It's been four years since Madison's Smart Studios shut down, but local musicians refer to it so fondly that one might think it's still alive and kicking. Bands that recorded there, from Nirvana to Death Cab for Cutie, have inspired legions of other acts. After launching the studio in 1983, Butch Vig and Steve Marker went on to form their own hugely successful band, Garbage, in 1994. Former Smart staff are now some of the most sought-after sound engineers in town. Another ex-employee, Wendy Schneider, is a filmmaker on the rise. She's been traveling the country, laying the groundwork for a documentary called The Smart Studios Story.
Schneider turned to Kickstarter to raise $120,000 for the project by March 30. Supporters can snag photos autographed by Vig and Marker, or even a credit in the film. The trailer features sound bites from members of legendary local bands like Killdozer and promises that the film will highlight an essential link between Madison rock bands and the Seattle sound that began emerging in the mid-1980s.
"[Smart] ended up starting a chain reaction that really did change popular music," Marker recently told Isthmus.
Vig is proud of the quality work Smart produced, as well as the focus on local and regional acts.
"I think over 90% of the bands came from within a 100-mile radius," he says.
Smart became so popular that it could have moved to New York or L.A., but Vig and Marker insisted on keeping it local. They had friends here, and a Madison address helped cement the studio's indie cred.
"Being in the Midwest, we were always kind of left to our own devices. There was very little interference from corporate powers, even after we had some major-label success," Vig says.
Plus, he and Marker simply loved Madison and its deep pool of musical talent.
"To be able to have...Clyde Stubblefield come down and do a session is just amazing," Marker says.
Schneider says she chose to make a film because the medium offers a "theatrical component."
"You can gather five or 500 people in a room, and they can all be part of the same experience, similar to going to a live show," she says. "I believe it to be one of the most powerful forms of messaging and storytelling."
Schneider also likes how films can stitch together music, art, interviews and more. Music is what drew her to Smart in the first place, even though she had no experience recording bands. Vig and Marker took her in because she was eager to learn.
"I moved to Madison with an '80s New York multimedia-production background. Smart was the antithesis of that. It was laidback but dedicated; it was about the artist and the music," she explains.
This experience should help her frame the story in a way that feels true to the studio's identity, which hinged upon making bands feel comfortable.
Vig says he misses Smart's communal vibe, along with the many strange and wonderful experiences, from ice-cream-eating marathons to a recording session where Killdozer singer Mike Gerald requested tuba sounds, gunshots and radio farm reports.
With anecdotes like these, the film will help people remember Smart for a very long time.