Steve Marker of Garbage on his approach to production and the joys of living in Colorado
Garbage was one of the most popular and arguably one of the best bands out of the second wave of early '90s alt rock. Benefitting from the production skills of drummer and renowned producer Butch Vig (Nevermind) and Steve Marker, Garbage was able to put out a body of work very early on that showcased an impressive level of inventiveness in the sculpting of sound and songwriting experiments done in Smart Studios. It also didn't hurt that former Angelfish singer Shirley Manson was one of the unexpectedly charismatic and powerful singers of that period. The band's 1995 debut album made them stars with a string of hits.
For the rest of the '90s, Garbage continued to push itself in creating a new kind of fusion of electronic music aesthetics with rock. The act's second album, 1998's Version 2.0 bore this out, and the ensuing tour solidified the band's reputation as a powerful live act. After the tour in support of 2005's Bleed Like Me, Garbage went on a kind of hiatus that lasted a handful of years. But those years offered the members of the band to appreciate the chemistry they had together as people and as musicians, and this past summer, Garbage released Not Your Kind of People. We recently spoke with Marker about his approach to production, moving to Carbondale, Colorado and Klaus Nomi.
Westword: Earlier in your production career you recorded Killdozer?
Steve Marker: Yeah! They were one of the first bands we worked with at Smart Studios in Madison that actually had a record label that was going to put out a record, which was Touch and Go.
You went to school in Madison. How did you get in touch with that underground music world?
My current band were in this other band called Spooner in Madison. They were sort of the cool New Wave band at the time. I was just a fan, and my friends and I would stay out all night and go see their shows and follow them to a party afterwards. I just started hanging out with those guys; this was like hundreds of years ago, and it was sort of that common bond. They were trying to figure out how they might be able to record something well enough to make a 7-inch single.
I went out and bought a four track reel-to-reel deck and Butch [Vig] had some microphones, and we kind of went from there. We started in the basement, and eventually we rented a space to actually have a studio, and it actually turned into something. So we were really lucky that way. That's kind of what we're still doing: trying to make up songs and have fun recording them. It's worked out pretty well so far.
What attracted you to the production side of making music in the first place?
Just being a record fan, a music fan, and trying to figure out why different bands and why different records would sound so different. Why the Beach Boys would sound so different from the Rolling Stones, or why Roxy Music sounded different from Brian Eno's solo stuff. What's going on [there]?
Then the punk with the Clash, Television, the Pretenders and Blondie came along. That changed everything for me because it was exciting again. You didn't have to listen to Kansas and Styx, which was sort of the standard thing in the Midwest at the time. It was always a dream to think you could be a part of something that might be on the radio someday instead of just messing around in your bedroom with a Portastudio. That's still kind of a dream, I guess.
In what ways would you say that being on the production side of the music has enhanced your creative life as a musician?
I think it meant everything to Garbage because we never really worked with another producer to any great extent. I don't think we would have ever turned out the way we did. For better or worse, we are what we are because we do get involved in every little guitar sound and every little production decision and where we're going to work and what fuzz pedal we're going to use and what vocal take is the best one -- all of those hundreds of things that go into what is called "production." I can't imagine us just being songwriters and having somebody kind of tell us what to do and just accepting that. It seems impossible to imagine that.
You got started playing music early in life with drums. What got you started playing guitar in front of an audience?
Just always wanted to. None of us in the band have ever really been in a cover band, where we're slick musicians that can play in any style or sit down and hear a record once and be able to play along. We still kind of struggle. I think that's good because we never really take it for granted that we can just waltz out onto stage and play a perfect show. We're always having to try really hard in the studio. We keep getting better, but none of us could be session musicians. We've sort of molded our abilities and funneled those into what Garbage has become. Again it's sort of that dream of when you're a kid and you dream of being in a band for all the cliché reasons.
Were there guitarists you admired early on and is there anyone you admire who has come to your attention these days?
Never the guys that played twenty minute solos. Maybe they were really great. I don't know. I can appreciate why Eric Clapton is really good, but I don't want to listen to some jam band kind of solo stuff. I'm more into, and have always been more into guitar parts that sort of work melodically more in a Beatles sense.
Or the way Tom Petty's guitar parts work together to make a cohesive pop song. Keith Richards, you don't think of him playing solos. He plays killer rhythm parts that elevate the song. Pretenders guitar parts were another thing that really influenced me. Something like that rather than the sort of blues-based, self-involved soloing.
Textures too. Someone like Robert Fripp was big because he played not solos so much, at least his later stuff, as textures and ambient soundscapes and that's something that's always fascinated me and how he would be able to do that; it was almost like an orchestra coming out of one guitar.
Presumably you played live music before Garbage. What are some important things you learned about the production side from being a musician and vice versa?
Coming from a producer's viewpoint, I think you realize, kind of related to what I was just saying, is that you're not there to show off. And you're not there to show how brilliant you are or draw attention to yourself. You're there to make the song work in whatever way is necessary. In a pop song I don't think there's anything as important as the main vocal. Stepping on that with your big, fancy drumbeat that you think is really cool but it's detracting from the vocal? You're not doing your job.
Same with a guitar. You're there to serve the song, I think. Not everybody thinks like that but that's how I would look at it from a producer's standpoint. I guess, from a musician's standpoint, you are trying to assert your individuality in your playing while still serving the song and not stepping all over what the listener is going to hear when it's coming out of the radio. That's a real skill. If you can pull that off, you're in pretty good shape.
At this point, this is part of the lore, if you will, of Garbage, but you first saw Shirley Manson on MTV's 120 Minutes program when the Angelfish video appeared there for the first and, supposedly, only time. What was it about her that you found so compelling?
We were working on a lot of remixes for a lot of people that were known for pretty aggressive sounds. Some of those people were House of Pain and Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode. We wanted to do something that was kind of like those remixes with a real hard edge. But still, we were pop music geeks, really, and I think melody in a song is maybe the most important thing of all. At the time there was a lot of screaming, there were a lot of guys screaming, to be more specific, and we wanted to be able to do this sort of harder-edged music but with a female voice on top of all that noise. We felt like that was something we could embrace.
At the same time there were a lot of women that [had high pitched and screechy voices] to my ears. So when I heard Shirley it was more like the voices that we loved growing up, Which was more Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde -- sort of that classic pop sound -- maybe Dusty Springfield. It was really exciting because she actually conveyed something and had some personality and character through her voice that I felt came through on the song I heard. I guess I was right because it's worked out pretty good for all of us. The amount of luck involved is kind of mindblowing, really. We've been really lucky our whole career and to still be doing this after all these years.
Why did you move to Carbondale, Colorado, of all places?
That's a good question. We'd been in Madison, Wisconsin for 25 years. Even though it's not the world's smallest town you end up knowing every single person there. It just gets a little too familiar, and I wanted my daughter to grow up in a more sort of outdoor environment and less in the car driving from shopping mall to shopping mall.
When we got done with the tour in '05 with Garabage, I didn't know what I was going to do next. I didn't know we'd be back together now. And it was like, "Let's go start something new. This may be our last chance to change our lives and go for something different." It's worked out pretty well. It's turned out to be a great place to live.
What is it you like about that town?
Mostly the opportunities to get outside. So mountain biking, hiking and skiing. Having space. It's not been the easiest. It's not the world capital of the music industry up here, that's for sure. But we get down to Denver to hang out when we need some civilization, so it works out great.
You've said in the past that you're not that precious about your music and that you enjoy seeing what people do with your music with remixes. What inspired that kind of openness?
We've done a lot of remixes over the years, and I guess coming from a background where we did it ourselves to other people, I think the best results are often taking it the farthest that you could. Maybe it was a remix that didn't necessarily sound like the original artist. So it was different and it was your take on them. That was the coolest result. We've also dealt with people that micromanaged what a remixer would do so much that you weren't really allowed to do anything cool. The end result isn't very good because it's so controlled.
I just don't think you can restrict people's creativity. If you really hate it and it sucks, you tell them you can't use it. But other than that, and I think this applies in a lot of different areas, if you give people the freedom to follow their own ideas, you're probably going to get better results. I guess it's accepting that and allowing people to do their own thing rather than trying to tell them what to do.
You sample "Valentine's Day" by Klaus Nomi for "Beloved Freak" on your new album, Not Your Kind of People. How did you become familiar with his work, and what do you find interesting about that guy?
I worked in a punk rock music club in Madison, Wisconsin [called Merlin's] in the early '80s and he played there live. People don't know much about him but he was this sort of space opera singer. I don't think anybody's ever done anything like that since then. It was just bizarre but really cool. It was around the time he did a little bit with David Bowie. I think he was on Saturday Night Live with him singing in the background.
Anyway, I worked at that club and he played there, and he and his band, who were these downtown, New York, avant-garde music freaks, ended up coming over to a Wisconsin beer buddy's house after the show for the after party. The place kind of got trashed, and it was pretty wild and it was a memorable night. And he died soon after that.
Probably about two years ago now, I was looking through old discs I had lying around, and it was like, "Wow, I haven't heard this for twenty years! I wonder what that sounds like today." I put it on and it's still really striking stuff. There was this one sort of vocal hook I thought could be used in a song like a loop is used in a [hip-hop] song these days as a hook. We ended up writing the song around that sample. That was one of the first things recorded for that song.
He's been gone so long, and he was never big, so he didn't really have a record company. We finally tracked down some guy that had worked with him toward the end who had the rights. He's an artist in New York that owns part of the estate or something. We were able to get them let us use the sample. I don't know if we would have even used that song on the record if we hadn't used the sample because it was so important to the music adding atmosphere.
You have a song on the new album called "Man on a Wire." Is that in any way a reference to Philippe Petit?
Yeah! I didn't write the words to that but though the song isn't about him or about the movie or anything, I know we all saw that movie and it was awesome and beautiful. Whatever the words meant to Shirley, I think it had something to do with that, I couldn't tell you exactly what.
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