Duke Erikson explains that Garbage’s newest songs focus on mood and sonic atmosphere. “And I think all the layers contribute to that mood,” he notes. Photo by Lindsey Best

Since they first got together 23 years ago in Madison, Wisconsin, Garbage’s Duke Erikson and Steve Marker haven’t been so much a guitar tandem as a guitar collective—a two-man orchestra of intertwining parts and sonic textures. Their approach is less about who does what and more about doing what serves the song.

“We’ve never played a role as far as lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and that stuff,” Erikson says. “We both just do a little bit of everything, and I think we’re more than happy with that. It doesn’t matter really who plays it, as long as it works. We’re pretty easygoing.”

Easygoing about roles, but somewhat perfectionist when it comes to results—it’s an ethic shared by their bandmates, singer/keyboardist Shirley Manson and drummer/producer Butch Vig, and it’s made Garbage one of the enduring successes to emerge from the post-grunge alternative-rock scene. The band’s collaborative nature is reflected in the songwriting credits: No matter where a song starts, the end result is about all four of them.

Coming four years after Not Your Kind of People, the band’s critically acclaimed return from a long hiatus, Strange Little Birds is only the quartet’s sixth studio album—a relatively small output considering that Garbage’s self-titled debut was released in 1995. And while you could put the short discography down to the extended break that began in 2005 and the busy individual schedules of its members, the band’s working method also plays a role. “I wish I could say we do a record in three weeks like a normal band,” Marker says. “But that’s just not us.”

Overflowing with both musical and sonic hooks, Strange Little Birds captures the power of early alternative rock and puts it in a rich, big-screen soundscape that echoes and updates influences ranging from ’60s garage rock to progressive pop to punk to new wave artists like the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, U2, PiL, and David Bowie.

One of Garbage’s goals for Strange Little Birds was to give the album a unified mood. The band sums it up in one word: darkness. But with so many complex textures at play, the darkness is more like shadows, where light sometimes adds form and definition. The songs are dense and accessible, visceral, and thought provoking. Guitar textures range from pure power riffing to synth-like dreamscapes that serve as a reminder that the instrument’s tonal potential didn’t stop evolving in the 1980s. And in a world driven by singles and electronic instruments, it’s also a reminder of the days when albums weren’t merely designed to be heard from beginning to end—an era when it took repeated listening to unveil all of a great record’s musical secrets.

When we caught up with Marker and Erikson, they were preparing for a summer tour. For both, getting ready for the stage meant peeling back the layers of each song, reacquainting themselves with their parts, adapting them for live performance, and finding the essence of their sounds.

When did you start working on the album?
Steve Marker: Probably about two-and-a-half years ago.

Duke Erikson: It feels like a century.

Marker: The hardest is when you haven’t done anything for a while and try to start up again—that was tough for us on the previous record. But on this one we had a lot of momentum, and I was real excited about working again. And knowing us, if nobody pushed to get back in the studio, it could easily turn into another long hiatus, and I didn’t want that to happen. I just started sending stuff, and a couple of things clicked with Shirley pretty quickly.

We tend to be really slow and take our time doing stuff in the studio. We finished the tour for our last album about three years ago. I always find that the end of a tour is when you have the most ideas—the most excitement about the next thing. You’ve spent months playing the songs from the previous album, and you’ve kind of figured out everything you wish you’d done on that, and where you can see it going from there.

Erikson: We occasionally finish a song really quickly, but for the most part we put them away for a long time and come back to them. “Night Drive Loneliness” disappeared for quite a while. We weren’t even going to use it on the record, and then we went back and listened to some of the earlier recordings and found we liked it. I think that’s one of the reasons the record has a kind of cohesiveness—because we were coming back and reworking the songs and trying to keep an overview of what we were up to.

“We don’t have a guitar sound. I play a Tele and a Starfire live, and in the studio I play a bunch of things. But we don’t insist on having our ‘guitar sound.’”—Duke Erikson

At this point, were you working together or remotely?
Marker: We do a lot of emailing back and forth of ideas and files and stuff, and then when we’ve got something, we get together in L.A., and sometimes in Butch’s basement and in Shirley’s husband’s [engineer and producer Billy Bush] studio.

Erikson:More often than not, it’s all four of us in the studio, listening to whoever’s playing and seeing what they come up with. Somebody will say, “That’s it!” or “Play that again!” Everybody’s sharing ideas all the time. Shirl will get involved in the guitar parts and everything else just as much as Steven and I, you know. She’s very involved in production.

Did any songs on the record come from that early work?
Marker: “Magnetized” and “Sometimes” were things I kind of whipped up at home and sent off. A few days later, I got back a series of emails with some vocal ideas over the top of them, and I could see it could work out well. For “Magnetized,” especially, Shirley had this hook that I just loved. It was just like an A–B–B–A pop vocal line over the top of some really simple chords I’d done on guitar. I started coming out to L.A. and we started working—all four of us in the same room, jamming and drinking wine and playing guitars.

Erikson: We also came up with four or five songs just playing together. Shirley always has a little notebook, and she’ll come up with stuff from the notebook and sing and come up with a melody. That’s actually my favorite, to be honest. You’re a band, you’re all playing together and creating together—true collaboration that started from the very beginning.

You two seem pretty democratic. Do you sit together and work out parts?
Marker: Not in the sense of like, “Let’s grab a couple acoustics and a Corona and go down and play some Eagles songs in the basement.” But this album did have a lot of us four sitting in Butch’s basement playing, and somebody would say, “Let’s do a goth song!”—just as a starting point. It may even start off as humorous, like, “Oh right, we’re going to do a goth song!” But then it turns into something else, and if it’s a good day it’ll go somewhere. I played a lot of bass to start off, because I find that’s a really good way to come up with chord progressions and get some melodic harmonies going.

Speaking of bass, how did you handle that on the record?
Marker: We do everything except the bass. A lot of the parts, one of us came up with as we were writing the songs. But then in the interest of having a better track, we had somebody who can actually play the bass come in for the recording. Eric Avery [Jane’s Addiction], who’s played on lots of our records now, was in for several of the tracks, and Justin Meldal-Johnsen [Beck] did the rest of it. Some songs have specific parts, but other times we might say, “We’re not sure what should happen here. Just go for it, let’s see what you come up with.” Those guys are both really good at doing that. They’re also really incredible with tones, and getting the right sounds that fit the songs.

Speaking of tones, they seem to cover the spectrum on the album. A lot of the songs—and sounds—seem very visual.
Erikson: I think our songs sound cinematic. With “Blackout,” we were attempting to write a song for a movie. It was originally called “The End.” It would roll with the credits, right? In the old days, we used to have movies on all the time—anything visual, with the sound off, just to look and play along to. I tend to really hear music in a visual way—colors and shapes and visual structure. Seeing something can excite the creative part of your brain a little bit. That sounds a little bit pretentious. [Laughs.] We were really going for a mood and a feel that we all honed in on and all contributed to.

So was that visual element part of your concept for the guitars?
Erikson: Well, a “concept” is a little hard to pin down—to actually say there was a plan. We tried to make this album sound a bit richer, and give the guitars a bit more body here and there. And you know we’ve always wanted to mess with guitar sounds. We always steer away from them sounding exactly like a guitar all the time, and some of the guitars sound like keyboards.

Marker: When we started the band, we wanted to make guitars sound like they’re not supposed to sound—sort of unrecognizable. And so I don’t think we’re really ever happy just plugging in a guitar, turning on the amp, and saying, “Okay, I’m ready now.” It’s always got to be messed with, and it can take a lot of time. There’s a lot of trying to make it sound like a Kraftwerk synthesizer, or make it sound like Robert Fripp’s work with Eno and Bowie, or make it sound like, you know, the Edge. I think that’s where things get interesting.

Were you conscious of the sounds in your early demos or did that come later?
Marker: That’s a good question. On a demo you have to come up with a sound that’s going to be inspiring in some way. In order to get an idea across, you have to kind of push it farther than maybe it actually would end up on the record. “Magnetized” was super, super saturated, distorted, four chords, just over and over. But if you just plugged in and went direct and had this crappy little tinny sound it wouldn’t really convey the feeling. I had this sort of majestic thing in my head ... so you have to work on it a bit.

But the sounds all get changed. There aren’t too many guitar licks that I did at home that we didn’t redo in the studio. The overall picture changes as everybody starts to work on it. But it’s important to have some sort of atmosphere around what you’re doing all the time.