Unconventional Party: Two decades in, Garbage continues to find solace in the darkness

Joel Oliphint

Butch Vig will probably always be best known as the producer of several landmark albums from the heyday of grunge in the early-to-mid '90s, most notably Smashing Pumpkins'Siamese Dream and Nirvana'sNevermind. But he's also the drummer and founding member of Garbage - a legendary alt-rock act in its own right that will play PromoWest Fest at 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 17.

Though Vig and bandmates Steve Marker and Duke Erikson formed Garbage in 1993, they hadn't settled on a singer until meeting ex-Angelfish vocalist Shirley Manson at a hotel restaurant in London on April 8, 1994.

"For three or four hours, we just sat and talked and laughed," Vig said in a recent phone interview. "We'd never met her before, and she didn't know who we were. We just wanted to break the ice. We talked about politics, art, food, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. We felt like we had a good rapport from that first meeting."

Vig left around 5 p.m. to meet some fellow producers and engineers for dinner. "I was really looking forward to having the chance to talk shop and geek out on recording," Vig said. "When I got there, everyone was staring at me. I said, 'What's wrong?' And they said, 'Did you hear Kurt Cobain is dead?'"

Vig was stunned. He sat down for a few minutes, then left and caught a flight back to the states. "I remember walking through the [airport] terminal and seeing all these newspapers with Kurt's face on the cover. It was just surreal," he said. "Looking back, symbolically, that was a big turning point in my artistic career. Obviously, Nirvana was a huge part of my life. MakingNevermind changed my life. And then I met Shirley that day, and Garbage was a whole other part of my life."

Garbage's self-titled, double-platinum debut, which featured hits like "Only Happy When it Rains" and "Stupid Girl," turned 20 last year, and the band celebrated by releasing a remastered anniversary edition of the record. During the remastering process, the band heard the songs with fresh ears.

"We were all quite struck with how weird it sounds - in a cool way," Vig said. "There's a certain lo-fi quality to that first Garbage record that I find quite charming." The combination of sounds Garbage used in its music was also ahead of its time. "The way we arranged the songs - using rock elements and hip-hop beats and electronica and film-score moments, then juxtaposing these dark lyrics over shiny pop melodies - was quite different at the time," he said.

Two decades ago, it was also not as common for a woman to front a rock 'n' roll band instead of going the pop-star route. "I know for a fact that some of the label people we worked with back in the day were intimated by Shirley," Vig said. "They couldn't wrap their heads around her because she spoke her mind and was brutally honest."

Though Garbage took a long break from recording after releasing its 2005 albumBleed Like Me, the band returned in 2012 withNot Your Kind of People and just last month releasedStrange Little Birds, the best Garbage album in more than a decade. It's a rougher, more restrained record compared to the glossy, densely layered material on mid-career Garbage albums.

To be sure,Strange Little Birds tracks like "Empty" and "We Never Tell" have Garbage's signature, stacked-tight guitars and electronics, but on leadoff track "Sometimes," Manson's voice floats over orchestral strings, sparse keyboards and an intermittent, pulsating synthesizer, bringing to mind vintage Sparklehorse.

"To me, that track is quite unsettling because Shirley's voice is so in your face," Vig said. "It's kind of ethereal, but there's tension, and I think that set the template for how we wanted the vibe to be onStrange Little Birds. … She wanted to be spontaneous with her singing, so there's a real immediacy and an emotional, almost confrontational feel to them. To push her voice up front and leave a lot more space in the tracks made her singing more compelling."

The album also finds Manson, well known for embracing rainclouds since that first album, plunging even deeper into the gloom (see song titles like "Night Drive Loneliness" and "Even Though Our Love is Doomed").

"It's the darkest album we've recorded by far," Vig said. "We find solace in the darkness. Bummer songs make us happy."