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Interview: Butch Vig of Garbage

For the techno-inspired rock band Garbage, recording the new album "Bleed Like Me" was therapeutic.

In 2003, the members of the Madison, WI, quartet--singer Shirley Manson, guitarist Steve Marker, bassist/keyboardist Duke Erikson and drummer (and former Nirvana producer) Butch Vig--separated and, by some accounts, called it quits before regrouping to make the new set.

"Looking back on it, all four of us needed to sort of bottom out and determine if going forward was important to us," said Vig, calling from a Madison hotel room.

"I think it was sort of a wake-up call. We had to put aside our personal differences and egos and try to get back in the room and talk about music, which is what we did when we first started out."

Almost six months later, in early 2004, the band reconvened, this time with a more aggressive and guitar-based sound than on its previous recordings, 1995's "Garbage," 1998's "Version 2.0" and 2001's "Beautiful Garbage." That inspired Vig to mix "Bleed Like Me" without the synthesizers and electronics that were so prominent on the band's earlier albums.

SoundSpike: How are rehearsals going so far?

Butch Vig: Pretty good. We're still getting our sea legs back. We haven't been on stage for almost three years. It's just one of those things like riding a bike, but you have to ride it a ways before you feel comfortable again. It's an aggressive record and the songs sound great. All the new stuff sounds great. It's really translated well to the stage.

I understand that "Bleed Like Me" was a difficult album to make.

They've all been tough in different ways. This one almost broke us. The band broke up in the middle of it. I thought it was over at that point.

What brought the band back together

For me, when I walked away from the band in October 2003--we had been recording about six months then--I was miserable because everyone in the band was miserable. We weren't communicating. We were arguing about everything. We couldn't agree on songs. I kind of feel like it got to the point where it was not worth it for us to keep going. We would physically be ill in the room with each other.

I went home and, on the plane back to L.A., I thought, "That's it. We're not getting back together." I felt like this whole burden had been lifted, this monkey on my back. I was like, "I have a life now, I'm no longer in the 'Garbage zone.'" I didn't listen to any contemporary music. I didn't take on any projects. I just I tinkered around my house for two months. I listened to jazz and Spanish folk music. It was right before Christmas that a couple things happened. I was shopping and these kids came into the mall and said, "Hey Butch Vig. We love you guys. We love Garbage. I can't wait to hear the new record." I didn't have the heart to tell him, "I'm sorry to tell you but there won't be another record." Instead, I jumped right back into where I had been six months earlier and said, "We have this song 'Bad Boyfriend' we're working on. It's got a great, sexy swagger. We have this song 'Run Baby Run.' We don't have a verse yet but the chorus is really strong." I forgot about all the bulls--- that had happened between us, and I started thinking about positive things about the band.

The next day I went to a Christmas party and I ran into Dave Grohl [of Foo Fighters]. He said, "How's the Garbage record?" I started to say, "It's been kind of tough." I didn't really know what to say. All of a sudden I said, "Dave, you're going to play drums on a Garbage track." He said, "Sure dude, no problem."

In January [2004], we started talking on the phone. We decided to come back and start in L.A. versus going back to Madison, just to try something different. We decided, too, to work with John King, who collaborated on couple songs. He's one half of the Dust Brothers. It was good because it got us in a room with an outside person. So, one, we were civil to each other because we didn't want to embarrass anyone by arguing. Also, I think it made us toughen up as a band. We kind of realized no one's ever produced us but ourselves. We got one track out of the sessions with John, "Bad Boyfriend." Then we went back to Madison, and everyone started with a clean slate. We came up with a whole slew of songs in the first week--"Boys Wanna Fight," "Metal Heart." Shirley wrote the lyrics to "Sex is Not the Enemy" and "Bleed Like Me." I think she had been struggling with writer's block and was uninspired in 2003. Suddenly words started pouring out of her. Because we almost lost the band, there was a certain sense of desperation when we got back in the studio. Duke and Steve really upped the ante with their guitar playing. Shirley's lyrics got much more topical socially and politically.

How are things now between all the band members?

The vibe, I must say now, is great between us. We still argue about things. By finishing the record, the black cloud has been lifted off the band. I think some of it was a hangover effect from "Beautiful Garbage." That was a tough tour physically because the record didn't do well here. It came out the same week as Sept. 11, and it sort of disappeared. I think we just felt like we had a lot of bulls--- we had to get off our back. We eventually did. In April 2004, we started with a clean slate, and here we are.

What was it like to work with John King after having not worked with a producer?

He's an amazing producer. He's much like us, in a way, where he's kind of a tech geek. He has samplers and old vintage equipment and stuff. It was kind of inspirational. He was always looking for interesting sounds. That's how we start out in this band. I think, as I said earlier, we realized the only person to produce Garbage is Garbage. The four of us in the band are so opinionated. It's hard to have someone else tell us what to do.

What did Dave Grohl bring to the band?

We had been working on "Bad Boyfriend," and it was a different version. It was slower and a little heavier, and Dave came in and played drums so the track got much more aggressive, harder sounding. He brought a whole different vibe and energy level to it. That pushed Duke and Steve to really up their guitar playing, so it was much more frenetic sounding. That was one of the first songs that we finished. We did the basic tracks with John in L.A. and we brought them back to Smart Studios [in Madison] and finished the songs. That was one of the first ones we completed. Once that was done, all these new songs--"Boys Wanna Fight," "Metal Heart," "Why Don't You Come Over"--they all got a lot more energized at that point. We also, at that point, wanted to make a record more like [how we play] on stage. When I mixed the record, I left out a lot of electronica and sampling and loops. It's still in there a little bit but a lot less than on the previous two records. I really wanted the guitars and the drums to be in the forefront, with Shirley singing.

That's the first thing I noticed when I listened to "Bleed Like Me." I was wondering if it was more of a conscious effort.

We just kind of felt like what we wanted this record to sound more primal and less clever, if that's even the right word to say. I love being in the studio. I can sit for hours working on the most miniscule, detailed sound that most people won't even hear. I consciously tried to avoid doing that on this album. There's still a little bit of it here and there. But, for the most part, it's really a loud guitar record.

What is the songwriting process with Garbage?

Songs happen two ways. We either jam in the studio with nothing and start making s--- up, and then Shirley will start singing scratch lyrics or might have some lyrics in the computer or in a notebook or she might make something up on the spot. We'll record a bunch of things. I'll come in the next day and I'll go through and listen to it--"Oh, this sounds like it could be a verse. This could be a chorus." We'll cut bits and pieces together to see if it starts to become even a semblance of a song. If it does, then we take that and keep working on it. Over time, it might actually develop into a song. About five of the songs kind of came that way.

The other way is someone will bring in an idea. I brought in "Bleed Like Me." I actually came up with that title and it had that little, acoustic-guitar riff at the start. I played it for the band. Initially, there was not much of a response. Then Shirley came in one day and said, "I got some lyrics," and we sort of took it and built it, started making the song more orchestral in spots. I have to say, I think it's one of our best songs. It's really special in a sense that Shirley's voice sounds amazing. And there's five little stories, five little vignettes about the people, in the song. It's all people she knows. It's all real. I think that has taken on some significance for us. I think that's why we wanted to name the record after a song, which is the first time we've done that. All the suffering we put ourselves through seemed appropriate. That's the other way we write songs.

Have you done much producing outside of Garbage the last couple years?

Not a whole lot. I worked with this hip-hop singer Jessy Moss, an Australian woman. I did four tracks on her record. I don't know if it's coming out. It was on DreamWorks that got bought by Geffen and they kind of dissolved the label. I did some work with AFI, this band. We did a couple tracks together. Garbage takes up too much of my time to devote three or four months in the studio with another band.

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