Garbage Interview

By Tim Sismey

By now you've probably had time to make up your own mind about Garbage. The Top Ten success of their last single 'Stupid Girl' has placed them firmly in the indie-pop mainstream and their recent sold-out tour proved wrong the many cynics who dismissed the band as a super-producer super-group fronted by an indie-underachiever. Indeed, it wasn't due to Shirley Manson's impressively low-key history that everyone waited with baited breath for Garbage's debut, but rather the involvement of Butch 'Three biggest American rock albums of the 1990s' Vig. It would be fair to say that the pressure was on.

Says Shirley, "We knew we had to make a good album, we wouldn't get a second chance at it. If we'd come out with a below-average album, we'd have been crucified, so it had to be good and we were shitting ourselves making it."

True enough, if Garbage had been just another post-grunge guitar band, as some had predicted, the critical reception would have been a whole lot more hostile. But let us not forget that there are four people in Garbage. For fuck's sake, Vig is only the drummer. Producers Duke Erickson and Steve Marker both play guitars that sound like synthesizers and have as much input into Garbage's sound as their two, higher-profile, bandmates; "I don't think any of us could stand being in a band where one person comes along and says 'this is how it goes'," says Duke.

"I think that causes a lot of spite in bands too. We have a group dynamic and the minute that one person takes control, it won't be the same anymore," agrees Shirley.

That said, Duke and Steve seem happy to sit back and look on with a kind of detached amusement as Butch and Shirley do all the talking, occasionally butting in with something sarcastic. With three producers in the band (four if you include part-time bass player Daniel), it is easy to imagine the recording of 'Garbage' as some kind of massive power struggle between them. "Not really a power struggle," says Butch, "but we all have our own ideas and we're all very opinionated. It was extremely awkward and tense at times".

Steve has the solution for this, "I'm studying karate. The next record's going to be mine." "I think as people we were drawn together, we shared a certain sensibility and I think that's one of the strengths of the band," adds Shirley, "It's something that either happens or it doesn't, so although yes, we do argue and yes, there are times when it gets really ugly, in general we share a sort of goal". Aha, so there is unrest in this democratic Utopia, although the band refuse to be drawn on who was the most hurtful during the making of the album. "It's more likely to have been me," admits Shirley, "because they're more pragmatic. They tend to think before they speak, whereas I'm the complete opposite; I speak before I think. I always hurt people inadvertently". "We have a little room where we go and cry," reveals Duke.

This is hardly surprising when you consider some of the sentiments Shirley expresses in her songs. Apparently, not only does she keep her lover's charms in a box underneath her bed, but she also came to tear your soul apart... "The thing is, for the most part, the songs are a lot like acting, you have to really get into the part. It shouldn't be taken too literally...we just try to look at everybody, everybody has that side to them," explains Butch. Shirley continues, "I think that's the great thing about music, it unlocks sensations and feelings that you keep inside, that society doesn't allow you to show. As an example, 'Vow' is really mean-spirited, but none of us have ever really acted on those feelings, but the gist of that song is very real, wanting to fuck somebody over because they've done you over too." "Which doesn't mean you wouldn't like to...You wouldn't, but that doesn't mean you don't think about it..." continues Duke.

All the same, the songs seem to share a certain fascination with the darker side of the female psyche, leading some people to group Shirley with the scary women of pop, like PJ Harvey and Courtney Love. Shirley disagrees, "I don't think there's anything scary about them, I just think they're striking, they're individualists, and that upsets people at times. It frightens people because society in general makes us think we're not supposed to be like that. They're strong women and that intimidates men. But although most of the lyrics are put together by me, everybody has ideas that come to the table and I just use what I fancy. When we're working on something, the lyrics take a while to work on and people come to me and say 'I've had these ideas, use them if you want' and if there's something I like, I'll stick it in with my own, or vice-versa. Some people come in going 'I've got this great title for a song' and I might use that".

Although 'Only Happy When It Rains' and 'Queer' both gained quite respectable chart placings, the band's first taste of real success was when 'Stupid Girl' shot into the charts at Number Four. "The minute it happens to you, you start thinking 'there must be something wrong, it must be a weak chart', you start doubting...maybe I'm just a pessimist," says Shirley, "But we couldn't believe it. It went in at Number Four, and we found ourselves thinking 'why not Number Three?'. I think that's the way of life, you think you want something and then the minute you get it, you want something else". So, after many years in the oh-so credible indie wilderness, the lure of chart success and Top Of The Pops is beckoning Ms Manson. It must be a worry that the words 'sold out' could be attached to more than the venues Garbage played on their last tour... "Well," she continues, "I've been in alternative, underground bands all my life and to me, this is the alternative, this is something new, this is something exciting. I don't see why a band is any less hip because it sells more records. A band like REM, they worked their way up, they sell loads of records, they've still got their same spirit and they're still considered alternative".

Of course, 'Sell Out' is a term Butch Vig is not unfamiliar with, but the criticism has usually been of bands he has produced. After so much time in the relative safety of a control room, it must be strange to be returning to the stage. "Not really," he says, "Steve and I played in bands, punk stuff, before we got into the studio and whilst we were doing it. But we always wanted to do a record where we could use the studio as a writing tool. We didn't want to sound like a band who recorded themselves as a document of their work, where the recording process is the final thing. It's the most fascinating thing I've ever worked on. Some of the remixes we've had done have been great".

This attitude is probably Garbage's strongest point; nothing is set in stone, everything can be improved on and they are not too proud to hand it over to someone else to do. In many cases, the remixes succeed where the original songs failed to realise their full potential. The band have accepted some of the remixes to such an extent that they are the versions performed in the live set and they have just collaborated with the ubiquitous Tricky on a reworked version of 'Milk', but Garbage seem to be interested in going even further. "I'd like to get in someone who doesn't even do remixes," says Steve, "like David Lynch."

('Garbage' is out now on Mushroom Records.)