November 21, 2012


Garbage onstage

Vig and Erikson on Synths, Sounds, and Songwriting

GARBAGE MADE A GIANT SPLASH IN 1995 WITH THEIR SELF-TITLED DEBUT, cleverly combining grunge guitars with ’80s-influenced synths, innovative sampled noises, and Shirley Manson’s powerful, brooding alto. The band put out three more studio records before going on hiatus following 2005’s Bleed Like Me. Now, Garbage’s new album, Not Your Kind of People, is packing in the fans on the supporting tour. At a recent show in Las Vegas, drummer and producer Butch Vig (whose production credits include Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Green Day) and keyboardist/ guitarist Duke Erikson talked to us about the signature sounds on the new record. Between their gear geekery and penchant for sonic experiments, we’re not sure about the album title—they’re certainly our kind of people . . .


How pre-planned was the sound you were going for on the new album?

Butch Vig: We didn’t want to reinvent ourselves— we just wanted to embrace things that we like, including fuzzy guitars and beats, trashy drums, pop melodies, electronica, and atmospheric stuff , but I think just having time—almost seven years since Bleed Like Me—gave us a pretty good spark. The songs came really quick over the course of two or three months—around 25 songs. It was the first record we haven’t done in Madison [Wisconsin] as well; we did it guerillastyle in Los Angeles. Our engineer has a small studio and did some. Steve and Duke did some. I have a little bedroom studio. It has a different sound, but still sounds like us.

Do you develop songs from loops, or do you start with chords on acoustic instruments?

Duke Erikson: It’s different every time. It’ll be a melody or a line, or someone will work at home and come up with an almost fully-formed song, at least idea-wise. By the time it’s done and everyone’s had their way with it, it doesn’t sound anything like it did ar first. Other times, we’ll have an approach like, “Let’s do something that’s all synths and no guitars.” We’ll make temporary rules that usually get broken, but that can sometimes guide you along the way and lend a certain character.

Do you find yourself using more hardware instruments and effects or are you leaning toward plug-ins?

DE: All of the above. We used a lot of plug-ins I hadn’t even heard of until I got in the studio. Billy Bush, our engineer, has every plug-in you can imagine, 20 guitars, 14 amplifiers—it’s like a candy store. We had many plug-ins and a variety of keyboards ready to go. And we used the Glamour Box, this really f***ed up analog synth and noise generator.

BV: It’s so ironically named. The sounds that come out of it are so ugly. We use a lot of Death By Audio pedals too: the Fuzz War and Fuzz Gun.

What’s creating the vocoder sounds in the breakdown of “Automatic System Habit”?

DE: That was pretty fun. We had an idea in that break for Shirley to repeat the phrase “automatic systematic habit” over and over, so she did and I played her voice using a soft-synth vocoder.

The dense harmonica sounds in “Control”— real harmonica or synth?

BV: Real. Since I can’t really play harmonica, it’s a dead simple part. Someone told me you should always get a harmonica that’s down a fourth. Turns out it wasn’t in the right key. If I did it backwards [inhales], I could bend it down. I ran it through Serato Pitch ’n Time and transposed it to the key that the harmonica was in, then played along with the intro.

There’s a distant resonant pad in the intro and verses of “I Hate Love” . . .

BV: Th at was probably a Virus. I was trying to get some stuff where you could hold the chord and it would morph. When Shirley sang that, the initial jam was about 30bpm slower—around 95 or 100bpm. It was heavier sounding. We sort of lost interest in it, then one day we thought we should speed it up and make it sound more “club”. Once we did, I added some more synth stuff at home and sped up the original vocal 30 or 40bpm in Pitch ’n Time. Th e vocal sounded almost behind the beat because it was initially so slow. Shirley re-recorded the vocal at the faster tempo, it was more on the beat but actually not as interesting, so we used the time-compressed vocal.

How did you get the spacey piano sound in “Beloved Freak”?

DE: That’s a software instrument included with Pro Tools, called MiniGrand. We EQed and compressed it and added more reverb; it’s got a nice 3D quality to it.

How about the distorted synth loop in the intro to “Battle In Me”?

BV: Glamour Box! The Glamour Box is all over that song.

DE: We even gated the Glamour Box on the chorus, to get a rhythmic effect and to add some white noise to the guitars.

It’s always seemed like sound design and songwriting are tightly intertwined in Garbage. . . .

DE: Sometimes when trying to find a sound on a keyboard, you start scrolling through presets going “no . . . no,” but as soon as you put a pedal inline, you go, “Wow, cool!” It’s rare that we’ll just play a preset. It’s not so much tweaking within a synth, you have to do something to f*** it up, make a keyboard sound like a guitar, or some such thing. We used SoundToys Decapitator on a lot of stuff also. Some of the drums on “Blood for Poppies” are just hammered through that. A lot times on keys or Shirley’s vocal, we’ll start adding that in because you can really manipulate the top and bottom end with the lowpass and highpass controls—you can totally change the harmonic content. We like to do that a lot!

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