Only happy when it rains: An interview with Garbage’s Butch Vig

As the story goes, three men from Wisconsin-Butch Vig (one of the producers of Nevermind), Steve Marker and Duke Erikson were starting a band and searching for a lead singer when they spotted an Angelfish music video featuring Shirley Manson. The latter was tracked down, imported from her native Scotland, and Garbage was born. Their three albums, 1995’s self-titled breakthrough, 1998’s Grammy-nominated Version 2.0, and 2001’s eclectic Beautiful Garbage, the band has been incredibly innovative and imaginative, continually dishing out solid rock records that mix strong pop melodies with electronic sounds and raging guitars.

Manson’s voice-portraying both strength and vulnerability-and provocative lyrics helped rocket the group to stardom with singles like “Only Happy When It Rains,” “Special,” “Androgyny” and “Stupid Girl,” all of which are both edgy and appetizing.

Currently on tour with No Doubt, the group opened for Gwen Stefani and her posse at Fort Lauderdale’s Office Depot Center on Oct. 30. Life & Art chatted with Erikson moments before Garbage blazed the stage for their show in Seattle, Washington.

Q: “Cherry Lips” [a saccharine sweet song worthy of 60s Motown tune about a 12-year old boy who turns tricks in drag] is the best track on Eclectic Garbage. Why has it not been released in the U.S.?
Duke: We’ve been asking that too, it’s kind of a weird thing-a label decision. This record didn’t fare as well in the U.S. as it did in Europe compared to our past records. There is also a problem with the state of radio these days. None of the singles seemed to fit a “radio formula.” We’ve pretty much let this record go, it had a healthy number of sales, and basically it was our fans that bought the record.
The lyrics to “Cherry Lips” were also a bit subversive. We tend to shoot ourselves in the foot, but that’s what we do-it’s the music we make. We made a strange record, and when you put it into the context of what is happening right now, well that’s the chance you take with the conglomeration of all these songs on one record. We’ve been censored a few times in our careers. The video for “Queer” was too violent and too weird, so some scenes were censored for MTV, despite the much more disturbing things they play.

Q: Has JT LeRoy [author of Sarah, the novel that inspired “Cherry Lips”] heard the song?
Duke: Yeah he loves it. He’s been to a few of our shows, and I think it really meant a lot to him that we did that.

Q: Despite the ubiquitous depressing songs, it seems that the tone of the albums have progressed to being lighter rather than darker. Would you say that Garbage as a band is happier now than when you were making your first record?
Duke: [laughs] I don’t know, I think in some ways we are, yet in some ways we are the same. We’re definitely not looking at life through rose-colored glasses. We’ve all stated that life is too complex to say that we’re happy or sad. You savor the happy times and get through the sad times. Sometimes you experience both at the same time. There are different layers in our lives, and that’s how we try to present out music.

Q: Have you guys started work on the fourth album yet?
Duke: We’ve worked on it a little bit. We got together for a week or so in a studio and started to improvise to see what happened. We came up with a few ideas, these really long, ridiculous jams of nonsense. We don’t know what kind of sound the record is going to have yet. We’re sifting through the stuff. We’re going to meet again in January to see what we come up with and start recording. We want to try to stay out of the studio as long as possible.

Q: It seems that you guys are always sequestered in your Wisconsin studio in the middle of the winter working on your record for months.
Duke: [laughs] It seems that way because that is how it is. It’s ridiculous; we want to be more ready.

Q: “Only Happy When It Rains” was recently listed by Rolling Stone magazine and MTV as one of the best 100 pop songs ever. Do you think that is your best song? Do have any other favorites?
Duke: It’s a good song, it’s not our best song, but I’m not sure what would be. It’s definitely one of our most accessible and recognizable songs. Our songs are all so different from each other; they have personality and character. It’s like talking about people.

Q: Were you guys disappointed about the commercial success of Beautiful Garbage?
Duke: We were really happy and proud of the record. Every song on there is different from ones on our previous records. It’s a strange collection of songs that didn’t fit together, and we were aware of that and the fact that we might even lose a couple of fans because it’s not what people were familiar with. We were prepared for it, but we hoped for a little better response. It didn’t discourage us, but we weren’t prepared for the fact that it had no home on the radio. We thought it would find more airplay, but that’s the nature of the business. You take your chance when you step into unexplored regions. You don’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s not a total shock.

Q: Did the title of the album come from the line in Hole’s “Celebrity Skin?” [“Oh, Cinderella they aren’t sluts like you/Beautiful garbage, beautiful dresses/can you stand up/or will you just fall down?”]
Duke: It sure did. Shirley’s always said so.

Q: Are any of the members of Garbage working on any musical side projects?
Duke: Butch did some work with the band AFI, but he’s not doing that now obviously. Being in Garbage is a full time job. There’s been room to do it, but when we have time off we’re either dealing with Garbage business, writing music for the next record, or trying to relax.

Q: Where do you see Garbage in five years?
Duke: I hope we’ll have a new record out, maybe two or three. This whole experience with Garbage has been one of surprises. We’ve never known what was going to happen down the pipe. We have no master plan; we’ve never gotten to the point where we want to force it. We just follow our road and continue to do what we do.

Horacio Sierra can be reached at