Two days after enjoying a big, sloppy group hug onstage with the Foo Fighters as they accepted their Best Rock Album Grammy, Butch Vig is still savoring the moment. “It was a great, wild evening,” Vig says from GrungeIsDead, his home studio in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. “We had dinner afterward with Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, and Joe Walsh. I was pretty fuzzy the next morning. Dave and I were up ’til 3 a.m. It was a long, fun night.”
Musing over his Foo Fighters’ production success—just one album in a long career that spans such million-sellers as Nirvana’s Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkin’s Gish, Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown, and his own band’s 1995 quadruple-Platinum debut, Garbage—Vig stands on Mount Olympus, surveying his past and future.
“What’s so important about Wasting Light is the performance and feel and the vibe,” Vig says. “When you can’t fix everything, you really have to go for it. Rather than quantizing guitars and chopping them all up, the new Garbage album is rougher-sounding than Version 2.0, Beautiful Garbage, or Bleed Like Me. I compare it to our first album. We didn’t have Pro Tools, so you couldn’t really go crazy with [effects]. We’d run things to tape and trigger from MIDI, but the MIDI delay was slightly off so it would drift. Our first record has a looseness to it. Then we got microscopic on Version 2.0. We didn’t do any nano-editing on Not Your Kind of People—maybe take a one-bar or two-bar chunk and paste it around, but we didn’t go any deeper than that. We definitely didn’t go grid-mad.”
The first Garbage album since 2005’s Bleed Like Me, produced by Vig and Garbage and engineered by longtime colleague Billy Bush, Not Your Kind of People (StunVolume) traffics in that classic Garbage sound: From Shirley Manson’s first bitter shout out of “Lies, lies, lies” in “Automatic Systematic Habit,” you know Garbage is back. A Theremin squiggles, vocals get phase-shifted and freaked, guitars pound like short-circuiting jackhammers. “I won’t be your dirty little secret,” Manson warns, and it warms the heart. “Big Brite World” is wonderfully queasy and dislocated; “Blood for Poppies” trades rock for dub (another classic Manson performance); “Sugar” finds the pint-sized singer luxuriating in whispered threats as the band swirls like floating spirits; “Man On A Wire” recalls The Pretenders by way of the Foo Fighters. Not Your Kind of People is a return to form after the virtual retreat that left a bad taste in Shirley Manson’s mouth.
“On Bleed Like Me, we shouldered a lot of criticism because people felt we’d lost our edge,” Manson recalls. “Looking back, we definitely got burnt out; we toured too much. We’d always been happy in the studio making records, but then the music industry began to panic; they put a lot of pressure on their artists. [Our label] was scrabbling for more money; they wanted our chart positions to be higher, and quite frankly, that isn’t what we signed up for. It really shut us down. We just lost our joy. And you heard it in the music. Now, with time off and having regenerated ourselves, you hear that on the new record. It sounds like classic Garbage. I am very proud of that.”
Culled from early 2010 jam sessions tracked during a two-week booze-and-bullshitting fueled Garbage reunion at the now-defunct The Pass Studio in L.A. (then rough-mixed at engineer Billy Bush’s Red Razor Sounds in Atwater Village), Not Your Kind of People is a true composite, state-of-the-digital-art recording. After the band–drummer/producer Vig, vocalist Manson, and guitarists Duke Erikson and Steve Marker (aided by bassists Eric Avery and Justin Meldal-Johnsen)—improvised a handful of tracks, the members went their separate ways. Garbage has closed Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, where their early records were recorded, in favor of such destinations as Aspen, Colorado (Steve Marker’s home), and the more bohemian neighborhoods of L.A. (home to Vig and Manson). Only Duke Erikson remains in Madison. After their L.A. jam, with laptops in hand and files in hard drives, the band returned to their respective homes and began deconstructing, then reconstructing the songs with various plug-ins, effects, and instruments. Trading two-week stints between Red Razor Sounds (where guitar parts were replaced and rerecorded) and home for the bulk of 2011, Garbage wrote Not Your Kind of People collectively and apart. The result is an album where Vig often played guitars, Erikson contributed drum loops, Manson pushed for ever more bizarre vocal treatments, and Marker built finished songs from crude MP3s. Garbage is at their best when the lines are blurred.
“There’s no delineation between each band member’s job,” Bush explains. “Everybody does everything. They all produce, they all can engineer, they all write. The ideas for pushing things out there often came from Shirley. Butch plays guitars, Steve makes drum loops. They all play keyboards, they’re all good at programming. All of that makes the band unique. The Garbage sound only exists from the input of all four of them.”
“A lot of the success of Garbage is in trading ideas,” Erikson confirms. “Something will begin as one idea then end up as something totally different and better. You don’t have that when you’re working totally isolated in your home studio. Some ideas were thrown down really quickly, and a lot of it is actually on the record.”
Not Your Kind of People is a geek wonderland of hardware- and software-enabled production treatments that always serve the band’s raging electronic rock. Those trippy dub tom effects in “Blood for Poppies” and its freakish manual typewriter/ambient chorus? “That’s a distorted drum fill that Butch sampled and ran through SoundToys Decapitator,” Bush explains. “He and Duke came up with that section using a bunch of [Native Instruments] Reaktor sounds for the ambience and swells and then added some sound-effect samples. That chattering sound is actually a hi-hat running through GRM Doppler to create a stereo effect. Shirley wanted the vocal in that section to sound like it was a garbled radio transmission so I treated it using [iZotope] Stutter Edit, Decapitator, and Waves H-Delay.”
Bush is a big fan of both Stutter Edit and iZotope Trash for shape-shifting Manson’s battle-cry vocals, a key ingredient on Not Your Kind of People. “Trash is still one of the best-sounding sonic manglers out there,” he laughs. “It’s all over the record. Trash allows you to distort things in a way that no other plug-in rivals. The other one I used was [OhmForce] Ohmicide, a multiband distortion unit that has more digital versions of distortion.
“I don’t really use Stutter Edit like most people do,” he continues. “Most people use it to freak a whole track out. I will use it as a particular effect. I like the way it can make [vocals] fall apart (as in “Control”) or speed up over a period of time. If a plug-in made all of us ask, ‘What was that?’ we’d gravitate toward that kind of effect.”
“Big Brite World” bubbles with robotic ’80s synths created from strained laptop plug-ins; “Automatic Systematic Habit” piles on even more synths. “There are a couple of synths in the intro to ‘Big Brite World,’” Bush continues. “Steve came up with the parts on his laptop using [Pro Tools] Vacuum for the main two parts and the other more ambient, panning arpeggiated one was done in Ableton Live. The synth in the bridge of ‘Automatic Systematic Habit’ is a combination of [NI] Reaktor and [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere. Reaktor is the source of the distorted synth sound and the choir is an Omnisphere patch. The vocal was run through [NI] Razor to vocode it.”
Throughout the album, Manson’s vocals are strobed, distorted, and delayed, deconstructed, layered, and literally shattered like breaking glass, as in “Control,” which gets extra juice from a ripping harmonica hook. “Butch played the harmonica but he didn’t have one in the right key so he pitch-shifted it down a few steps to get it to work,” Bush adds. “It gave it a great low-fi quality and made the fact that it’s a harmonica not as obvious. It’s run through Echo Farm and Reverb One. We put the chorus vocals through a combination of Decapitator, Tremolator, and PanMan. A virtual SoundToys fiesta!”
Garbage still pen sick, sinister ballads. (Remember “Queer”?) This time it’s “Sugar,” where strings, guitars, and samples create a darkly ambient sound cloud. “A lot of that is Eventide H8000 reverb,” Bush continues. “The ambient fuzziness is a guitar that was run through a Death By Audio Robot pedal. There’s also a ’verbed-out musical saw, some Omnisphere, and most importantly Shirley’s ’verbed -out melodica solo!”
“I have a pretty extensive setup in my Pro Tools rig,” Vig says, “and Billy Bush has a way bigger one with plug-ins and soft synths at Red Razor Sounds. Once, we were trying to find an abstract sound for something and we spent two hours just scrolling through what seemed like thousands of different presets with the more exotic things. I love using [NI] Massive and [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere and [NI] Absynth, [FXpansion] Geist, and [NI] Kontakt. Sometimes you want a noise or something pretty or abstract or jagged sounding, and it’s amazing what the software can do.”
Working from those initial jam session tracks, Vig and Bush constantly updated their mixes, incorporating the band’s new ideas as they flowed in from across the country. “We kept squeezing and saturating the sound so it became less clean and more trashy and f*cked up,” Vig explains. “Often we’ll run things through submixes. All the drums are on one aux, and all the samples and loops are on another aux, and then I’ll start blending in Decapitator and the Studer [A800] tape plug-in. We’d run that across the bus and hit it harder and harder. We’d have different harmonic plugins that really played with tonal qualities on each bus—vocals, guitars, bass drums, then we wanted more and more!”
The effects extravaganza is apparent on Vig’s DW drums, which blur the line between programmed, live, and Lord knows what. “You’re hearing more loopy drum programming and the live stuff is tucked back; it’s 60/40,” Vig says. “The live drumming is so cut up that it sounds programmed. I recorded a lot of the drums at my home studio, basically a 16 x 18 den where I watch football games. I used six mics on the kit, maybe a Bock Audio 507 put back in the hallway and turn it up and run it through Decapitator. I would do a bunch of takes, edit them, then take them into Billy’s studio and we’d carry on. Sometimes we’d only use the Bock room mic and delete the rest. We didn’t really labor over the stuff.”
Bush says Vig either programmed the drums or he’d record drums then chop them up and turn it into a loop, then sample a kick and snare and throw it around in FXpansion BFD or Geist: “For drums [DW Artist Series set with a titanium Dunnett snare drum], we put a FET 47 on the outside of the kick. One of my favorites for the inside of the kick is the Crowley & Tripp El Diablo. That’s going into an API 512C preamp into an API 550B EQ. The snare mic is a Telefunken M80 or a Josephson e22S, depending on what Butch is going for. That’s going into an API512 as well, and a 550B and a Chandler Little Devil Compressor. Overheads are Audio-Technica 4033s into a couple APIs. Toms are the Josephson e22S again, into Helios preamps. Butch likes a spaced pair of overheads over the left and right cymbals directly over him pointing outward to make it a little wider. The signal from the Bock 507 ran through Decapitator and a compressor and was squashed to death.”
Following the album’s off-the-cuff vibe, Manson’s vocals were cut in Vig’s comfy den, sitting on his couch with a handheld Shure SM58. Nothing was sacred, as when Manson recorded vocals for “I Hate Love.” The original scratch vocal was used, pitched down 30 BPM, then pitched back up further 30 BPM to “make it sound clubby.” Manson played a large role in her own vocal deconstruction, pushing Garbage to the brink.
“I am an opinionated woman,” she says. “I am not a ‘sit on the couch and shut up’ type of girl, and I am sure at times my band would prefer that I was. I have a lot of ideas that I want to hear on my vocals; sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. The problem for the band is I’ve never spent any time learning the technical lingo. So I might say, ‘Make my voice here sound like it’s going through a hair dryer!’ Sometimes they want to murder me.”
At Red Razor Sounds, Manson used either a Telefunken ELAM 251 or a Brauner VM1 K.H.E. Historically, the band used Vig’s original Telefunken ELAM 250 or Bush’s K.H.E. But this time, Bush wanted one mic to leave up so he asked Telefunken to create a new 251— Butch’s 250 was not used.
“They put together a new 251 for me with a 6072a tube,” Bush explains. “They tried many tubes until they found one similar to the hard-wired AC701 tube in Butch’s 250E. The 251 they built sounded great. If I use the two of them in stereo pairs, you can’t really tell the difference. Butch’s has a little mid-rangey thing that signifies it as a 50-year-old mic.”
Next in Manson’s chain was an original Chandler Limited LTD 1 into a Retro Instruments 176 compressor. “I am not afraid of compressing the bejesus out of the signal while tracking,” Bush laughs. “That makes it sound intimate and forward, and it really sits in the mix well. It allows the singer to feel like they can really go for it and the compressor will just grab it and give it back to them. No matter how dynamically Shirley sings—and Shirley is a very dynamic singer—the Retro 176 lets her sing right on top of the mic.
“Shirley’s voice sounds amazing regardless of what she sings through,” he adds. “‘I Hate Love’ was done on a 58 and you can’t tell. ‘Beloved Freak’ was a scratch vocal, just one take. The 251 is perfect for her vocals, but I add a little bit of 10k, like maybe a dB and a half, and then I take a little bit of 330 out and that’s it.”
Erikson and Marker modified their guitar parts with a Line 6 POD and their home laptops (Ableton Live, Pro Tools), but Bush’s initial miking at The Pass formed the bed. “Steve played through a Line 6 Mi6 into a Mojave JTM 45,” Bush explains. “There I used a Heil Sound PR30 or a Heil PR22, sometimes an RCA BK-5B. An old Garbage standby is the Matchless DC30 and a Carol-Ann with a 12" for clean tones, then the Mojave for heavier sounds. Duke has this weird-sounding Fender Telecaster he loves to play into this old Silvertone of mine, a really aggressive amp. I used a ribbon mic on the Silvertone, just to tame a little of the bite. Every guitar sound was recorded with some different permutation of a bunch of different things.”
Justin Meldal-Johnsen recorded bass on nine tracks, Eric Avery on two. Johnsen brought in multiple basses, which he regularly changed out. Bush used one of the new Fender Bassmans, miked with a FET 47. Avery played a Fender Jaguar Bass recorded with a Groove Tubes Viper DI and a Line 6 Bass POD.
When mixing Not Your Kind of People, Bush took the broad approach, being careful to fit each sound and instrument into its own frequency range. “It’s such a geeky prospect, making one of these records,” he laughs. “A lot of editing goes into making sure there is space for the frequency ranges. If you solo the guitars, they may have really bizarre EQ settings ’cause I want that to cut through in a specific way. A guitar sound might need to be thin or dark in order to fill in whatever is missing sonically in that particular section. It’s about what needs to be featured without losing the groove or the dynamics or getting in the way of Shirley’s vocal.”
As veteran rockers, Garbage has a 16-year history in an industry that was once seemingly omnipotent, but which is now as decentralized as the KGB. Years of ups and downs, of creating trends and falling flat, has given the band a unique perspective. Ultimately, Garbage has survived and created yet another great record due to artistic tenacity and faith in their vision.
“We sound like Garbage because we have a sensibility that we gravitate toward,” Vig says. “It’s important for a young artist to figure out what their aesthetic is and what defines them. Everyone can buy the same plug-ins, but what can you do with them to make them more interesting and unique? That comes from your heart and your brain. Your sensibility is what you love.”
“You are the only one who knows how you feel and how you want to represent yourself as an individual,” Manson says. “You have to listen to who you are and be true to how you want to represent yourself in the world. If you are genuine and honest, people respect that and they believe it when they come up against it. There isn’t very much authenticity any more. It’s all people at recording companies deciding how to present an artist. And that’s crazy. It can’t end well; the artist has to be in the driver’s seat. Always.”
But how do you believe in yourself in this age of collapsing empire, when doubts loom and hopes often seem dashed? “As a singer in a band who has had a lot of ups and downs,” Manson replies, “I know what it’s like to think, ‘Wow, I am just getting drowned by everybody else and all of their talents and their successes. How do I dig myself out of this hole?’ You have to say, ‘Do I have enough reserve to stand back up and take another hit? Another punch?’ Everybody’s career is defined by how many times they’re willing to get knocked down and stand back up again. Because inevitably every single artist, even great ones like Bob Dylan, get passed over and forgotten about for a while. You have to find your reserves. It’s that simple.”
Ken Micallef covers multiple genres of music for various publications, domestic and global. He lives in Greenwich Village with his cat Morty and his Shindo hi-fi.