The last time Garbage released an album—2005's Bleed Like Me—Twitter didn't exist, Facebook was invite-only and Mariah Carey's The Emancipation of Mimi topped the charts. The band's co-founder Butch Vig hasn't exactly been bored since then, though. The 56-year-old produced Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown, Jimmy Eat World's Chase This Light and Foo Fighters' Wasting Light, among others, but reunited with Shirley Manson, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker on the band's upcoming, self-released album Not Your Kind of People (out May 15).
Vig spoke to Fuse about defusing band tension and shunning major labels, and fielded one question that he never wants to be asked again.
It’s been seven years since Garbage’s last album Bleed Like Me. You’ve been busy since then as a solo producer, but is it fair to say, “Welcome back”?
Well, we definitely went on hiatus for a long time. I’ve been working on records full time as a record producer, but now I’m back in a band again. I always wore two different hats: Either I’m producing someone or I’m in a band where I’m more of a musician than a songwriter.That’s definitely what mode I’m in at the moment.
When did the band start recording again?
It was a little over a year ago. [Singer] Shirley [Manson] was the one who got the ball rolling; she made a solo record and gave it to her label and they were not interested in releasing it at all. It was way too dark and left field. They wanted her to make a pop record and they kept trying to get her to write with these pop producers that work with Katy Perry and Rihanna. Whatever. And she told them, “You know who I want to write with? I want to write with Butch Vig, Duke Erickson and Steve Marker. She suggested we get together for a week at a studio in Los Angeles, so we felt free because we had been dropped by our label, we were between management and there was nobody telling us what to do.
Did the band go in with any expectations?
There were no expectations; no one even knew we were recording. So it was all under the radar and pretty casual and we all felt inspired after having that amount of time off. Any sort of tension or frustrations that had built up had all dissipated and when we started writing songs, they came fast and furious. We probably wrote 24, 25 songs over the course of a couple of months.
Can you describe the first day meeting together? Did it feel like old times or was there any weird awkwardness?
Yeah, it took a little while; we didn’t know what to do. Our engineer had taken all our gear and set up two drum kits, a bunch of guitar amps, a piano and a bunch of microphones. There was no plan; nobody brought in any songs. Sometimes a song will start with me bringing in a chord progression or a lyric idea or a beat or something. This was nothing. So for the first three or four hours, we just started telling the crazy stories that happened to us. “Do you remember when Butch fell down the ramp in Barcelona and fell in the bull ring and slid down the thing right before he went on stage?” We just drank a lot of wine and loosened up and after a while said, “Let’s go f**k around.” And we just started jamming. We’re not a great jam band because we’re not amazing players; we all have limited skills, but I think we know how to use those skills to the best we can.
How much of the new album was avoiding certain sounds you've done on past albums or sticking to the things that worked?
Bleed Like Me was difficult because I think we felt like we needed to reinvent ourselves. At that point, we started at indie labels that got sold to billionaire corporations that didn’t really give a s**t about us as artists. They just wanted to make money from us and we had gotten so many opinions from people on, “All you need to change is this” or “You need to sound like this.” It's very frustrating making the record and getting that kind of feedback. Not so much from our fans, but the corporate world that we were dealing with.
Honestly, we are glad we’re not on a major label anymore. That was liberating when we went in to make this record. We did not want to reinvent ourselves. We wanted to embrace exactly what we like. We love electronic music and we like beats and we like fuzzy guitars and pop melodies. That’s what we did on the first and second records and that’s what we've done on this record. We don’t want to be the freshest, newest thing. We want to be who we are. We have a sound and, for better or worse, Garbage sounds like Garbage. And these days, it’s a strong asset to have a sonic imprint and identity and we embraced that on this record. We just said, “Let’s just do what we want to do and be who we are.”
Not Your Kind of People sounds like an aggressive pop record.
Yeah, we never shied away from trying to write great melodies vocally or on guitar or keyboard. To me, it’s a rock record, but there are pop elements in it and we have always had that in our music. We have never been able to pinpoint exactly what we are. One of the reasons we went back and made this record is because I have fun making Garbage records and we have a pretty wide open canvas in terms of sonic palette and what we want to paint on there. That’s fun when you go into the studio and have all these things at your fingertips that you can try. Honestly, there are some more amazing songs that we haven’t released yet and they are all quite eclectic and different.
That’s where the bonus EPs come in.
[Laughs] Yeah, and hopefully we will get some songs out that we give away for free or we put an EP out; try and license them somewhere or something. We argued quite a bit on what was going to make the final cut, but the album feels good to me as we roll through it.
Looking back, is there anything about Bleed like Me you would have done differently?
We probably should have taken a longer break before starting it. We didn’t really take a break; we went into the studio and didn’t have any songs, so we just hit “Record” and started writing a song. We didn’t make demos and it was difficult; the songs just didn’t feel very good and none of us felt very inspired. It was just so many people telling us what to do and what not to do and honestly, as an artist, you should never really listen to people like that. They put a bug in our ear and it just made us second-guess ourselves. So we worked on the record on and off for about six months and one day, I just walked out of the studio just because the vibe was getting so despondent. We took six months off before we got back together to finish the record.
I’m still proud of the record. It’s just that we lost our way a little bit and if we took six months or a year off before we started, it would have been a different-sounding record. That’s why we needed this long of a break before we did Not Your Kind of People. We needed to really cleanse our bodies and our minds.
Was label interference the main factor behind self-releasing Not Your Kind of People?
We knew that we wanted to put it out on our own just because of the experiences at the end of Bleed Like Me with our labels. It’s just very frustrating and we knew it would be. It’s hard work because we have to make decisions on everything where we’re in control and that’s both liberating and terrifying. At this point in our career, we don’t want to be told what to do. [We want to] just make our own decisions and I think that’s a good thing. We did have some major labels start throwing out some big dollar signs at us, though.
Was it tempting?
You pause and you go “Hmm, that’s a lot of money they are offering us” and then you just go “Hmmm, no thank you.” Honestly, we just can’t jump back in bed for some corporate thing. It just wouldn’t have made sense and I’m sure it would not be pleasant. We just don’t want to be told what to do. We just want to do our own thing and we have no idea how this record is going to be received or if we will even sell anything. To us, it’s just a victory to get it out there for people to hear. We [recently played] our first show and it was really fun. We were all just s**tting our pants before we went on.
What was the band’s general vibe at the show?
It was a relief that we actually played a show and played pretty good. It wasn’t our best show ever, but it definitely wasn’t our worst. We didn’t f**k up too bad [laughs]. All of us were concentrating so hard on not f**king up that it’s hard to really enjoy yourself, but the only way you can really do that is to start playing a bunch of shows. You just have to get on autopilot a little bit to loosen up on stage and at this point, we just want to play good and nobody wants to be the one to f**k up.
You've worked with Foo Fighters, Green Day and Muse since the last Garbage album. What have you learned from any of those artists that you've used on this record?
The thing that I learned most was from Foo Fighters. We did [2011's Wasting Light] on tape in Dave [Grohl’s] garage, so it was recorded guerilla-style. When you use tape, you can’t manipulate it so it’s all about performing because you can't edit it and go through AutoTune. It’s really about playing. We took that to heart when we made the Garbage record. We tried not to go in and zoom in the microscope to fix things. So there is a looser feel than the last few records, especially in the guitar playing and Shirley’s singing. We have to force ourselves not to try to make something perfect.
I did some of the album in my own studio, which is just a 12x14 rectangular bedroom with no soundproofing and Shirley just sat on the couch and sang. I would always say in my head, “We’ll go back and redo it for real later and we just fell in love with it and locked it.” There are three or four songs that are first takes; we just tried to not go in and keep massaging it, manipulating it and making it better. Sometimes making it better makes it worse and honestly, that is something I took from the Foos. A lot of times, how you perceive a song is in the performance and we tried to leave a lot of the performance raw on this album. A lot of the songs [on the new album], we sort of throw paint at the wall and some of it sticks and some of it drips off.
Now that the band is back in the public eye, what’s the one interview question you never want to be asked again?
[Laughs] Well, so far nobody has asked this, but it has to be, “How did you get your band name?” We said it all the time. It’s so stupid. Who cares how any band got its name?