From the smallest of triggers come great things. I was sitting in the dressing room at Pearl at The Palms in Las Vegas on April 14, 2012 with Garbage drummer and co-producer Butch Vig before soundcheck, and we were looking at an album cover from his lesser-known ’80s band, Fire Town. “You know, one of the guys in this band, Phil Davis, and I have started a side project, a band called The Emperors of Wyoming,” Vig revealed. “He said he had a name for a country band, and sent me an acoustic MP3. I figured out what the tempo was and I did the drum thing, and posted the file back to him. He called a multi-instrumentalist friend of ours, Frank Anderson, who lives in Appleton, Wisconsin. He put on pedal steel and banjo, and his brother Pete played bass. I think it turned out pretty good, and we never even played in the same room! It was all done by fileshare. When you listen to it, it sounds good, because we know each other so well.”
Initially released in late 2012 by Proper Records, The Emperors of Wyoming is a grainy, smoky spaghetti western come to life — pure Americana through and through, from the defiant twang of “I’m Your Man” to the harmonica-driven singalong jangle of “Cruel Love Ways.” Vig and the EOW gang decided to update the album for a 2014 Deluxe Edition released by Liaison Records (“a Super Duper Super Deluxe Edition,” Vig clarifies) by adding two covers — the Afghan Whigs’ “Rebirth of the Cool” and House of Love’s “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” — plus one original: “Drinking Man’s Town,” Davis’ ode to his hometown of Lacrosse, Wisconsin. Unlike the bulk of the record, “Town” was cut live. “It was one take, with one microphone on the guitar and the voice, and by far, it’s the rawest-sounding track on the record,” reports Vig. “We just thought it was the perfect little album closer.” It’s the right call, as “Town” also features brilliant backing vocals from Kim Henry. “If you listen close, Kim added a lot of great harmonies all throughout the album, which gives it an extra three-dimensionality,” Vig notes.
Here, Vig, 59, and I get down to discussing the Emperors’ recording techniques, his views of hi-res audio, Kurt Cobain’s enduring legacy, and what to expect from Sonic Highways, the new Foo Fighters record that Vig just finished producing, which is slated to come out in November. Right from the hilt of the holster, Vig and The Emperors sure know how to draw big.
Mike Mettler: The Emperors are spread out all across the country, so tell me more about how all of the songs came together via fileshare.
Butch Vig: Well, all of the songs sort of start with Phil [Davis] sending an acoustic guitar and vocal track. He’d post it up on the Emperors FTP site, and then I would download it into my computer and put drums on it. Sometimes I might add some keyboards or a guitar or add some ambient noise bits, and then I’d load it back up. And then Frank Anderson would download it onto his computer. He’s the multi-instrumentalist in the band — he does guitars, keyboards, banjo, pedal steel, slide, and piano. His brother Pete [Anderson] would then download the session and put bass on it. Frank is who we call the keeper of the files. He’d download them all and get them into the rough arrangements. At a certain point, we realized we had a record coming together, and he went to Milwaukee and worked with a mixer named Alex Smolinski — who did wonders, because he really made the record sound cohesive. You can imagine what he had to deal with in terms of what was being recorded in different home studios over a 2-year period. There was a lot of variety in the tracks he had, and he was able to rein everything in and give it all a very cohesive feel.
Mettler: I wondered if he had to deal with a lot of level-matching on the back end, given all the different file sources.
Vig: It’s just all using your ears. [laughs] Some of the guitars may have been a little too loud, but Alex got them to work together. Sonically, all of the songs had a similar vibe.
Mettler: I call it your Gilded Palace of Sin because it’s got a modern-day Flying Burrito Brothers/Gram Parsons vibe to me — your own spaghetti western update, if you will.
Vig: Well, that’s a really good reference point, thank you. All of us really love country Americana. I grew up listening to Johnny Cash, George Jones, Neil Young, The Byrds, Tom Petty, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band — those are all reference points for The Emperors of Wyoming.
Mettler: We’re now dealing with hi-res downloads in 96kHz/24-bit, and some even in 192/24. Do you feel encouraged about that?
Vig: I do feel encouraged by it. Even something that came out on 44.1kHz/16-bit is going to sound better if you let it have a more open resolution versus a crushed down MP3 file. Even if it wasn’t originally 96k, it’s going to sound better when it’s remastered in hi res.
But it’s hard to know if the general public will embrace it. I think if that’s going to happen, the labels and the people who put it out have to make it readily available and cost-effective. People just want to hear the music. It’s frustrating to me, after spending all of this time in a studio working with great microphones, great mixing consoles, and great rooms, and laboring over this great music that you hear on these great speakers when you’re done. And then you get to the final mix and you realize, “99 percent of the people are never going to hear it like this.” They’re listening to cheap, compressed MP3 files on $5 earbuds. Most fans don’t care because they don’t know. If they had an option to hear really hi-res audio, they would — as long as they didn’t have to pay for it. Whether that gets embraced by the general masses remains to be seen.
Mettler: That is the sticking point. And now we have Pono, Neil Young’s service.
Vig: I applaud Neil for doing that. And there will be an audience for it, because there always will be people who want to hear high-quality audio. But I just don’t know if it’s going to filter over into the mainstream.
Mettler: I did get a chance to talk with Neil, and he’s so passionate about it. But the initial buy-in for albums will be between $15 and $25. You and I are going to do it, of course, but will Joe and Jane MP3 Listener be willing to do it?
Vig: Yeah, I think there will be an audience for that kind of music. I hope that there’s a big enough audience to sustain it, as you need enough subscribers or believers who want that kind of music. And I think there will be.
Mettler: You have a number of albums under your belt that deserve hi-res treatment.
Vig: We’ve always slaved over the Garbage records, and I want them to be heard in as high fidelity as possible, because there’s a lot of detail in them, and sometimes you don’t hear that when it gets compressed into MP3. We own the masters for Not Your Kind of People, but the first four records [Garbage, Version 2.0, Beautifulgarbage, Bleed Like Me] are owned by Warners Europe, which reverts back to us, and then Almo Sounds is owned by Universal over here. I don’t see why they wouldn’t clear it for hi-res digital; they’d get their royalty rates on it. I don’t know all the logistics, though.
Mettler: The Emperors record is one for hi res too, because you want to hear all of the resolution and all of the detail. Is there one track from the record you’d zero in on as the one you’d want people to hear in hi res?
Vig: Hmm, God, I don’t know. I think a song people like sonically is “Never Got Over You.” It has the sitars and the E-bow, and the production is a little more left-field than some of the other tracks on there. I love the way that track sounds.
Mettler: Some of the big-label stuff you’ve produced for bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana would be great in hi res.
Vig: Yeah, like Siamese Dream [released July 27, 1993]. That’s another one that was such a big, detailed sonic album that I produced, and it’s meant to be heard in its full glory. People would really appreciate it even more when they hear it in hi res.
Mettler: Is there one Siamese Dream track that would be a great hi-res song?
Vig: Just the first track, “Cherub Rock,” as it starts, or a song like “Hummer,” which starts with that crazy, distorted drum move and that bass line, and then it gets really big at the end before it goes into this glowy, jazzy outro. The dynamics are really powerful, and that would lend itself to a hi-res audio experience.
Mettler: Yeah, now I want to hear Siamese Dream that way too. I do know there’s already a High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-Ray disc of Nirvana’s Nevermind, which came out in Europe last year. Speaking of Nirvana, the band was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this past April in New York, and you were there for the ceremony. Hard to believe it’s been over 20 years now. How does the younger generation respond to Kurt Cobain these days? Do you get feedback from kids who weren’t even born when the record came out?
Vig: Yeah, I think Nevermind has that longevity. It still sounds as vital and fresh now as when it came out over 20 years ago [on September 24, 1991].
Mettler: It’s indelible. It’s still going to have impact a number of years into the future.
Vig: I think so, yeah. I mean, I hope so. Just the way Kurt sings, and the performances — they’re timeless.
Mettler: Could you pinpoint a favorite song on Nevermind, now that we’re this far removed from it?
Vig: Not really. The record as a whole is really powerful. I think that’s one of the reasons it was successful. Every song on it was really hooky too, which helped. The performances are really intense, but when you write songs that hooky, it helps reach more of a mainstream audience.
Mettler: What would Kurt be doing now?
Vig: That’s impossible to answer.
Mettler: I think of the approach the band took on MTV Unplugged in New York [recorded in November 1993 and released in November 1994]. Would we have gotten a folk record?
Vig: Kurt really admired Neil Young, who’s followed an extraordinary path, and his muse. Kurt probably would have done the same thing. He probably would have just done whatever he felt like and not really cared about any commercial success.
Mettler: You’re probably right about that. Ok, to finish it up with The Emperors — are we going to get more?
Vig: I think so. Phil’s always coming up with ideas; it’s just a matter of getting the time to do it. For all of us to put some hours in every night to lay down some beats or some guitar parts in our home studios is tough. But we did do a few shows in Wisconsin in August, which was our first time playing live. It was at a country-music fest in Appleton, called Mile of Music [held August 8-11, 2014] — three days of Americana, not Nashville country. Frank is from there, so he knows the promoters, and they’re Emperors of Wyoming fans. It was a lot of fun.
Mettler: Since you enjoyed that experience, will The Emperors venture out on the road?
Vig: Possibly. The thing is, everybody’s got other jobs. I just finished producing the Foo Fighters [Sonic Highways, due out November 11], and we’ll be doing a new Garbage record this fall. Frank’s a director, Phil’s a writer, and Pete is a winemaker up near Sacramento, so everybody’s busy doing their own things. Emperors is really a labor of love, not a full-time endeavor. But we’re all into it. We’re all into writing songs together. I think it’s going to be fun to continue to walk onstage and play together.
Mettler: Anything you can say about how the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways sounds or feels?
Vig: I think the songs sound pretty amazing. They’re very epic-sounding. We took a different approach in terms of how we put the album together. It kept everyone on their toes. And like I said, there are some pretty epic songs on the record. I can’t wait for people to hear it.
A longer version of this interview appears on Mettler’s own site, The SoundBard.