By Dan Dinello

Can too many cooks spoil the waste?
Not in the Garbage zone,
where noise turns into hooks
and it's always raining.

"The whole alternative rock thing is getting stale," says Garbage drummer Butch Vig, who, as producer of such masterpieces as Nevermind, Siamese Dream, Dirty, and Bricks Are Heavy, helped create the whole alternative rock thing. "How can you keep reinventing that?" he asks. "We want just the opposite--to break the rules, to find new sounds, to combine techno and rock and pop and ambient and funk."

"I've gotten really bored with most bands," says guitarist/sampler Steve Marker. "Two guitars, bass, drums and a guy yelling over the top--it's boring, conservative and reactionary."

"We don't want to sound like the bands that Butch produced," adds guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Duke Erikson. And Garbage don't. Blasting away from lo-fi's retro dead end, the quartet makes experimental pop music that uses guitars for timbre, texture, and noise as well as riffs and power chords. On their self-titled debut on Almo Sounds/Geffen, they expand rock's traditional instrumental line-up with samplers, sequencers, and antiquated analog synths while obsessively focusing on the hook. And they've got alluring female singer/guitarist Shirley Manson.

"I don't think anything we do is musically unique," says the outspoken, Scottish Manson. "It's our chemistry that's unique. We're not the pioneers of alternative rock. Other people are fusing these same elements--Bjork, Portishead, Tricky..."

"None of them are doing it with over-the-top guitars," interrupts Vig with a clarification. "A lot of cool artists are combining varied musical styles--and that's definitely the most exciting stuff out there now."

While glorifying melodic guitar hooks while incorporating dance beats and a druggy European trip-hop style, the Garbage aesthetic depends on experimentation and electronic accidents as inspirations to creativity.

"The best stuff happens by plugging something into the wrong hole and creating a strange new sound," says guitarist Duke Erikson.

"Subhuman" (available only in Europe) opens with the noise created by Vig accidentally wiring the mixing console into an air conditioner, and "Stroke of Luck" originated with an accidental sample from a malfunctioning digital tape deck.

"It made a random squeaky-fuzzy kind of noise that we printed on tape and played backwards," remembers Vig. "We put a drum groove underneath and Duke played an eerie organ. Shirley sang a tune over the top. It was sort of a sonic poem."

"We do a lot of processing and playing about--using the studio as a writing tool," he adds. "We don't have a rhyme or reason, we're just trying to find a new twist or a new perspective. But it's really hard, everything's been done so much."

They should know. Vig, Marker and Erikson have been music fanatics since childhood. Together, in various combinations, they've made music in Madison, Wisconsin, for over ten years: playing in the band Spooner and its sequel Firetown; and collaborating as producers, engineers and remixers for numberous bands with wildly disparate styles. In fact, the creation of Garbage began with their collaborations on remixes for U2, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, and House of Pain.

"We erased everything except vocals and recorded new tracks," Vig explains. "We added new drum and bass loops and guitars and noise tracks and sound effects. We literally rewrote the songs. It was that sensibility that inspired us to start Garbage."

Sick or working with men, and being men themselves, they knew they wanted a female vocalist and had a fantasy of what the voice might sound like. Steve Marker discovered their fantasy in the flesh when he heard sultry Shirley Manson performing on MTV with her band Angelfish. Tracking her down in Scotland, they persuaded her to come to Wisconsin to check out Garbage.

"When we got together the first time, it was horrendous," says Manson. "We didn't trust each other enough to try things. We were all uncomfortable. It's very personal to make music. I suppose I felt intimidated and nearly had a nervous breakdown. I thought I'd made a big mistake."

So she went home depressed. After some time sulking, she listened to the music they made in Madison. "I got excited. I returned with confidence. They trusted me a bit more and we began collaborating."

On the surface, it appears that Manson is a hired gun for Garbage--not unlike the way female vocalists are employed by dance music producers to provide an image and a voice for their songs. But, Vig asserts, "The last thing we wanted was someone we could manipulate."

Their common ground seems to be an obsession with Roxy Music, the Clash, Patti Smith, and John Lennon as well as an addiction to dark emotions. "I'm bad-tempered and I don't like happy songs," says Manson. "Vow," a menacing tale of violence and revenge sounds like Patti Smith fronting the Clash while quoting the Beatles "No Reply" in the bridge. "Fix Me Now" is a tale of depression and loss while evoking John Lennon's guitar sound in "Cold Turkey."

"All the songs go through one person," says Manson, who is that one person. "Certain things I wanted to sing about and some things I didn't. Sometimes I wanted to change the perspective. Being the only woman in the band, it was necessary to do this to stay true to myself."

All four Garbage people write lyrics, though Steve Marker came up with many of the sad words. "Ultimately Shirley has to be comfortable with the lyrics. She's experessing them so she has the final say," says Marker.

Manson's vocals possess a varied emotional palette, though the colors are lurid: sad, seductive, paranoid, obsessed, vengeful, and happily depressed. In the sinister film for "Queer," directed by Stephane Sednaoui (who made Bjork's "Human Behaviour" video), Manson's hair hangs across her eyes like seythes and, along with her pale skin, she looks like a vampire.

"Siouxsie Sioux was a goddess when I was 14," says Manson who grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. "I wanted to be like that. She frightened me because she was so amazing. She wasn't girlie, she looked really hard and powerful and incredibly articulate." Manson joined her first band at 16, moved on to Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie and then Angelfish, whose self-titled debut appeared in 1994.

Her vocal influences stretch back to the 1950s. Her mother, a big-band singer in Scotland, played records by sultry chanteuses like Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, and Julie London, who were Manson's earliest inspirations. "I remain totally into those singers," says Manson.

"I saw the Who on the Smothers Brothers TV show and knew I wanted to be in a rock band," says Vig about his earliest inspiration. "They were amazing, unbelievable. A lot of people slag off the Who but they're still one of my favorite bands ever."

Vig grew up in a small Wisconsin dairy town consisting of 300 Norwegian farmers. His mother was a music teacher so he was playing piano in sixth grade and then drums. He later enrolled at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), then dropped out of school to join Duke Erikson in the new-wave band Spooner as their drummer.

When Vig returned to the UW, as a film student, he met Steve Marker, another film maniac. They still like dropping film references into their work: the Garbage song "Supervixen" refers to a Russ Meyer exploitation film; "My Lover's Box" suggests Luis Bunuel's erotic Belle De Jour.

Their interest in soundtracks led to dabbling in synthesizers and other electronics. With Marker, Vig took out a loan and started Smart Studios in Madison. The rest is Alternative Rock History.

Breaking through on the indie scene as a producer for labels such as Sub Pop, Slash, and Touch and Go, Butch Vig became legendary with Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Humble and unassuming, despite his devilish beard, Vig won't take much credit for the success of these projects.

"It's not so much technical prowess as the chemistry of the people involved," he says. "This relateds to the kind of performances we got out of each other. Of course, I'm a sucker for a hook. I'm a total pop geek, all of us are. Maybe that's the one thing I helped bring to those bands is to really focus the pop elements in their style.

"But producing got to be a burnout," Vig adds. "You're always trying to bring out someone else's vision. Also, because of the past, everyone expects whatever I do will be really successful and that kind of pressure wears you down. I'm not taking any new producing projects. It's not difficult to reject projects as long as Garbage stays interesting and creative."

With a holy trinity of producers and a bad-tempered vocalist, Garbage seem ripe for conflict in the recording studio.

"We're all very opinionated and we all have a lot of ideas creatively," agrees Vig. "All four of us are really obsessed and intense about how we feel and each of us makes the other painfully aware of those feelings. Sometimes we have almost unresolvable arguments but somehow we find a connection, a common ground, a shared vision. And if we can't resolve arguments that way, it becomes a question of who wears who down. Shirley usually wins those. We're still healing from her punches."