Working Collectively and Apart on Not Your Kind of People
by Ken Micallef
What was your approach on the new album?
We’re a very hi-tech/low-tech combo. That kind of esthetic drove us on the first two records using electronics and guitars and beats and pop melodies, and embracing all those things in the mix. We didn’t want to reinvent who we were this time, but rather let’s do what our sensibilities bring forward and try to capture the looseness and vibe of our first record. We wanted to embrace the hi-tech and low-tech, and that is the sound of this record.
This was the first time we got together as a band in six years. We didn’t know the expectations, though we knew we were no longer on a label, nobody breathing down our necks to turn in an album. We decided not to analyze stuff but just play. We just f**ked around for five days and drank a lot of wine and told stories and recorded. After a couple days I started going through and pulling things. There were six or seven things that were cool, and so we focused on four that we worked on. Rather than hole up in the studio, we’d start working on music at our home studios then get together for two weeks, then go home, then get together for two weeks. We’d do two weeks in Billy’s studio, then we’d all take it back to our home studios and work on it. It was back and forth between Billy’s and our respective home studios through 2011. All co-written, from us jamming or somebody would bring in a beat and a progression, or a guitar riff and a beat
How did the others record?
Steve and Duke worked in their home studios. Duke recorded guitars and drums at Smart. He played drums on one of the bonus tracks and on Sugar. I played a bunch of guitar on the record. We all program and do guitars and keys, I do most of the drums. Steve and Duke both program.
How’d you record Shirley’s vocals?
There was never a purist approach for Shirley’s vocals. Some of the vocals she did sitting on my couch with a handheld. “I Hate Love” was a scratch from a demo we did. It was originally 30 bpm slower. Then we sped it up to sound clubby. I pitched her vocal up 30 bpm. I thought she would re-sing it, then we got used to the sound of her voice. Due to the time-stretching there’s an electronic quality, but we like that.
Different production approach for new album?
On Version 2.0, we kept trying to make things more focused or tighter. This time we went for the first idea, then tweaked it if it was a little rough sounding. Sometimes we’d run things through guitar amps, and SoundToys Decapitator or Billy’s Death By Audio stompbox pedals. I like the harmonic saturation in Decapitator, the sound of the distortion, you can really control it and it’s easy on the ears. You can turn it up and really f**k things up, but it doesn’t get harsh sounding. If you hit the control with the high cut and the low cut and the filters on it, it sounds really good.
We didn’t want anything to sound too straight. Shirley likes singing and hearing with a vibe on her voice, whether it’s a chopped echoey thing or a filter or a little harmonic distortion. The only straight song is “Sugar.” It’s just the nature of the song.
How do you typically write lyrics?
Sometimes I just go in and see what comes out of my mouth when I’m in the booth. And other times I use stuff that I’ve had for months. Sometimes the boys will play me something and I will have an idea. But I will go away and work on it at home and come back in and contribute it. I am not a techy gearhead person at all, and they are, which is why we’re a good mix.
Do you improvise lyrics and vocal lines in the studio?
I improve the lyrics and vocals on every track to some degree or another. It’s more fun. Recording this record was definitely way looser in approach than we’ve ever done before. I had vocal surgery a few years ago for polyps and it really changed the way I look after myself. I kind of abused myself. I would go into the vocal booth and just sing for hours to get so called “perfect takes.” In retrospect I am more careful now and I don’t over-sing. So I have to be quicker on my feet. Self preservation! Self preservation! Now I am more careful, I do warm-ups and warmdowns. I never used to do any of that sh*t. I have tapes from a coach that I keep in a little special box. I go through a drill to stretch my vocal chords. Weird cat noises, scales, it’s very odd and very annoying to anyone within close proximity.
Do you punch-in for perfection?
Yea! God yea! We do use the studio and we see the benefits of it. Sometimes you come in and you’ve got a great vocal but there will be a tiny little flaw somewhere which I can run in and fix. Of course. We rarely keep anything from start to finish, though there are a couple of vocals on the record, like “Beloved Freak,” that is just one take. The only time I ever sang it.
Number of maximum takes in the old days?
I would sing for hours. It becomes fatiguing and joyless. There’s a really amazing feeling when you nail something quickly. You get that real rush of adrenaline and you see everybody getting excited. That’s what I am looking for when I go in and sing. Obviously because of the way we have always recorded and the type of band we are we all believe that you can create magic and it doesn’t necessarily come in the first take. We’re known for that. We love using the advantages of the studio and sometimes a carefully sung vocal will sound better to everybody than a sloppy one. Trouble starts when there’s no balance at all.
Who came up with the idea for the strobing vocals in “Blood for Poppies?”
That is one of mine, I must confess. My band can translate whatever I am desperately trying to describe. It’s not a logical decision, it’s a feeling. You think, oh there could be a tiny splash here that will really make that line pop. It’s not an intellectual decision, it’s an emotional one. And they can get that sound more quickly now. Overall, this recording process has been much more spontaneous and much less ponderous. Again, it helps that everybody has become more skilled as the years have gone by. When we did Version 2.0 and the technology was just being brought out into the public arena, it was much more frustrating and much more time-consuming and nobody really knew how to use Pro Tools, and everybody was used to tape. Now the line between us and the technology is very thin.
Any tips to artists who seek to find a unique identity?
I see a lot of very young girls who aren’t properly formed, and all of a sudden they have a million dollar record deal. That is the challenge that really faces a lot of young artists now. They don’t have the time to go and play a billion sh*tty clubs like I did. I played for 12 years in a local Edinburgh band before I got any attention. I was a pretty seasoned performer by the time I got to Garbage. You just have to figure it out on the hop. Remain flexible and try not to listen to too many people.
You are the only one who knows how you feel and how you want to represent yourself as an individual. Nobody else has that perspective and never will. So you have to listen to who you are and what you want to say and be true to how you feel 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. They believe you because they know it’s authentic. There isn’t very much authenticity any more. It’s all people at recording companies patching artists together and deciding how they are going to present an artist. And that’s crazy. It can’t end well; the artist has to be in the driver’s seat. Always.
How did you write for this album?
We each came up with song ideas and brought them into the studio. Then we’d all go home and work on each other’s song ideas. Then we’d come back. Like all of our records, there is no one formula to any of the songs. We try not to get stuck in any kind of rut. I couldn’t really tell you one particular way they were all done.
Guitars in “Battle in Me?”
A lot of that is live. All came out of a live session, the four of us just jamming in Billy’s studio. We came up with the basic idea of the song. The lyrics didn’t change much from the first day and even some of the vocals are live from that first session. The guitars are processed pretty heavily. Not all of them. The guitars at the top are pretty much the way we laid them down originally. We have one bass riff, then Avery came in and added another bass riff.
Approach to layering guitars?
There’s so much that we do that is so layered. Even if you hear a sound that you think is one sound, it’s probably two or three that we sort of crunched together. You find a sound in Razor or Massive and it sounds good, but then you have to do something with that, so you combine it with another sound. There’s a lot of layering of instruments but even one sound has a lot of layers to it sometimes.
Your guitar rig?
I used the POD a lot at home. But sometimes you have to redo that if you start stacking. The new POD is better. I have a little Fender amp here and an old Matchless head. Billy has a lot of great amps, a huge array of guitars and amps. I leaned toward a Telecaster, but it depended on the sound we were after. I played a great old Gretsch on a couple tracks.
What is the band’s approach to noise?
We all share the same esthetic. All the noises and all the sonic stuff contribute to the song. It always has to be about the song. I constantly am watching to make sure that even an amazing sound has to contribute to the song and the arrangement or to the meaning of the lyric. If not, it should go. That’s one thing that contributes to how we put things together.
Advice for finding one’s own sonic identity?
Widen your palette. If you’re a painter, look at as many paintings as you can. And get an idea of what can be done and all the different styles, and all the different ways to look and hear and . . . expanding your own personal palette is . . . we are a bunch of older guys, and we’ve grown up with a zillion different experiences in appreciating music and just hearing it. Not liking a certain kind of music tells you something, too. You know what you don’t want to do. Be open to everything. Younger musicians need to appreciate how to play a little more and not get too sunk into the latest thing, which can sound too contrived. Whenever we look for a sound, we’re trying to make the song matter more. We‘re not trying to find something cool and shocking and weird. We want something to fit Shirley’s vocal. And the beauty of having Shirley Manson singing is that you can do anything and it will still sound good.
What are you listening to at the moment?
Two months re-obsessing about “Like A Rolling Stone.” That was a huge pop single that really changed the course of music when it came out. When they first released it, they put three minutes on one side and three minutes on the other. People started complaining and they finally released it as a six-minute single, which was unheard of. It’s all live and magical. It sends me every time. There are parts where the song starts to fall apart. You can hear it. No one plays the same thing twice from verse to verse. It’s all a little bit different. Such an amazing track. Just the magic of a song being played live in the studio and being released like that, warts and all. Such a lovely thing. If it was recorded under today’s circumstances, it wouldn’t have anywhere near the magical power it has.
How did you record for this album?
I did a lot of stuff at home with a POD. A lot of the stuff on the record is laptops and PODS at home, then we’d take it in to a pro setup in L.A. But a lot of it was DIY at home. Which is cool for how the record turned out. Some rough edges, maybe more than ever before that got left in. That’s always a good thing.
Your guitar rig?
Line 6, built my own tube amps so I used those. My fave amp on the album is a Mojave. I found in the break a crazy guitar called a Henman. That was the main thing other than the big pile of Strats and Teles at Billy’s studio. Sometimes my guitar parts were redone, other times it would be the initial lo-fi thing we did at home. Basically I use a laptop and an Apogee Duet running Pro Tools or Ableton Live, more than anything. And whatever mic is lying around. An Avalon preamp, but I don’t consider that stuff all important compared to the song.
Approach for “Battle in Me?”
That was totally started live in the studio, at the Pass in L.A., this beautiful L.A. room in Hollywood. We got together, no ideas, no demos, and we just played. Is there any reason to continue, is there still magic, or did we lose it? And we had tremendous fun. We didn’t play any old songs. We just started making noise and that was the four of us playing live and Shirley making up stuff on the mic. That was probably a 12-minute jam. Then everybody took it home on their own laptops to make sense of it as a song. There’s a tremendous amount of nano editing, as Butch calls it. It must be getting incredibly neurotic and down the wormhole! That song, we chopped it and we all had different versions. We traded it back and forth and that took six months, all these mp3s going back and forth. Eventually it started shaping it, but “Battle In Me” really worked.
How did the band generally write for this album?
For us to make something into a Garbage song seems to take a long time and a lot of trial and error. I can’t think of a time when we’ve sat down and written a song in half an hour and recorded it, and that’s the final version. We always want to tweak it and try every possible direction for a song that anyone can imagine. Then when we’ve exhausted all that, it becomes apparent what will work. I wish we could sit down with a couple acoustics and bang something out in an hour. That would be awesome. But it doesn’t sound like us when we do that. Even if there is a straightforward electric guitar, that doesn’t mean we didn’t try for three weeks before that trying every weird f**ked up sound we could think of to get to that point.
What was the band’s approach this time out?
The band wasn’t trying to please anybody this time. They just wanted to get together and have fun making music. It had been a long time since that was the most important thing in making a Garbage record. When you have a label involved and the pressure of being successful, the pressures of following up a huge record with another huge record, you start losing track of the point of it was to be fun and do something that was fun and exciting, rather than ‘will this be played on the radio?’
Was there a backlash to their last album?
On the last record, they were trying to do more of a live record, but in the studio. A lot of the electronics and studio trickery were frowned upon then. That was the era of Strokes, the White Stripes, everything being ‘really real.’ They perhaps shied away from experimenting as much and approached it more as writing rock songs then starting with textures and vibes and grooves, which is historically where all the band’s songs come from, whether it’s a sample or a sound or an atmosphere or a groove.
Who does what?
Keyboards they all play, they are all good at programming, they can all come up with an idea and flesh it out. Duke is the best keyboard player of the band. He will execute the ideas, no matter who comes up with it. A general workflow would be we listen, then they say something is missing, it needs this. Then they play guitars or keyboards, and try to find a part. Then a part or sound comes up that sparks something else. It’s a collaborative thing.
85% recorded at his studio Red Razor Sound, a new process from how the band was used to working. They usually work at Smart, but only Duke lives there now so they came to my studio for a couple weeks. They also worked at Butch’s studio and Steve’s studio in Aspen. They’d go home and work on stuff we’d done here, flesh it out then come back with better ideas. Then we’d record the idea here. They don’t really record anything as a band, they record things piecemeal. There’s only one or two instances where more than one person was playing at the same time.
A couple of Shirley’s vocals done at Butch’s is her writing vocal; just her holding a 58 in the control room. Sometimes she used a Shure SM 58 handheld for the verses and a Telefunken 251 for the chorus. Same thing with guitars: The guys would have an idea they fleshed out at Smart or in Aspen or at Butch’s, then come back with a different chorus and the guitars would be completely different sounding. Luckily, the band wanted each song to sound like it was recorded live in one pass. It doesn’t matter if things change a little. So there’s freedom in allowing the song to have different elements and different sounds and textures. That gives me a little leeway to fudge things a bit. In that situation, sometimes I can exaggerate the differences.
Man on a Wire was created from an MP3?
The main riff is a loop that Steve put together. Butch came up with a drum pattern, and sent it to Steve. He created a guitar riff, then Butch changed the tempo of the song. Steve changed the tempo again and sent this mp3 as a place marker. We couldn’t figure out what tempo he did it at and how he had pitch-shifted it to fit the tempo Butch and I were working with. We were never able to recreate it, so we had to either rerecord the guitar or do the time compression a little more gracefully. But it never sounded the same, so the main guitar and bass riff in that song is a four-bar loop off of an mp3 that Steve emailed us.
How did the band experiment this time?
Garbage records often take so long, so we have time to experiment. I typically have a new plug-in or some new program which I haven’t gotten my head around. We’d get to the section where we needed something bizarre and I’d go to Logic, Ableton, or Reactor, and just start tweaking things not really knowing what I was doing. Then some cool sound would happen, and that would spark an idea for a part with somebody in the band. Then they’d come up with a part using that sound.
Can you discuss Shirley’s mic chain?
Next in Shirley’s chain is an original Chandler Limited Ltd 1. If I wanted something more pristine, I might go with a Millenium, but the character the Chandler gives a vocal is really nice. It has great air but less warmth. It makes everything bigger and better sounding. After the Chandler, I run the mic into a Retro 176 compressor. I am not afraid of compressing the bejesus out of the signal while tracking. Every once in a while, an assistant will look aghast when I do that, ‘you know it’s kicking down 10dB!’ 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.
How were Butch’s drums recorded?
We used a lot of Decapitor on the drums. Garbage really allows me to experiment wildly with how something sounds. There is no wrong-sounding thing, except for maybe how the instruments sound naturally! The bulk of the drums were played by Butch at his house. His drums are basically in a rectangular room with an eight-foot ceiling, totally live. Not the greatest drum room. But he makes it sound like a real drum kit in a really well recorded room. He’s not 100 % concerned about it being an accurate representation of that environment, we want it to sound different.
We only did programming and processing at my studio. Butch either programmed the drums, or he’d record drums at his house then chop them up and turn it into a loop, then sample a kick and snare and throw it around. For his drums, we have an 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 tends to like a spaced pair of overheads, over the left and right cymbals, directly over him pointing outward to make it a little wider. We had a Vox 507 in the hallway as a room mic, that could be run through Decapitator and a compressor and squashed to death.
How did Butch program parts?
Often we would record drums, sample the kick, snare and toms, and then load them into FXpansion BFD or Geist. The electro-sounding stuff came out of Reason. It’s easier for Butch to come up with a pattern if he plays it on the drums first. He would play, then the only thing we would keep would be the room mic and the overheads, then we’d replace everything else.
Roger Mayer Supervibe, Culture Vulture, Moog Parametric EQ, Eventide H8000, Dramastic Audio Obsidian, Manley Slam, Summit TLA-100, Purple Audio MC77, Spectrasonics 610 Complimiter, Chandler TG-1 Limiter, LTD-1 preamp/EQs
Line 6 Pod Pro HD, Muse Research Receptor
Plug-ins used on every song were:
Universal Audio: Studer A800, Littlelabs IBP and VOG, Ampex ATR102, Manley Massive Passive, Fatso, MXR Flanger, Harrison and Trident EQs
Softube: TLA-100, Tube-Tech Channel — mostly vocals and bass
Soundtoys: Everything they make — especially Crystalizer, Filterfreak Decapitator and Echoboy
iZotope: Nectar, Stutter Edit, Ozone 5, Alloy (Nectar was used on a lot of the vocals)
Waves: Mercury bundle — Mostly Rcomp, C4, Renn Axe, VEQ4, API 550b, H-EQ, H-Delay
MCDSP: Filterbank and Chrometone
Native Instruments: Reaktor, Razor, Battery, Kontakt, Massive
Sugarbytes Effectrix, Spectrasonics Stylus, Ominisphere, Trillian