Next week brings a significant milestone in the long, recently rocky history of the band called Garbage.

Mere hours after finishing off a comeback set Monday night before a capacity crowd at L.A.’s Wiltern Theatre, the quartet’s strong, back-to-basics fourth album, “Bleed Like Me,” will greet fans entering record stores everywhere, bolstered by more than a few potential singles that echo the torrid and torrential dynamics it first developed a decade ago.

“And of course we all have high hopes for it,” says drummer-producer Butch Vig on behalf of his bandmates – singer-siren Shirley Manson and guitarists Steve Marker and Duke Erikson. “But these days it’s very hard for anyone to stay on the pop-culture radar for longer than 15 minutes, and we’re not the fresh face out there anymore. We think we made a really vital-sounding record, so we’re hoping there’s still an audience out there that will find it.”

At this point, though, sales potential is an afterthought. It’s really a wonder this album exists at all. “To us, it’s a massive success just because we got it finished,” Vig says.

Indeed, “Bleed Like Me” is the one that almost tore Garbage apart, and it may still be the Wisconsin crew’s swan song. To discern what went wrong and how the band finally recovered, however, you have to go back to Sept. 11.

Yes, that Sept. 11.

Whereas works like Bob Dylan’s eerily prescient “Love and Theft,” actually released on 9-11, acquired deeper resonance for people searching for answers, retribution and hope in the months that followed, no one seemed interested in a relatively frivolous pop trifle like “Beautiful Garbage,” the group’s third effort, which appeared Oct. 2, 2001. Consequently, despite acclaim from Rolling Stone (which ranked it among the year’s 10 best recordings), the album quickly sank.

“The hangover effect” from that, as Vig calls it, was soul-crushing, and the tour that ensued was difficult: Plagued by ear infections, Vig eventually had to bow out of remaining dates under doctor’s orders. “And after 10 years together,” he says, “the personal drama escalated. Nit-picky things that normally you’d just let go of started to become huge issues among the four of us.”

Things weren’t much improved by the time Manson and the boys re-entered their Madison, Wis., studio in summer 2003. They intended to make a quick rock record, largely free from the electronica that dappled their previous two discs, including 1998’s “Version 2.0,” which garnered a Grammy nod for Album of the Year.

“But then we just started arguing about everything,” Vig remembers. “We couldn’t agree on anything. We weren’t talking. We weren’t listening to each other’s ideas. Shirley was having writer’s block and felt uninspired by the tracks that we were coming up with. It was the culmination of a lot of growing problems.”

So in October, after half a year of fruitless on-and-off recording, “I just walked in one day and said, “That’s it. I can’t take this anymore.’ It was just spiraling downhill. So I got on a plane for L.A. and instantly felt a huge relief – “I’m free. I’m free from the beast.”‘

Vig couldn’t have had much reason to worry about his own future. The guy who helped define ’90s alt-rock by producing, among others, Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream” and Sonic Youth’s “Dirty” surely would have rebounded.

Yet he was convinced this was the end of his most successful endeavor to date. “And Shirley and Steve probably think of it as a breakup as well. But Duke, constantly in denial, he just stayed at home and kept working on songs.”

It took three months and a confidence boost from Foo Fighter Dave Grohl (who plays drums on one new Garbage cut) for Vig to “clear my head, analyze the situation and decide if it was still important to me to carry on, try to finish another record.” A chance encounter with some rabid fans at a Christmas party not long after the split also helped him make up his mind.

“They just started going on and on – “We can’t wait to hear your next record, you guys were so great when we saw you last.’ And my brain just snapped back into that zone: “Oh, yeah, well, we have this song, “Bad Boyfriend,” that we’re working on, and another called “Run Baby Run.”‘

“All of a sudden I felt enthusiastic about it, as if we had never stopped.”

Still, no one wanted to pick up where things had left off – least of all Vig, who cajoled the rest of the band to leave Madison for studio work in L.A. “Try to breathe fresh air into this,” he says, while, ironically, recapturing their essence.

Leaping as it did from bubblegum to contemporary R&B to the sort of melodic, industrial stomp the band built its name on, “Beautiful Garbage” was a very fractured album. “Each track almost sounds like a different band,” Vig says. “We made a conscious decision to make it like that.”

With “Bleed Like Me,” however – an album that, in terms of mood, has more in common with the seething, sexy anger of PJ Harvey – Vig “wanted to capture what we sound like on stage, which is loud guitars, bass and drums, and also have the record sound more cohesive all the way through.”

Having achieved that, Garbage’s fourth most resembles the arresting techno-rock of its first. And, so far, the return-to-form approach is working: After a long dry spell, Garbage is back on alt-radio thanks to the Stone Temple Pilots-ish surge of the new single “Why Do You Love Me.”

“We’re over the moon about that,” Vig admits, “but it’s bizarre in a way, because modern-rock radio in the last five years really has stopped playing women artists. So all of a sudden, what, things are going back full circle to where we started? I don’t know.

“But, for us, going back is a good thing. Maybe the essence of what we are is really on that first record, and we lost sight of that after a while.”

But will Garbage continue to attract only die-hards or can it capture a fresh, presumably younger audience? That uncertainty raises the subject of image: Could the band’s lack of one have contributed to its slide off the charts?

Vig doesn’t deny it. “We’re a motley crew. I mean, Shirley’s amazing looking, but the three of us are freaks. We’ve never really fit in. We’ve never been a disposable pop commodity that writes brazenly commercial songs that would fit a Top 40 format. And, these days, with people’s attention spans what they are, if you can get “em for 24 hours, you’re lucky.”

Thus, despite hard-hitting tracks like “Sex Is Not the Enemy” and “Boys Wanna Fight” – not to mention the gender-bending confusion and empathy with troubled cutters in the title track – there’s no telling how a new generation will take to Garbage’s clatter.

“I’d hope they’d hear a song and go, “Those guitars are cool, man. I wanna buy this record.’ But maybe that’s too much to hope for right now.

“We’re just happy to be getting along so well. Who knows what will come? We’d love to keep doing it, but right now we look at it like, hey, we almost broke up, and this might be our last tour. Let’s go out with a bang and have fun.”


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