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.