In the spring of 2013, the members of Garbage — Shirley Manson, Steve Marker, Duke Erikson and Butch Vig — gathered in Los Angeles to start work on their sixth studio album. Except the recording didn’t begin in a studio, per se. It began where so many bands first do: in a basement.
The basement was Vig’s, perhaps one of the least elaborate home studios a multi-platinum producer has ever had. “My home studio is just a room where I watch Packers games,” says Vig. “There’s no sound proofing. It’s just four walls of drywall. So it’s got a bit of a trashy vibe to it.”
It was a fitting launching pad for an album that, over the course of the next two and a half years, would see the band finding a way forward by looking backward, tapping into the spark of their youths to try an uninhibited back-to-basics approach. But Garbage — long known for their meticulously crafted blend of dark, industrial noise, sci-fi pop melodies, whirlwind guitar, and tricked-out rhythms — was going back-to-basics for the first time.
“When you’re a teenager, you’re in a basement somewhere with your band, and you don’t know what you’re doing,” says Marker. “There’s a lot of the teenagers that we were in this record.”
Some will hear echoes of Garbage’s 1995 debut album in Strange Little Birds — including Manson herself. “To me, this record, funnily enough, has the most to do with the first record than any of the previous records,” she says. “It’s getting back to that beginner’s headspace.” In part, she says, that’s a result of not having anyone to answer to. Strange Little Birds is Garbage’s second album off their own label, STUNVOLUME. It’s a return to the freedom they had when working on their very first songs at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, more than twenty years ago, before they’d ever signed a label deal. “It’s so liberating,” says Manson.
Manson calls Strange Little Birds Garbage’s most romantic album. “And what I mean by romance, really, is vulnerability. I used to feel so scared, and I think that was why I was so aggressive — but I’m much more willing to admit weaknesses than I was before.” For her, the retrospective feel of Strange Little Birds is more personal than musical. Each song, she says, addresses “different points in my life between me and a person I’ve loved. They’re hot spots in my life, when I was afraid, or vulnerable, or didn’t behave at my best.”
Lyrically and musically, says Manson, the album is “less fussed over” than any Garbage has made. “We fell in love with immediacy,” says Vig. “The vocals aren’t slick. They have a raw, emotional feel.”
“We felt less limited in what we could try,” says Erikson. “On ‘Blackout’ we were just winging it. We just started playing, following one another.”
“That song started with a jam in my home studio,” says Vig. “It’s got a great ‘80s bass riff. It sounds like Garbage, but we’ve done a new spin on it — some crazy riffs and bits in the bridge.”
From the confessional opener, “Sometimes,” to the pulsing static of the closer, “Amends,” Strange Little Birds is a sweeping, cinematic record of a unified mood: darkness. “There aren’t really any upbeat pop songs,” say Vig. “Even ‘Empty,’ which has a big, anthemic guitar sound, has pretty dark lyrics.”
“I love dark and dismal,” says Manson, who once made a hit single out of her admission that she was only happy when it rains. “I’m aching for some dark and dismal. Because I feel like the musical landscape of late has been incredibly happy and shiny and poppy. Everybody’s fronting all the time, dancing as fast as they can, smiling as hard as they can, working on their brand. Nobody ever says, ‘Actually, I’m lost and I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m doing with the rest of my life and I’m frightened.’ ”
In the end, though, there’s power in the darkness, as the rhythmic throb and guitar crash of “So We Can Stay Alive” shows. “That song is grappling with mortality,” says Manson. “The more that I see the clock ticking, the more it gives me fuel. It’s a song to all the things that keep you moving forward with passion, all the things that can be used as fuel. All these things you think aren’t good can be used as powerful material to enhance your life.”