The importance of music producers is often inflated way beyond what most actually do, which is, essentially, twiddle knobs and make bands sound a little better. But some have a key role in teasing out epochal sounds from their charges. George Martin was known as the Fifth Beatle, Andrew Weatherall turned a dirgily indie Primal Scream into a pre-eminent dance act. And without Butch Vig, Nirvana would not have been the dominant grunge band of the early 1990s.
Now the 54-year-old Vig is stepping back in time, and has agreed to work with Dave Grohl, the old Nirvana drummer, on the Foo Fighters' forthcoming album. For anyone who grew up listening to Nirvana's Nevermind this is great news. The role Vig played in Grohl's past, and therefore the Nirvana story, is legendary. With Bleach, the band had already released one album of incredibly scratchy punk rock but the kernel of pop in the standout track, About A Girl, was enough to get them signed to a major label. Vig teased out that melodic edge for Nevermind without diluting the inherent power and rage of the songs.
And he did so by using every trick in the book. When Cobain complained that Vig was adding "fake" effects to his vocals from behind his mixing desk, the canny producer would remind the troubled frontman that The Beatles had employed exactly that technique. Why The Beatles? He knew Cobain was a massive fan of John Lennon. Twenty million record sales later, Cobain would distance himself from Nevermind, saying it was "arena rock". But naturally, Vig was asked by every single band henceforth to make them sound like Nirvana. Somewhat modestly, he would respond: "You want to sound like Nirvana? Write songs as good as Kurt Cobain."
But Nevermind did somewhat overshadow the work he had completed just a few months previously on Smashing Pumpkins' breakthrough album Gish - although its ridiculous guitar solos and the grandiose follow-up Siamese Dream did point towards the arena rock Cobain was speaking of. Vig would go on to work on two Sonic Youth albums, but by the mid 1990s, he was readying himself for another tilt at making music himself after the limited success of earlier projects. With the friends Duke Erikson and Steve Marker, his new band had something of a false start with Vig on drums and vocals. But Marker spotted a woman in a band called Angelfish, asked her to audition (somewhat endearingly she'd never heard of Vig), and the rest was history. That woman was Shirley Manson, and the band became Garbage.
But time has not treated the goth-pop of Garbage too well. Vig's band now seem too slick and engineered for their own good. In the late 1990s they were genuinely one of the biggest rock acts in the world, selling millions of albums and having a string of hits such as Only Happy When It Rains, Stupid Girl, I Think I'm Paranoid and the James Bond theme The World Is Not Enough. But the sight of three aging men behind banks of keyboards while a petulant young rock-chick tried her best to look moody out front made them feel odd, detached and unengaging. That was live, but on record, too, the four albums they made were progressively less interesting.
So perhaps it was for the best that Garbage went on permanent hiatus after 2005's Bleed Like Me, although Manson has recently mentioned on her Facebook profile that they've reconvened once again. It's a strange move - Vig's first Grammy award for Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown last January suggests he certainly doesn't need the exposure. Cobain could once again afford himself a wry smile, though: most reviewers said Green Day's record was rammed with epic, imposing stadium rock.
It is ironic, then, that big, stadium filling songs are just what Grohl doesn't want - he is excited by the prospect of a return to a more primitive, punk-rock sound for the Foo Fighters' next record. But there was one quote from Grohl last week that summed up Vig and his staggering influence on the last 20 years of rock. "There's something that Butch does that helps a song become a bigger song," he said.
Whatever that "something" is, perhaps only Vig knows. But he's very, very good at harnessing it. * Ben East