‘Pick up a guitar and make some noise’: A chat with Garbage co-founder/superproducer Butch Vig

Since forming in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1993, the American/Scottish alt-rock quartet — featuring Shirley Manson, Butch Vig, Steve Marker, and Duke Erikson — has forged a distinctive path through an ever-changing musical landscape, all while staying true to their DIY roots and mercurial sound.

Following an extended hiatus during the late 2010s, Garbage reformed and put together an own independent record label, Stunvolume, which reinvigorated their career and provided the creative freedom to release two excellent albums – 2012’s Not Your Kind of People and 2016’s Strange Little Birds.

The group has also taken an affectionate look back in recent years. In 2015, Garbage’s 20 Years Queer tour commemorated the 20th anniversary of their self-titled debut. And this month saw the release of This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake, an autobiographical coffee-table book featuring photos, artifacts, and anecdotes from throughout the band’s illustrious career.

Ahead of Garbage’s book signing at Magers & Quinn Booksellers on Thursday, and a sold-out show with Blondie at Mystic Lake Casino on Friday, we chatted with Vig by phone from his Silver Lake, California, home studio. The 61-year-old drummer/superproducer talked about the current state of his band, the inspiration behind their new book, and the unique thrill of touring with musical legends Blondie and X’s John Doe and Exene Cervenka.

City Pages: How did the formation of Stunvolume free the band up at this later stage in your career?

Butch Vig: We had a very successful run of records in the ‘90s and into the 2000s, and those were all on big labels like Interscope, Warner Bros., and BMG. And while it was very successful, there were many times where we butted heads with the labels and didn’t really agree with what they wanted us to do.

And part of that was, like anybody, when you’re selling a lot of records everybody is happy. And then when the music climate changes and things get more tricky, then everybody has an opinion. We were happy to step away from the majors.

Starting Stunvolume just completely freed us up to do whatever we want at our own pace, and release whatever we want when we want to. It was a little terrifying at the start, because there is a lot of work involved. But at the end of the day it’s worth it, because you control everything. We’re very hands-on.

Everything in Garbage, we all deal with business matters together, the artwork, we write and produce songs together, we make all the decisions together. I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re still here after twenty years; we’re all very interactive with each other. And we’re friends, too, so I think that’s why we’re still here.

CP: Does having your own label take the pressure and expectations off the band? So you could write and record Strange Little Birds because you wanted to, instead of feeling like you had to?

BV: Yeah, definitely. Both with Not Your Kind of People and Strange Little Birds, we made those records in a bubble. We make ‘em, and we give them to our manager and say, “Here it is.” No one is asking “Where is the radio single?” We don’t even care about that anymore.

Even if we wrote what we thought was a Top 40 radio single, it wouldn’t get airplay anyway. Because they are just playing EDM or R&B or whatever the current flavor of the month is. And we don’t even want to try and compete with that. We’d rather just artistically do what makes Garbage, Garbage. 

Strange Little Birds was definitely more of a cinematic sounding album for us, we stripped away a lot of the big rock guitars on it. There are still some songs with big fuzzy guitars, but a lot of the album is more cinematic and atmospheric. We felt like we had to do that sonically because that’s kind of where Shirley was going lyrically. We really did try and follow her lead and where she was going with her vocals, and we’re really happy with how the record turned out.

We’re right in the middle of a new record right now, we’ve already got a handful of songs that we’ve recorded. We’ve just finished mixing a song called “No Horses,” which we’re going to release as a single in July. With some luck, we’re going to try and play it in some of the shows. We haven’t rehearsed it yet, but we’re going to attempt to do that, probably today. See if we can get a live arrangement whipped into shape.

CP: How does your role and approach as a producer change with Garbage compared to producing a band that you aren’t personally involved in?

BV: They are completely two different things, really. When I’m producing someone else, I have to remember that it’s my job to help them realize their vision. When I’m working with Green Day or the Foo Fighters, it’s their music and their album, and I’m there to help facilitate that, and to help them make the best album they can make.

In Garbage, I’m a producer, but I’m also an arranger, I’m a musician, and I play drums and guitar and keyboards. I can be an engineer, and just be a lab rat and work on sonic things. I can be the chef, or order the wine, or make coffee. All four of us share those decisions, so I don’t have any specific role in Garbage. It kind of changes on a day-to-day basis. And that’s the same for all four of us, because we all share production ideas, which is what is so good about the band.

CP: How influential or inspirational was the Twin Cities music scene for you during your early days in music? Did Pachyderm Studios have any effect on how you designed or envisioned Smart Studios?

BV: We always took a very DIY attitude at Smart Studios when I started it with Steve (Marker). We knew there was a hot scene in Minneapolis, the Replacements and Suburbs always used to come down and play these smoking hot gigs in Madison. And of course everybody knew Prince. He was an incredible icon and genius.

To me, I always thought Minneapolis had a cool scene. It wasn’t like New York, or it wasn’t like L.A. or Austin or Nashville — it just had its own thing. I think in some ways, Madison was kind of similar stylistically, in terms of some of the bands that came out of there. I just think there was a great DIY attitude in Minneapolis, the same as there was in Madison.

I used to go to Oar Folkjokeopus and just buy the coolest records there. They had all these imports from the U.K. that you couldn’t find anywhere else. And Twin Tone was a pioneering indie label. They put out some killer records. I just read that biography on the Replacements last year, and it’s brilliant. Trouble Boys. It’s fantastic. An amazing book.

CP: Do you still have strong connections with Wisconsin?

BV: Oh yeah, I do. My wife and daughter are back there right now visiting my family. I couldn’t go back because we’re deep in Garbage rehearsals. My brother and sister live back there, I have a lot of family and a ton of friends still in Wisconsin. I grew up in Viroqua but I call Madison my hometown, because that’s where my formative years were, where I grew up and got into music. I love Madison, it’s a really thriving community, and it will always be dear to my heart.

CP: Garbage recently celebrated their 20th anniversary with a tour and rerelease of your debut album. Do you allow yourself the luxury of looking back on your prestigious career — both as a musician and as a producer — and take a moment to realize the impact you’ve had on the sound and direction of modern music?

BV: I know I’m very lucky that I’ve had a long career in music, both as a producer and in bands. And I’ve had some really successful albums that I’ve worked on. But I’ve never looked at it as a job, it’s just something that I’ve always done. I’ve been making music my whole adult life, in some form or another, and no matter what kind of success I had, I’d still be doing it. It’s just in my DNA to make music. I can’t really be objective about what my best work is. I’m more interested in moving forward.

We’re already working on a new Garbage record, we’ve got a handful of songs in the can. I have another project, Five Billion In Diamonds, with two U.K. DJs [James Grillo and Andy Jenks], we have an album coming out in August. It’s sort of a soundtrack album, like a very ‘50s and ‘60s-sounding soundtrack album. I’m also writing music right now for a film called Puppy Love. Like a lot of people who are artistically inclined, you just sort of keep moving forward. I don’t really sit around and think about the past that much.

However, when we played that 20th anniversary for Garbage it was a gas. We just had a great time going back and playing the first album from front to back, because it’s still a great collection of songs. Sonically, we really tapped into a sound on that record. It was quite unique sounding for that moment. It’s a celebration, man, to be here after 20 years and still be making music. When we walk on stage, we feel like we need to celebrate every night. There’s no givens in this world and we don’t know how long we’re going to go as a band. But as long as we’re still standing, we’re going to keep making music.

CP: There’s an autobiography on the band coming out. How did This Is The Noise That Keeps Me Awake come together, and what can you tell me about the book?

BV: It’s an oral history on the career of Garbage, pretty much written in our own words. We worked with a writer, Jason Cohen, who we’ve known for a long time and is pretty close to the band. He interviewed us and wrote the whole thing and put it together. And we had a friend of ours, an editor Joe Levy from Rolling Stone, who came in and did the final tweaks. So we had some great people we collaborated with. It’s a very intimate look at the band, because there are a lot of sidebars and anecdotes — we really wanted to get more personal and not just talk about the big rock moments.

Some of the little moments in the band, the little things that happened, are more interesting, at least to us. There are a lot of those in the book. And there are a lot of intimate pictures from our personal photo collections that Shirley went through and pulled. It just makes it more personal and more intimate, and I think hardcore Garbage fans are going to dig it. We’re really pleased with how it turned out. It took us three years to put together, and it looks great. 

CP: You’re playing in the Twin Cities area with Blondie. How excited are you about that tour together, and how important has their music been to you over the years?

BV: We’re all huge Blondie fans in Garbage. Shirley and Debbie Harry are really good friends. I think it’s really cool for us to be playing together. Debbie Harry and Shirley Manson are two of the most iconic female singers in rock ‘n’ roll. Blondie had a massive run in the ‘80s and we had a massive run in the ‘90s, and to be walking on stage and still playing our songs together and celebrating that is a really cool thing.

I know both Debbie and Shirley have become role models for a lot of young women. There’s not that many young women in rock bands these days, and every show we play we always get young girls coming up to us saying they want to start a band. And we just say, ‘Do it. Just do it. Pick up a guitar and make some noise.’

CP: We’re really excited to have that tour come here. I know I can’t wait. And, John Doe and Exene Cervenka (from X) are opening the show, so it’s just going to be a great night of music.

BV: Yeah, it’s going to be great man. And X started in the late ‘70s, so we’re talking three generations of rock and punk rock are going to be on display, with three incredibly powerful women. So I think it’s going to be a pretty special evening.

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