POP MUSIC : Beyond the Pail : How to turn Garbage into gold: Take one ace producer, his two studio pals and an unknown singer with an aggressive, independent-minded attitude

Elysa Gardner is a freelance writer based in New York

When contemporary rock producer ne plus ultra Butch Vig and his fellow studio rats first spotted the tall, striking redhead Shirley Manson in a video on MTV's "120 Minutes" last year, it was love at first . . . sound.

At the time, Manson was fronting a band called Angelfish, but Vig, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker had other plans in mind for the Scotswoman. They were forming a band called Garbage, and they needed a singer. Manson's dusky, insinuating vocals sounded perfect.

"We wanted to work with a female vocalist who didn't have a high, chirpy, girly quality to her voice," guitarist Marker says over tea with Manson and Vig in a hotel restaurant in mid-town Manhattan. "We had discussed who we really respect, and names like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde came up. And Shirley had some of the same depth."

Vig, whose production credits include such popular and distinctive albums as Nirvana's "Nevermind" and the Smashing Pumpkins' "Siamese Dream," agreed that Manson was the one for Garbage.

"We wanted someone who could sing in an understated way," adds Vig, who plays drums in the group. "At the moment, a lot of these alterna-rock singers have a tendency to scream. Shirley is just the opposite. By using understatement, she can sound even more subversive."

After seeing the Angelfish video on MTV, the three pals put in a phone call to the band's record company, which put them in touch with Manson's manager. Within 24 hours, they had tracked her down at home in her native Edinburgh, and a meeting was arranged in London.

The surprise is that Manson wasn't immediately sold on the idea of joining a band featuring someone with the industry connections and stellar credentials of Vig.

"I come from a background of what I call working bands," Manson says in her lilting burr. "That means we basically traveled around doing [crummy] gigs. There's a certain snobbishness that exists among bands like that, where 'producer' becomes an ugly word. So when I joined this band, my attitude toward the other [members] was 'You don't know everything.'

"Once I started to work with them, though, I quickly realized that not only were they musicians with a profound knowledge of the studio, but they were also passionate about what they wanted to do musically--even persnickety about what sounds they wanted to make."

Overall, the sound of Garbage--which plays tonight and Monday at KROQ-FM's "Almost Acoustic Christmas" at the Universal Amphitheatre--is equal parts warped studio invention and pure pop savvy. On the group's eponymous debut album on the Almo Sounds label, the effects range from a loop of James Brown's drummer Clyde Stubblefield playing live to the scraping noise made by a reel-to-reel tape deck self-destructing. The single "Queer," which is a favorite on MTV's "Buzz Bin," uses a sample from the band Single Gun Theory.

But one of Garbage's most compelling features is a force of nature: Manson's vocals, which can convey a multitude of emotions without ever coming across as melodramatic.

Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde are pretty impressive standards, but the acclaim for Manson's work on the album suggests that she has the voice and charisma to be a star.

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Before joining Angelfish, Manson, 29, performed in the band Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie for a number of years.

"I played keyboards and a little guitar, and sang backing vocals--all poorly," she says. "I got into the band because the lead singer wanted to sleep with me. I kind of half-fancied him too, and I thought it would be cool to be in a band. . . . Then the singer and I fell out but continued working together. It was awful."

For all the praise her new bandmates lavish on her--and she hasn't slept with any of them, by the way--she still judges her vocal abilities as limited.

"I have a strange voice," she offers. "More than being a great musician, I think, I'm good at being in bands. I work well with bands."

Manson's cohorts in Garbage certainly have no shortage of experience in this area. After meeting at the University of Wisconsin during the early '80s, the three men worked together in the bands Spooner and Firetown. Erikson fronted both groups, while Vig played drums and Marker served as soundman.

Around 1984, Vig and Marker set up Smart Studios, at first a four-track operation run out of the latter's basement. "I had a little toy tape deck," Marker remembers, "and we'd go around recording the local surf-punk bands and skateboard punk bands."

"We booked a lot of bogus bands that never played actually," Vig adds with a laugh. "Often, somebody would cancel studio time, and Steve and I would invent a band and just record one song."

Vig's individual bookings eventually improved, of course; by the early '90s he was among the most in-demand producers on the modern rock scene. In addition, he worked with Marker and Erikson in recent years on remixes for such mega-bands as U2, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. All of which left the three old friends with little time to work on their own creative projects.

In 1993, the seeds of Garbage were finally planted. After making several rough tracks as a trio, the men began seeking a female singer because, as Marker puts it, "we were sick of hearing our own voices, and were used to working with guys. We thought it would be cool to have a different perspective, especially where the lyrics were concerned."

The perspective of a comfortably aggressive, independent-minded woman colors many of the songs on "Garbage." "You thought I was a mouse . . . but now I'm burning down your house," Manson sings on the driving "Not My Idea." On the darkly atmospheric "Vow," she's "like Joan of Arc coming back for more," challenging an ex-lover who's burned her to a showdown. You get the clear idea that Manson won't stand for being dominated in relationships any more than she is in the studio.

Manson affirms that she was an assertive contributor to the songwriting process. "By the time I joined the band," she says, "they had these little sketches of songs, but nothing was finished. Some of the ideas for lyrics I found unsuitable, and others I liked and worked on with them. I always went to bat for what I believed in.

"The first few weeks were hard, though. I mean, I had always worked in bands with friends that I'd known for years, and suddenly I was in a situation with three men that I didn't know that well. At first they would open doors for me and make sure I always had the nicest seat in the restaurant. But after a short time, they were swearin' and slammin' doors and behaving normally."

When Garbage began its first tour a few months ago, the men in the group became the fish out of water. Marker had little previous experience playing live, and neither Vig nor guitarist-keyboardist Erikson had toured as performers in years.

"The first shows were just kinda out of control," Vig says. "We were all musicians before we were producers, but I'd forgotten what it's like to be out there. It's exciting and fun, but it's also terrifying, because you can't control things the way you can in a studio setting. And it's a bit of a headache technically for us to play live, because we use all these samples and loops.

"The great thing is that the audiences we've had so far really know the record. They yell things at Shirley and sing along. The enthusiasm is really intense."

Encouraged by such reaction, Garbage plans to record another album, perhaps as early as next year, after which the group may well hit the road again. Jerry Moss, the legendary co-founder of A&M; Records who is now chief executive officer of the fledgling Almo Sounds, says the group will have the label's full support.

"We're definitely all in this for the long term," says Moss, who signed Garbage to Almo (a division of Geffen Records) last year after hearing a demo tape from artists and repertoire man Bob Bortnick. "We'll be working this album through '96, and the band members are already writing new songs while on tour. They're all naturally creative people, and they all appear to be very much in what they call the 'Garbage zone.' "

Indeed, even Vig has put his outside projects on hold and seems dedicated to developing Garbage's image as that of a real band rather than a side project for a bunch of studiomeisters.

"I was aware from the start that this thing might be looked at cynically," Vig says. "I mean, if I heard that some producer started a band, I would probably think he was an egomaniac. But if you know our history--that we're musicians who have played together, that we're all enamored of pop music--I think this makes more sense."

For Manson, originally the outsider, the progress that Garbage has made so far owes more to personal chemistry than any calculated artistic plan.

"I don't party as hard as the other guys do," Manson allows, smiling. "But we all get on well as people. I think that's the real reason this has worked out."

* Garbage appears at the KROQ "Almost Acoustic Christmas" concerts tonight and Monday at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City. 6:15 p.m. Sold out. (818) 980-9421.

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