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POP MUSIC : Beyond the Pail : How to turn Garbage into gold: Take one ace producer, his two studio pals and an unknown singer with an aggressive, independent-minded attitude

December 17, 1995|Elysa Gardner | Elysa Gardner is a freelance writer based in New York

NEW YORK — When contemporary rock producer ne plus ultra Butch Vig and his fellow studio rats first spotted the tall, striking redhead Shirley Manson in a video on MTV's "120 Minutes" last year, it was love at first . . . sound.

At the time, Manson was fronting a band called Angelfish, but Vig, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker had other plans in mind for the Scotswoman. They were forming a band called Garbage, and they needed a singer. Manson's dusky, insinuating vocals sounded perfect.

"We wanted to work with a female vocalist who didn't have a high, chirpy, girly quality to her voice," guitarist Marker says over tea with Manson and Vig in a hotel restaurant in mid-town Manhattan. "We had discussed who we really respect, and names like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde came up. And Shirley had some of the same depth."

Vig, whose production credits include such popular and distinctive albums as Nirvana's "Nevermind" and the Smashing Pumpkins' "Siamese Dream," agreed that Manson was the one for Garbage.

"We wanted someone who could sing in an understated way," adds Vig, who plays drums in the group. "At the moment, a lot of these alterna-rock singers have a tendency to scream. Shirley is just the opposite. By using understatement, she can sound even more subversive."

After seeing the Angelfish video on MTV, the three pals put in a phone call to the band's record company, which put them in touch with Manson's manager. Within 24 hours, they had tracked her down at home in her native Edinburgh, and a meeting was arranged in London.

The surprise is that Manson wasn't immediately sold on the idea of joining a band featuring someone with the industry connections and stellar credentials of Vig.

"I come from a background of what I call working bands," Manson says in her lilting burr. "That means we basically traveled around doing [crummy] gigs. There's a certain snobbishness that exists among bands like that, where 'producer' becomes an ugly word. So when I joined this band, my attitude toward the other [members] was 'You don't know everything.'

"Once I started to work with them, though, I quickly realized that not only were they musicians with a profound knowledge of the studio, but they were also passionate about what they wanted to do musically--even persnickety about what sounds they wanted to make."

Overall, the sound of Garbage--which plays tonight and Monday at KROQ-FM's "Almost Acoustic Christmas" at the Universal Amphitheatre--is equal parts warped studio invention and pure pop savvy. On the group's eponymous debut album on the Almo Sounds label, the effects range from a loop of James Brown's drummer Clyde Stubblefield playing live to the scraping noise made by a reel-to-reel tape deck self-destructing. The single "Queer," which is a favorite on MTV's "Buzz Bin," uses a sample from the band Single Gun Theory.

But one of Garbage's most compelling features is a force of nature: Manson's vocals, which can convey a multitude of emotions without ever coming across as melodramatic.

Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde are pretty impressive standards, but the acclaim for Manson's work on the album suggests that she has the voice and charisma to be a star.

*

Before joining Angelfish, Manson, 29, performed in the band Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie for a number of years.

"I played keyboards and a little guitar, and sang backing vocals--all poorly," she says. "I got into the band because the lead singer wanted to sleep with me. I kind of half-fancied him too, and I thought it would be cool to be in a band. . . . Then the singer and I fell out but continued working together. It was awful."

For all the praise her new bandmates lavish on her--and she hasn't slept with any of them, by the way--she still judges her vocal abilities as limited.

"I have a strange voice," she offers. "More than being a great musician, I think, I'm good at being in bands. I work well with bands."

Manson's cohorts in Garbage certainly have no shortage of experience in this area. After meeting at the University of Wisconsin during the early '80s, the three men worked together in the bands Spooner and Firetown. Erikson fronted both groups, while Vig played drums and Marker served as soundman.

Around 1984, Vig and Marker set up Smart Studios, at first a four-track operation run out of the latter's basement. "I had a little toy tape deck," Marker remembers, "and we'd go around recording the local surf-punk bands and skateboard punk bands."

"We booked a lot of bogus bands that never played actually," Vig adds with a laugh. "Often, somebody would cancel studio time, and Steve and I would invent a band and just record one song."

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