“The men who rule the world have made a fucking mess,” Shirley Manson submits on the opening track of the new Garbage album, No Gods No Masters. Drummer and co-producer Butch Vig, who in his own right is one of the most legendary musicians of our time, stands by Manson’s side against the patriarchy with zero hesitation. “It’s the most socio-political record that we’ve made,” Vig states, referring to what represents Garbage’s seventh studio album. “This is what we’re seeing right now…We couldn’t ignore it.”
If you were to try to articulate the concept of No Gods No Masters in one line, you might say that it holds up a mirror to the human experience in the 2020s, although the reflection that we see is unfiltered, bloody and ugly with cracks in the glass. Vig’s take on it is similar, albeit more specific: “The record became a reflection of the insanity of the world, not just with COVID, but right-wing politics and racism and misogyny and the #MeToo movement and financial inequality.”
You would be forgiven for assuming that those issues aren’t as prevalent in the music industry space in which Garbage operate, for all that rock bands speak of equality and rallying against injustice. And yet, the institution behind them isn’t immune to the same problems that batter the rest of society: discrimination, greed, taking advantage of others. If there was ever going to be a nail in the coffin of the misguided belief that the arts industries were somehow different, it would be hammered by one of the most prolific rock bands of our time exposing their deceit.
“Whether you’re a musician or a writer or a poet or a painter or whatever you do,” Vig articulates, “that culture of money doesn’t necessarily value art that much. Most artists that I know, in fact, 99.9% of all of them have struggled through their life.” Aside from the concept of greed and the disproportionate valuation of work, Vig is also hyper-aware of gender inequality in this industry in particular. He notes the experiences of his wife, who worked in A&R at a label predominantly made up of men (“it was hard for her to get her voice heard”) and his teenage daughter, who is intent on following in her parents’ footsteps and pursuing music in the same way that they had when they were younger.
“We’re trying to teach her, to give her some tools to learn how to deal with that going forward and to feel empowered,” he points out. “I know Shirley says that too – she wants women to be able to feel empowered, to take chances, and raise their voices. You know, to not be afraid, to be heard. Shirley writes about a lot of different topics on the new record, but I think that’s a good thing at this point, to make a record for us that’s this socio-political, it makes sense. It’s the world as we see it. Shirley is writing the lyrics, but it speaks for all of us as a band.”
With such a severe sense of urgency attached to the mission of Garbage in releasing No Gods No Masters, it’s hard to imagine that anything that came before for Vig could have felt the same way. After all, while other societal issues obviously ticked along in the background, there was no pandemic that fractured the world when Garbage’s debut self-titled album was released in 1995, or even when he produced Nirvana’s seminal record Nevermind back in 1991. Indeed, although Nevermind may have represented an irreplicable zeitgeist moment, the feeling of absolute commitment and immersion in his work that Vig has now continues to transcend his past achievements.
“We didn’t phone it in,” he says, referring to the process of piecing together No Gods No Masters. “We were totally committed and passionate and argued every day about the songs and where they’re going.” He concludes: “I think you can hear it in the record. I think there’s an intensity to it, I can’t really define it exactly, but I can feel it, tangibly, when I hear the songs.”
And despite what the flannel-clad hipster who just discovered Nirvana might tell you, Garbage prove on their forthcoming album and with every new word that Vig offers in support of it that there was no golden age of music, it just keeps going; bands keep writing better and better songs that reflect more ardently the time that they’re in. Vig also offers his admiration of Billie Eilish as a proffer of what music still has to give in the year 2021.
“I think what she’s doing, how she’s singing in the songs that she writes and how she’s connecting generations, it’s the same thing that happened with Nirvana’s Nevermind. It’s this moment, you know? And those don’t happen very often, but that’s what she’s done with her record and in how she’s connecting with her fans.”
It’s what makes music so powerful, but it’s equally what Garbage professionally achieve with No Gods No Masters – using music to connect people, to irrevocably make them feel seen and heard. And once enough people feel empowered, emboldened by the sameness of the human experience, maybe we can make progress after all.