The Smart Studios Story, which opens the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival this Wednesday, lists its two subjects—record producers Steve Marker and Butch Vig—as executive producers, so the movie is more of a vanity project than a documentary. But if you’re curious about the midwestern indie-rock explosion of the 80s and early 90s, it’s pretty entertaining. Multitrack recording is an exercise in vanity anyway, an opportunity to perform with yourself, and the indie underground was nurtured by the home-recording boom of the 80s, spurred by the introduction of compact four-track cassette recorders. I couldn’t guess whether this is a honest account of the rise and fall of Smart Studios, which Marker and Vig launched in Madison, Wisconsin, in the early 80s and which produced records by everyone from Killdozer to Nirvana to Smashing Pumpkins to the Dead Milkmen. But it’s an honest account of what the studio meant to the owners and the people who recorded there: in a word, home.
The movie is most rewarding at the beginning, as studio staff and various artists recall the collegial, conspiratorial vibe of the indie underground in Madison. This makes sense, because the first thing you learn about recording is that location plays a big role—the sound of the room usually dictates the sound of the recording, and in a larger sense, a studio space should put you in a relaxed, creative frame of mind. That was never a problem at Smart Studios. Michael Gerald of Killdozer remembers Madison as a Podunk melting pot where bands that had nothing in common musically would book shows together just because they knew each other from the same practice space. Residents recall gigging around town at clubs like Headliners, Bunky’s, Club de Wash, and Merlyn’s, and there’s some scattered social lore from the old days (don’t invite the Kenosha punks to your party, warns Bucky Pope of the Tar Babies). Doug “The Duke” Erikson, of Spooner and later Garbage, fondly recalls the studio’s friendly, supportive atmosphere. “It was a very healthy place for everybody to be,” he says. “Other than the drinking.”
Not surprisingly, the studio began with Marker and Vig getting hammered on pitchers of beer at the Plaza Tavern and going back to Marker’s apartment on Broom Street to record on his four-track reel-to-reel, which he’d bought in high school with lawn-mowing money. Once the midwestern hardcore scene got going, however, they were able to turn their recording sessions into a fledgling business; a frantic montage of flyers, photos, and seven-inch covers helps to conjure up the feverish DIY energy of the era, which supported the friends’ first ramshackle studio in the Gisholt Machine Company building on East Washington Street. Marker and Vig hated the control room, an L-shaped space with a single window. “Remember how long it took to get to the bathroom from the studio?” remembers Pope; another patron explains that he took his skateboard along whenever he needed to use the can.
When Marker and Vig moved into a new facility, they didn’t go any farther than a building across the street, but that made all the difference. Vig accurately describes the nondescript building at 1254 E. Washington as “a two-story redbrick pile of junk. It looked like a crack house.” But it sounded great, especially the main tracking room, and Vig would begin developing the massive drums that would become his signature. Billy Corgan describes the room as “deafeningly loud,” recalling Smart’s industrial carpeting, white walls, and oddball carpentry. On the plus side, though, there was an old soda machine stocked with Old Style, and the Friendly Tavern nearby was a good source for singers if a band needed a gang vocal. One patron remembers that, if a song hit a snag, Vig might announce, “I think it’s time for a Frosty,” and the session would adjourn for a visit to Wendy’s.
In between Frostys, Vig produced some of the biggest acts of the indie-rock boom. The turning point came with Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991), whose commercial breakthrough brought a flood of new clients: Smashing Pumpkins, Young Fresh Fellows, L7, Freedy Johnston, Everclear, Soul Asylum, Garbage, Archers of Loaf, Rainer Maria. Always good for a talking-head interview, Dave Grohl reminisces about making Nevermind at Smart, and his experience there sounds very much like everyone else’s: Vig brought great enthusiasm to every project and put the music first. Corgan remembers thinking that he and Vig were completely in sync musically, but then he realized that every other client felt that way too—that’s what made Vig a “world-class” talent.
Unfortunately for Marker and Vig, those who live by the space die by the space. When Smart began attracting more big-name clients, the owners ponied up for a big redesign, and as former clients attest in the movie, the new live room didn’t sound the same—the drums didn’t have the same kick. This seems like a bad omen, though strictly speaking, the real reason for the studio’s ultimate demise in 2010 wasn’t the loss of some magical aural genie but rather the pop charts’ mid-90s migration from guitar rock to boy bands. The hard-edged sound that defined Smart Studios gave way to more diverse pop by clients like Fall Out Boy, Jimmy Eat World, and Death Cab for Cutie. Weirdly, as bookings dwindled, the studio’s celebrated track record in underground music became a slowly tightening noose: Smart might have kept in the black by taking on jingle work, explains studio manager Mike Zirkel, but then “everybody who liked working there would no longer like working there.”
The Smart Studios Story premiered at South by Southwest, where Marker and Vig used to troll for clients, but I’m glad it’s screening here in the midwest, where it belongs. This isn’t one of those documentaries—sorry, vanity projects—that resorts to a flood of onscreen graphics to make its points, but in one striking shot the names of midwestern musical greats rise up out of a rolling shot of a cornfield: Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, Aretha Franklin, MC5, Curtis Mayfield, Iggy and the Stooges, Pere Ubu, Devo, Prince, Husker Du, Madonna, Breeders, Guided by Voices, Wilco. It demonstrates the incredible explosion of creativity in the midwest. Explains session musician Frank Anderson, “A lot of my friends on the coast think we live in the tall pine trees, like the Laura Ingalls Wilder ‘Little House in the Big Tall Woods,’ and we don’t have sidewalks.” But the vibe that made all those records happen could never have been created in a bustling city. More than anything, The Smart Studios Story attests to the creative potential of hanging around.