Hello Nasty, a piece of work by the Nueva York hip-hip trio known as The Beastie Boys created an immediate challenge for rockers everywhere. It was released early that summer to much acclaim and panic, but it wasn’t the first popular music recording that year that challenged the status quo, insouciantly offering a glimpse into the future that was at least as prescient and potent as anything hip-hop nation offered
That honor would go to Version 2.0, the album output by Garbage in May of 1998. Featuring the dark pop singing style of Shirley Manson, the gritty crunch of many guitars playing in counterpoint and in unison supported, distilled and deified by the hands of master producer Butch Vig, Version 2.0 drilled its way into the collectively hardened skulls of Gen X, providing a blueprint—much like everything MCA and pals would produce in the next 10 years—of what would come next in rocanrol and its successor genres as the millennium approached.
Vig, as you may recall produced some of the most important recordings in the history of the thing called rocanrol—helping define a genre initially called college rock but later transubstantiated into a godlike unit called grunge.
Vig produced Nevermind, Gish, Siamese Dream, Tad’s 8-Way Santa, Bricks Are Heavy by L7 and Sonic Youth’s Dirty, for example. Notably, Vig was also the man behind the board for a helluva lot of music outside the foresty realm of Kurt Cobain and his followers. He produced House of Pain’s debut album, Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion, White People for Peace by Against Me! and a heap of the works attributed to the Foo Fighters and Green Day.
Et cetera, et cetera and always ad infinitum, Vig’s vision is part of the essence of American popular music. The dude is rocanrol, drawing on influences as diverse as The Beach Boys and Public Enemy to create some of the most memorable and culturally transportable sounds that ever came out of good old America.
This year Butch and his favorite band, Garbage—he plays drums, Shirley Manson sings; multi-
[PR executive: You’re on with Butch Vig…]
Butch Vig: Hello, August!
Weekly Alibi: Hello, Butch Vig, how are you?
Butch Vig: I’m pretty good, how are you doing?
I’m pretty good. I gotta tell you though, I was a little nervous going into this. I listened to a lot of the music you produced and made as a young man. Clearly you’re legendary in a number of ways, but I want to start our discussion by talking about an album called Version 2.0 which has been out for 20 years and that you and Garbage are touring around right now. Why is Version 2.0 the quintessential Garbage record?
I think Version 2.0 is the album that defines us more than any other album. After the success of our debut record, we sort of wanted to take exactly what we did there, keep all those production ideas intact but raise the bar higher. Shirley tried to write really great songs and we tried to support that with really great production. It was a lot of work and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. It’s an album where we really gained confidence, particularly Shirley. She wrote all the lyrics and came into her own as a singer, as a front person in the band on that tour. I think that’s why the record defines Garbage. It was a big record, it sold more than 4 million copies. The tour lasted 22 months and we traveled all over the world.
Two platinum, Grammy-nominated albums in a row is pretty cool, que no?
Yeah, I think we had, like, five singles from that record and a lot of airplay on MTV. It was omnipresent; when people think of Garbage, that’s the record that defines who we are to audiences.
Version 2.0 solidified the singular Garbage sound, including noisy, crunchy guitars layered into a pop vocal aesthetic. It was post-grunge, but it also looked forward to a new direction in popular music. How did that evolution occur and manifest itself?
Our debut album had really taken listeners by surprise. Because of my productions with other bands, notably grunge bands, many people expected a grunge album. Instead, our debut album had hip-hop beats mixed up with rock and roll drums, electronica living with fuzzy guitars, trip-hop sections, orchestral sections. There were really dark lyrics buoyed by sharp pop melodies, too. We used that template to create Version 2.0. We did not want to re-invent ourselves. We just figured that we really liked the sound we had created for ourselves and we wanted to up the ante. The result—an album with shiny pop melodies mixed with fuzzy guitars and heavy beats—is a lot of noise. There are a lot of fucked-up moments and noise segments, sound effects that we added, to create many layers of sound. Put your headphones on, August; you’ll hear things you never imagined.
I am going to do that tonight, Butch. So, the album really looks forward, providing influence for much of what came after. But in making the record, you hearkened back to the rocanrol’s past too, right?
I think, because we would blend all these different genres, particularly rock, hip-hop, electronica and techno, we also borrowed from the past, from The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Chrissy Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux, Patti Smith—they were all artists that we grew up admiring in our formative years. And you can hear those sorts of influences on Version 2.0 as clearly as you can nods to forward-leaning technology. That’s another thing that makes the record really interesting, yesterday and today.
Why is your vision—the vision that created Version 2.0 as well as seminal works by folks like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and House of Pain—still relevant in 2018?
Garbage is a funny band. We’ve always sort of marched to our own drumbeat; though we’ve released four records on major labels, the last two records have come out on our own label. We have no one to answer to but ourselves. While in the process of celebrating 2.0, we are also in the process of making a new album. The new album doesn’t sound anything like Version 2.0, but it still sounds like Garbage. There is something intangible there. I don’t really no what it is, but even if we try not to sound like Garbage, we do. I think that bands, if they are able to find a unique identifier, it’s a blessing, it’s an inspiration to create more. There are a million rock bands out there. Some of them sound generic, like all the others. But we sound like Garbage.
What’s important to you now, musically and artistically?
Well, the tour is important. It’s been really been fun. We just got back from Europe and I have to say that the repertoire was really challenging for us to learn. As we started playing 2.0 live every night, things have gotten interesting. We’re playing all of the songs from the album, half of them we hadn’t played for more than 20 years. Plus we’re playing all the b-sides too. I had never played those live. I had to learn those songs in rehearsal. There are a lot of extreme dynamics there. We’re really digging it.
Do you mind if I ask about the huge influence you had on pop music, you know the Nirvana stuff, to generalize?
Yeah sure, of course!
All of that stuff is really huge, did you realize at the time that you might end up shaping an entire generation of music and listeners?
No. I had no idea whether those albums were going to be successful or influential. When I’m in the middle of doing a record, I just dive in. I never know what to expect. I didn’t really think about it, I just did it.
Are you happy, sad or just non-chalant about what you created?
I don’t really think about it that much. I have people come up to me all the time to tell me they love the records I’ve produced. But as an artist, I’m always in the moment. We’re touring; I’ve just finished a film score; I’m in the studio with Silversun Pickups. What I’m doing now is where my focus is at. Like, I never put Nevermind on and listen to it. It’s just not in my nature. I acknowledge the past, those records were really important to me, too. They still sound great, I suppose, but I have to keep moving forward.
If you ran into a time traveler from 2118 and they asked you to describe what you did, what would you tell them about Garbage?
That’s a good question! [Laughs]. We’re four misfits who play rocanrol music together.