There are two sides to the Garbage story.
Four sides, technically, if we’re discussing each individual perspective of the bandmembers. But I only have one such member on the phone — guitarist Steve Marker — posted up prior to the band’s show in New Orleans.
The two sides in question are historical. Pre-Napster and post-Napster, perhaps.
The pre-Napster narrative: Founded in 1993 in Madison, Wisconsin, the band makes serious headway on MTV and the charts with the release of its two first two albums, 1995’s Garbage and 1998’s now-seminal Version 2.0. It’s all alternative rock, flush with electronica jitters and shoegaze-y drama. Version 2.0 will go on to sell four million copies worldwide, making frontwoman Shirley Manson a star and garnering multiple Grammy nominations. The band will tour on the back of it for eighteen months.
Since it’s the 1990s and the CD boom has made the record industry more money than anybody can spend – not for lack of trying, granted — Garbage reaps the benefits.
“You have ten people at the record company showing up at your shows, wanting to take you out to dinner and pay for very expensive videos and take you to radio stations and talk to the journalists,” Marker says. “That goes down to management being really enthusiastic. Essentially everyone thinking that you’re creating money for them.”
But, wait, there’s more: Butch Vig, the band’s drummer and producer, had produced Nirvana’s Nevermind several years earlier in his own Smart Studios in Madison. It’s more or less Garbage’s studio by now, given the association, and labels desperate to find the “new Nirvana” come calling.
“Everybody thought they could just send their band to our studio or work with Butch and it would be grunge by default, which is ridiculous,” says Marker. “Somebody would try to set up for [a band] to come in and have that applied to their music. Even some pretty big names would come calling. It just didn’t make sense. It was stupid. But people thought that was what was going to make money from there on out.”
It’s enough to make Garbage double down on their conviction not to be a grunge band. They weren’t opposed to grunge, they just preferred barbed electronica and cleaner pop production. Thus far, it's working.
Then the peer-to-peer file-sharing boom happens. Netflix founder Shawn Fanning sticks the landing of a triple-axel troll when he shows up at the 2000 Video Music Awards in a black Metallica — shirt. Every major label, previously convinced of their invincibility, slams their hemorrhaging fist onto the panic button as profits plummet past the basement and into the septic tank.
Unsurprisingly, the complete upending of its chosen industry does not bode well for Garbage.
As always, things go from bad to worse: Manson requires surgery on her vocal cord. Relationships deteriorate throughout the Bleed Like Me sessions. They manage to release the record in April 2005 but cancel a string of dates throughout Europe. The cherry on top? A fan’s two least favorite words after ‘breaking’ and ‘up’: indefinite hiatus.
“We were just trying to be a little band and play music. All this other stuff that’s peripheral to it, when that gets to be so depressing you can’t stand to face it, it affects everything in your life,” says Marker. “If there’s one part of the business that goes to shit, it’s going to affect the other parts. We took it out on each other. I’m not happy about that, but I’m glad that we, well, we never came to blows.”
But the burnout was very real. It took two years for the band to push out a greatest-hits album, 2007’s Absolute Garbage, and another three for the quartet to return to the studio in earnest with the intent of recording a new album. This time, no labels, a position they’ve maintained ever since. The major labels’ prime rib and caviar budgets are long gone anyway.
“The numbers now are way smaller than they were, but in a way it’s a lot more rewarding because they’re not numbers that some big international conglomerate has a share in,” says Marker.
The physical residue of both sides of the Garbage story now occupies significant space in Marker’s Carbondale basement. The birthday message posted to the band’s Facebook page this March described him as “the band oracle of collective memories and experiences,” which is a more elegant description than Marker’s: “I have the most shoeboxes full of crap from our 25 years of being together.” Keeping “all those backstage passes and room service menus and weird photos that fans gave us” eventually paid off when the band sat down to make a coffee table book, This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake.
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With the obligatory coffee table book and big-album anniversary tour out of the way (Version 2.0 received a seventeen-date victory lap in 2018), Garbage’s rehashing of old territory is officially and happily finished. There’s a new record on the way, and the band recently shacked up together to write new music in a house in Rancho Mirage, a city in the Coachella Valley area and a “pretty nice desert,” by Marker’s account.
It’s not surprising, given that he openly admires Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and the rest of the old guard who continue to play shows into their seventies and eighties. Hell, he could see Garbage doing that.
One caveat: “We’re still a loud, energetic rock act now. That might not be suitable when [we’re] eighty years old," he adds. "But we could be doing something that could be really cool and innovative, just in a different format. I could see it happening.”
Garbage, 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, Summit, 1902 Blake Street, $42.75-$47.