Issue Sneak Peek: Inside Garbage's 'Strange Little Birds' Sessions

Take a Sneak Peek at Our Upcoming Print Feature, Which Goes Inside the Strange Little Birds' Sessions
Image placeholder title

Want to know how Shirley Manson, Butch Vig, and crew created the cinematic, shape-shifting sounds of Strange Little Birds, their latest antidote to corporate rock? Check out this excerpt from our July issue, available in June on a newsstand near you, or from the iTunes store.

The sound of Garbage is unmistakable: heavy saturation, noise-as-effect, measured compression, the guitars of Steve Marker and Duke Erikson mauling your brain like a mad jackal; Butch Vig’s natural drums delivered with synthetic attack; synthesizers that sound like guitars that sound like electroshock therapy. And at the heart of it all, the lip-curling, defiant, tender, sexy, and accusatory vocals of Shirley Manson.

“With this record we wanted to reinvestigate all the themes we were obsessed by on the first record,” Manson says. “So we used a load of guitars. We wanted to hear dark, cinematic sounds. We yearned for the sound that we’re not hearing much these days. That was the driver behind this record and why there is a connection to our debut record. Your first successful record sets the trajectory for your career. Then you want to learn and be curious and explore different avenues. As a band we’ve really tried to do that. Sometimes successfully, other times to our detriment, but we’ve never stayed still.”

Watch: “Empty,” from Strange Little Birds:

Recorded at Butch Vig’s Grunge Is Dead studio and engineer Billy Bush’s Red Razor Sounds and mastered by Emily Lazar at The Lodge, Strange Little Birds revels in shape-shifting guitars and morphing samples, in a production esthetic unique to the band. It’s the sound of four brains pulsing at a frequency out of sync with the corporate model of record making, 2016.

“Generally we’re all suffering for the homogenization of songs and production that are essentially written and produced by the same people and sung by variety of young talent,” Manson says. “But we are aching to hear perspectives from people who are not entertainers, but artists who are looking at the world and reflecting that in their music. There’s a dearth of that in mainstream culture. It exists, but those records lurk in the shadows. They’re made by people not fortunate enough to talk to Electronic Musician or get their songs played on the radio. I’m longing to hear more variety and eclectic voices and tastes and perspectives.”

Citing influences Roxy Music, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, Bauhaus, and Television, “all these bands that deeply affected us when we were growing up,” Manson says. Garbage wanted to make music that was unimaginable relying solely on computer-based production.

“Anybody can record at home on a computer now,” she adds. “But for us there was a lot of fascination with analog synths and the music of our heroes. Strange Little Birds is not a machine record; it’s the sound of a people in the world.”

Butch Vig chimes in: “Even if we tried to not sound like Garbage we would sound like Garbage. A lot of it is the sensibilities we share and the way we play. It’s more a vibe, how we approach things. There’s a sensibility to how I like things to sound when mixed, how I like drums to sound whether natural or processed. There are older pieces we still use, like the Roger Meyer RM58 Limiter. We used that a lot on the buses, especially on the drums; it has that trashy quality. We like to saturate things using a lot using stompboxes. Sometimes we use plug-ins like iZotope’s Trash. I still have the original SansAmp stompbox with the chips you had to move with a pencil. We used that on the very first Garbage record in 1995 and we still use it sometimes.”

From the rumbling Reaktor loop of “Sometimes” to the howling Skychord Electronics Glamour Box noise of “Magnetized”; from the Rob Papen Predator-sequencing of “So We Can Stay Alive” to the Arturia Solina-filled “Teaching Little Fingers to Play,” Garbage use effects like some bands use guitar picks. “There’s a lot of analog synths from Billy Bush’s arsenal at Red Razor,” Vig says. “A lot of the guitars go through effects. Sometimes they sound like keyboards, but the actual guitar lines are processed. We wanted to feature more stripped-down synths to give this record a cinematic feel. And it’s a dark record. We wanted Shirley’s voice to sound very exposed. Some songs are bone dry like ‘Sometimes’ with no reverb on Shirley’s vocals. We wanted her to sound vulnerable and confrontational.

“When we recorded the first album we ran things through samplers and stompboxes,” he adds. “There was a sense of freedom that made it really fun. We embraced that approach for this album too. It felt very much like the same kind of experimental vibe as on our first record.”

The bulk of the Strange Little Birds was recorded at Grunge Is Dead with overdubs and “improvements” at Red Razor Sounds. Vig used a Crane Song Avocet controller, with Barefoot MicroMain 27 main monitors and Focal CMS 65s as his smaller reference monitors. The songwriting process involved band improvisations or songs written solo, then fleshed out in studio. Synthesizers were pushed through stompboxes, guitars were re-amped. Pedals included EarthQuaker Bit Commander, Hoof Reaper, Pitch Phase, Rainbow Machine, and Eventide Space and Time Factor Delay pedals for textures. “No one in the band is excited about a natural guitar sound,” Billy Bush says. “It’s really about creating a sound we’ve never heard before. That’s where the fun is for us.”

Strange Little Birds drops June 10; get the full studio story in the June 2016 issue of Electronic Musician.