Three Producers and a Girl

For a guy whose name has appeared on over 50 million album sales, Butch (real name Bryan) Vig is extremely down to earth. While he admits that doing interviews can be awkward, he seems happy to be doing press for Garbage’s new album Bleed Like Me ? perhaps because at one stage he thought that their fourth album would never get finished. “It’s a huge fucking relief because this record almost broke us as a band, so we see it as a huge triumph

The fact that Garbage have been together for so long, having watched many of their contemporaries fall by the wayside can also be regarded as a triumph. Their story starts over twenty years ago, in Madison, Wisconsin, when Vig dropped out of his pre med studies in order to play the drums in a band called Spooner, led by Doug Erikson. A fan named Steve Marker had a four track in his basement, and he offered to record the band. While Spooner broke up, Vig’s friendship with Marker lasted. In 1983 they formed Smart Studios together, borrowing $3000 from Vig’s parents. In an old warehouse with egg cartons glued to the wall they started recording singles for local bands at $100 a pop.

While neither Marker nor Vig had any prior experience, by 1989 Smart Studios had gained enough of a reputation that they were asked to produce Gish, the debut album for The Smashing Pumpkins. The next year in April Vig started production work on Nevermind for Nirvana’s major label debut. After Nirvana catapulted into the mainstream, Vig was seen as a superstar producer and he worked with a variety of other alternative bands such as Sonic Youth and L7 on their crossover albums.

But by 1994, Vig was getting tired of guitar music. His work on remixes for Nine Inch Nails and House of Pain, which headed in the direction of electronic loops and samples, inspired him to start working on writing songs with his old friends Marker and Erikson. Their project took on the self-deprecating name of Garbage, and then the three decided that they needed a woman singer.

“It’s a damn shame that there?s not more bands fronted by girls today,” he says, citing PJ Harvey, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Distillers as current examples of groups led by strong women. “Perhaps girls were put off by all the bullshit macho bands in the late ’90s like Limp Bizkit. Hopefully they?ll come to our shows and see Shirley and decide to give it a go”.

They first spotted Shirley Manson on MTV, singing in her band Angelfish. After making contact, they met her in London ? for conspiracy theorists, on the same day that that Kurt Cobain died.

Manson was fierce, Scottish and strikingly beautiful; seemingly the opposite of the men in Garbage. Indeed, even biographies straight from the record company describe their early videos as “[appearing to be] three covert government operatives keeping tabs on a red-haired geisha” but the chemistry that developed over the course of making their eponymous first album was undeniable. Manson’s lyrics had a rage and aggression that the intricate production channelled with finesse, making it stand out in the grunge aftermath of music charts in 1995. With singles ‘Queer’, ‘Stupid Girl’ (their highest charting single, at #4 in the UK charts and #24 in the US) and ‘Only Happy When It Rains’ and three Grammy nominations to drive it along, Garbage sold four million copies.

Meanwhile the band started performing live for the first time, touring extensively. Manson quickly began to be seen as the band’s Most Valuable Player, or at least the most recognisable. In an interview in 1996, Vig said that when the band had first formed everyone wanted to talk to him, due to his success with Nirvana, but a year later he was referred to as “the drummer in Shirley Manson?s band”. While that kind of focus had a negative influence on No Doubt, a female-fronted band Garbage has toured with, Vig doesn’t see it as a problem for Garbage.

“Shirley should get all the focus, because they?re her lyrics and she’s up front,” he says, “I don’t want to be the centre of attention, I still have enough fans from Nevermind, I get plenty of ego boosts”.

In 1998, Garbage released their second album, Version 2.0. It was slower to take off than Garbage, but eventually sales reached similar figures. Musically, the album was very much a second version of the first, with new features and a metaphorically shinier interface built in. The electric imagery that the production called up was echoed in the video of ‘Push It’, in which people’s heads were replaced by light bulbs. Manson’s lyrics continued to spit out venom (“If we sleep together / will you like me better?”) which no doubt endeared her to those raised on Alanis Morrisette records, and indeed the band toured New Zealand with Morrisette. Meanwhile Manson’s status as a sex symbol was cemented in 1999, when the band were asked to do the theme for the James Bond film The World is Not Enough, and she got to play a killer robot in the video.

But while Manson’s appearance may have helped record sales, fans turned on her when she cut her hair and dyed it blonde before the third album, beautifulgarbage was released. Others were put off by its more eclectic nature, and the fact that the record was polished within an inch of its life. Many talk about beautifulgarbage as a failure because it ‘only’ sold 2 million copies, which is admittedly half of its predecessors. Vig points out that the single ‘Cherry Lips’ was huge outside of America, and it is worth noting that Garbage singles never charted particularly well in the US, even while the albums were selling platinum. He also blames the comparative failure of the album on the fact that it was released on September 4th, 2001, and so America was in a state of shock, not ready to embrace a pop album. Certainly Garbage didn?t have fun touring the album, even though they were doing a support slot for U2.

Mid tour, in 2002, Vig was diagnosed with Type A Hepatitis, and was replaced on tour by drummers Matt Chamberlain (who has played with Fiona Apple, Tori Amos and NZ’s own Anika Moa) and Matt Walker (The Smashing Pumpkins, Filter). “First time I?ve played with another drummer in 20 years,” said Erikson at the time. Manson also had a health scare when she needed to have a cyst on her vocal chord removed. None of this helped to get the band in the right state of mind to record their fourth album. Nevertheless, Garbage returned to Smart Studios in 2003, liking the isolation that Madison provided. They laid down ‘Right Between The Eyes’ in 30 minutes, and then as Vig describes it, the band spiralled into a black hole. Everyone needed to take time out.

Eventually it was their long suffering management ? who also manage Metallica and were responsible for calling in that band’s therapist when it seemed Metallica couldn’t work together anymore as depicted in Some Kind of Monster ? who pushed Garbage back into jamming together. Vig felt rejuvenated, and he believes that everyone had needed to hit the bottom and take a good hard look in the mirror and decide that they actually wanted to be in the band making music together before they could proceed. Manson had come back with lyrics that were more topical and political, with what Vig describes as a ‘frenetic scrappiness’. Bleed Like Me signals a return to Garbage’s earlier work, sounding more raw and guitar-based than beautifulgarbage. Vig called in Dave Grohl to drum on ‘Bad Boyfriend’, bringing in the wild, chaotic rhythm that Garbage fans have learnt to love, and with the exception of that track, which was produced by Dust Brother John King, the band handled production themselves since they are stuck in their ways. The lower overheads of recording in predominantly in Madison meant that the budget didn?t spiral out of control when the record took so long to perfect.

Putting aside their scrapping, Garbage are back on the road touring. “Everyone is in a good mood,” says Vig optimistically, “due to how well the record has been received”. ‘Bleed Like Me’ is currently the most added record to radio in the USA. Once they?re done with this round of touring, Vig intends to take a year off from Garbage to produce albums. He is also keen to get into scoring for films, which isn’t surprising given that he does have a degree in film from the University of Wisconsin.

Aside from Garbage, the obvious question to ask is does Vig see a new Nirvana ready to emerge? “That?s something you can’t predict. If I knew who they were, I?d be in the studio with them right now,” he laughs.

Originally published in Pulp.

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