Garbage have come a long way baby, and their blend of electro-rock or techno-pop or whatever you care to call it has produced two great albums. Derek O'Sullivan finds out what it's all about…
Today, in a climate of boy bands, girl bands, bi-bands and godawfully bland bands, Garbage are about as unlikely a pop proposition as it's possible to conceive. After all, who could have predicted that three spookily polarised American men with a combined age of about 120 and a 30-something loose-cannon frontwoman from Edinburgh would somehow stumble upon a pop-roch-tech phenomenon and proceed to generate worldwide album sales approaching 10 million in under five years?
Butch Vig is the drummer-cum studio maestro whose name became household following his production work on Nirvana's Nevermind album. He also, alongside multi-instrumentalist and sound doctor Steve Marker and beatnik-flavoured guitarist-realist Duke Erikson, provides the vehicle that Shirley Manson has piloted towards global success with her paradoxically frightened and frightening brand of vocal posturing and lyrical aptitude.
Touching down in the UK capital, midway through the relentless promotional tour for the band's second album, the chart-topping, multi-platinum Version 2.0, Butch and the boys talk shop in an exclusive interview with FM.
Influences and inclinations
FM: The successful marrying of styles that Garbage have achieved is undoubtedly a key factor in the band's popularity, so how did the sound come about?
Butch: We've always been interested in experimenting in the studio. That's one of the reasons Steve and I started Smart Studios [the band's Wisconsin recording facility], to work on our own music. So any time the place wasn't booked, we'd be playing around with little side projects. We'd plug in the samplers and drum machines, and we might do a punk thing, or a metal thing or an arty, weird thing, and it was a great chance for us to try out ideas.
Then, around 1991-2, we started doing a lot of remixes for Depeche Mode, U2, House of Pain, Nine Inch Nails, and others. At the same time we were really taken by what people like Public Enemy were doing, using samplers but with attitude and almost a rock feel to their music. So we started deconstructing tracks and putting them back together, and that's what inspired us to form Garbage.
When we started writing material together, it was a combination of the way we'd worked in bands - working on songs - and the way we'd been using the studio sonically, which allowed us to take our music in any number of directions. Our first record maybe caught people by surprise because we were trying to write pop songs so what came out was very hooky and that kind of stuck out.
Steve: Public Enemy were revolutionary in their use of samplers. Their music was like a wild art collage with all these things thrown together that you try to make sense of in a mix, and that's what we do with Garbage. And it goes further back than Public Enemy.
We've been listening to Roxy Music, the Residents, Throbbing Gristle and weird stuff from Europe like Can - as well as stuff like The Ramones and The Clash - for a long time now, all of which must have influenced our sound to some degree.
Duke: We were always trying to be adventurous in the approach we took to recording. It's really a fascination with the idea of imaginative recording within the context of pop songs, using the studio as a creative tool. You can take that concept right back to The Beatles and even Frank Sinatra… he was doing stuff in the studio, experimenting with the process of recording popular music as well.
FM: Given that there are three producers and multi-instrumentalists in the band, how do you actually work in the studio?
Butch: Sometimes there's just one of us in the studio for eight hours and the rest are bored to tears waiting for that person to finish, and waiting to see what comes out. Other times we're all in there together, throwing ideas around. In fact 50 per cent of the time we can't recall who's responsible for what sound, let alone why.
One of the misconceptions is that we're super-analytical tech-heads, but it's really very haphazard. We have all this gear but we generally don't spend more than ten seconds on a guitar sound. I know engineers who spend ages on microphone placement, but we're more interested in getting a feel, and if it sounds weird that's often better anyway.
We'll work for hours afterwards trying to EQ or filter a sound, but initally we feel it's all about getting the performance. We don't feel we have to be defined by traditional roles. Duke and Steve program drums and come up with loops. I play keyboards and mess around with bass and Shirley also plays keyboards and guitar, although she doesn't have the patience to sit behind the desk and twiddle knobs like we do.
Duke: A lot of the tracks come from us all playing together in a room. More often than not the music comes first and Shirley will come up with a melodic line or a few phrases that might be the spark of a new song, but there's no one person who calls the shots.
Steve, Butch and me have known each other for more than 20 years, and we were all friends before we got into this, so we knew what to expect, and Shirley's just one of the boys really.
FM: How important is sampling in your music?
Butch: We've used the process for a long time now, in the sense that before we had a sampler we were doing things with tape loops, and of course, everybody's sampling now. I think it's liberated a lot of bands to the point where now you hear every possible combination of styles, but in other cases sampling can lead to a kind of dull repetition.
I was in LA for three weeks just before we came over here, and listening to the radio, I swear to God every single song right now has stupid scratching on it. It doesn't matter who it is, it's got that same sound and it's become so passé. When we were working on Version 2.0 there was a guy who came in to do some scratching and it kind of sounded cool but it just didn't work. I love great scratching, but that same wikka-wikka-wikka on every song?!
Steve: There's a danger of becoming really lazy with sampling when you're making records. It's like in 1986 when everyone had the same Phil Collins snare drum sound, now everyone's got the same five sample CDs. You don't have to think that much to make a track, but like anything, with some imagination, what you can do is almost limitless.
Butch: On Version 2.0 we primarily sampled ourselves. It might have been late at night and we'd record 25 minutes of guitars or something, and then we'd come in the next day and find one little section, and we'd be, like, okay, we'll put that in the chorus, but let's transpose it and run it through a filter and add a harmoniser on it or whatever, so by the time it actually ended up making the final song it was nothing like the sound we started with. That's the kind of sampling we're interested in as a band.
Good vibrations baby
FM: What's the story behind the phrase from the Beach Boys' Don't worry baby that appears on your track Push It?
Butch: That was a kind of spontaneous thing. We had most of the music written for that track and Shirley sang the line 'Don't Worry Baby'. Steve sampled the Beach Boys phrase, kind of answering it, and it sounded incredible, but there was no way we were going to get away with that; our label's attorney freaked when he heard it.
So in the end Shirley just sort of copied the melody line. We still had to get clearance for it, so we sent a tape to Brian Wilson and he liked it and just said, 'Yeah, sure… go ahead,' which was pretty cool.
FM: How do you feel computer technology has affected the way in which music is made in general?
Duke: It's like the electric guitar was when it first emerged, in the sense that it's part of a new music, but it's down to how you use it. Technology can make the process a little lazy, and there are certain parts of traditional music-making that don't seem to be required any more - you had to learn to play a guitar before you could begin to put a song together - but at the same time, who knows what it's going to open up? Another side of the brain I guess. In fact, the more I play guitar, the more I think that's a curse!
Butch: Ultimately you've still got to write good songs if you want to connect with someone. The lyrics and the voice are always going to be more important than the guitar sound or the drum sound or using electronics and samples.
Duke: A lot of that stuff can kind of take away from the craft of writing songs. It can become more to do with the medium - some new tool - and it takes a long time for people to use these tools in other ways, rather than for the thrill of their newness.
Second album blues
FM: How 'difficult' was the second album as a whole? Did you take a significantly different approach compared to your debut album, Garbage?
Butch: The first record was mostly recorded with an Akai S1000 and old Otari tape machines, but for Version 2.0 we moved on to ProTools and Macs, which was a real learning curve. I think we were a little intimidated to be going away from analogue; so much that actually we kind of went overboard to avoid things sounding too digital and clean, using old microphones with no top end, for example.
Some of the songs ended up sounding so thick that they were heavier and fuller and more analogue sounding than the first record. I remember when we were mixing Version 2.0 and we put on the first album and it just sounded… weird!
Duke: With Version 2.0 we spent about three weeks coming up with sketches for songs, then probably a year in the studio, recording and writing, although I'd have to say, I don't advice working that way. It makes you a little crazy. Most people work the other way round, which is possibly how we'll approach it next time, maybe working in different locations as well.
FM: What's the extent of 'real' instrumentation on Version 2.0?
Butch: There's a lot of live playing, but there isn't really any one track that sounds fully live. Some of the songs had more than a hundred tracks, and within that there are maybe a couple of straight through, live guitar performances, but it's the mixing stage that really defines the eventual sound. Some of the B-sides we've been doing recently have been more live, mainly because we've produced them in a day, so we're working in a different way.
FM: Do you ever think you've created the perfect track? Or is there a perfect track?
Butch: Everybody has a different opinion on what a perfect song is, which is what makes music so great. We always try to make things as good as they can be, but we're never really satisfied with the results. None of us will put Version 2.0 on and think, 'Yeah, you really nailed it there!' That just doesn't happen… you always hear a flaw.
Steve: You never really know when's the right time to stop, you can always think, maybe that would have been a lot better if we'd given it another half an hour, but you've just got to decide when you've done enough.
Butch: Even if we record something really simply and it sounds cool, we always want to see how much more we can do with it. It's something that stems from doing remixes. You run a sound through a couple of outboard boxes, cut it up and see how the sound changes.
Sometimes you can edit something and run it backwards and it takes on a totally different character, but again, there's always more that you can do, so you really have to be able to step back from a song and hear it as a finished piece of work.
FM: What music do you find exciting at the moment?
Steve: Radiohead, of course, but everyone says that, I guess. It's interesting to see a band like that, from a conventional guitars, bass and drums background, getting more technically savvy. Generally speaking, a lot of more experimental dancey-type stuff is interesting to us like the Chemical Brothers, Underworld and Fatboy Slim.
Onwards and upwards
FM: What's next for Garbage?
Duke: Tour, tour, tour. Vienna tomorrow, then European shows until the end of July, then back to the States, then Japan and Australia… we could well be on the road until the end of the year. It was really hard come out this time, but once we get rolling it'll be okay. The only thing that keeps you going is playing every night; all the other stuff is a drag. You get to know the idiosyncrasies of your hotel room and that's about it!
FM: And what about the next album… any plans yet?
Steve: We have no idea how the next record's going to sound until we start working on it. We never think too much about the direction we're going to take before we start, and hopefully that results in something a little different.
Butch: We're very aware that in pop music a band can disappear like that so it's important for us to keep our own momentum going and stay creative, and that's the real plan for the next record. The first two albums are really only the tip of the iceberg as far as what we want to try to do musically.