"This is the noise that keeps me awake . . . my head explodes and my body aches . . ."
It's Shirley Manson's body that shakes as she thrusts herself into the lyrics during a performance at the 9:30 club. And it's the audience's ears that ache as the post-industrial rock thump of Garbage fills the air with "Push It," one of the taut missives from the band's new album, "Version 2.0."
The original version, released in 1995, sold more than 4 million copies and marked one of the most successful rock debuts of the '90s. It introduced Garbage's supersonic meld of alternative rock, classic pop, electronica technology and post-punk attitude, hammered out by three dark, dour-looking dudes from Wisconsin and delivered by a bouncy, sultry redhead from Scotland.
"Four years later," notes drummer-programmer Butch Vig, "we've been doing a never-ending tour -- 24-7-365."
In fact, the current Garbage tour, which includes a stop tomorrow at American University's Bender Arena, is scheduled to run through the end of 1999. Radio and MTV remain the band's best friends, though one suspects that Manson's charismatic kitten-with-a-whip persona has a lot to do with the band's success.
None of the band members -- Manson, Vig, and guitarists Steve Marker and Duke Erikson -- had previously made the big time. It's true that Vig had a name and a reputation, but mostly as the producer of two landmark alternative rock albums, Nirvana's "Nevermind" and the Smashing Pumpkins' "Siamese Dream." Manson, the daughter of an Edinburgh geneticist, was a keyboard player and backup singer who had never fronted a band.
Vig says he wanted to do something new.
"After having successes like the Pumpkins and Sonic Youth and Nirvana, I'd already done hundreds of punk, grunge and metal bands on indie labels and I think I started to burn out on approaching music that way -- two guitars, bass, drums and you basically record them live, quickly, overdub a few things and mix it."
He and Marker and Erikson brought a sampler into their Smart Studios in Madison, Wis., and started doing remixes for groups like Nine Inch Nails and House of Pain.
"That's what got me back into it," Vig says. "When we do remixes, we erase everything and basically rewrite the songs. And for the first time in about four or five years, I was writing and playing again."
"I'm a sucker for a pop song and a great hook. I'm really a pop geek -- my mom was a music teacher and I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, Camelot,' the Tijuana Brass, the Beatles, Thelonious Monk and all sorts of stuff."
Hip-hop producers had already redefined the parameters of what a pop song could be, says Vig, and "that approach is what inspired us in Garbage. We wanted to write melodic pop songs and have a lot of guitar hooks but also experiment and put in all kinds of crazy noises, distort the drums or cut them up, run it backwards, whatever."
It was meant to be studio-bound experimentalism, but there was a desire to leaven the earthquake rhythms and buzz-saw power chords with riveting vocals -- something neither Vig nor his colleagues were up to. Enter Manson, whom they'd noticed in the Angelfish video "Suffocate Me."
The trio decided to meet her in London.
"I was thrilled that someone of Butch's caliber was even remotely interested in speaking with me, let alone meeting with me," Manson recalls. "I liked a lot of the records he had worked on, so I went down and met all three of them in a London hotel and hit it off immediately with them as individuals. But I thought they were going to meet me and take one look and think I'm all wrong, so I didn't really set my heart on actually going anywhere with it.
"I think they liked the fact that I disagreed with them a lot -- they'd say things and I would voice my opinion and it was usually the polar opposite of theirs! I think they were looking for a partner, not a slave. In that situation there could have been a lot of sycophancy, and I don't think they got that."
When the studio-obsessed Yanks invited her back to Madison, it was for a one-song experiment with no plans to expand the collaboration any further, much less take it on the road.
"Touring is a very intimate and closely formed activity," says Manson, "and I was frightened of going near a stage with three people I didn't know. I remember saying, I'm not playing with you guys live!' "
"She had no intention of joining us," Vig admits.
What the Madison trio didn't know was that Manson was "at rock bottom with regards to my life at the time," she says. "So I was open to any input, to be frank."
Back in Madison, the four musicians started looking for an identifiable style, beginning with what would eventually become their first hit, "Stupid Girl."
"We didn't have any lyrics, just the Clash loop and a bass line," says Vig. "It wasn't really a song, but a groove. A lot of our songs start out with one idea and we keep recording and cutting and pasting, moving things around, and eventually when we finish, it's a song."
Some songs weighed in with 120 tracks -- sort of like dressing up a single mannequin of melody with a closet full of clothes. Garbage's sound was part of a groundbreaking wave of studio-defined pop that included such European acts as Massive Attack, Bjork and Tricky, none of whom seemed to catch the ear of radio programmers in the United States.
"I was terrified, particularly because no one knew who we were," says Vig. "They knew who I was, and I knew if the record came out and bombed and if we went out and sucked live, no one would remember Duke, Steve and Shirley, it would have been me because I had the highest profile at the time."
The album, "Garbage," produced such radio-friendly and videogenic tracks as "Queer," "Vow" and "Only Happy When It Rains," with an outtake, "No. 1 Crush," appearing on the multiplatinum "Romeo + Juliet" soundtrack.
"It's so hard for bands to have a career these days, so we were lucky to have six songs that sounded different on the radio, instead of having one massive hit," says Vig. "It was a very slow build. It took us a long time to sell those 4 million records."
And as the band's profile continued to rise, it became apparent they would have to back it up with live performances, a challenge given the extensive studio tricknology at the heart of the music.
The original idea was to mimic the studio recordings, "but we realized pretty quickly that we couldn't do that," Vig says. "Once we started freeing ourselves up from having to translate the songs that way, we started speeding them up and changing keys, doing different intros and outros, started ad-libbing things."
And then there was Manson.
"We had no idea what Shirley was going to be like, and she blossomed into this total front person!"
Much of that blossoming, Manson explains, had to do with becoming involved for the first time in the creative process. In her previous bands, she wasn't, "and that, I think, leads to a certain lack of self-esteem, and therefore a lack of enthusiasm for the project." Now, she writes 99 percent of the lyrics and concedes that those on "Version 2.0" are far more personal, more direct, more revealing than those on "Garbage."
The first time around, Manson says, she was acutely aware that the Madison crew were longtime friends. "I had to bring lyrics that all three would pore over and, I thought, talk about behind my back, so I was very guarded with the words I brought in. If they didn't like them, I took it very personally. . . . I was much more clear about what I wanted to say this time around."
If only she could get the boys to work a little faster in the studio!
"Version 2.0" took a year minus a day to finish: four weeks to write, and 11 months to record. It's the kind of inefficiency that comes with owning your own studio and being self-styled production geeks.
It was Manson who finally put her foot down, says Vig.
"She doesn't have the same attention span to sit and doodle with some little synthesizer thing for hours. If I'm working on something, I can work on it for 16 hours straight without ever looking at the clock. I'll forget to eat on many days. But if you're not the one working and have to watch somebody else do the same thing over and over -- experimenting, running it backwards, flipping it around -- you go, Enough already! That sounded good two days ago!' "
Garbage titled the new album "Version 2.0" as tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of similarities to its predecessor. The idea, Vig says, was to "make the pop poppier, the rhythm tracks tougher, the noisy guitar bits noisier, use more electronica -- try and take everything we did and just push it out farther. But at the end of the day, we still wanted the album to sound like a collection of pop songs. Some are a bit darker, some are a bit noisier, but ultimately they're still pop songs."
If making "Version 2.0" kept Garbage off the road for a year, the band seems intent on making up for any lost time with a brutal world tour that will take them right to the edge of the next millennium. What happens then is anyone's guess, but Vig and Manson both suggest the band will be taking a much-needed break before they think about any further upgrades. Manson, for one, has a husband and a home back in Scotland, neither of which she's seen much off in the past four years.
Vig's also anxious to get back to a familiar place. "There will be a third Garbage record but we need to get out of each other's face for a while to stay sane!" he says. "I miss producing other people . . . All the bands that used to send me tapes were like Nirvana and the Pumpkins, or Freedy Johnston, a singer-songwriter sort of removed from the grunge genre. But now I'm getting all sorts of interesting hip-hop acts and female artists -- people like Fiona Apple and Jewel have approached me about possibly working together.
"And a lot of bands that sound like Garbage." CAPTION: Duke Erikson, Butch Vig, Shirley Manson and Steve Marker bring Garbage to American University tomorrow on a tour set to last through this century. ec CAPTION: "I think they liked the fact that I disagreed with them a lot," says Shirley Manson. ec