by: Sahan Jayasuriya
Founded by record producers Butch Vig and Steve Marker, Madison’s Smart Studios grew from a DIY operation into one of the midwest’s most reknowned and saught after recording facilities. Throughout its 27 year tenure, the studio never strayed too far away from its roots.
“Smart was like a little clubhouse and a home” said Vig. “There was never any intention for us to be massively successful. We just wanted to have a place to record. It was as much a hobby as it was a job for us”.
Filmmaker Wendy Scheneider took it upon herself to preserve the studio's legacy with her brand new film, The Smart Studios Story, which will be featured as part of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival's Sound Vision program.
Why a film about Smart? Beginning as an affordable option for hard working independent acts, Smart Studios rose to success with the alternative rock explosion of the early 1990s. Nirvana used the studio to record demos in 1990, which led to Vig producing their 1991 breakthrough album Nevermind (the version of “Polly” heard on the album was recorded at Smart). Smashing Pumpkins made their Gish album there, which lead them to work with Vig again on their highly sucessful follow up Siamese Dream. It also served as headquarters for Garbage, which features both Vig and Marker. Throughout the 90s and into the 2000s, Smart remained a mainstay, with everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Fall Out Boy employing the studio in some capacity before closing in 2010. Impressive indeed, and yet its owners never thought to tell its story.
“It never really crossed our minds; even when the studio closed it wasn’t something we thought about” said Vig. “It was really Wendy’s idea, and she had to convince us to let her do it because we both didn’t really think that there was much of a story there.
“Initially when the studio announced its closing in 2010, I was approached to do a series of short keepsake interviews about it” said Schneider. “I also knew that it was going to mean different things to different people, so I decided to sit down with various people from the Madison music scene who I knew had a connection to Smart.”
In watching those short reflections on the studio, the three started to realize the potential they held.
“I thought there was something rooted in this story that had an importance beyond Madison, so I decided to cut a trailer using the footage I had” said Schneider. “Based on that, Butch invited me to come out to LA to do more interviews”. Those additional interviews included conversations with prominent figures like Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, Sub Pop Records founder Jonathan Poneman and Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, to name a few. It was the addition of new interview subjects like these that lead Schneider to develop the project even further. “It was a complete game changer because all of a sudden, I had all these people in this film” said Schneider. “Once I cut a trailer, I think we realized that we had the makings of a documentary that we’d want to release and share with the world”.
Preserving the studio’s legacy and cultural significance was also a goal of Schneider’s, who’s involvement with Smart spans nearly 20 years. “Things like the corner bar and the small nightclub are beginning to fade away. “Cultural spaces and communities like these, they bring people together and are incredibly important” said Schneider. “For Smart, that space and sense of community that it was able to sustain for 30 years is something that really has a lot of value, and I think that’s something that comes across the film.
“That’s something she talked about really early on” said Vig. “That’s one of the things that really got Steve and I to give her the green light”.
Many high-profile acts passed through its doors over the years, but the film keeps with the studio’s staunchly independent roots. “It really was Wendy’s vision” said Vig. “I think if we had gone to someone else and gotten corporate dollars, the film probably would have turned out different. It was made in a very DIY way, keeping in with the mentality that we had there over the years.”
While the film’s startup costs were funded out of pocket, a large portion of the film was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign. “We didn’t have any money, but we also knew the film had to be done on its own terms, so I made the Kickstarter” said Schneider. The down to the wire financial success of the Kickstarter campaign helped Schneider not only continue and complete work on the film, it also helped her realize the public’s interest in it.
“It really solidified that there was a community that believed in and supported what we were doing” said Schneider. “This is a people’s story and I feel really honored that so many people came on board. It really helped me finish the film.”
Using archival footage and candid interviews, The Smart Studios Story is more than just a local profile. Smart may have been located in Madison, but the film highlights the studio's relevance on both local and national levels while illustrating the connections between the two.
“In doing interviews for the film, I quickly began to realize that [Madison noise rock act] Killdozer was the direct link to Nirvana” said Schneider. “If their 12 Point Buck album had never gotten into the hands of the people over at Sub Pop, Butch wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to do Nevermind”.
“With the film, there’s a whole generation of young music fans who would never know anything about Smart” said Vig. “It will be interesting for a generation of music fans who want to know about the past. The music they’re listening to now is influenced in some cases by bands we produced. They might find bands like Nirvana or the Smashing Pumpkins who had a much larger profile than bands like [Milwaukee punk band] Die Kreuzen and Killdozer, but I think Die Kreuzen and Killdozer are just as important”.
After a near decade's worth of work, archival research and dedication, the film is complete and heading out on the road. Screenings will run across the US and Canada throughout the remainder of the year, with the film finally seeing an official release on Record Store Day in November (DVD copies will be available for purchase at all screenings leading up to the release). Its creators and subjects are thrilled to finally share it with the world.
“I personally hope that the film inspires people, especially young musicians and artists in helping them figure out where to go with their creations in 2016” said Vig. “The story is important for a generation of music fans who want to learn about the past and the music that inspired the music they listen to now”
Schneider hopes for the film to serve as a catalyst of sorts.
“It’s the first story to emerge about the Midwest’s contribution to American rock n roll , but this is just the first slice of the pie” said Schneider. “There’s so many other things that this could spawn in terms of telling the story of a musical history-like hip hop or jazz-and I love that it could possibly do that”.
Whether you were present for the studio's rise to prominence or not even born yet, The Smart Studios Story is a must see for music fans and music makers alike. Come experience the fantastic telling of a significant part of our musical history, “from humble beginnings to world class endings”. This is the film’s only Milwaukee screening; tell your friends and don’t miss out.
The Smart Studios Story will be screening on September 29 at 9:15 at the Landmark Oriental Theater as part of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival’s “Sound Vision” Program. Advance tickets are available now and can be purchased here. Additional screenings can be found here. Watch the trailer below.