- 02 Aug 19
Butch "the Nevermind Man" Vig, the legendary Garbage drummer and record producer, turns 64 today. To celebrate, we're revisiting our 2005 interview the iconic band.
Long live the new trash. It’s springtime in London and Garbage are in town, peeling off the old skin to see what’s growing underneath. Here for tour rehearsals and press blitz before the drop on the quartet’s fourth album Bleed Like Me, the differences between this and the last time we met, over three years ago, are acute.
Back in January '02, some four months into the beautifulgarbage campaign, there was a definite air of uncertainty in the Garbage camp. That third album garnered its fair share of critical plaudits but was a slow mover in every territory bar Australia, where it went platinum. Although a breakthrough for the band in terms of sonic experimentalism and songwriting, BG failed to match the commercial impact of either the band’s eponymous debut and Version 2.0, which shifted some seven million between them.
Why? Well, theories ranged from the want of a monster single to singer Shirley Manson cutting her flaming red hair into a bleached crop. Some reckoned the band’s hardcore fan-base didn’t get the album’s magpie references to pop-historical figures like Spector and Big Star and Noel Coward and Prince. Others surmised it was an unlucky case of the record getting usurped by the times. Released just before 9/11, the lead-off single ‘Androgyny’, a paean to pansexual playfulness wrapped in sugar-spun hooks, was all but spurned by a panic-stricken public whose shrivelling ears cried out for the portentous airs of U2 or Coldplay. The musicians themselves felt ridiculous talking up a new record in such jittery times.
But there were other factors too. A series of buy-outs and mergers resulted in the band ending up as somewhat reluctant additions to the Interscope roster. Lawsuits ensued. Garbage’s UK label Mushroom was in the process of being sold to Warners, and the record seemed to slip down the cracks in the changeover. More to the point, they seemed to take forever to get around to promoting the album with their own headline shows, opting instead to do a series of selected club gigs and U2 support slots. Months seemed to have elapsed before the band got a cohesive strategy together, although when they did hit the road in earnest, sales began to steadily improve, eventually creeping toward the million mark. Bizarrely, the fourth single from the album ‘Shut Your Mouth’ – the tune that sounded most like old school Garbage, all electro attack, bone-hard riffs and vocal attitude – achieved the highest UK chart placing of the campaign. Nevertheless, beautifulgarbage took on the mantle of difficult third album, its creators struggling to find their place amongst new bloods like the Yeahs Yeah Yeahs and The White Stripes.
But now in 2005, with Bleed Like Me in the pipeline, the foursome seems to be leaving nothing to chance. One of the first things this observer noted as he caught up with band and entourage where they were headquartered in Kensington’s Millennium Gloucester Hotel, is how the Garbage machine already appears oiled up and in full throttle with a couple of weeks still left to go before the release date. They’ve already put in three weeks rehearsal in their US base of Madison, Wisconsin, and will spend each evening after press duties in a hanger in Shepherd’s Bush ironing out bugs in the system in preparation for American and European dates that will take them into the summer. Familiar crew faces such as guitar tech and Smart Studios engineer Billy Bush can be spotted lugging hunks of technology through the harshly lit foyer. Word has it that new touring bassist Eric Avery (ex Jane’s Addiction) is fitting in just fine, his kinetic style matching the upped energy level of the new tunes. Press duties are being coordinated by Warner Brothers personnel drilled in corporate synergy, in turn overseen by reps from management heavyweights Q Prime (Metallica, Chili Peppers).
They’ve also sorted out the label politics. In the US, the album is coming out on Geffen, where they’ve friends in high places. According to Butch Vig, the single ‘Why Do You Love Me?’ – a seething three minutes of visceral energy offset by a magnetically vulnerable vocal performance from Manson – looks like going Top 5 in the airplay chart stateside, their highest placing since ‘Special’ in 1998, while the video for the tune is getting heavy rotation on the satellite music channels. The clip, directed by Manson’s friend Sophie Muller, is a stark and striking piece of work that manages to dramatise the tensions between band members in a way not seen since the Stones’ ‘One Hit To The Body’, while making the singer look rather fabulous into the bargain.
In other words Garbage have got their shit together. But this is not news. The news is that there’s an album to promote at all, or a band to promote it.
Repetitive strain injury. That’s what happened when Garbage came off the BG tour to make their fourth album. The cumulative stress of an album-tour-album-tour-album-tour cycle that began back in 1994, each successive record growing more and more difficult to complete. A period fraught with marital breakdown, family bereavement and illnesses both within and without the group. While on tour with U2 in late 2001, Butch Vig suffered a bout of Hepatitis A followed by Bell’s palsy, necessitating the drafting in of replacement drummers Matt Chamberlain and Matt Walker. As the tour ground on, Manson was dogged by voice problems that would eventually result in surgery to remove a cyst on her vocal chords. By the end of 2002 however, the band seemed to be having fun again, playing 20,000 capacity arenas alongside No Doubt and The Distillers. They also made a few friends among the big cheeses when they played a music biz gala tribute to Bono, rearranging ‘Pride’ with Velvets chords, Shirley table-dancing the U2 singer and his buddy Bill Clinton.
So far so good. Except when it came time for Garbage to begin work on Bleed Like Me in the spring of 2003, it became apparent that all four members were operating at cross-purposes. Over the next year and a half, they would weather desultory periods of writer’s block and passive-aggressive infighting, effectively disbanding for one five-month period.
Split into pairs for the purposes of the interview treadmill, the band appear to be using their press duties as a sort of group therapy. In one room, we find Butch Vig and guitarist Duke Erikson, who are as easy around each other as one would expect of two gentlemen who’ve been in bands together for over 20 years. As we join them, they’re discussing the Michael Jackson trial re-enactments on Sky. “It looks like a Saturday Night Live sketch but it’s serious,” says Butch. “Weird.”
Duke, balding, bearded and droll in delivery, is the eldest member of the band. Garbage’s crew refer to him as la m’Elquina (“The Machine”) due to his ability to metabolise Russian army quantities of vodka and still report for work next morning. I find this out to my peril later that night, as we embark upon a five o’ clock bull session whose subjects include William Blake, Deadwood (Duke and Butch are huge fans of Ian McShane’s expletive-splattered Shakespearian oratories), a track on Pink Floyd’s Umma Gumma called ‘Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict’ – which the guitarist used to play on college radio to annoy the jocks – and the forthcoming heroically restored edition of the Anthology Of American Folk Music masterminded by mutual friends Bernard and Allison at Lomax Records.
Vig on the other hand, as well as lugging around the mantle of ‘grunge Spector’ through his work with Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth, is a voracious film buff and devourer of historical tomes (his latest being a doorstep on Atilla The Hun). When asked to synopsise the making of Bleed Like Me, he’s characteristically direct.
“It was a pain in the arse,” he says, displaying location-sensitive vernacular. "A super pain in the arse. But in some ways it feels good because it was a struggle.”
But then, the quartet’s modus operandi frequently evokes the definition of madness as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
“Well,” Butch deadpans, “that describes Garbage trying to make a record.”
It doesn’t help that they never give themselves time to recover after tours. Within weeks of unpacking, they inevitably end up sniffing around each other again, and before you know it, they’re ensnarled in another marathon recording schedule.
Duke: “Yeah, sniffing around is exactly right, kind of like the dog sniffing the other dog. ‘Whaddya thinkin’?’ And then there’s a growl from the other end. (laughs).”
But with Bleed Like Me, the band had a tantalising false start. In March 2003, the first day they reconvened, they wrote the thundering ‘Right Between The Eyes’ in Billy Bush’s condo set-up in Madison. Somewhat optimistically, Vig foresaw a speedily recorded rock record. It didn’t turn out that way. They soon got bogged down, and a full six months of hair pulling ensured.
“We go through the same thing every record we’ve made,” Duke admits, “and it has escalated. This time somebody actually almost quit, I mean we’ve all almost quit. I quit this band in my head 25 times, just decided, ‘Fuck this, this isn’t working.’”
It all came to a head one particularly fraught October weekend when Butch decided he’d had enough and informed the others he was going back to his house in LA. But he at least had a place to go to – everybody else was pretty much stuck in Madison.
“Yeah, it was more dramatic when I said, ‘Fuck this, I’m outta here’, got on a plane and went to LA,” he says. “It wouldn’t have been quite as dramatic if I just went back to the Edgewater Hotel (vaguely sinister Overlook type hostelry in Madison). I mean, Shirley could have, she literally had a couple of sort of hysterical breakdowns. I think for her a lot of it was feeling uninspired and having a hard time with lyrics and the panic set in. We were all miserable. It could have been anybody who walked out, I was just the first one who said, ‘Fuck it, I can’t deal with this anymore.’”
Crime scene reconstruction: What were the events of that day?
“It was just an accumulation of stress. I remember I didn’t sleep at all Saturday and Sunday, had a shitty weekend, just pacing at the Edgewater, just felt terrible and I didn’t know what to do. And I didn’t want to go to the studio and sit down and have everybody get around, so I figured I’d have to see everybody individually. So about 7am I called up Shirley and left a message to call me as soon as she got up. So I went and saw her, then saw Steve and went by Duke’s and we went and had a beer somewhere. And I basically said, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I feel shitty and really miserable and I don’t see any point in going on at this point.’ We’d been in Madison on and off for about six months, this was like October 2003.”
So Butch went home to LA, ordered a bunch of DVDs and went to ground. First thing he watched was 28 Days Later. Soaking up Eno and Godspeed on the soundtrack, the images reflected his state of mind all too vividly. The humans had fled, leaving only a necropolis overrun by zombies.
After cooling their heels for a while, the band finally reconvened for a summit and resolved to decamp from Smart Studios to LA and work with John King (who, as one half of The Dust Brothers, had helmed albums for Beck, the Beastie Boys and the Fight Club soundtrack) in a nominal producer’s role. A turning point came when Butch called in a favour from Dave Grohl, asking him to play drums on the lascivious ‘My Bad Boyfriend’, a tune that can only be described as ‘Cold Turkey’ with hot pants. Grohl’s typically Herculean performance gave the song, and the band, a jab in the arse. (“He was great,’” Duke says later. “He said, ‘What should I do on this part?’ and we just said, ‘Go crazy!’”)
“The song was done but it didn’t have the right vibe,” Butch recalls. “And part of that was having Dave Grohl come in because he sort of brought a different energy level to the song, and then in turn Duke and Steve really upped the ante on their guitar playing which set the bar for a lot of the songs that followed. We wanted to get more scrappy and primal sounding.”
In the end, Garbage returned to Madison to finish the record. The LA interlude was, I suggest, much like a married couple getting away for a romantic weekend to rekindle the fires.
“In a way it was,” Butch nods, “we needed some way to rejuvenate the band. The greatest thing was John King got us into a room, and having someone else in there with an opinion, trying to get us motivated, kind of made us tighten up the wagons or whatever, bring our defences up. And it kind of made us realise we’re the only ones who can really make a Garbage record. He’s a super nice guy and much like us, a real tech-head, but after being there a month we went back to Smart, and the first week we were back we wrote ‘Metal Heart’ and ‘Boys Wanna Fight’ and Shirley started to come up with lyrics for some of the other songs we hadn’t really finished, so that was good because it kind of opened the floodgates.”
The result is an album that at once manages to strip Garbage down to a pretty impressive songwriting unit, although if this is a bare-bones live-sounding record, it’s still pretty elaborate. ‘Why Do You Love Me?’, despite the overloaded guitars and 160 bpm syncopation, is a cry of self loathing and recrimination that doubles as wounded love song and metaphor for the band’s troubles. There’s a disconsolate lament for dead love called ‘It’s All Over But The Crying’. And then there’s the title tune, in which the cast of a modern day ‘Walk On the Wild Side’ seem to wake up inside ‘Candy Says’, people with names like Avalanche, Chrissie, Speedie, Doodle and JT.
“They’re all real people Shirley knows,” says Vig. “They’re all true stories, so I think in some ways it’s one of her finest hours. Her lyrics are very personal, but there’s a vulnerability and an intimacy and an honesty in her voice that just sounds amazing. The song was kind of done and she came up with that line ‘You should see my scars’ right before we mixed it. She said, ‘I’ve got this idea for a girl’s choir, turn the mic on, I’ll just overdub a bunch of vocals’ and it just sort of encapsulates all the earlier verses, and the hair on the back of my neck went up when she started singing that. Powerful stuff.”
And at the end of the record, ‘In My Happy Home’, with an aching one-take vocal from Manson, perhaps the first song the band have recorded that could pass as a Hank Williams standard, notwithstanding a vertically elevated coda worthy of MBV or Spiritualized.
Duke: “One of the great things about having done a record like this, no matter what anybody thinks about it, we stripped things back and now we can do anything we want again. Should we be crazy enough to do this again. We cleaned the slate. And a think that’s a great feeling.”
Two doors down the hall, you’ll find Steve Marker and Shirley Manson. In person Steve is an intelligent and articulate individual, but once the tape is on, tends to leave the talking to his band mates. Built like a full back, he once ripped a phone book asunder during a lull in a particularly frustrating studio session. Shirley on the other hand, clad today in mini and fishnets, red-haired again and wearing thick black eyeliner, is the most emotionally forthright of the band, but also the most complex character. Tell her she looks great and she’ll shoot back that she feels like shit.
So whereas Butch and Duke exude easy camaraderie, the mood in Manson and Marker’s suite is hard to read. Having interviewed Shirley several times before, I know she’s usually most forthcoming on a one to one basis. Today, she seems decidedly uncomfortable for the first ten minutes of the interview. It’s only when I ask at what point during the making of the new album Garbage started to worry that the conversation picks up impetus.
“I was worried from day one!” she laughs.
“I think we always worry,” Steve adds, “but in the past it’s always somehow worked itself out enough to let us function, and maybe that’s self delusional. We started work on this record and all of a sudden it was apparent that it wasn’t gonna be fine. Obviously Butch coming in one day and saying, ‘I’m going home, I don’t know if I’m coming back’, that was a crisis point, but it was falling apart before that for quite a while. I don’t think anybody was that shocked.”
Yet out of this came some of the band’s most positive songs. ‘Right Between The Eyes’, ‘Run Baby Run’ and ‘Bleed Like Me’ glow with compassion, forgiveness and self-acceptance. They seem to tell the listener, okay, you’re a fuck-up, but you’re alright. It’s as though such songs have a job to do, a sort of public service.
“Which is how I see music,” says Shirley, “the role of a musician. There are songs that I love to be entertained by, but the music that I am obsessed by is the music that feeds me and heals me and makes me feel part of something. The theme of ‘Bleed Like Me’ is that forgiving your flaws is to forgive others their flaws, and realising that the flaws can be like trophies in a way.
"It’s funny that you said the record is about recognising you can be flawed and still be lovable, that you still have worth, because that is a preoccupation of mine – being aware and accepting that I am never going to be perfect. I’ve struggled against that my whole life, wanting to be something I’m not and I’m getting to that point in my life where I’m willing to just accept the fact that I’m not perfect and the imperfections have been great motivators and drivers in me, and recognising the vulnerabilities and flaws in other people is what makes them attractive.
“It always reminds me of that WB Yeats poem where he’s talking about Maud Gonne and he says, ‘Her hands were not perfect’. It’s a line that’s stuck in my head my whole life since I was a kid at school. I can remember sitting at school loving that he was obsessed with this person and the fact that her hands were all fucked up was one of the reasons he found her really attractive, and I thought it was really beautiful as a line.”
Wasn’t she was another redhead?
“Oh yeah. Another fucked up bitch!”
The central paradox of art: without fucked-upness there would be no beauty.
And ‘In My Happy Home’ fulfils both those criteria, a fucked-up, beautiful prayer, made all the more poignant by the fragility of the performance.
“To me it’s the most desperate… I liked when you described it as a prayer because that’s how it feels to me. It’s seeking forgiveness, seeking peace, that’s what the song is about, a search for peace, which is why I think it is so great at the end of the record, because the record was made during such conflict, both internally as a band and in the world at large. It’s about coming to terms with your place in world chaos, accepting you’re powerless, accepting that you have no control, accepting that really all you can do is live your life the way you live your life and try to be as honourable as possible.
“Coming into this record I had more confidence that I could express an idea, a feeling,” she continues, “and use my music to find the people that think the way I do, cos I feel very out of kilter with a lot of the common thoughts of today, if that makes any sense. I look at women’s magazines and they’re packed full of people self improving and cutting themselves up and older women trying to hide the fact they’re older, making themselves young and still failing to recreate their youth and chasing their tails and being tortured by this impossible idea, and I feel very out of step with it.
“And I know there are people out there who feel the same way I do and are repulsed by this whole homogenisation and misogyny that’s going on, and I want to find these people so that I can find peace. I feel very alienated as a human being a lot of the time when I turn a television set on or when I read a magazine, it makes me feel very lonely, ’cos I sometimes feel, ‘Am I the only one that thinks its wrong that women should be coerced into believing their age is ugly? Am I the only one who thinks it’s inappropriate for a 14-year-old girl to be peddled like a sexual object?’ Things like that. I know for a fact logically that there are millions of people who are in step with the way I think, but it’s finding them that’s hard sometimes.”
That search for a notional community is…
“Isn’t that what music is, what a band is?”
…the engine of rock ‘n’ roll. To make a badge of honour out of your own freakdom.
“This idea that you can’t talk about your flaws and your vulnerabilities and your fears, it’s not really tolerated in our culture, it’s really shunned, and so people are constantly being cowed and made to feel ashamed, whether it’s of your sexuality, whether it’s if you have an eating disorder, whether it’s if you live with mental illness, all these things that people are very uncomfortable if they’re ever brought into a public forum, it’s all supposed to be swept under the carpet, and I’ve found in my own life’s experience that if you share these kind of things with other people, it’s very salving and leads to emancipation. And ultimately I want to be free, I want to live a free life. I don’t want to hurt anybody in the process absolutely, but I want to try and reach…spiritual…”
She searches for the word, finds it, throws her arms wide and declaims: “…Enlightenment.”
Then she roars with laughter. It’s a formidable sound.
“I can’t believe I just said that!” she groans. “Oh, somebody shoot me, please!”