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Getting dirty with Garbage

Web posted on: Monday, October 26, 1998 12:14:49 PM

By Donna Freydkin
Special to CNN Interactive

(CNN) -- Two men who should know better stare with dazed rapture at a tiny woman with pale, pale skin, crimson lips and blazing red hair pulled back in a ponytail, curled up in a chair and sipping coffee in the lobby of an anonymous business hotel on the outskirts of Atlanta. Dressed in gray sweat pants, white T-shirt and sneakers, she seems as nameless and aloof as the tourists checking in at the front desk.

The first guy looks at his friend and dramatically whispers: "That's Shirley Manson, from Garbage." The second, himself the embodiment of pure subtlety, stares and gushes, "I know. No way."

Manson remains oblivious, chatting with a friend and chortling loudly at a shared joke. Another bystander tentatively exclaims, "Hello, Ms. Manson," and she flips around, surprised, and quietly says hello in her irresistible Scottish brogue. He grins foolishly. Unbeknownst to her, she's just made his week.

Such is the reaction of us commoners to the sensual, swaggering mouthpiece fronting Garbage, the band created some four years ago on the whim of super-producer Butch Vig and two of his college buddies and fellow studio whizzes.

"That's Shirley, tough and vulnerable. She's the real thing," says Vig of his outspoken vocalist.

The same can be said about her band.


Noise experiment gone right

When producer extraordinaire Vig, whose credits include groundbreaking albums such as Nirvana's "Nevermind" and Sonic Youth's "Dirty," and two of his studiomates formed a band in 1994 in Wisconsin, they never thought they'd get to the Billboard 200, much less heavy rotation on MTV.

The band was almost a lark, an experiment, its inception spontaneous and its future unsure. The name, based on a friend's disparaging comment about one of Vig's remixes, illustrated the self-deprecating nature of the venture. Even Manson, a fiery singer imported from Scotland, hated the name at first, says Vig, who is the personification of the consummate rock star: lanky, goateed and clad in all-black.

"We had no intention of it being a full-time band or of even touring. We just thought, let's make a cool, interesting record," says Vig.

Fortunately, it didn't quite work out that way.

The band's eponymous release was inordinately successful, due in no small part to radio's infatuation with songs such as "Queer" and "Stupid Girl." Fueled by four modern rock smashes and a trio of top 40 hits, the slick, critically acclaimed first album occupied the Billboard 200 for 81 weeks and garnered three Grammy nominations. It has sold some four million copies to date.

Vig insists that the band never anticipated the incredible success of its self-titled album. Garbage's hectic work pace and constant touring kept the four engrossed and somewhat oblivious to the industry buzz. Until, of course, what Vig calls the band's defining moment, jetting to London with the Smashing Pumpkins on a plush plane leased from the Chicago Bulls to play at the European MTV Video Music Awards.

"We looked at each other and thought, 'We're doing pretty well,'" he recalls.

'Version 2.0' a natural progression

On the heels of the phenomenal success of their first album, the foursome is on its North American tour to support the new release. Aptly named "Version 2.0," the second album is a throbbing, gyrating cyber-pop concoction with clever, biting lyrics and intricately layered rhythms.

"Version 2.0" is what every great second release should be -- an enhancement to, not a departure from, Garbage's triumphant first album. Seamlessly hectic, crushingly smooth, "Version 2.0" is an intoxicating amalgamation of witty, irresistible pop tunes that defy easy classification.

A fusion of high-tech and traditional, electronica and piano, "Version 2.0" is an album Vig describes as a natural progression of the first release.

"We didn't want to reinvent ourselves with the new album. We felt that we had carved our own turf on the first record and we wanted to take everything we did and make it better," says Vig of "Version 2.0."

Four years after their first foray into the studio as a group, the foursome sounds tighter and much more unified. Unlike the first album, which was already under construction when Manson joined the band, "Version 2.0" was created collectively from the start.

At their Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, Vig, guitarist Duke Erikson, bassist Steve Marker and Manson holed up in their studio for a full year, tinkering with tracks and toying with lyrics. The end result is phenomenal, and Vig credits Manson's involvement for much of the album's synthesis.

"The biggest thing to me is that ['Version 2.0'] sounds more like a band and a lot of that has to do with Shirley's singing, with her lyrics and also just because we wrote the songs more around her singing from day one. Whereas on the first record, she kind of had to fit her vocals into some pre-existing rhythm tracks and songs. This time almost all the songs started with her," says Vig.

Generating a follow-up album to the unexpected and staggering success of the first one was a matter of hard studio labor, marked by industry pressure and self-doubt. Isolation from the record company and music scene was key, says Vig, enabling Garbage to focus on its own creation.

As that old cliché goes, you have your entire life to write your first album and six months to craft your second one. Garbage took an entire year, which equals almost a decade in music industry time.

"I think because the first record caught people off-guard, there were certain expectations that were set up for this record and everybody kept saying it's going to be huge, it's going to be massive. And we hadn't even written a song yet," says Vig.

Band of 'self-loathing and self-deprecation'

The band has worked almost nonstop since releasing its acclaimed first album, only taking six weeks off between releases to recuperate. Nevertheless, the band members remain tight and keep each other grounded, says Vig.

"I think we're too pragmatic and we're just too grounded to get caught up in the whole [showbiz ego] thing. Plus, there's a lot of self-loathing and self-deprecation in the band, so we don't let ourselves get high and mighty. We knock each other down if someone gets that way," he laughs.

Both Vig and Manson are exceedingly pleasant and approachable in person. The entire band patiently makes the circuit of record signings, media interviews and radio shows.

"We realize it's a very competitive world out there and in order to connect with our audience, we can't take it for granted," says the drummer. "We know we still have to work very hard."

Vig asserts that Garbage, an unpremeditated band with a fluid future, has no concrete plans and certainly no lofty aspirations. All the band members are film buffs, so scoring a movie soundtrack is a possibility, as is a third album, which Vig believes would be sonically different from the first two.

"We never had any kind of long-term plan. We're very much of the moment," he says, adding that he would like to produce again at some undefined point.

The band's rabid fans, some 600 of whom turned out for a local record signing the night before the Atlanta show, certainly believe in Garbage's staying power. But the band, clearly throbbing to its own noise, eschews long-term commitments or profound prophecies.

Perhaps Manson croons it best in the first song on "Version 2.0.": "I like to keep you guessing."

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