And you’re trying to get everything right—or as right as you can—so that people really see how it all is tied together.”
In the ‘80s, the ties existed as the relationships between the local acts that worked with Smart, and the labels those bands later signed to. And as bands toured and split bills with other bands, the studio’s work organically gained traction. “Word of mouth” was the name of the game, and the reason why Midwestern rockers like the Crucifucks, Laughing Hyenas and Tar Babies started showing up at Smart Studios to lay down tracks.
As Schneider explained, “It really happened from Butch’s work being heard by more bands. There was a real word of mouth—and this is still true today: good engineers get noticed.”
The scene at Smart Studios began shifting again right around the time Schneider served as an intern for the producers.
After Vig recorded the demos for Nirvana’s Nevermind—as well as Smashing Pumpkins entire debut, Gish—the studio was remodeled, Vig and Marker began a band called Garbage and the recordings became, “less about the live band and more about a controlled environment to make records sound really interesting.”
In fact, it was while remixing artists like Nine Inch Nails and U2 that Vig got the inspiration for Garbage, a band that would go on to sell over 17 million albums worldwide. And as Vig’s sphere of influence expanded, so did the range of acts that came to Smart Studios to record: In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Fall Out Boy, Death Cab for Cutie, Jimmy Eat World, The Promise Ring and Tegan and Sara all recorded there.
By the time Smart Studios closed its doors in 2010, it resembled little of what it once was.
Vig had moved out to California and Marker to Colorado. Schneider, however, felt the need to record the history of what had happened at Smart. Unsurprisingly, she tapped into the same vein that Marker and Vig had throughout their production careers and took a Do-It-Yourself approach to her film.
The Smart Studios Story is currently being edited, having run a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014 that raised over $100,000 worth of funding. Though the film focuses on Smart Studios, the bands that recorded there and, of course, Butch Vig, Schneider stressed, “The backdrop is the Midwest for all this, and why it matters.”
And why does it matter? Well, because our stories don’t get told as often they should.
Our entire region gets repeatedly pinned down to a sound, when, in reality, our “scene” only cohesively exists in the form of a collective approach—a “Why not us?” kind of attitude that’s more influential than any genre tag.
I imagine “Why not us?” was a question Steve Marker and Butch Vig asked one another when they began recording music in a makeshift studio in Marker’s basement. And now, thanks to the abundance of free audio recording software programs that exist—as well as an ever-growing number of places on the Internet to post your product—it’s only getting easier to counter that inquiry with a response.
Though Smart Studios is gone, it’s building remains and its spirit lives on: we’re still out here, doing it ourselves.
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Andrew Brandt is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.
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