No Gods No Masters: Garbage’s Butch Vig breaks down the new record

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No Gods No Masters: Garbage’s Butch Vig breaks down the new record

(Photo: Joseph Cultice)
Words By David James Young

The drummer and producer talks about recording the album and a trip down memory lane.

The veteran alt-rock act began working on their seventh studio album No Gods No Masters, all the way back in the summer of 2019 – some three years removed from the release of their last album, Strange Little Birds, and less than a year after a commemorative 20-year anniversary tour for their second album, Version 2.0 – heading to the scenic surrounds of Palm Springs in California, where guitarist Steve Marker’s family had a house for the band to take up residence in.

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 “We went there with nothing, with no songs, no templates, nothing,” recalls Butch Vig – primarily the band’s drummer, but also a producer, keyboardist and occasional guitarist. “For me, that’s sort of weird, because usually when we finish a tour I start tinkering in my home studio and I come up with sketches. That could be a chord progression, it could be a drum beat, it could be just a title. In this case, however, all four of us went in with a completely blank slate, and I was a little bit scared. Like, what if there’s nothing? What if we can’t come up with anything?” 

Thankfully, as Vig continues, the opposite happened in those sessions. “In two weeks, we wound up with probably between 35 and 40 pieces of music,” he says. 

This shifts the conversation into the band’s culling and deciding process – how to take the overwhelming amount of new music floating around in the Garbage camp and whittle it down to what we’re soon to hear on the record itself. According to Vig, it came down to chiselling and tightening the extensive jams that the band had accumulated over the two-week period.

“Most of the songs were up to 15 minutes long,” he says. “When we came back from those two weeks, for about several weeks back here in LA I went through all of the pieces. I’d pull out like 30 seconds here, a minute here, eight bars here… wherever I thought there was a focal point. You’d find them around [lead singer] Shirley [Manson]’s lyrics, around a riff that somebody played… they were everywhere. After about a month later, we went into our studio and we just started to work on the bits we had.” 

It was during this fine-tuning and recording process that Garbage began to notice a considerable dynamic shift in what they were creating – and the looming shadow of 2020 was starting to shape No Gods No Masters more than they had initially thought it would. 

“The interesting thing is the songs started out being sort of more expansive and beautiful,” Vig says. “It had sort of almost an orchestral feel, a kind of openness to it. As Shirley worked on her lyrics, we realised the record was going to be a lot sharper sounding and more in-your-face. It just had a lot more attitude. The last song, ‘The City Will Kill You,’ is kind of like a film noir soundtrack, but the rest of the record is much more of a reflection of the psychotic world that we live in.”

No Gods No Masters is the latest instalment in a career than spans over 25 years, a dozen top 40 singles across the globe and endless multi-platinum accolades. To think that it’s come from a band that has never had a lineup change in that entire time is a testament to the connection that the four members – Manson, Vig, Marker and Duke Erikson – have maintained over the years. 

When the band were first creating together in the mid-90s, however, none of this chemistry had been established. If anything, the four of them working together was somewhat of a risk – and none of them knew if it would ultimately pay off.

“Creating this album and creating our first record were two completely different experiences,” says Vig when queried on the contrasts between No Gods No Masters and 1995’s Garbage

“When Shirley joined us to make the first record, we didn’t really know her and she didn’t really know us. The four of us co-wrote a lot of the lyrics on the first record, whereas she has tonnes of confidence now. Shirley’s our MVP. We write the songs around what she’s gonna say. On the first record, though, we almost approached the songs like remixes.

“A lot of the tracks had beats and things that we were taken from samplers, even the guitar riffs. It was a real experiment – we never even intended to play live. Shirley was the rookie and the newcomer in the band, and it took her a while It took us a while to sort of feel like we really had got a rapport together.”

Vig goes onto recall the shows that Garbage played in support of their self-titled debut were the breakthrough moment in which they truly blossomed from being a project into a fully-fledged band. 

“We thought we would go on tour for six weeks,” he says. “We ended up on tour for 16 months. That’s what it really gelled. Honestly, one of the reasons that we’re still here is that we really like each other. We’re friends, and we also respect each other’s opinions. We share a lot of similar sensibilities. That’s not to say that we don’t have days where we get in each other’s faces and scream at each other. We’re like a dysfunctional family – or like a weird democracy. It works, man. We’re still here after 25 years.”

Vig closes out his call with Mixdown to pay tribute to the late Michael Gudinski, who brought the band out to Australia several times over the years – most recently in late 2016 on the Strange Little Birds tour. 

“He was our champion for 25 years,” says Vig. “He was a mentor and a friend. It’s hard to imagine that he’s not here anymore. We want to come back down to Australia and put the hammer down for him.”

No Gods No Masters is out on Friday June 11 through Liberator Music.