Earlier this month, alt-rock pioneers Garbage released their long-awaited seventh album, No Gods No Masters; a resounding socio-political soundscape that reflects modern times with a scope that exemplifies the collective experience, in life and music created it. We were lucky enough to catch up with the band’s legendary drummer and producer, Butch Vig who called in from his home studio in Los Angeles to chat to us about the new album.
Having helmed the production on a stack of seminal early 90s records, including the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1991 debut Gish (1991) and Siamese Dream in 1993, Sonic Youth’s 1992 classic Dirty and, of course, Nirvana’s 1991 global breakthrough Nevermind (among MANY others), Vig could be described as an architect of alt-rock; an architect of angst even.
One listen to Garbage’s new emotionally charged LP, invokes the frenetic spirit of this era in spades. Thematically interrogating drivers of civil unrest, No Gods No Masters gives an unapologetic account of modern times. It’s no surprise that the songs sound, as Butch Vig so eloquently puts it, “pissed off.”
Garbage | No Gods No Masters
And it’s not just the album’s themes that make No Gods No Masters a brazen entry in Garbage’s catalogue. Sonically, it’s explosive. Shirley Manson’s incisive lyrics are matched in intensity by a rich sonic palette of serrated synths and jagged guitars that push the boundaries of traditional rock further than they ever have before, while still sounding altogether – Garbage.
To find out where it all began, Vig takes us back to mid-2019 when the band headed to the idyllic paradise of Palm Springs, California to work on their first new material since 2016’s Strange Little Birds. Taking up residence at guitarist Steve Marker’s family home, they started, a word that “terrifies” the producer in Vig, “jamming.”
“We went there with nothing, with no songs, no templates, nothing,” recalls Vig. “For me, that was scary. Usually, I come up with some sketches at my home studio first, could be a chord progression, a drum beat, even just a title. But this time all four of us went in with a completely blank slate, and I was thinking, ‘what if there’s nothing? What if we don’t come up with anything?’”
But the opposite would prove true. “Within two weeks, we had written between 35 and 40 pieces of music,” he says, “many were up to 15 minutes long.”
Upon their return, the band began the long process of crafting the extended jams into songs. “I’d pull out parts, like 30 seconds here, 8 bars here, a riff someone played or lyric… wherever I thought there was a good focal point,” Vig says. “After a month or so, we just went back to our studio and started to work on the bits we had.”
As 2019 became 2020, the world changed dramatically. What had started as an unusually organic writing process became marked by a global shutdown that left no person on the planet unaffected. Garbage was forced to continue working on the album remotely. When asked if he thought this shaped the overall direction and sound of the record, Butch replied:
“Musically, where we started this record, and where it ended up, is completely different. Originally, it had an expansive, orchestral feel, sort of beautiful. But as Shirley worked on her lyrics, she was looking at the world around her, the world around us all. With all the craziness in early 2020 – the record just took a hard detour and it became much more social-political, reflecting the insanity that everybody is dealing with, not just here in the US, but everywhere around the world.”
“When we heard what she was singing about, we just sharpened the music, made it more abrasive to match her lyrics.,” he continues. “But it wasn't just what she was feeling – Shirley’s lyrics speak for all four of us. We share similar sensibilities and that’s why we’re still a band after 25 years.”
Album opener, “The Men Who Ruled the World” gives us a perfect example of that synergy. Manson’s foreboding chant is matched by disjointed sonics imitating a dystopian slot machine. The parts intertwine and strengthen each other as the intensity builds.
Garbage | “The Men Who Rule The World”
“The verse sounds like Talking Heads to me. But when it goes into the chorus, it's like Nine Inch Nails. It's not groovy anymore. It's pissed off.”
“It started with just a simple synth riff in the verse,” Butch says. “Then Shirley started singing the line, “the men who ruled the world” but that was all she had at the time. It wasn’t until we took those original jams back to the studio that we even came up with a chorus. Shirley wrote the lyrics after seeing a protest in Chile where women were protesting against the violation of their rights, misogyny, and government power, and that's what the women chanted – “the violator, destroy the violator”. She put that into the song and we had a chorus.”
Looking back to Garbage’s 1995 self-titled debut album, we ask Butch if the writing process has changed for the band over the past 25 years. “Yeah, they were basically two completely different experiences,” he says. “When we started writing with Shirley in the 90s, we didn’t really know her and she didn’t know us, so the four of us co-wrote the lyrics mostly, approaching the songs almost more like remixes. Now, Shirley’s our MVP, she knows exactly what she’s going to say and we write the songs around her words.”
Garbage | “Only Happy When It Rains”
If he were to compare No God’s No Masters with anything in the Garbage back catalogue, “I’d have to say [2001’s] Beautiful Garbage comes the closest, in that every song is kind of its own,” Vig reflects. “But, across all of our work, the consistent theme, the centre point, is Shirley. It’s always been, Shirley.”
After their massive world tour with Alanis Morissette was cancelled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Butch assures us that Garbage has plans to return to Aussie stages, as soon as circumstances allow. He also paid tribute to the late Michael Gudinski, who brought the band out to Australia many times over the past 25 years.
“You guys lost a great with Michael Gudinski,” says Vig. “We were so sad … It’s just hard to imagine that he’s not here anymore. He'd talked to Shirley just a few days before he died, saying 'this record's fantastic'. He couldn’t wait to see us tour the album down there. He wanted to make that happen, so we don't want to let him down.”
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