February 21, 2022

Eric's Archive: Butch Vig Interview, Entertainment Today, January 1999

From 1997-2001, I served as the Music Editor of Entertainment Today, one of Los Angeles' oldest weekly entertainment newspapers. The Internet was still something of a fledgling thing in those days, but a website for the paper did eventually exist. 

As a new feature of E-Rockracy called "Eric's Archive," I've rescued some of my more interesting Entertainment Today pieces from the dustier corners of the Internet, and have posted them here and below. 

I fondly recall this interview I did with Butch Vig, producer of Nirvana's Nevermind and a key member of the band Garbage. I remember Vig being quite personable and forthcoming. His response to my question about Nevermind is something I still remember:

"I know that Kurt sometimes tried to repress his pop instincts, but he was a genius when it came to that: He'd just pick up a guitar and he'd start ad-libbing something, and it was all this amazing stuff." 

Butch Vig... talk about a guy that was present at the birth of a major rock movement. Without further adieu, here is the feature article/cover story from January 1999:

The Future, Thy Name is Garbage

√úberproducer/drummer/Wisconsinite Butch Vig sounds off on success, musical evolution, Y2K and the next big thing

by Eric Layton

It's hard to believe that Garbage started as a fluke. When engineer-producer/"grunge architect" Butch Vig and his two Madison, Wisconsin buddies Duke Erickson and Steve Marker first laid eyes on the Scottish singer currently known as Shirley Manson, she was on MTV, crooning with the band Angelfish. That was nearly six years ago. Since then, the thirtyish Manson and this elder trio of Midwestern producers have become one of the dominant forces in modern rock. By taking traditional pop songs and hacking them apart with processed guitars, hip-hop beats and mutating, post-industrial soundscapes, the quartet delivered a knockout blow to the music world and alternative listeners bored with self-serving grunge misery. Fueled by such hit singles as "Only Happy When It Rains" and "Stupid Girl," their eponymous 1995 debut went quadruple platinum. In the meantime, Garbage became a ubiquitous presence on MTV, radio and the concert trail. In a truly queer turn of events, fans and critics finally seemed to agree on something: Garbage didn't stink.

This group could have easily become their own worst enemy - how in the world was this internationally recognized act going to follow-up such a promising first effort? The resounding answer is with Version 2.0, which, as its moniker implies, is a evolution of the sound and fury they began on Garbage. The sophomore release finds Manson, Vig, Erikson and Marker truly cohering as a unit; they not only wrote the material as a collective, but produced it together as well. It's a sonically futuristic, emotionally striking song cycle worthy of the overused description "fully realized." Manson's lyrics have taken on a whole new maturity (she may be a lusty heartbreaker, but she's paranoid, vulnerable and optimistic too), while the kaleidoscopic aural textures are pure ear candy - audible paintings that reveal something different with each spin. But where the first record was a nervous, kitchen-sink splatter of Basquiat-ian proportions, Version 2.0 is crafted with a decidedly Van Gogh-ish flair, its colorful layers the product of painstaking workmanship. Cuts like "Hammering in My Head," "Special" and "The Trick is to Keep Breathing" are perhaps the finest examples of their artistry.

Speaking by phone from a Chicago hotel suite just before Christmas (Garbage was in the Windy City to perform at yet another multi-act radio festival), the 40-year-old Vig sounds especially chipper. And he should. Version 2.0 has been shifting serious units, and is on its way to triple platinum status (since this interview, it's been nominated for two Grammys, including Album of the Year).

Possibly adding to Vig's general state of happiness is the fact that he's had such a deep impact on '90s rock. Besides his contributions to Garbage, he's the "superstar producer" who sat behind the boards on such albums as Nirvana's impossibly huge Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins' breakthrough platter Siamese Dream. Grunge may be dead, but its influence is still being felt on the music of today. One case in point is Garbage, which couldn't have existed without the genre; how many knob-twiddlers, really, have been able to form and play in commercially and critically viable band? Vig is enigmatic in this way, though his pleasant conversational manner and dude-next-door attitude indicates nothing but a Wisconsin guy who's made good. Real good.

Since Garbage had tasted and bonded over the sweet nectar of multiplatinum stardom before recording Version 2.0, one might assume a four-way traffic jam of inflated egos might have slowed down the album's creative process. However, Vig claims that it was easier to reconcile all band members' varied personalities into Version 2.0 - especially that of Manson, Garbage's golden-voiced focal point. "I know that Shirley had a lot more confidence in her singing and lyric writing. I think she just felt freer to express herself," he remembers. "It was very awkward when she joined us on the first album - she didn't know us from anyone, and had to immediately go in and start writing and producing. She sort of took the ball and ran with it, and I think she's really grown as an artist. I think that the four of us just interact much better now than we did before."

Attaining musical perfection is a process that has kept the Garbage members, who each have an iron in the production fire, burning the midnight oil on countless nights. Their often-schizophrenic sound is a mélange of synthesized noise, drum loops, grinding guitars and atmospheric touches that could probably be remixed an infinite number of times. Vig and co. are notorious for their studio overkill, so when he's asked his thoughts on the famous quote, "Art is never finished, it's abandoned," he chuckles in tacit recognition.

"I think that, if left to our own devices, I'd probably still be in there working on Version 2.0. I think there's a point where you sort of lose yourself in [the recording process] and you get so obsessed with it that it's hard to have any objectivity. That's one of the good things about having four very opinionated producers - at one point, somebody will say, 'It's good. We're going too far.'"

They may be workaholics, but it's a small price to pay for keeping Garbage, one of the most visible rock acts of the mid-to-late '90s, creatively vital and on the road. And Vig understands that the clock is ticking. "I think we realized that Garbage is very of the moment now. I don't know that we can sit around and think, 'Do we want to be remembered for a song 10 or 50 years from now?' We're enjoying making music and playing live, and we have loose plans to make a third album. Because we love this so much - even though we're exhausted all the time - it's our job and it's also our passion."

Vig is humble about it, but his band can rightly take credit for forging a style that a slew of current acts has adopted, from the Sneaker Pimps to Morcheeba to Girls Against Boys. Though he's cognizant of Garbage's influence (he finds other groups' appropriation of their sound "complimentary and irritating at the same time"), he doesn't want its artistic vision corrupted by vain self-congratulation"We don't necessarily want to tell people that we're waving a flag, that we started some new trend. One of the reasons we call Garbage a pop band is because you can embrace a lot of different things. It's important to us, though, to make records that we think are cool for ourselves - if other people think that's cool, that's great."

Videos and MTV have played a critical role in Garbage's climb to the top of the alternative rock heap. From the next-to-ignored late '96 clip "Queer" to more widely-seen fare like "Only Happy When It Rains" and "Stupid Girl," the foursome has had a talent for marrying their music to an always-stimulating visual canvas. Not so surprisingly, Vig really digs the medium, even though he doesn't watch much MTV these days ("I don't have time," he admits). "We really enjoy videos - we've always been very visually oriented. Steve and I met in film school, and we're all into cinema. I think that, for a lot bands, [videos] are a drag, and I can see where it takes away some of the mystique of the song. And to a certain extent, I believe that also. But we also feel like it's a chance to make a mini-movie that is at least one visual representation of a song."

That fusion of sound and vision was also important to Vig's former collaborators in Nirvana. Their single "Smells Like Teen Spirit," with a little help from its video, became anthemic in scope, and pushed the album Nevermind into the stratosphere. When prodded, Vig shared his thoughts on why that watershed album, a collection that heralded the beginning of this decade's grunge movement, worked as well as it did.

"I think one of the reasons is that it had some amazing songs. It was a combination of the sort of energy that I was able to capture on that record, and the passion, the angst and all of the multiple, complex emotions that came out of Kurt. [The songs] were all well crafted and had intense passion, but you could sing along with them all. I know that Kurt sometimes tried to repress his pop instincts, but he was a genius when it came to that: He'd just pick up a guitar and he'd start ad-libbing something, and it was all this amazing stuff. That is extremely rare. And I think there was something in his personality - he touched a generation of kids who were dissatisfied and looking for something, and could relate to some of that in his lyrics and his singing."

At this juncture in popular music, grunge is extinct, electronica's failed to become the next big thing and bubblegum (Hanson, 'N Sync, Spice Girls, etc.), as they say, is blowin' up. But Garbage is in a class by itself, so learning about Vig's taste in current music was especially interesting. "I love Massive Attack's album, Mezzanine and I like PJ Harvey, Elliott Smith and Hole. And Fatboy Slim is probably the most played [artist] in the Garbage dressing room every night. Then we usually listen to Frank Sinatra when we come off."

And once they're offstage, the sex and drugs part of the rock 'n' roll equation is tackled with a drooling ardor, right? Well, not quite. Although Garbage has boasted that one its favorite pastimes is drinking, moderation, according to Vig, typically wins out. However, for this 40-year-old, it's still a challenge to stay healthy and balanced when he's on tour"Our vices aren't that bad. If you're 20, you feel indestructible. But touring really wears you down - I've lost like 10 pounds since we started this tour. You know, we like an occasional beer or a good glass of wine or a cocktail, but we feel we need to be responsible to put on a good show every night."

The road, as they say, goes on forever - or for Garbage, at least until Y2K. They're currently on a European trek, with possible tours in South America, Japan and Australia on the docket. Vig is incredulous. "We're kind of laughing, kidding ourselves that we're going to tour until New Year's Eve, 1999. It's scary to comprehend."

Scarier yet, in the opinion of some, is the Y2K crisis. But Vig can't be bothered with such pre-millennial tension. "It's still too far away for me to worry about, I think. I don't think [the year 2000] will be that different than [the present]. I think that music is evolving into something new, and I don't know what that is, but I think we're sort of in a transition period again. I think something's gonna come out in 1999 or in 2000, kind of like Nevermind did, and blow everybody away. I don't know whether it's going to be a rock album or a punk album or a techno record, but I think we're sort of in a period where we're waiting for something to happen. I can't quite define it, but I'm excited. If I knew who it was, I'd sign them."

Whatever the future holds, Vig says that Garbage is determined to do another record, though the timetable for it, at the moment, is murky at best. "We have plans, when we finish this tour, to try and score a film. We've been talking to several directors - Oliver Stone, David Lynch, Ron Howard - but nothing's been finalized yet. Part of it has been a timing issue because of touring. We want to make a third Garbage album, but we have no idea when or what it's going to sound like. But I think that we feel, creatively, that we want to push out beyond where we've been on the first two records. It's enough to keep us busy for awhile."