Even though Smart Studios’ doors closed in 2010, its legend continues to reverberate throughout the music industry. Founded in 1983 by Butch Vig and Steve Marker in Madison, Wisconsin, it began as a place that local underground bands could go to immortalize their music on vinyl (or tape) inexpensively.
As the studio’s reputation spread, musicians from all around the country came in search of the studio’s distinctive DIY sound and Vig’s inventive production techniques. Vig worked his magic on releases from such legendary bands as Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, and was a profound influence in popularizing the grunge and post-punk genres of the ’90s.
Surprisingly, the Smart Studios sound arose from DIY aesthetics, a series of happy accidents, and really cheap equipment. As Vig says in the film, they didn’t set out to build a great studio; they just wanted to have a place where they and their friends could go to record music. However, as such charmed stories go, the rest is history.
Director Wendy Schneider, who began working at the studio in the early ’90s, made The Smart Studios Story as a labor of love — and it shows. An amazing amount of research went into the film to bring this midwestern tale to the screen, and the result is a fascinating documentary about a vibrant indie music scene that isn’t very well-known to the rest of the country.
Schneider secured an incredible array of interview subjects for the film, including Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins); Dave Grohl (Nirvana and Foo Fighters); Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie); and Shirley Manson (Garbage). Equally intriguing are reminiscences from members of bands from the local scene like Killdozer, Tar Babies, and Die Kruesen, who recall how truly DIY the studio was.
Schneider punctuates the interviews with a wealth of amazing archival performance footage, still photos, and flyers that bring the Smart story to vivid life.
In anticipation of the film’s premiere at South by Southwest (SXSW), the director graciously took some time to answer some questions for me about the production:
From your perspective, what makes The Smart Studios Story such an essential part of music history?
I think it gives a lot of dimension to the stories of the musicians. To hear the actual stories behind the making of the music or how the bands got out there and toured and the outlets that were accessible to them 30 years ago was really something that was part of the life of a band. It was something that they did physically, and it was a very tangible experience. We don’t have that right now. The outlets are different, how people think about getting music out there and how music is made is all completely different. Back then, nobody was making albums in basements. It was a demanding job to make a record. Everyone had to be in the same space for a period of time. So I think it’s essential for people to have that perspective.
Yes, today everyone wants to get famous right away.
Right. Back then, the goal wasn’t to get signed. The goal was to play. I think in some communities, that’s still the goal now, but there weren’t any “get rich quick” models back then. It was really for the love of playing and hanging with your friends, getting some of your music out on cassette, maybe getting played on the radio, going to the record stores and doing shows.
What was the most surprising fact you uncovered while making the film?
The first time I learned of the impression that Killdozer’s Twelve Point Buck had on Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop Records, it was something I hadn’t heard about before. When he listened to Killdozer for the first time, he was experiencing sonically what Butch Vig was doing in Madison at Smart Studios and seeing that it could be an outlet for Sub Pop’s bands. Killdozer was a link to Nirvana that nobody talked about, and that was really a light bulb coming on for me. It was then I knew the story was becoming much bigger than the one I was doing that was just about a local studio.
How did you uncover all of that terrific archival footage?
I’ve been making the film for six years. From the day I started, I’ve been asking people to share their memories. First they were just anecdotal memories, because I was really just doing interviews on the closing of Smart, but then I began to want and request images that went with some of these stories. It was almost like pulling teeth, contacting all these bands, posting flyers — practically doing it old-school. It took a long time, but it was worth it. What’s frustrating is now someone will email me five or six pictures that are just phenomenal that I wish I had gotten in time for the film.
Considering a lot of the footage was on its last legs, like the VHS camcorder stuff, how did you preserve it?
Some of the VHS video I used in the documentary was in a venue fire years ago, when a club in Madison burned down. I went over to people’s houses and went through boxes of smelly, smoke-contaminated VHS tapes. We had them digitized through the University [of Wisconsin] and some of them locally. I didn’t overthink the digitizing of the archive. I mean, things looked shitty to begin with, so it didn’t drive me crazy to make shitty footage look beautiful. These were 30-year-old tapes and old, tattered photographs, and I wasn’t that concerned about cleaning anything up for the film.
And that’s the aesthetic, too. It should look grungy.
Exactly. It’s funny…as the first footage came in, I thought, “God, this looks like crap,” but the more crap that came in, the more it had a look that worked with the whole movie. I shot the movie in SD, and the way the shots were framed, and the camera I used, which was an old DVX100 — everything I think sort of works together. I think if I’d juxtaposed that old crappy archival footage next to beautifully lit HD interviews, there would’ve been too much distance. I think the film has a lot of cohesion visually because, well, I lucked out that way!
And it’s great that you preserved the footage.
That’s right. And there’s a lot that’s not in the film, so we’ll see what happens as the film begins to have a life.
What’s also terrific about the film is that, in addition to bands like Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, it also shines a light on the less familiar acts of the era. Do you still keep track of the indie music scene in Madison?
Yes, many of my friends still play; I’m still in a band. What I’m seeing, and what I talked about with Butch (Vig) and Steve (Marker), is kind of a resurgence of the DIY ethos — bands doing cassettes, a lot of bands doing their own vinyl. A lot of little indie labels springing up that aren’t trying to be Sub Pop, but are trying to provide a cohesion between the music and touring. It’s like the power of the group, you know? After the studio closed, seeing the rise of this new DIY was inspiring to me. I mean, Smart ran its course. It wasn’t necessarily supposed to be around for 50 years. It did what it was supposed to do.
And people moved on, but continued to be inspired and stimulated by what Smart started.
Right. There’s no lament when it comes to the studio; it’s just that another era is upon us. Butch and Steve did not set out to do what they did — it just happened. They weren’t necessarily trying to make a new sonic footprint in the landscape of independent music. When it happens organically, it’s a lot more powerful. Even now, when you ask them about Smart’s legacy, it’s something they really can’t answer. Smart is so much more than Butch and Steve, it’s more than just a building. It’s not tangible.
So what would be the most profound lesson you learned from the guys?
I learned to trust myself. Butch and Steve are not hands-on, they don’t push you into the fire. They make the environment fully accessible for your desires and your intentions. That’s what Smart was like when for me when I started. And that’s what it’s been like working on this film. At no point did Butch or Steve ever step in and help guide me on what has been a really challenging six years of my life. My respect for them has grown as I’ve been able to trust myself to make this film.
More information about The Smart Studios Story and upcoming screenings can be found on its website.