“We have a rule in the band – there’s no vibe crushers”, legendary producer Butch Vig says of his supergroup 5 Billion In Diamonds. “If they bring in a bad vibe or bad juju, there’s no reason we want to work with them. We’re really lucky to have picked people who have just clicked. It’s really fun working on these songs.”
This mission statement has resulted in the genre-jumping triumph Divine Accidents – the second record released by Butch and pals Andy Jenks and DJ James Grillo under the 5 Billion In Diamonds guise.
They’ve utilised the talents of The Soundtrack of Our Lives’ Ebbot Lundberg, James Bagshaw from Temples, Helen White, and David Schelzel from The Ocean Blue among a stellar roster of collaborators to cast their spell on the trio’s mesmerising songmanship.
2017’s eponymous debut saw Butch and co delve into influences ranging from psychedelia to 1960s and 70s film soundtracks. This time around, they spread the net further, touching on 80s and 90s indie rock, and even elements of obscure hip-hop.
“The first album was very much influenced by 60s and 70s film soundtracks like John Barrymore and Dario Argento”, Butch revealed to Daily Star Online. “Any obscure, one-off psychedelic folk wonders. James Grillo has a huge record collection and he’d constantly play us these obscure B-sides and would reference a riff and would say ‘this is what this song should sound like’.
“The new record has those influences as well but also I hear 80s and 90s. A couple of the songs specifically were written with those references in mind. Into Your Symphony is definitely a nod to The Cure, The Smiths or The The. I can hear all those bands in that song. There are some 90s references creeping in, obscure hip-hop things here and there.”
Across its 11 tracks, Divine Accidents is a sonic journey through a wondrous cinematic landscape, ushering you into Vig, Jenks and Grillo’s universe from the off with soaring opener Divine Accidents before casting a spell with the enchanting psychedelia of I Colour You In and the interstellar pop stylings of Weight of the World.
For all of 2020’s doom and gloom, Butch has kept busy. The finishing touches to Divine Accidents were added from his Los Angeles home studio while tracking was completed on Garbage’s new album just before lockdown hit.
What can we expect from the follow up to 2016’s Strange Little Birds? He reveals front woman Shirley Manson may have prophecised our traumatic year.
“We just finished a new Garbage album and the lyrics that Shirley has written very much reflect the world we live in right now”, Butch adds. “But the funny thing is, she finished most of them in the months leading up to the pandemic but they resonate very much about the world we live in. It’s like she had a foreshadow of what was going to happen.
“Musically it’s quite dark, some of it’s edgy. Some of it is beautiful, spacey, but some of it is disruptive and jarring sounding. It’s very eclectic but it still sounds like Garbage.”
And while we may see a Garbage tour in 2021, next year also marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s seminal second album Nevermind – a record produced by Butch. It went on to be one of the most iconic albums of all time, selling in excess of 30 million copies.
“The reason it still holds up is because there’s a relentless question of what the world is in Kurt’s singing and his lyrics”, he adds. “He doesn’t quite understand and I think you hear that in his delivery. I think a lot of people related to that when it came out and I think they still do.”
Butch sat down with Daily Star Online’s Rory McKeown from his Los Angeles home to talk about Divine Accidents’ creation, its collaborators and influences, how he’s navigated lockdown, his favourite emerging artists, new Garbage material, and the legacy of Nevermind.
Hi Butch – how’s your experience of lockdown been? How’ve you navigated the past few months?
“I’m lucky. I’m sitting here in my home studio in Silver Lake in Los Angeles and I’ve been very busy. I was lucky to have finished the mixing of 5 Billion In Diamonds in January. We finished tracking Garbage the week lockdown went in effect, in the middle of March. We had all the recording done, so most of April and May we finished the last bits. It was all done via file sharing. It just slows the process down but we were able to get everything done.
“I’ve been doing a tonne of other stuff. Writing music, producing some tracks. There was a big election here, I did a lot of pro-bono music for some spots to get people out and vote. My daughter is at home doing school via Zoom. She’s really into the arts and I’ve been doing musical things with her and her classmates.
“We’re trying to stay safe. LA has been pretty OK lately but, like everyone, people feel stir crazy. Even though people are being cautious, I feel like people are going out more and more. I’m lucky I’m in a great place to work in.”
Speaking of the election, has the feeling changed at all in LA?
“When they announced the last state, Pennsylvania, for Biden, they announced it at 6.45am. We were still asleep and all of a sudden you hear pots banging, people drumming, horns. We ran to our window and the whole neighbourhood, people were going crazy. We put on our coats and some masks on and walked down to the lake at the bottom of the hill – everybody was out cheering. We drove up to Sunset Boulevard and there were loads of people.
“There’s a sigh of relief here. I think even whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, the last four years have been chaotic, especially this year with a lot of racism, Covid shutting everything down…it’s really messed the economy. It’s been really disruptive. People are looking for a change that will maybe heal the nation a little bit.
“I’m an optimist in that sense.”
It must be great to have a breather from it all!
“Yeah, I think everybody has taken a big sigh of relief.”
You’ve returned with 5 Billion In Diamonds’ Divine Accidents. You mentioned it was pretty much done at the beginning of the year. What was its writing and recording process like this time around compared the self-titled effort?
“The first album was a bit more difficult in the sense that when we started it, we didn’t have a clear vision. Andy, James and I started writing music that was sort of meant for an imaginary film soundtrack. Initially it was all instrumentals, then we decided we should get some singers on for a song or two.
“We loved that process and, while we kept finding singers and working on the tracks, we realised that one of the reasons it was a tough process was that we were writing music in a void. We would have to find a fit with a singer. Does it work with Ebbot from The Soundtrack of Our Lives? Does it work with Helen? Does it work with David Schelzel?
“It was a slow process because sometimes we’d give them a track and they’d send it back and it didn’t seem to work or they weren’t sure what to do with it. The first record ended up being great, we all fell in love with it.
“The week it was released, when we were doing marketing and interviews, James, Andy and I started writing new music for the second record. We felt a lot of confidence and a clearer direction as we wrote the music specifically for singers. Knowing how Ebbot sings or James Bagshaw from Temples sings. It was just easier. We have a sensibility of how they sound and what they like. It was easier in the sense that once we had music and gave it to the artists to sing, it clicked right away. They came up with their locals and melody lines really quick.
“It was a confident, faster process than the first album.”
The first album was built on influences and inspirations – was it quite similar this time around?
“We really opened up the palette I think. The first album was very much influenced by 60s and 70s film soundtracks like Dario Argento. Any obscure, one-off psychedelic folk wonders. James Grillo has a huge record collection and he’d constantly play us these obscure B-sides and would reference a riff and would say ‘this is what this song should sound like’.
“The new record, Divine Accidents, has those influences as well but also I hear 80s and 90s. A couple of the songs specifically were written with those references in mind. Into Your Symphony is definitely a nod to The Cure, The Smiths or The The. I can hear all those bands in that song. There are some 90s references creeping in, obscure hip-hop things here and there.”
It’s sonically sprawling. From the horns that come in on Colour You In to the absorbing psychedelic synths of Let It Get Away From You and the soaring pop of Weight of the World. What was it like seeing the album blossom?
“Andy Jenks is an amazing keyboard player. He plays a lot of the old analogue keyboards, like Wurlitzer, organ, and acoustic piano. There are a lot of keyboards on the record. Some of them are quite subtle, some are meant to be ear candy and fairy dust. We’d say ‘Andy, it needs more fairy dust and ear candy’, and he’d put on these little keyboards. Those are sprinkled through the record a lot. It’s one of the things that gives the record a sonic identity.
“I mixed everything here at my studio and I have a hardware rack that I go through before I go back to ProTools. I write everything in the same chain. I try to get it so there’s some consistency there. All the singers are different sounding. While the songs do sound different stylistically, there is a cohesiveness. A lot of that is from some of the textures, spaciness and the psychedelic folk aspect we bring to the songs.”
What dynamics did the collaborators bring this time?
“This time we gave the collaborators a lot of leeway. We wanted them to feel free to try to do anything they felt like. I think everyone felt easier with that because we tailor made the songs to each singer or collaborator. It was an easier fit for them to come on board.
“I can’t think of anything that was difficult. On Bodega Bay, that we wrote for David and Helen, we came up with this bridge with a lot of vocals. Then we decided that it felt better stripped back. We kept it still very much a duet between David and Helen. The whole song is them talking back and forth to each other.
“The artists found it a lot easier. We want them to own the song,to have their identity firmly stamped on it.”
Is there a song on the album you’re particularly proud of?
“I love a lot of the tracks. I love Into Your Symphony. We wrote the music really fast. David wasn’t here at the time. He lives over in Minneapolis. When he came over he sang it really fast. That came together really quickly.
“I really like The Unknown that Martin sings. To me it’s one of the tracks that sounds most like a film soundtrack. It’s all orchestral, except at the end. The song was mixed and James and I had heard ELP’s Lucky Man in the car on the radio. At the end I put on this soaring Moog Solo, because that’s what Keith Emerson does at the end. It’s an amazing track. What we put down doesn’t sound the same but it was inspired by that. I think that was the last thing we recorded.
“I also love Hurt No More, that Helen sings. We really tapped into something. It’s quite intimate in the verses and I love the vibe on it. It’s so spare. It’s one of my favourite songs.”
Are you excited in terms of where the project is going?
“5 Billion In Diamonds is a different space for me. It’s a different headspace. I’m not really the main producer, I’m not really the main songwriter. I’m a collaborator with my good friends James and Andy, and all the musicians who work with us are great. We have a rule in the band – there’s no vibe crushers. If they bring in a bad vibe or bad juju, there’s no reason we want to work with them.
“We’re really lucky to have picked people who have just clicked. It’s really fun working on these songs. There are no expectations that we’re going to go to the top of the charts. It’s very much a labour of love by all involved. It’s pretty cool to be in a band like this.”
Are you already thinking of who to bring in next?
“The list keeps growing. I have a shortlist of some singers as well as some players. We utilised, as you pointed out, the horns more. There’s more flute on this record. Our flute player Helen lives in Iceland. She’s amazing. James Grillo is made for flute. He would put flute on every song.
“We’re not going to jump into the next record right away. We’re going to live with this one for a bit. We’re trying to promote it more. We’re working out another video. We were talking about some live shows but we can’t do that. No one can. So we’re on hold. But we would like to at some point next year. That would be the next step for us, to see what we can take from the studio and onto a stage.”
Are you thinking about how it will look stylistically?
“It will have a 60s and 70s psychedelic light show vibe, as well as film screens because we love films so much. A lot of the time we were here we would watch movies, whether we’re at my studio or at Andy’s Christchurch Studios in Bristol. We have movies on a lot of time for vibe.
“The title of the album came from a documentary on Orson Welles. Towards the end of the film, he’s mumbling about something. He says ‘The best thing about filmmaking is divine accidents. You have to remember when they happen and to use them’ or something like that. James and I looked at each other and said ‘Divine Accidents’ and thought that was a good name for an album.”
What films are you into?
“James and I watch a lot of music documentaries. There are some on BBC 6 and there are a bunch on Netflix or on Amazon Prime. But a lot of the time it’s culty films from the 60s and 70s. We’d watch Wicker Man, which is great. Dario Argento films. One of his films, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, is a real trip. It’s inspiring to see films like that, that have great visuals when you’re working in the studio.”
You’ve worked with a host of bands and musicians over the years, what do you make of the music scene currently and do you think it can recover post pandemic? Looking at venues that are going to be affected because there are no gigs.
“I think people are consuming more and ever because they’re at home or they’re not out or in their office space, or busy hanging with friends. We’ve seen an uptick in streaming, not just me but the music industry. I’ve spoken to some people I know who work in radio, their ratings are up on everything.
“But I think the biggest thing is a lot of people are itching to get out and play live. I know so many musicians who make a living through performing live. They are screwed right now. They’re really struggling. It’s going to be a slow process to get back to live events because we don’t even know when there will be a safe vaccine and we don’t even know who will take it.
“Venues, there’s going to be this whole thing where do people even trust going into an enclosed room with people for two or three hours? The promotors there’s insurance and keeping people safe.
“I think by the end of 2021, I think that’s a long way from now, but I feel we will be starting to get back to speed. Fingers crossed.”
Are you looking forward to the music that’s going to be produced from beginning of lockdown to now? There’s been more focus on making music because artists have got more time. Do you think there’s going to be an explosion of great stuff?
“I do. Music always reflects the world we live in – arts, politics, culture. This affected everyone across the entire planet. Artists usually, even if they’re not aware of that, it’s channeled into the music or art they create. I have a feeling there are going to be a lot of records that are reflective and some that are quite disruptive in a way.
“We just finished a new Garbage album and the lyrics that Shirley has written very much reflect the world we live in right now. But the funny thing is, she finished most of them in the months leading up to the pandemic but they resonate very much about the world we live in. It’s like she had a foreshadow of what was going to happen.
“Musically it’s quite dark, some of it’s edgy. Some of it is beautiful, spacey, but some of it is disruptive and jarring sounding. It’s very eclectic but it still sounds like Garbage. For better or worse, it still sounds like Garbage.”
Are you looking forward to getting Garbage back up and running? When’s the album out?
“I’m guessing it will come out in June next year and we’re looking at trying to play some shows in August or September. That’s our goal, anyway.”
Coming over to the UK, hopefully?
“Definitely. We’re doing a big arena run with Blondie. We toured with them across the States a couple of years ago and it was so much fun. We had a blast hanging out with them. They’re awesome people. Deborah Harry is fantastic. Her and Shirley get along thick as thieves. That might be the first thing we do actually, an arena run with Blondie.”
We approach the 30th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind next year. Do you ever think about its legacy and impact? Why do you think it’s stood the test of time as one of the most seminal albums out there?
“I never really think about the legacy of Nevermind. I’ve never played it at home. I hear out on the culture and the world, it’s on the radio. It’s everywhere. People talk about it and I get asked questions about it when I’m doing press, which is fine.
“It’s one of those records that was a zeitgeist moment. It changed the world, in a way. It changed my life and it changed everybody who worked closely with the band. It changed their life and it’s one of those profound moments that you’re lucky to have that sometimes you only get once.
“The reason it still holds up is because there’s a relentless question of what the world is in Kurt’s singing and his lyrics. He doesn’t quite understand and I think you hear that in his delivery. I think a lot of people related to that when it came out and I think they still do.
“The record sounds really good and the songs are killer. They’re super hooky. If they’d written a bunch of different songs, maybe the album wouldn’t have turned out that way. It’s a collection of killer songs and amazing performances. Kurt tapped into the psyche of the world, of a generation that was questioning what are we doing.”
Do you ever think we’ll see an alternative rock album as big as that?
“Possibly. The thing is everybody says to me every year ‘rock is dead’ or ‘rock is making a comeback’. Rock is not going away. It’s not on top 40 radio and probably won’t be on top 40 radio for a long time until somebody writes music that the culture is ready for or people get bored with the current music they’re listening to.
“That’s kind of what happened with Nevermind. It was perfectly set up for a change in music. They ushered in the alternative boom of the early 90s.
“The world is so different now. When Nevermind happened it came out of nowhere. It was a mystery. It’s really hard for that to happen these days with social media and streaming and FaceTime. Everybody knows about everybody, where they live and what kind of food they eat.
“Then you have an artist like Billie Eilish, who just became huge. She’s tapped into that same zeitgeist that people really love her because they want to hear what she has to say. The production is amazing and very much 2020. I find her incredibly exciting.
“I feel that there could be a rock band that breaks through in the future. But when that is I don’t know, and what exactly they are going to sound like, that remains to be seen. It will happen at some point.”
What are your hopes looking ahead?
“I am excited about making music. I’m very lucky to have a studio. It’s not real fancy but it has all the tools I need to make music.
“What I miss the most is collaborating with people. I really like being in rooms. When I go into a studio, I have an idea in my head of what could happen, but it never ends up that way. You don’t know what path you’re going to go. That is the best thing about recording. I still love it so much. I’ve been making music now nearly 35-40 years. It’s all I really know what to do, I don’t have many hobbies. Maybe I should take up knitting or something or turn into a poker player.
“I am excited about the state of music. Not so much top 40 music but when I listen to a lot of these internet blogs, they play a lot of cool, underground new music. Because of technology young musicians can make astounding, sounding tracks in their basements on their laptops. They can put it out and it can viral in 24 hours and a million people can hear it. That didn’t happen 20 years ago.
“The technology and tools available for a generation of young artists are incredible. I really feel like they’re utilising that. Because of that there is so much music coming out, you really have to be patient and listen to a lot of different tracks until you find something you fall in love with. A lot of the music is good, but some of it is mediocre. When you hear a track that’s stellar and rising above everything, it’s exciting to hear that. I love the production sounds I hear. I love the arrangements that are coming out.”
You mentioned Billie Eilish. Is there anyone else that jumps out at you that you’ve been impressed by?
“I’m a huge Tame Impala fan. Kevin Parker has been around for a while but I love his production. I got really obsessed with his snare drum sound, not on the latest record but the record before. He released a couple of songs that I absolutely loved.
“One of the songs we wrote on Divine Accidents is a little bit of a nod to Kevin Parker. It’s the song James Bagshaw sings, Let It Get Away From You. When we started writing that I said we should pop a little bit of Tame Impala in there. It doesn’t really sound like Tame Impala but that’s where the inspiration came from because we’re all fans of Tame Impala.”
5 Billion In Diamonds’ Divine Accidents is out now via MAKE Records