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Interview: Butch Vig on 20 years of Garbage, today’s music consumption, and staying in the background

 

Almost five-and-a-half years have come and gone since Shirley Manson, Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, and Steve Marker reformed Garbage. In the interim, they’ve released and toured out 2012’s Not Your Kind of People, and most lately, told us to expect another offering of fresh material in the spring of ‘16. So if Garbage were a nostalgia act in 2010, today, they’re closer to a contemporary band with a history.

Not that they’re in that much of a hurry to shed the baggage of ‘90s revivalist hullabaloo. Commemorating the 20th anniversary of their self-titled premier record, the pop-noir quartet gave it a deluxe reissue treatment, and embarked upon the 20 Years Queer tour, in which their touchtone debut shall be performed, plus “g-sides” in its totality. Their journey brings them to the Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday.

Following their inaugural appearance in 1995, Garbage tricked those of us conditioned to loathe all things “pop” in a peak-grunge “authenticity”-obsessed wasteland into enjoying a pop record. Radio-ready earworm “Only Happy When It Rains” reflected our big brother’s Gen X’er pessimism with a barely-ironic smirk. Similar can be said for “Stupid Girl”, in which Manson chastises self-obsessed nihilism with menacing whisper-yells over a newly-desolate Clash sample. The whole record’s plump with coarse guitar washes, gauzey trip-hop-ish loops, and lush malcontentedness, providing an extremely necessary counterweight to the wishy-washy guitar bands and declawed hip-hop inundating MTV at the time.

 

As for Butch Vig, drumming in Garbage is almost like his side-gig. Vig got his break dialing knobs and saying, “That was great. Can we try it again?” back in 1990, while three scruffy-looking young gentleman from Seattle tossed together a record called Nevermind that sold a few more copies than originally expected. He’s produced a shitload of notables in the meantime, thus providing numerous pivotal contributions to the last 25 years of rock music — Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and Siamese Dream, Sonic Youth’s Dirty, AFI’s Sing the Sorrow, Against Me!’s New Wave, and the underappreciated Let Your Dim Light Shine by way of Soul Asylum — while remaining otherwise invisible.

Vig rang up Vanyaland from his home in Los Angeles during a round of pre-practice press interviews, and we caught up on a variety of topics.

Barry Thompson: With the anniversary tour of Garbage, I’ve read that you’ve got to relearn, or in some cases straight-up learn, to play songs that didn’t get toured out after you recorded them 20 years ago?

 
 

Butch Vig: Yes. I expect this afternoon will be a bit of a trainwreck. When the first album came out, we played all its songs at some point. As far as the b-sides, what we call the g-sides, we played two or three of those back in the day, but most of them, we’ve never played live before.
What we’ll probably have to do today is put on one of the G-Sides, put our headphones on, and play along with it two or three times so everybody can figure out the chords, and Shirley can remember the lyrics. Then we’ll turn it off and play it live. That’s when we’ll hit the first trainwreck. But we’ve got two weeks. I’m pretty sure we can whip ‘em into shape in two weeks.

Garbage had been broken up for a while when you reformed a few years ago. Were you worried people wouldn’t still be psyched for Garbage? Was it a relief to find they still were?

Yeah, y’know, when Not Your Kind Of People came out, we had been gone for seven years. Music and the culture just seem to get consumed so fast these days — it some ways it seems so disposable, people just grab what they want and chuck it aside and move onto the next thing. We thought it was quite possible that no one would care about a Garbage record. We were pleasantly surprised to find we still have a huge hardcore fanbase out there.

 
 

Meanwhile, lots of legacy bands just go on tour and play the hits and get by okay. Why make new music when you don’t necessarily have to?

I mean, I still like moving forward as an artist and producer and musician. By the time I finish a record, whether it’s Garbage or somebody else, I’m usually kind of finished with it and looking forward to the next. Garbage has been such a great outlet for all four of us — I think that’s one of the reasons we like making records together. It’s quite unlike any other band I’ve ever been in or worked with. As long as we keep getting along, I think we’re just going to keep doing it.

I think this tour’s going to be really fun. We’re not looking back nostalgically so much as, like, this is a celebration. We’re really proud of this record, and we’re still here, and we want to celebrate that. Also, I do say, we realize people want to hear our hits. On a previous tour, we debated playing Not Your Kind Of People from start to finish, then maybe coming out and doing the older songs from the first four records. But we mixed it up, and each night we tried to play maybe three or four songs from Not Your…, and tracks from the other four records. Luckily, we have enough songs from all those albums so we can change the setlist up every night and keep it interesting for ourselves and for the fans.

I kind of feel like the first Garbage record could’ve come out 10 years ago, or last year, and it still would’ve resonated — like, it doesn’t necessarily sound overly attached to its era.

 
 

Well, it was interesting doing the remastering for the deluxe edition. Every now and then I hear one of our tracks on the radio or something, but I never really put them on at home. So when we remastered it, I noticed it definitely has a sound, and it definitely caught people by surprise at the time. I think because of my success with Nirvana and the Pumpkins, everyone expected a grunge album, and the first Garbage album sounded different, just in the way we approached using different genres and blending them together — electronica, hip-hop beats, film atmospherics, pop melodies and fuzz guitars and whatever — and then a lot of other bands started to copy that approach. I’ve definitely heard bands Garbage influenced, and that’s totally cool with me. We take that as a compliment.

I know if the first album came out now, it probably wouldn’t have the success we had. Back then, we were able to do these really long tours and sell CDs. But at the time, I think it sounded unique and fresh. I think even Version 2.0 sounds pretty glossy, but the first Garbage record has this combination of pretty high tech and low-fi, and it’s just got that grainy, woozy quality to it. Part of that was the approach to recording. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We didn’t use a computer. It was still done with samplers, but to analogue tape. I think that’s why it still sounds kind of fresh.

It’ll be the future by the time anyone reads this, but here in the past, the MTV video awards were just on. It’s been this way for a while, but a lot of people my age who remember when Garbage was on MTV watch that show and go, “What the fuck is this?”

 
 

Well, music has changed so much, most bands I know, especially young bands, are doing it kind of like we are now, on their own level. They use the internet to self-promote and don’t need a major label. Pop stars still need that kind of exposure, and still need MTV. MTV is still a medium where they’re trying to tap into what youth culture wants. That’s why Miley Cyrus is so successful, I guess. It’s not my cup of tea.

We were very lucky with Garbage. On the first couple records, we probably made four or five videos for each, and they were not cheap — $150, $200,000 — some of them more than that. But it made sense, because MTV gave you incredible exposure. I’d walk into a bar in Singapore and see “Stupid Girl” on their TV. That’s not going to happen for us anymore. But the digital world has given bands all kinds of ways to market themselves. It’s just changed and everybody’s had to adapt.

You’re the drummer in this band — which is typically presented as Shirley and three guys in the background — and obviously you’re never at the forefront as a producer. Do you think you’re adverse to spotlights?

Um, I never really liked doing interviews. I’ve done so many now in Garbage that I’ve gotten used to it. I’m comfortable in front of TV cameras for some reason. I’ve never felt awkward when there’s a camera in front of me.

 
 

But when the first record came out, I knew there was a lot of attention on me. If this record failed, it would’ve been my ass. No one knew who Shirley, Duke, or Steve were, and because of my success with the Pumpkins and Sonic Youth and Nirvana, that’s what people looked at. In some of our first interviews, they’d ask, “So, you made a Garbage record. What was it like to work with Kurt Cobain?” I found it really annoying. Luckily, very quickly, people realized they wanted to talk to Shirley. As soon as they started seeing the videos and hearing the songs, she became the focal point, and I was able to slide back behind the drum kit, which was good.

Any bands you’d want to produce but can’t because they’re dead or broken up, or maybe just somebody you wanna work with but haven’t yet?

When I get asked that question, I’m always kind of dumbstruck that I don’t know what to say. I will say there was a chance, when I was working on the soundtrack for Sound City with Dave Grohl, there was a chance Neil Young was going to come in and jam with Krist [Novoselic, duh] and Dave. I kept telling Dave that if [Young] comes in, he’s going to say, “Hey, this is pretty cool, let’s go on tour together!” I think he would’ve found Krist and Dave like a second version of Crazy Horse. But I think he had a book or a record or something, and he did some interviews for the film, but he never got to actually jam, so that was disappointing. But I’ve always wanted to work with Neil Young.

GARBAGE + TORRES :: Wednesday, October 21 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1 Hamilton Place in Boston, MA :: 7:30 p.m., all-ages, $38 to $43.50 :: Advance tickets :: Live Nation event page


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