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Garbage: Can the Madison band's new sound succeed in the fickle pop marketplace?
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Garbage emerge with a new sound, but can they match their old success?
Credit:Garbage

This cover story was originally published in the September 21, 2001 edition of Isthmus.


Garbage have a problem on the eve of the Oct. 2 release of their third CD, Beautifulgarbage. A really big one.

Back in the mid-'90s, when the Madison-based band first made their mark on the international pop scene, buoyant, angst-filled tunes like "Queer" and "I'm Only Happy When It Rains" fit easily into a commercial music world chock-full of alternative rock and pop acts. These were halcyon days for the new, mildly subversive bands that followed in the wake of Nirvana's paradigm-shifting Nevermind, a recording that also transformed the musical life of its producer, Garbage member and Madison resident Butch Vig.

But today, everything's changed in the music industry. Companies have cut back on the number of discs they release each year; CD sales are declining in this country and elsewhere; top-selling bands that Garbage once shared stages with (e.g., Smashing Pumpkins) no longer exist. More important, the much-ballyhooed rock revival currently taking control of the sales charts in the United States favors Godsmack, Slipknot, Limp Bizkit and other aggressive, ultra-masculine "mud" metal acts whose roots extend to '80s hair bands, gangsta rap and hardcore punk.

Garbage, on the other hand, is led by changeable Scottish singer Shirley Manson, who's in the habit of layering moody self-deprecation over the band's mix of European-influenced electronic beats and '60s-inspired song structures. Frankly, both the singer and the songs will strike some teenage and preteen listeners as coming from another pop age.

And Garbage's membership realizes as much. As drummer Vig puts it: "I don't think we feel hemmed in creatively by pop or 'mud,' but it's definitely a weird time in music. We're on our third record, and we feel very lucky about that. Everything's so singles-oriented and hit-oriented now that most bands really don't have a 'career' anymore. The whole manufactured bubblegum thing with Britney Spears and O Town and the Backstreet Boys -- that's what it's all about now."

Vig points out that Garbage have never had a hit single in this country. "We've had songs in the past that have been minor radio hits or on MTV, but they haven't, you know, been massive," he says, stroking his black, Dutch Master-style Vandyke beard during an interview on Smart Studios' small second-story deck. "Really, we're lucky that we've done well enough to continue doing this. But we just made this record, and we hope people buy it."

Like Vig, Garbage's fiftysomething guitarist and keyboardist, the lanky Duke Erikson, flirted with big-time success in the local bands Spooner and Fire Town before scoring with Garbage. "Where do we fit in right now?" Erikson asks. "We probably don't fit anywhere. That's really been true all along during our career. In the past it was a bit more clear where we would land, but we never had the feeling that we belonged to any of the genres, say, on the radio. Sure, we've heard from the record company that what we're doing is over or whatever, but I don't know, we've always tried to make a niche for ourselves."

In the past, finding that niche on the radio and in the CD racks led to both popular and financial success. After spending time in the aftermath of Nevermind's success recording and remixing everyone from Smashing Pumpkins to Nine Inch Nails, Vig was ready to use his modest Madison recording facility, Smart Studios, for a personal musical project. Smart co-owner Steve Marker, a longtime musical associate and friend, and Erikson had the same inclination. But unlike many of their peers in the Madison music scene, they weren't especially interested in following the normal route of playing clubs and hoping for label interest. Instead, they cast about for a female singer to front the band, eventually hitting on Scotland's Shirley Manson, whom Marker had caught on MTV singing in a video by her old band Angelfish. When "Queer," the fledgling band's contribution to a small English CD magazine, began to receive regular U.K. airplay in 1994, they quickly secured a prominent place in the burgeoning alternative rock marketplace.

Both Garbage's self-titled debut album and the more electronic Version 2.0 were commercial successes, confirming that the band was not simply the flavor of the month. Each has sold 4 million copies worldwide, and Garbage have endured as other onetime alt-rock stars have faded into musical memory. Whether they can maintain those numbers in an industry that cares about little else depends on the quality of the material on Beautifulgarbage.

Future success, however, also depends on making new inroads in the American music market. With the first album, there was a 50-50 split between sales in the U.S. and the rest of the world, says Vig, and that was to be expected, given the way European audiences first warmed to the band. Version 2.0 didn't do nearly as well in the U.S., with the sales split running 60-40 in favor of purchases abroad. When it comes to commercial pop acts, the theory is that while the rest of the world is important, longevity and popularity are determined by U.S. audiences.

At the end of the day, Garbage, like any other major- or indie-label band, really have limited control over how their music does at the cash register. Erikson and Vig both understand as much, and are taking a wait-and-see attitude until the new album is out for a few months. Much to their delight, what they can count on these days is being received by the press as a "real" band after many years of being dealt with as a kind of artificial studio creation.

"We just did a three-week press trip in Europe, and this is the first time that people didn't ask me, like on the first record, about Kurt Cobain," Vig explains with a smile. "Or about what it was like to be in the background behind Shirley, or if we were a real band, which they asked all the time on the second record. This is the first time that they just asked about the music, and that was refreshing.

Vig says a certain cynicism greeted Garbage's first two records. "We felt that a lot of journalists didn't think we were the real deal," he says. "That we were this weird studio concoction. But we knew we were a band. We lived together and worked together and wrote and produced together and were friends. But I think after playing 270 concerts and all the attendant interviews and other press stuff, people don't care about those questions about the band anymore. Now they're just open and curious about what kind of music we made."

That new music doesn't represent a radical break from either their debut or Version 2.0. On the other hand, the considerable sonic tweaking and abundant sampling that characterized the latter CD have been removed from Garbage's palette. Bass, drum and guitar configurations support songs that in the past would have been gussied up with a wealth of keyboards and other multitracked instruments. And Manson, who some critics have felt came across as mechanical and disengaged on past efforts, exposes her core emotions with singular intent on two bittersweet reflections on failed relationships, the wistful "Cup of Cup" and the crepuscular lover's lament "Drive You Home."

Would-be radio tracks like the bombastic guitar anthem "Shut Your Mouth" and the broad, Phil Spector-style salute to '50s girl groups "Can't Cry These Tears" glisten with a familiar studio sheen, but they don't really represent the overall feel or musical direction of Beautifulgarbage. In fact, if there is a musical theme running through the album, it's the band's abandonment of digitally manipulated perfection in favor of rawer guitars and more immediate vocal performances.

It's no accident that Garbage sounds more like bands that come together in a practice space and then slug it out on a van tour for months at a time. Both Erikson and Vig say that Garbage wanted to reflect the chemistry they established from playing hundreds of concerts and spending days together on cramped tour buses.

"It's a much simpler record than Version 2.0," Vig says. "All of the songs sort of came from us playing live downstairs [in Smart Studios] with guitar, bass and drums. Duke might be playing piano or keyboards too. That was the only conscious decision we made -- to make the songs simpler. Some of the songs are still layered in spots; compared to the last record, there're about half as many tracks. As far as sounds go, it's basically drums, bass, some heavy guitars and Shirley singing. There aren't 10 extra drum tracks or 10 extra guitars panning back and forth between channels."

Erikson concurs that the move toward a live band sound and relative simplicity in terms of production are clearly reflected in the final mix of the album. "A lot of songs took shape in just a few hours as opposed to a few months with the last record," he says. "Some of the songs obviously took a long time, or we wouldn't have been in the studio for a full year. But a lot of them happened very quickly. 'Silence Is Golden' we recorded basically in three days and it was done. 'So Like a Rose,' for the most part, was recorded in three hours. I think we spent a lot of time just trying to resist adding stuff to [the new album]. Because that was our tendency on the other two records."

Erikson admits that Garbage has had a hard time knowing when to stop in the studio, laughing at the band's previous obsession with sonic detail. "Whether it's painting or writing or recording music, knowing when to stop is half of art," he says. "We just kept right on a-goin" on the first two records. We were trying to make these big soundscapes, a Jackson Pollock painting rather than a Rothko."

In terms of lyrics, all of which are written by Manson, Erikson and Vig feel that working fast helped bring an immediacy to the new album as well. The relationship tunes really do sound as if they came in a flash of inspiration to Manson as she jammed with the "boys" at Smart Studios. But a pair of tracks, the in-your-face rock-pop construction "Shut Your Mouth" and the genuinely angry "Parade," radiate a more deliberate tone and message. Lines like "We know your music but of course we'd never buy it" from "Shut Your Mouth" and "Oh let's bomb the factory/That makes all the wannabes" from "Parade" seem to hit directly at the music fans and a music industry that can either make or break commercial acts like Garbage. That's a change, too, given Manson's past affection for expressing a generalized discontent with herself and the world around her.

Since Manson wasn't made available for interviews, it's hard to determine how much contempt she now feels for the trend-generating machine that helped make Garbage a success. And neither Vig nor Erikson is so impolitic as to offer a pointed interpretation of these very harsh songs. After a pause, however, Vig does allow that "they aren't specifically responses to the industry, but they could be read that way. Shirley has said that, for example, 'Shut Your Mouth' is about all the bullshit that's out there, but it's also a sort of note to self to keep your mouth shut, because she says she's the biggest, most opinionated loudmouth of anyone around. So they work on multiple levels."

Does that mean Garbage are merely playing with anti-industry and anti-mass-culture rhetoric? Any real animosity would be understandable in light of a protracted legal battle with the Universal Music Group, which absorbed the band's original American label, Almo Sounds, and then attempted to transfer Garbage's contract to the Interscope label without any input from the band. That legal fight, says Vig, is currently in limbo, and in fact, the new CD bears both the Almo and Interscope imprints. For now the band and its corporate bosses both seem content to shift into promotion and touring mode and leave the bickering to the lawyers.

Even if Garbage can't be pinned down when it comes to critiquing their personal relationship with the industry, one thing's for sure: On some levels Beautifulgarbage is far less commercially accommodating than any of the band's previous work. It embraces no particular sound or style. It comes across with ideas and commentary that challenge rather than coerce, and the playing lacks the burnished, artificial quality that's characteristic of so much youth-oriented music these days.

Whether any of these changes attract the attention of the wider music-buying public is the big question mark. Garbage say they'll know more when the album is released in October and when they mount a major world tour sometime this winter. Right now, they're just another veteran rock band trying to fit into a rapidly changing music industry.

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