From grunge to Garbage

ON REFLECTION: Garbage drummer Butch Vig, whose producing credits include Nirvana’s best-selling album Nevermind.
ON REFLECTION: Garbage drummer Butch Vig, whose producing credits include Nirvana’s best-selling album Nevermind.

Ahead of Garbage's Wellington gig, drummer and founder Butch Vig talks to Tom Cardy about the band and his other career as a top producer, including Nirvana's ground-breaking Nevermind.

From the beginning 19 years ago, Scottish singer Shirley Manson has been the face of American rock indie four-piece Garbage.

Like most drummers, band member Butch Vig is more often heard than seen, while Manson, bass player Duke Erikson and guitarist Steve Marker are in the spotlight on stage.

But anyone with more than a passing knowledge of rock knows Vig is more than the drums of Garbage. He is also a sought-after producer and his resume includes the grunge touchstone and one of the biggest-selling and most influential albums of the past 25 years: Nirvana's Nevermind.

"I had no idea it was going to be that zeitgeist moment that a record takes off and has that kind of critical and commercial success," says Vig. "It changed my life profoundly and it changed everyone involved with the band's life profoundly.

In 2011, the 20th anniversary of Nevermind, Vig spent a lot of time with Nirvana's surviving members, Dave Grohl, now best known for Foo Fighters, and Krist Novoselic. They did interviews and worked on a box-set release. "To me, the record still sounds as good now as it did when it came out.

But at the time we just thought, ‘wow, this record's cool. The songs are good. It sounds powerful'. But you have no idea that it's just going to kind of shake the world as it did.

"I'm extremely thankful. It changed my life in a way that I've been able to sort of pick and choose projects and things."

Before Nevermind, Vig had drummed for several bands and contributed to soundtracks for low-budget movies. One of his bands formed its own label, while with another he learned about recording and producing.

It was Vig's producing work with other bands, including Killdozer, that led to Nirvana.

He worked on remixes for U2, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails and would bring in Marker and Erikson to play on the tracks. The results pleased the three so much that they decided to form their own band. They recorded some demos before discovering Manson.

"All the bands I had been in were all male. We had no idea who [the singer] was going to be, but we were so damn lucky that we found Shirley."

Marker was watching MTV late one night when he saw Manson performing in a band called Angel Fish. The music video was shown only once during two hours of MTV.

"If he hadn't stayed up and watched MTV that night we would never have met her. I'm certain of it."

Vig says he still struggles trying to imagine any other singer fronting the band. "It's funny. Some of the very early demos that we did before Shirley joined us had Duke and Steve and me taking turns singing, but it's all terrible.

None of us intended to sing, but we were just trying to write a song, trying to write some lyrics and get a rough melody."

Garbage's self-titled 1995 debut was a big seller, including more than 2.4 million copies in the United States. Version 2.0 in 1998 also sold well, while chart success has been stronger on subsequent albums in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

But even after a six-year hiatus before fifth album Not Your Kind of People, released last year, the band remain popular.

Vig says Manson, who "writes 95 per cent of the lyrics", is still a vital component. "She is able to take whatever we do sonicly and one of the reasons I think we can do a lot of different things musically is because she has such a strong personality. We can do a hip-hop song or we can do a techno song or we can do a song like Sugar, which is all film atmospherics."

But after nearly two decades Vig says he doesn't take Garbage's achievements for granted. The success it had with its debut was a complete surprise.

"It didn't sound like the current alternative scene, just the way we blended different styles of music together. When people heard of Garbage and that Butch Vig was involved I think they expected a grunge record. The kind of songs we wrote and the production was a lot different than what was being played on alternative radio at the time.

"The biggest factor is Shirley. She is an amazing frontperson. She's a great singer and is extremely charismatic and looks cool. If she had never joined we would never have had this."

Garbage play Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, on February 19

The Dominion Post