August 17, 2012 by Dan Swinhoe
Musicians often have side-projects. It keeps them busy, and let’s them explore outside their usual remit. But when you’re one of the godfathers of Grunge and the drummer in Garbage, it might come as a surprise you’ve gone all country.
Butch Vig’s CV reads like a who’s who of rock; Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain, Muse, Sonic Youth and Jimmy Eat World just to name a few. But there’s no country icons on there. So for his latest album Butch has got back together with some old friends and made one of the most surprising albums of the year.
The result is Emperors of Wyoming. Ten tracks of pure timeless country rock, released on an indy label. Made up of Phil Davis on vocals and guitars, Pete and Frank Anderson on bass and guitar and Butch on drums (though everyone also played about a dozen more instruments, their self-titled debut album definitely sounds like they had fun recording it and making it into an old-timey record. Full up beat tunes, have it on in the background and you’d think you’re listening to classic country radio.
Read on for an interview with Butch on his new album and getting back together with old friends…
DRS: How did you guys all meet?
Butch – I’ve known Phil, Frank and Pete for a long time, we all played in Madison bands when we were starting out. Phil and I formed a band in the early 80’s (with guitarist Steve Marker from Garbage) called First Person. We wrote 30 songs in 30 days! We played a lot of opening slots for New Wave bands (Bow Wow Wow, Pete Shelley, Fleshtones) that played the local hot club at the time, Merlyn’s. Our songwriting partnership evolved and we started another band Fire Town (along with Duke Erikson from Garbage), which garnered some critical acclaim. We eventually signed a deal with Atlantic Records, released two albums, and toured a lot on the East Coast and Midwest. Fire Town had similar elements to The Emperors Of Wyoming, we loved jangly guitars and three part vocal harmonies. Frank and I have kept in contact over the years as he is filmmaker, and would occasionally slip into my Smart Studios to record some music. Peter and I share an obsession with wine, and have collaborated on a Sauvignon Blanc from Napa called BAD BOYFRIEND!
Wisconsin is the place that connects the band, has it been an influence on your music at all?
I think our Midwestern roots have a strong influence on the Emperors songs. I grew up in Viroqua, Wisconsin, a very small farming town, and the music on the local radio station was country and polka, that was it! My mother was a music teacher, and she played all kinds of music in our home, musicals like West Side Story and Camelot, the songs of Frank Sinatra, The Tijuana Brass, The Beatles, basically all forms of pop music. Even though I’m known for producing rock records, I never felt elitist about any style of music. I’m a pop geek, and there’s a strong love for what I call American Music running in my blood: Neil Young, The Byrds, Johnny Cash, The Band, Tom Petty etc. The first concert I ever saw was Glen Campbell at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison. Wichita Lineman is one of my favorite songs of all time. Is it country? Is it pop? All I know is that it’s timeless, and makes me cry when I hear it!
What was it like reuniting with former bandmates? How have you changed?
I think we’re pretty much the same people now as when we first met. It was pretty easy to start writing songs together, almost like we had a sixth sense about where to go with each track. Kind of like riding a bike. As Phil sings in I’m Your Man “I may be rusty, but I still run…”
Was there any worries about unconsciously repeating what you did with Fire Town? Did you bear in mind what you’ve already done [together and individually] when working on Emperors?
I don’t think we had any preconceived worries about where the songwriting would take us. We wanted to embrace the sensibilities we share, and we wanted to make the songs sound sort of timeless, so we used a lot of traditional instrumentation that could fall under what would be called “country”: acoustic guitar, pedal steel, 12 string, banjo, organ, piano, lap steel, accordion, over simple drum and bass arrangements.
Was going from Grunge to country a conscious decision?
I never even thought about it, it was really easy to start writing songs with The Emperors. I think one of the first songs we wrote was “I’m Your Man”. The initial references we had were “Johnny Cash in the verse, The Rolling Stones in the chorus” and the song came together really quickly, basically overnight. I love working with bands like The Foo Fighters and Green Day, I love noisy guitars. And recording the new Garbage album Not Your Kind of People was really interesting because we have a wide sonic palette and incorporate lots of new technology: electronica, fuzzy guitars, trashy drums, and programming. But I found the writing and recording process quite liberating with The Emperors. It was challenging but fun to force myself to work within traditional “country” parameters.
Have you always had country ambitions/influences?
I’m a sucker for a good, well written, classic country tune. Songs by Neil Young, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash are timeless. They set the bar high, and gave us a lot of inspiration when writing the songs for Emperors Of Wyoming.
You formed in 2009, what took so long to record the album?
We worked at our own pace, writing more than 25 songs over 2 years. There was no time line when we started writing, so the process was really enjoyable. Everyone has other things going on in their lives, so we would each work on the songs when we had some free time.
What was the writing/recording experience like? How was it different from your other bands?
Recording EOW was one of the most interesting projects I’ve ever done. We put the whole album together through file sharing. Each of us recorded our parts at our respective home studios, and would post the performances to an ftp site. Frank was the “keeper of the files.” He put all the final arrangements together and mixed the album in Milwaukee with engineer Alex Smolinski. Even thought all the parts were recorded separately, I think the album has a really cohesive feel to it, and I think that comes from us having a strong sensibility that we share.
Did you produce the album? Are you pleased with the results generally?
The album was co-produced by the four us of, because we each brought a lot of ideas to the table. Frank really was the one who took the reigns and helped form the final arrangements.
I really enjoyed the process because I was involved on many levels. Besides collaborating on the songwriting and drumming, I played electric guitar, 12 String, piano, added synths, programming and “ear candy” to the songs. And I gave Phil a lot of feedback in terms of how he sang on each track. I think we wrote a collection of really strong songs, and I think Phil wrote some amazing lyrics. I love the line in Bittersweet Sound Of Goodbye “Better hold the ones close that matter the most…” it slays me every time!
What are your aims with the album once it’s released?
The album is being released on Proper Records in Sept, and we’re excited about it. Proper is very enthusiastic about the album, I think they get who we are as a band, we’re a good fit on their label. We’re hoping that they will help us find an audience that digs the songs!
What has the reaction to the album been like from people who’ve heard it?
I’ve been playing the album for my musician friends in Los Angeles, and everyone has been really enthusiastic about it. Kind of surprised I guess, they really like a lot of the songs.
You’ve gone for a very Wild-west aesthetic, any reason?
We wanted a look that had a strong vibe, something that gave us an identity. We love that classic photo of The Band, and wanted to capture something like that. Plus, we look bad ass in cowboy hats!
What’s the plan with Emperors; Tours, Festivals, second album in the near/far future etc?
We are just starting to do a lot of press. Frank is working on two videos that we hope to have finished in August. We’re talking about playing some live shows after the album has been out. We’d love to play some festivals next summer.
On your Facebook there’s a picture of a drum kit in front of a green screen, what can we expect from the video?
Can’t say too much more about it except it’s inspired by true events that happened to me when I was sixteen…
Do you think your reputation help promote the band, or hinder it since you’re so well known for being a rock musician/producer?
I guess it might open some doors for us. If nothing else, some people who know my work in Garbage or as a producer might check out The Emperors because they are curious. Hopefully they’ll be pleasantly surprised!
Won’t your respective schedules make it difficult to focus on Emperors?
We all have families and other projects in our lives, but we’re also committed to the EOW. We managed to write over 25 songs for our debut album, and we’re already talking about recording a second album.
Random Trivia question: I read online somewhere that you played keyboard on Marseilles’ album Touch The Night, is this true? I’m curious since I have that album at home, and did a piece on the band a couple of years ago.
Hmmm, don’t think I played keys on that album, not to my recollection.
To read an interview with Emperors singer Phil Davies, Click here
To read an edited piece on Sabotage Times, Click here