Get ready to hear more from Smart Studios.
The long-gone recording studio housed in an unpretentious, East Side warehouse — and the history-making creativity that came out of it, linked to the explosion of alternative rock in the 1990s — is the subject of a new documentary by Madison’s Wendy Schneider.
The film marks its world premiere Wednesday at SXSW, a yearly festival in Austin, Texas, featuring some of the country’s best cutting-edge performance, film and interactive media.
“The Smart Studios Story” also was chosen as the official film of Record Store Day 2016, an event next month celebrating independent music sellers across the globe. It will have its Wisconsin premiere April 17 at the Barrymore Theatre as part of this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival.
And, its creators hope, that’s just the start for “Smart.”
“We’ve had amazing feedback, and tons of support from music fans everywhere, not just Wisconsin. It does surprise me a bit,” said Butch Vig, an executive producer on the film and co-founder of Smart Studios with Steve Marker in 1982.
For 28 years, Smart Studios was a magnet for talent from Madison and then the world, recording groundbreaking names such as Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, L7 and Death Cab for Cutie. The astonishingly long list of groups who honed their sound there include Vig and Marker’s band Garbage, which is about to release its sixth album and will be touring across Europe this summer.
Schneider, 51, began working at Smart as a paid intern in 1992. Within two years she had learned enough about engineering and producing to open her own multi-track recording facility, Coney Island Studios. She went on to produce audio documentaries and the award-winning film “CUT: Teens and Self Injury.”
When Smart Studios announced its closing in 2010, Schneider began what would become a six-year process of interviews and gathering archival footage.
“The Smart Studios Story” includes images ranging from local band photos to phone messages from artists who’d called the studio in the 1980s pleading to record there.
“I love that it gives you a front-row seat to the archives,” Schneider said.
The film is also a tribute to the “humble guys” who made the Midwest an epicenter of alternative rock, she said, starting with a four-track recorder in Marker’s basement. Smart Studios moved to 1254 E. Washington Ave. in 1987.
“None of this would have been made possible if it weren’t for these two guys, Butch and Steve,” Schneider said.
“The ethos that they brought into the community really had a ripple effect. I don’t think that Butch and Steve even realize it, but their work — and their intention, which was so unselfish, and so dedicated and so passionate and so curious — was something that left an impression.”
Both Vig, who now lives in Los Angeles, and Marker, based in Colorado, supported the film from the start, she said.
“I would shoot and send them footage, and they would say, ‘Cool.’” After about a year, “We said, let’s put together a trailer.”
“So we put together a trailer that was about nine minutes long,” she said. “And that’s when Butch felt like it would be great to get people out by him involved, like Shirley (Manson, lead singer for Garbage) and Dave Grohl (of Nirvana/Foo Fighters) and Billy Corgan (of Smashing Pumpkins), who had a connection to the studio.”
Those huge names in alternative music “all came on board and I went out to L.A. and filmed those interviews. Then it really became a much bigger movie,” Schneider said.
“When you have a marquee of amazing musicians and artists, you have a personal connection to your subject, it changes things,” she said. “I think I got a lot of momentum from those interviews. And I felt a responsibility to finish it as a movie and not just a collection of memories, which I had started out doing.”
To help pay editing costs for the film, Schneider launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 that raised $120,000 in online gifts. That success proved that Smart Studios not only has fans in Madison, but also “all over the U.S. as well as Europe and Australia,” Vig said in an email to the State Journal.
“This is really Wendy’s film,” he said. “She’s poured a lot of sweat and passion into it for the last six years.
“I knew she was the right person to make the documentary because she has a personal history with Smart, she knows the history of the Madison music scene, and she’s a great filmmaker,” he said. “She called me as soon as we announced we were closing Smart. It was really her idea to make the documentary.”
Smart Studios also was the subject of a 2012 exhibition at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. Prior to this week’s world premiere of “The Smart Studios Story,” however, film fans will have to rely on a fast-paced trailer at www.smartstudiosdocumentary.com to get a sense of the history it covers.
Benjamin Reiser, coordinator of the Wisconsin Film Festival, got a sneak peek at Schneider’s film as a festival entry. He expects the local premiere at the Barrymore “to be a very popular screening,” he said.
The film “is a perfect fit for us, (because) it exemplifies our Wisconsin’s Own section, with tremendous community interest and support,” Reiser said. “It’s also a lot of fun.”
The film is also headed to a private screening in Los Angeles, and will be shown April 13 at CIMMfest Chicago. Both Vig and Marker are scheduled to return to Madison April 16 for an appearance at Madcity Music Exchange for Record Store Day.
Beyond those events, “We’re still looking for distribution” of the film, said Vig.
“A limited theatrical run would be great, but I think we will be looking at some of the new distribution avenues like Netflix and Amazon, and a lot of the smaller cable or internet channels which are looking for content,” he said. “I think we want to find the right fit, and hopefully give the film a chance to find an audience.”
Schneider calls “The Smart Studios Story” “the first documentary that peels back (this) layer of Midwest independent music.”
“I’m excited to see what conversations start as a result of the movie — because it’s not, for me, where this history ends,” she said. “It’s just the beginning of a dimensional look at bands and music and the community, and what it all meant and how it evolved.”