What can you do when you've reached the limits of technical innovation? According to Garbage, the answer is to go back to the basics of songwriting.
When producers Butch Vig, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker formed Garbage with former Angelfish and Goodbye Mr McKenzie singer Shirley Manson expectations were high, thanks to Vig's profile as producer of Nirvana's classic Nevermind. Garbage's 1996 self-titled debut album was indeed a breath of fresh air, uniting distorted guitars and cool female vocals with production that owed as much to Public Enemy as Led Zeppelin (read the March 1997 SOS interview with Butch Vig for more details). Indeed, it's a measure of their success that the once-radical techniques they used on their first two albums are now commonplace in mainstream rock music. With their recent third album beautifulgarbage, therefore, they say they've returned to the fundamental ingredients of rock and pop music: the songs, and the chemistry between band members playing together.
"I think the first record really did catch people by surprise, the way we wedded techno and hip-hop beats to guitars and pop melodies and stuff," explains Butch Vig. "Now, almost every rock band out there has got hip-hop beats and a sampler. It's almost impossible to come up with a new sound these days, unless it's something so crazy and atonal that it's not going to sound very pleasant to listen to! For us, the most important thing is to try to write a song that works at an emotional level with Shirley's singing and lyrics. When we then record it, we're not really elitist arrangement-wise — we don't think 'Well, it's got to be techno,' or 'We're only going to use hip-hop beats.' We'll take influences from anywhere, anything that turns us on, but we were never trying to make any statement. We were just tired of making guitar rock records. That's why we started using samplers and computers and bringing all these genres and throwing them against the wall together. The technical aspect of it now is less important to us than it was."
"I think the only vision we had for the new album was that we did want it to sound different," says Duke Erikson. "We wanted to try some new things — that's as far as the vision went. We were open to trying a bunch of different approaches to songwriting, and a lot of the songwriting came out of us just jamming together. It evolved out of us playing live for 20 months on the tour after Version 2.0, so I think we wanted to hustle into the studio and keep that chemistry going. 'Shut Your Mouth' came out from just setting up and playing music for three hours, and Shirley was spontaneously singing. 'So Like A Rose' we recorded in about two hours. That was a refreshing thing for us to do, because the first two records were done more piecemeal, and this came out of the chemistry of the four of us playing together every night."
Despite the obvious frustrations and tensions that can arise when four producers work together ("We usually get branded as three producers and a singer, but that's really not the way it works," insists Duke. "Shirley has just as many ideas as we do."), every step of the Garbage production process is a collaborative one. "Someone might bring in a chord progression or a rough melody, but the whole band takes it, and a lot of things just came from jamming in the studio on this record," says Butch. "We basically started playing, and sometimes we would play for days and it would just be a bunch of crap. Shirley would be hanging around, and when Duke and Steve and I finally got some music that inspired her, she would all of a sudden come up with melodies and lyrics. A lot of those were written really fast."
"It's like being lost in the woods together and waiting for someone to find the way out," says Duke. "You wait for someone to figure out where the sun's shining, or find a compass or something that gets you the hell out. Half the time, all four of us don't know where we are. It can be quite scary!"
"Producing a record is about articulating ideas, trying to understand what a band's vision is, whether it's your own band or someone else's band, and trying to get the best performances and the best arrangements," continues Butch. "We argue all the time, the four of us, but I think we're lucky that we share a certain sensibility that allows us to keep steam-rollering along the same path. Sometimes we all veer off in different directions — we're writing a song and it takes a while for us to come together and make our peace with the song, to understand where it's going. I'll come in with an idea and I'll work on it and nobody will respond to it, and sometimes you get frustrated, because you think 'It's a really cool idea but no-one else in the band likes it!' Sometimes the songs detour around a lot until all of a sudden all four of us feel like we've finally arrived at a point where the song's cool. It can be a frustrating emotional experience, because it's a very intimate process.
"I think if someone really wanted to figure out the processes we go through, they should listen to all the mixes of one song, all the way through. As soon as we have the basic idea, we jam in the studio and Shirley comes up with the melody and the lyrics. It might be in a very raw form to start with, but as we go, we constantly make rough mixes. You could probably go from the first one through about 12 or 20 mixes and hear what the change will be. Some of the songs take radical detours to get from point A to point B, when the song's finished."
"We kind of mix as we go, really," agrees Duke. "We're constantly mixing the songs to see where we stand, what needs to go and needs to come. Often we move a chunk of one song into another just to see if it works. More often than not it doesn't, but sometimes it does. 'Androgyny' is really three songs stuck together. The way we do it is sometimes almost like Cubism. It's different viewpoints of the same thing, jammed together on the one canvas."
Like both of their previous albums, beautifulgarbage was recorded at the band's Smart Studio in Madison, Wisconsin; and like Version 2.0 it was engineered by Billy Bush. "I've been working with Garbage since their first tour in 1996 or 1997," explains Billy. "I was hired as their guitar tech/keyboard tech and was brought in to help them figure out how to approach playing the songs live. I was responsible for keeping the samplers and computers working during the course of the tour, and towards the end the band started discussing how they wanted to work on the second record. One of the first things they decided to investigate was some sort of digital editing system and I was given the task of researching and purchasing whatever system was the best at the time. I decided on the Pro Tools III system, purchased it and we've been using Digidesign gear ever since."
"We use Pro Tools as our main medium," agrees Butch. "That's where everything ends up, but we still track a lot to analogue tape, we have Studer tape machines. When we started the record, an engineer friend of ours from New York discovered an old Trident A-range desk that had come up for sale. We weren't really looking for one, but I've worked on Tridents before, and we love old boards like APIs and Neves and Tridents. We just decided 'Fk it, let's see if we can buy it and ship it out here as quickly as possible,' and we tracked everything through it. It's an amazing-sounding board: whether you need EQ or not, if you just insert it into the channel it adds all this character and colour. It gives a thickness and darkness to some of the songs, the tonality of it really colours the sound in a good way. So we ran everything through that, and a lot of the basics we tracked to analogue tape, then we dumped everything into Pro Tools and from that point on things were overdubbed and mixed in Pro Tools. It's great once you're actually in there, the editing capabilities and sound processing, even the mixing — as you're working on a track you can start putting in automation, and when you call up the song it's there instantly for you, so you build the song as you go. We still like balancing both worlds, using analogue and digital."
"The way I would work is to print a stereo mix of the Pro Tools tracks to the two-inch machine and then track the overdubs until we got a good take," explains Billy. "Then I would put Pro Tools on line and use the Universal Slave Driver to synchronise it to the tape machine. We'd then process the takes afterwards using McDSP's compressor bank or filter bank. We hammered the Studer with drum tracks for a few songs on beautifulgarbage, and would generally use the EQ on the Trident and either Urei 1176s, the Joemeek SC2 or Dbx 160s for compression pre-tape."
When Digidesign launched their new top-of-the-range HD system, Smart Studio was among the first to upgrade. "During this last break, I used some B-sides as a guinea pig for the new HD system and was unbelievably pleased!" enthuses Billy. "I have an HD2 system with one 192 I/O running on a dual 1GHz G4 Power Mac. The difference between the 888|24 converters and the new 192 I/O is astounding — not just at the increased sample rate, but overall, the 192 smokes it! The second Garbage record Version 2.0 was recorded entirely using 16-bit 888s and the latest, beautifulgarbage was recorded and mixed using 888|24s. We had spent a considerable amount of time trying different A-D and D-A converters and decided that the 888s, when used properly, could hold their own against the Apogees and the Prisms for far less money. Right now, I would have to say that the 192 is the best converter I have heard without question. My ideal situation is to track through the Trident A-range straight into the 192, mix entirely in Pro Tools and take the first pair of outputs of the 192 straight to an Ampex ATR102 half-inch machine."
The new album is characteristic in its use of a wide range of drum sounds, some plain acoustic, some heavily treated, and some electronic or sampled. "Most of them start with me playing a live Drum Workshop kit miked up," explains Butch. "I might play along with either a loop from something that I find, or an Akai MPC drum machine that I'll program a beat on and play along with for timing reference. But by the time a song is finished there's usually overdubs — I'll go in and process and cut up the live drums, or add samples. In the past we really layered a lot of songs, there were multiple drum tracks. The drums and percussion are simpler on beautifulgarbage, but there's still a couple of songs that have a lot. There's some things that would be impossible for me to play live, like the break in 'Shut Your Mouth'. When we played that, we were just trying to play this funk jam in the studio, and for the whole middle of the song, I randomly took beats and pasted them around in Pro Tools so it has this weird jarring effect. I think we did try to keep everything simpler, with a lot less layering of the drums: instead of having 10 drum tracks we'd just have one and maybe a couple of auxiliary percussion things. Sometimes the sound will change, so that the verse might be dry and the choruses bigger. That sometimes happens in the mix where we're trying to bring dynamics in the track.
"Usually we use a pretty standard mic setup, we'll just mic the kick and snare and toms, and overheads, and we might put up a stereo ambient track, and sometimes we'll run a mono track back in the room. We found this old Roger Meyer compressor which really shreds and pumps the track if you add a little bit of it, sometimes gated off the kick and snare. It colours the sound in a very cool way. It's really saturated and fked-up and distorted, but in a very musical way."
"There are separate isolation rooms at Smart that we use," adds Billy. "The big room is used for the drums and the smaller booths are for the guitar rigs and vocal booth. Duke and Steve would be in the same room as the drums with headphones and Shirley would be behind glass facing in towards the rest of the band. For the drum kit, I used a Neumann FET 47 or a Blue Mouse outside the kick drum inside a packing blanket tunnel, and an Audio-Technica ATM25 inside the kick. For the snare I used an SM57, naturally; overheads were AT 4041s, toms Neumann U67s. Room mics included the Royer R121 and a Calrec Soundfield."
One particularly weird drum effect occurs during the break in 'Till The Day I Die': "The overheads and ambience are reversed but the snares and kicks are forwards," explains Billy.
The band's approach to recording guitars is equally distinctive, and beautifulgarbage sees distorted crunches cheek-by-jowl with delicate acoustics and treated sounds which are almost unrecognisable. "We became quickly enamoured with the Line 6 Pod at the beginning of this project, and used it quite a bit," says Duke. "The more we used it, the more we realised that it was somewhat limited. The more you stack Pod sound upon another Pod sound again and again, it starts sounding a little bit too digital and a little bit irritating. We went back to using the Marshall and the Mesa Boogie and the Matchless or whatever, and you really could tell the difference. Then we relied more on the Pod for more processed sounds, for melodic lines and guitar embellishments. The combination worked really well."
"We ended up using the Pod Pro for the more extreme and bizarre-sounding guitar parts on the record," agrees Billy. "As we layered and layered, it became necessary to change the guitar sounds and signal chain in order to keep the phasing problems to a minimum. We found in the end that a mixture of the direct Pod and a miked guitar cabinet moving air could be very dramatic. There's so many guitars on the record that it'd be impossible to break it down into what was what! We are also fans of having the guitars be unique-sounding from the beginning, so we would often effect them pre-Pro Tools. We find that the sound itself can inspire parts that you wouldn't normally come up with. That said, the amount of post effecting that went on was excessive as well!"
Some of the more obvious guitar sounds that were effected at the recording stage include the curious wah-wah guitar sound on 'Shut Your Mouth' — "That was a '55 Les Paul Junior through an old Digitech Whammy pedal into a Matchless Hurricane/Marshall 4x12 amp setup," says Billy — and the sustained sound in the guitar break on 'So Like A Rose', which was multitracked by Duke playing a Les Paul with an E-bow, through the Pod. The Digitech pedal also made its presence felt on 'Untouchable' ("It's got to be the old Tommy Morrello version!" insists Billy), while layering an edited acoustic part with a clean electric guitar created the unique synth-like sound that opens 'Parade'.
When asked how the guitar parts on songs such as 'Shut Your Mouth' retain definition on the notes despite their frightening level of distortion, Billy simply names one product: the Manley Massive Passive EQ. The guitar parts on beautifulgarbage are also distinguished by an unusual approach to cabinet miking: "For recording guitars, I made a point of not using any SM57s at all — it's too easy to default to that! Instead we had one Marshall 4x12 with four mics on it all the time and used whichever mic or combination suited the tone best: either the FET 47, R121, Mouse or an AT4047. Acoustics were done with a Blue Bottle mic."
There was heated debate in the SOS editorial office recently about a new sample CD called Groove Shadows, a collection of ambient noises and found sounds designed to sit beneath a more prominent drum part in a mix to add feel and atmosphere. Garbage, it seems, are big fans of this technique, and many of the samples on beautifulgarbage in particular have been used in this sort of 'background' context. "A lot of the loops we use we'll combine with real drums or whatever, and often it's more textural than it is a rhythmic thing," says Duke Erikson. "It's just to lend a different edge to the drums, or a texture to the whole song, a sound, rather than worrying about it being a particular rhythm. We still use a lot of samples, but it's not as obvious as it used to be. We've pulled that back and just let it be more of a subtle, subconscious thing."
"Sometimes it's just a noise that we might combine with the snare drum to give it a different character," explains Butch Vig. "Or it'll be a guitar, I'll unplug a guitar and there'll be a little torn noise that hangs off, or a reverb, and we'll take that and use it as the tail of a snare drum, or we'll run it backwards and it'll be a lead-in to a chorus. Any time we hear an unusual sound we have a tendency to save it, and then see if it can do something in the background."
"The DAT machine's always on pause-record, in case we stumble on something," adds Duke.
"We record accidents, before somebody fixes them!" laughs Butch. "Half the time you listen back and wonder why the hell you recorded that, but we do use them though. We don't have to deliberately break things, they just break! We've got old analogue pedals lying around in the basement that don't work correctly any more, but they sound better than when they worked properly. At one point I went back to that corner of the studio and there was something like a hundred pedals there, and I didn't even know what all of them were. Some of them are obvious, like Electro-harmonix pedals and old Boss chorus pedals, and we have old Roland Space Echos and Big Muffs, but there's always other things. And we would sometimes run vocals or drums through them, or chain a bunch of things if we're running a Nord or whatever."
"Most of the drum sounds are a combination of different drums to begin with," explains Billy. "The snare or kick would often be two or three different-sounding drums. Since many of the drums are samples, they have their own ambience that adds texture to the track. For the more 'normal' sounding drums we would add more ambient sounds underneath and fade them in and out so it would meld into a new sound. Usually we just paste them in by hand in Pro Tools wherever we feel they are needed."
Whereas the guitars and drums are often heavily treated on Garbage records, the band exercise a little more restraint with Shirley Manson's vocals. "The vocals sound pretty clean, although I think we did things that were a little bit more subtle," says Duke. "For instance, we might take out some bottom and add some top, just so it fits in the mix better, and from part to part we'd change the sound. Sometimes it's subtle, so you don't really notice it, but it does change quite a bit over the course of the record."
"For the most part it's not treated as much on this record as it was on the first two," says Butch. "I think it's just because Shirley was singing so much better, and she was coming up with melodies that were longer and had more range to them. She just felt more confident on this record, too, so there wasn't any point in doing a lot with it. On something like 'Nobody Loves You' she sings really low on the verse, almost at the bottom of her range, and then and the end she's singing three and a half octaves higher, almost in falsetto, as the song turns into a big wall of sound."
That's not to say, of course, that there aren't some interesting and often highly unusual vocal textures on beautifulgarbage. The lead vocal in 'Cherry Lips' was heavily EQ'd at the tracking stage ("It was tracked that way for effect — it sounded weirder that way!" explains Billy), while the whispered vocal on 'Shut Your Mouth' was subjected to serious Pro Tools plug-in treatments using GRM Tools' Band Pass and Wave Mechanics' Soundblender. Meanwhile, 'Till The Day I Die' begins with a curious digital scratching effect: "We soloed the vocal track and Butch used the scrub wheel on the Pro Control to 'scratch'," reveals Billy. "We printed it to a DAT, then flew it back in and edited it around the vocal. He did a few different passes that way and we just used whatever was cool."
"There's a strange sound on 'Breaking Up The Girl' that was actually Shirley," adds Butch. "We sampled her going 'aah' and Duke played guitar, and that made it sound like a weird little melodic quote, not necessarily a vocal part."
Backing vocals were also fair game for experimentation on songs such as 'Androgyny', where each track was EQ'd and treated differently, and 'Can't Cry These Tears'. "The backing vocals on that were multitracked — there are four parts and each part was triple-tracked using different microphones," says Billy. "We used a Telefunken E-LAM 251, a Brauner KHE VM1, and a Blue Bottle micropohone."
In keeping with the new-found emphasis on songs and band performance, Shirley's original guide vocals actually made it on to the final mixes of several songs. "On this record we used the guide vocal quite a bit," says Duke. "On 'So Like A Rose' Shirley was out in the lounge just strumming a guitar, and kind of mumbling some little melody, and I happened to be walking by and I asked her what it was, and she said 'Nothing'. So we coaxed it out of her and went into the studio, and Butch got a little drum pattern going, and I hooked up a really lo-fi guitar sound — it's a little Ampeg rehearsal amp, I dialled down the tone and dialled up the break-up a bit, and it sounded great. She made the lyrics up, we turned the lights down a little bit and Shirley went in and we just started playing. She started coming up with the lyrics, and we simply did one long take. We moved bits around here and there, and it was about 20 minutes long so we had to edit it down, but it was just one take."
When it comes to vocals, Garbage have a couple of secret weapons. One is their vocal mic of choice, as Butch explains: "When we're tracking, we just use whatever mic is laying around — she'll sing in an SM57, or an AKG C414, or it might be a Neumann U87 or U67. Sometimes we use a Beyer ribbon mic or something if she's in the live room with us: it has less bleed, so there's a little bit more separation. But if we're doing a proper vocal we have our old 1957 Telefunken E-LAM we like to use. It's got this great saturation in the mid-range that brings all the 'aaah' out, it's just got this great presence, and we never really have to EQ her voice in the mix. We use a Summit mono compressor, and that's the chain. But sometimes she'll use other things — she'll plug in a 57 into an amp and we'll run it through the tremolo effect if we're trying to get something different-sounding."
The other unique tool at their disposal is one of their own creation: the Shirleytron. "We spent an afternoon having Shirley sing straight 'Ahh' and 'Ooooh' notes up and down her range," explains Billy. "I then normalised them and spent forever loading and looping them in a Kurzweil K2500. It's like a Mellotron with Shirl's voice in it. It's kept under lock and key at the studio!"
One of the most characteristic features of Garbage's production has always been their willingness to use drastic effects and editing over entire mixes as well as individual instrument parts. Garbage opened with 'Super Vixen', where the whole mix was effectively muted at intervals, and there are several examples on the new album. The middle section of 'Can't Cry These Tears', for example, features what sounds like tremolo over all the instruments at once. "We cut the drums up in a strange pattern that left holes in the ambience and then used that track to trigger a gate that was across a submix that had all but vocals mixed into it," explains Billy.
"Some of that goes back to being inspired by records you heard in the '60s and '70s, where they put the whole thing through a tremolo or a phaser, or a Leslie," says Butch. "It just sounds so freaky. I think we also have short attention spans. There's always this tendency between the four of us to want to add something. We tried to keep the songs simpler this time around, so instead of filling a lot of spaces in the songs, we'd do one thing — maybe we'd tremolo the whole thing, or we'd give different sections certain vibes, but only one particular vibe, not 10 different things going on at once."
Despite the relative minimalism of the new material, beautifulgarbage took the band a year to complete, with some tracks going through as many as 40 mixes. When it was finally done, the album was handed over to Scott Hull at New York's Classic Sound for mastering. "We are firm believers that at that point in the project it's necessary to have some fresh ears to pull it all together," says Billy. "He would do the final EQ and compressing and put it all in sequence. The amount of time you spend on the spacing between songs at that point is ridiculous — and yet it makes such a difference to the flow."
You might think that a hard-earned holiday would be in order after a year in the studio, but it's not for nothing that Garbage are known as the hardest-working band in the business. The success of Version 2.0 was cemented by a punishing 20-month world tour, and they're now in the early stages of an equally gruelling global slog to promote beautifulgarbage. This, of course, throws up the problem of how four people can recreate the sound of innumerable overdubs, edits and effects processes on stage. "I think you limit yourself while recording if you start thinking in terms of how you're going to reproduce it live. That's a challenge that comes later, and you just figure it out," says Duke. "You just have to throw the doors wide open and do whatever you can do to make the record what you want it to be. We were incredibly daunted by the first tour, having worked on that record and done all this stuff — how were we going to present it?"
"I think it's healthy to look at it as two completely different mediums," adds Butch. "There's no way we're going to have an orchestra on stage with us — either Duke will play it as a sampled keyboard thing, or we'll drop the strings. Some of the songs live are stripped back a lot, so they're much simpler, and the song still comes across fine. It just doesn't have all the ear-candy stuff that you can put on in the studio."
"Sometimes we wish we'd recorded that version for the record!" laughs Duke. "Sometimes less is more, definitely. Sometimes you discover things in there you didn't even realise you'd done, musically speaking, once you've stripped away all the bells and whistles. Overall, we're trying to write songs. That's the focus of most of what we do. There's the occasional sonic onslaught that we do just for the sake of sonic onslaught, but we're all trying to write songs."
"I think we sort of discovered that when we were on the road before," says Butch. "'Till The Day I Die' and 'Silence Is Golden' were both recorded while we were touring. We were just going to use them as B-sides, but they turned out so well, and we got so excited about how quickly we had done them, because both songs happened very quickly, with ideas flying around the room. That's what got us excited about making a new record. We just felt more confident — it was a matter of developing chemistry playing live all those many months."
"It's about keeping things simple, but you can do some interesting things that way as well," agrees Duke. "You don't have to pile tracks up, and you don't have to necessarily treat everything, either. You can just use different combinations of instruments. I think we learned a lot doing this record, we explored a few different genres of music that we hadn't touched on before, just out of curiosity really. We're setting ourselves up for something a little bit more interesting."