The '90s Alt-Rockers of Garbage Are Still Grateful to Be Making Music

Garbage: Steve Marker, Shirley Manson, Duke Erikson, and Butch Vig
Garbage: Steve Marker, Shirley Manson, Duke Erikson, and Butch Vig
Photo by Joseph Cultice
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The mid-'90s was a period of transition for rock music. The grunge subgenre that exploded at the beginning of the decade was in decline after its reluctant leader, Kurt Cobain, died.

Left in its wake was the postgrunge and alternative movements that seemed to lump in any acts that weren't classic rock. Bands such as Bush and Candlebox came to dominate the charts, but they never quite captured the raw energy of the original grunge movement.

Garbage (which is set to play Hard Rock Live August 8) was different, though. Helmed by three studio wizards — Steve Marker, Duke Erikson, and Butch Vig (the last being responsible for producing landmark albums such as Nirvana's Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream) — and led by the charismatic Scottish frontwoman Shirley Manson, the band seemed to pick and choose all the best parts of the alternative genre. It created a polished, hook-laden sound.

"I think we're really lucky that we are still here and we're still friends," Marker says.

If you think Garbage's musical output died after the turn of the millennium, you couldn't be more wrong. Sure, its 1995 self-titled debut and followup, Version 2.0, represent the band's peak of popularity. However, since then, the quartet has released four albums, from the misunderstood BeautifulGarbage to its latest, 2016's Strange Little Birds, which is being heralded as a return to form for the band.

Perhaps the reason Strange Little Birds reminds many of the "old" Garbage is because in 2015 the band celebrated the 20th anniversary of its debut in a big way. There was a reissue of the album that saw the original analog tapes remastered, along with every b-side and remix released during the album's cycle. If that wasn't enough, Garbage decided to thank fans in the best possible way, with its 20 Years Queer tour, which saw the album performed in its entirety.

"We were recording and finishing up [Strange Little Birds] at the same time we were doing the 20th-anniversary tour for the first album," Marker says. "We had to go back and relearn every song on that album and all the b-sides. So I guess that's the kind of mindset we were in when we made Strange Little Birds."

With bombastic guitar riffs, carefully constructed electronic beats, and Manson's signature vocals, the sixth studio album is classic Garbage yet somehow feels contemporary without falling for Tumblr-ready trends. Critics and fans have responded to it warmly, but with two decades of experience, the band is no longer measuring its success through album sales and radio play.

"Success used to be clearly quantifiable," Marker says of how the music industry has changed since the '90s. "You got to this point on the charts and you sold X number of CDs, and so that's how successful you were. Now the measures of success are so wildly varied."

Marker says the bandmates' current measure of success is that they can decide to go on tour whenever they feel like it and know fans will show up, because a devoted following isn't always guaranteed no matter how long you've been a musician.

Another band that knows about having a loyal fan base is New York punk/new wave pioneer Blondie, which will join Garbage on the road as coheadliner of the Rage and Rapture tour. Manson and Debbie Harry have known each other for several years, even sharing the stage on rare occasions. However, according to Marker, it will be the first time the rest of the band gets cozy with the legends.

"I was a fan of them from, really, their second record [Plastic Letters], and that's a blessing," Marker says. "If you can keep doing it that long and stay healthy and manage to get out on the road, it's incredible. I think it's a real achievement. Those guys are icons to me."

But Garbage's exhaustive catalog is proof the band is owed a place along with other '90s icons. Save for acts such as Nine Inch Nails, few groups combined electronic beats, sampling, and fuzzy guitar work as adeptly as Garbage. Even rarer was a rock band that knew to hire underground house and techno producers such as Todd Terry, Danny Tenaglia, Rabbit in the Moon, and Felix da Housecat to give tracks a club-ready reworking.

Today that all seems commonplace, and according to Marker, he's not at all surprised.

"That's how music works these days, and if you buy a Mac computer and you get GarageBand... it's really easy to put some beats together. I think it's cool that a kid can do that without having to buy a lot of gear."

Because the band's sophomore album, Version 2.0, turns 20 next year, one has to wonder if the Grammy-nominated and critically acclaimed effort will receive a similar reissuing. According to Marker, the band has been discussing it, and it's certainly possible.

"Maybe we will be out next year doing some dates playing just that album and all the b-sides that we did at that time."

Blondie and Garbage: Rage and Rapture Tour. 7 p.m. Tuesday, August 8, at Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood; 800-937-0010; seminolehardrockhollywood.com. Tickets cost $50 to $90 via ticketmaster.com.

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