Shirley Manson has no time for rubbish. “I feel like there’s artists who believe that being a musician isn’t enough,” the Garbage frontwoman says. “You know what? It fucking is enough. It is enough. Just being a musician is enough. It adds value.” The inspirational super-vixen scaled musical heights to get to the top and isn’t scared to let her mouth run like a faucet gushing advice for a new generation of performers. While some musicians try and transmit the message that fame hasn’t changed them — claiming to have never googled their own name or giving interviews about how they’re just “like us” — Manson basked in the music and told everyone to worship her minutes into the opening track of her band’s debut album. “Bow down to me, bow down to me,” she sings defiantly, like a natural-born heroine.
Garbage is one of the most successful of all ’90s alternative rock groups. They stand apart for their hedonistic crunch, their strange blend of grunge and trip-hop. Everyone who bought their debut album envisioned the quartet becoming one of the most acclaimed and admired bands in America. If anything, they feel more potent now than they did in 1995; their music is fascinating largely as an index of the era’s youth culture. Turning on Garbage now will charm you immediately, not only by how naturally the band subverts rock, but how the exercise in nostalgia proves their long-lasting value to music history. After two decades, Garbage’s captivating mythology remains intact.
That mythology began way before the band formed, when Nevermind producer Butch Vig and co. saw Manson on MTV with her old group Angelfish and poached her from Scotland to become their lead singer. The fact that they made a zeitgeist-gripping commercial breakthrough fixed firmly to a specific point in time doesn’t matter anymore. They’ve currently got a 16-date 20 Years Queer tour across North America lined up to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band’s self-titled debut, as well as a new album set for next year. Shirley Manson knows that the legacy of Garbage runs deeper than the fame of the group, which may be why she’s not ready to give it all up just yet.
Hi, Shirley! Where do I find you at the moment?
I am still in Los Angeles. We’re supposed to be starting rehearsals tomorrow, actually. It’s all just crazy. I can’t really believe it.
I can only imagine 20 years ago that you were feeling a similar, albeit completely different level of disbelief.
Well, you know what it’s like: Your future is like a wall, and you don’t ever imagine what it would be like on the other side. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be getting the opportunity to talk about a record 20 years on. Not in my wildest imagination did I expect this to happen to me — it’s nuts.
Now that you’re in the thick of looking back on that time, when you dive into the early years of Garbage, is there an image that pops into your mind?
Of course, a myriad of images! More than images — when I hear the music on our debut record, my whole body is just flooded with memories. It was a really intense experience for us because when we released our debut, we were not spring chickens by any stretch of the imagination. We were a lot older. I had been in a band for over 15 years by the time Garbage finally hit, so when you take that all into consideration — those years and years of trying and playing and being passionate about music — to then suddenly be rewarded for that was so intense. I don’t even know how to properly articulate it. Artists now who are 18 years old seem like they have it all figured out. They release their debut, and it’s almost an assumption that this happens to people, but it wasn’t like that. For us, it was such an honor. We had to recalibrate our lives completely.
Do you think they have it all figured out? Those 18-year-olds thrust into the social media merry-go-round?
Of course not — I was being facetious. I’m very grateful that it all happened to me when I was old enough to understand it and appreciate it. I feel a little worried for those artists that it happens so quickly for. It must be incredibly difficult to get any perspective and find a way of dealing with attention while being free to be curious and take chances and be adventurous and figure out who you are as an artist. There’s no room for that now.
It sounds like you were much older, but you were still in your 20s when Garbage became huge. At the time, when it happened to you, you were plucked from everything — your life in Scotland, your family, your friends — and shoved into another time zone. How did you manage to get perspective?
Looking back, I kept my shit together. I’m pretty impressed by how I kept my shit together because I had so much pressure on me, and I did not fail or fall. I think it helped that I came from an island; from the day we were born, we were taught that we live in a society together and we’re not allowed to get out of our “stations.” My culture had prepped me well for the circumstance that I find myself in.
You were tackling some intrinsic human conundrums with your lyrics too — defiant social commentary that’s still relevant today.
I’m relieved that the subject matter is not infantile. There are grand themes here. Because we were older, when we got together to write this record, we weren’t talking about high school and making out with boys behind the chemistry class. The preoccupations that we had were adult themes.
You must believe in band culture in some ways, to have that trust to explore the paths your mind wandered to. After two decades with the band, what do you think they draw out of you?
The band drives me insane, and I drive them insane! But we are at the core very kind people. They have taught me a lot about being kind; nobody in this band has ever said anything to one another that they’ve wanted to take back. Everybody has been really grateful to one another within the confines of squabbling like kids. It hasn’t been easy, and it will never be easy, but we respect one another, and I think that’s why we’ve managed to continue on as a creative entity.
You’ve done over a thousand shows over the past 20 years. How did you find time to get out of the tough times?
Oh God, we have had so many tough times. We’ve often come close to grappling with one another, but I think everybody has been smart enough to walk away from the table before anything gets said or done that you can’t come back from. I can’t really explain why the four of us have that survival mechanism. Others don’t. I’ve seen so many bands destroy themselves over really petty shit. I think everyone is willing to click, and that is imperative to help your relationship. Whether it’s a love affair, a band, a human being — they have to be prepared to flick off their switch. Things get messy when people get greedy in this business, but if you want to say something, just be smart, find the best way forward, and be willing to be elastic.
Do you find that you tackle personal relationships like that as well, or do you treat your two lives separately?
This is actually a really great question, because it’s something that the band has probably taught me about my personal relationships and my politics in the world. It’s weird — they taught me to see the world with fantastic idealism. If you believe in simple principles, like having to compromise, it extends to every aspect. If you’re living with other people, you have to compromise; if you live in the same city, you have to compromise; if you share the same workspace, you have to fucking compromise. It’s how things go. If you don’t, you’ll be miserable, and so will everybody else around you.
I suppose it’s not often you find bands working well together for such a long period of time. Everyone notes that there isn’t fighting. For the sake of your working relationships, did you release the reissue before your upcoming new studio album to soften the ground before coming back into the music world?
I wish I could control time, but I can’t. We’re at the mercy of life, and the clock, so it interrupted our schedule for our new effort, which we have ready to go, but the 20th anniversary stuff knocked our schedule a little. We do have a new record in the plan and will release that next year if all goes well and we don’t die in a massive flood. The world is cruel and rampant.
Cynicism flows through our faucets.
I’ve always been a real pessimist, but now as an adult, I’ve realized that instead of using my temperament to make me feel bad and depressed, I’m going to use that instead to inform my present and let me enjoy my days. I’m always like, “Maybe I’ll be dead tomorrow!”
I’m asking this because I can relate, but do you feel too intense sometimes?
When I was young, I didn’t realize I was off-putting. I just thought people thought I was weird and they didn’t like me. Now, I realize that’s just them having a different philosophy. They’re going to live the way they wish, and I’m going to live the way I trust. I think people don’t know how to react to me sometimes. It’s a little embarrassing, but I’m not going to sit on the sidelines and get old and wrinkly and fat. I want to go out with my fucking guns blazing, you know? I want to do it with vigor and remain vigorous.
There’s been fire seeping out of you from the beginning — as a female artist wanting to make a change and stand for something, but also as a female artist fronting an all-male band.
I just wish I’d known this when I was 20. What a life I would have had! I probably would have ended up as an explorer in the Antarctic or something. I would have been a mental astronaut.
I now must thank you for the image of your fiery red hair floating in a space shuttle. But in your music, you explore reality — it feels pretty down to earth.
I feel like I’m pretty much a realist. I don’t want to pretend the world is a happy, joyful thing all the time. I think it does too many people a disservice. There are so many people on this earth; I always want to be aware of that and know how lucky I am, not just sit there and forget about everyone else. I want to live a conscious life.
It’s very rare for human beings to tackle that within themselves while operating outside themselves in a creative field like yours.
I mean, if you turn on your fucking news right now, you want to go hide in a corner. There’s so little coverage of the good stuff — the good human experience. There’s so much based on superficiality and plastic surgery. It gets so dark if you tune into the media, but there’s so much incredible stuff out there. I think we need to remember to focus on that.
I might be wrong, but I understand B-sides like “A Stroke of Luck” and “Alien Sex Fiend” haven’t been played live before.
Oh, you’re absolutely right. I’m going to have to do so much homework because all I can fucking remember is [singing in a robot voice] “I’m an alien sex fiend!”
Is there anything you’ll be tackling on the upcoming tour that didn’t sit right with you when you first wrote it?
The song that I never appreciated for whatever reason was “As Heaven Is Wide”, which was a big task for us. Steve Marker [Garbage guitarist] wrote the majority of that song, and it’s about children who were abused by men of power at that time. I was aware of what the song was about and what it meant, but being older now, everything feels like it has more gravitas and more urgency. I’m even more outraged now. I guess when we put out that first record, I was telling a story, and now I’m truly letting it live, and that’s the biggest lesson.
When you approach a story like this, do you tread a little lighter or go a little harder?
I know for a fact we’re changing things up. Technology has exploded and expanded to an incredible degree. I’m realizing how incredibly easy it will feel in comparison to our first tour. I don’t think we feel intimidated in that sense at all anymore. Now we can handle it, but it was fucking brutal that first tour. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. We struggled to emulate the record in the live forum back then. It was almost impossible and we didn’t really quite know how to approach it. It’s only over the years that we’ve understood more and more how the sounds can live through newer technology and still sound like us. It was really difficult; we were trying to replace a record that was using a lot of electronica, guitars, backing vocals, and it was just a bit of a nightmare. Of course, it was Butch’s reputation on the line. I had nothing to lose. Nobody was going to point a finger at me, but his reputation was relying on how he got this new band off the ground.
I suppose it swings both ways. People are now insecure about how to make themselves sound more human onstage because they can’t emulate the machines that they’re creating the music with.
It’s all changed, the whole industry. At this point, what I really want to tell you is how tired I am of people asking what else is going on in our lives, if I have a fashion line or a collaboration coming up. I’m so frustrated now. I want to say to all these people, “Do you understand what it takes to make a record?” When you’re the one feeding it, writing it, recording it, producing, mixing, manufacturing — that is a lot of work, and I feel like there’s artists who believe that being a musician isn’t enough. You know what? It fucking is enough. It is enough. Just being a musician actually is enough, and it adds value. I’m fed up about people acting as if it’s just a piece of content that you can use like a puzzle piece. Everybody is collaborating and it’s all well and good if you’re coming from a place of real intent, that you’ve met somebody that you’re really artistically connected with. I’m not knocking collaborations at all; I just feel that just collaborating for the sake of a record company getting a bit more money off your back is nasty.
Have any labels asked you to do ridiculous stuff?
[laughing] Oh my God, there’s been so many I don’t even know where to begin. The one that makes me laugh the most was to do a reality TV show with a bunch of B-grade celebrities (I would have been one), to go to Police Academy in LA. My husband was laughing his ass off because he said if I were on reality TV going to Police Academy, I’d be an overnight sensation because it would be one of the funniest things that the world has ever seen. I had the common sense to turn that down, but that’s just one of the many things that get sold to me on a daily basis. They always require some weird element of major compromise on my part, and thankfully I’ve never been that desperate.