Garbage’s Butch Vig | “I Get Emotional”

“Shirley Manson just has such an amazing voice, and that’s a reason why we can do different things with the music.”

Photo by Joseph Cultice
Photo by Joseph Cultice

I had the honor of interviewing Butch Vig, known to most as the drummer for the band Garbage. However, he is also well known for his role as producer of many influential albums, chief among them Nirvana’s Nevermind. He has worked with countless other artists, including, Foo Fighters, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Green Day.

So the new album—I just have to tell you I love it so much. I find that Garbage has their own sound that nobody can mimic, and with this album I really find myself thinking of some of the older Garbage albums. Do you feel that is at all accurate?

I think that our new record sounds much like our first album. Even though texturally they’re quite different, there’s something about the vibe in it that feels similar to me. It’s probably not the experimental aspect we took on Strange Little Birds, but it’s really prevalent on our debut album. We do have a sound and I don’t usually know how to describe what that sound is. Part of that is held together by Shirley Manson. She just has such an amazing voice, and that’s a reason why we can do different things with the music. Shirley allows us to hold it all together; she’s the glue, really. But we share a sensibility between the four of us and I guess that’s what comes across in the melodic ideas, the sound textures, and the feel of the grooves. It’s hard for me to define what that is, but when you hear Garbage songs, for better or for worse, you know it’s us.

You really can. I always like to ask how bands come up with name for their albums. I know that the song “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed” mentions “strange little birds,” but how did you ultimately decide on that title?

vigWell, Shirley—I think she felt like it was a good line that referenced a lot of things. It referenced the songs on this album, which we feel are a little left field for us. I think it refers to us as a band. We all felt like we never quite fit in, that we were alternative-rockers-meets-ultra-rock, whatever that is. And I think that also it speaks to our fans, because our fan base might feel like they’re out of left field. At least for us it works out on all sorts of levels.

I love all the songs, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be “Amends.” Can you tell me the story or thought process behind this song?

Pretty much all of the songs were written, and then usually the recording was done here at my home studio in Silver Lake, which is very casual; it’s not really a studio. It’s like a bedroom with a ProTools setup and a piano and some drums, a couple guitars and amps. Then we jammed and it was very freeform. Then Shirley came up with these words and stops in the middle of nowhere—strumming the guitar. We didn’t really know what to do with it, and then we started layering different textures. It’s not really a verse-chorus-verse-chorus pop song; it just has all these different textures and kind of builds. Then Shirley changed the melody to what’s on the final record. She wrote all these lyrics and it’s a very personal song for her. It comes from the heart when she sings it. She’s the glue that really ties that arrangement together, because it’s a very powerful arrangement. That’s why I think it works, because her voice is kind of—I kind of get emotional.

What is one thing you could tell me about yourself that fans might not know?

I don’t have very many hobbies. I pretty much listen to music and work on music every day of my adult life—although I am a Green Bay Packers fan and most of my close friends know that.

I know Garbage formed in Madison, Wisconsin. How did you all meet?

For a long time, we started playing in bands together when I was in college. I went to the University of Wisconsin and that’s where I also met Steve [Marker: guitar, keyboards]. We started playing in bands and Steve was our roadie and started working for us. Steve and I started messing around, recording in his basement where we wrote. We eventually built a studio, and that’s where a lot of our old bands started producing and rehearsing full-time. That was in 1984, and I had a whole crazy career which just took off in the production world professionally, working with Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana in mainstream.

Some fans may not know you were the producer behind Nirvana’s Nevermind. What projects do you have going on or now, what is the most recent one you’ve had as a producer?

garbage-slbThe Garbage record: We just finished it in March and we were recording in February of this year. I spent most of last year working on that, and before that I was heavily involved with the Foo Fighters. I worked on Sonic Highways, which was just an incredible experience. I worked with a new band for a while, but we’re right in the middle of Garbage at this point so I’ve just been trying to focus on that.

I think that I’m very lucky to make so many records that have gotten great critical acclaim, as well as commercial acclaim. I, like most artists, like to keep moving ahead, and when I finish a project I pretty much just jump into another project and keep going. I never really sit around and put my records on and say, “Man that sounds good.” But I do think some of the records I made still sound really fresh, and they are reminders that I’ve done a lot of records over the course of my career but I just keep moving forward.

Who is the prankster or the clown of the group?

Duke [Erikson: bass guitar, keyboards, guitar]. Duke is very funny and he’s very witty and very good with one liners. He’s a good mimic and he keeps us laughing constantly.

When you get to a town, what is a typical day like before you get to the venue? Do you guys go out and do stuff in the town or do you just hang out?

It depends if we have a day off. We like to go to good restaurants if we get in the night or day before and have that day off go out. If we play the night before, we drive and get there around 6 a.m. check into the hotel and try to sleep for four or five hours, and then try to find a good place to go out for lunch. You can’t always go out to a super nice restaurant because it’s just not practical. If we have a night off somewhere, we usually have a list of some of the popular restaurants and try to go somewhere and check it out.

We usually get to the venue around 4 o’clock, and sometimes before that we end up doing press in the town. We might go to a radio station and do an interview. Once we get to the venue, we usually hang around and do a sound check, then we play music backstage. We’re pretty close as a band so we enjoy each other’s company. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re still here after so many years. We rock out for a couple hours.

Do you personally, or the band as a whole, have any pre-concert rituals?

We listen to music and I start warming up about an hour beforehand. I usually get out a pair of drumsticks and start stretching and loosening, playing just to kind of loosen my arms and wrists out. Really, a lot of it is just music. We just play a lot of quite interesting mixtapes backstage: punk rock, ’60s style; could be hip-hop or crazy electronic music. Whatever we’re feeling that day we’ll put on to listen before a show.

Why should our readers come out to see Garbage on tour?

Well, I think our new record sounds pretty amazing, if I do say so myself; we’re going to be playing a bunch of songs from that, as well as our other albums. I think we play pretty well as a band, and Shirley Manson is on fire with her dynamic of singing; she’s a charismatic stage person. If you’ve never seen us before, you should definitely come out and see us—and if you have, then you know why you should come out and see us!

Garbage plays at The Pageant in St. Louis on July 12. Full U.S. dates are as follows; more information is available on the band’s website.

07.06 | Summerfest, Milwaukee, WI
07.07 | Skyway Theatre, Minneapolis, MN
07.08 | SumTur Amphitheatre, Omaha, NE
07.10 | Uptown Theatre, Kansas City, MO
07.12 | The Pageant, Saint Louis, MO
07.13 | Z104.5 The Edge 21st Birthday, Tulsa, OK
07.15 | Egyptian Room, Indianapolis, IN
07.16 | The Fillmore, Detroit, MI
07.17 | Promo West Fest, Columbus, OH
07.19 | The Mill and Mine, Knoxville, TN
07.20 | Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN
07.22 | Tabernacle, Atlanta, GA
07.23 | Fillmore, Charlotte, NC
07.25 | The National, Richmond, VA
07.27 | Starland Ballroom, Sayerville, NJ
07.28 | House of Blues, Boston, MA
07.30 | The Fillmore, Philadelphia, PA
07.31 | Rams Head Live, Baltimore, MD
08.01 | Summerstage, New York, NY
08.03 | The Lincoln Theater, Washington, DC

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