Off the Charts

Garbage: Staying Fresh for Decades

Issue 143

The number of successful bands that have lasted at least twenty years and never changed personnel is very small. Garbage is one of them. The band is also rare for originating out of the vision of producers who also happened to be musicians, and not the other way around.

Butch Vig, Duke Erickson, and Steve Marker had all been in bands previously, but in 1993 they were making their living as producers and engineers in Madison, Wisconsin’s burgeoning indie rock scene. With Vig on drums and lead vocals, Erickson on guitar, bass, and keyboards, and Marker on guitar and keyboards, they were almost happy with the sound their new group was making. It was just the vocals that weren’t working. Then they heard the Scotswoman Shirley Manson singing with her band, Angelfish, and they knew she had what they lacked. She joined Garbage in 1994.

After floating a test single, “Vow,” on the Mushroom UK label, their debut Garbage (1995) made it onto the Billboard 200, released in the US on Almo Sounds. In the studio, the band went out of its way to make the tracks seem crafted, not live. They took techniques from hip-hop and techno as well as the old Motown and Phil Spector “wall of sound” philosophy to create a thickly layered sonic world. Besides “Vow,” the album led to hits with “Queer” and “Stupid Girl,” the latter co-written and Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of The Clash.

A special edition released only in Japan included an exclusive track called “Subhuman.” It provides a good demonstration of both the amalgam of textures – a combination of new acoustic and digital sounds with integrated samples – as well as the punk-inspired, grrrl-rock attitude present in Manson’s voice.

 

Unlike many artists, Garbage has never been one to pump out albums annually. They didn’t begin recording Version 2.0 until 1997; it was released the following year. As they had since their formation, they did most of the studio work at Smart Studio in Madison, which they equipped with a 48-track digital system and state-of-the-art Pro Tools. Analog was just not their scene, as the album title implies.

Originally called Sad Alcoholic Clowns, this record doubled down on the sonic style of their debut, and Manson’s lyrics were more morose and biting than ever. Vig contributed some interesting percussion sounds by playing his drum kit in an abandoned factory. You can hear it on the single “I Think I’m Paranoid” as well as the album-only track “Hammering in My Head,” with its blood-pumping beat, owing as much to disco as to The Chemical Brothers.

 

Despite coming out only a few weeks after 9/11, Beautiful Garbage (2001) did reasonably well on the charts. One of its most innovative aspects is external to the recording and producing: Manson wrote a blog during the year it took to create the tracks, keeping the fans up to speed on the process. While posting frequent video updates on Instagram or TikTok is a standard activity for artists now, at the time this was very rare. It showed both an appreciation for the fan base and a prescient understanding of the power of the internet for making promotion seem personal.

The album title refers to the band’s attempt at a new sensibility, more melody-based, and with inspiration from the harmonies and arrangements of girl groups in the 1960s. The instrumental texture is just as dense but somehow less intense than on the previous two albums, with the drum and guitar parts allowing for breathing space. While the record has a more fluid sound, that is not to say there was less manipulation going on in Pro Tools and other tech. For example, an EBow is drawn across the strings of Erickson’s Les Paul guitar on “So Like a Rose.” It’s impossible not to wonder if Radiohead had its opening chordal rhythm in mind when they recorded their 2007 song “House of Cards.”

 

Now signed with Geffen Records, Garbage released Bleed Like Me in 2005. This one took almost two years to make while the band dealt with some personality conflicts and figured out what it was going for with this new project. Eventually, they settled on a move away from electronica and toward a standard rock quartet sound. They also sought out some help with production on the track “Bad Boyfriend,” turning to John King, famed as half of the Dust Brothers team that worked with the Beastie Boys. Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl also played drums on that track. Another successful single was “Why Do You Love Me.”

Vig, who was still the primary producer, decided to try more of a live, raw sound, with less digital manipulation. You can hear this approach on the album closer, “Happy Home,” which starts with a grunge-inspired repeating, repressed eighth note pattern but explodes at the chorus. The extreme contrast feels real and organic.

 

It was another seven years before Not Your Kind of People (2012) was released on the band’s own label. They had cut the tour for Bleed Like Me short; everyone was ready to stop. Manson wanted to dip her toe into acting (she landed a recurring role on the Fox series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). Vig was much in demand as a producer for major groups like Foo Fighters and Green Day. Erickson, also a producer, focused on more arcane acts and got involved in running the British label Lo-Max. Markey spent his time writing film scores.

While the top-selling singles were “Blood for Poppies” and “Battle in Me,” one of the album’s most interesting songs is “Sugar.” The syncopated pattern in the rhythm makes the 4/4 meter break down as 1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2, giving an illusion of an exotic time signature. It also marks a return of the electronica and wall-of-sound approach from the early two albums. The melody is limited, so the song’s development happens in the arrangement and production. There’s a lot of Siouxsie and the Banshees in this song.

  

Strange Little Birds came out in 2016. It’s theme, as detailed in the promotional material, was hardly new to the band: darkness. Not surprisingly, Manson was the engine driving that theme. At the same time, the production doubled down on the wall-of-sound environment, allowing for “darkness” to coalesce into a planetary atmosphere.

It’s not an easy listen, but it’s worth the effort to focus on the lyrics as well as the overwhelming texture on songs like “Blackout.” A nod is due to their longtime mixer, Billy Bush, for the excellent sound.

 

Kudos to any artist who managed to record and release a work in these pandemic times. But the fact is that much of the material on No Gods No Masters (2021) was already baking in the musical oven for a few years. All the primary recording was finished just before COVID-19 restrictions set it.

The album’s lyric focus is on unpleasant social realities of all stripes, from racism and misogyny to drug abuse; while commentary on society certainly crops up on their earlier songs, this is the first time it became an overarching theme. The best of those songs is the most personal. Munson wrote “This City Will Kill You” about her time in Los Angeles, its ironic mode intensified by the lush arrangement.

 

You never know when Garbage will have something new to contribute, but it seems a safe bet that more of their songs will eventually show up. Slow and steady truly does win the race.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Paul Anderson.

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