Garbage System Upgrade

by John Pecorelli

In his rakish black vest, pageboy haircut and goatee, legendary musician/producer Butch Vig looks downright swashbuckling today - but at the moment he's feeling a bit stoic.

"Get the shit done!" Shirley Manson scolds him. "Because, trust me Butch, tourin's is going to put more of a stain on things than all this masterin'."

"Yeah, we will, we will..." he mumbles dejectedly. Luckily for Butch, the hotel waiter pops over with coffee refills before things can go any further. Shirley, the curt, tough-talking goddess whose sensual, sweet and occasionally scathing vocal work captured Plant Earth's imagination in 1995, was just about to take Butch to task. And those familiar with the sultry Scot's sharply barbed wit will know that's an unenviable position.

What's so wrong with a bit of masterin', you ask? Well, aside for several weeks songwriting in the San Juan islands (off the Washington State coast), this quartet's been holed up within studio walls for nearly a year. They've been engaged in a seemingly endless succession of recording, mixing, re-recording and remixing, all the while cultivating a slight case of cabin fever and a nice "studio tan", band member Steve Marker's term for their somewhat peaked pallor. At the moment, Garbage is here in Los Angeles for a few days shooting a video, but then it's straight back home to Madison, Wisconsin, to finish the last step, mastering. For Shirley, and probably the rest of the band, the yearlong process of piecing together Garbage's heavily anticipated new album, Version 2.0 (Almo Sounds), has been laborious, intense and sometimes ecstatic.

And she's sick to death of it.

"I'm just dyin' to get out and play!" she blurts through a stout, irresistible Edinburgh accent. "For so long now we've been in bands that no one wanted to see. Now we're suddenly in this amazingly privileged position of people actually coming out to our shows - the band is not longer outnumbering the audience - and it's an amazing, fucking brilliant feeling. Let's go!"

Shirley decides to let someone else talk while she focuses on her onion soup. All the members of Garbage are immersed in their food except wry, thin-faced Duke Erikson, who's nursing a cup of coffee. A year, eh? Just what was going on back it that studio? Before Duke can answer, Shirley jumps back in.

"We used a lot of hi-tech electronic equipment and digital recording programs," she says, "and they caused problems in the end - i.e. you can basically do anything..." "Like waste a lot of time," chuckles Duke.

"There are so many possibilities," offers Butch, "and we're not really a good 'jamming' band - which sounds ridiculous to say."

"The word itself makes me want to spew!" exclaims Shirley. "Jam What a ghastly word - it has these nasty, horrible connotations of 16-year-old boys desperately thrashing their guitars between wanking sessions."

"That's pretty much what we did," Duke adds wryly.

"We probably have five albums' worth of music," continues Butch unaffected, looking up from his bowl of potato and leek soup. "The technology gave us so many possibilities - you find yourself going, 'I can do this. I can try that.' And you can go crazy. In fact, we did. We started out with just one editing hard-drive recorder" - Shirley chuckles at this - "because we still liked using analogue tape machines and amps. And we quickly went from 16 to 48 tracks. Then we got a second machine so everyone could edit." Shirley snickers again. I look over at her, but she stubbornly refuses to interrupt Butch this time. "Then we added a third machine so Shirley could do vocals while these guys did guitars and noise-compiling and whatever else. That's why the mixing process took so long - and we weren't even ready to start mixing when Shirley came in and said, 'Enough! Let's just get-'."

"I felt like a schoolmarm!" she blurts, no longer able to withstand the temptation to interrupt. "I was leaving for Scotland for the Christmas holidays and I had to sit them all down and say, 'The noodling must stop!' I can remember it still - I was standin' up and they were all on the floor for some reason..."

"You made us sit on the floor," Duke points out with a small grin. Shirley laughs heartily, something she does often.

"It just seems like nothing ever seems finished," puts in Butch soberly. "You can keep going, keep recording, keep trying different things, until finally you have to just-" "We're going to work some more on the record today," Duke interrupts. "It's not quite finished.

Shirley glares at him, then bursts out laughing again.

Garbage's roots lie back to the days when Butch, Duke and Steve worked together as producers, and would sit around Vig's recording studio late nights with loads of beer, potato chips, and ideas. They had worked together in numerous bands - the most noteworthy probably being Spooner, the least noteworthy probably being Rectal Drip. But it wasn't until Steve Marker saw an Angelfish video, which featured one darkly charismatic Shirley Manson on vocals, that the notion of Garbage as we know it today gelled. The quick of it: Shirley joined, they all made a record, and they quietly awaited the results, not expecting much - not even planning a tour.

Sure, that record eventually went multi-platinum internationally, and pundits eventually heralded its unique, heavily sequenced mesh of hip-hop, trip-hop, punk, noise and pure melody as the future of pop. Even the Grammy committee, unable to ignore the album's bevy of strong-selling singles, eventually hopped on the bandwagon, lobbing three nominations Garbage's way in 1997, including Best New Artist. But things were not always so rosy.

"We were waiting to be absolutely torn to pieces," says Shirley. "There was this so-called 'three producers and singer' together in a sort of weird 90's fashion, We're not stupid - we knew that people would be really suspicious of it. We knew that was going to be a mountain that we'd have to climb."

Butch's involvement in particular raised eyebrows. His work with Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins had helped transform mainstream American radio in the early 90's and cynics automatically presumed "his" new band would be an overtly commercial carbon copy. Once Garbage's unique amalgam hit the airwaves, however, critics sang a different tune. The general listening public, on the other hand, didn't give the band's roots a second thought.

"Totally," agrees Shirley. "I speak from experience here: I never listened to a record and went, 'Hmmm, who produced this? This sounds really good.' You listen to it and go, 'That's awesome! He's awesome! She's awesome! It rocks!' It's only the analysts, i.e. the critics who give a fuck about the producer - no disrespect to you gentleman at the table," she chuckles, looking at her bandmates, who sit quietly. "People are moved by music; they're not moved by whether the boys have sat in the studio with somebody famous. That's just not how it goes."

Still, Garbage say that Version 2.0 was not designed with public expectation in mind. While it contains the band's most straightforward song to date ("Wicked Ways"), 2.0 differs markedly from the guitar-sample heavy debut. It's poppier, more densely layered, and far more percussive in nature than it's predecessor. The opening track, "Temptation Waits," sets the tone here. Cramming a Donna Summer melody through a high BPM count and a general dancefloor cacophony of electronic blips, buzzes and bubbling synths, it sounds like mindless fun - until you realise Shirley is singing, "I'm not sure what I'm living for." So it goes throughout. While Garbage couples dark, richly textured atmospherics with themes of obsession and damnation, 2.0 is seldom musically confrontational, yet still revels in blood, chaos and mental collapse. The result is more dance-friendly - and possibly more subversive.

"You can't really do anything new," notes Butch gruffly. "So what we did was take all the influences that we wear, that we love, and throw them all against the wall - and just try to write good songs incorporating all those elements. Just strip something down to an acoustic guitar or a piano and a vocal, and if it's a good song, you can ho almost any direction with it. You can pile on tons of guitars, you can make it minimal, you can make it long, you can make it a two-and-a-half-minute Phil Spector pop epic - but the song has to be able to stand on its own somehow..."

"I don't really know that we have any smash hits on this records," he continues. "I think there's a lot of really good songs though. And I hope, like the last record, that people who buy it will be into the album as a whole. I think the songwriting is better, I think we sound more like a band, I think there's a lot more confidence in how we approach the production decisions, Shirley's singing is better..."

"But hopefully there's gonna be a few smash hits," she interrupts. "I don't mean to undermine anything," says Butch carefully, "but there's no Chumbawumba punter's anthem that's gonna be #1 around the world."

"Thank God!" exclaims Shirley. "But the first record was a wee bit, well, there was a real mix of genres that I think caught people quite by surprise. And because there are a lot of people doing that now, we kind of took electronica and started stealin' - errr, paying homage to old bands that built us as human beings - people like Mae West, Bessie Smith, Blondie - and mixed it all together to make something fresh."

There can be a rather fine line between paying homage to and stealing from, but it's one easily drawn for Garbage. For instance, Shirley is appalled by the legal pounding the Verve took at the hands of the Rolling Stones' management for "Bitter Sweet Symphony," but she encourages even more ruthless treatment - specifically, "bootfucking" - of bands swiping both the sound and the aesthetic of another such as the emulation of No Doubt and its singer, Gwen Stefani by another Orange County, California, ska band, Save Ferris.

To Shirley, it's all a matter of degree and intent.

"Rock'n'roll's always been about stealin' - the Beatles fuckin' ripped off Chuck Berry!" she exclaims, "but when it's exactly the same, I think that's scary, it's weird. It's like, 'Gwen Stefani's a great pop star, she's sold millions of records, lets clone her. And then we can sell tens of millions of records every year.'"

Still, Garbage's attorneys initially forbade the band to use lyrical snippets from the Pretenders and the Beach Boys on Version 2.0. So Shirley and company went directly to the source: For the first single, "Push It," a haunting, aggressive, dance-pop number that utilises Brain Wilson's sweet refrain, "Don't worry baby," for its subversive edge, the band asked Wilson directly for permission. He was more than willing, even asking to keep a copy of the cassette. Next up was Chrissie Hynde.

"We phoned her up and explained what we were doing and Chrissie didn't even ask to hear the song," beams Shirley. "The next day in the studio we got a fax saying, 'I, Chrissie Hynde, hereby solemnly swear that the rock band Garbage may sample any of my sounds, my voice or indeed my very ass.' She's a total goddess!"

"That's how it should work," adds Steve, who's been nearly invisible heretofore, before relaying a story about a band that demanded a vast sum of publishing royalties for Garbage's intended use of a sampled drum fill.

"They got greedy and we said, 'Fuck it'" explains Shirley. "Why do these people freak out and become so money-oriented? - it's horrible."

"Well," counters Duke, "we got lucky with Brian and Chrissie" - he deliberately exaggerates the first-name basis, trying to keep a straight face - "because they control their own publishing. Most artist are pretty cool about it; it's the publishers, lawyers, and powers-that-be - the people on the periphery, most of whom don't care about the music, just the money - who get in the way."

For the first time this morning, there is a lull in the conversation. It is a solemn moment, the clinking of ice in drinks the only sound.

"Of course," Duke adds, delicately breaking the silence, "just wait 'til somebody tries to use our stuff. We'll mill their ass!"

"Yeah!" Shirley laughs. "We'll fuckin' smash 'em!" "Fuckers," mumbles Butch. "We've already got our feelers out."

Time is of the essence for Garbage, which has a video to shoot, after all, before it can get back to the masterin' at hand back in Wisconsin. As the band starts to get fidgety, casting long looks towards the balmy Los Angeles backdrop, just outside, one final, exasperating question springs to mind. The pressure for a brilliant follow-up to Garbage's victorious debut album really, honestly had no great effect in the songwriting - and the amount of time in the studio? Butch says no.

"But I will say this: We're too old to have a sophomore slump! It happens all the time in this industry though - the band sells a lot of their first record, then the second one comes out and they disappear."

"We've all made records for so long that have all been ignored, and suddenly we had this record that just flew out of the box, and it's a fuckin' blast, it's amazing, it's a thrill," says Shirley. "For that not to happen with this record will, I admit, be a disappointment for us. But I also feel the chance of lightening striking twice - the odds are not necessarily in our favour. Not necessarily, that it. I'm not saying that it won't happen. But we're not just cruising out there, thinking, 'Yeah, everything's set up, we're gonna be bug fuckin' pop stars.'"

"Shirley," Duke asks earnestly, "what do you think are the actual odds are of, 'lightening striking twice'?"

She pauses, then laughs again. "You'll notice I'm wringin' my hands, Duke. That means, 'Not good, Duke, the odds are not good!'"

"Hopefully that's the wrong analogy," puts in Butch.

"Well, we'' have to rely on the luck of the gods," says Shirley. "We've made as good a record as we possibly can."

"Yeah," Duke agrees. "But it's still hard to let something like this go, definitely. We've been coming up with ideas all along the way and we just have to draw the line somewhere." He pauses. "But we're gonna work on it some more today, right?"

What does Shirley Manson think when the Garbage guys aren't looking over her shoulder?
Long-time Shirley sycophant Tom Lanham gets a private audience.

New Music Monthly: "I Think I'm Paranoid." Does that song title pretty much sum things up for you right now?

Shirley Manson: Yes and no. I think that's how I was feeling during the making of the record. I mean, I was all by myself, I was living by myself in a hotel, and I had no one to really talk to. And I'd go to the studio and we'd work and I'd come back by myself, very late. And I think the whole record is, in a way, very introspective, and very kind of... trying to reassure myself while I'm going crazy.

NMM: The companion piece to "Paranoid" would have to be the following track, "When I Grow Up." Because in this business, you probably never will.

SM: I don't know if it's peculiar to my role as a musician, or just peculiar to me as a person, but it don't ever feel that I'm going to be this grounded, mature, fully-developed person. But I think that's one of the things about life - you never feel completely sussed, you've never really arrived, and you actually know so little. And that's what the songs about - even though you think you're sussed and you're smart and you've worked it all out, you haven't even got the remotest inkling of what it's all about. And you can never hope to.

NMM: Bowie once said that the older an artist gets, the more they are faced with just two questions: "How much time do I have left?" and "What the hell am I supposed to be doing with it anyway?"

SM: I don't know if that's necessarily true. Again, I think it's unique each individual. For him, he was so young when he achieved success, he's had decades to sort of ponder over his existence. Whereas, I'm, like, 30, and I'm only just beginning as a songwriter. Technically, this is only my second album that I've ever made, and it's the only record where I've completely written all the lyrics and come in with full songs and played guitar. So it's still very fresh to me, so I still feel that I've got so much to discover and so much to travel through. I'm not like David Bowie, you know I didn't wake up at the age of 30 and say "Hey! I've arrived!" I'm still fighting to find some kind of voice, and that's what brings a certain excitement to this record. For all of us, for once in our life, we've found people to create with. And that's allowed us to make a good record, because we feel secure around each other in a way that we didn't on the first record.

NMM: Were you truly prepared for stardom? TO quote another pop icon, Jarvis Cocker recently said that after spending a lifetime waiting for fame he's had to re-examine his motives once he reached that goal.

SM: It's funny, because I just read a review in the NME of his album, and I feel very different from Jarvis Cocker. I never wanted to be a star. I never wanted to be a musician, I never wanted attention, I never dreamt of being something special. Ever. I mean, it was the complete opposite for me. I expected to life a totally average, normal lifestyle, and this is something that came absolutely out of the blue for me. So it's not like I had these aspirations and now I've achieved them and now I don't know what do to with myself. I've never had these aspirations, and now all of a sudden this incredible adventure has been thrown upon me. Now that it's happened to me I don't know what to do with it, and think that's probably been good for us as a band.

NMM: And the worst aspect of it?

SM: I would have to say that, for the most part, there are no drawbacks. I mean, I've been in bands since I was 15 years old and I've slaved for at least ten years where nobody gave a fuck what I was doing. I was treated like shit by the industry, I was treated like shit by the press. And all of a sudden, the very same people are knocking at my door, being really sycophantic and saying how much they liked me and how much they loved my previous bands. And, it's like, bullshit. If you like my previous bands as much as you say you did, I wouldn't even be her today. It's a curious syndrome, and I guess I was onto quite a rant there. But there are no worst aspect to what I'm doing right now, because I know how difficult it is as a struggling musicians to have nobody give a fuck about what you're doing. To me, that's difficult. And then all of a sudden, to have somebody care about what you do, well, how can you dare turn around and say there are drawbacks to that? Of course, there are tiny things that are a little impossible, a little hard to deal with.. But I've spent my whole life dying for this, even subconsciously, even though I didn't really crave it. So all of a sudden, I understand how great it is to make music and have people care about it.

NMM: In other places on the record, and in the song 'Special,' you seem to hint that even normal friendships and relationships have changed with success.

SM: It's weird, because everyone has listened to the lyrics on this album and really taken them at face value. But, to me, the lyrics are very much working in different levels. And they can be very personal, or they can be about the industry. It depends on how you choose to look at how my life has been lived. When you write songs, lyrics or melodies, I think they start of as one thing and then mutate into so many other things. And then they start to take on a life of their own, be default.

NMM: Sort of like your stage persona. Kids seem to see you as this miniskirted platform-heeled dominatrix/sex goddess, whereas you've gone on record saying that none of these props mean anything to you.

SM: I dunno. It's so hard for me to be objective about what we do and why people have been attracted to us as a band. It's so difficult to be analytical about why people have been turned on by our band. I'm not totally naive. I'd like to think it was purely the music, but obviously it's a little more than that. It's your music and how you choose to portray yourselves. I mean, I always fell in love with bands not only for their music, but for their image, their look, how they portrayed themselves. And it's weird when you turn into, like, this subject. I think we made a good record and that's why people get into it, but I also think we were very honest about our intentions, and we weren't trying to be something we're not. And I think people felt that. People felt that it was real.

NMM: On one Version 2.0 track, you actually talk about walking into a posh party, looking at a handsome guy and instantly knowing...

SM: ...that I was gonna get what I wanted! Ha! And again, that song's kind of a metaphor - it's very much like, yes, you can recognise that power. But you should always ignore it and leave it behind.

NMM: But you've always been fighting against low self-esteem. Where did that come from?

SM: I have no idea, no idea. And I know that my mother has read some of my interviews and been very upset - devastated, in fact - by my comments. She doesn't understand it, doesn't comprehend where it came from. And it has nothing to do with the way I was brought up - I have a very close and loving relationship with my parents. I think that there was something in me chemically, or hormonally, or emotionally that... well, I was a mess, I was a horror. I was a very difficult, angry and displaced teenager. And it's kind of affected my whole life. I mean, in good ways. I'm not necessarily saying that it's all bad. Sometime the negative things in life can totally propel you forward. So I have no regrets. I'm not sitting here singing, "Poor little me," because I have had an amazing life.

NMM: But beneath all this, it seems like - correct me if I'm wrong - all you ever wanted was to be loved. How did you finally allow yourself to be loved?

SM: I don't even see it in those terms. I think I was always constantly wondering, "Is there someone out there like me?" And I think that's certainly why I became a musician - you're throwing things out to see if someone's gonna echo back and say, "I feel exactly the same!" I think it's to do with loneliness. I think you're looking for an echo - it's about recognition, about reassurance, about affirmation. I think that's what the music's all about. NMM: What did you find that echo in as a kid?

SM: I didn't find it. And that's why I think I woke up as a teenager and felt really angry, because I suddenly realised that I didn't feel it. So I looked for it in other things, and that's what drove me to become a member of a band. And actually singing? I think it came from desperation and fear. I just got to the point in my life where I thought, "You know what. If I don't get this together, I'm outta here. I'm gonna have to go back and work in a clothes store." And I didn't want to do that, so that's what drove me to be finally able to write in a band and be a participant in music.