Catching Up With Garbage's Butch Vig

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Here’s a fact that might make you feel old: It’s been seven years since the release of the last Garbage record Bleed Like Me, and 17 years since the release of their self-titled debut. Shirley Manson’s enigmatic sex appeal and Garbage’s moody, electro-rock singles “Stupid Girl” and “Only Happy When It Rains” provided the perfect soundtrack to the pre-internet, post-grunge era, and a star was born in Manson, whose influence can be seen and heard today, from Emily Haines of Metric to Lana Del Rey.

While Manson naturally attracted much of the spotlight, Garbage was, and remains, a united creative collaboration between all four founding members: Manson (vocals), Duke Erikson (guitar/keyboard), Steve Marker (guitar/keyboard) and Butch Vig (drums/loops).

Vig, the super-producer behind many of the seminal albums of the ‘90s (Nirvana’s Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream) and contemporary classics including Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown and Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light, has stayed busy during the Garbage hiatus behind the boards. With the release of Garbage’s new record, Not Your Kind Of People on the band’s new record label STUNVOLUME, Vig is rejuvenated, and happy to be playing with his friends again.

Paste: Has Garbage always been about having fun and having a creative outlet? I have to assume you don’t need to be in a band for monetary gain.
Butch Vig: It’s always been, for me, looked at as two things. It’s a creative outlet for me as a musician and songwriter. As a producer I’m always looking at someone else’s music so there’s a great sense of freedom when we’re in the studio because we have a fairly wide open sonic template that we work on. We use fuzzy guitars, big beats, electronica, atmospherics and trashy drums. A lot of bands have a very finite, set way in which they record and their instrumentation is locked into place and in Garbage we’re pretty free. I play guitar and keyboards, and Steve (Marker) plays drums and bass, guitars and keyboards, so it gives all of us a chance to really stretch. I’ve also always been in bands since I was sixteen years old. I like being in bands. There’s always a little bit of a club mentality, of being in a clique with your mates. I’m very close with Shirley, Duke and Steve. We’re a weird little family, and it’s cool. We get along pretty well.

Paste: Was Not Your Kind of People a planned attack? Do you ever take into consideration releasing records when you feel the pop scene has grown stale and needs a good shaking?
Vig: Trust me, we couldn’t make any impact on what’s going on in the rest of the pop scene. It’s not a response to what other people are doing really, because we just felt it was time for us to make music on our own terms. It probably wouldn’t have mattered what was going on in the rest of the pop scene. We needed a break, and that stretched into five years and seven years by the time the record was released. It wasn’t by design. We just all needed to reclaim our personal space and our lives. I think, by the time we got it together last year and started recording, we were all totally rejuvenated and felt really jazzed. If anything, I’m inspired by a lot of blog radio. I listen to these shows on Sirius XM like My Old Kentucky Blog, Aquarium Drunkard and Gorilla Vs. Bear, and I love a lot of the new music I’m hearing on there. The production is all over the place. I listen to it and find it inspiring. If anything, it made me feel like I wanted to go back into the studio. Just hearing these young bands and how excited they were to make music made me feel like I wanted to do it too.

Paste: Were there any particular artists or movements that helped inspire the record?
Vig: We have all sort of worn our influences on our sleeves. Shirley will be the first to admit that she loves Patti Smith, The Pretenders and Siouxsie Sioux. There’s prog-rock influences on this record, and “Not Your Kind Of People,” the title track, is a little bit of a nod to Pink Floyd. The first track, “Automatic Systematic,” has some proggy bits in it along with some German techno, and we have a tendency to bring a lot of different influences in. There’s a Jesus and Mary Chain and Felt shoegazer vibe in there.

Paste: I got some Joy Division as well.
Vig: Oh yeah. Joy Division definitely. One of the newer bands that I look at as sounding inspirational and in a way remind a little bit of Garbage is Sleigh Bells. I really liked their first record and I like their new record a lot. I like the way that she sings over the guitar riffs and with the distorted beats I think they have a great sonic imprint. If you listen to the intro to second track “Big Bright World,” at the time I was listening to Suicide’s first record, which is all murky vocals and drum machines through guitar amps and lo-fi sounding, and we kind of channeled some of that into the intro. But then the song takes off and Shirley’s lyrics are about that Dylan Thomas poem [“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night] and the song is all about fighting and wanting to stay alive. I hear ‘80s new wave in the way I played the drums. You could probably pick any song and hear about a half dozen influences from all sorts of styles of music.

Paste: Was the writing and recording any different than previous Garbage records?
Vig: We had done the previous four records at my studio, Smart in Madison, Wis., and this is the first time we didn’t record there. Since then, I had moved to LA and Shirley lives in LA. Duke and Steven came to LA for this record, and this is the first time that we’ve had our own label. There were no time constraints or anything. We went in to record and we were between management and there was no label, so there were no deadlines are anyone telling us what to do, and that was liberating. Because we had a long enough break, the songs fell into our lap really quickly.

Paste: Do you think an LA-vibe crept into the record?
Vig: I don’t know. Maybe a little bit. “Big Bright World” to me has a sunny optimism. That song, when we first wrote it, I had a rough mix of it in my car and I’d play it over and over driving down the Ventura freeway. “Automatic Systematic” also had that kind of pounding groove that made me drive faster [Laughs.]

Paste: When producing, to you have unspoken rules about who you will work with?
Vig: Not really unspoken, but I just go through a process when I find a band that I’m interested in. Usually it’s someone that I’ve heard, or a manager or someone from the label will approach me telling me to check a band out. These days, they can send you some links or you can look on Youtube and get a vibe and see the live shows. To me, that’s the best way to look at it, because if you hear a recording, obviously you can do anything in the studio to manipulate it and make it sound amazing. But when you see a band live, you get an instant vibe for what they look like, how they play and what they’re all about. Then, usually I’ll want to meet them to get in their heads a bit and see what kind of record they want to make and see if I feel like I can bring something to the table that will help them reach their vision. Then it’s just all about the music and whether I fall in love with the songs.

Paste: What do you think of DIY home recording and production? Do you think there will always be a place for the practical producer?
Vig: The digital revolution has enabled anyone at home to make a great sounding recording on their laptop. Slowly but surely, that is killing off a lot of the studios because no one can really afford to carry that kind of overhead when no one can afford to book studio time. Why would you spend $1,000 a day or even $500 when you can do it on your laptop at home? One sad thing to me about that is that I hear a lot of great recordings, but a lot of them are starting to sound very generic and homogenized. Every once in a while I’ll hear something on the blog stations that sounds amazing, where the production is really interesting and the vibe is really cool. But for every track I hear like that there’s probably ten that, for lack of a better term, sound really generic. The songwriting is average, and you can tell from the production that everyone is using the same plug-ins. Part of that is that they don’t get to go into these rooms that have a vibe to them. Some of these studios are like temples, just the way that they are designed acoustically, and there’s a kind of magic in the air. You capture it in the microphones and record it, and that’s gonna go away when you record on a laptop.

Paste: To your ears, what’s the best produced record of all time?
Vig: Oh man, I don’t know. There’s so many. My favorite rock record of all time is London Calling by The Clash. I don’t know if it’s the best produced, because it’s kind of scruffy sounding, but the vibe and songwriting is just amazing. It has all these elements of punk, rockabilly, ska, jazz and yet it still sounds like The Clash. The songs are brilliant, and I absolutely adore that record and have probably played it 1,000 times. Some people when they say “best produced” they’re thinking in terms of slickness and they might say Steely Dan. Or ambitiousness and Sgt. Peppers blew everything away in terms of how you can produce a record. It’s not just the engineering aspect of it. It’s about the vibe. A lot of people love Exile on Main Street and that’s one of the most lo-fi recordings I’ve ever heard.

Paste: For some reason, I never knew you were from Madison until I started researching this interview. Do you bring that laidback, Midwestern vibe to the studio with you?
Vig: I guess so. I’m pretty mellow for the most part. I get really obsessed with whatever I’m working on and I can be very meticulous and push people, but I’m not a shouter generally. The only time I shout is when things get really bad and that’s very infrequent. I have a tendency to try and deal with things pragmatically. I’ll just say something like ‘Look, this isn’t working. I don’t think the horse is going to where it needs to go. Maybe we can figure out a way to make that happen.’ I don’t like being confrontational with people. I will if I have to be. Sometimes some artists need that in order to respond. I have a tendency to want to slowly get under their skin until they feel comfortable and relaxed enough to where I can suggest something and they’ll so “Ok cool. Let’s try it.”

Paste: I’m thinking of the double tracking with Cobain, when you told him that John Lennon double tracked.
Vig: Yeah. And he was like “Okay Butch.”

Paste: I read that you were working with Novoselic and Grohl again on a project. Can you give any hints about who the mystery guest was, and what the process has been like?
Vig: Well, I can’t really. It’s a work in progress, and we’re not sure exactly how it’s all going to pan out. It’s been really fun and interesting. It’s for a film soundtrack. Dave bought the console from Sound City where we did Nevermind and we’ve been recording music for the soundtrack. There’s a lot of work to do on it, as well as tons of editing. We probably won’t finish it until the fall, and as far as I know, hopefully it will come out by early next year.

Paste: What’s a perfect day for Butch Vig?
Vig: I’d wake up, and I’m at Lambeau Field in Madison, Wis., ready for a Packers game. Kickoff is at noon. It’s a beautiful October day. It’s 70 degrees, the sun is shining and the Packers are gonna win. I’m a massive Packers fan and I’m obsessed with their season. I was so bummed last year when they lost in the playoffs to the Giants. They won the Super Bowl two years ago and I think they can do it again. They’ve still got a great team right now.