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2015 was a considerably busy year for Garbage, who were celebrating the 20-year anniversary of their iconic self-titled album. The record’s home to a handful of tracks that remain staples of pop and alternative radio to this day. In conjunction with a deluxe reissue, Garbage ventured out on a relatively brief tour in which they exclusively played material from the early years. “We had to learn all the songs again, as well as all the B-sides,” says drummer Butch Vig. “We wanted to make it really special as we were only going to do 30 shows all up.

“It was important to us that these felt like a once in a lifetime experience for our fans, and I think those that came to see the show will testify to that. It felt like the right thing to do, and I think we all got a lot out of it. The truth is we’re really lucky to still be here after all this time.”

Alongside the anniversary celebrations, Garbage – Vig, vocalist Shirley Manson, guitarist Steve Marker and bass player Duke Erikson – were working on their sixth studio album, Strange Little Birds. Vig fondly recalls the process of putting the album together.

“The writing sessions are pretty casual,” he says. “We crack open a bottle of wine, Shirley sits down on the couch with a microphone and then Steve, Duke and myself wander around to different instruments – guitar, bass, keyboards, drums – and see if anything we strike up hits our fancy. We’ll work for a couple of weeks, take a couple of weeks off, go back and forth like that. We did this for about a year after we stopped touring Not Your Kind of People [2012], and soon enough we had about 20 songs.

“Garbage being Garbage, we recorded a lot of different things. When it came to mixing the album, though, we stripped everything back. I think that’s what you hear on this record – by drawing everything back in, the songs are able to get right up in your face.”

Garbage began life in the early-‘90s, initially as a studio project for some like-minded musos who felt alienated from what surrounded them. Vig is probably the most famous member of the group – away from his drumming duties, he’s produced albums for the likes of Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth and AFI. Interestingly, however, he’s not the sole-credited producer on any Garbage record – for that, the entire band combines.

“A producer is someone with an opinion,” says Vig. “All four of us are very opinionated. We butt heads every day in the studio. We’re lucky that we share a sensibility that has allowed us to work through differences. At the end of the day, I think we get to a point where all four of us have a clear idea of what we need to do. It’s not always easy, but we try. It’s always going to end up sounding like Garbage all the same. Even if we tried to make it different. That comes back to our sensibilities – the way that we play, the music we like, how we think things should sound. I think that’s one of our strengths, and the reason we’re still here after 20-something years. We’ve been together long enough to know when to let things go and not take them personally.”

Vig frequently makes reference to the “Garbage sound”. It’s an interesting topic of discussion when one looks at the songs that have come to shape the band’s career – from sugar-rush pop (Cherry Lips, Special) to big guitar rockers (Why Do You Love Me, I Think I’m Paranoid) and lush moments of intimacy (Queer, Milk). The Garbage sound exists, paradoxically, insofar as there is no Garbage sound – it is a conscientious effort on behalf of Vig and co. to constantly reinvent, adapt and evolve. This is something Vig emphasises when assessing what has defined the band from Garbage all the way up to Strange Little Birds.

“On our first album, we blended a lot of different styles,” he says. “We had pop beats, electronica, techno, punk rock fuzz guitar, big melodies and harmonies. At the time, it really caught people off-guard. We’re lucky to have a singer like Shirley – she has such a strong persona, so it was easy for us to write songs as different as Vow, Queer and Stupid Girl. We’ve carried that with us. Every record we’ve done shows that every song has its own unique stamp. Shirley is what holds it together – she can keep the focus and glue it all together.”
Written by David James Young

Release: Strange Little Birds is out via Stunlove Records/Liberator Music now