On June 10, the alternative-rock veterans Garbage will release Strange Little Birds — their sixth album, and their second since reuniting earlier this decade. That title is appropriate for a band that never quite fit in, even during the ‘90s when they were all over rock radio. When Garbage, the quartet’s debut album, dropped 21 years ago, it was clearly the result of trial and error by artists who weren’t quite sure what they were doing — and who, if things had worked out just a little differently, would never have been in the same room. Garbage felt incongruent amid the musical landscape back then, and, to be quite honest, it still sounds a bit strange in 2016. A collection of musicians who were trying to prove they weren’t just a bunch of studio rats fronted by a pretty face, Garbage stumbled upon a future in which we’re still residing.
The band’s formation is an oft-told tale. Duke Erikson and Butch Vig were buddies in Madison, Wisconsin, playing together in the barely remembered bands Spooner and Firetown. Their pal Steve Marker served as their soundman, later teaming up with Vig to establish Smart Studios in Madison. In between recording local bands at Smart, the three guys worked on remixes for everyone from U2 to House of Pain, hoping at some point to put together their own project. Then, late one night, they caught a video on MTV’s alt-rock program 120 Minutes—“Suffocate Me” from Angelfish. (Weirdly, “Suffocate Me” only aired that one time.) Impressed by Angelfish’s lead singer, Shirley Manson, the guys got in touch, convincing the Scottish frontwoman to fly to America to audition for their nascent band. (Little did they know that she had just about given up on music by that point, taking a job at the makeup counter at Miss Selfridge.) Manson didn’t recognize Vig’s name, but she knew the albums he had produced — Nirvana’s Nevermind, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream — which had helped set the agenda for rock music in the early ‘90s.
Before meeting with Manson, the trio of men had some song ideas and an overall sonic mission. “We’re trying to get real trashy, lo-fi guitar sounds. We want to take pop music and make it as horrible-sounding as we can,” Marker once said. The band’s name came from a pejorative a friend of Vig’s had once called his primitive loops and song sketches. Vig wasn’t insulted — instead, he took ownership of this notion of crafting musical garbage. And drawing from his experience producing L7’s 1992 disc Bricks Are Heavy, he knew that his new band needed a woman behind the mic.
“There’s a different kind of psychology going on in the studio when you’re working with women,” he once explained. “We also thought it would really be cool to have all these different elements of pop and noise, and trash and groovy rhythms, but have it coming from more of a woman’s perspective.”
But Manson blew that initial audition. “It was a disaster, actually,” she recalled in 2012. “I was frustrated, and they, I could tell, were disappointed. … I couldn’t wait to get out of there. … I went home back to Scotland, and their manager called and said to me, ‘How do you feel it went?’ I said, ‘I thought it was a disaster.’ And she went, ‘Well, the band kinda feel that way, too. Would you be up for giving it another try?’” She was.
The band members’ influences were all over the map. Manson dug Patti Smith and Siouxsie Sioux; Marker had turned Vig on to Public Enemy’s style of micro-sampling. (“To me, that sounded like rock n’ roll,” Vig recalled last year. “I started trying to figure out how they did it”). The trip-hop vibe of Massive Attack and the shimmering guitars of My Bloody Valentine were part of the conversation, too. Above all, Garbage was fighting against an impression from outsiders that they were merely a manufactured band — the man behind Nirvana’s monster record trying a little side project. As Manson told Rolling Stone in ’95, “If I wasn’t in this band, I would go, ‘Yeah, right, three producers and a girl.’ But we found a chemistry that I don’t think you can predetermine. It was just absolute luck.”
The 12 tracks on Garbage back up Manson’s assertion. By exploring the intersections of pop, rock and hip-hop, Garbage sounded different from the hundreds of traditional guitar-bass-drums bands that Vig and his buddies had been producing at the time. In the process, the quartet guided alt-rock away from the sonic terrain that Nirvana and grunge had mapped out earlier that decade, making it sexier, dreamier and more dance-oriented. If this music was indeed garbage, call it “found art”: the band rummaging through worn-out or under-the-radar styles to create something entirely new.
But Vig’s initial intuition proved invaluable, for it was clear that Manson’s soulful contributions were the crucial ingredient. On Garbage and its accompanying videos, she played the red-haired vixen, a dangerous, smart sex object with a powerful voice. But there was a vulnerability there as well, apparent in the open-hearted “Fix Me Now” where she pleads, “Fix me now/I wish you would/Bring me back to life.” On the fiery “Vow,” the self-determination of a repeated declaration (“I nearly died”) eventually gives way to a triumphant “I came to cut you up/I came to knock you down/I came around to tear your little world apart.”
The mid-‘90s were a period of annual “Year of the Woman” declarations, inspired by the rise of celebrated artists such as Courtney Love, PJ Harvey and Liz Phair, bolstered by bands like L7 and Bikini Kill, and spearheaded by the movement’s de facto matriarch, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. Manson was often lumped into this amorphous group of female performers by the press, but her mixture of antagonism and self-doubt helped her to stand out. You heard it in the way the fuzzed-up guitars of “Only Happy When It Rains” echoed Manson’s gleefully morose lyrics about finding a snug contentment in misery. Or take “Queer”: Riding a loop from Australian dance group Single Gun Theory’s “Man of Straw,” Garbage recorded with legendary James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield to produce Manson’s greatest come-on, imagining an encounter between a stripper (or is it a prostitute?) and her latest mark. Instantly, Manson established Garbage as a band that could make legitimately sexy music at a time when most rock bands were chiefly concerned with detailing their inner pain. Garbage figured how to make their anguish get you out of your seat and move.
Garbage’s importance was as much about its shift in alt-rock tone. From the brawling start-stop guitars that kick off the opening track “Supervixen,” the album was undeniably a studio-made concoction. Manson’s understated singing gave that track and several others an uncomfortable, ineffable tension, her voice able to convey an intoxicatingly inhuman quality when she so desired. Unlike the live-in-the-studio feel that Vig often brought to other bands’ albums — even when Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan was recording all the instruments himself for Siamese Dream — Garbage felt intentionally artificial, hinting at the digital revolution that would soon dominate record-making. Perversely, though, that didn’t result in a lack of heart on Garbage: If anything, the approach bolstered the album’s themes of alienation, self-loathing and the struggle for identity in an increasingly synthetic world.
The accidental alchemy that produced Garbage was hard to replicate. Though the band’s sophomore disc, 1998’s Version 2.0, was a big seller as well, it lived up to its title, proving to be merely a more streamlined, “improved” version of the debut’s trash-pop Frankenstein jumble. Subsequent albums found the quartet continuing to explore hip-hop textures, but as the new century saw alt-rock devolve into oafish rap-rock and post-grunge nonsense, Garbage’s sleek, searching spirit wasn’t as appreciated as on its debut.
And yet, it’s striking that, in 2016, the album’s weird sounds are everywhere now, from the synth-rock of Imagine Dragons to dance-pop groups like Chvrches and even blockbuster stars like Lorde. Manson had initially joined Garbage because she was impressed by the records Vig had produced in the early 1990s, but as iconic as they are, Nevermind and Siamese Dream now feel hopelessly chained to a bygone era. Meanwhile, Garbage remains the sound of baby steps toward a new musical horizon — one in which the conventions of a rock band are subsumed in a variety of styles that have had more to say over the last two decades. “I’m waiting/I’m waiting for you,” Manson announces on the closing track, the sparkling, pensive “Milk.” We’ve finally caught up.
Tim Grierson is the senior U.S. critic for Screen International and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. His book, Public Enemy: Inside the Terrordome is a critical biography of the seminal hip-hop group.