Smart Studios and Madison’s Musical Legacy

“SMART” banner by Dennis Nechvatal.
Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, ID #2011.63.2.

The story of Smart Studios begins with Butch Vig and Steve Marker, who met while attending the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the mid 1970s. Though neither Vig nor Marker knew much about professional production or running a business, they were music lovers that operated through a sense of passion and their own self-taught methods. These were qualities they carried with them when they established Smart Studios in 1983, opening their first location in the Gisholt building on East Washington Avenue in Madison. During this time they met Dennis Nechvatal, whose art studio was located just down the hall.

“SMART” banner by Dennis Nechvatal.
Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, ID #2011.63.2.

The Banner
Nechvatal created the “SMART” banner for Smart Studios in their first year of operation. It is hand-painted on a cotton textile canvas and is much larger in person than one would expect. Unlike Nechvatal’s other work, this piece is harsh and chaotic, almost to the point of looking violent. The gritty, haphazard, handmade style of the “SMART” banner makes it highly fitting for both its namesake and its recipient.

Details of the “SMART” banner by Dennis Nechvatal.
Photo by Kaylee Bittner.

Smart Studios
Smart Studios moved across the street to 1254 East Washington Avenue in 1987. They flourished here with their close ties to Madison’s community of music enthusiasts. By 1990, Smart Studios’ work had caught the eye of Sub Pop Records, and in April of that same year, the band Nirvana came to Madison to record at Smart Studios. One of the songs recorded during this session, “Polly,” made it onto Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, which went platinum soon after its release. This was a turning point for Smart Studios and its founders, who would go on to produce music for more recognizable names from all over the globe including The Smashing Pumpkins, L7, Death Cab for Cutie, Fall Out Boy, Garbage, and so on until they closed their doors in 2010.

Nirvana (Left to right: Krist Novoselic, Kurt Cobain, Chad Channing)
at Madison’s WORT 89.9 FM radio station in April, 1990.
Photo by Tyler Jarman.

Not many people would expect that a rundown little building in Madison, Wisconsin, was responsible for producing some of the more legendary music of the late twentieth and early twenty first century, but Smart Studios put Madison on the map as a significant location for the grittier, grungier music scene of the time.

Wisconsin capitol building in Madison.
Courtesy of Pixabay.

Interior of Smart Studios.
Wisconsin Historical Society Archives #80431

Band members of Garbage, including Smart Studios founders Butch Vig and Steve Marker alongside Shirley Manson and Duke Erikson.
Wisconsin Historical Society Archives #93605

Flyer advertising a live show with Nirvana, Tad, and Victims Family at Club Underground in Madison, Wisconsin, April 6th, 1990.
Wisconsin Historical Society Archives #96920

Killdozer, one of the bands that recorded at Smart Studios.
Wisconsin Historical Society Archives #93622

The Smashing Pumpkins, one of the bands that recorded at Smart Studios.
Wisconsin Historical Society Archives #93619

1978 Dennis Nechvatal moves to Madison, WI
1983 Dennis working in artist loft in Gisholt Building down the hall from Butch Vig
1983 Smart Studios opens in Gisholt Building on E. Washington Ave.
1983 Dennis creates “SMART” banner for Butch
1987 Smart Studios moves to 1254 E. Washington Ave. location
1989 works from Killdozer and Die Kreuzen gain attention from Sub Pop Records
1990 Nirvana records at Smart Studios - April
1991 Nevermind released, goes platinum
1993 Smart Studios is remodeled and upgraded
1995 Garbage founded with Butch Vig, Steve Marker, Duke Erikson, and Shirley Manson
2010 Smart Studios closes May 1

The Smart Studios Story:
An Interview with Butch Vig, Steve Marker, and Wendy Schneider

Nevermind the Garbage, Here’s Butch Vig

Why I choose this object?

As both a UW–Madison student and someone who loves music, I knew from the get-go that I wanted to write about Smart Studios as a local connection to some of the bands and artists I’m personally a fan of. The “SMART” banner is not only a cool piece of art, but it perfectly embodies the grungy aesthetic of Smart Studios and the music it produced.


History 401 [Spring 2022]

Leslie A. Bellais