This cover story was originally published in the March 8, 1996 edition of Isthmus.
Butch Vig looks dazed. Garbage are getting set to embark on a three-month tour (including a sold-out show at the Barrymore Theatre on March 14), and the preparations are taking their toll. Tomorrow the local-band-made-good flies to Dallas for two more days of rehearsals, and then it's showtime. Vig, who's responsible for sampled beats as well as conventional drumwork, would like to see a couple extra hours wedged into his day.
"I still have so much work to do before we get on that plane to go to Dallas," he says, stroking his neatly trimmed Vandyke.
A hundred feet away a stageful of amps, computer-controlled lights and electronic equipment is being loaded into road cases, but he hardly notices the commotion: "Between what the other guys have loaded into their samplers and what I've loaded into the samplers... We've talked about what we want to use, but we really haven't had time to do much with it yet. Between now and when we leave we'll just be constantly loading samples."
"And, you know, we still have to mix that Vic Chestnutt cover," giggles Vig's Garbage-mate, Doug "Duke" Erikson, adding one more task to the tsunami of last-minute details.
During a long technical rehearsal at the Barrymore earlier in the afternoon, Garbage's five-member touring unit occasionally fought against sampled backing tracks until the beat buckled and broke. But overall, the practice session seemed to go well. Singer Shirley Mansion asserted herself in the mix, the band as a whole came across far more focused than it does on its self-titled major-label debut, and the lighting guy enhanced Garbage's hooky explorations of darkness and debauchery with shocking pinks and diseased greens. This was a pop thang to be reckoned with; in a few weeks, they'd roll into 1,000 seat clubs and theaters, confident they could match the alternative clones and Hootie wannabes blow for blow. Plus, thanks to the band's very '90s affection for lulling techno and dub beats, club kids would feel welcome at the party too.
Vig wants to go with the flow, wants to take the inevitable "train wrecks" in stride and put his faith in the same adrenaline rush that got him through the bands' first shaky live gigs last fall. But he can't. He's a perfectionist; that much was clear form his industry-altering production work on Nirvana's Nevermind. With his own band he's got even more to worry about.
"On one level," it's easy enough for us to play live," he says, easing back into one of the Barrymore's worn seats. "Okay, we know what the chords are and here's the basic acoustic beat. But then trying to add stuff live to give it the same feel as the record but not make it the same as the record: That's why we've been evolving. I'm still switching a lot of stuff, and the sound guys aren't sure what everyone's doing yet. It's still fun, though.
"A lot of fun," he adds, a smile flickering dimly at the corners of his mouth.
The pressure Vig's feeling isn't entirely self-imposed. Garbage are definitely a band on the cusp. Their single "Queer" made the best-of-the-year lists both here and abroad for 1995. MTV just began airing "Only Happy When It Rains, the latest "buzz clip" off the band's debut album. In Europe, bonus tracks recorded since its release are keeping Garbage in the music papers; the album itself has sold over 100,000 copies in the U.K. TV production companies and film studios are asking for soundtrack material (knowing a stinker when they saw one, the band passed on Showgirls.) And as was the case with their maiden voyage last fall, most of the upcoming dates on the U.S. leg of this tour are selling out in a matter of days.
Without question, Garbage's mix of dance, dirge and hooky, dissipated pop is a serious commercial item. And so far everything they've done was recorded right here in Madison at Smart Studios.
Though those who've watched Vig's production career blossom over the last five years probably won't believe it, Garbage weren't supposed to turn out like this. When Vig, Erikson and fellow Smart producer Steve Marker first auditioned Scottish singer Manson (Marker "discovered" her while watching videos on MTV), they were thinking about ways to expand on the remix work they'd been doing for U2, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. The subterranean art of stripping songs down to a vocal line and rebuilding them with studio gear had gotten their creative juices flowing again. Maybe they'd get some experimental dance tracks together. Or better yet, an album's worth of pop oddities that used sequencers and sampling technology as well as time-honored pop-rock instrumentation.
Thanks to Vig's work with Nivana, Smashing Pumpkins and other alternative stars, there'd probably be a decent critical attention, respectable sales. Maybe they'd even do a low-budget video.
Then the album would die after a few months, the guys from Smart would go back to producing, Manson would go back to her old band, Angelfish, and that would be that: a good time had by all. Fact is, Big and Erikson had already gotten a major taste of the music industry merry-go-round in the early and mid-'80s, first with popular local New Wavers Spooner and then with heartland rockers Fire Town. Fire Town scored a contract with Atlantic, then crashed and burned a couple years later. Cramped van tours, meddlesome producers, lukewarm support form a bicoastal employer: Neither Vig nor Erikson needed that kind of aggravation again.
So what brought Garbage out of the studio and in front of the stage lights? First there was the unexpected success of "Vow," a nasty little ditty about a dysfunctional relationship released in England in 1994 by the tiny Discordant label. Then came "Subhuman" on their current British label, Mushroom, and a string of chart success in the U.K., culminating in a an assault on the top 20 by "Queer." The release of their album in this country stimulated reasonable sales as well; more important, L.A.'s influential KROQ got behind "Vow" when it was only available as an import, then got behind "Queer" as well, guaranteeing airplay and interest in other parts of the country.
Garbage hadn't played a single live date, and already Manson was being treated as one of the fresh new faces in international pop.
Mushroom and Garbage's U.S. label, Almo Sounds, certainly encouraged the band to consider hitting the road, but live gigging didn't seem like a real possibility until they went to L.A. last year to film the video for "Vow." "We were actually playing together during the 'Vow' video," says Erikson, describing the unusual genesis of Garbage's stage act. "We had amps and Butch was playing drums and Shirley had a mike set up. We did the first take, and then we all just kind of looked at each other and went: hmmm. This is kinda cool. Maybe we should do this. I mean, we played in the studio together, but it's different when you're outside the studio and really doing it."
Vig knew that playing strings of live dates meant putting his very lucrative production career on hold. Marker and Erikson had also gotten used to earning their living in the studio, and roadwork with Garbage was by no means a sure moneymaker. Even so, fan interest and the lure of the stage made a prolonged break form the mixing desk seem like a risk worth taking. Especially for Vig, who'd spent the four years since the release of Nevermind moving from project to project for L7, Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins and Freedy Johnston, among others.
"For me going on the road meant being slightly more irresponsible," Vig laughs, having come to terms with the all-nighter that looms ahead. "It's not the same as being in the studio at all. It's fun playing, especially when the crowd reacts and you meet kids who are totally into the record. They come up, say hi, maybe give you tape; it's a cool thing. Having been in the studio so much lately, it's just been good to go out and know there're really people out there and it's not just about business and numbers."
So far the highlights of Garbage's live incarnation (L.A. bassist Daniel Schulman rounds out the lineup) were a sold0out date in London in front of absolutely manic fans and a series of radio festivals the band played on the West Coast around Christmas. The radio festivals were especially pleasant, says Vig, because they gave Garbage an opportunity to chum around with other bands.
"At these festivals, there are 10 bands on the bill, and you do maybe a 20- or 30-minute set," he explains. "Then you hang out with all the other bands and it's a very loose give: Everyone's drinking beer and gossiping and watching Oasis be Oasis... In San Francisco and Seattle, Sonic Youth and the Foo Fighters were on the bill; we were just goofing around backstage, hanging out. It's just fun to see everyone in that environment."
But life on the road hasn't made Garbage complacent. While it would be easy to roll through letter-perfect readings of "Queer," pushing product and accepting automatic displays of adulation, Vig says the band very much wants to push the pop envelope. There's talk of bringing a DJ along for festivals they'll be playing in Europe this summer and backing Manson with a "clubby, dubby thing." And for this tour, Marker and Erikson have strapped on MIDI guitars, a move that allows them to switch between ordinary power chording and synthetic, very unguitarlike sounds. In the future, Vig sees himself sandwiched behind the drum kit, manipulated racks of gadgetry like some bionic being.
"I know it sounds crazy," he says, pulling up in his seat and gesturing excitedly at Erikson. "But I'd almost like to have a small studio back at the drum set where I could have more stuff to fuck around with, just so we could break into things, segue into songs.... Right now we're doing some new things, but we're really just trying to interpret the songs more from how they sound on the album without totally going into a club or dub vibe.
Emphasizing the dance element in Garbage's pop material has been no problem in Europe, where remixes by Adrian Sherwood and a variety of young DJs have been snatched up by club-savvy consumers. In America, the situation is different, and Garbage know it. Guitar rock still dominates the "alternative" scene they've been lumped into, and many kids are suspicious of electronically manipulated music, viewing at as a kind of fakery. Getting this conservative element of the American audience to come along of the ride has been a challenge.
"The shows in Europe have been a bit more exciting in some ways, because there's much more tying in of elements of techno or tip-hop or dance stuff," says Vig. "People are much more into that. They're also much more into pop. Here we don't quite fit into the 'alternative' rock thing. At least there's a certain audience that's slow to catch on, because it's not the same thing as the Offspring or Pearl Jam.
"They actually pressed up some white label remixes of 'Queer' over here," he adds. "They were getting played in the clubs, but you don't really sell a lot of 'em. I think they did a thousand. It's really just for exposure in the clubs. And how many cities really have a dance scene: Miami, Detroit, New York, L.A., Chicago? That's about it."
Converting the masses translates into more touring to build a grass-roots following, and making certain that everyone in the band is committed for the long haul. How long? Vig says there will definitely be another album, perhaps recorded as early as next fall. Before that happens, the band will have toured for a total of eight months and seen the release of a new album of B-sides in Europe.
"As long as this is interesting and we're having fun, we'll keep on doing it," says Vig. "I mean, if no one comes to the shows or buys the albums, we'd probably stop. If I can, I'd like to produce one record post-touring before doing another Garbage album, just to get away from it for a while. But I might just stay in the Garbage zone. We'll have to wait and see what feels right. Right now Garbage is 24 hours a day; it's been that way for a year."