Modern Life is Garbage. Call a band Garbage and what do you get? Three old rotters and a girl who dumps on your cereal. Interview by Nicholas Barber.

The PR an is on his mobile phone, as PR men are wont to be. Garbage, a few of their friends, and I are digesting Chinese food in a Kensington restaurant, and the PR man is trying to find somewhere in The World's Coolest City where we might be permitted to buy a drink after 11 0'clock an a Saturday. "We need 11 places on the guestlist," he's shouting. "That's Garbage and seven other people." The aforementioned other people, myself included, are spluttering that none of this should be necessary. This is Garbage! What club is going to turn us away? Luckily, the band see the funny side.

"We must suck so bad," mewls Steve Marker. "We can't even get into a bar."

"Let's just go to a pub. We can stand around and belch," says Duke Erikson, in an appalling fake cock-er-ney accent.

"Shirley Manson squirms with laughter. "And pick our noses!"

"Well, how busy is it at the moment?" shouts the PR man. "Is it packed?"

"Tell them we're a mildly successful alternative rock group," drawls Butch Vig. Garbage's eponymous debut album has sold four million copies.

After half an hour of phone negotiations and half an hour in traffic, we make it to a bar and somehow the band don't have a bad thing to say about British hospitality. "It's hard to talk about yourself all day," Duke says of their European interview tour. "But, in another way, it's like we're on holiday! I mean, we're in London! There's no way I'm not gonna enjoy myself. I'm gonna hang out. I'm not gonna sit in my hotel room writing dark pop songs!"

A few hours earlier, we're in the hotel bar. Garbage's beer intake is nothing short of astounding. The decor is Victorian gentleman's club: Green leather chairs, equestrian painting, panelled walls. It's not the sort of place Garbage would choose for a pre-prandial pint, just as they wouldn't choose to sit in traffic or be treated snottily by a bar. But they're not complaining. "I think we realise how lucky we are," says Shirley. "We got to make a record for a whole year without holding down any day job and that is an amazing luxury."

In a slow monotone reminiscent of Steven Wright, US comic and Reservoir Dogs DJ, Steve agrees. "It's sounds kinda boring but it's exciting to be able to hang out with people you like, and put any weird idea that comes into your head on tape, and have that released world-wide. It's fucking unbelievable."

He's right, of course, but these aren't sentiments you hear expressed by many bands. The difference is that Garbage have been around the block so many times they've worn a groove in the pavement.

In ascending order of hairloss: Butch (drums and other stuff) is the one who looks like he's just swashbuckled out of The Man In the Iron Mask; Steve (Guitars, bass and other stuff) is the one who looks like Bobby, the round-face boy in King of the Hill; and Duke (guitars, keyboards and other stuff), is the one whose long, bony and face belongs to the contemptuous butler of some haunted mansion. They're old friend from the "Twin Peaks-ish" town of Madison, Wisconsin. And by rock terms, "old" is the operative word. They're loitering furtively around the 40 mark, so by rights they should be in a band that broke up decades ago, only to reform recently as a sad, self-parody. It hasn't worked out that way. Firestorm and Spooner, the outfits they formed in their younger years, didn't get much further than Madison. Why not? "Well, in theory they should have because we wrote some damn good pop tunes," says Butch, putting on Garbage's patented London-ish accent for those last four words. "We always got rave reviews too, but we never sold any records."

"Not like my band," Shirley says on Edinburgh's Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie, who would later metamorphose into Angelfish. "We got really bad reviews and sold no records."

Butch, Steve and Duke had their in studio in Madison, where they recorded themselves and other bands until their reputations spread. And, if the bands they were in didn't get anywhere, the bands they produced and remixed - Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and U2 - did. Butch in particular became famous for telling a young man in a tatty jumper he might have something with that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" song.

It was never as much fun as being in a band themselves. Why not use all these production techniques to fashion their own material, they reasoned. All they needed was a singer. And one night, at some ungodly hour, a video on MTV caught Steve's attention. The song was "Suffocate Me", the band was Angelfish and the singer was Shirley Manson. It was the only time that MTV transmitted the video.

"I was nearly arrested for having sex in there on amyl nitrate," chirped Shirley as our chauffeur-driven van took us past Kensington Gardens that afternoon. This kind of remark hasn't done Garbage's profile any harm over the past three years, and nor have Shirley's looks, nor her compelling vocals, nor her hide-any-sharp-objects-for-your-own-safety-as-well-as-hers lyrical persona. She is Scary, Ginger Spice (compared to the others, she's Baby Sporty Spice too), and with her on the Garbage truck, the band made an album that went platinum in four countries and gold in four others. What if success had come 15 years earlier?

"I don't think we'd still be together," says Steve. "If we were like 18, 19 years old, we would be like, 'I must be really special. I deserve this. I'm cool. Fuck you.'" He finishes yet another beer. "We're old enough, we've seen all the mistakes being made by other people, and by ourselves. We know what the pitfalls are and what to avoid."

Garbage's determination to do things right this time around has made for and enviable set-up. Everyone is equal; everyone acts as producer, song-writer and multi-instrumentalist on every songs; they're "obsessed" with music, not fame; and they're as loving and in-joking as any family. Several times they tell me that they can't believe their luck.

Now it's time for the second album. Called Version 2.0, it's still cyborg grunge-pop, and Shirley's favourite method of seducing a man is to scare his pants off. But this is the Robocop 2 model: bigger and nastier than the prototype, more likely to blow a fuse and go on a machine-gunning rampage. There are more effects, more rhythms, more tunes, more vocal diversity (She's Chrissie Hynde! No, she's Tricky!). The summery harmonies suggest a poppier direction; then some bulldozing chords make you think the band have gone heavy metal. The frantic beats would argue, no, this is Garbage's electronica album; but there are enough reference to vampires, obsessions and exploding heads to stop the goths feeling left out. Oh, and the refrain from "Push It" ("Come on use it, let's get through it") sounds like "Barbie Girl".

Garbage are surprised but not bothered when I inform them of this - they've never heard the Aqua song. They believe Version 2.0 is better than Version 1.0 but they're not too old and wise to get complacent. "We're not the kind of people that assume anything's going to work well," notes Duke. "We don't have the 20-year-old naivetй that works for you when you haven't been stomped on. We've experienced that and we've learned not to expect much, juts to keep working and not even dream that everything's going to be rosy."

Shirley lets out a hefty HAW HAW that shows every filling in her mouth, and Duke realises that he's getting a little too depressing. "Woe unto us! Woe unto us!" he cries. God. This is how gloomy you get when you sell four million albums?

"Hey," says Butch, "if this record does well, then we're gonna be really depressed."