Pioneering alt-rockers push forward, leaving the labels and the ’90s behind
On the eve of Garbage’s first tour in more than seven years, guitarist Duke Erikson is puzzled. “I’m trying to figure out how the hell to pack all this stuff,” he says, facing an unruly pile of clothes. “I can’t remember how I did this before.” Luckily, he and his bandmates had no such trouble reminding themselves of the chemistry that propelled them to stardom in the 1990s with edgy, electronica-infused alt-rock hits like “Stupid Girl” and “Push It.” Quite the contrary—after an extended hiatus, Erikson, fellow guitarist Steve Marker, drummer Butch Vig and spitfire singer Shirley Manson have rediscovered the old magic almost effortlessly. “We realized right away,” she says, “that we were going to be able to make a really good record.”
That’s precisely what they did. The group holed up together in the small Atwater Village studio in Los Angeles and walked out with Not Your Kind of People, the first new Garbage effort since 2005’s Bleed Like Me. Given that music-business headaches had prompted the group’s split after that album, their latest is being released through their own STUNVOLUME label. With its newfound indie status and the tectonic changes in the music world, not to mention a wave of incipient ’90s nostalgia, the band’s expectations for its return are wide open. “The people who loved us will love this record because it’s a great, classic Garbage record,” Manson figures. “And the people who hated us will remain hateful. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
What was your aim when you approached the new album?
MANSON: We just decided to hell with everything and everybody else, we wanted to try and make a record that excited us. That was the only rule in the studio. We knew it was necessary for the future of our band that we tap into the most urgent version of ourselves. We had to make a record that crackled with energy in order for people to even take notice. When you’ve been around for a while and you’ve made a lot of records, people just switch you down. The volume knob gets turned off. There’s so much music out there and so many other artists that you just get drowned out unless you make a record that sounds like you’re risking something.
What was reuniting like?
MANSON: The freaky thing was we saw each other and literally within seconds we just started to laugh. It just seemed so silly. We don’t really talk as a band—there’s something very seriously wrong with us, actually, terrifyingly wrong on so many levels. We just looked at each other and we were laughing.
How do you write?
MANSON: It happens every which way. For example, “Battle in Me” came from a jam, all of us together as one. For “Sugar,” Duke brought in the chords and the first verse that he had.
ERIKSON: We all had a few ideas in our pockets when we walked in the door, some of which got used and some that got discarded. When we first had a go at being in a studio together again after seven years, we just set up our instruments and started playing. Sometimes you just start plucking away on a keyboard, messing around with sounds, and sometimes you don’t even know what you’re looking for. Shirley started improvising with whatever lyrics she had collected in her notebook or that came to her head. We’d go in and out of the studio. We’d all go home for a few weeks and then come back for a few weeks, and while we were home we would work in our studios and bring in ideas or send in ideas via email or whatever. So we concocted these things in any number of ways.
Did you have a go-to guitar?
ERICKSON: I can’t say there was one. I used a whole array of guitars and keyboards on this record. Live I play a Guild Starfire that I didn’t even bring in when we were recording. It stayed at home, but when I was there I would use it all the time. And I have a lovely Tele and a 335 Gibson, and some little odds and ends.
Do you work as a democracy?
ERIKSON: We’re very like-minded, so it’s usually pretty easy. We all nod or peal with joy when someone does something cool. When someone comes up with an idea, we all stand up and yell. More often than not that’s how it happens. Of course there are times when the other three will point at you and say, “Absolutely not, that sucks.” There are arguments, there are disagreements and there are a few things on the record I would have done differently or Shirley would have done differently—that’s just the way it is.
How about lyrically?
MANSON: For the most part I like to write my own words. I’m much more comfortable and I have more fun when I can express an idea that I have. But I understand that I work with other people who have ideas sometimes, and I will end up incorporating the ideas that resonate with me. I try not to force a song idea down their throats that they can’t relate to. Luckily for me that has very rarely happened.
Can you relate to the old songs?
MANSON: I have changed. I love a song like “#1 Crush” and can still identify with those feelings, but I’m not that person anymore. I think one of the reasons we got so frustrated was that we felt that people were not going to allow us to grow. Our record company wasn’t going to allow us to grow, because they wanted something that we could no longer give them. They wanted the first record [Garbage, 1995]. You know what? That’s just not who we are anymore. I’m 45 years old, I’m a woman. I don’t want to be singing about things that happened to me when I was 15, I want to sing about things that happened to me last year. It’s important as an artist to move forward. Your career may suffer, but your mental health will blossom. (laughs) Even if you’re selling billions of records, ultimately what’s the point in staying stuck in a teenager’s mindset? How utterly horrendous. I want to be an adult exploring adult themes in an adult world.
What’s life like with no label?
ERIKSON: Awesome. We are the label. I don’t want to go on and on about [our previous label]. That relationship just soured. The whole business model sucks and everybody knows it. Frankly, we probably could have weathered whatever that was, but we were just so damn tired by that time that any little thing got to us. We just needed to take a break. I don’t want to blame this or that or some other thing. It was just time. The freedom that we have now is so great, it makes you feel like you can breathe. But it brings with it other responsibilities. We have to think about a lot of stuff that we didn’t think about before.
How will you find your fans?
MANSON: We came out of a time when alternative music was ruling the charts. We got banged on the radio and MTV, we were everywhere. When that happens you make strong connections with people. And then alternative music got suffocated and pushed under again. I think people today are aching for a connection with artists who talk about all the stuff that’s not been talked about lately.