“We made a dark record, but there is optimism in there, and that’s the important thing. You have to have a ray of light through the gloom.”
Garbage is a band that never likes doing things the easy way. That’s just one reason their brand of pogo-slamming alt-rock that’s married with deep electronic impulses is essentially a genre unto itself. Seminal Garbage tracks like Stupid Girl, Queer, #1 Crush, I Think I’m Paranoid, and Bleed Like Me have more layers to their final mixes than any given installment of Game of Thrones. They’re the perfect soundscape landscape for frontwoman Shirley Manson’s deeply involving tales of empowerment, vulnerability, and high emotional stakes.
But for their dark and foreboding new album, Strange Little Birds (out today on various formats via their own label, Stunvolume), Garbage took a different tack. The band opted to stick with the core sonic fruits of many of the initial jam sessions held in drummer/loopmaster/producer Butch Vig’s basement studio in California and, in some cases, leaving Manson’s first-take vocals virtually untouched. “This record, funnily enough, has the most to do with the first record [1995’s Garbage] than any of the previous records,” Manson said in an official statement. “It’s getting back to that beginner’s headspace.”
Vig confirmed that approach directly with Digital Trends: “Shirley wanted to make a spontaneous record, one where we had to trust our intuition and our first responses,” he observed. “And as she started writing the lyrics to the songs we were working on, we found the music sounded better when we stripped it back. In a lot of the songs, her voice is mixed way upfront and it’s really dry. It’s confrontational, and almost confessional.”
Garbage’s back-to-basics instincts have clearly paid off for Birds, as witnessed by the piano-and-synth-strings dirge of an opening track Sometimes, the 7-minute balls-out caterwauling of Blackout, the resigned grind of Even Though Our Love Is Doomed, and the repentant burble of closing track Amends.
Before Garbage headed overseas to kick-off their summer European tour, Vig, guitarist/keyboardist Steve Marker, and guitarist/keyboardist Duke Erikson all called Digital Trends to discuss the sonic palette of Birds, the pros and cons of streaming, and their 20-years-and-counting legacy. This is one case where saying something sounds like absolute Garbage is quite the compliment.
Digital Trends: Butch, how much did you all talk about leaving those initial jams in your basement studio fairly intact, or was that something that come about more organically?
Butch Vig: It kinda came organically. We do a rough mix, especially after Shirley does a vocal, and then we’ll just sort of sit with it. In the past, we would just keep going back and working on it. Usually, a good thing about a rough mix is you don’t fuss over it that much. We fell in love with the vibe on these early mixes. It’s like demo-itis, where you hear something, and then you get it stuck in your head that way. It’s hard to change it.
That’s the approach we wanted. We wanted the record to sound cinematic and expansive. Sometimes it’s hard for us as a band to not want to keep putting things in. We’ve had some records that have been very dense-sounding, because we like to layer a lot of different sounds on top of each other.
There are a lot of moments on the record where we really tried to strip things back. It just made for a much more interesting-sounding album.
Steve Marker: The analog feel is something we’re always striving for. Even if we’re using a software synth, we tend to take that and run it through a guitar amp, or get out some old guitar pedals. We’re usually not satisfied with going to just the digital for anything, even if it starts off with the digital to begin with. (chuckles) And that’s just because we’re old-school guys in that way, you know? A softer, deeper sound, with some of that old-school compression tied to it, is what sounds good to us.
We had a template that we followed, even if we never talked about it or said what it was.
We had a template that we followed, even if we never talked about it or said what it was. We all kind of came from the same place individually, as well as together. And that shows in the lyrics, the music, and all the layers you’re referring to.
The song has always been our focus. It’s never been about the bells and whistles, whatever you want to call them — the accoutrements, the accessories, the baubles on the tree. (chuckles) It’s never been about that. We’ve always edited them judiciously to make sure they go with the song. And on this record, we were in agreement for the most part, almost instantaneously.
I love the raawness of tracks like Sometimes and If I Lost You, but Magnetized was a song that needed that extra “special” Garbage touch, right?
Vig: Magnetized was an interesting track. The first jam we did on that was 15 bpm slower, and it sounded like a Jesus and Mary Chain track with just bass and drums. Shirley came up with the verses and the vocal, and then it was more of a like a Roy Orbison track with these buzzy guitars. We all thought it was catchy and hooky, but it sat around. It was more traditional-sounding and not as interesting as it could be, so, like a lot of Garbage songs, we completely deconstructed it.
We sped it up and started recording a lot of analog synths, as well as these stomp boxes that make noise — you just plug them in, and they make noise. That sound at the beginning of Magnetized — that “whoop whoop whoop” — that’s the pedal that Steve uses, the [Skychord] Glamour Box. It just makes sound. There are a bunch of tracks on that song that are just Glamour Box. We messed around by recording a bunch of different pieces, edited them, and dropped them in wherever they worked.
Marker: The Glamour Box is sort of a noise generator. Nobody really knows what it does. That actually was the basis for Magnetized. There’s this kind of weird electronic lull that was one of the first things on there. It’s a random sound that I thought sounded good, and I grabbed it as a loop. We built the song around that in a lot of ways.
Obviously, a lot of people will stream this record via the Spotify universe and other services. Have you reconciled yourself with that? What’s your view on streaming?
Vig: It’s the way the world works now. Streaming has become the de facto way people consume music. I still don’t really like the business model. It’s not really favorable to artists, but there’s not much we can do about it.
And we want our music to be heard by people. At the end of the day, everybody’s had to adapt to how the digital revolution has changed the way artists and consumers deal with music. We want our fans to have access to it. We’ll end up using Spotify, iTunes, and all of the available services out there.
But when you stream music, you just hear it, and it’s gone. There’s no tactile relationship. It just flows in and out of your brain, and it’s gone.
The experience with vinyl — it’s more personal. I think that also engages you more with the artist, when you can pick up the jacket and look at the photos, the credits, and the artwork. In the digital revolution, that’s something that I miss. The personal experience you get with the artist is lacking in the digital world. It’s more digital-disposable.
Marker: I don’t know that I can even say I have time anymore to sit down to listen to records as much as I want to, so I have to admit I’m picking up songs here and there on Spotify just like everyone else.
Even if we tried not to sound like Garbage, we’d still sound like Garbage.
It’s almost like a quaint, old-fashioned concept to listen to the 20-minute side of vinyl, and then get up and turn it over. I wish that wasn’t the case. That was the way I grew up loving music. It’s something that we’ve lost and it’s kind of sad, but I can’t claim to be any different than anybody else in that way.
You really do have to make an effort. As a band, we spend so much time nitpicking and agonizing over details that most people aren’t going to notice. We’ve always made dense records with quite a lot of thought behind them.
But that’s not the way things are now. Basically, it’s like people are putting their demos out now, because it doesn’t matter. I won’t name any names, but some big-time artist puts out a record, it’s hot for a week, and then it’s forgotten about. It doesn’t sound like he’s put that much effort in it. And it doesn’t seem like anyone is trying to make the next Pet Sounds. It’s more disposable.
Erikson: I’m not cool with streaming. I think it’s a shame. The easy access is the something that’s good about it. I grew up having to search out a record — having to find it, by researching it. The Internet allows you to do that, but I don’t want them to tell me, you know?
It was much more precious when you had to ask yourself, “How am I going to spend this money?” — standing in the record store, staring at this record and that record, trying to decide which artwork inspired you the most. That’s all you had. And I made a lot of mistakes! (chuckles heartily) There’s a little life lesson in there too.
Did you ever think you’d be dealing with Garbage music over two decades later as well as still have the band be such an interesting, ongoing concern?
Marker: No, we never thought so at the time! (chuckles) We didn’t dare hope so. But the way it’s turned out has been great.
In a way, what a lot of people want from our band is what Shirley has to say. And she had a lot of things she wanted to say on this record. It’s very personal to her, I believe. This record is more of what she has to say and less of what we have to say as a group — maybe. Nothing is really done by committee. There are some more individual perspectives that come out in this record, maybe more than in the past when we tended to do things all as a group.
We also did a little anniversary tour [in 2015] that was a lot of fun, based around mainly playing our debut record [1995’s Garbage]. It was cool.
Erikson: That was a great tour. I’m glad we did that. It just felt right to do that, and the fans loved it. I’ve always been skeptical of those kinds of things, but when I started to look at it, I really appreciated what we’d done with the tools that we had. We were fighting technology a lot back then. We weren’t equipped to do a lot of the things you actually hear on that record.
I think there’s a mood and a thread that runs through these two records [Garbage and Birds] that are kind of similar. Just the fact that they both have a thread is something worth commenting on. In some ways, we approached this record the same way we approached that one. It’s just a new attitude and feeling like there are no rules.
Vig: Even if we tried not to sound like Garbage, we’d still sound like Garbage. It’s in the way that we play and the sensibilities that we like. It gets distilled into the sound that makes us like what we do. And I don’t even know how to describe that.
When we made Not Your Kind of People [in 2012], we took that as a badge of honor — that we’d been around for 20 years, and we have a sound. We said, “Rather than ignore that, let’s embrace it.” So when you hear a Garbage track, you know it’s us, for better or for worse.