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The agony and the ecstasy
Garbage return with a renewed sense of purpose
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Garbage's official Web site

Garbage are bummed. The band from Madison, Wisconsin, who blew into ’90s alt-rock consciousness with an innovative hybrid of brawny guitar riffs, slick electronic loops, and smart-ass lyrics sung by a red hot temptress have found themselves adrift in today’s musical marketplace, where consumers seem more interested in downloading ring tones of Garbage’s "classic" hits than in buying a new album by aging modern-rock dinosaurs.

"What bums me out about the current climate is that kids just want the new single from the Now That’s What I Call Music! CD," says Butch Vig, the producer/drummer who after helping Nirvana realize Nevermind went on to form Garbage with Edinburgh-bred singer/guitarist Shirley Manson. "It’s starting to spell the death of the album. And we worked really hard to make our new album a real body of songs as opposed to one hit single with a bunch of filler." He’s referring to Bleed like Me (Geffen/Interscope), which came out last Tuesday. "We wanted it to have some continuity. But I’m not sure the new generation is interested in music like that."

Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Vig also insists that the over-marketed influx of teen-pop singers and crunked-up hip-hoppers and a generally dumbed-down culture has made it harder for musicians, songwriters, and in particular women to be heard. "There aren’t that many women in rock anymore. There was that whole Britney/Christina pop thing a few years ago, but bands with real women are not being embraced by the media. That bums us out. It forces everything to get narrower and narrower, and that affects the radio, and ultimately what an audience hears is narrow as well. You have to search far and wide to find really interesting music these days."

Bleed like Me is an interesting album; it’s also the most cohesive one the band, who play Avalon this Sunday, have recorded since their platinum-selling debut, 1995’s Garbage (Geffen). Recorded under considerable duress, after a round of intra-band sickness and songwriting ennui, the disc is full of the storming guitar riffs, monstrous drum grooves, and exquisite lyrical bile that helped make Manson an instant star. Eschewing the theatrical polish of 2001’s Beautiful Garbage, they’ve re-embraced old-fashioned, hard-hitting pop songs with rock-and-roll heart. It’s an ode to the scene from which Garbage emerged: Foo Fighter/Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl sits in at the kit for the first single, the attitude-heavy "Bad Boyfriend," and "Right Between the Eyes" brings to mind Live Through This–era Courtney Love. Like Garbage, Bleed like Me showcases Vig’s mastery of pop forms, from the moody, new-wave "Why Don’t You Come Over" to the ferocious, guitar-driven "Why Do You Love Me." But this time, he set his ProTools aside and recorded much of the new album live in the studio with a full band. The hooks are every bit as big, but there’s a new sense of tension, and guitarists Steve Marker and Duke Erikson are given room to make lots of tuneful noise.

But before Garbage made nice, they fell apart, got sick, and survived September 11. "Beautiful Garbage was difficult," Vig recalls, "because it came out right after 9/11, and it seemed very weird to be out promoting a record when there was this horrific tragedy everywhere you looked. Our single came out the week before 9/11, and the album came out three weeks later. We started off being ignored, as was everyone, and then I got sick with Hepatitis A and left a tour we were on with U2. It shook the band up to have someone taken out of their core even though they continued on with the tour. I came back and got another virus, which led to a serious ear infection, and I left for another three months. I finally returned and we finished 2002 really strong. The album did well in Europe and Australia and we felt pretty jazzed about starting a new album."

The good vibes didn’t last. In May 2002, after several false starts, constant bickering, and one very long delay after a bulldozer smashed through the main room of Garbage’s Smart Studio base in Madison, Vig called each band member to say he was leaving. "We wanted to make something simpler and feature guitars and bass and drums and get away from the programming and layering. We wanted to make it fast — in five months rather than a year. But we didn’t realize how damaged we really were. We had grown apart, and everyone felt fragile about where to go with a new record. I was trying to figure out what do sonically, and then we started arguing, and we couldn’t get on the same page. There were huge fights and disagreements. Part of that is ego and insecurity, and part of it is just that people change. We’ve been together for 10 years. It took a while to find a meeting of the minds."

After retreating to his home, where his wife made him listen to "nothing but Spanish music and jazz," Vig started wondering whether leaving was the right thing to do. "There’s something magical about what we do as a band. I realized that if we could get over the angst, there was something special about how this band works. I just needed to clear my brain."

Relocating to LA, Garbage began to experiment, recording with a local producer. The sessions produced the blueprint for "Bad Boyfriend." Just as Shirley Manson completed the original line-up when the band formed in 1994, her actions sparked Garbage’s return.

"We probably had 50 song ideas at first," Vig recalls. "Some were better than the ones we ultimately chose. We would bring in an idea, a sound, or a progression, play it, and if it got a tepid response, we would move on. The litmus test is that if Shirley gets excited about something she hears early on and she starts writing melodies and lyrics to it, then it is a keeper. Shirl is not going to sing on something she is not feeling inspired about. The first thing we wrote, ‘Right Between the Eyes,’ was completed in 30 minutes. Then once we nailed the riff on ‘Bad Boyfriend,’ that set the tone, and we knew it should be the leadoff track. ‘Sex Is Not the Enemy’ came fast, and so did ‘Boys Want To Fight.’ Those were guitar songs, and that’s when we got rid of the electronica hip-hop grooves and sequencing."

Garbage’s decision to replace the loops and other electronic touches that had been one of their touchstones left them with a foundation of guitars, drums, and bass. It was a felicitous turn of events. With drummer Matt Walker and bassist Justin Meldal-Johnson rounding out the in-studio unit, Garbage began to act like a real rock-and-roll band, drawing on the natural energy of recording live in the studio.

"At the end of the day, the songs that came through the quagmire were the more basic rock songs," Vig confirms. "A lot of that came from the inter-band tensions. Songs kept getting faster and more frantic-sounding. I got rid of the nitpicky electronic things and turned up the punkier, scrappier sounds. It’s the messiest-sounding record we’ve made as far as the choice of what we left in the songs. Steve pushed for more of that on this record, because we have been guilty in the past of overdoing and overthinking the parts. This one is looser-sounding than we would have done in the past. But ultimately, what you feed off of in a great track is the energy, not the balance in the mix."

The irony is that Garbage are returning to the rudiments of rock just when there’s a renewed interest in the new-wavish fusion of pop and electronics that Vig once excelled at. But Vig isn’t concerned. "You can’t analyze the market because by the time you do, it’s morphed into something else anyway. Music just seems to be cycling into new genres or subgenres faster and faster these days. There are ’80s revival stations and ’90s revival stations, and pretty soon there will be year 2000 revival stations."

By the end of our conversation, he sounds less pessimistic. But he’s still cautious. Or maybe that’s just a reflection of what Garbage have been through over the past few years — and of feeling that you’ve got nothing left to lose. "I don’t know where we fit in. Kids these days have a certain allowance, and why should they buy music when they can get the new Grand Theft Auto video game? Ultimately, we’re really proud of this record because it sounds like us. And, we’ve been away for so long that we’ve practically fallen off the map. So if we have fans who come out to see us and buy the album, we’ll be ecstatic."

Garbage headline this Sunday, April 17, at Avalon, 15 Lansdowne Street in Boston; call (617) 423-NEXT.

Issue Date: April 15 - 21, 2005
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