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Garbage is ready to rock again
Madison's top rockers find a new pop sound after a seven-year break
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Credit:Elias Tahan

Butch Vig's home studio in East L.A. is a converted bedroom, a "stocked-out closet." Seated at the console, Vig can look up from his work and gaze out the window where Silver Lake, at the base of Carson Creek, shimmers in the sunlight. Beyond, a web of trails leads hikers from the heart of the Sierra basin up into the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, then higher, above the tree line, toward the snow-capped peaks of Yosemite.

It's exactly 2,033 miles away from the moldy, beat-up, second-floor balcony at Smart Studios on the corner of East Washington and Baldwin where Vig began his odyssey from pop band drummer to pop music superstar.

When I caught up with him a few weeks ago, the revived, rested, newly awarded Grammy winner was working at home on the final mix of "Blood for Poppies," the first single from Garbage's first release in seven years, Not Your Kind of People. The disc drops May 15; early shows in the supporting tour have been canceled due to a family emergency.

The traditional way to describe what's happening in Garbageland would be to dub it a reunion - that is, if you could use a word like "traditional" in reference to the eccentric four-piece that got its start in Madison. The band put the freak on the masses during the 1990s, when it employed samples, loops and full-on electronica, nudging modern pop style and performance into uncharted waters.

Yet the dusty old reunion tag is unavoidable, even accepted by singer Shirley Manson, guitarists Steve Marker and Doug "Duke" Erikson, and drummer Vig. "We're like a family at this point. A nice, dysfunctional family," says Manson.

The relaxed, rediscovered id of Garbage was something Vig says they wanted to capture when they set up camp at the Pass studio in Hollywood last year for marathon jams that gave form to the 11 tracks on People. The album is the product of changes in the band's personalities, as well as changes in the business that is Garbage.

Vig remembers the morning he arrived for the first studio session. He rounded the corner into the lobby and - bam. There sat Marker, Erikson and Manson waiting, chatting, as they had done so many times at Smart. It was February 2011.

"We hadn't hung out together for seven years," says Manson. "So when we got together in that studio to jam, a lot of it was an exercise in seeing whether we still had any music commonality."

There was fire almost immediately. "We got really excited," Manson says. "You could feel it in the room. Everybody realized that we still had something to say."

A shy gathering of old friends gave birth to a record and started a second life for the band. Vig says having no expectations was liberating.

"Nobody brought any ideas in or any sort of preconceived songs. The one conscious decision we made when we started recording these new songs was, we wanted to embrace who we are now, and take everything we love about what we do, basically the sensibility of the four of us in a room together that we share, and just amplify that."

The sessions took on the flavor of a religious retreat, only with better beverages. "We basically set all our gear up, brought in a lot of bottles of really good wine and started talking, sort of fucking around, and after six days we probably had about 20 little jam things."

Marker now makes his home in Colorado. Erikson has remained in Madison ("I can't see living anywhere else," he says). During those jam sessions the band worked two weeks per month, with the guitarists flying in and out of L.A.

During off weeks, Vig toted the tracks home on his hard drive and did what he does so well. Fiddled. Fussed. Reprogrammed. Rearranged. Manson also lives in L.A., and during the down weeks, she experimented with vocals at Vig's house.

"I set up the drum kit in my den, which is where I watch Packers games," says Vig. "It's a little 12-by-18-foot room with, basically, drywall, so it's pretty loud and garage-like, pretty trashy sounding. I set a couple mikes up on the drums, and I did a lot of the drums on the record there. It doesn't sound like a pristine recording studio, but it's pretty vibey."

By Dec. 1 of last year the record was finished, and Garbage was back in business. This time the business was all their own. No labels, no corporate obligations or timelines. All in the family.

Garbage took the pop world by storm when current UW freshmen were breastfeeding. Vig had already made his mark on the Madison music scene of the late 1970s and 1980s. His band Spooner, a sprawling pop-rock machine with keys, guitars and Vig's thwacking drum style, filled dance floors with joyous ass-waggers at gigs all over town. His brother, Chris, opened G.S. Vig's in a former Mexican restaurant on University Avenue. If Club de Wash was the workhorse of venues back then, G.S. Vig's was an underground darling of the music scene, with O'Cayz Corral and Merlyn's. Think Project Lodge with cigarette smoke and without irony.

Vig and Marker had a single, audacious goal in 1983, when they opened the doors to Smart Studios: to record local bands. These days, when bands record at home and mix on laptops, it's easy to forget that back then, you either made an album in a studio or you simply didn't make an album.

Smart provided that opportunity to local groups and was richly rewarded. In 1983, Madison was a post-punk mecca. Soon after opening, Vig and Marker were recording vanguard bands like Tar Babies and Killdozer. The Crucifucks came over from Lansing. Die Kreuzen careened into town from Milwaukee and trundled their gear up the steep Smart Studios steps. Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, both of whom laid down legendary tracks at Smart, were soon to follow.

Marker and Vig recorded Spooner there, too. Marker was that band's sound man and roadie. Late-night guitar and drum sessions with Erikson and Vig turned their attention to something altogether new. A young woman from Scotland came up from Chicago to try out for whatever it was they thought they heard.

Fast-forward to the night of Feb. 12, 2012. At L.A.'s Staples Center, Foo Fighters' Butch Vig-produced Wasting Light is awarded the Grammy for Record of the Year.

"Right before they announced the category, I was sitting behind Dave Grohl and he said, 'Dude, you're going up on stage with me,'" says Vig. "I said, 'I don't really know if I'm supposed to. I think it's just the band.'"

"He said, 'Well fuck that, man. You're comin' up with me.'"

Vig says that while he was on stage, the cell phone in his jacket nearly ripped open the pocket. It buzzed madly as texts of congratulations poured in from friends around the world.

Vig says Wasting Light prefigures the production approach and sound of Not Your Kind of People. People was not mastered in analog the way Wasting was, but both projects have a live-sounding vibe rather than a comparatively controlled studio sound.

"The one thing I took from working with the Foos on Wasting Light was, so much of the record is performance," says Vig. "It's got a lot of energy to it."

The fact that Shirley Manson's first audition for Garbage went poorly is well documented. "A disaster," says Vig. "Steve and I didn't know exactly what we wanted. And we couldn't understand her accent, so we didn't know half the time what she was talking about." Things clicked during the second try. "Some of those [second-audition] vocals ended up making the first record, like 'Queer,' and 'Stupid Girl.'"

The band's first record went multi-platinum in the U.S. and abroad, spawned a movie soundtrack, lived for nearly a year and a half on the Billboard Top 200, and garnered two Grammy nominations.

Manson was having a decidedly unglamorous afternoon when I spoke with her. She had just returned home from walking her dog Vela, a Jack Russell who chimed in with his own opinions throughout our interview. I remembered what Vig said about not understanding her mossy Scottish accent. I asked her to repeat the words "woocked ooot" three times before I understood that she exercised that morning.

"I don't think Garbage would exist without Shirley," Vig told me. "She's the MVP of this band."

Manson didn't always feel that way. "In the past I was very intimidated by the reputation that Butch has, and I think intimidation isn't a very great place to come from when you're a creative artist," she says. "I felt lesser than Butch and Steve because I wasn't a master at a particular instrument and I didn't really trust myself. I didn't have the confidence to push an idea through. Say I had an idea and I floated it past the group, and they didn't seem immediately enthusiastic. I would immediately burn the idea.

"But I'm a more formidable character now. This time I really pushed a lot more than I have done in the past. I was much more prepared to get some of my ideas across."

Manson's confidence gleams throughout People. The new record is heavy and sweaty and cool. On "Big Bright World," Manson's voice is weary, ironic, burnished. Vig's whirling, dense instrumental arrangements have sometimes obscured the outer reaches of Manson's vocal power. Not here.

Vig says the project was built to be enjoyed as a whole-album listening experience, old school. Thing is, each song builds in emotion and intensity from start to finish. Albums within an album. And each tune asks for a different kind of investment from the listener.

Complete with the ominous whisper of beating helicopter blades, the samba-like single "Blood for Poppies" is camera-ready for a drug cartel movie. It was, in fact, inspired by Manson's viewing of a film on the topic.

The supersonic title track has a skewed, bent-note, spaghetti Western feel. Manson sings in a dirge-like chant, alone, yet sounding as though she's bursting through as one voice in a large, waddling crowd. A choir rains down in the chorus before the stormy refrain ends, returning the music to the tricked-out Clint Eastwood western.

"I Hate Love" is, by title and feel, the most 1990s-flavored track of the bunch. It's filled with beeps and boops, flush with Vig's mad, driving drumming, and seasoned with sensuous mood tones from the guitars. With the keyboards, those tense guitars darken the mood of the bridge before the song splashes back into the sunlight of the next verse.

As confident as the band is with the production of the new disc, everyone is circumspect about going on tour after a long hiatus from live performance. When I reached Erikson by phone in L.A., he and Marker were practicing together, "getting to know these songs again."

Erikson says performance-like songs on the record won't be a worry. It's the other, layer-upon-layer tracks that will be a challenge: "It's going to be a little daunting, because you're out having to do that live and still maintain and make progress. What we're doing is figuring out the core of the song, who plays what, and not worrying about all the bells and whistles."

People move on. Bands break up. Bands reunite. Steve Marker is now a full-time resident of the Colorado mountains. Butch Vig says he still has no hobbies, but he has a new muse: his elementary-school-aged daughter. Shirley Manson was deeply affected by the loss of her mother two years ago. Her life was renewed at the very same time with marriage. Duke Erikson, as grounded as ever, walks the streets of Madison in quiet, happy seclusion. His daughter, born in Madison in the Spooner/Smart days, is now a photographer living in England.

Yet the eternal hipsters belong to another family, one that will make rock headlines in the coming weeks.

"Garbage has changed my life in every single way. Every single way," repeats Manson. "It's immeasurable. We love each other and we really rely on each other."

All three of the members I spoke with told me that they can imagine making yet another record. But before that, a huge worldwide tour. Will Garbage ever play a homecoming show in Madison?

"I still call Madison my hometown," Vig says. My family lives there, and I still have literally thousands of friends there. It'd be a big deal for us to come back there and play, and we're going to try to work that into the schedule at some point."

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