INTERVIEW: Garbage’s Butch Vig

IK Multimedia's MODO BASS

When Garbage went into hiatus around 2006, nobody expected the band to be gone forever. It really did seem like more of a ‘recharge the creative batteries’ break than a ‘we hate each other and can’t stand to work together ever again’ thing. So when they announced their plans to return, it was not really a surprise. What is a surprise is that their new album, Not Your Kind Of People, sounds like they never missed a day. It does what Garbage – Shirley Manson, Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson – have always done best, and that’s to sound like themselves. That indefinable quality that makes each Garbage album sound different to the one before it, yet makes them all sound like part of the unified output of those four musicians and the dynamic between them.

“We did not want to reinvent ourselves,” Vig says. “We wanted to embrace the sensibilities of what we like as the four of us. And just basically try to capture what it is that makes it sound like who we are.” Part of that was the realisation that nobody else sounds like Garbage, and that there’s something about having an identity that’s very hard to define and quantify, but that when you find it, you hang on to it. “I think that’s a huge, valuable asset in today’s world, to have that kind of signature sound. So we decided to simply do what we like to do. And that’s the sound of this record. A lot of people said it reminded them of our first album.”

Garbage has never really fit in. They use electronics but they don’t fit in with electronica. Butch has been involved with legendary grunge albums (after all, he produced Nevermind) but they never fit with grunge. They’re not hipsters but they’re popular. They’re not pop but their melodies touch on it. “That’s how we all feel as individuals. We never felt we were too cool for school. Shirley being Scottish, they’re always being beaten down by the Brits. We embrace all these different styles of music when we write a song, and we got radio play when we never had a massive top 40 hit, and we that’s okay. We are who we are. For better or for worse, this record sounds like Garbage, and we’re okay with that.” That’s one of the themes of the record: about embracing the fact that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to feel like the outsider and it’s okay to feel like a creep. “We have some crazy misfit fans, and that’s okay!” Think back to when Garbage played the Big Day Out festival – scary metal dudes like me were standing alongside alternative kids and pop fans, and all were digging it. Even the metalheads. “I’ll say this, Peter, there are some moments in songs, where we get – not really metal, but we can get heavy. We were just today running through “Why Do You Love Me?” and “Bad Boyfriend” and “Push It,” and we kept trying to dial it up, dial it up, dial it up. I know Duke and Steve were working on some guitar tones to make it heavier and heavier sounding. I think because the nature of who we are as a band, and how we embrace things, and the subtle elements in the arrangements, between heavy, fuzzy guitars and pop melodies and whatever, we do have a pretty big fan base. We have no idea what to expect when the new album comes out. And we feel like by embracing all these different genres, including hard rock and heavy metal, you listen to some Garbage songs and we just want to go there, man. And I think you’re gonna hear some of that on the new tour! We’re dialling up some of the heavy guitar tones for a few of the songs.” Vig is no stranger to the glories of fuzz and the emotional response it evokes. “To me that’s rock and roll. To me rock and roll is the sound of guitars. Really, rock and roll is attitude more than anything, but also for me, personally, it’s the sound of guitars. And there are definitely some fuzzy guitars on the new record.”

So how does Garbage create in 2012? This is the first album they’ve recorded in Los Angeles. Not in Hollywood or Beverly Hills but in a small suburb called Atwater Village. It’s a very funky, bohemian neighbourhood about a mile from Vig’s house. “It was done sort of geurilla style,” he says. “We did the first four records at my studio back in Wisconsin. Some of the drums were done here at my bedroom studio upstairs. It’s not really a proper studio. I would send my daughter off to school then go up and play drums in my pyjamas, and it’s a really minimal setup. And then I would run it through an old tube preamp to go ahead and saturate the sound. It sounds so fun and so cool! Shirley did at least four or five songs sitting here with a handheld mic and not even headphones, just speakers playing. There’s a sort of playful casual to it, kind of loose, y’know? And it’s a real crucial part of trying to make a record sound vibey. Not getting crazy with editing and quantizing and trying to make it sound perfect.” This was inspired by Vig’s work on the latest Foo Fighters album, Wasting Light, which was recorded to tape. “There’s something about performance that really gets to what makes you excited about a part in a song. So we tried not to make everything sound perfect. So the record to me, it’s not super tight and all focused, but that’s good! I listened to it the other day in someone else’s car and they said ‘Wow, the record sounds weird!’ Because it doesn’t sound like anything else. And all along, the recording, the mixing, it has a vibe to it. And as a band we’re proud of that. One of the things I realised with the Foos, when everybody hits the ‘one,’ no matter how tight it is, if it’s on tape you can’t move it around by a few milliseconds, so what happens is the one, the downbeat, gets wider. Most people will just hear the one and go ‘whatever,’ but there’s a thickness, a width, a heaviness of sound when it’s played for real in realtime. It is what it is, and that makes the music bigger, and breathe.”

Does Vig have a secret studio weapon? “The Roger Mayer RM58 limiter, man. I use that all the time here. I run drums through it all the time. If he made a plug-in of that he might be able to make a lot of money! If someone could emulate the what it does with sound, the way it compresses… I love my RM58.” Vig’s drum rig for the new album included a few different things initially used to program, before getting into the nitty gritty of playing acoustic drums. “If I was coming up with a song idea I’d use an M-Audio Trigger Finger which I can run into my Pro Tools. I have BFD emulations of drums, and lots of other software. I have a Drum Workshop kit set up with a couple of mics on it: a kick and snare, a couple of overheads. Sometimes I’ll put a couple of tom mics up if I’m playing a lot of tom parts. Then I have a mono room mic which sounds like a tube 47 and I put that down in the corner by the bathroom in my den and I compress the shit out of it. I run it through a plug-in called Decapitator [by SoundToys], and the second you do that, it’s instant vibe. A lot of the drums sound really big on the record, and my room is so small! Twelve feet by sixteen feet, and the walls are drywall. There’s nothing special about it. It sounds kinda trashy but I was looking for that sound.”

A little while after recording was completed on Not Your Kind Of People, the band returned to the studio to lay down a few more tracks. “I think we’d written maybe 26 songs, and we want all of them to come out,” Vig says. “So there’s no point in holding them back and putting them out on a B-side album five years from now. I think part of it is because all of us feel invested in the songs. So we went back in and finished I think five or six songs, and this morning we’re working on another one that we’re trying to finish. We want them to all come out over the next year and a half, whether it’s a film, a TV show, whatever it is. We just want to be able to give the music that we feel. We want to get it out there. We don’t have to go through all the bullshit bureaucracy and red tape that you go through when you’re on a label. And honestly, I can’t complain about major labels too much because we have been very successful. We sold a lot of records. But at the end of that it had sort of run its course and we felt we did not see eye to eye with the label. And we don’t have to deal with that any more, so that’s a good thing. We’re sort of in command of what we want to do. And at some point all of the content, all of the different things we’re working on are all going to come out, and relatively soon.”