"We're not a band that likes the sun," said Garbage's Butch Vig. "If you're a Blink-182 from California, you can go on stage and jump around in your boxer shorts. But we're from Wisconsin and Scotland. We like mood lighting. We need all the mood lighting we can get."
Vig, the drummer/producer of the multiplatinum Garbage, is looking even more pale of late. A confrontation with a raw oyster got him hospitalized, leading to some scrambling while the band was in the midst of an international tour for its third album, "Beautifulgarbage."
"The virus thing is gone," he explained while relaxing before a show in Myrtle Beach, S.C. "I had a nasty version of Hepatitis A that was temporary. We hired (former Pearl Jam drummer) Matt Chamberlain to go out and play about seven or eight shows in Europe that were scheduled. I only missed one show touring with U2. Under doctor's orders I had to stay home for two months, which is hard to do because I'm not really good at 'taking vacation.'"
The past few years haven't offered much of a holiday for Garbage, anyway.
Comprised of veteran record producers Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson, and Scottish ingenue Shirley Manson, the band first surfed the alternative wave of the mid-'90s with initial hits such as "Only Happy When It Rains" and "Stupid Girl." Before long, the group's studio wizardry, songwriting skills and charismatic, waifish singer made it an MTV darling and multiplatinum seller.
Yet a recent VH1 "Behind the Music" special painted the quartet as headed for some kind of collapse or breakup following the release of its 1998 sophomore record "Version 2.0." So what prevented this?
"The first record sold over 4 million copies and we felt an immense pressure to duplicate that success, both creatively and commercially," Vig explained as to why the members became disgruntled and argumentative while composing "2.0." "Alternative radio was not selling as many records, so we went out and did it the old-school way. We toured for 20 months and played 270 concerts all over the world. We eventually duplicated the success and sold another 4 million records. But I think during that time we found ourselves as a band, and the shows became very celebratory.
"When we were done, we realized we could make this new record and start with a clean slate. It was by far the easiest to make. There was a lot of jamming and relaxed partying in the studio on 'Beautifulgarbage.' It was much less angst-filled than '2.0.'"
Vig describes the current tour as "much looser and less precious" than previous outings. Manson now takes requests from the audience every night, so the members often perform oddball B-sides that they haven't attempted for years. Garbage also has ditched its reliance on video screens and other technological antics.
"We worked really hard on making the show sound good and the lights look good, but it's pretty simple," he said. "It's sort of like old-school punk style: just us up there playing songs."
Shift of focus
When Garbage formed, Vig was the band's lone superstar. The Wisconsin native was almost universally acknowledged as the premier producer of his era, helming such landmark records as Nirvana's "Nevermind," Smashing Pumpkins' "Siamese Dream" and Sonic Youth's "Dirty." At first, Garbage was regarded as a vanity project for the studio mastermind. But soon the entire perception flipped.
"After the first record debuted, we would go to Germany and people would say, 'OK, you have a new Garbage record out; what was it like working with Kurt Cobain?' Nobody wanted to talk to Shirley or Duke or Steve," he remembered. "But after the success of (the original self-titled album), Shirley became the star of Garbage. She's turned into this rock diva. And that's good for us because it gives us a face and a strong identity. For me personally, I'm totally cool with that because I don't want to bear the brunt of that attention. I like that I can walk around in anonymity."
The 44-year-old still splits time evenly between his home in Madison (where he owns the prominent Smart Studios) and in Los Angeles. He has backed off from producing non-Garbage material, though he continues to be recruited for remixes by artists such as Korn, Limp Bizkit, U2 and Alanis Morissette. But when asked which he is more likely to retire from first: producing or being in a rock band, Vig chose the latter.
"As much as I love writing, I don't know that I can keep going on the road and being a road dog," he said. "Once you hit 39, it's just physically so demanding. When you're 20 years old it's really easy to go on sleep deprivation. But as your body begins to wear down it's hard to do ... It's very much a youth culture, especially in these days when artists are a disposable pop commodity."
Despite skipping Lawrence on the "Beautifulgarbage" tour to play nearby Kansas City, the musician has many connections to the college town. When asked which of the numerous records that he's produced has held up best, Vig points to former Lawrence mainstay Freedy Johnston's "This Perfect World."
"The songwriting is absolutely amazing on that," he said. "I love Freedy to death, but it was a struggle to get those songs finished. Freedy is such a procrastinator with lyrics. But that's one of my favorites because I think the songs are timeless."
Vig also plays in a band with Johnston and Erikson called The Know-It-All-Boyfriends. Often appearing at secret gigs, the ensemble is known for "butchering cover tunes" with inebriated enthusiasm.
And speaking of which, Lawrence represents one other "highlight" for Vig and Garbage.
"We had a show there on our first tour that was quite possibly the drunkest performance that the boys in the band ever had," Vig recalled with embarrassed laughter. "We got there, and our monitor board had blown up so we couldn't do soundcheck. (Lawrence act) Paw did one of their records at Smart Studios, and we knew all those guys so we went out drinking with them from about 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
"In that five or six hours, we got completely blasted. I don't even remember the show. Steve fell over a couple times on stage and knocked his amp over. Shirley was singing valiantly and going, 'What the (expletive) is going on?' It was a total train wreck, but the crowd loved it."
Perhaps that's the inspiration for the phrase "beautiful garbage."