“It was an amazing part of all of our lives,” recalls Garbage guitarist Steve Marker when asked about making his band’s double-platinum debut.
“We didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We had no expectations that it would go anywhere or do anything. We knew that we were going to make a record, but we thought that maybe 10 people would buy it. I certainly didn’t think I’d be talking to somebody about it 10 years later!”
10 people did buy it, though. And then, around the world, another four million on top of that added an album that contained Stupid Girl, Only Happy When It Rains, Vow and Queer to their record collections.
No-one was more surprised than the band themselves, though the collection of studio tinkerers united under the Garbage moniker were more into samplers than sales.
“It was just really fun,” says Steve. “There were no boundaries or templates, so it was kind of amazing, actually, looking back on it.”
Now celebrating Garbage's 20th anniversary, Steve gives us a VIP tour of the album that made the band.
“I just remember trying to get the most distorted guitar sounds that we could. It’s pretty noisy and it was hard to keep those distortions in line to where it was music instead of just noise! So we were trying to walk that fine line.
“We’re putting together the show now in order to play these songs, and we’re realising that some of those things that we thought were guitars, when we went back and listened to the tracks, are actually keyboards.
“We’ve been playing it live for 20 years and using guitars to play the melodic riff at the beginning, but we just realised the other day that it was this shitty old keyboard run through a guitar amp and distortion pedals!”
“That track was just about the first thing that Shirley ever sung on. It was done in my basement on an ADAT.
“It was just a rough beat track that we built up over this loop from this band Single Gun Theory. We stole something off of their CD and made a loop out of it and started playing over that.
“It’s got those guitar harmonics and, again, it’s very distorted, but it hopefully works in a good way!”
Only Happy When It Rains
“I remember Butch coming in one day and playing it on an acoustic guitar and he had that title.
“It’s a pretty simple song, but what we always tried to have was something where – even if it was all fucked up and weird-sounding or dance-y or some other kind of weird rhythm – you could still take the song and play it on an acoustic guitar around the campfire. Just so there was actually a song there, even if it was going off into weird territory, sonically.
“I think that’s important, because we could mess around all day long and make weird-sounding shit, but we always tried to have a song to do that weird-sounding stuff on top of. It’s done OK for us, that song, so I can’t complain…”
As Heaven Is Wide
“A song like that took us forever to figure out where we were going to go with it. We had the basic idea and, sonically, I think the guitars kind of make it work.
“There’s a slide part and, none of us going to be asked to join the Allman Brothers, but we put a slide guitar in the second verse and that really amps it up. It’s something you don’t expect to come in and, for me, it makes the song a little more interesting.
“There’s also this high guitar riff that sounds discordant or atonal and has this ring modulation sound on it. So, it’s stuff like that: weird samples that don’t make any sense at all, but hopefully when you hear the whole thing together as one piece, it makes sense.”
Not My Idea
“[It's another weird-sounding track]. A lot of the tracks sound weird because they were done into an old sampler, which was not the most hi-fi thing and it didn’t sound that great. We didn’t even have Pro Tools at that point, it was analogue tape.
“If you listen back to it soloed, it doesn’t sound good at all, but when you get it together [the guitars, the samples, the vocals], somehow, we made it work! Now, there’s a million sounds that you have on your laptop, but sometimes it’s really hard to get that warm MIDI, crappy 90s sound back!”
A Stroke Of Luck
“That was done in our studios. It’s one of the first things that I remember Shirley basically sitting down and writing the whole lyric to, or coming in with full lyrics for.
“It was a sonic soundscape, basically me, with some drum loop that we got somewhere and then a lot of Roland RE-20 – we had, like, 50 tracks of that going over a drum loop! We tried to whittle it down to something that makes sense and then did the guitar chords over that.
“So it just started with noise and then Shirley came in and did the lyrics over that. You can hear it creeping up over the mix, these incredibly long echo things – probably something to do with some [Brian] Eno record we were listening to at the time. You could do that for days!”
“[I think that extreme stereo pan at the start] was something that Butch heard and he wanted to try. A lot of the songs were us saying, ‘What would happen if we did this?’
“He came in one day saying, ‘I hear this guitar going 100% left and then 100% right and moving back and forth really quick, totally fucking with your head.’
“That’s where it started, and I guess Duke [Erikson] started playing those chords. They’re pretty basic, but we don’t do anything that’s incredibly fancy when it comes to chords. But hopefully the way it sounds fucks with your head a little bit.
“It’s definitely an attention-grabber. It was the first thing that we had that came out and got on the radio. Really, we owe everything to that song, because it was XFM there in London that began playing it off of a compilation called Volume and all of a sudden we thought, ‘Oh my God! They’re playing our song. We have to finish the rest of the album now!’”
“That Clash loop was how the song started. The first measure of Train In Vain. One of the great joys of my entire life is to be able to see that credit ‘written by Garbage and Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’.
“Those guys were absolute heroes to me. We didn’t think that they would say that we could use it. We had to ask them and they let us. I don’t know why! Obviously, you could do the song and it wouldn’t be cool at all without that sample in it.
“I think Butch just had this ‘stupid girl’ line in his head and that was the whole song for a while. Shirley – sadly for her! – had to come in and make up the rest.
“The call and response thing with the guitar happened later on after the vocal was done. A lot of that guitar was done in the basement, not even in our half-professional studio that we had at the time!”
Dog New Tricks
“At the time, it was a lot of dirty guitar. I really only had this old Gretsch guitar. It was really old, like a 1959 or something, that I got for, like, $100.
“Then we had this really old Fender Bassman and that was kind of the only guitar setup that I had for that album. Probably a Big Muff, too, to make it extra distorted, but there was nothing fancy going on at all!”
My Lover's Box
“[It’s almost the other end of the spectrum], but it’s again a really lo-fi setup. There’s a loop on there that’s me playing this old Gibson lap steel that Winona Ryder gave to Butch Vig when he was making an album in New York.
“It was down in the basement collecting mould and I pulled it out. Of course, it’s got a million distortions and echoes on it, but I’ve never been able to do that again. It’s too hard to play, but I guess I got it that one time!”
Fix Me Now
“I think we were trying to be Tom Waits on that song, for some reason. It’s got this really clanky rhythm track that probably sprung from something off of – not that we sampled it. We have to be totally careful about catching people on sampling and a lot of people have gotten busted for it, so we wouldn’t have done that – but like something off of Swordfish Trombones.
“Just that clanky, rickety old, about-to-fall-apart rhythm track that we started with. Then I think Duke was trying to channel some John Lennon guitar riff on that. It’s a lot more straightforward on that one. I think we actually called it Cold Turkey, the riff at one point.”
“I don’t know if there are any guitars on that track. I play synth on that live. I go back and forth and put the guitar down.
“We had some crappy keyboards. It was like a rackmount E-MU Proteus or something that we would have used. Now that we have 5,000 Pro Tools-based plug-in synths, it’s really hard to get those sounds back.
“Everything sounds too good, that’s the problem today! That’s part of how the album came about. Nothing sounded good back then, so you had to really struggle in the studio to make things work and I think that helped the music to become better.”
The 20th Anniversary edition of Garbage's self-titled debut album is out now.