By Jason Cohen

GARBAGE's masterminds craft murky pop into an album that's impossible to refuse

"Garbage Inc.?" the waitress says, pondering the credit card before her. In four days, Garbage will release their debut album, but that doesn't necessarily count for anything at an Old World Italian restaurant in Madison, Wis. There's no reason for a waitress to know that Garbage are the unlikely shotgun wedding between a fiery Scottish singer and three Madison mainstays better known as producers. No doubt she overlooked the band's initial salvo, a breathlessly nasty bit of hook and dazzle called "Vow" that was embraced by radio so quickly on import that it burned up before it got its due. And she couldn't possibly realize that her four spumoni-eating patrons have masterminded a confident collection of emotionally sharpshooting songs, a daring record that scrambles post-industrial crunch with New Wave gloss and grand pop payoffs with techno wizardry.

So, awkwardly, the folks at the table allow that Garbage is the name of their band. The waitress then asks what they're up to in Madison. "We're recording at Smart Studios," someone says, an answer that is truthful but invomplete, seeing as how they own the place.

"Oh," the waitress says. "Butch Vig?" It's a rhetorical question. Him she's heard of. If these Garbage folks are working with the erstwhile producer of Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana and Soul Asylum, they must be a band of some importance.

Vig probably thinks so. He's in Garbage, along with fellow studio rats Steve Marker and Duke Erikson, plus vocalist Shirley Manson. Vig'z star-studded track record is hard to overlook, but it's also easily forgotten. Garbage couldn't be any less calculated or more collaborative. The caliber of Garbage is the best retort to any cynicism about the band's origin, which is actually a tale of friendship, experimentation and a fateful symbiosis of music and personalities. "If I wasn't in this band, I would go, 'Yeah, right, three producers and a girl,'" Manson says. "But we found a chemistry that I don't think you can predetermine. It was just absolute luck."

Garbage's founding troika was making music long before it knew how to record it. Erikson, a Nebraska transplant and former art student, led the bands Spooner and Firetown through most of the '80s. Vig was the drummer in those groups, having come to the University of Wisconsin in Madison from a tiny farming town where the biggest teenage thrill was joy riding with his neighbors' cars and returning them intact by morning. Marker, also a former University of Wisconsin student, was the soundman. He laid the foundation for Smart Studios with a four track and a basement that evolved into "an eight track and a crappy warehouse space with egg cartons glued to the walls," says Marker. They got busy working with local punk and pop bands, followed by bigger indie groups like Killdozer and Tad.

Then, as Erikson says with just a smidgen of sardonicism, "Butch's profile rose." But they never really stopped playing. "We had a bunch of bands where we'd just get a show, practice once from 3 to 4 p.m., go play, and that was the end of the band," Marker says. "We were always saying, 'One of these days we're going to make an album, damn it!' Then something else would come up."

"Something else" eventually came to include a series of remixes for bands like U2, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails and House of Pain. The trio became an adhoc band, wiping out everything but the vocals to build anew from fresh samples, drum loops and live bass, guitar and keyboard noise. From this process of cut, paste and reinvention, a distinct sound emerged, and soon they were working up wholly original tracks. "We wanted to be able to take punk and funk and techno and hip-hop and ambience and noise, whatever," Vig says, "and just somehow use all those elements within the context of a pop song."

Pop songs need someone to sing them. In a twist that proves MTV can actually be a force for good in the world, they lucked into Manson. She'd spent a chunk of her late teens and early 20s in the Scottish group Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie, and then fronted the band Angelfish, whose video fr "Suffocate Me" aired on MTV's 120 Minutes exactly once. It did not go unnoticed in Madison.

"I got a call from somebody, and they said, 'Oh, there's this Americn producer who's interested in meeting you,'" Manson recalls. "I was roaring with laughter. I thought it was going to be some creep with long hair who probbly wanted to shag me. But I was curious, so I phoned my record company and said, 'Have you heard of a producer called Butch Vig?' They filled me in. I had a couple of the records he worked on, the obvious ones."

If Vig, Marker and Erikson were looking to shift the focus away from their producer profiles, here was a good solution: a commanding frontwoman with so much personality that you might not notice the trio behind her, even if it included Sam Phillips, George Martin and Tom Dowd. Things were shaky at first, but in the end what might have been an offhanded partnership became a genuine band. Manson and "the boys," as she calls them, found the shared both a certain musical sensibility and a taste for lyrics of dark and bitter romanticisism.

The resulting record is so impeccably crafted that you would never know how loose its construcition was. Songs were written from the bottom up based on a title or a bit of noise. One track, "Stupid Girl," is built from a sample of the Clash's "Train in Vain" plys the sound of a reel-to-reel deck self-destructing. "Not My Idea" features a twist on the standard James Brown rhythm samples: The band brought in the actual Famous Flame Clyde Stubblefield, looping him live. And contrary to what you'd expect from studio veterans, less was frequently more, first takes were often the best ones, and little was sacred. "I tell you, you find out right away because everybody's so opinionated in the band," Vig says. "I can work all night on some part, and they'll just come in and say, 'That sucks, it's bullshit.'"

"Erase it," Marker adds.

There were arguments of course. Manson, who readily describes herself as both cheeky and ill-tempered, had an alter ego for those occasions: the imperious, not-to-be-trifled-with Queen Helen. She ascribes her tempestuousness to being a redhead, particularly because of those awful teenage years when obnoxious boys wanted to know her pubic hair color while she just wanted to be like Siouxsie Sioux - dark, imposing and free. But everyone won and lost their share of the fights, and "that creative tension is ultimately what ends up on the tracks," Vig says. "Other times we're basically lazy: Shirley has to come in and kick our asses because we're, like, we wanna watch a football game, or sit back and read the paper and drink beer."

But it would be wrong to assume the boys of Garbage are just a bunch of Green Bay Packers-loving beer swillers. They also drink rum, wine, tequila, cognac and Lemon Drops (shots of vodka citron with a sugared lemon). Manson doesn't even try to keep up - she has earned the nickname Party Girl precisely because she isn't one. She's more likely to bury herself in a book, although she's also a dedicated swinger - her greatest small pleasure is to pass some time at the local playground.

Tonight, however, there's good reason to imbibe. It's 3 a.m. at the Cafe Montmartre, a place to which Garbage should probably be sending rent checks. Frank Sinatra is on the stereo, and in honor of the record release, a bottle of chmapagne has been opened. It's a sweet measure of how clear this project is to the foursome. Despite a decade plus of multiple bands and seminal production work, they're jazzed about their debut in the guileless way a group of teenagers would be. Having never played together live, they're ready to hit the road and can barely wait to make another record together. They've even drawn up a fantasy list of potential outside producers (Captain Beefheart, Brian Eno, Phil Spector and Tom Waits, if you're reading this, call Smart Studios).

In a few days, Montmartre's owners will surprise the band by painting the walls of the place pink, just like the record cover, for an official release party. Manson will also polish the nails of nearly everyone in sight - band mates, family, friends and, um, a visiting journalist - with the same garish color.

Perhaps the only naysayer to all this good cheer is Erikson's mother in Nebraska. She refuses to endorse her son's band, mainly on semantic grounds. "My mom will never hear the record," Erikson says. "She says, 'All I know is, you call yourself Garbage, you're going to start hanging out with garbage. The next think you know, you'll be garbage.'"