While Ken was cutting my hair, they were rocking across the street.
You may know Smart Studios as the place where Nirvana recorded some of the “Nevermind” demos, where Garbage recorded its albums. Some of the others who recorded there: Smashing Pumpkins, Everclear and Son Volt. Oh, yeah, and two local legends — drummer Clyde Stubblefield and jazz musician Ben Sidran.
It was (and is) as you see it above — just an old red brick building with no sign.
When I moved to Madison in the early ’80s, I lived two blocks away from that building. Smart Studios started nearby in 1984, then moved to the old red brick building in the late ’80s.
All that time, I went to Ken’s Barber Shop across the street.
Ken’s was a two-chair shop. Ken and his wife Shirley cut hair side by side. They were in their late 30s, early 40s then, about 10 years older than me. Buzz cuts, fades, Mohawks, didn’t matter to Ken. Heads were pretty much all the same. Certainly, the money was all the same.
Ken mentioned one day that “they were bangin’ around” in the old red brick building across the street. Whether that meant the sound of construction or the sound of late-’80s indie bands, he didn’t say.
So, yeah, that was Smart Studios, cloaked in anonymity.
I never knew Butch Vig, who co-founded the place with Steve Marker. At the time, Vig was in Spooner, a band he and three pals started in 1975. Spooner’s pop/rock/roots sound was well known and much loved, especially in college towns across the Midwest.
“Burn It All Down,” Spooner, 1986, From “The Mad Scene,” a 1986 compilation of Madison bands. The liner notes say “Compilation of songs by Butch Vig, Smart Studios, Madison, WI.” This tune also was on “The Fugitive Dance,” Spooner’s last album, released in 1990. Both albums are out of print.
(Also on this comp? A virtual who’s who of Madison bands of the time: The Rousers, Actual Sighs, The White Sisters, Tony Brown Band, Swamp Thing, Paul Black and the Flip Kings, EIEIO, Phil Gnarly and the Tough Guys, The Dans, Honor Among Thieves and Ivory Library.)
The rest of the story?
In the late ’80s, Butch Vig spun off Fire Town, a group with a sound similar to that of Spooner, and it also became regionally popular. In the early ’90s, Vig started working more as a producer and less with Spooner. The group disbanded in 1993. A year later, Garbage came together at Smart Studios, with Vig as the drummer. Now he lives in Los Angeles, still producing, still occasionally working with Garbage but also composing soundtracks.
Dave Benton, who played guitar in Spooner, also ran a record store in Madison. I spent a lot of money at MadCity Music Exchange in the ’80s. Dave sold the store a couple of years ago. Now Dave sells at shows, and I’m again buying records from him.
Ken and Shirley got divorced a few years back.
Ken’s Barber Shop has been gone for several years now, too. The bar next door has taken over the space it once occupied.
Photo: From Flickr, by AccidentalOcelot.