Fun with Garbage:
Wasteland tales from white trash icons
From Pulse! (May 1998)

By Bill Forman

"I sat them all down like naughty schoolboys," says Shirley Manson as her three Garbage cohorts lapse into a guilty silence. "I would walk past the studio and they would still be working on the same song for days. It was just layer after layer and track after track after track. Someone had to call it a day."

Manson's studio-obsessed bandmates Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, and Steve Marker all plead no contest. "It turns into a kind of ridiculous mania, " says Erikson of the marathon sessions for the group's newly released sophomore effort, Version 2.0(Almo Sounds). "And you realize it's happening when it's happening, but there's nothing you can do about it."

Indeed, Garbage spent virtually all of 1997 recording the follow-up to their eponymous debut album at Smart Studios in Madison, the Wisconsin college town that three-quarters of the band calls home. And while studio hibernation may be a more socially responsible form of seasonal affective disorder than the bizarre killing sprees chronicled in books like Wisconsin Death Trip, Manson can be forgiven for developing her own case of cabin fever while watching her bandmates slowly go the way of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Madison's bone-chilling winters are brutal, and Manson, exiled in a heartland hotel, had yet to sleep in the house she and her husband bought more than a year ago in her native Scotland.

"Shirley gave us an ultimatum that we had to start mixing by the last week of December," says Vig, "because otherwise, left to our own devices, we'd be recording still."

Actually, Garbage would probably still be struggling to finish its first album were it not for the divine intervention of Ms. Manson. "The whole idea for us to put a band together was very loose," recalls Vig who, with college chum Steve Marker, first put Madison on the pop culture map with their Smart Studios. The duo's geographically expanding clientele(Killdozer, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Tad) peaked with Vig's production of Nirvana's landmark Nevermind, which led to countless phone calls from major-label weasels looking to capture that lucrative grunge sound. Meanwhile, Vig and Marker joined with fellow musician/producer Duke Erikson(who fronted Vig's earlier bands, Spooner and Firetown) and laid down the experimental rock foundations that would become Garbage.

"We started coming up with these musical ideas based on remixes where we just put in a lot of loops and guitars," explains Vig. "Originally, we thought it would be cool to do an album of songs with different singers, kind of like the Golden Palominos. But I guess we felt like we wanted to have more of a band identity."

Enter Manson, frontwoman of Scotland's Angelfish, whose auspicious meeting with the nascent rock stars took place on the day grunge died. Recalls Vig: "We saw their video for 'Suffocate Me,' which had a very dark Patti Smith kind of edge to it that we thought was great. We thought she had a great voice and a very interesting persona. But she was already in a band, so we just thought we would see if she wanted to sing on a track.

"We actually met her in London the same day Kurt Cobain died, which is very weird because we had lunch with her and then I went to a meeting with a couple of engineers and producers I know. And someone walked up and said Kurt Cobain committed suicide. It was very bizarre. It all happened in like a matter of hours."

Initially sought out as a guest vocalist, Manson turned out to be much more. "The good thing for us was that Shirley's band was kind of disintegrating," says Vig. "She went and toured the U.S., and the drummer quit in the middle of the tour and all. So she was at a point where she could do more with us if she wanted. So she came to Madison."

Once there, the group set about creating a new strain of recombinant pop, founded on the detritus of premillennial trends from hip-hop to industrial, dub to dance, goth to grunge. Factor in a shared obsessions with life's dark side(Wisconsin may have its death trip, but Edinburgh is the crack capital of the British Isles). So even though the group's origins read like a failed sitcom(three 40-ish producers abduct 30-ish Scottish punkette, move her to the frozen Midwest, hilarity ensues), the resulting albums sound anything but contrived.

"In some ways we really operate more as a band than most bands that I've worked with," says Vig. "Because we wrote all the songs together, we produce together, we make all of the decisions together. All four of us are very involved. And we like to hang out together. We really enjoy each other's company. So there's this little pack rat mentality."


Spring is in the air and L.A's Bel Age Hotel offers stately refuge from the tacky theme restaurants and tattoo parlors along the surrounding Sunset Strip. What better setting for Shirley Manson and Steve Marker to reminisce about their very first time? "Me and Steve, we shared an experience. Didn't we, Steven?" "It was beautiful," agrees her blushing bandmate.

Manson is recalling the first time the group heard itself on the radio. "We went to see R.E.M. in Chicago, and they were absolutely brilliant. We were high as kites because the show was so amazing, and then in the car park we switched the radio on, and the very first song-kabongg-was us! It came on the radio and we went, wahoooo, we're in Michael's world. Michael might be listening and hear us on the radio!! It was just an amazing feeling, because sometimes you get feeling really despondent, because you get taken up so high and then you walk out of the show and, you know, welcome to reality. And this was kind of like being taken to some other stratosphere."

The song was "Vow." The first of several Garbage hits, including "Queer," "Only Happy When It Rains" and "Stupid Girl," it originally appeared on the British CD magazine Volume in early 1995. "I actually heard it for the first time in Madison," reports Erikson. "Butch and I were going up to the Quick-Trip to purchase some beer, and all of a sudden 'Vow' came on and we just sat there and listened for a while. It was fun."


"OK, it wasn't quite as magical as Shirley's experience."

But it could have been. After a bit of prodding, Erikson tries embellishing his anecdote: "And then Butch and I both got out of the car and got up on top of the roof and started dancing, and all of these people showed up and started surrounding us ..."

Manson howls with laughter: "Purr-fect!"

"...And pretty soon the whole lot filled up with people and the clerk for the Quick-Trip came dancing out."

"It was kind of a 'Car Wash' vibe," adds Vig. "You know, everybody started grooving!"

Not to be outdone, Manson adds an epilogue to her own tale. "Well, you know, then Michael came out of the stadium and he said, 'Hey, you guys, aren't you in Garbage? I just heard you on the radio.' And we unrolled the window and oh, it was just incredible! And then he said, 'Hey you guys, you wanna come backstage and meet the band?' We were like, yeah, and we went backstage and met the whole band."

"And then we jammed all night," says Marker with a laugh.

Fading mirth returns the Bel Age to its previous state of composed dignity. "We lie all the time," notes Manson.

"Lies are always better," agrees Erikson.


If the first version of Garbage sometimes leaned toward caricature, with Manson coming across as a kind of supervixen Sylvia Plath, Version 2.0 finds her in a more reflective mood, particularly on the hauntingly inspirational "the Trick Is to Keep Breathing."

"That song is very personal for Shirley, as are quite a bit of this album's lyrics," says Vig, while the frontwoman is off being made up for a photo shoot. "It's about a friend of hers that we know actually, who has been in some really horrible relationships, and particularly one in the last couple of years. The woman is a total sweetheart, but she can't seem to get out of the pattern of going out with some of the most evil, misogynistic people. Whatever. I shouldn't really talk about it too much, because we're still figuring out what some of the songs are about. And Shirley hasn't quite formulated how much she wants to give up about the lyrics, because again the bulk of them are hers. This is really much more her record lyrically than the last record."

Returning from makeup, Manson listens quietly while a case is made for "Trick" being Garbage's equivalent to "Everybody Hurts," the R.E.M. song that Los Angeles newscasters would always play over local disaster footage, and from which a surprising degree of comfort could be derived. "That's really the purpose of the song," says Manson, "so, see, you've just said the most lovely thing ever." Asked to elaborate on the song's origins, Manson pauses. "I don't know how much Butch told you ..."

Uh, nothing, really ...

"Well, the song initially was written about a girlfriend, who, when I was away on tour, I felt I really wasn't there for her. And she went through this very dark period: Her mother kind of turned her back on her, her husband turned his back on her, and she was really at the pit of despair. When I came home from tour, she came to my house and she just disintegrated in front of my eyes. It was absolutely horrendous. And so it was this sort of love song to her. But since then, a lot of people have said that they like the song. It's that general feeling of just keep pushing and you'll get through it. I think everybody can connect with that feeling."

Manson, who's battled her own personal demons over the years, borrowed the title from a novel about a female depression by Scottish writer Janice Galloway. The song was written shortly after the band returned from an island retreat off the coast of Washington, where they spent a couple weeks jamming in order to come up with material for the new album. "The boys were playing some of the chords, and the lyrics just came out in like two minutes," says Manson. "And I've never had to review them really. They were perfect the way they were, and that never happened to me before."

Of course, this wouldn't be Garbage if the process ended there. "The song started out very simple and, in typical Garbage fashion, there was a lot more stuff that was recorded on it," says Vig. "But when we mixed it, we pulled it back and made it a lot more moody and spare."

Among the elements which survived are a hooky, syncopated bassline played on an old Moog(inspired by a funk record Marker was playing in the studio that day) and Manson's most refined vocal to date, sounding eerily reminiscent of Karen Carpenter. "It is very much like Karen Carpenter, very much the kind of melody that they would do," confirms Erikson. "Lovely, yeah. There's actually a couple of Carpenters moments on the record, I think; listen to the middle section of 'Look So Fine.' We're unabashed Carpenters fans. We're not insulted by that, sorry."

"Try harder," jokes Manson. "On the first record we stole from all these different types of music-like hip-hop and techno and punk-and merged them into our sound. We were one of the few at the time, but since then there have been a lot of bands doing that. So on this record, rather than try and grab onto the drum'n'bass thing and mold ourselves into that sound, we took some of what we thought was good about the electronica deal that's going on now, but we also wanted to tap the past and take some of the old things into the future. Because a lot of bands are just throwing off the past, which is the reason a lot of this drum'n'bass and jungle sounds phony to me. So we tried to get the best of everything on this record. There are a lot of little tiny homages to Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith, the Carpenters, music from the past that inspired us to be musicians."

Still, Garbage doesn't want to get too wrapped up in the past. "In the U.K. there's a big swing toward more of the '80s deal," says Manson. "Rather than embracing Tomb Raider II, everybody is getting into Pac-Man. Everyone's sick of the hi-fi high-tech and moving back into the '80s to pull out whatever remains that's cool from the '80s, if indeed anything. If frilly shirts and tucker boots come back, I swear to God I'm gonna go berserk."

Carpenter moments notwithstanding, Version 2.0 still embraces the sonic intensity that's been Vig's trademark since Nirvana tracks like "Lithium" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The guitars are even more bruising this time out, as are the abrupt changes in dynamics within songs like "I Think I'm Paranoid" and "Push It"(the album's first single, which shifts from a Brian Wilson-approved Beach Boys homage to an electronic onslaught that would scare the lads in Prodigy).

"On 'Push It,' it was how far can we go, to just get so intense," says Vig. "The verses are slow and dreamy and pull you in, and then, of course, it gets very confrontational."

"I think that sometimes-because of the way we talk about how we work and it's so meticulous and long-people think that we don't actually sit and work on a song, like we sort of put stuff in a machine and see what it spews back," says Erikson. "But we actually work out arrangements and talk about it. Like on a couple of songs, Shirley came up with the melody just playing acoustic guitar and we all started working on it."

"But then sometimes," adds Marker, "there's a weird sample loop that just sounds like noise, and we get that going and sort of focus on it. So it keeps it interesting for us, because there's no one set way of doing things."


It's early afternoon and Duke Erikson is scowling. "Now you have insulted us," he says, glaring, "No, actually, I like both of those bands, but some of their behavior ..."

"None of the rest of us do," clarifies Manson. "I hate Steely Dan. I hate the Eagles."

OK, so let's not compare Garbage to their studio obsessed predecessors, even if, in the case of Version 2.0's industrial-strength "Hammering In My Head," they ended up recording more than 100 tracks for a single song.

"Yeah, that's the one of the possible downsides of the computer recording system we went to on this album," admits Marker. "You're only limited by how big your hard drive is, as to how much you can record. So you can literally just keep going. There could be 10 songs running parallel to another within the same song, so you have to kind of sift through it all when you get to mixing it."

Garbage took a number of precautions to keep Version 2.0 from sounding too clinical. After recording the whole album digitally, the group mixed everything down to analog in order to give it warmth and gain perspective. They also scouted out remote locations, like the abandoned Madison Candy Company, in order to recapture the in-your-face drum sounds that helped make Smart Studios famous. "We've got this really nice sounding studio now that's professionally equipped and everything, and it sounds too good for some things we wanted," says Marker. "Besides, Butch has more fun playing in a loud warehouse type setting than in this Eagles-like recording studio ..."

Erikson: "Or Steely Dan-like ..."

Marker: "Right, this Steely Dan recording studio."

"Let's cut the Steely Dan references here," pleads Manson. "It's funny here, but people are going to take it seriously...You will cut them?"

Following vague assurances that any references to such bands will be presented as sarcastic context in place, the interview continues.

"A lot of things that we've learned about making things sound really good, we've sort of thrown out with this band," says Marker. "I think it's boring to just dedicate yourself to getting the perfect snare. We don't necessarily go for the Toto drum sound."

Erikson: "So now you're slamming Toto, are you ..."


Less than a week in L.A., and Steve Marker is already growing weary of struggling through snarled traffic to get duck casseroles in trendy restaurants where traditional autograph hounds are replaced by hustlers bearing deal memos. "There's a Subway right across the street," he pleads. "It would be so easy."

Madison has always been a safe refuge for the band, a place to create their music far from the concerned glare of record company handlers. But how long can it last? Vig is already considering the possibility of a West Coast move, and Manson can only be expected to endure so many winters.

Of course, Garbage's real home has been on the road. Although the band members once vowed never to play live, they return to the road with a tour slated to kick off next month in San Francisco. "We weren't gonna tour, and we ended up touring for 14 months," says Vig. "I'm too old to be doing that, lemme tell you." Marker, the youngest of Manson's "boys," is also the newest to touring.

"These guys got to play Chicago, Illinois, Iowa City. Obviously they were much more schooled in the ways of the road. I think I got to Janesville once."

"Shirley was the most well traveled," says Erikson.

"I toured since I was a kid, really," says Manson, who logged nearly 10 years with Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie and Angelfish before age 30.

"She's the best at it too."

"I am the best at it! It's because I am sad and I have no life."

Adopting a high-pitched British accent worthy of Monty Python, Erikson launches into an imitation of Manson as road warrior. "Well, boys," he squawks, "where are we off to next?"

So when Manson finally reaches their age, does she still want to be touring like this?

"No, no," she answers, as her bandmates exchange what appear to be hurt expressions. "But then, in this imbalanced society in which we live, women don't have the opportunity to. You should know that. So I can't tour."

Because ...

"Because society doesn't allow women to do it."

"Well, we'll just see about that, Shirley," says Erikson. "Good morning, boys," he says, switching to the voice of a much older, frailer, but no less Pythonesque Manson. "Let me just find my spectacles here. Where are we off to next, boys?"