Scotland's trashiest princess

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By Gary Graff  

There was a kind of hipster cache to Garbage when the group first formed in 1993 in Madison, Wisconsin. Liner notes readers knew Butch Vig's name from the prominent albums he had already produced, most notably Nirvana's Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream.

Fans of MTV's 120 Minutes might have seen Scottish singer Shirley Manson performing "Suffocate Me" with her band, Angelfish. Duke Erickson and Steve Marker, meanwhile, had worked with Vig in indie bands such as Firetown and Spooner. This unlikely combination quickly became a winning one, however, when the group's self-titled 1995 debut made the Top 20 and unleashed such hits as "Stupid Girl," "Crush," "Queer," and "Only Happy When it Rains" on its way to double-platinum sales.

Version 2.0 was another winner in 1998, with the hits "Push It" and "Special." Based on its pop succcesses, Garbage was also tapped to record the theme song to the 1999 James Bond movie, The World is Not Enough. But Garbage's third album, beautifulgarbage, fell on hard times -- partly owing to an ill-fated release date on September 11, 2001. The group nearly broke up shortly thereafter, but eventually came together for 2005's Bleed Like Me, which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart in its first week of release, giving Garbage its first ever Top 10 album -- and a new lease on life, with some assistance from John King of the Dust Brothers and Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana.

Q: When you started Garbage, did you see it as a going concern or a one-off?

Butch Vig: Oh, I definitely thought it was a one-off thing. I had no desire to be in a band full-time. But it was like the snowball that kept rolling down the hill and turned into an avalanche. I have no regrets, it's been an amazing, fantastic ride with the band, and making records is always challenging, just the way we work. The success that we've had has allowed me to travel all over the world and go to places and play concerts that I probably never would have seen if it wasn't for the band.

Q: What's the difference between Garbage now and when the group formed?

Shirley Manson: Just time and confidence and a true sort of growth as friends and bandmates. On the first record, when we first came together, I didn't know them from Adam. They literally were strangers to me, as I was to them. I was also not very confident as a singer. I'd never really sung before, and I'd never written before. My first forays into singing and writing were on the first album, which was really scary and intimidating for me. By the time we made the second record, we were really quite close. We toured for twenty months nonstop and we just became more in tune with each other and developed a lot of self-confidence and an easier rapport.

Q: What are the pluses and minuses of this group?

Manson: It can be very frustrating, just the way things are when you're in a band. You have to move at the group's pace. You have to learn to make certain compromises, which can be very frustrating but at the same time very rewarding. There's a sense of kinship, even if a lot of times you want to kick people in the ass. But it's an amazing job. I wouldn't swap it for anything in the world.

Q: But is it true that Garbage effectively broke up in 2003, when you started making Bleed Like Me?

Vig: Yeah, it did. I felt like I couldn't do it anymore, and I needed to go home and just stop. When I got on that plane [in October 2003] and flew back to L.A., I thought the band was over. It took me a while to kind of get a perspective and realize that the band is still very important to me, and I kind of felt like we had unfinished business, and if we could put aside all our differences and agree on what direction the record was going to go in, that we could make a good record.

Q: Is this a band that has, or had, trouble communicating?

Manson: I'm a big mouth. I say things. I'm brutally honest. That has gotten me in a lot of trouble in the past but also has gotten me out of a lot of trouble, too.

Vig: I think Shirley didn't feel enthusiastic about the new songs and was having a hard time writing lyrics. We'd gotten to the point where we would bring in song ideas and nobody would even talk to each other about it, that's how bad it had gotten. Duke would bring in something and nobody would comment on it, or I might comment on it but Shirley and Steve wouldn't say anything, or Shirley would bring in something and Duke and Steve wouldn't say anything. It was almost necessary for us to bottom out in order to fix it. We probably should've hired Metallica's therapist. (laughs)

Q: How did you bring it back together?

Vig: We started talking on the phone. I didn't want to go back to Madison and pick up where we left off. We wanted to try some different things, and so we ended up talking to some different producers and remixers. That sort of turned the corner for us. Bottoming out like that, I think, sort of cleared the air and made all of us realize either we step it up a little bit and get focused with each other or that's it. So everybody did. We made a pretty miraculous comeback, I think.

Q: Your "therapy" was working briefly with John King from the Dust Brothers. What was it like letting someone else into the creative process of Garbage?

Vig: It forced us to get into a room together, for starters, and having another person in there made us tighter as a band. It kind of gave us an 'us against the world' mentality, because we've never worked with anybody outside of the four of us. It also kicked me in the butt a little, like, 'Wait a minute, we know what we're doing, we know how to make a Garbage record...' And it made me realize I was the one who had to pick up the reins of the horse and start steering the buggy again. It was good to get that sort of wake-up call.

Q: What directions would you like to take in the future?

Vig: I have a tendency to like Shirl's voice when she sings really low and intimate. Over the years we've been talking about doing what we call a "bummer" record, which would be quiet, moody, dark songs, sort of Leonard Cohen style. We'd like to try to make the ultimate bummer record. (laughs) It'd probably be commercial suicide, but I think that's something that, as a band, we're interested in doing. So I guess we'll see.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.