In times of desperation, people always look for a savior. That tends to explain the music press's recent compulsion to ordain so-called electronica the next big thing.
Techno and its variants have given few commercial indications that they're equipped to permanently steer the masses away from melody and harmony, but their prospects seem positively robust compared with guitar rock in the next room on a respirator. It's reached the point where new albums by Hole and Marilyn Manson are expected not merely to deliver decent songs but also to revive an entire genre of music. Fortunately for the band Garbage, it's got all the bases covered. Though in a sense Garbage is a standard four-piece rock band, its members habitually tweak the equation with enough razzle-dazzle (sampled beats, industrial harshness, synthesized squiggles, and orchestral flourishes) to render their style unclassifiable. It's hard to imagine a direction that pop music could take in the next few years that would leave this postmodern quartet out in the cold. Nonetheless, bassist Steve Marker and drummer Butch Vig (renowned producer of Nirvana's ground-shifting Nevermind album) have given the matter some thought.
"Butch was making a point the other day that the last time he felt this sort of general lack of direction in rock music and culture was just before Nirvana came out," Marker says from a tour stop in San Jose, California. "The hair bands were there, but they were dying, and nobody knew what the next big thing would be. And when [Nirvana] did come along, it was an incredibly exciting rush. So if you look at it that way, this is a real interesting time."
It's likely that when this era is viewed retrospectively, Garbage will look like a bridge, a band that helped provide a transition into new musical terrain. Beyond the basic configuration of a sultry female singer backed by three nerds, Garbage shares with Blondie a voracious appetite for cutting-edge ideas. While Blondie never defined an era as the Sex Pistols did or transcended it like Television, it softened the masses for punk, rap, and reggae in the years to come and gave disco a patina of hipness. Like Blondie's Debbie Harry, Garbage singer Shirley Manson is sexy, street smart, tough but vulnerable, and never lacking for attitude. At times the connection between the bands is more than merely spiritual. For instance, the beat-crazy lead track on Garbage's second album, Version 2.0, is a direct descendant of Blondie's "Atomic."
But perhaps the strongest link across the generational divide is the way people respond to these two bands. Although Blondie was a first-rate pop-rock group, its music was generally lambasted by punk tastemakers, who thought it was superficial, slick, commercially calculating, and lightweight. Similarly, Garbage has had to endure nagging complaints that its two albums are too brilliantly produced, too cosmetically appealing. According to this theory, all that lustrous coating must be hiding an empty soul.
In a way, Garbage is a victim of its unusual origins. Marker, Vig, and guitarist Duke Erikson ran the hugely successful Madison, Wisconsin-based Smart Studios, producing several well-known acts while itching to get their own project together. Vig and Erikson had played in the Madison bands Spooner and Firetown, but they knew they needed to find a suitable singer if they wanted to get another band together.
So in a story that has already passed into the realm of legend, the three producers were watching MTV's 120 Minutes on a Sunday night when they spotted Manson in a video for her Scottish band, Angelfish. Soon after, they placed a call to her, and the rest was history.
It might seem like an unorganic way to create a band, but the results have been a miracle of better music through band chemistry. The group's self-titled 1995 debut album was probably the most assured, focused debut album of this decade (All votes for P.J. Harvey's Dry will be counted, however). As Marker tells it, he and the band's two other producers could never really shape their ideas until they met Manson. "At that time we were doing a lot of remix work for other people, mainly because Butch had gotten a pretty high profile with some of the records he had produced, and so people were coming to him, and Duke and I would be part of the team to get that stuff done," Marker says. "That was for people like Nine Inch Nails, U2, Depeche Mode. So we were taking those songs and almost erasing everything, except the vocals, and starting over, creating some sort of new musical setting for their stuff, sort of an electronic-dancey thing.
"In addition, we were working on our own stuff, which was directly coming from that sort of thing. It really took Shirley coming into the picture before we were able to come up with something that had some direction to it. The combination of the four of us is what pushed it in the Garbage direction, I guess."
The first album was a surprise platinum success, with a succession of much-played tracks such as "Queer," "Only Happy When It Rains," and "Stupid Girl" (defined by its distinctive drum sample from the Clash's "Train In Vain"). When it came time to plan a follow-up, the group gathered early last year in the San Juan Islands, north of Seattle, and went through the laborious process of assembling song fragments.
"I think we were kind of intimidated by trying to plan anything out that extensively," Marker says. "We set up the computer that we had, so we were able to tape our meanderings, which were pretty vague at the start. We took all that back to Madison, our real studio environment, and fine-tuned things from there."
The result, Version 2.0, feels like a refinement, not a departure. The dense tapestry of sound that made the band's debut album so unique is here, in even bigger form. Manson's sweet-and-sour purr is typically alluring, and it's less inhibited than on Garbage. She hits new highs with her heavenly harmonies on the chiming, techno-pop "Special," bringing the song to a climax by pinching a line from Chrissie Hynde's "Talk of the Town." "The Trick Is to Keep Breathing" showcases her under-recognized flair with gentle, dreamy material. Even somewhat trite material, such as "Dumb" and the sassy-by-numbers single "I Think I'm Paranoid," gets by on spectacular production. "Dumb" opens with a lean breakbeat groove and swiftly kicks into a volcanic guitar eruption. At moments like this, it's hard to think of a rock band that's ever used texture and dynamics more expertly.
Recording the album was a painstaking effort, with Vig, Marker, and Erikson relentlessly adding layers until some songs had exceeded 100 tracks. There was no end in sight to their compulsive perfectionism until an impatient Manson put her foot down.
"We're such studio tinkerers, we love doing that," Marker says. "We could still be in there working if Shirley hadn't asked us to knock it off or she was gonna kill us. It was kinda driving her nuts to sit around for days while we worked on a hi-hat track."
Though the band members have spent the last four years together with very little time apart, Marker says they remain good friends in spite of their combative natures.
"There are some pretty decent arguments that go on," he says. "It could be musical, 'Where are we going on the record?' type stuff, all the way to 'I hate the color of your shoelaces.' But usually somebody says, 'You're acting really stupid.' And then that person says, 'Yeah, you're right.' "
Much as some naysayers would like to view Garbage as a cynical marriage of convenience, all indications are that the band members not only get along personally, but genuinely share a similar approach to music.
"The thing that keeps us able to work together like we do is that we really do share very similar tastes," Marker says. "Maybe I'd be happier listening to a Chemical Brothers record, where Duke might be more into a Big Star/Beatles guitar-pop thing, but it isn't always true. But we all love a lot of the same stuff. We don't have many disagreements about whether something is good or not. Playing something on the tour bus isn't a problem. We can all usually agree on that. That's part of the chemistry that allows us to do what we do."
Marker says that the members of Garbage "get bored easily" and refuse to cling to one musical niche. He rails against the notion that musical integrity is measured by how doggedly you maintain your allegiance to one narrow sound. Cynics will always see Garbage's broad palette, like that of Blondie, as trendy genre hopping. But with the musical landscape of 1998 so confused, it's tempting to ask what a well-schooled eclectic like Marker (who studied electronic music in college but has also played in straight-ahead rock bands) sees in the future for popular music.
"I think kids are always going to want rock and roll, no matter what form it takes," he says. "It may very well turn into something that's synthesizer-based rather than guitar-based. I mean Prodigy is huge, and they're basically a rock band. They're obviously using hardcore dance beats, but they've still got that Johnny Rotten-like frontperson. I think it's cool if people do it in an honest way. I wouldn't want Alanis Morissette to come out with a Prodigy album."
Garbage. Tuesday, November 10, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., $20, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.