The Garbage Man
By Noah Masterson
OCTOBER 12, 1998: Before forming Garbage, drummer Butch Vig was a superstar producer who worked with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and U2. Before being a superstar producer, he played in and produced records for punk bands like Killdozer and Les Thugs. The Madison, Wis.-based Garbage has since sold millions of records and their eponymous debut earned four Grammy nominations. Weekly Alibi caught up with the influential and often-imitated Vig in Denver, on the first day of Garbage's stateside tour in support of their second album, Version 2.0.
You just had a couple weeks off from touring, right?
We spent most of the summer in Europe and then came back here for some press stuff. We didn't really have a vacation. We did the MTV awards; we shot a video.
You were well known as a producer before Garbage. Everyone knows about Nirvana (Nevermind) and Smashing Pumpkins (Siamese Dream). Can you rattle off some of the other bands you produced?
Oh God! Sonic Youth, Soul Asylum, Freedy Johnston, L7. Those are some of the more prominent ones.
Let's not forget Killdozer.
One of the reasons I ended up working with Nirvana and the Pumpkins is that I did four or five albums with (Killdozer) and gained sort of a reputation for making these kind of cool but weird-sounding albums. I did a lot of work back then for Touch & Go and Sub Pop--Laughing Hyenas, Die Kreuzen, Tad, The Fluid, Young Fresh Fellows. I did so many records--really fast, indie records--before I had any success. There are literally hundreds. ...
You were credited as playing iceberg lettuce and "Elvisiser" on Killdozer's Burl LP. How does one play iceberg lettuce?
Punch it, basically.
How far away from the microphone?
You put it about three feet away, because we figured if you punch someone in the face, your head would be about two or three feet away from where your fist connects. There's a fight scene in one of the songs, and it was actually amazing because when you punch lettuce it really disintegrates very quickly. ...
And what's an "Elvisiser?"
An "Elvisiser" is an effect that I wanted to use on (Killdozer singer Michael Gerald's) voice to deepen it, and I totally lied. He said, "I don't want any effects on my voice." And I said, "Well, this is what Elvis used." Of course, he knew I was lying, but he said, "If Elvis used it, it's good enough for me."
What were some of the bands you played in prior to Garbage?
I played in Spooner, which was kind of a garage-pop band. ... We had three albums on an independent label.
You played drums?
Yeah, and co-produced and cowrote some of the songs with Duke (Erikson, now in Garbage). Duke was the singer.
On to some Garbage related questions. As a successful producer, you didn't need to start a band, so what was the inspiration behind Garbage?
I got bored with doing the guitar-bass-drum thing, and I started doing remixes in '94 for U2, Nine Inch Nails, House of Pain, Depeche Mode. When we did a remix, I would erase all the music and write new parts and use samplers to bring in different grooves. For the first time in a long time, I was playing and writing again, basically rewriting the song, and I started doing the remixes with Duke and Steve (Marker, also in Garbage) and realized how much I enjoyed working with them. So we figured, let's take the technology available and let's use that as part of the writing process. I had no idea to tour and to get this fully involved in it. ... We saw Shirley (Manson) on MTV and asked her to sing on a couple songs and slowly started making this record and discovering that we were coming up with a sound that we were really enjoying and a songwriting process that we were really enjoying. Once we finished, we were really proud of the record we had made and realized that to connect with an audience we had to go out there and promote it, go out and play some shows. ... It was very difficult; we had to grow up in public as a live band.
What were those early shows like?
They were really rough, I mean, really rough. There were a lot of disasters every night, where someone would trigger the wrong thing or a sampler would crash. But we didn't know that Shirley was going to become this incredible, charismatic performer. In the band she had been in before, she never got the chance to produce and to write and come up with her own lyrics. She took the ball and ran with it. We had no idea what she was going to be like on stage. ... And now, since we've done more than 300 shows, there's a certain chemistry that develops that makes you much more powerful as a band. We figured out a way to go out and play these songs and interpret them so they're much easier to play. We look at the two as different things; we can't make (the live show) sound exactly like the album, nor do we want to at this point. But we're using a lot more technology on this tour, and I think it sounds way better, way tougher than it did before, not only because we're playing better but because we figured out a way to use the technology better.
How many people does it take to perform live?
It's just the five of us. It's our bass player (Daniel Shulman) who played on the record and the last tour, and I play all the triggered stuff and the sequencers.
Are you able to do that break in "I Think I'm Paranoid" live, where it sounds like all the tracks are melting down?
It kind of does that. It's not quite the same as the record. But we definitely try to melt down a little bit there.
It seems like people who have been associated with the Touch & Go label are real tightly knit. You produced a lot of records for Touch & Go and now you're touring with Girls Against Boys, who were a Touch & Go band. Did you know those guys before? Did you ask them to tour with you?
I love their records, and we'd played some festivals and radio shows with them. I was interested in producing their new record but I didn't have any time to do it. Shirley loves them because she thinks they're all sweethearts. They're amazing; they have a really cool, intense way they play, sort of this hip-grinding swagger. It's really cool. We're looking forward to the tour with them; I think it's going to be a really good combo.
Are you still producing other bands?
Nope. The only thing I did last year was some remixes for Beck and U2--no more than a week in the studio with each one.
After the release of Nevermind and Siamese Dream, all the classic rock stations switched to an alternative format. You produced the albums that are responsible for the whole modern rock radio phenomenon. Now Garbage is at the top of the scene that you helped create. What are your thoughts on that?
It's pretty bizarre to think about. The funny thing is (Garbage's debut) record really caught people off guard because we're a rock band but we write pop songs and we utilize technology to bring in techno and hip hop and punk rock and whatever. And now a lot more bands are doing that. In some ways, Garbage actually helped kill the grunge movement. I think that that whole aspect of the alternative scene is starting to fade away and people are trying to find a new music out there. I'm not quite sure where everything is going to go in the future, but I hear a lot of bands that are copying Garbage now. Three or four years ago all the production offers I got were from bands that sounded like Nirvana or the Pumpkins or wanted to sound like them. Now, I'm getting a lot of female artists who have approached me, and I'm getting a lot of bands that use technology and trip hop and want to write pop songs, or that sound like Garbage. It's flattering and annoying at the same time. I think any time you have a record that's successful, you're going to find some imitators out there.
What's the direction of your next album, if you're even thinking about that yet?
We didn't even know when we made Version 2.0 what we were going to do. We just wing it constantly. The only conscious decision we made was that we didn't want to reinvent ourselves, and we didn't want to do something stupid like try and associate ourselves with some trend like, "Oh, now let's make a drum and bass record," or, "Let's make a pure techno record." We concentrate on trying to write great songs, and then use the technology to do whatever we want. ... We wanted to take everything that we did on (our first) album and make it better on Version 2.0. That's why it's tongue-in-cheek, you know, the "bigger, faster, more powerful software from Garbage." I'm sure on the third album we'll start branching out into a lot of different territory, but where exactly that is, we have no idea.
You could always go country.
No, we probably won't be going country. ... (But) we just recorded a version of "Medication" with acoustic (guitar) and piano for a B-side, and it sounds great. I can almost hear Patsy Cline singing it. It's a beautiful song. ... It's coming out ... in the UK; you might be able to find it as an import over here.
Do you get to spend any time in Madison still?
Not really. Between producing and Garbage, I've spent most of the last seven years living in hotels and buses. ... For most of '97 we were in the studio there, 16 hours a day, but it's not like there's an extravagant social life going on.
What's your favorite bar there?
Cafe Montmartre. ... It's only about six blocks from the studio, so sometimes it's, like, "Fuck it, man, this sounds like shit, let's go down and have a couple drinks." ... It's kind of our unofficial headquarters in Madison.
What does Shirley think of Madison?
I think she has a love/hate relationship with it. She thinks it's a cool town. ... But she gets bored; there's not a lot to do there. It's not like London, Paris or New York or any kind of major city.
Yeah. It's a college town. Do you read (Madison-based humor rag) The Onion?
It's amazing. We get copies on the road with us. It's great.
Music Editor's Note: The Onion was started by Weekly Alibi publisher Christopher Johnson. Its mention in the interview above was simply a cheap attempt by the author to kiss ass and, perhaps, set the stage for his requesting a rather large raise.
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