Taking Out the Garbage

Inside a rented warehouse on Madison's south side, Steve Marker, guitarist for Garbage, is pacing and playing with a cigarette he won't light for another half-hour. Waiting for the rest of the band to arrive, he makes conversation, rocks back and forth on his heels, jabs his hands in and out of his pockets, and apologizes--twice--for his cohorts' tardiness.

Maybe it's the damp chill of a rainy Wisconsin fall--a chill that has seeped right into the steel-and-concrete structure--that's got Marker fidgeting. More likely he's nervous, and not just because he's uncomfortable doing interviews. Even though Garbage's eponymous debut--a knockout collection of dark, danceable pop songs buried in layers of sonic mischief--is doing well on both the American college and British pop charts, has landed a Buzz Bin video on MTV and is receiving rave reviews in most of the major music rags, the band has yet to play a real gig. And their first-ever show, at 7th Street Entry this Sunday, is only 10 days away. When asked how rehearsals are going, about all Marker can muster up is a tentative "Pretty good...I think."

When the rest of the band arrive--guitarist Duke Erikson, singer Shirley Manson, and drummer/superstar-producer-in-his-other-life Butch Vig--Marker retreats. Manson, meanwhile--dressed in a Felix-the-Cat T-shirt and black lycra pants--calls the airport, which seems to have lost her cherished (and uninsured) Rickenbacker somewhere between London, where the group recently appeared on Top of the Pops, and Madison. She's not happy.

Vig and Erikson, however, are itching to get to rehearsals. They've kicked around the music business long enough to know that things like lost instruments usually have a way of working themselves out by the time a band actually takes the stage. But for now, they need to play.

Long before Vig made a name for himself producing the likes of Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Soul Asylum, the three Garbagemen had been members (Marker unofficially) of Spooner, a Madison pop combo that came this close to landing a contract with a major label in the mid-'80s. Then, Vig and Erikson found modest national success with Firetown, a band that retained Spooner's irresistible hooks but placed them firmly in a jangly guitar, roots-rock context. After considerable hype surrounding their first album, Firetown hit a sophomore slump with a record that reflected more of what their label, Atlantic, wanted than it did the band's own wishes.

So the three spent most of their time in the late '80s and early '90s doing production work at Vig's and Marker's Smart Studios in Madison for various local and national acts; Vig eventually ended up doing most of his production gigs on the coasts. As the producers progressed from low-budget punk records to fashioning major-label remixes for Nine Inch Nails, House of Pain, U2 and others, they found themselves drawn to the idea of working on a project of their own that would be shaped by the cut-and-paste aesthetic of hip-hop and dance music production, but would be grounded in the '60s pop and early '70s rock that they loved. "We came up with the concept of Garbage before we actually started working on it," says Erikson. "We wanted to have all these weird sounds, but at the core we still needed songs that people would keep coming back to." The three pieced together sound collages and melodic ideas at the studio and in Marker's basement, but didn't forge any fully realized songs until they recruited Manson in 1994. Marker had seen her in a video for her band Angelfish, and knew almost immediately that she was what Garbage needed.

When I ask the three of them what attracted them to Manson, the Scottish singer answers by opening her cardigan and thrusting out her chest.

"I stuffed $10 bills in their trousers every five minutes," she says.

"In very strategic places," adds Erikson.

Vig--who is wearing flannel, but confounds grunge stereotyping with a pageboy haircut and unconnected moustache-Vandyke combo--plays the group's straight man. "We didn't really know exactly what we were looking for," he says. "But we wanted a woman singer. We liked the fact that Shirley didn't have to scream her way through songs to convey intensity, and she didn't have this high, little-girlie voice. She could be more subversive and intense through subtlety."

If not for her lilting Scottish accent (her favorite words seem to be "wee" and "fabulous," as in, "It was a wee bit awkward at first, but now we all get along fabulously"), Manson could easily blend into Madison's downtown student/hipster crowd . And while her bandmates may have come up with the idea and much of the initial music that ended up on Garbage, Manson provides the dark lyrical themes and, most importantly, a presence that defines the band's persona. Without her, Garbage look (and act) like thirtysomething guys who'd be more at home loading the band's equipment than playing onstage. No doubt that's why most of the band's publicity shots obscure Manson's bandmates and push her up front and center.

Given Vig's reputation and the way the band was assembled, Garbage was fully prepared for a backlash that, happily, they haven't received. "If it was me and I heard about three producers hooking up with some woman singer from Scotland, I'd look at it cynically," Vig admits. "But we're a band, and it's all a collaborative effort. When we first met, we didn't feel like a band, but we've spent the last year living together, making music and arguing with each other."

Initially, Garbage was going to be a studio-only effort. But when the record was finished and its first single, "Vow," started getting significant airplay on both sides of the Atlantic, they decided they wanted to see what they could do in a live setting. The thought was crystallized during their first video shoot. "When we did the 'Vow' video, we actually set up amps and played along," Erikson says. "It just felt really good. That was the point we decided it would work live and we really wanted to do it."

"It was weird," Manson adds, "but it was so much fun. We were all just looking at each other, grinning, because we couldn't believe it was actually happening."

"Then Shirley started vomiting," the lanky Erikson adds, referring to a bout of food poisoning Manson had after the shoot. You can see Erickson's history as a frontman in the way he plays Garbage's resident smartass. But like the rest of the boys in the band, he's comfortable with his backing role. Compared to their usual work as producers, being part of a working band, even outside the main spotlight, is a much riskier--and more rewarding--proposition.

"With a band, you're putting a piece of yourself into it more, actually writing the songs," Erikson says, pausing--for once at a loss for a biting remark.

"And you have a responsibility to the band all the time," Manson interjects. "As a producer, you can play around without having any responsibility to any collective persona or spirit."

Though Garbage is most definitely a studio album, the band's live show will be a combination of garage-band noisemaking and high-tech sampling. Marker, the group's sampling guru, brings a hip-hop sensibility to the mix, one that apparently laid the groundwork for how their sound has evolved.

"I was the guy at Smart who worked with the hip-hop artists, and I learned a lot about engineering. The production on the Public Enemy albums was the only exciting thing going on in the late 1980s," Marker says. "When I saw Sonic Youth and Public Enemy play together, it really inspired me as to what was possible."

Erikson says that, while the upcoming shows will be unlike anything the band members have ever done in the past, the process of translating the album's aural density onstage hasn't been as daunting as he had initially feared. "It's still a band playing," he says wryly. "There's just a little bit more technology involved."

"And we've got five days to figure it out!" Manson screams, breaking an awkward silence.

"Think of it this way," Erikson says calmly. "We've got almost a whole damn week."

Garbage play Sunday at 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis; 338-8388.

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