A number of artists have made the transition from performer to producer, but I can’t think of one who’s gone the other way. Most artists get into producing because they want more creative control over their material. Since you already had that control as a producer, what drew you to Garbage and performing?
I've always been playing in bands, way before I started producing. My mother was a music teacher, and I learned the piano and drums when I was really young. I started playing in bands in high school, and eventually started songwriting.
I met Duke and Steve (from Garbage) when I was in college, and we've been working together ever since. I took an interest in producing when we started making our own albums, and that lead to me working with other bands in local Madison, Wisconsin scene.
Eventually I had a lot of success with bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and Sonic Youth, and that opened a lot of doors for me. In 1994 I started doing remixes for artists like U2, Nine Inch Nails, and Depeche Mode, and that inspired me to form a new band, which eventually became Garbage.
And I have to say, as much as I love producing other artists, working on your own music is ultimately way more satisfying.
It’s not a big stretch to say the state of popular music at the start of the nineties was pretty abysmal. The bands and albums you produced in ’91-’92 were instrumental in changing that. How consciously were you and the artists you were working with trying to remake the sound of the era? And where did that sound come from? Many of these bands had been working below the radar for a long time before they were "discovered” by the media, hadn’t they?
I was producing a lot of underground bands for indie labels between 1985 and 1990…artists like Killdozer, Laughing Hyenas, Tad, Die Kreuzen. They didn’t sell a lot of records, but some of them got a lot of attention in the underground press. In fact, it was Killdozer’s "Twelve Point Buck” that caught the ears of both Billy Corgan and Kurt Cobain.
At the time it seemed like a natural progression to start working with bands that were creating a buzz and getting signed to bigger labels.
Looking back now, I knew Nevermind was a great album when we finished it, but I had NO IDEA it was going to explode.
I think part of the reason it was so successful was that it was full of energy and passion. It sounded like a raw nerve compared to all the over-produced music that was on the charts at that time.
The Sonic Youth/Chuck D connection just got us to thinking – one of the really distinctive sounds from the late ‘80s was that of Public Enemy’s "wall of sound” collage of samples and electronics. Was their sound ever of interest to you back then?Hearing those Public Enemy records blew my mind. They were groundbreaking both sonically and politically. They had the raw energy of punk, and they sounded like they were really pissed off!
The way they used a sampler to make these amazing sound collages was really fresh and influential. [Public Enemy’s album] It Takes A Nation of Millions… is the reason I bought a sampler and started doing remixes.
The album Nevermind was recorded nearly fifteen years ago. Sgt. Pepper is a classic album, but by 1982 it felt dated. Nevermind feels like it was recorded ten minutes ago. How do you account for this?
One of the reasons Nevermind sounds as fresh and vital now as when it was first released is because of the production. It is really simple sounding….it doesn’t have that "dated” sound that many records have.
But I think the biggest reason it still sounds amazing is because of the performances. They are still incredibly powerful, and really connect with you. Kurt’s singing and lyrics are still as emotional and enigmatic as ever.
Enough about Butch Vig the historical figure. What current projects really have you excited?
Garbage just finished an eight month world tour in support of Bleed Like Me. The shows were really strong….probably the best we’ve ever played…and the vibe between the four of us is really good.
We’re taking a long, well deserved hiatus, so I’m just starting to look into doing some production work next year. I haven’t commited to anything yet, but there a lot of new artists I like.
Now that you’re a bit removed from the recording sessions for Bleed Like Me, what do you think of the album? How have the songs evolved during performance?
As a band, we feel Bleed Like Me is our best album. Maybe not our biggest commercial success, or the most cutting edge sounding album we’ve made, but definitely the strongest collection of songs we’ve written.
And this was the easiest album to translate to the concert stage, probably because it’s almost under produced compared to our earlier albums. We played every song off Bleed Like Me during this tour, and the noisier songs kept getting noisier, while the quiet songs kept getting quieter.
I love playing "Bad Boyfriend” live, but it was a bitch for me to raise my drumming level up to that of Dave Grohl. I think I got close!
On first listen, Bleed Like Me sounds like a pretty straight-forward guitar-driven album. But there are a lot of subtle touches there – are there interesting or cool spots that you’d like us to listen for?
My favorite tracks on Bleed Like Me are probably "Metal Heart” and the title track. I love the production on "Metal Heart”….it’s an odd arrangement, and in concert it sounds very, very heavy. And I love Shirl’s [Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson’s] lyrics….she wrote a lot more from a social-political angle on this album, and MH is one of those songs.
I’m probably too emotionally attached to Bleed Like Me to have an honest perspective, but I think it’s one of the best songs we’ve ever recorded. I wrote that basic track with an acoustic guitar at my basement studio, and Shirley took it and wrote those powerful lyrics about people in pain. When she sings "you should see my scars” at the end, the hair on the back of my neck always stands up.
As a producer you have worked with bands whose sound and approach are very different from one another. Is your recording process different from band to band or do you have a set way of working?
It definitely depends on the artist I’m working with. The most important thing is to understand where the artist is coming from, and what kind of an album they want to make. That will usually give me an indication of what the production needs to be. Hopefully they have good songs. And then it’s a matter of capturing great performances.
We were just looking at your drum setup on your website. You seem to have a pretty modest kit, but you’ve got lots of electronic gear interspersed with the acoustic instruments. How do the electronics figure into your playing – do they become extended percussion (say an extra couple of sampled toms) or are they triggering other events? Is this the setup you use live or in the studio?
I use a Drum Workshop kit in the studio…they sound amazing!
In a concert setting, the acoustic drumkit triggers my ddrum sampler, where I have pre-sets for each song that contain custom samples from our albums. I also have 4 electronic pads that trigger samples, loops, or sound fx, depending on the song.
The plexiglass around the kit is to keep the cymbals out of Shirl’s microphone.
Recording technology has changed radically since you first started producing. How has this altered your approach to the job?
One of the most significant changes to music production has been the digital revolution. It’s hard for me to remember how difficult it was recording a band when the drummer sucked. I don’t have to edit analog tape with razor blades anymore!
I have become a Pro Tools fanatic. I have an Mbox on my laptop, as well as a HD system in my home studio. The new HD system sounds really, really good. The only time I use analog tape is if I want to get that specific "sound”, and sometimes we will print the digital mixes to ½ inch or 1 inch if we want tape saturation.
But the flexibility for recording and songwriting with Pro Tools, and the incredible sounding array of plug-ins, has been instrumental in how I produce albums.
We learned that you were a user of iZotope’s Trash from a Future Music article. Have you had a chance to use the other iZotope plug-ins? Is there anything that you’ve found particularly useful or intriguing about them?
I love Trash! It’s all over Bleed Like Me. We used it on Shirley’s vocals (check out "Boys Wanna Fight”), bass, keyboards, and drums. It sounds really good, but I like the fact that it has a lot of flexible parameters, so you can really custom tune the effect to fit into the track.
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