Madison’s ‘Smart’ music history

Wade Vonasek, Staff writer

The music scene in the United States experienced a significant change in direction in the early ’90s, with the glitz and glam of the ’80s giving way to a do-it-yourself punk-rock ethic. Many artists began to embrace a more raw, real, experimental approach to their music — both sonically and lyrically.

A new documentary by director Wendy Schneider, The Smart Studios Story, reveals how some of this national evolution in music was locally fueled. The film details the history and impact of Smart Studios, a Madison-based recording studio founded in 1983 by Steve Marker and Butch Vig, both founding members of the band Garbage. Vig’s production credits include Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth.

The documentary features commentary from artists, engineers, producers and music industry executives — as well as Madison dwellers touched by the studio.

Viewers hear from Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin (Smashing Pumpkins), Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana), Donita Sparks (L7), Jonathan Poneman (Sub Pop Records), Shirley Manson and Doug “Duke” Erikson (Garbage), and Vig and Marker (Garbage), as well as members of Wisconsin acts such as Killdozer, Die Kreuzen, Bongzilla and others.

The impetus

Schneider was a part of the Madison scene during Smart Studios’ existence. She knew both Vig and Marker and had done some mixing at the studio. When she learned in 2010 that it would be closing, she had an idea.

“I’ve known Wendy for a long time,” says Vig. “When Smart announced we were closing our doors — she had very heavy ties to the local music scene in Madison — she started getting a lot of feedback from people who were really sad to hear the studio was closing. For a couple of weeks, she called me and said, ‘I think there’s a documentary here.’

“Quite frankly, Steve and I had to be convinced. I don’t think we thought that there was really much of a story. So we had a recording studio, big deal. But she put together a great, informative and entertaining narrative thread. She made about a four-minute trailer and sent it to Steve and me and we were like, ‘You’re right, there is a film here and it could be really cool.’”

With Vig and Marker now behind the concept, Schneider moved to the next phase. She began gathering the appropriate materials and archives to document the story — a large undertaking.

As people began to tell their stories, Schneider altered the film’s focus. “It shifted from what it meant to lose Smart to what did Smart mean to their life and history in Madison, and how they connected to Smart, and then it just kept going from there,” says Schneider.

“I was up to, in the end, about 80 interviews, not all of them ending up in the film. But I could do 80 more if I had the time. People really felt a strong desire to talk about their stories and their experiences. I loved being able to weave that history together based on their anecdotes.”

Securing funding for the documentary also was necessary.

“It took seven years to make the film,” says Schneider. “Finances were really few and far between, so I started a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014. By the skin of my teeth, I hit $120,000. Really, I raised $60,000 in the last six hours of the campaign. It was absolutely nuts, but I was so grateful. It brought in about 800 people that were supporters, and are still supporters. We couldn’t have made the film without their help.”

Link to independent music

In the beginning, Vig says he and Marker wanted to have a “clubhouse” where they could record music, whether for themselves or for friends.

“There was never any business model,” says Vig. “We didn’t have any sort of business acumen and it was never money or profit-driven. We just wanted to have a cool place to hang out in. Luckily we were coming up in a scene that was in dire need of a great studio to record at.”

Killdozer
Madison’s Killdozer recorded at Smart Studios.

The studio was originally located in Madison’s Gisholt building. Vig says that the early recordings at Smart were “slightly lo-fi” because of the acoustics in the room, but also had a particular vibe that was noticeable and made the bands feel comfortable. Vig credits the early work with helping bring in some of Smart Studios’ more high-profile clients.

“Killdozer profoundly raised the bar in a way that really called attention to the studio, and that’s what led to me getting calls from Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, because they heard the Killdozer records,” says Vig. “Those Killdozer records were f*cking fun man. There was no commercial possibility of any kind whatsoever when we were recording, but we all knew that. The band would let their freak flag fly.”

Smart Studios’ link to the larger story of American independent music at the time is also apparent in the documentary.

“I began to see Killdozer as a link to Nirvana, because if Sub Pop had not heard a lot of that early work of Butch’s and the work that he did with Killdozer, Jonathan at Sub Pop would not have been referring bands to Smart Studios and to Butch Vig,” says Schneider.

Smart Studios eventually moved to a new location in Madison — 1254 E. Washington Ave. — and saw an evolution in its sound in the process. Vig says the new location provided a great tracking room for live sound, and a really intense drum sound. By the time the studio started working with bands such as Nirvana or Death Cab for Cutie, they had all gotten smarter as producers and engineers. The studio had evolved and now featured better gear.

“It was funky,” Vig says. “It was not a slick, corporate-looking facility by any means. From the outside it looked like a crack house. But it did have a sound.”

The film debuts

The Smart Studios Story premiered in March at the SXSW Film Festival. The film also was selected as the official film of Record Store Day 2016, which Schneider says is both exciting and appropriate.

“For us, that was really, really important for a lot of reasons,” says Schneider. “This is great Record Store Day history. Most of the bands in the film all came up from an independent approach to putting out their music. That’s something that Record Store Day has really brought to the forefront.”

The Smart Studios Story will screen in Madison Nov. 27 at Sundance Cinemas. The film will be officially released on DVD on Nov. 25. Schneider also compiled music for a limited edition vinyl pressing, American Noise Vol. 1, featuring some of Smart’s earliest recordings from 1983 to 1990. It will be available on release day.

“I think The Smart Studios Story has been really well received,” says Vig. “Even if you’re not a music fan, I think it tells a story of a time and a place that people don’t know about, so I think they will find it interesting.”

For more information, visit thesmartstudiosstory.com.