Ahead of the release of Garbage’s new album SARAH SMITH talks to Butch Vig about keeping things dark, the genius of Courtney Barnett, and who will be the next Nirvana.
“I have to say I’m bored shitless.” Stuck at home in Silver Lake, California under doctor’s orders Butch Vig sounds incongruously upbeat. Unable to fly due to an ear infection the drummer/producer is sitting out the first part of Garbage’s UK tour while Smashing Pumpkins’ Matt Walker fills in on the skins. “I’m feeling better. Actually, I feel fine except my ears got fucked up from all the fluid stuff I had going on in my head,” he cheerily assures me.
Sitting still isn’t something Vig is particularly good at. Over the last 30 years he has produced some of alt rock’s biggest names, including records by the Foo Fighters, Green Day, Sonic Youth, The Smashing Pumpkins and, of course, the album that in his own words “changed his life,” Nirvana’s Nevermind. With the exception of a seven-year hiatus in the late noughties, any moment not behind the desk fulfilling someone else’s creative vision has been spent making music with his Garbage bandmates Shirley Manson, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker.
Even back in 1995 Garbage never really fit in. Combining grunge, industrial and trip-hop sounds, the band made alternative guitar music for the electronically inclined. And two decades on their fanbase still can’t get enough. Having recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of their double platinum self-titled debut with a series of retrospective shows the band found themselves back in the studio wanting to create something new.
Tired of their famously labored approach to songwriting – and perhaps inspired by their recent tour – singer Shirley Manson insisted on keeping the recording process as simple as possible. This meant re-grouping in Vig’s Silver Lake basement and bashing out ideas, occasionally capturing tracks in just one or two takes – an approach that has led Manson to compare the record to the band’s debut. “A lot of the record has that freeform experimenting that we found on our debut album,” Vig agrees. “But we wanted to lean more on atmospherics and cinematic and less on traditional rock‘n’roll.”
And “less rock’n’roll” is the best way to describe Garbage’s sixth record Strange Little Birds. While there are a couple of tracks which sound similar to those typical ‘90s Garbage pop anthems like ‘Queer’ and ‘Stupid Girl’, for the most part the record draws from the band’s more industrial palette. Experimenting with shadowy soundscapes and pulsating electro pop Shirley, Butch, Steve and Duke have made their darkest album yet. And, as I discover, it’s in the darkness that the band feel most at home.
You’ve described this record as being “less fussed over.” How does a band like Garbage and a producer like you possibly go about making something less fussy?
Well, one of the mantras that we brought to the recording process was that we didn’t want to overthink things and didn’t want to re-do them over and over again. So a lot of the record, to me, has that freeform experimenting that we found on our debut album. And we recorded the basic tracks to everything here in my home studio in Silverlake – I’m sitting down here right now in the room. It’s just a bedroom, there are windows overlooking Silverlake and it’s also where I watch Green Bay Packers games. It’s not really a proper studio. There is a couch and some chairs, and some pianos and some drums and it’s very, very casual.
“We didn’t want to overthink things and didn’t want to re-do them over and over again”
On the press release they described the room as “Butch Vig’s garage” – which I imagined must just be a fancy studio attached to your house…
It’s not, it’s not! [Laughs]. It’s very comfortable – it’s not really a proper recording studio. But it’s where we recorded a lot of the tracks for Strange Little Birds. A lot of the songs were done [straight after] we came up with a song idea. The recording was done really quickly and Shirley would just sit on the couch with a hand held mic and Duke and Steve might play guitars or keyboards, or I might play drums or I might play bass or keyboards or whatever. And we kind of wanted to leave that spirit in the record.
If you listen to the first track ‘Sometimes’, that was done here really quickly. And Garbage being Garbage we let it sit around for months and we recorded more stuff on it until the song got really dense. And then we nixed it – we took all of that out and took it back to where we first recorded it – and now it’s pretty spare. When you hear the first track, it’s almost confrontational in the way it sounds.
It kind of sounds like the opening song to a film – as though you are introducing the record over opening credits…
Yeah, that kind of set the tone for Strange Little Birds – we wanted to lean more on atmospherics and cinematics and less on traditional rock‘n’roll. Obviously [lead single] ‘Empty’ is more of a classic Garbage song but a lot of the songs on the record have these really spare moments, like ‘Night Drive Loneliness’ or ‘Even Though Our Love is Doomed’, or the start of ‘Amends’. It just made sense to us to allow songs to leave space in there.
Was that desire to strip things back a reaction to anything in particular?
I don’t know if it was a reaction [but] very early on Shirley said she didn’t want to fuss over the songs. She said, “I don’t want to rework them and rewrite the verses and lyrics – I just want to sing spontaneously.” And once she started coming up with lyrics and singing, that kind of set the tone for the record. I mean we kind of tried to fit the music around what she was singing, and it just felt like some of the songs needed to be less than more.
Shirley has also described Strange Little Birds as your darkest record yet. You all seem to be in a really good place personally at the moment so I’m wondering where the darkness has come from?
“I listen to really sad, depressing songs and it makes me feel good”
I think it’s a very dark record. But Garbage and I find solace in darkness. I have this playlist on my iPad or laptop called “Bummer Playlist One” and “Bummer Playlist Two,” and I listen to these really sad, depressing songs and it makes me feel good. I think there is something about acknowledging about how complicated life is and acknowledging that it is okay to understand that I don’t feel 100 percent today that makes me feel better. There is a reason people like to listen to sad songs – I think it does make them feel better and that’s the same for Garbage.
What’s your favourite sad song to listen to?
Ummm… God, there are so many. Off the top of my head I love, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. You can’t go wrong with that song, man. It’s just so amazing.
You wrote ‘Even Though Our Love Is Doomed’ – lyrics and all – which is not how things usually work in the band is it?
I wrote the basic track, and it sat around for a while. Then I told Shirley that I had an idea for a song called ‘Even Though Our Love Is Doomed’, and I couldn’t really come up with any music on it. And she said, “I love the title I want to bring in your idea”. And I panicked one morning and I picked up the bass – cause she wanted to hear something. I played the riff on that bass “boom boom boom boom boom” and for some reason these lyrics came out of me in about 10 minutes. I wrote the song in about 10 minutes. And most of the time – and for everything else on the record – Shirley has written the lyrics. And for whatever reason that one came out and when I played it to her she said, “Oh my God, I love it”, and she heard the playback once and she sang it on one take, and that’s what you hear on the record. One take!
Is that a pretty rare occurrence for Garbage?
Yeah, that is weird for us. Usually we are very meticulous, we’ll go in and rework [songs] and change them, and keep adding layers and layers on. And there are some moments on Strange Little Birds that are like that, but a lot of the record – if you actually look at the process of the songs – a lot of the songs are very spontaneous. And I think that is why the record has that kind of feel that it does.
Even in the ’90s Garbage never really fit into any particular scene but you still achieved huge success. 20 years on from your debut and no longer on a major label do you feel any external pressure anymore to be something you’re not or maintain a certain level of success?
“We don’t feel like we have to reinvent ourselves”
Really the pressure comes from ourselves. And I wouldn’t even say there is that much pressure because we are all able to get on the same wavelength about what we want to do. The good thing is, we know we’re not going to get any Top 40 airplay and we can’t compete with all the hipster young bands out there. We are who we are and for better or worse if you hear a Garbage song on the radio it sounds like us and we sort of take that as a badge of honour now. It’s like we have a sound and it’s who we are and we just embrace it. And that takes some pressure off, like we don’t feel like we have to reinvent ourselves.
When we made Strange Little Birds, however, we did want to change up the arrangements of how we made it. So I think this record sounds different than [2012’s] Not Your Kind Of People. It still sounds like us somehow but it doesn’t sound the same sonically, part of that is in the arrangement. We took the rock’n’roll out and leaned more on the atmospherics and cinematic moments.
When you guys did get back together after that seven year hiatus to record Not You Kind People – was there ever a chance you weren’t going to play new music together. Could you have just played retrospective tours and been happy with that?
I think we still want to be a creative force. We’ve already talked about song ideas for our next album and this one hasn’t even been released yet, but I think we’re going to make another record. We could just go out every summer and play a handful of shows as a nostalgia act but we have no interest in doing that. When Not Your Kind of People came out – right before that came out – we had some offers to go out and do these big summer ‘90s revival act tours, and we said no to all of them. We just had no interest in doing that. I think we still want to go out and play new songs as well as our back catalogue, but we want to go out and do our own thing – we don’t necessarily want to just lean on our history.
We did go out in the fall last year and play our 20th anniversary tour [20 Years Queer]– but we set a limit on that. We decided we were going to play 30 shows and we were going to play everything off our first album – including the B-sides – which we did. And it was a gas. It was really celebratory for all of us and the fans that came to see us. And then we put that aside, we’re not going to do that again. So now we’re focusing on the new album.
Because of the 20th anniversary tour for your debut Garbage and the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind you’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time in the last year or so looking back. What, if anything, do you think can be gained from nostalgia?
Well, I acknowledge my history. I am so lucky that I have had this long career and that I’ve worked for some incredible. Obviously Nevermind changed my life – and everyone else’s involved in it. It was such a huge commercial and critical success, and that never, or rarely, comes along. And I was very lucky to be a big part of that. And it changed my life. When the first Garbage record came out I didn’t really talk about Nevermind and I didn’t really talk about it much for a long time. But on the 20th anniversary I sat down with Dave and Krist and we did a lot of interviews and a lot of press because to me it’s still a very vital sounding record. And beside changing my life I still think it sounds really good and I want to acknowledge that.
You’ve said in an interview recently that the world is ready for another Nevermind. But with the way the industry is in 2016 – the volume of releases, the ease with which music can be created and distributed – how possible is it really for a record like Nevermind to only exist but have the kind of cultural impact that album did back in 1991?
“If you write killer songs you can be as big as Nirvana”
I do think it is possible. It wont be the same, obviously, because someone isn’t going to buy 20 million CDs even if someone comes out with a mind-blowing record. But I think from a cultural standpoint, when Nevermind came out it was the perfect timing. It talked to a generation of people of young music fans who didn’t understand where they were in life. And somehow Kurt spoke to them – the same way Bob Dylan did, and the same way John Lennon did.
There will be another band that comes out with a record like Nevermind. Another artist. It could be a folk hip-hop singer. It could be a jazz musician. There is no way to know. Someone has got to write a record that is powerful and speaks to the culture now about what is going on in the world and they also have to write fucking killer songs. If you write killer songs you can be as big as Nirvana.
What records have you heard recently that excite you?
Hmmm… I’m just trying to think of some artists that I totally dig lately. I love Parquet Courts – they are kind of a cross between Pixies and Sonic Youth.
Yeah their new record Human Performance is brilliant…
Yeah, I fell in love with them with that song ‘Stoned and Starving’, it’s just such a great guitar riff. I’m trying to think – I don’t have my laptop in front of me to check who I’ve been listening to. I heard this Swedish artist Aurora do a version of ‘Life on Mars’, a cappella, by David Bowie the other day which is great. I like The Kills new record I like this band Unloved.
I heard you mention Courtney Barnett in an interview at SxSW – have you listened to her record much?
I love Courtney Barnett – she is an amazing songwriter.
It’s been really interesting watching the world connect with a musician whose subject feels to be so uniquely Australian at times. What is it that resonates with you about her writing?
I think Courtney Barnett has tapped into a songwriting style that, to me, reminds me of Bob Dylan. It’s like she just takes in what is around her and puts it into song form and puts it out. She has a very unique way of doing it, she’s got her own spin on it and I think she’s an absolutely amazing songwriter. I know she’s from Australia, but when I first heard the songs, it didn’t even register to me where she is from. I just thought this is a new artist with a unique voice, and that’s how I heard it.
Shirley has also said that, in part, Strange Little Birds was a response to pop music now – which she feels has become increasingly empty. Is that also how you feel about Top 40 stuff?
Well I know Shirley has talked about this. When she wrote the lyrics to ‘Empty’ she kind of wrote the antithesis to what everybody is posting on social media and Facebook and Twitter. Everyone is like “Look this is amazing, we are having a wonderful time!” And she doesn’t always feel that way.
Look at your phone and look at the great time everyone is having – so why do I feel so miserable? I think that is why she wrote the lyrics to that song. She wanted to sort of communicate that “I don’t feel like everyone else does out there”. And that is what she does in the song. And I think it’s okay to acknowledge that you now? To acknowledge you’re not having the best day and you’re struggling to get through things. Most people don’t always have amazing days. They struggle a lot to get through things in their life and that is what Shirley was trying to communicate in that song.
Beyoncé can bully me all she wants. She just made a magnificent masterpiece. All hail our glorious queen. ⭐️
— Garbage (@garbage) April 25, 2016
Beyoncé has just released a record that is probably one of the most political pop records of our generation. Do you think there is still enough room for pop music to be political or edgier?
You know to me, when I listen to top 40 radio and pop music in general – most of it is escapism. Kids and people who listen to that music don’t want to sit and hear songs about how fucked they are, or how horrible they feel, or how terrible their life, or their job, or their wife, or their family is.
They want to go out on a Saturday night and party and dance – and I think that is why EDM has been so successful. It is basically club music. It is dance music. The sound is a little bit different with the electronica, but it is club music. It goes back to disco in the ‘80s and funk music in the ‘70s. People just want to go out and forget about how miserable their lives might be at any given moment. And pop music has kind of always been about escapism. Every now and then an artist writes songs with lyrics that really mean something, that can move you emotionally and I think that songs like that pop up on the radar and I think it’s heartening.
“People just want to go out and forget about how miserable their lives might be at any given moment”
The whole EDM movement… well, I love electronic music. I took four semesters of electronic music when I was at college at the University of Wisconsin and we’ve always like to get electronica into our Garbage songs. But I find I think it is a fad that is going on. And I think that like any type of music people are going to get burned out on it. They are going to move onto something else.
And that is the way music has always been – it’s always about cycles, you know. When something gets really popular, it gets mass exposure and a lot of fans behind it. Then something new comes along much like Nirvana did in 1991 and kicks it in the head and then everyone sort of moves into a new direction. If I knew what the next direction was – trust me I’d be out there trying to sign some artists right now. I don’t know what its going to be but there will be something new coming down the pipe soon.
With Nevermind you worked on one of the most famous “guitar records” of our generation. And despite music genres splintering so much of the last few decades there are still these staunch “rockists” who seem to think that that rock or guitar driven music is the only real music – how do feel about that kind of argument?
I think that is being conservative to say something like that, because I hear a lot of styles in music. I hear a lot of bands now that have rock’n’roll guitarists with electronica and hip-hop beats. It’s not that different to the first Garbage record where we blended all these genres together – and different styles of music into one song sometimes. I hear production on the radio now that is mind-blowing. I think it’s really cool that a lot of the young artists are taking all of their influences – and some of those are from drastically different styles of music – and are blending them all together as something that sounds unique and fresh. I think its exciting.
It’s really hard to come up with a new sound. It’s almost impossible to come up with a new sound – a brand new sound – in whatever style of music you’re in. And so I think what you can do – you can look at all these different styles of music and take the best bits from each different style and blend them all together and try and make something that sounds fresh and I think that is what a lot of the new generation of young artists are doing.
Garbage’s new album Strange Little Birds will be released on Friday, June 10 via Liberator Music/Stunvolume.