Q&A: Shirley Manson On Garbage‘s 20th Anniversary Reissue And Tour

Joseph Cultice

Q&A: Shirley Manson On Garbage‘s 20th Anniversary Reissue And Tour

Joseph Cultice

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Garbage’s self-titled debut, the album responsible for such ’90s megahits as “Only Happy When It Rains” and “Stupid Girl.” It’s an important record for many reasons, not the least of which is that it helped bridge the gap between noisy alternative rock and mainstream pop — incorporating everything from burgeoning electronica to buzz-saw guitars and just the slightest whiffs of trip-hoppy industrial music. If you were of college-age back in 1995, Garbage was the kind of record that everyone seemed to have some sort of relationship with — from somber gay goth boys like myself blasting “Vow” at peak volume while smoking clove cigarettes in their dorm rooms to legions of newly converted Shirley Manson acolytes aggressively dyeing their hair red and stomping around campus in combat boots and mini-dresses. Garbage was a pop record, to be sure, but it was just genre-bending and weird enough that almost anyone could access it. And unless you didn’t have access to radio and MTV, there was no way to avoid it. The LP spent more than a year haunting the US and UK charts, and eventually sold more than 4 million copies worldwide. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine another ’90s band capable of making a top 20 single called “Queer” seem like the most natural thing in the world. It’s equally impossible to imagine the ’90s without Shirley Manson, who was exactly the kind of angry pop heroine the decade so desperately needed.

Later this summer, Garbage will unleash a special 20th Anniversary edition of the album packed full of extras and unreleased material. Then in October the band — who are currently also hard at work on a new studio album — will embark on “20 Years Queer,” a short victory lap of a tour in which they’ll play their iconic debut album from front to back, including all the B-sides. This is the perfect chance for all of the band’s devoted darklings to finally hear “#1 Crush” played live and weep away all of their black eyeliner in a room full of like-minded people.

STEREOGUM: Hey Shirley. You busy?

MANSON: I don’t even know. I couldn’t even tell you. I’m in a complete state of suspension, that’s what it feels like, so I feel like I’m suspended and spacious. That’s how I’m spending my fucking summer. And I’m just bored and underutilized and I’m like a fat, old tiger biting my own tail. Aren’t you glad you asked? [laughs]

STEREOGUM: What do you normally do during your down time? Are you someone who always needs a project to be working on?

MANSON: I am someone who needs a project always, but I actually have a project so … I literally was complaining about this to one of my friends the other day — and they couldn’t even look me in the eye as I was saying this because they looked so uncomfortable and embarrassed — but I was saying there are times when I find myself just … I’m just lying on my bed, I’m not thinking about anything, I’m not reading, I’m not on the computer, I’m just like a zombie, lying there not thinking. My friend looked away nervously and changed the subject because, you know, why don’t I just get up and fucking do something? And in Los Angeles everybody’s busy being fantastic and everybody’s got projects and everybody’s about to launch a clothing line or a new business or they’re in a movie or they’re about to do a modeling campaign. And then they get faced with an angry Scottish person telling the truth — which is that I’m lazy and fucking bored — which is incredibly unusual. And so everybody looks really awkward and we all shift onto another subject [laughs].

STEREOGUM: You don’t strike me as a very L.A. type of person.

MANSON: What are you trying to say? What are you trying to say Cole?

STEREOGUM: [laughs] I mean, do you like it there?

MANSON: I do like it here — but it took me a while to fall in love with it. I loathed it with a vengeance for almost 15 years and now I have fallen in love with it for a variety of different reasons. But I am a fish out of water. I am literally the person who sits at dinner with a bunch of people and I say something thinking it’s either funny or thought-provoking or, you know, it’s a good debate subject, and all that happens is … there’s suddenly a deep, deep silence and my husband looks over at me and he has this look on his face when he knows I’ve done the cricket thing — the cricket trick. I just don’t really function the way a lot of people function here, but eventually I found my people. I live on the east side of L.A., which is fantastic. It’s really vibrant and culturally diverse, and people aren’t driving around in hundred-thousand-dollar cars and tipping 400 bucks here, there, and everywhere. It’s a very normal sort of situation and I love that. But when I head to the west side — which is where you have to go for business meetings or the dentist or what have you — it’s incredibly alien. It’s like stepping into a weird sci-fi movie where everybody’s face is lifted and tucked and everyone is bright orange.

STEREOGUM: Haven’t you been busy doing a fair amount of press things? Talking about the upcoming 20th anniversary shows?

MANSON: We’re just beginning, to be honest. We haven’t really done too much. We’ve been trying to get our shit together, which has been incredibly frustrating actually, because we want to launch this 20th anniversary re-release of our first record — because, you know, we felt it was worth celebrating — and we ran up against that lovely age-old problem of trying to find our archival content. Apparently our record companies over the years have lost pretty much everything, and then we did find it, but some of it was half-destroyed and some of it had been lost entirely, which meant we had to basically recreate it. It wasn’t supposed to be such a big deal, but it turned into this mammoth project. We’re really just coming to the end of it now.

STEREOGUM: Was it the masters from the original recordings?

MANSON: Yeah — and all the masters, of course, were analog, so then we had to … well, my husband had to sit and bake them all for weeks and so that we could transfer them digitally. It was really a massive labor of love in the end. You forget how intense pre-digital storage was.

STEREOGUM: Garbage has a sort of mythic origin story: The guys in the band saw you in an Angelfish video on MTV — that apparently only aired once — and sought you out to come to the States and sing on their songs. When you think about the earliest days of the band — when you and the boys very first met each other — what springs to your mind?

MANSON: Oh god, I remember being really broke and … it’s almost like looking back on somebody else’s life. I feel so far removed from that person in a funny way. I was sort of a different person, my life was so different. Obviously I didn’t know what I do now, so I was very innocent in a funny way, and naïve. We were so unaware of not just ourselves and the situation we found ourselves in, but what the world was like. What things meant. It was an intense time. It’s an intense thing to look back on your life via records, especially ones you’ve made. I just think of it as an age of innocence and the world definitely was a different place. Looking back, the ’90s seem like such a golden era. I don’t think we felt that way then, but certainly looking back now, it was a golden age.

STEREOGUM: You had been doing music for a long time in other bands before Garbage happened…

MANSON: Fifteen years I’d been in a band.

STEREOGUM: If Garbage hadn’t happened, or if the guys just didn’t happen to see that Angelfish video on 120 Minutes and never called you up, do you ever think about what you might’ve done? Do you think you would have still kept slogging away doing music in other capacities?

MANSON: I can’t imagine, to be honest. Back then, everybody was like, What are you going to do with your life? What are you going to be? What do you want? I wasn’t necessarily the kind of person who had formulated ideas of what I wanted. I knew I wanted to live an extraordinary life, no matter what that was. I just didn’t want a boring 9-to-5 job. But I would’ve done anything at that time, really, if I was asked. I wasn’t even looking for money; I just was looking for something interesting to do. I was quite happy to just be employed doing something. It didn’t really matter to me whether I was going to get paid for it or not.

It’s something you forget as you get older because you’ve got families and you’ve got a mortgage — well, if you’re lucky you’ve got a mortgage, anyway, or you’ve got to pay rent or you’ve got your car payments and what not — you get so obsessed with, like, “Oh my god, I need to provide for my family, I need to earn.” And then you forget all that incredible thrust that you have when you’re young. That being said, I did leap into a crazy situation — I went to America to basically live with three men I’d never met before. I wouldn’t recommend that to very many women [laughs].

STEREOGUM: I recently spoke to Sam Smith about his sudden success, and he was talking about just how surreal it has all been for him. I’ve spoken to so many artists during that first blush of big success — when things are happening so fast that you can’t even process it. When Garbage came out in 1995 and things really went into overdrive, do you recall when you started to realize, “Oh shit, this is really happening”?

MANSON: You never forget that period of your career. That’s as intense and exciting as it gets. After that, it sort of calms down, even if it continues on. In our case, the second record did equally as well as our first, so things continued to move at a pretty crazy pace. That first record and those first few years of success were just bewildering and intense and exciting in a way that nothing ever has felt since for me — in a good way and a bad way.

But it’s funny you should say that about Sam Smith, because I just had this funny realization, just a couple of days ago. I was talking about the writer Iain Banks, who died fairly recently. He was somebody that I saw regularly through this literary circle that I was lucky enough to encounter in my days leading up to Garbage. I realized just the other day that I never got to even say goodbye to Iain. I never saw him again after I became successful. It’s like I went to America and never saw Iain ever again, and now he’s disappeared and I’ll never get to say goodbye and I’ll never get to thank him for being so supportive of me or really encouraging my creativity or anything like that. I had never thought of that before. You do basically get plucked out of your life and thrown into a juggernaut, and god knows where that juggernaut lands. And it’s super weird.

STEREOGUM: You’ve been very candid when talking about the weirdness of being famous, and being constantly looked at, and being a woman in this business. Part of the appeal for so many people — and certainly for so many women I was friends with in the ’90s — is that you seemed so assured and powerful. Did that come easily to you?

MANSON: To be honest, it’s weird, because as a person I was this really bizarre conundrum at that time. One half of me was truly terrified, and that terror manifested itself in aggression, so I came across as incredibly confident and aggressive and self-assured but I was … when I look back on it, incredibly insecure and unsure, and I felt that I didn’t really deserve that kind of attention that I had suddenly foisted upon me. But at the same time, there was also the 10 years of experience I’d had before that playing with a pretty rebellious band. We’d really lived a crazy rock ‘n’ roll existence in my previous band, so by the time I came to Garbage, I was fairly seasoned and I did have a lot of experience behind me. I’m not sure I really understood or appreciated it at the time, but I did have a lot of experience under my belt already to pull from.

In retrospect, I think I really handled the roller coaster we went on with incredible dexterity, as it turns out. Of course I didn’t see that in myself at the time. I just thought I was a shambolic mess … but I look at a lot of young singers now and they all seem to collapse at the first hurdle. You know, they’re all wired up to drips after their first summer festival, or they’re exhausted and they can’t do the third leg of their tour. I just know that we were like machines. We were relentless machines, and I think it was because I was nearly 30 and I felt like my time slot was ticking by and I had to grab every opportunity that came my way. I was kind of a beast about it in a way, looking back.

STEREOGUM: Learning to advocate for yourself in this business — particularly for women, unfortunately — can be such a tough thing. You are surrounded by people telling you what to do and what to wear and how to be, and I assume that sometimes you just want to believe that they must know what they’re talking about and that you should just listen to them. Learning how and when to say no is a valuable skill. Perhaps the years spent in bands pre-Garbage also kind of prepared you for that?

MANSON: Well, yes and no. In some regards, because of the speed at which our band took off, everyone just thought we knew what we were doing. Because we managed to hit a zeitgeist moment, everyone just assumed that we knew best. And because we’d been so successful so quickly, everybody really gave us carte blanche in a funny way. We didn’t have a lot of interference, at least early on. But the interference that we did get was met with my intense aggression: I was incredibly aggressive and I instantly shot down anybody remotely trying to tell me what to do.

I was not having any of it because, again, I’d been on a label in the UK with my previous bands and I’d had some experience. The boys in the band, too, they had their own stories to tell in regards to major labels, and I just didn’t trust labels. I never have. I’ve never had a good relationship with them, and I was very clear, even when I was young, that they were only there to make money. They weren’t there to be my friend, they weren’t there to help me reach a creative decision of any sort. They were there to make money off me and my band, so I was always really suspicious of them.

STEREOGUM: It may seem cynical, but I’ve told people that before — particularly young artists who are so excited just to be getting signed that they forget to protect themselves.

MANSON: That’s not cynicism, that’s just reality. Know the facts and know what you’re getting into, and then it’s cool. Then you have a business relationship and that’s clean. I think a lot of artists — particularly younger artists — want to believe that they’re really special, and they think it’s their specialness that gets them where they’re at. But the thing is, the world is jam-packed full of special. Everybody’s special; everybody’s got a unique story to tell that is no more important than the next person’s. It’s fucking luck and it’s strategy. That is what’s successful.

STEREOGUM: It’s always so freaky to look back and think about how easily things could’ve gone a different way. I always think it’s a combination of luck and ambition — or you’re making your own luck. It’s hard to decipher sometimes.

MANSON: It is hard to decipher: how to know when to jump and when not to jump, and when to take chances and not to take chances. I guess that’s what I was trying to touch on earlier, but when you’re young you don’t think so much about being wrong, or is this the right path, you’re just like, Hey, here’s a path. I’m going to go down this path. It’s only really when you get older that you start worrying about outcomes. The fact is that sometimes a terrible situation can breed greatness in your life and vice-versa. A great situation on the surface of things that looks great and positive can also breed terrible things in your life. It’s a bizarre fabric that we weave in our lives.

STEREOGUM: You mentioned the zeitgeist of that moment in the mid ’90s when Garbage came together. I always found it interesting that you guys managed to touch so many different nerves at once. You know, my goth girlfriends listened to Garbage and so did my really normal straitlaced friends who only ever listened to pop music on the radio. There weren’t very many things that could exist in both of those worlds.

MANSON: We were just a bunch of genuine weirdos. We were neither one thing or another, which I think is why we crossed into so many people’s record collections. We weren’t trying to be hip and we really weren’t trying to be alternative. We weren’t trying to be an indie guitar shoegazing band; we weren’t trying to be anything really other than ourselves. We were just bizarre.

The aesthetic of Garbage was really just this conglomeration of bizarre ideas, and we were kind of a hot mess in a funny way. We just didn’t really have a singular vision, but as a result it became really singular. I have to really give all the props to the band and to Butch [Vig]. I think he had a vision himself. I didn’t but he did. You’d have to ask him about this, but to me it seemed like he was aware of all these amazing bands he’d worked with, and he realized he had to come up with something unique. He couldn’t be in competition with the bands he worked with; he had to have his own thing … whatever that thing was.

In some way he defined our little Garbage band genre. Very few bands really sound like us, and very few bands have ever gone on to use our template. In a funny way it’s sort of singular to us, which I think is incredible. It’s so hard to do that when there are literally millions and millions and millions of bands everywhere. It was a unique combination of his incredible production talents — which are astounding — and then all of us with our weird personalities and our weird strengths. It was this bizarre, unique thing that just hit people’s imaginations at the perfect time.

STEREOGUM: You mentioned how strange it was to move to the United States and basically live with these men and work with them …

MANSON: In the Midwest. We weren’t even in a big city. That’s the weird thing. Normally a producer with a bit of standing would’ve been in New York or L.A. and Butch wasn’t. He was in the middle … like a tiny little college town in the middle of the Midwest. We were cut off from everyone and everything.

STEREOGUM: Which was probably for the best.

MANSON: Totally for the best, without a doubt. I’m sure the record — if we’d made that in New York or L.A. — would’ve been very different and probably much more “hip,” but as a result it would probably sound so much more generic.

STEREOGUM: When you turned up to start working with them, did you know right away that, “Oh this is gonna be amazing!”

MANSON: No! Oh my god, no. I was literally writing postcards home — some of my friends still have them — of me saying things like: This is going nowhere fast. Nobody’s going to want to listen to us, there’s just no way. I just couldn’t envision anybody accepting us as a band. We were still struggling to get to know one another, but again, in retrospect, we actually got along really well really fast. We became intimate very quickly. And luckily for us we shared very similar musical tastes. We liked the same things and we were influenced by the same artists. So we just got really lucky in that regard.

STEREOGUM: How will it feel to go out and play Garbage all the way through?

MANSON: Again, it’s sort of a realization that I’ve just had recently, but I’m really proud of that first record. I don’t know if I’ve ever really been proud of anything in my life. And it’s only really in the last few years that I’ve allowed myself to feel some form of pride. For example, when I think about the song “Queer” … I mean, fucking hell, we took on the Catholic Church and talked about child abuse by the Catholic Church, and nobody really fucking pricked up an ear. Nobody really picked up on it and now I’m so grateful that we have songs like that in our arsenal because they don’t sound overly dramatic; they don’t sound like we’re trying to jump on some kind of bandwagon or anything. They just have a certain weight for me.

STEREOGUM: Well, as an actual queer person, hearing a band on MTV with an actual song called “Queer” — regardless of the context — felt really exciting in 1995.

MANSON: I burst into tears when I woke up and my husband said, “You’re not going to believe what happened today — they finally legalized gay marriage.” And I burst into tears because this is something we believed in from the beginning of our career and we put ourselves on the line several times by saying this is what we believe. It wasn’t as fashionable then as it is now. Back then I’d bring up the subject of gay rights or gay marriage and people would get very uncomfortable.

Also, I’m excited to play these songs because I feel proud of them, and I feel that they’re more relevant in some regards now then they were when we first performed them in 1995. I also think I understand things more now. As you get older, your understanding of the world completely changes. It’s just peculiar. It’s something that I don’t hear people talk about very much: that brilliant moment when your mind starts to open and you start to see things that you didn’t realize were there before; you begin to understand the connections. That is one of the most incredible things about getting older. I’m so much more aware now then I ever was as a young pop star who, back then, just really wanted to be listened to. It wasn’t so much about the content of what I was saying, it was just you better listen to me.

STEREOGUM: I saw you guys play at Webster Hall when the last record came out, which was amazing. I was talking to a friend of mine just as you guys started to play “Vow” and he literally shrieked and dropped his drink …

MANSON: Yes! A shriek!

STEREOGUM: Yeah, it was amazing, seeing someone I’ve known for nearly a decade suddenly become hysterical and burst into tears. That must be amazing for you to witness — to see people in the audience have this crazy, visceral reaction to something that they totally fucking love.

MANSON: It’s incredible. That’s what I’m like when I go and see somebody like Nick Cave. I can’t help myself — I end up screaming like a lovesick 12-year-old. I mean, it’s insane how I behave. We all make these crazy really deep connections in our minds, and then when it’s embodied physically, it’s just beyond our ability to articulate it with words, so I guess we all sort of shriek and dance and cry and, I don’t know, lose our minds. It’s cool.

STEREOGUM: I wish it happened more often.

MANSON: You know, talking about the experience of that first record, it’s sad that I couldn’t really enjoy any of the success that we had. I was embarrassed by it. I felt unworthy of it. If somebody wanted my autograph, I felt embarrassed — not just for them, but for myself. It’s ridiculous — like, how dare I think that my signature is of any worth whatsoever? Now I feel differently. If I can make somebody feel good for 30 seconds by writing my name on a piece of paper? Fuck it. I’ll do it and I’ll do it gladly and I’ll feel grateful that I can make somebody feel good that easily. It’s the same with the music. I used to be a bit embarrassed when people said, “I love your band,” and I’d be embarrassed to accept it. Now I’m just like, Thanks so much!

I’m so lucky that I haven’t gotten totally fucked up by the experience of being in a successful band, because I realize that it can just take you and shove you in a cage and turn you inside out and you can lose all sense of right and wrong, upside down, back to front. I’ve been really blessed that I’m not like that. I feel like I’ve got the job that I have to do. I think I’ve got it down. I think I’m pretty clear about what my job is, and it becomes something really simple. It’s a really simple exchange. There’s nothing insanely special about the exchange. It’s just like going into a bakery and buying a loaf of bread.

STEREOGUM: In some ways that is a very old-fashioned notion. You are an entertainer. People buy a ticket; you entertain them.

MANSON: I really believe that.

STEREOGUM: I listened to you talking on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast, which was great. I was particularly interested in hearing the two of you talk about Amy Winehouse. Her story is, in so many ways, a cautionary tale. So much of it has to do with how you grew up and the people you surround yourself with, but it’s also a commentary on how our culture feeds on people and how getting huge amounts of attention can so often go the absolute wrong way.

MANSON: I think it really is about your makeup. I think of people like Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse — what was going on inside them. Yes, there are external forces that exacerbate the situation, for sure, but it’s still also about the fragility of those minds. I think people really wrestle with that idea. They can’t accept that somebody can be such an amazing artist but also be incredibly vulnerable and incredibly fragile to the point they can’t cope with all the great things that come along with the success of their work. They just don’t have the skill set to deal with the pressures of fame. It destroys them.

STEREOGUM: As someone who has been working within the milieu of pop and rock music for more than two decades now, what do you think about the landscape of popular music now? What do you love? Are you surprised that pop music hasn’t become weirder? Or that there are still these tropes that never seem to really go away?

MANSON: Hmm. Well I guess it’s because ultimately the things that thrill people remain the same. People talk about all the changes in the music industry as well, but ultimately if you really boiled it down to it’s basic essence, it also remains the same. It’s people who are business-minded making money off artists. So the music business has not changed at all. It’s really simplistic. And I feel like we’re also at the very, very beginnings of the technological revolution and are only now really understanding how it’s impacting music and the music industry, but that’s going to smooth out eventually and the system will calm down and everything will be back in place, and streaming will just be another way of hearing new music, the way MTV was for us and radio was for my parents’ generation. Things change, but also they don’t, you know?


Here are the dates for Garbage’s 20 Years Queer tour:

10/06 San Diego, CA @ Humphrey’s Concerts By the Bay
10/07 Oakland, CA @ Fox Theater
10/08 Los Angeles, CA @ Greek Theatre
10/10 Las Vegas, NV @ Blvd Pool @ Cosmopolitan Hotel
10/13 Houston, TX @ Bayou Music Center
10/14 Austin, TX @ Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheater
10/15 Dallas, TX @ South Side Ballroom
10/17 Chicago, IL @ The Riviera Theatre
10/18 Madison, WI @ Orpheum
10/19 Royal Oak, MI @ Royal Oak Theater
10/21 Boston, MA @ Orpheum
10/23 Westbury, NY @ The Space @ Westbury
10/24 Brooklyn, NY @ Kings Theater
10/26 Toronto, ON @ Phoenix Concert Theatre
10/28 Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
10/29 Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club

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