In Conversation with Garbage’s Butch Vig - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Garbage | photo courtesy of the artist

Garbage have had a lot of ups and downs over their twenty-plus years together. Through it all, however, they’ve consistently managed to produce pristine, propulsive pop-rock hybrids that sounds as thrilling and just ahead of the curve now as they did on their self-titled introduction to the world back in 1995.

Their current album, Strange Little Birds, is already being heralded in many circles as their best album since then, and not without good reason. Over its eleven tracks, the band’s signature sound stretches and sprawls with a playfulness and precision they haven’t shown in over a decade. We’ll get to see how it stretches out live too when they play The Fillmore this Saturday night.

Alas, drummer and co-founder Butch Vig will not be in attendance. Grounded from flight on doctor’s orders after a bout of sinusitis, this freed him up for a chat about the new album, how the band fits into the musical landscape of today, and what’s kept them band together all of these years…

The Key: A lot of talk surrounding Strange Little Birds is how it’s something of a spiritual successor to your debut. What motivated that return to basics and sense of experimentation?

Butch Vig: I think when we came back from our hiatus in 2012 to record Not Your Kind of People, we were totally revitalized by making that record. Then we went on tour and I think we played some of our best shows ever. We really reconnected with our fans, who are amazing. I think we felt really free.

We’re signed to our own label now, STUNVOLUME. We can kind of do what we want to do. We’re not trying to get played on Top 40 radio. We don’t have label people telling us what they think is cool. We realized that we’re not going to compete with the “hipster of the month” bands. We are Garbage. We have a sound, for better or for worse, and I think we really embraced that and felt freed by it.

It put us in this position where we could really experiment and get into that beginner’s headspace.  We took some of the rock out and added more atmospheric sounds, and moments in the arrangements that were quite startling and cinematic. It just made sense as we started working on the songs because the sounds matched Shirley’s lyrics, which were really quite dark.

TK: I noticed a lot more vulnerability in the lyrics this time.

BV: Yeah, she wanted to write from a very spontaneous point of view and not overanalyze it or redo it. We’ve certainly done that with a lot of tracks in the past. We can get incredibly meticulous and sometimes overdo things. On this record, we tried to leave first takes and our first impressions. I think you can here that, more vulnerability and immediacy.

There are still some that sound like “classic” Garbage. “Empty” is a very thick song, but Shirley’s singing was done very quickly, so I think there’s a very emotional feel to it.

TK: It’s funny the way you mention certain songs sounding like the older stuff because your catalog still sounds very current now. It weirdly predicted a lot of ways music went both on the radio and beyond. Did you ever expect your sound and legacy to endure like it has?

BV: No, not really (laughs). Part of the reason we made our debut record was kind of a reaction to all of the rock records we made. I was kind of burned out on guitars, bass and drums. So we started using samplers on a lot of the first record and that really helped to define our sound on that one with electronica, hip-hop beats and film score moments. Fuzzy pop melodies over scrappy guitars. We were one of the first bands to blend all of those elements together, and we’ve always done that.

Now I hear that in a lot of different productions and I think that’s totally cool. Whenever a band sounds like Garbage, we give our blessings. We will always sound like ourselves. I think that comes down to the sensibilities that all of us share- what we like sonically, how we can play our instruments. We also share similar world views on art, culture and politics. I think that all comes across. I think we’re lucky that we share those things. It’s why we’re still here.

TK: I can totally hear that. There’s a palpable chemistry between all of you both on record and on stage. How has the dynamic of the group evolved over all of these years?

BV: Well I think we’re in a much better place now then we were when we finished our fourth record, Bleed Like Me. We were really burned out from making four records in a row and doing four long tours. We all needed to go back to own personal lives and recapture those. We were on hiatus for seven years. None of us knew how long it would be but I think we really needed that time off.

Then we got back together after starting our own label. I think that charting our own course like that is one of the things that has helped us. It created a wider palette for us to make music from, because I’m not just a drummer. I’m an engineer, a producer, a songwriter. I play guitar, bass, and keyboards. All four of us share those same roles and flip them constantly. We just have a lot more opportunities to be creative every day and I think that’s why we still love writing together. We never know where a song is going to go now.

TK: You mentioned being a producer. You of course have a pretty impressive resume in that arena. How has your time in Garbage made you a better producer outside of the band? What have you learned that you apply when working with other artists?

BV: Well I learn something different every time I walk into a studio, whether it’s with Garbage or the Foo Fighters or Green Day or Against Me! or whoever. I think that’s one of the reasons I love going into the studio. I’m a total nerd when it comes to audio gear. I devour music documentaries. We actually just finished one about SMART Studios, a studio I had back in Madison. That’s coming out this fall.

Even now, I’m sitting in my studio surrounded by all of these gear books and magazine. I’m just constantly fascinated by that. I think that has been a plus for me, to be studio nerd in addition to being willing to sit down and write a song. I’ve shared those roles my whole life. There are things and ideas that I’ve started in Garbage that I might take into the studio with Green Day, and vice versa. I’ve learned things from so many of the bands I’ve worked with, from Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth and the Foos. To me, it’s all cross-pollinated.

TK: You guys also celebrated your 20th anniversary as a band last year and celebrated with the 20 Years Queer Tour. What was it like revisiting all of the older songs that you hadn’t played in years, particularly with the mindset that you all have now with the new music?

BV: That tour was pretty amazing. We gave ourselves about three weeks to rehearse. We obviously still play some of those songs today but we had nine or ten B-sides that we had to re-learn because we only played a couple back when we first started. It was challenging but ended up being a lot of fun live.

Even our oddest B-side, “Alien Sex Fiend,” we used as an intro each night over footage from an old camera that I used to carry around on tour. It was great but I’m glad we don’t have to do some of those tracks anymore. I love “Subhuman” but I’m happy to put that to bed live.

TK: Speaking of touring, I’m sorry we won’t get to see you in Philly this time. I know you have come a number of times in the past. Any particular fond Philly memories or shows that come to mind?

BV: Well I always love coming to Philly. The fans are great and rowdy. A good friend of mine is from there so I’ve spent a lot of time there. Plus I’m a big football fan and love the hardcore Eagles fans. I remember a lot of the anomalies from when we play a really good show. I remember going out to a late night club after a show at I believe it was the Tower Theater. We went to a big after party with some fans we were wandering around with and then got Philly cheesesteaks at 5 in the morning after one too many cocktails. It was just one of those crazy nights out. I paid for it dearly the next day (laughs).

TK: That’s how you know you had fun!

BV: Yeah it was a wild night. Good times.

Garbage performs at The Fillmore Philadelphia on Saturday, July 30th. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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