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Butch Vig Speaks: Talking With The World’s Most Famous Garbage Man

The following interview was conducted in 1999 and originally published by Lollipop magazine during Winter ’99. Due to the length of the interview, they published half of it in the magazine and the other half on their website. Here, the interview has been posted in full for the first time.

You’re going on tour with Girls Against Boys. How did this pairing come about?

I’ve been a fan of theirs for a while. We did some shows with them in ’96, played some festivals. Some of the radio shows like HFS and Q101, you know, where they have a dozen bands on the bill. We just had a good time hanging out with them beyond playing gigs. And their new record came out recently and we really like it a lot, so… We just called them up. When we put our wish list together of the bands we wanted to play with, they were kind of at the top and they were able to do it.

A lot of fans speculated that you’d tour with Massive Attack or Tricky, where they’d remixed some of your material previously and have new albums out as well. Were they on the wish list?

Kind of. I know that Massive Attack just did a few shows on their own. When we did the first couple shows here in the U.S., before we went to Europe, we used a DJ. And Crystal Method played some shows with us over in Europe. Some of the club shows. So, we’re definitely into using more groove-oriented synth bass bands versus traditional rock bands or whatever. We kind of felt like both Tricky and Massive Attack had a pretty high profile. And we know that Tricky’s pretty busy with his label right now. I didn’t realize he’s been touring that much. We felt like we wanted, at least for the start of the tour, to go with a guitar band.

Your brief club tour when Version 2.0 was released sold out very quickly. What size venues are you looking to play at this point?

I think it depends on where we’re going. In bigger markets, like New York or L.A., we’ll probably be playing maybe 3,000 seaters. But there’re a lot of other places that we’re going that we’ve never been. Like Iowa City and Fresno and places like that. So, it’ll either be a big club or a small theater, probably.

That’s just the U.S. leg, I assume.

That’s just the U.S. [laughs]. We have a few weeks off, then we’re going back to Europe for six weeks. Then we go to Southeast Asia for some places we haven’t been like Korea and Hong Kong. We’ve played Japan and Singapore before, but we want to go to some other places, like Thailand. Then we go to Australia and New Zealand, then I think we’re going to South America. By then, it’ll be summertime and we’re coming back to tour the U.S. again, late spring, next summer.

Is bassist Dan Shulman touring with you?

Yes.

Why did you decide to recruit an outside bass player? How did you find him?

His name was kind of thrown into the hat from some people through our management. They knew he was a good bass player. He’d done session work and also gigged with other bands. I’d met him in L.A. a couple of months before we even asked him to come out and play with us and thought he was a nice guy. I think we liked him because he’s played with a lot of hip hop artists, like Warren G. And his brother runs part of Def Jam, so he’s kind of hooked up in that whole scene. We thought it’d be cool to have someone coming from that area. I think we’d worked with four or five different bass players and we just liked his feel best. He ended up playing on the record, too.

Do you think he’ll end up becoming an official member at any point?

I don’t know. We thought about that on the last record, but we kind of felt like the balance between four people is already very delicate because all four of us produce and we all write together. There’re already four cooks in the kitchen, and I don’t know if we need a fifth cook in there. But he’s definitely a full-time member of the band, touring-wise.

Are you bringing out any other musicians for the tour?

I think at the start it’s going to be just the five of us. There’s a DJ from this band Citizen King in Milwaukee who did some work with us in the studio and we’ve talked about bringing him out. But he’s also right in the middle of trying to finish their record. I think we’re going to start out kind of small again. Keep it to the minimum. As the tour progresses, if we expand with any more production or musicians on stage, we’ll do that as it comes.

Last time around, I was surprised to see that you actually performed some of the remixes, “Queer” and, I think, “Dog New Tricks.” Will there be any remixes in the set this time?

Yeah, I think. A lot of the older material, we’re going to reinterpret further. There’s a remix of “Milk,” a version we played a lot last time, we might start doing that. We might change “Stupid Girl” around quite a bit and incorporate some of the elements from one of the remixes. And I think with some of the new songs, there’re a couple we’re going to pare down. We’re thinking of using “The Trick Is To Keep Breathing” with all synths, very dub sounding. And “Medication” we may do acoustically. We just did a B-side in the studio of “Medication.” It’s just acoustic guitar and piano and Shirley singing. It sounds really lovely, so we’re trying to put more dynamics in the show to keep us from getting bored as well as the audience.

There are many CD singles available from the various labels you’re on in various territories, but I’ve seen very few Garbage T-shirts or other merchandise. Are you picky about licensing?

Yeah. Also, we weren’t particularly happy with the stuff that we came up with on the first record. We’ve been working with the guy who does our artwork through Mushroom, who helps us design all our stuff. He’s been working on some new designs for T-shirts and other things. Stuff that’s more techie, too, like a mousepad and things like that. We’re happy with how the stuff looks design-wise now. So, hopefully we’ll have some of that, which we’ll be able to license and take with us on the road.

In what ways does being on various labels in various territories help and hinder you?

Well, a lot of times, I think we think it hinders us because everybody kind of has their own agenda, what they would like to do. With the last record, we would go into a territory on tour and we wouldn’t even know what they were working, what single was out currently or in what sequence they had put them out. It was very crazy. This time out, at least everybody started with “Push It” worldwide. There was much more of a concerted effort from the get-go. We’ve found as you go, different territories are going to respond to what they think is a better single than other places. So, we’re loosening that up a little bit. I think everybody was pretty much on “Paranoid” for the second single, but at this point, like in France, I think they want to go with “The Trick Is To Keep Breathing” next. Other parts of Europe, like the UK and Germany, they want to go with “Special.” That’s what we’re going with here. So, we’re just going to let them do their thing. It’s interesting though, to watch how the labels do that, how they deal with marketing in terms of what they think the audience and fans will respond to or what radio will respond to. It’s quite different everywhere.

What’s the status of the www.garbage.com website? When I checked it a few days ago, it said “coming soon,” or something to that effect.

It’s kind of up and running, but it hasn’t been a hundred percent. We’re supposed to be having an official launching, which actually we’re talking about tonight. It’s been hard to keep up on a lot of this, but, yeah, I think it’s coming up pretty soon. Electric Artist worked on the initial design of it and I think we’re pretty pleased with everything they’ve been talking about doing.

There was previously a website/fan club called The Garbage Zone, which claimed to be official. Was that run by the band?

Yeah. We found that it was very difficult to run a fan club where you mail stuff on a quarterly basis. It was easy for us to get things together for it, but in order to get it out and get it mailed, trying not to lose money in it… Everybody told us that fan clubs, if you break even, you’re lucky. It’s just basically to connect with your fan base and stuff. And we had so many people who were emailing us, we decided we were going to do it all through the website. Anybody who was in the Garbage Zone, we sent official letters to telling them they can get their money back and also offering that they could get tickets to any show we did anywhere and then registering them in the new fan club and giving away some merchandise. We’re trying to get everything focused through one, instead of having a website and a fan club or whatever. It’s easier to do it all through the website.

Are there any particular unofficial Garbage websites that you’re fond of?

Oh God, there’re so many, like The Shirley Manson Fetish Club or something. Somewhere they’re just totally obsessed with Shirley. That we find very interesting. The Cafe Montmartre was kind of interesting. Whoever picked up on that knows that Cafe Montmartre is like our hangout in Madison. I think they got that from a press thing somewhere. Every couple of months I’ll go online and there always seems to be a new site.

There’s one called Absolute Garbage.net that actually has reviews of the fifty-plus bootleg live shows that are out there.

Yeah. I’ve tried to collect bootlegs, and some of them I’ve found through the Internet. I mean, I guess we don’t necessarily officially encourage bootlegs, but we don’t discourage them either. My philosophy is that if someone buys a bootleg, they’re a hardcore fan and they’ve already bought our albums. The only thing that bums me out is some of them sound really bad.

But there are some that sound really good, which prompts me to wonder why the band hasn’t released any live B-sides yet.

Before we went to Tokyo, we sifted through a lot of the live tapes we did in Europe for these festivals. We had a couple shows that we’d taped on multi-track that I think we might remix. One of the highlights of the tour, we played a huge festival in Denmark – like a three day festival and we headlined one of the nights in front of like 70,000 people – it was just one of those shows where we played well and the crowd was amazing. I think we’re going to try and pull some things off that.

I can see why there would have been a lot of pressure for you personally, making the first album, after garnering so much applause as a producer. Yet I can also see why there would have been a lot of pressure with the second, with the first being so well-received and critics always eager to say that so-and-so has fallen victim to the sophomore slump. What were the different worries for you, making the two albums, and was there in fact more pressure making one or the other?

I think I felt more pressure on the first record, personally. Because, I think you’re right – if it had failed, nobody would have talked about Shirley or Duke or Steve. It would’ve been my ass. They would have said this record sucks or whatever. And I think a lot of people kind of almost expected that when it came out. I don’t know what people thought, but I don’t think they expected us to make this pop record that incorporates dance and hip hop and techno and buzzy guitars and things. I think they thought it was going to be a grunge record or Nine Inch Nails industrial something angst record. I even know people in the industry – I heard people behind my back saying that was the end of my career, that it was a really stupid for me to do because it would totally destroy any credibility I had. But I didn’t necessarily get involved with Garbage because I was trying to keep credibility or make more money. It came totally from a creative point of view. I never really expected to have the kind of success we did. When we made Version 2.0, I think there was a little bit of pressure.Everybody else felt more pressure, but personally, even though it was really hard work making the second album, I didn’t feel quite as stressed out. I think it was more balanced out between all four of us. Once we started working, we isolated ourselves in the studio, so we could kind of escape that a little bit. We put more pressure on ourselves because we wanted to take what we did on the first record and make it better. We didn’t really want to reinvent ourselves or do a “drum and bass” record or an electronica record. We just wanted to try and encapsulate our strengths better this time out. And we wanted more live play and more live interaction. And Version 2.0 is really Shirley’s record lyrically, whereas the first record was kind of written more by committee and kind of cut and pasted together more over a long period of time.

I know you experiment with loops and so forth a lot during the writing process – at what point do lyrics come into the picture?

Well, all the songs kind of start differently, but on the new record, a lot of them started with fragments that Shirley had. Like “this is the noise that keeps me awake” was a line she had and she kept repeating it over and over in “Push It.” And for “The Trick Is To Keep Breathing,” she had a few lines, “I’m not gonna be the one to let you down.” She was basically ad-libbing while we were jamming in the studio. For about a month we holed up in Friday Harbor at a friend’s house. We basically fucked around and recorded all these different ideas and came up with about 24 “songs.” They weren’t really finished. Out of those, we’d find two bars or four bars or a chorus or verse or something and that would be the genesis of the song. It could be just a drum and bass groove, or a lot of times it was based around a melody or a lyric of Shirley’s or a guitar lick or chord progression or whatever. We started putting things on top of that. Very slowly, we add or subtract. Some of the songs ended up with a hundred tracks by the time we were finished, but eventually Shirley finishes. Kind of gets in her head where the song is going and then we’ll edit around all of the music stuff to put in more of a song structure. It ends up being more of a classic pop structure or whatever. At the end of the day, even though we don’t write songs this way, we want them to sound like they could have been written on an acoustic guitar.

With the first album, a lot of the songs did sound like they came out of experiments, like they came out of various fields, so to speak. But withVersion 2.0, I would believe most of those songs were started with a singer strumming along on an acoustic guitar. The only one I wouldn’t believe started that way is “Hammering In My Head,” because that one is just a loop-fest.

I think the only song that really was written from that point of view is “Medication,” which started kind of from Shirley singing the melody, just strumming an acoustic guitar. Then Steve came in with that part at the start. There was really no chorus on that to speak of. It was all just based around those chords at the start. “Hammering” started with all these weird buzzing loops. Actually, there were quite a few guitars. For us, that song turned out a lot different than some of the other tracks because it’s, I guess, the most electronica. But most techno songs have very simple, repetitive lyrics that just loop over each other and her vocals are so human on that. It’s like a Patti Smith stream-of-consciousness, compared to something that Prodigy would do, which is, like, they have a few lines that drop in and out and then there’s a lot of music. We like that dichotomy, that it’s real and human, versus all this clattering and chattering electronics.

At what point did you decide to bring in the cellist and violinist for “Medication”?

We had talked early on about using more organic elements. There is more acoustic and piano in the tracks. And we used some samples, just to put, like, a mellotron on some of the songs. We decided it would be cool to replace them with real strings. We were lucky. We found a couple guys in Madison who were brilliant players. The University of Wisconsin is there and they have a good music department, so there are a lot of good players. Karl came in, heard the track, and the first take he did, he played it fucking perfect! It just blew us away. It sounded so amazing. Like, “Karl, just play that again because it sounds great!”

Portishead has said that they only sampled sounds they created themselves on their second album because they felt they had something to prove – perhaps critics to silence, I don’t know – and they didn’t feel they were taken as seriously as they would’ve liked the first time around because of the sampling. I know you didn’t go with that specific approach on Version 2.0, but can you relate to that feeling on some level?

Yeah. And we did more of that on this record, too. We sampled a lot more of ourselves. We recorded everything into 48 track Pro Tools, so once we had anything – whether it was drums or guitars or some sound effect – we could process it a lot easier this time out than last time. Experiment sonically with what we could do with it. There still are some outside things that we took, but instead of sampling we did what is called interpolating, which is what we did with The Beach Boys thing in “Push It,” and with Chrissie Hynde’s little vocal mannerisms. You know, the bit of an homage in there that Shirley used in “Special.” Because we used a lot of electronics in terms of processing a song, we kind of look forward in the future, but we also look back and borrow all these classic pop references. There’s all sorts of little nods in there. There’s some Marvin Gaye. There’s a little bit of Donna Summer in “Temptation” and Isaac Hayes. There’s a little bit of a nod to The Kinks in “Paranoid.” You could go through all of the songs and probably pick out two or three things that are from, you know, The Carpenters. We’re shameless, I guess, when it comes to wearing our influences on our sleeves.

There’ve been quite a few artists who’ve surfaced during the past few years who seem to have been heavily inspired by Garbage. Does that faze you? Is it flattering? Is it eerie at all?

Um, I think in a way it’s kind of flattering. It was kind of weird when we first started hearing The Sneaker Pimps or bands like Transistor. But we didn’t invent anything new. I think just because our record became successful, anytime that happens you’re going to get people who either imitate that or it influences them somehow. I guess you have to look at it in the flattering way because, as I said, we can’t copyright what we did. We’re using the same elements that anybody could use. It’s just the nature of how we did it, because we used samplers and we still try to write pop songs in a rock format. It’s funny now because I used to get a lot of different artists who wanted me to work with them as a producer and it was all bands that sounded like Nirvana or The Smashing Pumpkins. And now I’m getting all these bands fronted by women that want to sound like Garbage!

Was there any temptation, with all the various songs now surfacing as B-sides, to make Version 2.0, say, 73 minutes and squeeze in as many songs as you possibly could?

[Laughs] No way, man! If we could get it under 40 minutes, we would. The Beatles used to make the perfect pop length for an album. I still think your attention span starts to run out at about 45 minutes. I think we feel some of the songs are so dense with sonics, with layers and things, that to go further would make it hard to get through the record. We pretty much said we were just going to put 12 songs on this from the get-go. Maybe the next record, we’ll veer off, do something different, steer away from trying to write a pop song and see if we can fuck it up. But that’s where we were coming from on this album.

Were there any particular songs that didn’t make the album, such as “Afterglow” and “Deadwood,” that weren’t finished in time and might have been on there if you had more time?

No. A lot of the B-sides we end up with are things that we start and for some reason never develop into being finished. At one point “Deadwood” sounded like it was a contender, but Shirley didn’t have the lyrics finished. Then she kind of came in with a whole new set of lyrics, which were called “Deadwood,” and the song kind of changed. But it wasn’t until we were done, you know? Sometimes she’ll have an idea and we’ll have some music we put together and then nobody can come up with anything that takes the song to the next level. We just finished another B-side called “13 Times Forever,” which is the same. We had the music and a few lyric phrases that Shirl did and it just sat around for a while. We were just like, “We should just finish this for a B-side and not worry about it too much.” There’re still quite a few different things laying around in various states of disarray. But we also like to just go in and record a B-side from the get-go. It’s not like we’re going to use all the stuff that’s laying around.

Is there any desire to release a B-sides album?

Yeah. I mean, we had a bunch of fans ask for that on the last record, because they wanted to be able to get stuff that was obscure. I think we wanted to wait until we had more things to make it, to have more music to put on there. It’s possible when we finish this whole touring cycle. When we start the next record, we may release something that’s got a lot of the rare remixes and the B-sides and stuff. For the fans who are trying to find the stuff that’s been hard to get.

Do you think there will ever be a Garbage album without the trademark loops and so forth? Do you see the band deciding to make a straightforward rock record?

Yeah, I think so. One of the things that’s been great for us was to play some of these songs really stripped down and more traditional. As I said, we just did “Medication” acoustically and it sounds really cool. I think, the next album, we’ll probably go to further extremes. Maybe some songs that are extremely fucked up sounding and go even way beyond what we have right now in terms of how dense you can make something sound. It’s quite possible to do something that’s a lot more organic. Possibly even symphonic, you know, where we don’t even use guitars or drums, it’s all done with piano and strings or something. It’s hard to say. One of the things we really want to do is score a film, when we finish this tour. We’ve had a lot of directors approaching us over the past couple years. The only thing we thought made sense so far was to give “#1 Crush” to Romeo & Juliet because we thought there was a similar sensibility going on. But we take it as a compliment when they tell us that our album or our music sounds cinematic. Steve and I met at film school and we’re all huge cinema buffs. If we could find the right film and the right director to work with, I think that’s something we want to do. And that could end up being organic or very traditionally played. It might be symphonic or it might use over 100 loops again. We just don’t know.

I understand Goldie will be scoring the new Kubrick movie – if he ever finishes making it!

Wow! See, that would be amazing. We’ve met Goldie and he’s a star. He’s really cool. He has so much charisma.

I guess he’s acting now, too. Both he and Tricky are signed on for quite a few movies.

I saw Tricky in The Fifth Element. It was funny to see him because we know him and I didn’t even know he was in it. All of a sudden, I go, “Fuck! That’s Tricky!” I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw him because it shocked me so much.

I read a rumor that the guys in House of Pain approached you about producing a rock album á la the first Beastie Boys record meets Prodigy. Was there an actual approach?

As I remember, I got an inquiry from their label, but I couldn’t even really consider it, because I

was pretty much full on in Garbage. The only two breaks I’ve taken outside the band were to do some remixes for Beck last year for “Jackass,” and some remixes for U2 when their album came out. Those were both very short, three or four days in the studio. We were spending so much time trying to sort through the Garbage stuff.

Do you still want to produce albums? Or does that not appeal to you anymore?

I definitely want to produce again. But I don’t know when. Again, when we finish this touring cycle, I think we’re going to take a break before we work together as a band. I’ll probably do something to clear my head and kind of get away from the band. I think that would be a healthy thing to do, but I don’t know what it is at this point. It’s a little early to figure that out. There’re a lot of acts I’m really excited about. It may be something more traditional. Maybe something acoustic and organic. Possibly someone that uses a lot of synth. I guess it would have to be someone whose music I fell in love with. I love Radiohead and The Verve. There’ve been some great rock records in the last year. I totally love the new Massive Attack record.

I’ve noticed the credits still say that Shirley appears courtesy of Radioactive. Is she still under obligation to do another Angelfish disc?

Um, I don’t think so. Technically, she’s still signed to Radioactive/MCA as a solo artist. We’ve been in the process for a long time of working something out. She’s basically able to do whatever she wants in the context of Garbage, and I think they’re getting an override. I think if we do a third Garbage record and they get a point on it, or whatever they worked out, she’s free, or basically, not obligated to do something for them. They’ve been pretty cool about it, actually. We had no idea we were going to do this full-time. That’s why she was still signed. Radioactive said, “No problem, you can go ahead and make this record with Garbage.” Then it turned into a full time endeavor, so… they’ve been actually pretty cool with us.

Also, if she did a solo album, having Garbage succeed would make that sell even better.

Totally. Because she’s got a fan base out there right now. People know who she is.

As a fan of the band, I personally find it frustrating that so many journalists seem only to want to talk sex with Shirley. Does that bother you guys at all or do you find it amusing?

Both. But there are times when it really bothers her. It’s funny because there’ve really only been a handful of interviews that she did that got a lot of attention everywhere. One was a Details piece that was meant to be kind of funny and tongue-in-cheek, but so many journalists took it literally. I mean, she’s really just being who she is. She’s pretty honest and speaks her mind. She’s very emotional and she can be a rollercoaster ride, you know? She’ll get really pissed off about something and then she’ll change her mind and decide she loves it. She’s an extremely complicated person. But she is not afraid to say what’s on her mind, so a lot of times she’ll just blurt things out and then it gets printed or taken out of context. We’ve seen so many weird things that’ve been written about us that it is kind of funny now. Nobody should believe everything that’s written, particularly now with the Internet and all the websites out there. There’s so much stuff. Who says what is accurate or not with all of the millions of digibits that are flying through webspace? You can’t tell what’s real or not real anymore. Shirley’s taking it as, the more weird shit that’s printed the better because you won’t be able to make heads or tails of anything.

I guess one positive thing about the Internet would be that fans end up fact-checking things.

Yeah. Some of the fans take it very seriously, too. You can see that they argue about it. “She wouldn’t do that.” Or, “She didn’t say that.” Which is cool. We’re really lucky because when we met Shirley, we asked her to join the band because we loved her voice. We had no idea she would blossom into this “pop diva,” you know? We told her we wanted her to join us as an equal and to produce together and write together. She took the ball and ran with it. We had no idea she had this charisma. This presence. We are not a faceless band. A lot of electronica bands are very faceless. But we’re lucky. We’ve carved out our turf. We’ve carved out our identity. And that’s very difficult to do.

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Paris365

An entertainment journalist for 20 years, Michael McCarthy was a columnist and contributing editor for the magazines Lollipop and LiveWire. He co-created and wrote for Cinezine, one of the '90's most popular movie E-zines. The only time he's not listening to music is when he's watching television shows and movies or reading, usually music magazines.

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