Modern Life is Rubbish
From Hot Press - May 13, 1998
by Peter Murphy
Special thanks go to Flagg for sending me this article.
Garbage are a band who absorb all the detritus, darkness and despair of the pre-millennial zeitgeist and spit it back out in a torrent of searing guitars, futuristic technological trickery and lyrics that freeze the blood. They've also made two of the most sinister pop records of modern times - the second of which, Version 2.0, is due for imminent release. Peter Murphy met them in London to discuss sex, surveillance, studio strife, pre-200 tension and their special fondness for The Beach Boys.
Meet the Manson family. You join me on an overcast April Fool's Day in an upstairs suite in a plush Kensington hotel. Garbage are doing press for their forthcoming second album Version 2.0, and the foursome are valiantly guzzling down industrial quantities of coffee and water in an attempt to wake up for this mid-morning interview. Mind you, for all the caffeine abuse, there isn't a smoker among them, at least not while asthmatic singer Shirley Manson is in the room.
As Shirley and guitarist Duke Erikson busy themselves at the cafeteire, guitarist/bassist Steve Marker attempts to address a question both of us have forgotten. Butch Vig, the band's flamboyantly bearded drummer and celebrated producer in his own right, gamely explains his comrade's fuzziness.
"We finished the album and flew to New York and mastered it," he relates, "then flew straight to La and did the video for 'Push It' and then flew straight back and did two weeks of ten hour-a-day interviews in the States. We just got over here three days ago, spent a day in Brussels, yesterday was Copenhagen, today is London. We're trying to cram in a lot of press in a very short time, because it took us longer to do the record then was anticipated, and we have to start rehearsals a week from Monday. The tour starts on May 15th and we're not ready so..."
I get the picture. The band have barely had time to finish, let alone listen to Version 2.0, and yet they're here trying to talk about it for my benefit. Indeed the quartet seem more interested in hearing my opinion of the record than offering their own. Which is flattering, but this being Garbage, I can't help likening their hospitality to that of the family of white-trash blood-suckers in Kathryn Bigelow's 1988 cult movie Near Dark. Interview with the vampires indeed: it's still an hour shy of noon and we've already discussed David Lynch, the futility of existence and the incurable human condition. But it is precisely this bleak curiosity which lends even the group's most audacious new tunes an insidious sense of menace.
"Sense of menace is good," Duke drawls laconically into his coffee.
"I think that we share a certain sensibility," Butch muse, firing up his brain for yet another day of questions about Kurt, Courtney and Billy Corgan (which he won't answer on the grounds that he has a doctor/patient confidentiality with his former clients). "For one thing we love dark pop songs, and I think maybe being from the Mid-West there's a sense of being isolated. Like in Blue Velvet there's this veneer of everything looking really normal but under the surface it's not."
"I think a lot of places are like that," Duke ventures. "Every place had a certain veneer that draws people to it in the first place, and then you start to discover what they're really like. I mean, every individual's just like that, people are just like that."
He looks me in the eye.
Okay, okay, I admit it.
"Poor Peter's sobbing," Shirley cackles, tucking her legs under her on the sofa.
"It's a little early for this kind of talk," Duke considers. "We like to wait before the sun goes down before we like to talk like this!"
With this, the guitarist, who seems suddenly to have morphed into a younger version of Millennium's Lance Henrikson, leans forward and says:
"Can we take this tape? You've got two goin' here."
As Duke has pointed out, I have indeed come armed with two recorders. One is for back-up. Ever since a tap jammed up on me in a recent interview, I been a little...
"Paranoid, are ya?" he mock-glowers.
Paranoid is a word which crops up in a lot of Garbage circles. It's even in the title of one of their new tunes. Indeed, Mushroom Records are so antsy of copies of Version 2.0 being pirated over the Internet that their Irish distributors BMG have been instructed not to issue me with the new ultra-chic press-pack (interactive CD/biog., screensaver, the works) but instead, hastily run off an advance tape. The ironies are flying. Thousands of pounds of promotion are being pumped into a record with sate-of-the-art production, and I'm being furnished with a bootleg of it.
Lets rewind a few years. Garbage's origins are in Madison, Wisconsin. Duke was born in Nebraska, where he attended college and taught drawing for a couple of semesters before moving to Wisconsin, attracted by the art scene. Butch, the son of a small-town doctor and music teacher, was raised in Virqua and got his degree in film at the University of Wisconsin, spending much of his time composing electronic soundtracks. Steve had moved around a lot as a kid, but spent most of high school at Mamaroneck, N.Y. before becoming a communications arts major ("total avant-guard bullshit"), also at UW.
The three came together in the early 1980's, in a pop outfit called Spooner: Vig played drums, Eriskson was the guitarist and Steve was the soundman. By 1987, after three albums worth of local celebrity, the band broke up. Butch and Duke went on to form a modestly successful jangly-guitar outfit called Firetown.
In 1984 Vig and Marker had founded Smart Studios in Madison, and were recording local surf-punk bands as well as dorking around with a side-project called Rectal Drip during downtime. The Drip even scored a minor local hit with a cover of a macabre children's song 'John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt'. Smart prospered, taking on clients from Sup Pop, Touch & Go, Slash and Twin Tone labels, eventually hosting Nirvana's Nevermind demos as well as remixes for U2, Nine Inch Nails, House of Pain and Depeche Mode. Also, Butch's production skills were now in demand by the likes of Sonic Youth, the Smashing Pumpkins and, of course, Nirvana. However, the three still had the bug to put a band together.
In 1993, after Vig finished working on the Pumpkins' Siamese Dream, an embryonic Garbage began to take shape. However, the band still needed a lead singer. In '94, after being impressed by Shirley's performance in the video for 'Suffocate Me' by Angelfish on MTV's 120 minutes, they contacted her. Even though Marker admitted to being initially somewhat scared of the fiery diva, and the audition scenario at his house was excruciatingly awkward for all involved, both parties soon struck up a rapport.
"I think luck had more to do with it than anything else," Duke admits. "It's almost an impossibility that we could've gotton along with someone from the other side of the planet, and that we could hit it off so well, musically and as people. It's a fluke. And we're the first to admit it."
Following a couple of low-key, limited-edition singles (Butch's involvement was initially kept a secret from industry insiders lest hi LA pedigree distract from the music), the quartet's debut album Garbage was released in the autumn of 1995. A tour with the Smashing Pumpkins whipped the band into shape as a live act, and after a gruelling touring and promotional campaign, the record went on to sell four million copies, yielding no less than five hit singles.
Certain albums move into the mainstream because they somehow rub up against whatever raw nerves are exposed by the times. It hardly seem mere happenstance that Garbage, with it's layers of stimuli an sin, seemed to wobble with the same sense of moral panic as phobic films such as Se7en, Strange Days and (Shirley's choice) Natural Born Killers. This was prime pre-millennial tension, a time when such phenomena a body-piercing, cosmetic amputation and shit sculpture were now, as Jane's Addiction would have it, nothing shocking.
In David Fincher's Se7en, serial killer John Doe hacks off a model's nose, quite literally spiting her face, leaving her with the option of dialling 911 and living with her deformity, of swallowing a vial of sleeping pills. She chooses the big sleep. It was a brutal, but apt, metaphor for the decay of the human soul through the end-of-century -obsession with the surface perfect. It the same black vein, Kathyrn Bigelow's (her again) Strange Days took voyeur core to the ultimate extreme, painting a 1999 where humans would pay black-market prices for "clips", virtual snuff movies where the viewer could vicariously experience murder, rape or even suicide. Garbage's death-disco grooves seemed entirely in sync with such grisly dispatches from Planet Babble-On.
Back on Earth, Butch is a little taken aback at the amount of far-fetched theories I've dumped on his band's music.
"See, he's giving us a lot of soundbites we can use in interviews," he says to Duke.
"We're gonna rip you off baby!" Shirley threatens.
At this rate, I'll get home with a tape full of me talking Garbage.
"It's better than 'How did you get your name?'" Butch reasons.
"That's his next question actually," Duke intones, dryly.
And no amount of theorising can distract from the fact that, at heart, Garbage are a very fine pop group. Like it's predecessor, Version 2.0 is crammed with shining melodies, barbed hooks and ingenious arrangements. Mind you, the perv-pop sensibility it always tempered with the bitter word, like on 'Medication', where Shirley sadly croons, "And you still call me co-dependant/And somehow you lay the blame on me." Or 'I Think I'm Paranoid' where she makes a dominance and submission game out of an old bubblegum chorus: "Bend me, break me, anyway you need me/All I want is you."
But while Garbage have always had a soft spot for bands like Blondie, Roxy Music, and The Pretenders (Shirley does a great Chrissie Hynde and the end of Special), this time around there's a new ghost in the machine: Brian Wilson. The California dreamer is all over the first half of the record, and most obviously in the "Don't worry baby" steal on 'Push It'.
"Because we all love the Beach Boys, we thought it would be 'cute' to sample then as a harmony," explains Shirley. "So we stuck it in and it sounded amazing to have them as backing vocalists. Then of course for legal reasons we had to amend it and have me do harmonies and seek Brian's permission, but then I suppose, that subtly injected sort of (laughs) 'Beach Boys consciousness' throughout the recording process.
"In Special for instance, I can't think of any latter-day bands where a female is singing those sort of stacked '60's style vocals, and we thought it would be really effective. That's my favourite moment on the record, when you hear those."
"And 'Look So Fine' is more of our Carpenters moments," adds Butch.
That makes sense. Heavenly melodies sung by a honey-voiced woman suffering from a fatal disease of the ID. The same woman Sonic Youth commemorated so breath-takingly on 'Tunic (Song for Karen)' from the Goo album. Another Butch connection.
During the mixing of Version 2.0 (the title refers to the computer software used in the recording process), Shirley furnished Rolling Stone with a "partial list" on the influences on the sessions. These included Julie London, Kraftwerk, Radiohead, Patti Smith ("as always"), The Manchurian Candidate and The Conversation. The musical references are self-explanatory, and it takes no great leap of the imagination to understand why these paranoid vocoids would rate the John Frankenheimer conspiracy classic, but Francis Ford Coppola's film must've resonated with the band on a practical as well as conceptual level.
In The Conversation, Gene Hackman's surveillance expert is hired to track and record the movements and voices of Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams. The evidence is to be delivered to a mysterious business man, played by Robert Duvall. As the tapes are slowly, teasingly, made more comprehensible, it becomes apparent what was originally though to be a simple case of marital infidelity could be a possible murder plot. Supervising editor Walter Murch's sound collage and re-recording work won the film an Oscar nomination.
One imagines that the Garbage crew would have identified with Hackman as they waded through the sedimentary layers of extraneous noise as they searched for the emotional core of each song. Butch alone had to digest six 90-minute tapes filled with snatches of conversation and incidental sound which he had taped onto a tiny recorder during the last tour. Tracks like 'Push' and 'Hammering in my Head' ended up with over 100 tracks of drum loops to be cut and pasted. One imagines that making Version 2.0 was less an exercise in writing and recording than in sonic excavation.
"It wasn't until about three or four months into it, when we had to do some rough mixes for people at the label, that the songs came together," Butch confesses. "They'd been really cool but it's got to the point when we had to play something for them, and so we were forced to take all these fragments of things and cobble them together to make it sound like we had some songs finished. And that was the first point where we went, 'Ah yeah, we do have some songs starting to come together here.'"
If there is one dominant Garbage characteristic, apart from Shirley's voice, it's the production, the overall sound. And a painstakingly democratic approach is something the band have in common with that other cyborganic quartet, U2.
"They're not that speedy when they make records either," observes Butch, who should know, having orchestrated an itchy remix of 'Staring at the Sun' for Bono and pals last year. "In a lot of ways I think they work the same way we do, they just go into the studio and make music from scratch. It can be very spontaneous, and then also you can get bogged down on this small little detail and spend days doing it. It can be exhilarating and frustrating, sometimes within the space of half an hour."
So, in a claustrophobic studio situation, are Garbage brooders or bruisers?
"Boozers," deadpans Steve.
Beneath Version 2.0 pristine production sheen, there's an undercurrent of sexual cruelty that brings to mind everything from Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon to Marrianne Faithful's 'Why D'ya Do It?'. Indeed, many of the songs are schism-riddled psychodramas, one-act plays filled with love and loathing, lust and revulsion.
Shirley seems to play it predatory one minute ("I knew you were mine for the taking/Your eyes light up when I walk in the room"), vulnerable the next ("I'm open wide/I want to take you home/We're wasting time/You're the only one for me"-'Look So Fine'). It's a record that's black with paradoxes, dispassionate and engaged at the same time.
I put it to the band that, although it can be counter-productive to isolate the lyrics (Especially when you consider that one guitar line can suggest as much psychological trauma as any couplet - indeed, Duke and Steve's overdubs often serve as counter-commentary to the song's core elements, poisoning what are essentially sweet melodies), there are some pretty bare sentiments on the album. It seems I've touched a nerve here.
"Every interview we've said exactly the same thing," Duke responds. "We really hate taking apart the lyrics from the music."
"It's like you shouldn't even look at 'em," Butch maintains. "They have to be heard being expressed, how the character comes out in her voice in the music, and the emotion you get from it, it really has to be to two together."
However, Shirely's prepared to cut me some slack.
"That said, ask to question anyway," she instructs. "I'm curious as to what it was."
Okay, how about the lines "If we sleep together/Will you like me better?/If we come together?/We'll go down together"? That seems to allude to the very precarious practise of searching for one's identity through the sexual act, rather than using sex as an expression of one's self.
"Which is exactly what the song's about," admits Shirley. "A lot of morons think that's a sexy song."
Sexy? It's horrible. Well, maybe not horrible, but...
"It is horrible," she insists. "It's supposed to be horrible. It's so weird for people to think, 'Oh it's sex, therefore it's nice. Oooo, Sexy."
She spits the word out like a bitten maggot. Which says more about Garbage's idea of carnality than any amount of inkblots. But then, a lot of people get off fucking to the sound of Tricky's Maxinquaye.
"The irony about the lyrics is that I had two notebooks packed full of ideas," Shirley continues, "but basically the stuff that's on the record came from when we were playing together again, writing the record, rather from any of the notes I'd kept. There were a few tiny little elements like the line 'The Trick is to Keep Breathing' which I had from the Janice Galloway novel (the Scottish novelist's 1994 debut tells the tale of a young drama teacher, Joy Stone, who becomes afflicted with a deep and mysterious depression - PM) and I always thought it was an amazing title, and these words stand by themselves. But mostly it was just spontaneous."
In 'Medication' Shirely sings, "They got me on some medication/My point of balance is askew" Autobiographical?
"It's more metaphorical," she qualifies, "but it came though a literal experience."
What were you on? Anti-depressants or ...
"No, oh God, no," she says, looking horrified.
"Beer," injects Duke, pulling his bandmate out of the hole I've spent the last few minutes digging for her. Whether conscious or not, this seems to be a typical Garbage tactic. As soon as I start blundering into tender territories, one of the band members will change the focus from the particular to the general. It's something that doesn't go unnoticed buy the singer.
"I think we're very protective of each other," she'll admit later. "Unlike a lot of bands, we really do function as one, and I think that's very rare. That's probably one of a our greatest weapons, it makes us very powerful as a unit, strong. We've talked about this a million times: with a lot of bands it's one person's vision, it's one dominant leader, and in this band we really rely on each other in a four-way split."
Back to the amateur analysis. In 'When I Grow Up' Shirley asserts: "When I grow up/ I'll be stable/When I grow up/I'll turn the tables". Does she now feel vindicated for all the years of struggle?
"No. 'cos I don't think any of us feel that we've done it," she stresses. "We feel that we're doing it. and that's great about it, there's still a sense of urgency and unfortunately - I repeat the word - desperation in a way. I mean, occasionally there are moments. I can remember just one instance when I was on stage and I remember lookin' out and thinking, 'How did I get here? How an I here?' And that we weird 'cos, even all the years I was in bands I never remember feeling comfortable on-stage, I always felt like people in the audience were thinking 'What's she doing there?' I was really self-conscious. Just one moment on the last tour I remember feeling really comfortable and at home and that's when I thought 'How did this happen?"
"How long did that last?" asks Duke.
"Until you fuckin' spoiled it with your guitar solo!"