Trash Compactors

Pop music may be in its most confused hour, but Garbage is covering all the genre bases

In times of desperation, people always look for a savior. That tends to explain the music press' recent compulsion to ordain so-called electronica the next big thing. It's a bit reminiscent of the old notion that in a world of blind folks, the one-eyed person is regarded as a visionary.

Techno and its variants have given few commercial indications that they are equipped to permanently steer the masses away from melody and harmony, but their prospects seem positively robust when glancing over at guitar-rock in the next room on a respirator. It's reached the point where new albums by Hole and Marilyn Manson are not merely expected to deliver decent songs, but are counted on to revive an entire genre of music.

Fortunately the band Garbage has got all the bases covered. Though in a sense it is a standard, four-piece rock band, it habitually tweaks the equation with enough razzle dazzle (sampled beats, industrial harshness, synthesized squiggles, and orchestral flourishes) to render its style unclassifiable.

It's hard to imagine a direction that pop music could take in the next few years that would leave this post-modern quartet out in the cold. Nonetheless, bassist Steve Marker and drummer Butch Vig (renowned producer of Nirvana's groundshifting Nevermind album) have given the matter some thought.

"Butch was making a point the other day that the last time he felt this sort of general lack of direction in rock music and culture was just before Nirvana came out," Marker says from a tour stop in San Jose, California. "The hair bands were there, but they were dying, and nobody knew what the next big thing would be. And when [Nirvana] did come along it was an incredibly exciting rush. So if you look at it that way, this is a real interesting time."

It's likely that when this era is viewed retrospectively, Garbage, like Blondie a generation earlier, will look like a bridge, a band that helped provide a transition into new musical terrain. Beyond the basic configuration of sultry female singer backed by three nerdy musos, Garbage shares with Blondie a voracious appetite for cutting-edge ideas. While Blondie never defined an era like the Sex Pistols or transcended it like Television, it softened the masses for punk, rap, and reggae in the years to come and gave disco a patina of hipness.

Like Blondie's Debbie Harry, Garbage singer Shirley Manson is sexy, street smart, tough but vulnerable, and never lacking for attitude. At times, the connection between the bands is more than merely spiritual. For instance, the beat-crazy lead track on Garbage's second album, Version 2.0, is a direct descendant of Blondie's "Atomic."

But perhaps the strongest link across the generational divide is the way people respond to these two bands. Although Blondie was a first-rate pop-rock group, it was generally lambasted by punk tastemakers, who thought it was superficial, slick, commercially calculating, and lightweight. Similarly, Garbage has had to endure nagging complaints that its two albums are too brilliantly produced, too cosmetically appealing. According to this theory, all that lustrous coating must be hiding an empty soul.

In a way, Garbage is a victim of its unusual origins. Marker, Vig and guitarist Duke Erikson ran the hugely successful Madison, Wisconsin-based Smart Studios, producing several well-known acts while itching to get their own project together. Vig and Erikson had played in the Madison bands Spooner and Firetown, but they knew they needed to find a suitable singer if they wanted to get another band together. So, in a story that has already passed into the realm of legend, the three producers were watching MTV's 120 Minutes on a Sunday night when they spotted Manson in a video for her Scottish band Angelfish. Soon after, they placed a call to her, and the rest was history.

It might seem like an unorganic way to create a band, but the results have been a miracle of better music through band chemistry. The group's self-titled 1995 debut album was probably the most assured, focused debut album of this decade (all votes for P.J. Harvey's Dry will be counted however). It was also an intriguing illustration of how much creativity can depend on all the right pieces falling into place. As Marker tells it, he and the band's other two producers could never really shape their ideas until they met Manson.

"At that time we were doing a lot of remix work for other people, mainly because Butch had gotten a pretty high profile with some of the records he had produced and so people were coming to him, and Duke and I would be part of the team to get that stuff done," Marker says. "That was for people like Nine Inch Nails, U2, Depeche Mode. So we were taking those songs and almost erasing everything, except the vocals, and starting over, creating some sort of new musical setting for their stuff, sort of an electronic-dancey thing.

"In addition, we were working on our own stuff, which was directly coming from that sort of thing. It really took Shirley coming into the picture before we were able to come up with something that had some direction to it. The combination of the four of us is what pushed it in the Garbage direction, I guess."

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