On May 11 Garbage downloaded Version 2.0 into one chaotic musical universe.
This story was originally published in the May 15, 1998 edition of Isthmus.
"I've seen all of these bands that had sold seven million records, and then the next one comes out and it stiffs," Butch Vig says cautiously after being asked about the expectations surrounding Garbage's new album, Version 2.0. "Bands don't have the same careers that they had just 10, 15 years ago. Fans move on so quickly; the kids have such a short attention span."
You really can't blame Vig for being reserved on the subject of the Madison/Edinburgh band's prospects for the future. From 1994 clear through 1996, Garbage climbed the parabola of commercial and critical success, emerging as one of the most sought-after pop bands of the post-grunge era. Grammy nominations, MTV videos in heavy rotation, a debut album that went quadruple-platinum worldwide, glossy fashion spreads for their fiery-haired Scottish singer, Shirley Manson. For a band that never figured on making it out of the studio, Garbage has already had a very satisfactory career, thank you.
Vig admits the quartet wants more of the same; he also knows that making the covers of music magazines and generating an industry buzz guarantees nothing. "What we have going for us is that we have Shirley front and center," he adds matter-of-factly, not at all in doubt about the secret of Garbage's success. "She has so much personality that she's really carved us a niche."
And you have to figure that the Madison-based drummer/hitmaker knows something about the importance of carving out a place in commercial music. After all, he's watched the alternative-rock revolution he helped catalyze by producing Nirvana's Nevermind burn out and rust in six short years. He's seen the Smashing Pumpkins go from recording slabs of modest, Led Zeppelin-derived guitar rock at his locally based Smart Studios to headlining sold-out arena tours. Maybe Garbage charmed a legion of kids with its beat-conscious pop the first time around, but nothing's for certain in the late '90s. Maybe "electronica"-friendly radio songs will hold sway in '98; or maybe the Swing underground is about to cough up its own No Doubt. Who knows? One thing's for sure: On May 11 Garbage downloaded Version 2.0 into one chaotic musical universe.
Which brings us back to Manson. When the Smart-associated producers Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson flew her in for exploratory recording sessions in Madison, she was an unknown quantity. "We knew she had a great voice," muses Vig. "But she also writes great lyrics and is a dynamic musical presence on stage. She comes across on the radio; the camera loves her. She's just an amazing presence." The trio of self-described "pop geeks" wanted someone to give voice to things Garbage; instead they got the band's most compelling argument for continued existence.
On Garbage, Manson played the rocktronic vamp with admirable efficiency, hissing and purring the team-written lyrics to "Vow," "Queer" and "Milk" with just enough irony to convince the doubters that, no, the band hadn't been stitched together down in the lab from odd scraps of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails. But a 14-month tour, coupled with the grueling 12 months of writing and obsessive recording that produced 2.0, stripped away much of that cool professionalism. Now, Manson comes across as a fully confident singer, a seasoned microphone jockey who wants as much of the spotlight as she can get. On the new album, it's always plain that she is the show.
Speaking quietly over the phone from the other side of Madison by way of an L.A.-controlled conference call (don't ask), Manson is nothing at all like the curt, taciturn vixen who sometimes appears in magazine profiles of the band. Or, for that matter, the leering helpmate who urges her partner to potency on "Push It," the album's first video and single. She's confident but hardly overbearing. Given the decade she spent touring as a keyboard player and, later, singer in the marginally successful Scottish bands Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie and Angelfish, she's remarkably free of standard industry-pro cynicism.
Ask Manson how she managed to survive the early comments about being the flesh 'n' blood instrument in a "producers band," and she proceeds to dismantle clichéd notions of the producer's role.
"Even with the first record, I was very opinionated," she laughs. "I was never meek or mild. I'm always like that, whether it's welcome or not. And in a way, I think people have a very outdated concept of what a producer is. I think in the '80s people were still attracted to the idea of a producer; in the '90s I think the gap between musician and producer has completely narrowed. A lot of the bands that we enjoy listening to, like Portishead or Tricky or Goldie or Massive attack, they're all producing their own music. And I think that's the way we view ourselves; we don't think of ourselves as a producer wonder band. We just think of ourselves as musicians with production knowledge."
As for the balance of power between those four musicians, it hasn't been much of a problem. Still, Manson admits that one of the differences between 2.0 and its predecessor is that she felt much more confident about writing and singing this time around. "The one thing I will say is that I wanted to make the lyrics very direct, very simple," she says. "The music is very complex and multitextured, and I wanted to make sure that the words were uncomplicated and quite human-sounding. I think on the first album the lyrics were very distant and quite voyeuristic and cold. I wanted to make this album a little more emotional."
Which isn't to say that Manson and "the boys," as she prefers to call them, have moved in the direction of Jewel's or Sara MacLachlan's emotive folk-rock. They're much too technology-driven to enter that dewy realm. True, Manson bares more of her soul than ever before on "The Trick Is to Keep Breathing," a melancholy sketch of a woman under the influence that was inspired by both a friend's breakdown and Scottish writer Janice Galloway's novel of the same name. On this admirably humane track, the voyeur and the vamp disappear as she coos the stoic refrain in a voice reminiscent of the band's tragic pop hero Karen Carpenter. Clearly, it isn't a place Manson or the pop mavens behind her could ever have gone on the more mechanical Garbage.
Getting to that place wasn't easy. After all the touring for the first album, Vig says the band was convinced it was time to capture some of the musical interaction they had developed by playing live.
"One of the guys at our label, Jerry Moss, has a vacation house in the San Juan Islands near Seattle," he says, explaining the month of jamming that formed the basis of much of 2.0. "We had all our gear shipped in when we got off the road, and we basically set up in this little cabin with our engineer and goofed around. We jammed, we improvised and we had a couple of tape decks, so we had 16 tracks to record stuff. We had no expectations. We were thinking, 'If we're lucky, we'll get three or four things out of this.' We actually came up with 23 or 24 song ideas, and probably nine of those made it to the record. They sound radically different from when we started, but that's where the first spark came from."
The reason for those radical changes in texture and intensity are obvious when you consider how Garbage operates in the studio. Although Vig got a leg-up in the business recording three- and four-piece guitar bands, he's never been the kind of producer who simply has a band set up and bash through the tunes. Meticulous and driven, he's a dedicated studio rat, the kind of guy who'll sacrifice sleep, vacation and personal relationships for the sake of another mixing session.
And Garbage -- a band that really grew out of remixing jobs for Depeche Mode and U2 -- pretty much conforms to his concentrated approach to recording an album. For Vig and his mates, every track is in a constant state of revision, a sonic amoeba that oozes and divides each time the producers or Manson hear a bit of hard-stepping Techno or gossamer Beach Boys pop that they'd like to layer into the mix. The band's decision to record 2.0 directly to a hard drive using a state-of-the-art Pro-Tools system only expanded the possibilities for tweaking and recombination.
"It was very liberating," says Vig. "Because the whole process for us is that we're constantly recording and editing and doing more sound processing. We might do one thing, and then maybe three months later we'll record more and cut it up and get a much different song structure. If you heard the rough mixes in March and in June and in September of the same song, and then the final mixes, the only thing that will be the same is maybe Shirley's melody -- her vocals. There"re no limits. The drawback, of course, is that you have so many options that you definitely lose your way at points."
That infinite number of options explains the full year the band spent hunkered down in the studio. But it also contributed to Garbage's further development as a kind of sonic sponge. The band's canny blending of guitar pop and electronic music has already been well documented; what's more clear about them these days is that they also get part of their kick by uploading the pop hooks of the past into the Garbage sound.
Brian Wilson doesn't just color the verses of "Push It" with sugar-coated influence, he supplies Manson with the clinching refrain from "Don't Worry Baby." Chrissie Hynde's "The Talk of the Town" isn't simply the model for Manson's vocal style on the knowing choruses of "Special"; Hynde chimes right in at points thanks to the digitized magic of contemporary sampling. Sure, most songs are propelled by bass, drum and synthesizer grooves that wouldn't sound out of place on a Tricky or Crystal Method or Howie B. remix. But a much earlier pop history followed Garbage into the studio this time around.
That's nothing to be ashamed of, say Vig and Manson. "I just think we're all big fans of pop music," says Manson, explaining the band's strong devotion to the golden era of guitar-laden hits and heart-clutching vocalists. "Also, if you think about our past, we've all been in bands that were cool or inaccessible. I think the challenge for us in Garbage is to write great songs and not just be cool. It's really, really difficult to write good songs, the hooks of which embed themselves in people's brains. And I think that's what keeps us trying to achieve things."
What about the up-front use of the hits of the past? Well, Vig says the band certainly isn't pulling a Puffy Combs and merely singing over someone else's melodies. The textures and bits of polished ear candy that come from sampled material may form the basis of a few hooks, but Vig adds that the band is really striving to redefine those borrowings.
"You can hear Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and Shirley sing on some things," he says. "And 'emptation Waits' sounds like Donna Summer on the chorus to me, although, again, that's really coming out of Shirley. [Combs] is something different. We're still writing pop songs that have an edge to them, some darkness."
"We're perverting the sampling rules," laughs Manson, responding to the same question. "I think it's the way of the future. Right now people are using a lot of samples, but we're not doing it in the same way."
Depending on how John and Jane Public respond to Version 2.0, Garbage could be taking their electronic pop melange on the road for another 14-month stint. Right now, a brief string of club dates is booked in the U.S. into the beginning of June, then it's off to play the biggest festivals in Europe and Japan (including a coveted headlining appearance at England's massive Reading Festival). Should the album do well in the ensuing months, a bigger tour of arenas and theaters is slated to roll across the U.S. beginning in August. That means more screaming fans, more hobnobbing with fellow pop stars and, on the downside, another bout with the rootlessness of the road.
The traveling road show is bound to be particularly hard on Manson, who got married during the last tour and then promptly hunkered down at Smart before, during and after Packer season. Unlike "the boys," she doesn't have her family and personal life within commuting distance of Smart, and the gray Wisconsin winter only put a point on her sense of isolation.
"Yeah, it can be difficult," she says softly, describing the effect of months away from home. "But I feel that I'm not going to be able to do this forever, and I'm just privileged to be doing something that millions of people around the world envy. Whatever happens in your life, you have to make compromises from time to time."
Vig also takes a philosophical view of all those hours Garbage must spend nurturing and maintaining an audience. For a time he thought about moving to California to be closer to his girlfriend and the band's record label, but he's put those plans on the back burner for now. Still, he would like to return to his production career sometime in 1999, which means that this installment of the Garbage saga will be bracketed by other concerns.
"I get a lot of tapes and production offers now from bands that sound like Garbage or Tricky or whatever," he says, noting that Garbage's success has only helped the marquee status of his production work. "I think people know that I'm into doing those sorts of things. It's not just the Pumpkins and Nirvana clones anymore. I get a lot of female singers calling. Jewel's management called, Fiona Apple's management called. It's flattering to get those kinds of offers. We're in this for the long haul -- I mean, we all plan to do another Garbage album -- but I'm definitely going to take some time off in 1999 and produce something."
Then there are the soundtrack offers. Even before "Push It" began piquing the interest of industry types, the phenomenal success of the band's "#1 Crush" on the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack made movies seem a natural extension of the Garbage juggernaut. Despite film-school experience, Vig doesn't have plans to direct, but he'd very much like to get into the business of writing and assembling soundtracks.
"I've had offers, the band has had offers," he says. "Literally people want Garbage to write a soundtrack for them. From my point of view, it wouldn't necessarily be me writing it. I might put together different artists -- whether it's scoring something or hiring different bands to contribute songs. I've never done that before, and I'd really like to."
And what about that much-anticipated sophomore show in Madison? It's definitely in the band's future, says Vig. But barring any change in plans, Garbage followers probably won't get a chance to catch the group locally until they return to the U.S. in August. For now, those in need of another fix will have to crank Version 2.0 on the home sound system, tune to the nearest new-rock station or point their Web browsers to the band's official Web site at http://www.garbage.com.