This story was originally published in the April 1, 2005 edition of Isthmus.
"Garbage in breakup shocker!"
The headline screaming at the top of the Web site maintained by the influential U.K. music weekly NME couldn't have been more tabloid. Or, coming in mid-March, seriously late with the news. But it wasn't entirely inaccurate. The Madison based pop-rockers Garbage had split briefly about 16 months ago in the midst of recording their fourth major-label album in 10 years, Bleed Like Me. As guitarist and co-founder Steve Marker puts it: "We were getting really sick of being with each other in the same little room after that many years."
That sense of creative claustrophobia ended up being too much for Butch Vig, the group's drummer and primary producer. Months of stony silence during sessions at Madison's Smart Studios were wearing on him, and without any discussion, he'd announced that he was going back to his new home in Los Angeles. Perhaps for good. He hopped on a plane the next day.
Marker admits that he wasn't really surprised by Vig's decision. And he doesn't think that fellow guitarist Duke Erikson and Garbage's Scottish front woman, Shirley Manson, were either. The band's previous album, Beautifulgarbage, hadn't done well with the public. Overseas sales were respectable, but it struggled stateside, selling in the low hundred thousands.
Hitting the road just after 9/11 didn't help much, and when Vig had to be replaced on drums after falling ill with hepatitis and later Bell's palsy, group morale took a hit. The bad vibrations kept coming. Manson discovered the voice problems she'd been having were serious and required surgery. When she'd recovered, the band made the decision to record for the first time with an outside producer and set up in L.A. with John King of the Dust Brothers. They managed to come up with one keeper track and not much else.
"We thought, 'Well, let's work with somebody else, and we'll just be in a band,'" Marker muses. "Instead of doing things ourselves, we'd let somebody else figure [things] out. Be the dummies who come in at noon and have someone tell them what to do and deal with the communication and all of that. But that really didn't work for us at all."
The L.A. sessions with King finally petered out, and nothing between the band members was resolved. With progress on the album at a standstill, and at a loss as to how to proceed creatively, they decamped for Wisconsin and the familiar confines of Smart.
When Vig finally packed his bag for L.A. after more static-filled weeks of recording, Marker says he was depressed but also a tiny bit relieved. Something had to give. The tension in the band had been building for a long time.
"A sane person would just talk things out," he says in retrospect. "But we were starting to get more and more withdrawn, trying to make a record without ever really talking about it and seeing what happened. It'd worked for us in the past, but it wasn't working with this. Everyone was getting really depressed, moping around the studio. Butch finally just came in one day and said, 'I gotta go home. And I don't know if I'm coming back. Because this is just a big drag.' And he was right: If it's not really fun, it just turns into a job and then there's not much point in doing it. I thought, 'We had a good run and now it's over.'"
Two weeks of cooling off and assessing their options brought all the bandmates to the same conclusion: They still wanted to make music together. For one thing, it was all they'd done for a decade. The magic of playing live was a draw, too. So was the fact that they'd never made an album that reflected how they sounded on stage, with their trademark electronic filigree balanced out by cranking guitars.
A new tack, a new vision. Vig felt reinvigorated. So did the rest of the band.
"We realized that the only people who can produce Garbage is Garbage," says Vig, back in Madison for a string of rehearsals before what the band hopes will be an extended world tour. "And it was good to get back to guitars, guitars, guitars. In a way, we came full circle. And, really, after trying to experiment in the studio again... you know, everything's been done. Now anybody can use loops and samples and processors like we did. Christ, it seems like every young kid has a Pro Tools system in his basement. So we went, 'Well, let's just turn up the guitars and see if we can come up with a good riff. It's what we defaulted to on most songs on the record, and it worked.'"
Bleed Like Me, which will be released on April 12, isn't awash in synthesizers and computer-aided studio glazing. On the other hand, it's not a jarring departure from old hits like "Vow," "Stupid Girl" and "I'm Only Happy When It Rains" either. Garbage remains a pop band that dips a toe in punk rock every now and then. Big guitars? They're very much in evidence on the current single, "Why Do You Love Me?," which features basic heavy-metal chording reminiscent of '70s icons like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. On "Bad Boyfriend," a cheeky bit of neo-glam-rock powered by Dave Grohl's drop-forge drumming, the guitar work is just as elemental. Understandably, Manson's coolly salacious vocal is placed front and center. But it gets an extra kick from the electric six-strings.
There's plenty of pop here, too. The peppy, New Order-style dance-rock groove "Run Baby Run" is bright, shiny and terribly inoffensive. On "Right Between the Eyes," Manson's defiant lyric about the necessity of aggressive self-reliance in a world full of carpers and downpullers is supported by a carefully wrought mix of curt guitar hooks and pert, hum-along choruses. It's New Wave redone for the new millennium -- and directed squarely at the adolescent audience that has the purchasing power to turn catchy radio and video hits into platinum-sellers.
Garbage's more sophisticated side shows up on the title track, where Manson offers a series of biting vignettes about spiritually diseased characters over a spare backing track of resolutely mechanical drumming, languorous synths and lo-fi bass work. The cut that follows it, "Metal Heart," is more complex musically. It ping-pongs between anxious hard-rock bombast and the sort of highly produced, electronica-rubbed disco that made the band's first two albums favorites with the European remix crowd. It's the album's most complete production number. The melancholy pop-rock ballad "It's All Over But the Crying" couldn't be more different, with Manson's aching vocal shouting out for multiple spins during the upcoming prom season.
Other more pointedly topical cuts, like the antiwar rocker "Boys Wanna Fight" and Manson's critique of self-appointed moral crusaders, "Sex Is Not the Enemy," sound forced. Garbage may embrace left-of-center politics, but it's not a convincing political band.
However Bleed Like Me ultimately fares on radio and with the music-buying public, Marker is very pleased that all the high-decibel ax-grinding made it onto one of the band's discs. This time around, he thinks the album will finally shut up the critics who've sneered that Garbage is really just the product of studio wizardry.
"There's a lot of studio bullshit going on in the [earlier] records that you can't really do live," he says animatedly. "So, in the past, the guitars ended up getting emphasized a lot more in concert. That's more how we see ourselves -- as more of a guitar kind of thing. We finally got it to come across on this record.
"Besides, it's more fun to play guitars than poke away at a keyboard," he adds with a laugh.
Vig and Marker are upbeat about getting Bleed Like Me into circulation, but they're both realistic about the band's current chances in the music marketplace. Beautifulgarbage was released at a time when nu-metal was taking North America by storm, and suffered for it. Even a coveted support slot on U2's North American tour did little to boost sales or attract interest from radio. True, bilious hard rock no longer rules at the big boxes and what's left of rock radio, but nothing's really taken its place. Plus, although Garbage's label, Geffen, is backing Bleed Like Me with the full weight of its publicity machinery, the new, significantly downsized music industry carries a lot less influence in the contemporary world of iPod parties, do-it-yourself DJ-ing and perpetually disappointing album sales.
In the trend-chasing world of pop music, Vig and Marker also know that even a brief hiatus can leave proven hitmakers out in the cold. And, until recently, Garbage hadn't played a live show in years. There haven't been any between-album movie soundtracks or Grammy presenting appearances either. Indeed, the occasional -- and brief -- band update in NME, Rolling Stone and other music magazines is all that really kept them from being completely erased from view by a steady parade of attractive, new rock bands like the Killers, My Chemical Romance, Evanescence and Jet.
No, elbowing back into the spotlight won't be easy, Marker allows. But he thinks the band is up to the challenge.
"The other day I got an e-mail that they finally added the single to BBC 1," he says animatedly. "A lot of the stations here added it right away, but that was a real battle. And if you don't get that one in the U.K., you're really fucked. So that's exciting, because a couple weeks ago they were saying, 'You guys are too old. You're over.' You can't be a month old before you're old hat. But when you win little battles like that it's kind of fun. We just have to keep doing that and see where it goes."
Vig takes the same wait-and-see attitude toward the band and Bleed Like Me's future. He's moving into his late 40s (at 38 Manson qualifies as the baby of the group), and he knows you can't be a rock star forever.
But he's also impressed by radio's quick acceptance of the first single. Maybe it won't translate into another full two years of touring, cover stories in glossy music magazines and a big rebound in album sales. But it's a start.
"Quite frankly, we're lucky that 'Why Do You Love Me?' has done well right away," he says matter-of-factly, assessing Garbage's prospects on the eve of the new album's release. "I think it was the number-one most added at alternative rock radio last week. And alternative rock doesn't really play women artists. Maybe it's starting to cycle around, but I don't know. Sometimes it feels like things have almost come full circle to when we started out in '95."
While the public and big media decide whether or not Garbage can climb back up the sales charts, the band will remain busy. At least in the near term. They've hired former Jane's Addiction bass player Eric Avery to play with them live and spent several weeks in March rehearsing in a warehouse south of the Beltline. European promotional days, a string of club-size dates in the U.S. this spring (including a May 1 concert at the Orpheum Theatre, the first live performance in Madison in more than five years) and trips back over the Atlantic to participate in Europe's high-profile summer festival season are all on the agenda.
But will that modest calendar of confirmed dates announce the beginning of another phase in Garbage's evolving career or mark the end of it? It's really too early to tell.
"It's almost like, 'Well, what do we do in the States after we've done this club/theater tour?'" says Marker. "Unless you have a massive hit like, say, Green Day has, then you can't go to the arena level. It kind of sucks. And if you do get a chance to do an opening thing, like when we opened for U2 on the last tour, maybe you take that. It's incredibly frustrating.
"The other day people were saying, 'Well, what's your schedule like?' And nobody really knows. Sometimes you don't know until just a few weeks ahead of time what your schedule is gonna be. It's all driven by how well you're doing. Or not doing."