The Midwest is often overlooked in its contributions to the rock world. Having spawned rock gods such as Iggy Pop and the Stooges, as well as the MC5, most people would not consider the middle of the country to have launched some of rock’s greatest leaps. Iggy Pop single-handedly pioneering post-punk in the late 1970s, and another nascent genre, new wave, got UW-Madison students Butch Vig and Steve Marker thinking about the future of rock music.
The two meet in an electronic music class at UW, both fascinated with the directions that technology could take the art. The pair decided to found a studio together, Smart Studios, once they graduated. Started in 1983, as Vig puts it, they were looking more for a place to hang than record. They began producing local punk and hardcore bands, and spent all their time in the studio honing their craft. As the 80s turned into the 90s, the duo became hip to a new type of rock from the West Coast: grunge.
In 1988, Vig borrowed that year's Sub-Pop’s singles collection from the owner of MadCity music, and was turned on to a new group - Nirvana. “They could be as big as the Beatles” his friend at Sub-Pop boasted, and after hearing their single Love Buzz, Vig was intrigued. He was sent their Sub-Pop debut, Bleach (1989), but was unimpressed, only taking interest in their Lennon-McCartney inspired tune About a Girl.
A week later, though, Vig had them at Smart Studios recording demos for their new record. Cobain claimed that they could hammer out the record in a week, and after recording a handful of songs and Kurt losing his voice, the project was put to rest for a couple months. Later that year, the group finished Nevermind with Vig in a studio in Van Nuys, CA and launched grunge to where it is today.
Before closing in 2010, Smart Studios produced for other rock giants, including the Smashing Pumpkins, L7, Hawthorne Heights, and Death Cab for Cutie, inherently becoming a pivotal force within the grunge and Midwest emo movements. Our newest GNRE playlist, “Smart Studios,” details the humble studio’s crucial role in the movement and maintenance of Rock.