Saturday, October 24, 2009

Interview: BUTCH VIG - Talking Trash

Thursday, July 12, 2007 

Partway through producing The Subways' forthcoming album, Butch Vig is in a chilled mood. Unwearied from fielding a plethora of interviewers attempting to elicit erudite observations about his band and their new best-of album, he is especially keen to talk instead about a recent benefit concert he organised for cancer-afflicted drummer and friend Wally Ingram. "It was the most challenging thing I've ever done, co-ordinating all these bands to be at the benefit. We had Crowded House, Sheryl Crow, George Clinton, Bonnie was great, we raised over $100 000."

Also headlining the bill was of course, his band Garbage. More renown for their sustained quality of albums and general mood of dark, smart, richly produced rock than throwaway hit singles, Garbage have always seemed more about making a mood than a hit. Vig himself says "my favourite Garbage songs are the darker, more sultry ones like Queer and the title track off our last album Bleed Like Me." Twelve years on from their debut, Garbage are still more about feel than hooks.

This compilation is likely to be a trip back in time for many fans, or even occasional listeners, and, given the way their infusive music all but sums up the late 90s with it's creeping paranoia and rich fusion of genres, it would be hard to not to be one of them. "I definitely see this album as being a summing up of what we've achieved so far. It really surprised me, looking back, to see that we really are a rock band; we've put out four albums in ten years and done over 1000 shows." Having said that, Vig also points out that they are less likely to tour Australia now than ever before ("next summer at the earliest" he says). Given the number of production jobs he has on the cards and singer Shirley Manson's preoccupation with her own album, it's unsurprising. Being together as a band has never necessarily meant being together in the same room with Garbage.

"Garbage was definitely begun as a side project to my production work, it was meant to be a fun thing with no real plans. Part of the success is definitely down to 'right place right time'. In the mid 90s, when we started, people were pretty sick of grunge, so when they heard something I was involved in that didn't sound grunge at all, that was more noir-ish and had hip-hop beats, I think people really got into it. It was also a case of great timing with the first album. I've always thought it caught the end of the CD buying generation; we sold five million copies of that. If we put it out now, I think we'd sell maybe one million and a whole lot of people would be downloading it. It's so much harder to put out an album now with people being so single-oriented. So many young bands I know will record one song and some B-sides, then go on tour."

Butch Vig's position in the rock world today is a rare and authoritative one. Initially his work as a producer (overseeing breakthrough albums for Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, AFI and Sonic Youth's classic Dirty) overshadowed his songwriting and remixing nous, but in time all these talents have been brought to the fore by Garbage.

Growing up in Wisconsin (AKA 'America's Dairyland') Vig had a varied musical upbringing, and upon opening his studio in the state's capital Madison, found a world of sound to commit to tape. "I guess if I did live in New York or LA, I would have been part of a scene. In Madison I had everything coming into my studio: punk bands, rock bands, jazz ensembles, opera singers, everything."

This openness toward sound and style has lately seen Vig head into soundtrack work, something he says Garbage are interested in doing more of. One, a noir-type film being produced by the producers of 2006's Oscar-winning Crash sees him getting more electronic and experimental but still remaining 'Garbage-esque'. "It's so great to be working with a script, I love not having to think verse-chorus-verse-chorus."

Other members of the band have been busy too. Multi-instrumentalist Duke Erikson has been living in London where he is helping to assemble a BBC-sponsored compendium of folk and blues music along with an accompanying book. Guitarist Steve Marker has moved to Aspen, Colorado where he's taken up skiing, while Shirley Manson is finally putting paid to the rumours of her making a solo album by collaborating with Jack White, Scottish songwriting legend Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile, film composer Dave Arnold and Billy Corgan, a project (naturally) produced by Vig.

Surprisingly, Garbage are not contemplating calling it a day. "I don't know what the future holds but I do feel like the album is only the end of one chapter. This new song Tell Me Where It Hurts really came together from us jamming on a Bacharach-style piece, and when the idea of the compilation came together we took it into the studio, added some guitars and made it into a Garbage song."

Ensuring that there is something for the fan who has everything, Absolute Garbage also comes in a special edition format with a homespun DVD, giving a very rare glimpse into the behind the scenes world of a band rarely without manifold image control. The bonus disc features an impressive list of remixers each taking a single and bending it to their own ends, something Vig is no stranger to himself.

How does he maintain his focus give the sheer number of projects he takes on? "I try to focus on the essence of what I'm doing. Shirley will say this too: I'm a perfectionist. I need total quality control over anything that is going out with my name on it. I'm obsessive to detail and not good at delegating." You can focus on the essence even while overlaying the 40th guitar track on a Smashing Pumpkins song? "Yeah. You can go in whatever direction you feel, and if you do that for a week and hit a dead end, well at least you tried. As long as you're staying true to the essence of what you're working on, it works - and I love working."

Indeed Vig's penchant for producing breakthrough albums appears to be continuing if the hype surrounding forthcoming albums by Against Me! and Jimmy Eat World are anything to go by, as if more proof were needed of his talent for getting the right sound from the right people at the right time.

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