Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, and …Norm’s Headache? – Recording at Smart Studios in the 90’s Interview with Bob Reich

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Today I had a chance to talk to my friend Bob Reich, who used to play in a band called Norm’s Headache in the Wisconsin area in the mid-90’s (they were from LaCrosse).  Norm’s Headache was a typical configuration for a rock band – 4 members, with Bob on bass, Mark Sauer on guitar, Paul Milisch on vocals, and Eric Nordstrom on drums.  Here below is the band mascot – Garbice The Gargoyle.

Like many bands from the 1990’s, Norm’s Headache were fairly eclectic musically and had their sights set on stardom… until reality set in, dashing their rock dreams with more sensible things like college. 

Along the way, the band ended up recording an EP at Butch Vig and Steve Marker’s Smart Studios, the same place that was visited by many famous and infamous rock bands as Tar Babies and The Fresh Young Fellows in the 1980’s, and  Nirvana (where they recorded demos for Nevermind), the Smashing Pumpkins (who recorded Gish there) in the 1990’s.  The list of bands that passed through the doors of Smart Studios through its lifetime as a studio would make your average music hipster flip their berret. 

Smart Studios – A Quick History

Butch and Steve’s studio opened in 1983 in Madison Wisconsin and first resided in the Gisholt Machine Manufacturing Building, and a few years later in 1987 moved over to 1254 East Washington Avenue into “one damn ugly looking building”.  This “crackhouse”-esque building (as Butch has said it resembled) quickly became a local go-to destination for bands to go record and not have to pay an arm and a leg.  From the exterior, the place seemed rather unassuming during the daytime, as you can see from the picture below.

But inside of Smart Studios, as the ’80’s ended and the 1990’s began, things were beginning to shape up into a sonic environment that could help bands get a big beefy sound that so many aspiring musicians were after around this time.  With their musical history rooted in punk rock and always connected to very idiosyncratic and extremely talented music makers, Butch and Steve became adept at getting whatever sound was appropriate to the band, including the heavy rock sound du jour.  Particularly when it came to drums, which was Butch’s first musical love, Smart Studios had a wicked drum sound if that’s what you were after.  

Clearly, Smart Studios was a happening joint in the 1990’s, and this is partly why Bob and his band Norm’s Headache ventured there to record at the time, because big things were actually possible back then, and, who knows…Norm’s Headache might have been destined to be the next big thing.  Remember – this was pre-internet times being the mid-90’s, and the music industry was probably at the peak in terms of bands still having hope to become nationwide superstars. 

So yeah, Norm’s Headache heard about Smart Studios through the grapevine, and bee-lined it there to get some tracks done.  The price seemed to be just right for doing a 3-song EP, even though they tried to squeeze four songs out of the two-day 12-hours-a-day session.  Butch even popped in for a minute to sprinkle some pixie dust on their drums.  Nice!

Because Smart Studios has been the host to many of my favourite bands and records, I just had to talk to Bob to get the inside semi-fanboy perspective on how it all went down with Norm’s Headache back in the mid-90’s. 

Here is my interview with Bob Reich, talking 90’s rock and Smart Studios.  Enjoy!

YC: Hey Bob, what’s the good word my man?

Bob: Not much Dave, just sitting here getting some quite time from my 11 month old son.  It is midnight.

YC: Ah very good, glad I could barge in and start asking questions.

Bob: No, it nice to talk to adults now and then.

YC: I wanted to ask you about Smart Studios, the place in Madison, Wisconsin.

Bob: Great, I love that place!

YC: You know the place, founded by Butch Vig and Steve Marker.  And has been graced by several notable bands over the years – The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Death Cab For Cutie, L7, et al.

Bob: Yeah I sure do

YC: So yeah, you were there in the mid 90’s with your band, eh?

Bob: I was, we were in the Studio in 1996.  The band, not relevant today at all was called, Norm’s Headache.  Which was a terrible choice band name but regardless, It landed our name on the website roster of bands that have recorded at Smart Studios.  We were in between Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails!  I do have a picture of that, for times I need a good laugh.

YC: That’s really funny..How’d you end up there?

Bob: The band was from the town LaCrosse Wisconsin, which is 2 hours away from Madison on I90.  Back then the internet was still a baby, so I believe at the point in time we found an add in the Madison music magazine, Maximum ink.  The add was for 3 songs for something really dirt cheap, I can’t remember.  It was maybe $400 or 600 dollars.  Basically it was a down time for the studio, so they would book these “weekend gigs”

YC: Nice.. were you aware of the pedigree of bands who were stopping by?  Like did you go “oh shit, the Pumpkins!”  The price itself seems really good.

Bob: We were aware, and not as aware as things are today with the internet.  Back then, it was work of mouth and wen you actually bought CD’s that had printed information on it.  Like where it was recorded and by who.  But mentioning the whole, word of mouth and only knowing so much and not EVERYTHING, I think that really amped up the experience that much more.

And at that time, I was really excited about the studio owners band, Garbage.  They were brand new and had just started to do shows.  That was exciting.

But, going back to the Smashing Pumpkins,  yeah, I think that was the second album I bought from them even though that was their first album.  That’s when I started to get thoughts of why would a band come to Wisconsin of all places to record an album?

My holy shit was, Nirvana did their demos for Nevermind there.  That was probably the album that really pushed me into music.  I was a huge fan of them, I guess it crossed my mind that I sat on the same toilet as Kurt Cobain did, not, hey you are using the same  microphones and equipment, nope it was the toilet!

YC: lol incredible…maybe he even pissed on the seat who knows

Bob: Haha, yeah he probably did!

YC: So how long were you guys there? and what did you do there?

Bob: We were young and arrogant.  The ad clearly said 3 songs!  My drummer was pushy and wanted to do a fourth song and our engineer, who seemed really irritated did it anyway.  Man, I feel so bad, but also he could of said no.

The tracks were

1. Balls for all

2. God Gotten

3. 16volt

4. Time Machine

Never amounted to anything other than a home on Myspace after the fact the band had disbanded.  I guess we titled the ep, if there were one, Smart Sessions…or is it LP? I think its EP.

YC: Yeah it’s EP.  What sound were you going for?

Bob: I don’t think there was a sound in mind.  But, my bass has this over the top tone that is much louder than it should be.  It’s a very familiar tone you can hear on the Smashing Pumpkins records.  Let me clarify, thats how my bass came out on the recording.  Which also, pissed my guitar player off.  But , I think it does the tracks well.

YC: But you guys were basically a rock band.. 4 piece?

Bob: Yeah a standard 4 piece, 1 guitar, bass, drums and vocals.

YC: When you went there, were you hoping to run into Butch or anything?  did you know who your producer would be?

Bob: Oh I for sure was hoping to run into Butch, and hopefully Shirley Manson, I sort of had a crush on her back then.  We didn’t know who the engineer was when we booked. I still don’t know his name?  He wasn’t the most pleasant guy, until the session was done.  Haha, I think he was happy it over with!

YC: Were you guys obnoxious? ?  Like who would you compare your band to musically?  Are we talking the Germs, or Genesis?  Like did anyone wear a cape in the band?

Bob: Not obnoxious, stupid is a better word.  We were young and full of our selves.  Like asking for a fourth song, and for me, I think I kept taking mountain dews out of the fridge because I thought they were complimentary.  When we first arrived they treated us like we were rock stars.  So, I guess I thought I was. Another example was, the first time we met Butch, the guitar player and singer were out on the patio smoking pot like fucking dumbasses.  Butch walks out, super cool and was like, hows it going guys and then sits down and reads the paper.  We were just stupid.

YC: So you were kinda stoked because you were into Garbage at the time?  I remember liking Garbage, but not being like crazy about them.  I have a friend who was always into Shirley Manson.  Love of redheads ?

Bob: Ugh, that’s a tough question.  I think we were probably influenced my Stone temple pilots and sabbath.  Which Im not sure sounds like I would order that on a menu.  BTW, we were old.

YC: funny i don’t hear too many people say their main influences are STP. 

Bob: Yeah, I like Garbage and I think it was because, whoa Butch Vig is in a band, and with a hot chick!  So, I think it was more into her than the band.  They were super polished sounding, ya know.  I don’t either, but those brothers are amazing song writers and players!

YC: You’re saying you were old.. like how old were you guys at the time?

Bob: Yeah, i mean wasn’t it Butch and some other producer dudes and then Shirley?

YC: to me it just looked like these real adult men and this kinda hot chick

Bob: Not old, young.  Super green.  Maybe haven’t found out how to play and record the best young!  17 years old.

YC: Aha.. why’d you say “we were old” then? yeah i love STP.. that’s why even though Scott’s dead, there’s still STP but we’ll see how good their new stuff is with that new guy…it sounds ok so far to me…but anyway yeah.. Smart Studios…

Bob: I dont know man, I might of typed wrong.  Im old now!

YC: it is a bit late

Bob: Scott died about 20 miles from me, I remember when I heard that he OD’ed I nearly jumped in my car to go check out what happened because I was so close.

YC: holy fuck

Bob: Crazyness…Back to Smart

YC: i’m not editing that out btw…i hate editing

Bob: Thats fine, haha

YC: it’s all or nothing

Bob: fuck it

YC: anyway yeah, so did you use any stuff used by any of those famous bands then?  like a drum key at least? anything?? besides the toilet

Bob: It was a small enough studio, this was like a 3 bedroom condo type place.  Looks like a real shit hole from the outside.  But the inside was a $3million dollar set up.  It was beautiful.  So for the equipment, it was used by everyone, including us. I do remember we couldn’t afford to buy the tape, so we “rented” some tape, which meant we recorded over a band that had just got finished a record produced by Art Alexkakis from Everclear a few weeks prior.  Although I don’t remember the band off hand.  But I had to laugh, because even having a big name musician producer your album, you were to broke to buy the tape too!

YC: that’s really funny lol ..

Bob: To be fair, tape is expensive!

YC: yeah.. indeed

Bob: I think this was 2 inch tape

YC: i guess they didn’t want to get robbed…that’s a good technique

Bob: Yeah I suppose, I have the DAT masters, what would I do with 2 inch tape right now?

YC: i don’t know.. my buddy is getting into tape…give it to him…he’ll have a field day

Bob: I hope tape makes a come back, digital is not the same.  We all know that, im just going to say it anyway

YC: it’s true.. i know that now .. working on some tape shit here…but anyway, so there you guys were.. in Smart Studios, walking on the same carpet as my man Jimmy Chamberlin, and D’arcy, and James Iha, and Mr. Zero…did you feel any inkling that YOU might have been the next Everclear? i mean.. who knows!

Bob: yeah as you say that I get flash backs of walking around seeing all the gold records on the wall, or platinum . But, there those records I loved so much, on the wall.  Amazing!  I have a past with Everlcear, maybe that should be another interview.  But they played our local venue so often they became friends with my older musician buddies.  So, we were around them a lot.  But, I don’t know if I got the same feels from Knowing everclear made a record at smart vs. The pumpkins!

YC: yeah seems like you had some interesting bands in your area…i mean, Everclear did get pretty big at one point..they get played on the radio still

Bob: Like I mentioned we were on I90, in between Chicago and Minneapolis. and we were lucky enough to have an all ages club.

YC: what kind of studio gear did they have at Smart? ie. mixing board etc

Bob: So, big bands would play LaCrosse in between gigs in Minneapolis, Madison and Chichago.

YC: ah i get cha

Bob: The board in the main studio was a trident, had like 60 inputs and there was a harrison in the mixing studio.  It had automated faders, which I tought was amazing!  They typical mics, not sure about the preamps and effects, but there was probably 50-100 rack units.  I dont know if I felt comfortable to even get close to the board!  That alone was probably a million dollars.

YC: are you a gear guy?  you are, aren’t you?

Bob: I probably am, but I don’t remember at the time.

YC: so did you end up getting a really great sounding record out of it then? Norm’s Headache lol

Bob: It made us sound much bigger than we probably have ever sounded.  I think the sound was ok, not my favorite, I more of natural sound lover.  Mark Trombino is my guy, he has a very big, but natural sound.  I remember at one point Butch came in to give our engineer a hand on the snare.  I think what they eneded up doing was making trigger sounds, so they would sound the same for each hit.  In the end, it sounds a bit compressed.  The overall record I think sounds decent, I do love the bass sort of giving a fullness, maybe way too loud, sound!

YC: what kind of bass did you use?

Bob: I had a fender Jazz. But I used that on an ampeg SVT, which I think gives it that great sound.

YC: so that was your first record for you guys?

Bob: No, that was our 4th and last.  Smart was the best studio we recorded at.

YC: well i’d expect so with all that fancy gear…oh you guys had more material

Bob: yeah for sure!  I hope you can post a picture of what smart studios looks like from the road!

YC: i’ll google maps it

Bob: We had more tunes!

YC: so why’d you guys crash and burn? heroin?

Bob: Like most bands, 3/4 went to college and the 1/4 tried to make it work in other bands! Typical rock in roll story

YC: So it just kinda ended eh?

Bob: It totally did.  we played a few well received re-unions every year after for a few years.  There are talks about doing a reunion this next winter, maybe you should come to Wisconsin, Dave? Did I mention our van broke down on the way to Smart Studios?

YC: nope…and ya i could sing backups lol

Bob: Deal!  Yeah, this probably made us look young and stupid to them as well.  We missed our time by probably 2 hours. We were probably 30 minutes away when the drive shaft snapped off and sent us off the road.  I happened to be sleeping the bunk at the time, and man that was fucking scary.  Not at all similar to Clif Burton’s story.  We had to flag someone down, I think a cop finally showed up and called a tow truck.  He towed us to town, but would not stop at the studio first to drop off equipment.  So we had to walk our gear about a half a mile to the studio.

YC: shit…well good you didn’t roll over or anything

Bob: Yeah, I wouldve been toast

YC: so how long were you at the studio recording

Bob: I think we did two 12 hour days.

YC: so the weekend thing

Bob: It probably was a Tuesday Wednesday thing.

YC: ah. so it wasn’t the weekend dealy thing

Bob: It was for sure the deal, but I think it was a weekday?  I dont recall 23 years ago to well!

YC: that’s a pretty crazy schedule though. 

Bob: It really makes me wonder how much it cost to keep a studio going.  I mean, this buildings rent wasnt that high im guessing.  and they had major lable acts paying to record there?  So why have these cheap packages?

YC: who the hell knows eh

Bob: I can see why they are out of business now, digital sort of killed small studios.  by the way, have you seen the documentary?

YC: the Smart Studios Story? yeah actually, it’s great!

Bob: hm maybe we should post a link

YC: ya lots of studios went under around that time i suppose

Bob: I know its online somewhere

YC: i’ll find it

Bob: insert affliate link

YC: lol…yeah i’ll put it at the bottom of this post…ok kinda wrapping up here i guess…but one more potentially lengthy question / answer…what was the layout of the studio like..

Bob: The used every inch wisely.  When you walk in the door, you are in the tiny office.  There is the bathroom to the right, and short walk way to the main level control room.  There are also stairs to the second story mixing studio, lounge and kitchen. The control room connects to the isolation rooms, there was one large room for drums and such and 3 small iso booths for amps and such. Such big records were made in this small space, its kind of amazing to think about. The upstairs studio was another isolation area for mixing, it was decent size with nice cozy leather couches. They had this cool disc rack for all the albums that were recorded at the studio.  and you could listen to all them, that was cool.

YC: that is cool…so it was a house you said or like storefront or what

Bob: I believe it is a condo now.  So, it may have been before as well.  Its in a residential neighborhood., but also some small business are around as well.

YC: and it’s totally not there now you say?

Bob: Studio is gone, sadly.  But I have seen what looks like patio furniture and the looks of people living there. The building is still there.

YC: it’s been a while since those golden years

Bob: It has and im sure it makes a lot of people sad.

YC: ya.. i’m used to it around here.  pretty much every cool spot ever has closed

Bob: Oh no kidding?  That is awful, it’s a tough businesss

YC: ya for sure…well at least you got to record there…and you have the album to show for it inaccessibly locked away on a myspace account

Bob: For sure, it was a highlight of my youth…its waiting for a myspace comeback

YC: hope springs eternal

Bob: exactly

YC: ok cool, that’s a wrap!

BONUS: Watch the Smart Studios Story documentary if you get the chance.  Here’s a preview.

Or watch the whole Smart Studios Story on Amazon here

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