"It was a labour of love..." hmv.com talks to Butch Vig about new band 5 Billion In Diamonds
Producer, songwriter and musician Butch Vig is probably best-known to most people either as the producer of huge rock records like Nirvana's Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream, or as the drummer and co-founder of Garbage, the group fronted by Scottish vocalist Shirley Manson. But Vig has always been the restless type and outside of his legendary production work he's also been involved with numerous bands and other side projects over the years, the latest of which is a 'supergroup' formed with Bristol-based DJ James Grillo and producer Andy Jenks called 5 Billion In Diamonds.
After working on the project on and off over the last couple of years, the new band releases its eponymous debut album this week, which features appearances from a range of musicians and vocalists, including The Free Design's Sandra Dedrick, Alpha's Helen White and Soundtrack Of Our Lives frontman Ebbot Lundberg.
With the album arriving in stores today, we caught up with Butch for a chat about how the album came together...
So this is the brainchild of yourself and James Grillo, right?
“It is, James and I kind of came up with the idea and then our good friend Andy Jenks, who is a producer and musician with a similar sensibility to us, we brought him on board very quickly. He has the same love for that sort of 60s and 70s obscure film soundtrack music and quirky pop music that permeated the underculture back in the day. It was a labour of love and it took us almost three years from inception to when we finished mastering the record. Part of that was logistics, because I live in Los Angeles and Andy & James live in the UK, and also just sort of figuring out our path, where we were gonna go with the music once we'd starting writing.”
Didn't this start out as a kind of film soundtrack project?
“Yeah, I kind of threw a challenge down to James, he's a vinyl freak, he's got about 20,000 albums and probably 10,000 DVDs. We went to an arthouse cinema to watch a film, I think it was The Thomas Crown Affair, we were drinking wine afterwards and he's a DJ, not a musician, but I started challenging him about how he would make his ideal soundtrack and he started pulling out all these reference points. At some point I thought it might be cool to actually do this, and he came up with the name, which we thought was brilliant because it sounded like a cult B-movie from 1967 or something.”
So at what point did it stop being a soundtrack and start being an album? Was there a particular song or moment when things just clicked?
“Well, over the course of about six months we started writing bits and pieces of music, James would come to L.A. for a week and we'd work on some stuff, then I'd go over to England, Andy has a studio in Christchurch near Bristol, so we'd spend three or four days there, then I'd work at home separately on drums bits, keyboards and guitars. Same with Andy, until we probably had about 20 music things. Then we decided that we should bring in some guest musicians, just to bring some flavour to the album and give it more personality, and then we though maybe we should bring some singers on board too."
How did you go about choosing which singers would be right for the project?
“One of the first singers that we thought of was Ebbot Lundberg from The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. James and I went to a show, they were playing a festival somewhere and we were backstage. We had had several glasses of wine, so there was a lot of bravado in us. We just sort of barged into their dressing room and started talking to Ebbot saying 'Hey man, we have this band, you want to sing with us?', and he goes [puts on Swedish accent] 'Ja, I would like to do that'. It just happened that easy and, I swear to God, four days later he was down in Bristol recording some of the first tracks that we did together.
“It worked that way also with David Schelzel from The Ocean Blue. We just sought him out, he was playing a show about a mile from my house in Los Angeles, so James flew all the way from England, we went to see the show and, again, we just bum-rushed the backstage and asked him to sing, and he said yes. It was the same with Helen (White, formerly of the band Alpha), she's been a singer in bands and lives in Bristol, she's got a really gorgeous voice, and again we just said 'do you want to sing' and she was like 'yeah, I'd love to'. So it's just been us reaching out to people who we were fans of, or that we were friends with. We avoided managers, we avoided record companies and publishers, and just went straight to artists, that seems to be the easiest way to do it!”
Speaking of guest vocalists, you've also got Sandra Dedrick from The Free Design on the album. How did that come about?
“We're huge fans of The Free Design and we actually wrote a song on the album called 'Glider', which is very much a reference to them and tries to capture a little bit of what they do, with complex vocals, layering of harmonies and things, and then we were like 'well, we should have her sing on this'. So James went on her Facebook page and sent her an email saying 'Hey, we have this band 5 Billion in Diamonds, would you like to sing on the record?', and she replies going 'I'd love to'.
“As it turns out I was headed to Wisconsin last year and she lives in Toronto, so it wasn't too far of a trip for her to come there, we just hired a studio for and got all her vocals done in a day. It was great, it was really fun, she's an absolutely lovely person and still has a killer voice, she sings amazing.”
Are you producing all of this yourself?
“Well, it's listed as co-production, Andy and I both have a long list of production credits and we're both musicians. James had never done this before, but we kind of let be in the driver's seat in some instances because he was really opinionated about whether something had the right vibe or not. Like I said, he is a treasure trove of information on obscure, cool, groovy records. He would constantly reference something and we'd listen to it and go 'OK, cool, I get what you're saying'. But it was all three of us and for the most part we were all on the same page once we had a vision of where we wanted to go, trying to create something that sounded modern but was touching on all these references from the late-60s and early-70s music that we really love from that era.”
How did your songwriting process actually work for this?
“Each song kind of had its own story, but it would usually start with us sort of talking about a vibe, or sometimes listening to a record, and then trying to sort of capture that quickly in the studio. Usually I'd play drums or keyboards, or Andy would play keyboards and I'd pick up a bass. We'd try to capture a loose chord progression, then usually what we'd do is loop that around and play on top of that to give us a verse idea, then maybe the following day Andy would come up with a chorus. He's a great keyboard player and he has a lot of amazing old analogue keyboards, so there are a lot of those kind of textures on the album which is part of the thing that gives it the vibe that it has.
“But we weren't always in the studio together, so we'd just share files back and forth, I'd send stuff from my studio in Los Angeles to Andy, he would work on it and send stuff back and copy James on it, until we felt like we were getting somewhere. There was a point where we had about 20 songs, then as well as some of the drums I'd done here we also brought in a rhythm section that Andy worked with, Sean (Cook, bassist) and Damon (Reece, drummer), who've played with Spiritualised and Massive Attack, they're amazing players. So they certainly brought a vibe to the records, then Andy kept adding more keyboards, I would add some keys or what I like to call 'fairy dust', just little ambient things in the background. But each song had a path like that, some were quicker, some took longer, but once we brought the singers on board that helped to find the arrangements a lot better."
Do you enjoy working that way?
“It was really fascinating and, for me, really fun too, because it was just a labour of live, at the time we weren't signed to a record label, so there was really no agenda except to make a record that we liked, the three of us, and so far we've been really happy to see that there's a lot of love for it, people really seem to dig the album, which is super cool.”
You've been involved in quite a few different bands and projects down the years, do you find yourself getting restless if you're just producing other people's records?
“Yeah, I guess restless and also it's just that I don't necessarily like to get locked into doing just one kind of thing, you know? Years ago I got known for making rock records, and as much as I love rock and noisy guitars, and that kind of energy that you get from punk rock, I started to get bored of it. That's one of the reasons why I started Garbage, because I'd started to get interested in sampling and technology, how you can use the studio as a writing tool.
“A couple of years ago I had a band called Empress of Wyoming, we wrote some sort of alt-country songs with some of my old friends from Madison, it was more of a singer-songwriter kind of thing. We just released a new Garbage, I'm still producing bands, I'm very lucky that I can bounce around with different bands and work on different projects. I'm also working on some film music right now, it's for an indie film called Puppy Love, which has some great people on board. Its been real fun because as well as writing music I'm also the executive music supervisor for the film, so I'm bringing in some other artists and their music for the film. I like changing it up, it keeps things interesting.”
Do you have any plans to take 5 Billion in Diamonds out live? Will you be doing any dates in the UK?
“We certainly want to do it, we actually played four songs last summer for James' birthday party in Lyme Regis, he rented this old theatre and about 100 of his friends came down for a two-day weekend bash. It was really fun, we quite haphazardly played a four song set with just a day's rehearsal, but Ebbot flew down, Helen was there and David flew over from Minneapolis. We knew that creatively it would be fun to do, but I think we realised that logistically, since we all live all over the place and everybody has other things going on, it's gonna be tricky to get us all to commit to a three or four week run somewhere where we can have a week's rehearsal and then go out and do it. But we all really do want to do it, we gonna try and block out some time in the Spring, like in April or May, so fingers crossed we're gonna be able to go out and play some shows.”
Do you see another 5 Billion in Diamonds album happening, or this just a one-off kind of thing?
“I do, we're already writing new music. I think by the time we finished this record we already had a bunch of new ideas, we have about 10 song ideas, some of which are pretty far along. And just because it took us almost three years from start to finish with this record, we realised that we needed to get going sooner rather than later, but it won't take us three years this time, we found our mojo and our identity, and we gained a lot of momentum from that, we're inspired so the writing is coming pretty fast right now, which is great.”
5 Billion In Diamonds is out now, you can find the album here in our online store...