Neil Young’s polemic about whether it’s better to burn out than fade away seems to be fading itself.
Aging rockers now tend to ditch the cigs early, lay off coke by 30 and start doing spin yoga or whatever. So rather than blunt choices of breaking up because the bassist O.D.’d or tapering off because you haven’t sucked that major label contract dry just yet, we live in an era where bands seem to be making tunes as long as they please, cliches be damned. We can form our own “labels,” record in our own “studios” and maybe even tamp down what history has defined as “success” into something sustainable.
As multi-instrumentalist and producer of the sturdy art-pop act Garbage, Butch Vig has been a standard bearer of that modern musician career track. Of course, it helps that he’s a supremely talented producer/engineer who rode the tail-end of a music industry that offered what were then known as “profits.” But he’s taken that experience and kept Garbage in gear for 20(!) years now. They’ve never really gone away, periodically dishing out shimmering slabs of the kind of sexy modern rock that originally got them hits and critical acclaim back in the alternative rock boom.
Their latest, Strange Little Birds, out June 10 on the band’s label, STUNVOLUME, is arguably the best since their ‘90s heyday. Starting off unpredictably with a sweeping, cinematic intro to the eerie “Sometimes” ("Sometimes I’d rather take a beating, sometimes I’d rather take a punch”), it slithers around into some Joy Division-like dark hallways but bangs on doors of their patented art-pop just enough—always led there by Shirley Manson’s naked lyricism and Vig’s brooding and often surprising production.
Speaking of which, Vig and his Smart Studios, where he cranked out albums from some of the most notable acts of the alt-rock era (Nirvana, Killdozer, Smashing Pumpkins, Fall Out Boy, Tegan and Sara, Against Me!), is getting the proper documentary treatment. The Smart Studios Story, which premiered at SXSW in March, tells the unlikely tale of a dank little building somewhere in Madison, Wisconsin, that helped create the blueprint of blustery grunge that spread through the ‘90s and beyond.
Here, Vig opens up about the key to longevity, his favorite project at Smart and using the same room in his Silver Lake home to track drums and watch the Packers.
I guess in a way, Garbage never really “broke up,” correct?
Well, we took a long break after Bleed Like Me (2005, Geffen). We needed to get away from each other and reclaim our own lives. After about six years, we went back in to record Not Your Kind Of People (2012, STUNVOLUME) and felt rejuvenized. And the tour for NYKOP was great; we felt really free onstage. I think we played some of our best shows ever.
Nevertheless, it has been four years since the last album. So the most glaring question: Why the decision to get back together and do a new album?
We talked about making a new album right after the NYKOP tour but didn’t feel any pressure to get it done quickly. That’s one of the great things about being on our own label: The only real pressure we feel now is from ourselves. We talked about trying to find the early mojo we had on the debut album. We experimented a lot when we recorded that debut. At the time, it caught a lot of people off guard because it sounded quite different from what was on alternative radio. And I think we wanted to channel some of that spirit into Strange Little Birds.
Who is still involved, and who is not?
We recorded Strange Little Birds in Los Angeles. A lot of the early songwriting sessions were done at GRUNGEISDEAD, my home studio in Silver Lake. We finished the overdubs and mixed at Red Razor, our engineer Billy Bush’s studio in Atwater. Other than the four of us in Garbage co-producing and co-writing, we had our touring bass player Eric Avery (Jane’s Addiction) play on six songs, and Justin Meldal-Johnson (Beck, NIN) played bass on two songs.
Your famous Smart Studios in Madison, WI, is long gone then, right?
Yes. Steve marker and I sold Smart Studios in 2010. There’s a new documentary coming out, The Smart Studios Story, which was directed by Madsion filmmaker Wendy Schneider. I’ve lived in L.A. now since 2003, and my home studio is really just a bedroom that has a pretty simple setup. We tracked most of the new songs here—at least the initial jams. I recorded the live drums in the TV parlour where I watch the Green Bay Packers play. Billy Bush set up Red Razor about eight years ago. It’s been our main studio for the last two albums. It’s small, but he’s got a ton of great gear, both digital and analog, great mics, vintage guitar amps, and tons of stomp-box pedals. Billy knows what Garbage likes to use, so he is pretty set up to record any crazy idea we come up with.
How long did the new album take to complete?
We worked on it for about two years, but in starts and stops. We’d get together for two weeks at a time, than take three or four weeks off ‘cause we all had a lot of other things going on. I like having breaks when recording an album. It gives me a chance to step away from the songs, and when I re-engage I have a fresh perspective.
So, the documentary. How involved are you?
Steve Marker and I are executive producers of The Smart Studios Story, but it’s really all director Wendy Schnieder’s baby. It was her vision from the start. She did it all: raised the money, filmed it, directed, edited. It was a lot of work. We’ve had some initial screenings, premiered it at SXSW to rave reviews and are sorting through our options for distribution.
Could you tick off your favorite sessions you’ve had there over the years?
Every project is completely different…but I have to say recording Sonic Highways with the Foo Fighters was truly unique experience. I loved it!
What are some bands you’re working with these days?
We just finished Strange Little Birds in February, and we are gearing up for a Garbage world tour. I also just finished mixing 5 Billion In Diamonds, a band I’m in with two of my DJ friends from the UK—James Grillo and Andy Jenks. It’s a cool album. The songs are sort of inspired by late ‘60s/early '70s soundtrack music.
Do you feel like running a studio keeps you sharp, as far as hearing what new bands are doing?
I still listen to a lot of new music, most of it on blog radio stations or podcasts. There are lots of great new bands out there. I still want to experience that rush of energy when you hear a new song that moves you. And I think I still learn something new every time I hear a band that has written a great song and produced it really well.
How is it that Garbage has remained so productive and creative over the years?
We are all pretty tightly bonded together as a band. We’ve had our ups and downs, but we always seem to get out of the lower depths and rise back to inspiration. Garbage has been a huge part of my artistic and personal life. I think we have a few more great albums in us.