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Q&A: Garbage

Garbage’s smart fusion of alt-rock with electronica and hip-hop sampling techniques, and Shirley Manson’s magnetism as a frontwoman, earned them success that still defies classification.

Donna Leahey
September 28, 2018

Defying classification for 25 years, Scottish-American alt-rock band Garbage is back on tour, bringing their eclectic sound and creative energy to Paradise Cove. And the band is working together better than ever, recording a new album this fall in between tour dates that is scheduled to be released in 2019.

Garbage celebrated the 20th anniversary of their first album, the critically acclaimed and self-titled Garbage (1995) by re-releasing it. They have followed suit with their second album, Version 2.0 (1998), re-releasing the award-winning album that brought us hits like “I Think I’m Paranoid,” “Push it,” and “Special.”

Garbage’s Butch Vig is so much more than their drummer. Before Garbage ever formed, he was already established as a producer, known for his work on iconic alternative rock albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkin’s Gish.

Ready to do something new, he brought in Duke Erikson whom he’d worked with previously, and his partner at Smart Studios, Steve Marker. They sought out a female vocalist and found Scottish musician Shirley Manson. She’d grown up in Edinburgh and joined the genre-bending alt-rockers in her late twenties, after singing in two bands (Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie and Angelfish) that never quite made it. She was eager to prove herself in the new group. Together, they were Garbage.

All four members are involved in songwriting and production. Garbage have sold over 17 million albums worldwide.

Q. What can you tell us about the thought process behind re-releasing your first two albums with the 20th anniversary editions?

A. I think that as a band we look at the releases of those two records and the tours that accompany them as sort of a celebration of surviving; of being here for 20 years. We’re very proud of those records.

We released a couple records in the last five years — Not Your Kind of People (2012) and Strange Little Birds (2016) — and we’re working on a record right now. We don’t necessarily feel like we’re looking backward. We’re not revivalists or nostalgia bands. We don’t do those package tours. Every now and then we’ll play a show like that, but we’re still, as a band, forward thinking. We’re still interested in writing new music.

But we’re celebrating that we’ve been around as long as we have, acknowledging how both those records were big parts of our lives. Our debut record, Garbage, took off way wilder than our expectations. And at the time we didn’t even realize it, but it sounded quite different from everything else out there.  And with Version 2.0 it was literally a software upgrade. We took everything we learned on our first record and made it bigger and faster and better.

So, I think in some ways, those two records defined the sound of Garbage. Even though the record we’re working on sounds quite different from those records, it still has threads that sound like we sound.

Q. Tell us about this new album.

A. We’ve had a couple sessions that have been very fruitful. We have been coming out to Palm Springs (Calif). We have a house out here that a friend of ours owns. We basically set up our gear in the great room. It’s amazing, overlooking the deserts and the mountains. We’ve just been jamming and we’ve got 25 or 30 song ideas so far from the jams that we have been working on. They’re kind of all over the place but if there’s any thread between them, it’s some of the atmospheric moments and sort of cinematic moments on Strange Little Birds have carried over into at least half the songs we’re working on right now. There’s no title and it’s hard for me to tell what exactly it’s going to sound like.

When we start a Garbage record, early on I get a picture and a sound in my head of what it’s going to sound like and a lot of times it ends up quite different. I’m sure that’ll be the case with this one too. But we’re hoping to keep recording off and on between touring plans this year and get it out in the spring next year.

Q. Starting around 2005, Garbage broke up, reformed, went on hiatus, came off hiatus. How is the band’s cohesion these days?

A. Really good. We took a break after Bleed Like Me (2005) because we needed one badly. We’d done four records and four long tours, and all of us had given up our personal lives and any relationships we had and the band became our No. 1 priority for everybody. And that was a 10-year haul, and we were all pretty fried out. So, when we took that break, we thought it would be a year or two, but it ended up being almost seven years.

I think that time off gave us time to reflect on what was important to us. And the band is important to us. It’s been, for me, one of the most creative outlets in my life.

I wear many hats. I can be a drummer, I can play guitar, I can play keyboards, I can write a song, I can order the wine, I can engineer, I can produce, and I can do none of those on any day if I’m uninspired. And all of us have the same roles; we change those roles up a lot. This has been a very creative band for us to be in.

We still feel that way. We get along as people, and I think that’s the main reason we’re still here after 20 years. We enjoy each others company.

The place we’re recording at in Palm Springs, we’re all just living here. There’s four bedrooms, there’s a big kitchen, a deck where you can have a beer or go for a swim. And we’re just communal living. We’re all in each others space. There’s a lot of bands I know that could not do that.

Q. People have used some colorful descriptions for your sound. How would you describe it now?

A. I have no idea. Even though I’m one of the architects behind the sound, I have no idea how to describe us. We blend so many different styles and genres together, and we always have. For better or for worse, even if we try not to sound like Garbage, when we record a song, if you hear it, you’re going to go, “That’s Garbage.” Even if we try to not sound that way, because of the sensibility of who we are as players and the things we share in terms of our influences.

Some people said, back in the day, that we were an alternative band, but that could be anything. We blend so many things together. I should try to come up with a term. I’m not that clever though.

Q. There’s a story that you originally played piano, and then you traded your piano for drums. Is that true?

A. That’s true. I saw The Who play. I’d been playing piano for five years. My mom is a music teacher, and I think she sort of forced me to play piano. In like fifth grade, I saw some footage of The Who playing and I saw Keith Moon, and I was like, “I want to do that!” I begged my parents to get a drum set. My mom said she’d only do it if I promised to keep playing piano. She also insisted I take lessons, so I started taking lessons with the local band teacher. After about six months, they bought me the cheapest set, from Sears. But I just jumped into it. Sadly, I broke my promise to my mom, I didn’t keep playing piano. I slipped away from it. Now I shoot myself for it, because I’m a pretty hack piano player. And I wish that I had kept it up because it’s something I use a lot when we’re writing songs.

But looking back, I think it was the right decision for me to make, because once I took up drums I fully embraced rock ‘n’ roll. And I’ve been in bands since I was 13 years old, so it was the right decision, and I thank my parents for giving me that first drum kit.

Q. You’re known as a fantastic producer. What drew you to that?

A. I was always fascinated by what you could do with tape recorders. When I was around 12, my parents bought me one of those tiny little reel-to-reels, with like five-inch reels. I started making little mixed tapes. I’d record a song from the Beatles, and I’d pause it and put on a Frank Sinatra song. Then I’d put on Jethro Tull or Black Sabbath. It had a button where you could dismantle the erase machine. It was called sound-on-sound. I started recording myself playing drums, and then I’d rewind it and hit record again and play piano. So basically, I was overdubbing myself on this piece of tape. I was fascinated with it.

The band I played with in high school, Eclipse, we had an original song we wrote that we wanted to press on a seven-inch record. We wanted to go to this studio in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which is about 30 miles from the town I grew up in, Viroqua (Wis.). My mom called the local music critic, and he shot us down completely. He said, “They’re not ready to record, they need a producer, they need a label, they need a manager.”

We were really discouraged, but I had a friend who had a two-track, and we started recording in our rehearsal space and I became the engineer/producer. I had no idea what I was doing. But that was the first time I made an attempt to record a band and I loved it. I never looked back after I started doing that.

There’s a documentary that came out last year called the The Smart Studios Story. It’s a documentary about the studio that Steve [Marker] and I ran for 30 years in Madison. There’s a lot of background and it’s a great movie. Director Wendy Schneider, a Madison filmmaker, made it, and I think you’d find it fascinating. Anyone who’s a nerd about music will love it. It’s 90 minutes of DIY indie rock in the Midwest that eventually leads to Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Garbage.

Q. Anything else you’d like to tell us?

A. I have a fond memory of one of the first times we played in Tulsa. Shirley, for some inexplicable reason, shaved most of our crew’s heads after sound check. I have pictures of it still. I don’t know why. Maybe we’d been on the road too long and we were bored. Those are the things I remember from shows, the anomalies. We’re excited to be coming back to Tulsa.  

Paradise Cove | River Spirit Casino Resort
8330 Riverside Parkway | Tulsa
Oct. 13: 8 p.m.
Must be 21 or older to attend