Read an Excerpt from Garbage’s ‘This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake’
Garbage teamed up with music journalist Jason Cohen to pen their autobiography, This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake, out now via Akachic books. Check out an excerpt below, exclusively on TIDAL.
My Five Favorite Garbage Songs
“MILK” (from Garbage, 1995)
It was a quiet night at Smart. Butch and Steve were working on something in the studio, and Shirl and I were hanging in the lounge. There was one table lamp on, and she was sitting on the couch in the shadows, strumming two minor chords back and forth on an acoustic guitar, singing under her breath. The only words I could decipher were, “I am milk.” It was lovely. We sat and worked out a couple more chords, played it for the boys, and within half an hour we were in the studio, working with the lights low so we wouldn’t lose the moment. Sometime soon after midnight, we pretty much had it recorded, done, and dusted. A memorable session, calm and exciting at the same time, and the mood and feel of that night is still in there, still in the song.
“VOW” (from Garbage, 1995)
Before Garbage had recorded a note, Butch had been muttering the line, “I can’t use what I can’t abuse,” for weeks, like some kind of bizarre mantra. That line was a template for what was to come. In its earliest form, this was used as an audition song. Shirley spoke/sang the “abuse” line so well, we fell in love with her voice. By the time she’d joined the band, and we started fleshing out the arrangement, the song was becoming a focal point, and once we came up with the flashing guitar chords in the intro, we were off and running. The title came from a line for the bridge that never got used.
“YOU LOOK SO FINE” (from Version 2.0, 1998)
Shirl came up with the title and tossed it in my lap one day. I came up with a melody and the first few lines. She ran with it and finished the lyrics. Initially it was just a simple guitar under her vocals, but as was customary back then, it grew into this lavish production. For the Carpenteresque vocal chorus of “aahs” in the bridge, we created a keyboard instrument dubbed the Shirlatron, which was her voice on every key singing “aah.”
“THE TRICK IS TO KEEP BREATHING” (from Version 2.0, 1998)
The title itself told us a lot about how the song should sound and feel. Shirley told us the song was a letter to a friend who was having trouble. This one went through a lot of changes and rearrangements. We argued about how it should go, what should happen where, and so on. But it turned out to be a shining example of what four stubborn but creative people can come up with once they marshal their talents, join forces, and carry on—one of our best achievements in that way.
“CAN’T SEEM TO MAKE YOU MINE” (B-side to “When I Grow Up,” 1999)
When we were looking for a B-side, I offered up this gem. The Seeds were the epitome of a sixties garage band, and this song was one of their best. I performed it in my band the British when I was just a kid, still learning how to play, and also with Spooner years later. Garbage had a blast recording it. One late afternoon, years later, Butch and I were at sound check with our fabulous cover band, the Know-It-All Boyfriends, preparing for a gig at Café Montmartre in Madison. A friend brought Sky Saxon by to say hello. He was on tour with a host of other sixties garage bands. We had a beer and then he joined us onstage for a twenty-minute version of “Pushin’ Too Hard,” the Seeds’s big hit back in the day. As we thrashed away on the chords (all two of them), he guided us along, working the stage and going into long, ad-libbed verses. All of the six or seven people in the bar were thrilled! A bit exhausted and extremely delighted, we retired back to the bar, where Mr. Saxon told me how much he loved our cover of “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine.”
“QUEER” (from Garbage, 1995)
One of the first tracks that defined us as a band. It has all these different sonic styles mashed together: a big, whoozy hip-hop beat; chiming guitars which become buzzing guitars; strange atmospheric loops; Shirley’s seductive singing. Lyrically, it’s a theme we touched on a lot: trying to feel comfortable in your own skin, showing empathy for the misfits, geeks, and freaks in this world. We consider ourselves part of that club.
“PUSH IT” (from Version 2.0, 1998)
Playing this song still gives me a rush of adrenaline. Shirley’s vocal builds from a whisper to a scream, while Duke’s and Steve’s guitar playing is as stellar as it is unpredictable.
“BLEED LIKE ME” (from Bleed Like Me, 2005)
Another of our songs that speaks to the disenfranchised. Shirl’s lyrics are like little Raymond Carver short stories, each character dealing with her unique personal demons. The blend of cello, vibes, and orchestral bits swelling over the hypnotic guitars is a bit of an anomaly for us, and I think that’s one of the reasons I like the song so much. But it’s the end—when Shirley sings, “You should see my scars”—that slays me every time.
“BAD BOYFRIEND” (from Bleed Like Me, 2005)
Dave Grohl brings power to this song, Duke’s and Steve’s guitars make it roar, and Shirley gives it swagger. Duke came up with the original song idea, but it languished for a while. We couldn’t get the right vibe. Then I was hanging with Dave Grohl at a party in LA, and after a few beers I blurted out, “Dave, you gotta play drums on a new Garbage song!” He said, “Yeeeaaaah, dude, let’s do it!” Cut to a few days later in the studio. He did a warm-up take, then asked, “Should I go for it?” “Yes, whatever that means, Dave Grohl, please go for it!” And he did. Now, whenever I see the song on our set list, I get waves of mild nausea as there’s no way I can possibly play the drums as good as Dave Grohl. But I try, and I think sometimes I’ve gotten close.
“BATTLE IN ME” (from Not Your Kind of People, 2012)
This is the first track we wrote when we got back together after a long hiatus. It came from a mildly intoxicated noisy jam at a studio in Hollywood, and I think it surprised us in its ferocity. It was a wake-up call—it inspired us, gave us confidence, and it led us down the path to NYKOP. Duke’s and Steve’s guitars soar, then glitch and stutter over Eric Avery’s pounding bass line. I get an image in my head of a wild night out in Vegas, those boys falling like dominos, unable to keep pace with Queen Helen.
“MILK” (from Garbage, 1995)
When I first started working on the debut album, I hadn’t yet been invited to join the band as an equal partner. Consequently, they would take business meetings at Smart Studios with record executives that I was not expected to attend. Generally speaking, I remained upstairs reading books (The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje, in this case) or watching TV. One afternoon I was idly strumming on a guitar whilst everyone was downstairs meeting with Gary Ashley of Mushroom Records. I came up with some super-basic chords with a really simple melody. When Duke came back upstairs, he worked up some more effective chord changes and insisted we record it right there and then. I sang it sitting on the couch in the control room with a handheld mic, and I was just so bloody thrilled with the result. The night after we finished mixing it, I remember lying in my bed at the Edgewater Hotel and listening to it on repeat on my Discman. My entire body was quivering with excitement in the darkness. I just couldn’t get enough of it. It remains one of my favorite songs to sing live.
“PUSH IT” (from Version 2.0, 1998)
Version 2.0 is my favorite of all our albums from start to finish. We were functioning so effortlessly as a unit, and “Push It” embodies the purest essence of our band. I can hear where each band member stamped their DNA on the recording whilst also leaving plenty of room in the sound for everyone else to shine. When the fans sing along to this one at concerts, I sometimes think my head is going to burst with joy. I confess that I often sneak peeks at the boys during this song and think, “This is what it means to be in the moment. This is what it means to be in love.”
“CHERRY LIPS (GO BABY GO!)” (from Beautiful Garbage, 2001)
At the time, I was in the middle of a dizzying e-mail relationship with the writer JT LeRoy. He (soon to be revealed in a bemusing scandal as a “she” by the New York Times) was often foremost in my mind during the recording sessions for Beautiful Garbage. Butch played me an instrumental piece he had been working on. It was uncharacteristically shiny and jaunty, and reminded me of my club days when I was a teenager. At first, I wanted to write a song about old-school disco dancers, but in the end it became an anthem for transgenders and in general for people to pursue their happiness. Steve had the idea to speed up the vocal to ape early Madonna records, and the final version has this very twisted sound to it—truly a mutated and mongrel type of approach to pop music of which I am very proud.
“CUP OF COFFEE” (from Beautiful Garbage, 2001)
I was going through a painful divorce during the recording of Beautiful Garbage. My emotions were all over the place. One day I wandered into the big live room downstairs at Smart, and Duke was sitting by himself playing the piano. I sat with him as he played, and all of a sudden the first line, “You tell me you don’t love me over a cup of coffee,” came to me, and before we knew it the entire song was written in about ten minutes flat. It’s the telling of something that happened when I was a much younger woman, but all the sadness I was feeling about my marriage poured out of me. When I sing it, it takes me right back to the first time I ever had my heart broken—the bleak emotional landscape of my youth—but I like to think of this song as an homage to Jacques Brel. I can just imagine his beautiful, tortured face singing it.
“TIME WILL DESTROY EVERYTHING” (B-side of “Girls Talk,” 2014)
Steve came up with this piece of music during the sessions for Not Your Kind of People. I sang some rough vocals on it but we never got around to finishing it. In the end, it served as our intro tape for the NYKOP tour, and every time I heard it before stepping onstage, it would send a little shiver of excitement up my spine. We finished it in 2014 as a B-side to “Girls Talk” for a Record Store Day vinyl release, and when we got it back from mastering I swear I must have played it on repeat in my car every single day for about a year. It sounds to me just like Blade Runner looks: dark and apocalyptic, shiny and loud.
“SUBHUMAN” (nonalbum single, 1995)
We did this before we knew what Garbage was going to be, so it’s chaotic and sloppy and it makes no sense at all. I have no idea what the words are or what they mean, but these early days of the band were so much fun—put together some crazy drum loops, sample an acoustic bass off [redacted!], throw down the most distorted guitar riffs you can come up with, and head out onto the porch at Smart with some beers to write some lyrics in about five minutes. The way music should be done. Wrap it up in rubber and send it out. Become a darling of the press, play it in front of so many people. We had it good back then. Still do, come to think about it.
“STUPID GIRL” (from Garbage, 1995)
This one came together in an organic way. It’s really just a good drum-loop groove (sampled from the Clash) with a good bass line and great atmospheric piano over the top, courtesy of Duke. I remember Shirley doing the vocal really fast on one of her first times at Smart before she had to run to the airport, and the rest of us doing a rough mix right after and grinning maniacally at how fantastic it sounded, how it felt—this idea for a band was going to work. Plus, the writing credits read, Garbage/Strummer/Jones—I mean, c’mon, what an honor.
“MEDICATION” (from Version 2.0, 1998)
One of Shirley’s best early lyrics, and vocals too. Pretty and sad and everything else, all at once. I remember thinking we had really done something we could be proud of when we were finished with the guitars on this one. It just doesn’t sound like anything else that we’ve done. I think that was one thing about us that confused people, and is also a reason why we’re still going now: we never really had two songs that sounded completely like one another. Not on purpose, we just get bored easily.
“PARADE” (from Beautiful Garbage, 2001)
More fun guitar parts and another example of Shirley’s talent at writing unique melodies matched to words that you can go back to time after time. I’m not sure what kind of music this is—it definitely didn’t line up with anything that was going on at the time. That time was pretty weird for us and the world, but as we put this book together I’m realizing that there never was a time that wasn’t completely off-kilter—for us or the world. Still isn’t. We should definitely play “Parade” more often.
“NOT YOUR KIND OF PEOPLE” (from Not Your Kind of People, 2012)
The music started with Butch trying to write the saddest guitar riff of all time. Most of the rest of the song was done later that afternoon, but the last 10 percent probably took another six months. That’s the Garbage way. It spoke to a lot of our fans, who had stuck with us for so long, and it was a rallying cry for us as we dusted ourselves off as a band touring the world again.
(Photo credits: Autumn de Wilde, Garbage)
From This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake, copyright 2017 by Garbage with Jason Cohen, used with permission of Garbage Unlimited and Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com).
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