Interview by Mark Bayross
Having released their third album BEAUTIFULGARBAGE to critical acclaim, the band are currently engaged in a massive world tour playing six, sometimes seven, nights a week until June. I was lucky enough to meet the band at a small press gathering before the first show of a UK tour culminating in two consecutive London shows, one at Brixton Academy and the other at the Hackney Ocean as part of MTV’s “Five Night Stand”.
The whole band was present, but the morning’s interviews were running behind schedule, so we were forewarned that Shirley Manson had to leave early. Nonetheless, this was a rare opportunity to talk to a world-class band face to face, not to mention one of the most respected and experienced producers in the business.
You are about to begin on the UK leg of your tour and have a fairly gruelling schedule ahead. How have you adjusted to it?
BUTCH VIG: It’s something that’s never really easy to adjust to, with all the sleep deprivation, but once we take the stage every night…that’s what we’re here for – that shot of adrenaline every night. That’s what we’re looking forward to…that’ll sustain us for quite a while.
STEVE MARKER: We’d much rather be playing a show than doing interviews or any of the other crap we do that’s not so much fun… [laughs] But it really is all about playing the shows…
How do you feel about playing the new material to some audiences for the first time?
BUTCH VIG: It’s great for us.
SHIRLEY MANSON: Yeah, we’re really excited… We wrote of the new material all in a room together so translating the new songs live is easier than with the past two albums. We’ve been touring so much that we don’t have much fear of playing these songs live. We’re playing the best shows of our career so far. We’re just looking forward to getting out there and playing for our fans who’ve shown enormous loyalty and support.
Shirley, you’ve done some modelling for Calvin Klein. Would you consider doing that again in the future?
SHIRLEY MANSON: Absolutely not, no. I didn’t really involve myself with the Calvin Klein thing for traditional modelling reasons, it was in fact quite the opposite. The reason I got involved was that the Calvin Klein campaign was trying to fight against the traditional stereotyping of women and glamour. I liked that fact that he was taking people who were not necessarily known for their good looks and portraying them as attractive people because of what they do and who they are. So it was people like me and Moby and Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth.
How about the rest of you…?
BUTCH VIG: Yeah, Calvin Klein underwear, baby…! (laughs)
SHIRLEY MANSON: Ugh… Can you imagine…?!! [laughs]
How important do you think image is now in music?
SHIRLEY MANSON: I think it’s, unfortunately, incredibly important. We’re living in a media-saturated and controlled state and to ignore the fact that the majority of people do take you on a surface basis is pure folly. You have to keep it at the back of your mind – I don’t think that should be the most important thing – but you have to keep it in mind. You have to be smart, because to go out there innocently believing “it’s all about music, man” is really rather naïve. Otherwise, if that were the case, some of the great bands that are languishing at the bottom of the charts would be at the top and vice-versa.
Do you think a lot of bands are sold on their image?
SHIRLEY MANSON: I don’t think that’s the case a hundred percent of the time. A lot of bands do well without an image; but that no-image itself is an image, know what I mean? I think for the majority, no, I don’t think image can get you anywhere, but if it’s coupled with other determinates then it helps.
Have you had more of an influence on the packaging as well as the music, because it seems to have become very female?
SHIRLEY MANSON: I think we’ve always had a combination. We all work together on everything. I’m a dominant girl so to try and remove me from the equation is a joke; it’s not going to happen… But everything we do is a collective struggle [laughs]. I don’t think it’s necessarily female, I just don’t think it’s particularly male. It’s always been a combination – with the first album, we wanted to pick feathers because we thought that was a great dichotomy with the word “garbage”. Everyone was saying, “you should have steel or bits of garbage”, but we were like, “no, we want something fun”, something that’s a complete contrast.
BUTCH VIG: Yes. It’s the dichotomy of those two words juxtaposed.
SHIRLEY MANSON: I think we’re just frustrated with a lot of the constraints that are shoved on bands all the time. It’s almost like you can’t be one thing and another, you’ve go to just be one side of the equation, and that’s not the way we see life. We don’t see people like that. We try to fuse all these contrasting and contradicting elements in our music and in the way we present it.
You mentioned the reaction of your hardcore fans…do you think they’ve been playing catch up with the new material or do you think they accepted it straight off?
BUTCH VIG: I think it took a while for this new record to be digested. For one thing, it’s long, and it does take some extreme detours. I’ve heard a bunch of fans say that they like the record from track six on – they don’t like the first half of the record. Whatever – you can run it backwards as far we we’re concerned! [Laughs] But it does veer off all over the place. At the time we didn’t know what we were doing, the songs just sort of fell into our lap… You have to make music for yourself – it becomes a sort of therapy. The process of writing becomes a bit like releasing toxins from your body – it’s like a need to get things out of your system. I’m sure it’s the same for Shirley writing lyrics, it’s a form of therapy for her. That process can be exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. That’s one of the things that drives us…we’re not very good at taking holidays – we’d rather just work. Our job is also our passion. We just love making music and we don’t ever really talk about what we’re going to do when we make an album. The only thing we said we would do with BEAUTIFULGARBAGE was make it simpler – that was the only criteria we had – certainly compared to our last record, it’s a lot simpler…it’s a lot less layered with less detailed production. A lot of the playing is looser and there are a lot of first-takes by Shirley on the record. SO LIKE A ROSE, SILENCE IS GOLDEN and CUP OF COFFEE all came out of a spontaneous jamming session – we’ve never done that before…
How do you feel jostling for peoples’ attention against all the manufactured music out there?
BUTCH VIG: We’ve been lucky. We’ve sold around 10 million records worldwide and we’ve never had a big hit…when you go to a Garbage show, you’ll hear a lot of songs that you’ve seen videos to or heard on the radio and in some ways that’s allowed us to sustain a career. A lot of acts have one big single and then they’re gone and sometimes that’s all they’ll ever have. We’ve never really wanted to be that kind of band – we wanted to be more of a career band. We want people to listen to our albums, take our music as a whole, rather than just having a smash single, so I think in a lot of ways we have been able to live out the career that we wanted to. Of course it would be great to have a number one hit, but in some ways it’s been to our advantage that we haven’t had one. We haven’t had to deal with the kind of insane media scrutiny that people like Britney Spears have to deal with. We’ve been left to our own devices and that’s a blessing.
But the fact that you have done a song for a James Bond film means you have got quite big…!
BUTCH VIG: Yeah, that was a pretty big success worldwide because it’s such an institution. But we did it more because we’re fans of Bond and fans of the cinema and have always flirted with doing soundtracks…that’s one of the things we still want to do – score an entire film. The whole process of doing that was fascinating because it was the first time we were involved with a film company and they try to have a lot of influence on how you record and how you’re going to look in the video. We are very self-contained and we don’t like anyone interfering with us, so we had a battle in a lot of instances, not so much in making the song, where they pretty much let us record the track the way we wanted and produce it the way we wanted to, but when it came to doing the video and the marketing, they starting saying, “we want you to go to Japan” and here and there, and “we want you to be in the poster this way” and they wanted the video a certain way, and we had to fight hard to retain the imaging of what we were in the process. It’s an eye opener dealing with a film company that’s spending a hundred million dollars, just on promotion.
Who else would you like to work with?
BUTCH VIG: One of the directors we would like to work with is David Lynch. We’ve met him numerous times and he’s a Garbage fan…I think we make music that equates with some of his films – it’s very textural, but I think we give the impression that when you dig deeper under the surface, things are little bit more ‘off’ and a little bit more screwed-up. He’s a fantastic director and the music in his films always works really well.
Butch, how did you feel when you heard about Kurt Cobain, and do you feel that, after producing NEVERMIND you had gone from producing a great album to producing a part of rock history?
BUTCH VIG: If I hadn’t produced that record there would be no Garbage – it opened so many doors and allowed me to go back and work with Duke and Steve in a situation where people believed we could actually come up with a cool record. Some people at Mushroom gave us a very small advance that let us start recording – they didn’t even hear any songs – it was a leap of faith for them to do that. The ironic thing is, we met Shirley the day that Kurt committed suicide. We were in a hotel in London and found out about Kurt’s death a few hours later. It was pure coincidence but very strange nonetheless. We were really annoyed when the first Garbage record came out that all people ever wanted to talk about were Nirvana or the Smashing Pumpkins, but now it’s ten years after the fact and that record still sounds amazing…it changed my life…!