Butch Vig goes alt-country in new band

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Emperors of Wyoming, with Butch Vig (far right). - PHOTO: Courtesy

Wisconsin native Butch Vig has high-profile production credits, including Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” Sonic Youth’s “Dirty,” Smashing Pumpkins’ “Gish,” Foo Fighters’ “Wasting Light” and Green Day’s “21st Century Breakdown.” As a musician, Vig played in the 1980s Madison band Fire Town and then gained visibility as a member of Garbage, featuring Shirley Manson on lead vocals.

Famous for hit singles such as “Stupid Girl,” “Queer,” Only Happy When It Rains,” “Push It” and “Special,” Garbage returned in 2012 after a seven-year hiatus with the “Not Your Kind of People” disc. Vig also reunited with Fire Town bandmate Phil Davis, along with Pete Anderson and Frank Anderson, to form the alt-country band The Emperors of Wyoming. That band’s eponymous debut owes more to Fire Town than Garbage.

I spoke recently with Butch Vig about the new band.

Gregg Shapiro: Emperors of Wyoming reunites you and former Fire Town bandmate Phil Davis. Was that inevitable or unexpected?

Butch Vig: A bit of both really. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and Phil has continued writing songs. But we live in different cities, so it was damn near impossible to actually record songs together until the technology made it possible to collaborate from our home studios via the Internet. Once we started file-sharing song ideas, the process happened quite easily.

Fire Town emerged from a 1980s Wisconsin music scene that also featured the BoDeans and Violent Femmes. Do you think that Wisconsin musicians got a fair shake at that time?

The music biz doesn’t really give fair shakes to anyone – either you’ve got songs that find an audience or not. Both the Femmes and BoDeans had a lot of success, maybe not Adele “21” success, but they’ve had long careers.

I notice that West Allis and Highway 43 get shout-outs in “Cornfield Palace.”

Well, almost all of the songs have references to Wisconsin. Avalanche Girl is a true story about a whirlwind road trip I took with a 21-year-old femme fatale when I was a naive 16-year-old. Phil sings about the Kickapoo River and “shooting Stite,” which was cheap malt liquor we used to guzzle.

If Emperors of Wyoming were invited to play Country Thunder in Twin Lakes in July 2013, would you go?

We have yet to play a live gig, but it’s something we’re talking about. It’s been tough because we all have full-time jobs and families.

Is Emperors’ target audience more Country Thunder or insurgent country or a combination of both?

I’m not sure where EOW fits in. I think of us as alt-country, whatever that means. “Avalanche Girl” is starting to get airplay on a variety of radio stations, not just country.

You’ve had involvement in a variety of musical styles. Which genre reflects your personal music taste?

My mother was a music teacher. I was exposed to all styles of music growing up: Top 40, Frank Sinatra, rock ‘n’ roll, country music, classical, musicals, jazz, polka music, etc. I would say the new wave/punk explosion in 1979 was a big moment for me.

One of Garbage’s biggest hits was the song “Queer.” Although not specifically a gay song, it was embraced by the LGBT community. Do you have a gay following?

Garbage had a very diverse fan base: all ages, ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations. Shirley has always talked about feeling like an outsider, and I think a lot of our hardcore fans can relate to her lyrics. 

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