So long, Smart Studios

When you’re barreling down East Washington Avenue, it’s easy to speed past the brick building on the northwest corner of Baldwin Street. There are no signs, few parked cars and a handful of boarded-up windows. It seems ripe for a haunting, not a historic happening.

But that building, the legendary Smart Studios, is one of the liveliest places in town. It has been for more than 25 years, even when it was just two guys, an eight-track tape recorder and a tiny collection of microphones. Over the years, Smart was a rock ‘n’ roll refuge for more than 1,000 bands who recorded there.

The studio just announced that it will close its doors this spring amid a dramatic downturn in the music industry. The tentative closing date is March 1.

Smart Studios got started on the south side of East Wash in 1983, when Butch Vig and Steve Marker moved their gear into a dusty old factory space. It was a step up from recording on a four-track in Marker’s basement, which they’d been doing since their student days at UW-Madison.

“We started Smart because we wanted a place to hang out and make music, like a clubhouse,” Vig explains. “I’ve always looked at it as a sanctuary.”

Although the studio is closing, Vig says there’s cause for celebration.

“We rocked Smart for 25 years, and we rocked Madison, too,” he says. “Two-thirds of our client list was local and regional bands, and Steve and [chief engineer] Mike [Zirkel] and I are probably even prouder of those projects than the [Smashing] Pumpkins and Sparklehorse and Freedy Johnston. We tried to help as many local bands and labels as we could.”

Gimme shelter

Early on, helping the local music scene meant recording punk bands on the eight-track for five bucks an hour, when Milwaukee and Chicago studios told Vig and Marker to charge 20 times more. Ironically, inexpensive recording technology is now driving musicians away from professional studios and back into their basements.

“You can look at the closing of Smart as a direct reflection of what’s been happening in the music business and the technology changes that have happened over the last 10 years,” says Vig. “Now anyone can get a laptop and make recordings in their basement for next to nothing. I know Grammy-winning engineers in L.A. who are struggling to find work.”

Plus, the labels that normally would pay for studio time have slashed their budgets to half or a third of their usual size, Vig says. It seemed like the right time to throw in the towel.

“We were never in this to make money,” he says. “In fact, it’s a miracle that Smart stayed open as long as it did considering it was run by two guys with almost no business sense.”

For Vig and Marker, treating other musicians like family, whether they were from Sun Prairie or Sunset Boulevard, was the key to their happiness and success.

Isaac Schulze, singer/guitarist for local cowpunk trio Mad Trucker Gone Mad, says being able to barbecue a turkey on Smart’s deck and play videogames at the studios made him feel at home — and perhaps led to a better record.

Meanwhile, Keith Brammer, bassist for Milwaukee hardcore and alt-rock torchbearers Die Kreuzen, recalls Smart as a place that didn’t cop a ‘tude, no matter what.

“You were never made to feel like a second-class citizen if you weren’t on Warner Brothers, and there was none of the ‘You gotta get out of here because such-and-so is coming in’ crap,” he says. “It was ‘You’re here, that’s what matters, and we’re gonna take care of you.’ You always felt comfortable there, and you knew those guys were in it for the right reasons.”

Smart’s all-in-the-family approach also meant working with local bands’ budgets. Eric Hartz, drummer for Hum Machine, a local alt-rock band whose album The Trance Voltage Solution ruled college radio in the late 1990s, remembers just how far the Smart staff could stretch a dollar.

“You got this really high-quality recording service and access to a lot of expensive equipment most people never even get a chance to use. And besides the recording, you got access to this great network of people who would share tips, including some pretty big-name musicians. Those people aren’t going to be coming around now that Smart is closing.”

Naked singers

It was the combination of comfy and crazy that drew many famous artists to Smart.

Members of L7, the all-girl grunge-and-punk band that paved the way for the riot grrrl movement, loved Smart for its geeky charm and the giant tubs of ice cream it supplied. They also loved the superb sound of Bricks Are Heavy, the album Vig produced during their 1991 Madison visit, shortly after working on Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Singer/guitarist Donita Sparks laughs when she recalls meeting Smart’s engineers. “At first I thought the guys were a little shy or terrified of us, one of the two. They’d be polite and say hello but not make a lot of eye contact.”

The Smart staff got over their dorky crushes before the end of L7’s studio sessions, but Vig kicked his geek factor up a notch when a local TV show decided to stop by. Though the band members were taking a breather amid 12 hours of recording, they decided to make it look like they were blowing the place to smithereens.

“We staged a little scene,” says Sparks. “Butch was at the board looking very serious, and [singer/guitarist] Suzi [Gardner] and I were behind the microphone. I smeared makeup all over my face like I’d just had a nervous breakdown. We looked like complete terrors; it was hilarious.”

Engineer Beau Sorenson says there are plenty of other stories where this one came from, especially tales about naked people.

“One time, the lead singer of this band called Kilroy was having trouble hitting one of his notes,” he recalls. “We convinced him that the only way he was going to hit this note was by stripping down to nothing. It had worked for other people, so we figured it might work for him, too.”

Then there was Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic, who’d stopped by to record some keyboard licks for Monday Night Football.

“He wore these purple velvet gloves, and when he took them off, he’d blow on his hands and say, ‘C’mon babies, don’t let me down!’ He was far out,” Sorenson recalls.

Vig also recalls moments of pure nuttiness. Once, he found engineer Doug Olson staring maniacally at 200 pieces of tape he’d recorded in a single session. Another time, he had to explain to the Edgewater’s manager how Kansas rockers Paw had destroyed the walls of their hotel room in a BB-shooting contest.

But Michael Gerald, singer and bassist for local noise-rock legends Killdozer, may have the best story of all. In the early days, the band would try to replicate sounds such as guns firing and heads being bashed with baseball bats. For their first album, 1984’s Intellectuals Are the Shoeshine Boys of the Ruling Elite, they set off firecrackers inside a walk-in safe at the original Smart site.

“It sounded too wimpy when we blew it up in the hallway, so Butch and Steve were like, ‘Well, how ’bout that safe in the basement?’ There had been a great amount of drinking involved, so we couldn’t be talked out of it. It was completely stupid and completely fun.”

Improvised genius

Many times, bands simply arrived at Smart with an idea, then came up with the rest off the cuff. Killdozer made at least two of their albums this way, says Gerald.

“There was one album, [1988’s] For Ladies Only, where we only knew we wanted to do cover songs, not even what the songs would be,” he recalls. “We were eager to have input from Butch and Steve, who’d do things like say ‘You know, this would be good with an accordion’ or call up their friends. Whoever answered the phone would come in and help out with the chorus, which is what we did in our version of ‘American Pie.'”

Another time, Vig called up Madison string players Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines to sit in with a then-unknown band called Smashing Pumpkins. So as Smart brought national and international recording artists to Madison, it also introduced Madison musicians to the world.

This was especially true when Vig and Marker’s band Garbage hit the big time in 1995, after joining forces with Scottish vocalist Shirley Manson. There was a period when Rolling Stone followed the band around town, speculating that Madison would be the site of the next musical revolution.

Zirkel, who started at the studio around the time Garbage formed, remembers when Manson came to town to audition. When the iconic singer took up residence here, the city seemed poised for a glamorous makeover.

While Madison didn’t morph into a flashy, star-studded metropolis, Smart’s influence continued to grow in ways never anticipated. Sometimes the musicians who recorded there took home more than a great album. New Yorker Freedy Johnston adopted Madison as his second hometown in 1994 as he recorded his pensive power-pop album This Perfect World here.

Pretty soon Johnston found himself returning to Madison every few months to lay down tracks and play in Vig’s cover band the Know-It-All Boyfriends. He was even at Smart last week when news of the studio’s closing broke.

“Smart reminds me of my first days living here, when I hung out at Genna’s and got to know the friends I’m still hanging out with 15 years later,” Johnston says.

When the studio closes, those who’ve passed through Smart’s doors will also hang onto the stories behind their songs like old friends.

The Madison sound
A selection of albums recorded, or mixed, or both at Smart Studios

Tar Babies: Honey Bubble (1989)
Killdozer: Twelve Point Buck (1989)
Nirvana: Nevermind (1990)
King Snake Roost: Ground Into the Dirt (1990)
Laughing Hyenas: Life of Crime (1990)
Smashing Pumpkins: Gish (1991)
The Young Fresh Fellows: Electric Bird Digest (1991)
L7: Bricks Are Heavy (1992)
Freedy Johnston: This Perfect World (1994)
Everclear: Sparkle and Fade (1994)
Soul Asylum: Let Your Dim Light Shine (1995)
Garbage: Garbage (1995)
The Promise Ring: 30° Everywhere (1996)
Fall Out Boy: Take This to Your Grave (2003)
Death Cab for Cutie: Plans (2005)
Sparklehorse: Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (2006)
Jimmy Eat World: Chase This Light (2007)
Hotel Lights: Firecracker People (2007)

Chief engineer Mike Zirkel encourages those with photos,
video and other memories of Smart Studios to share them via a Facebook group
called the Smart Studios Appreciation Society, and Vig may green-light a
documentary project later this year. Stay tuned to Isthmus and
for details.