INTERVIEW: Garbage Drummer Butch Vig Talks Band’s Sixth Album ‘Strange Little Birds’ & Working With Foo Fighters Again

Bryan “Butch” Vig produced the 90s greatest and most transgressive rock album in Nirvana’s Nevermind. But, when this defining grunge record went from sleeper to crossover phenom on the tail of Smells Like Teen Spirit, Kurt Cobain himself led the backlash, dismissing it as “too slick”. Yet, Vig, a drummer of old, did something even more unpredictable and subversive.

Together with his Madison, Wisconsin muso pals Steve Marker and Duke Erikson, the now super-producer launched the dark pop Garbage – enlisting mercurial Scottish singer Shirley Manson (ex-Angelfish). Influenced by Vig’s foray into remixing, the band created a post-grunge composite – vacuuming up industrial, shoegaze, techno, trip-hop and hip-hop. Garbage were at once commercial and countercultural. And they’ve never lost their credibility. Crucially, they’ve survived the vagaries of the music industry.

Today Garbage’s 1995 eponymous debut is deemed a classic, with ambiguous anthems like Only Happy When It Rains. While Garbage was conceived as a studio project, it developed into a formidable live entity.

The band subsequently recorded a defiant Bond theme, The World Is Not Enough. But, after 2005’s Bleed Like Me, Garbage embarked on an extended hiatus (although they did assemble the ‘greatest hits’ Absolute Garbage). Garbage regrouped for 2012’s Not Your Kind Of People, issued via their own label Stunvolume. Last year they repackaged their debut for its 20th anniversary – and toured it.

Now Garbage are unveiling their sixth album, Strange Little Birds – which, with its urban gothic romance, exudes atmosphere as much as attitude. Pundits are proclaiming it their best since Garbage. “We’re quite chuffed with it,” says a chatty Vig, based in Los Angeles. The lead single, Empty, is trademark Garbage. However, the album’s pinnacle is Even Though Our Love Is Doomed, a beguiling hyper-ballad seemingly fighting its own restraint. It’s also Vig’s favourite. “To me, that’s kinda the heart and centre of Strange Little Birds.”

Vig continues to produce others, having accumulated credits on seminal albums from The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth and Green Day. In later years he’s reconnected with Nirvana’s Dave Grohl, last navigating Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways. Vig cameo-ed in the band’s recent joke video in response to break-up rumours, ‘advising’ Grohl on a new solo career in EDM…

Music Feeds: Strange Little Birds has been heralded as a dark, cinematic album. In fact, the drama and tension on this record recalls your Bond theme – but it’s much more ‘basement’. How did the album evolve?

Butch Vig: Well, initially we started doing all the recording here at my home studio in Silver Lake [called] Grunge Is Dead. They were really loose jams. But Shirley had talked about trying to keep the writing process and the recording more spontaneous and sort of getting back to the mindset that we had on our first record – which was very experimental. So we tried a lot of different things. We switched things up – I’d play bass or guitar and Duke would play drums, or we would all play keyboards on songs – there were no guitars or bass or drums.

Through the process of writing, the songs all kind of evolved around Shirley’s lyrics. She wrote quite spontaneously and didn’t want to go back and second-guess herself. In fact, some of the vocal takes on the record are like just one or two takes. We started to fit the music more around her lyrics and her singing. That’s where we started to take out some of the rock – like live bass, drum and guitars, a lot of that we kinda just took out – and relied more on the atmospheric stuff and a lot of the processed textures that are in the album.

The first track, Sometimes, being what we typically do in Garbage – that’s pretty much how we recorded that song. But then we spent months, and we recorded layer after layer of things, on it – extra keyboards and riffs and I put in live drums… Then, when we mixed it, we took all of that out and left it pretty much how we recorded it – which is very, very minimal. And that set the tone for the record. We just decided we wanted the record to sound more spare and more confrontational and have more space. So, even though we went on this rollercoaster journey, we kinda ended up where we wanted to start.

Your commitment to Garbage is incredible because you could so easily be enjoying a comfortable life as a super-producer – or a professional mentor like Rick Rubin. What is it about this band that you need in your life?

Garbage has kinda been the most perfect artistic vehicle for me that I can imagine – because I can write a song, I can play drums, I can play guitar, I can play keyboards, I can produce, I can engineer, I can go and get the beer and wine or order dinner, I can sit and help design the artwork and the videos and whatever we’re doing… I’m one of four people who all do the same thing. We all wear those different hats on different days.

I’ve produced a lotta other bands where the drummer is just the drummer, that’s all he does, and the bass player is just the bass player… And they all have to find creativity sometimes outside of that band – and a lot of times bands don’t survive because a lot of the members in the band are not finding artistic freedom. I would say Garbage is the perfect vehicle, at least for me and Shirley and Duke and Steve, to do that, because we all have multiple roles – and any of us can do those at any set time in the course of a record or a song or even in a day. So it’s been a great creative force for me to have Garbage in my life.

You don’t mind the touring?

Playing shows is fun – travelling gets hard. It’s very hard. But we’ve played a bunch of shows… We have a pretty solid fanbase out there and I think that’s one of the reasons that we like to keep going and still do it.

How has the dynamic in the band changed over the years?

Well, we didn’t know Shirley on the first record. She came in and started working with Duke and Steve and me, who are best friends. We’d been working in bands together. Through the course of that first record, we realised how important she was to what we were making – the sound that we were coming up with and the songs that we were writing. We quickly realised, with the success of that first record, that Shirley is kinda the MVP. The good thing is all of us share similar sensibilities and, like I said earlier, we share the same workload. We argue a lot.

We’re all very – what’s the right term? – sometimes competitive in terms of a song, how we all think it should go or should sound or what the arrangement should be like or what the feel should be like. We have to deal with listening to each other. And Shirley – you know, people think, Oh, she’s just a singer. She is probably more outspoken than Duke and Steve and me combined – and opinionated. But all four of us are opinionated. It’s how we settle those [different] opinions and how we work through all the input that’s coming in that defines who we are as a band.

People don’t really talk about the electronic influence in Garbage. But you sparked a bit of a digital ‘OMG’ when you spoke about the “mediocrity” in EDM and pop culture. Oddly enough, a lot of the underground figures in electronic music would agree with you. Have you listened to much of the underground electronic music coming out of the US over the years?

You know, when I was going to the University of Wisconsin, where I met Duke and started playing in bands, that’s also where I met Steve, I took four semesters of electronic music. It was electronic music where there were no keyboards. My Professor said, ‘I don’t want any fucking [Wendy Carlos-style] Switched-On Bach.’ So I had to learn how to make sounds with patch chords, with filters and oscillators and Moogs and ARP synthesisers – and you couldn’t play melodies, you had to just make noise.

That was a big influence on me going into producing records – and it’s still an influence on me in Garbage. I love textures and sound and noise. I grew up listening to a lot of experimental music.

Someone sent me a link yesterday: [anonymous US collective] The Residents are back on tour… They have put out an amazing catalogue. They’ve had an amazing career of crazy sort of weird experimental music – and also made some brilliant films. So it’s part of my upbringing – or part of my love of music. I’ve always liked getting noise and electronic music and textures and fucking things up as much as possible into songs.

[But] I have to clarify – even though I said it is very boring in terms of listening to the massive sea of EDM out there, that most of it’s boring, that could be said the same for any style of music out there. It could be for rock ‘n’ roll, it could be for folk music, it could be for hip-hop… We’re inundated with music right now. Most of it is okay, but quite frankly mediocre. You really have to dig deep to find songs or tracks or music that you really, really love.

One band you did namecheck was Wolf Alice. Actually, when I first heard their record My Love Is Cool, I was thinking, This reminds me of Garbage.

They do remind me of Garbage. But we take it as a compliment. If you listen to Garbage, there are a lot of references of other bands that we have brought into our sound. I think [Garbage’s] debut album caught a lot of people by surprise – and then a lot of people started to emulate that, to use hip-hop beats and distorted drums and fuzzy guitars and electronica, and then blend all the things together.

Now everybody can do it. But every now and then I hear a band that sounds a little bit like Garbage. They may not even know who we are. But I think it’s cool – and I know the rest of us do when we hear a band that references us. That’s a cool thing.

Nevermind casts a shadow over even unexpected areas of pop culture. A lot of hip-hop acts have started including Smells Like Teen Spirit in their shows, doing karaoke moshpit versions. The Wu-Tang Clan did the most bizarre rendition here a few months ago. Are you aware that Nevermind, and that era of Nirvana, has this huge cult following in hip-hop?

I’ve heard a few songs every now and then that a hip-hop artist will reference or they’ll drop it into a set. I just wanna give them so much love and respect for that! It’s cool to be part of that culture. Hip-hop basically started from playing music on turntables, so they can play any record they want. If they can rap over a guitar line or a beat or the chords from Teen Spirit, that’s cool.

Music has so cross-pollinated in the last 10 years. When you filter from one style of music into another, I just think that’s really cool. It’s getting some love and respect from maybe a camp that wouldn’t necessarily go to that style of music, but something about that moved them to wanna do that. I’ve just gotta give them a lot of respect for doing that.

Every producer has a work that they’re attached to, but maybe it was overlooked by others. What is yours?

There’s a singer/songwriter who I produced years ago – Freedy Johnston. I worked with him on his second [actually third] record called This Perfect World. He put out a record on an indie label and then got signed to Elektra. I fell in love with his debut record and I wanted to produce him – and I sort of sought him out. This is after I’d done Sonic Youth and Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins.

He’s a singer/songwriter – it’s kind of stripped-down, really bare, minimal, guitar/bass/drums… It’s not rock ‘n’ roll or grunge rock or whatever people associate it with. But I just fell in love with his songwriting so much. I’m still friends with him – and I still think that album that we made, This Perfect World, is phenomenal. The songs are absolutely genius on it.

You’ve often spoken of Garbage’s debut as a touchstone. You toured behind it for the 20th anniversary last year. What was it like revisiting that? How do you fight against nostalgia generally – because you’re not a nostalgic figure?

We wanted to go out and celebrate 20 years of being a band together. We made a conscious decision, We’re gonna play 30 shows for our 20th anniversary, we’ll pick 30 cities and play – and that’s it. We’re not gonna go and keep doing that over and over and over again. We had to go back and relearn all the songs from the first record – some we obviously still play, like Only Happy When It Rains and Stupid Girl, ’cause they’ve been in our set for 20 years.

But we had to learn the entire album – plus we learned all the B-sides, and some of them we never played back then. I think for us, and for our fans, those gigs we did for the 20th was a great celebration – ’cause we just knew, This is gonna be fun and people who are really, really into that part of the band are gonna be there. All the shows were sold-out – and it was just a really special tour. But that was it.

We don’t really wanna go back and relive that. We have a new album coming out that we’re focussed on – and we’re already talking about another album after this! We actually have a few songs ideas for another album. But I need to put that on the block right now. We need to keep concentrating on Strange Little Birds at the moment.

You were last here with Garbage in 2013 for Soundwave. People are anxious to know if you plan to come back to Australia.

We’ve been to Australia every album that we’ve put out, so we’re planning on making it down there – either late this year or early next year. We haven’t figured exactly when that is yet… But we have to make it down there. We have a love affair with Australia – Mushroom was the first label we signed with.

As I said, we’ve been down there for every tour and we’ve had amazing shows down there. It’s kinda like a holiday for us to go down there – even though it’s a damn long flight from the US to Australia. But it’s very close to our hearts to come down there and play. So we will definitely be down there at some point during this tour.

There’s been a lot of speculation about you working with Dave Grohl again on another Foo Fighters album. What can you say?

I don’t really have any plans at the moment other than just to focus on Garbage. I have talked to Dave on and off a little bit, but he is kinda being low-key. I mean, they had such a hardcore year last year with their tour and he broke his leg. I was actually on tour with Garbage in the fall and Dave was on tour and we would text each other.

He just texted me one day and said, ‘I am toast – I need to go home and stop and just recuperate, I need to go dark for a while.’ I know for a fact that he’s been writing some songs, but I haven’t heard any plans or anything they’re doing right now. They’re still under the radar. So that’s all I know.

Garbage’s new album Strange Little Birds is out June 10, grab a copy here.

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