We’ve Got A File On You: Shirley Manson

Joseph Cultice

We’ve Got A File On You: Shirley Manson

Joseph Cultice

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

When Shirley Manson remembers the day she filmed a music video with punk pioneers Alice Bag and Kathleen Hanna (2018’s 9 To 5-spoofing “77”), it’s funny to hear how surprised she was to have been in their company at all. To the Garbage frontwoman, Hanna and Bag are the real deal — hardcore punk feminists who have achieved icon status via decades of boundary-smashing music and activism. “I’m hanging with the cool kids,” Manson thought in that moment.

But if you ask any of her fans, Mason is herself the ultimate cool kid: a ‘90s music and fashion legend who rose to fame via moody, futuristic alt-pop ballads like “Stupid Girl,” “Special,” and “I Think I’m Paranoid.” From a marketing perspective, Garbage fell into step with “alternative” contemporaries like Smashing Pumpkins, Hole, and Elastica, but what made them different was a willingness to play with a mess of popular genres — everything from trip-hop to techno and funk — while lyrically addressing their most vulnerable emotions. (Who among us isn’t “paranoid” and “complicated”?)

Indeed, even if the Scottish-born singer technically made her name in a more pop-oriented landscape — first in pop-rock troupe Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie and the more sedate Angelfish, and later with longtime Garbage bandmates Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, and Steve Marker — it’s not hard to group Manson in with the activist set. A frank and astute speaker, she is one of the more straightforward and unapologetically honest performers around today, using her platform to address gender inequality, Black Lives Matter, climate change, human rights, LGBTQIA rights, and more.

These days, Manson is preparing for the release of Garbage’s seventh studio album, No Gods No Masters, out this Friday. It’s the group’s most commentary-filled work to date, tackling causes at home and abroad. The pounding single “The Men Who Rule The World,” dotted with cash register cha-chings and slot machine winning bells, grapples with the failures of capitalism and racism and misogyny on a global scale. The title track, meanwhile, looks at the ongoing protests against inequality in Santiago, Chile.

“These are problems that exist everywhere, and they have existed for centuries and nobody seems to be fucking doing anything much about it,” Manson says over the phone from her home in Los Angeles.

In celebration of Garbage’s latest album, Manson sat down with me to discuss the urgent themes within No Gods No Masters. She also looks back at her career beginnings in Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie, kissing Elijah Wood for a fashion campaign, performing alongside Fiona Apple, and feeling “like a complete fucking vampire” when Garbage played MTV’s Beach House.

Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie (1989)

Looking back at your time in Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie and later Angelfish, how do you think those experiences prepared you for the pop cultural force that would become Garbage?

MANSON: Well, I have to say, I was in Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie for 10 years. And I received the most spectacular education that I could possibly have ever hoped for in the world of rock and roll. I mean, it was a very rebellious, decadent unit. We really lived the life. And I wouldn’t swap it out for anything, I loved it. I was a very dedicated member to the band. It was my first forays out into the world, out of Edinburgh. For the first time I got to go to Paris, and I got to go to Copenhagen and Amsterdam and Hamburg and Munich and just all these incredible cities for the first time. We typically misbehaved and just lived the cliched rock and roll life. It was the greatest education I could have ever hoped for.

I noticed someone left a funny comment on Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie’s self-titled music video: “I don’t know about you, but I think that backup singer has potential.”

MANSON: With regard to that particular video, we had just been found, I think, by Capitol Records. And the one thing I really remember about that was, it was played on a TV show where Siouxsie Sioux, my all-time hero, was one of the reviewers on the show. And she basically said what that [commenter] said which was that, you know, “I like the backing vocalist. And she captured my attention. I think she’s cool.” Or something like that. I can’t remember the exact wording of my hero’s words, but she picked me out of the band and talked about me. I was just like, “Wow. This is the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Would your path eventually cross with Siouxsie’s?

MANSON: Yeah. I met her only once at the MTV Music Awards in London and she was everything you would hope she would be. She’s divine. She’s divine.

US Network Television Debut On The Late Show With David Letterman (1996)

You’ve spoken before about how when you originally auditioned for Garbage you were incredibly nervous and how it took a couple of tries to convince organizing bandmembers Butch Vig and Duke Erikson that you were the right vocalist for the gig. As you guys were promoting your debut album, and making your US network television debut, did those I’m-in-the-big-leagues-now nerves eventually subside?

MANSON: Oh my god. I mean, in some regards I was really lucky because I was British … I was Scottish, should I say, coming from Britain and didn’t really know much about American TV. So I wasn’t really particularly fazed when I was told we were going to be on David Letterman or we were going to be on Saturday Night Live because I didn’t watch those shows, I didn’t know what they were. I didn’t know who David Letterman was. And I didn’t know what Saturday Night Live was either. I didn’t know until I was on the sets.

So, on one hand I’m really deeply grateful for that ignorance because I think it protected my ego a bit. And yet I was still riddled with insecurity and self-doubt and nerves. I mean, before all these shows would air, I’d be in the toilet in the dressing room for hours before performing. I just find the stress of it really took its toll. But I had enough experience, I guess having been in Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie for 10 years, to fall back on at times when I was under stress like that. I was able to keep my shit together once the cameras started rolling but, yeah, I suffered a lot from nerves for a long, long time. For many, many years.

Performing At The MTV Beach House (1996)

Was this a strange environment to find yourself in, playing to a concentrated college bro crowd?

MANSON: The MTV Beach House performance is legendary in the Garbage camp. I was horrified — and I do mean horrified — by the whole event. Because you’ve got to understand, I didn’t come from a beach culture. I came from a cold Scottish granite city. And I had never even worn a swimsuit in public. The whole universe of California beach living was just something entirely alien to me and so I was horrified by the heat, I was horrified by the sun. I didn’t know how to dress, so I was in a very uncomfortable outfit. I was in thick black tights with boots and a restrictive mini-skirt, and I didn’t even have sunscreen on. I was really miserable, physically miserable and uncomfortable. And of course, we were not making music that applied to the kind of audience that MTV’s Beach House was attracting.

There was a lot of jocks in swimming trunks and tossing beach balls around and I was just like, “What the fuck is this? This is not appropriate.”

And meanwhile, of course, No Doubt were also playing, I think they played either before us or after us and they were perfect in that [environment]. Gwen [Stefani] had this perfect beach body and she was tan, and she was fit and lithe and they all looked so comfortable under the sun. And they came from southern California and that was their language. And I just felt like a complete fucking vampire in the middle of the desert. It was horrendous.

Starring As A Liquid-Metal Terminator In The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)

I noticed some surface-level similarities to the robot you play in the music video for “The World Is Not Enough” and your Sarah Connor Chronicles character, a liquid metal T-1001 Terminator. Did you ever feel like you were being slotted too easily in, I don’t know, “femme fatale” roles?

MANSON: See, that wasn’t how I viewed it. I viewed it as we want a creature who is from the future. And I don’t think I was hired or imagined … like for instance in “The World Is Not Enough,” in that video, I think the director Philipp Stölzl was imagining me as a creature from the future. About being a robot, about being someone interested in subculture and sci-fi and a sort of punk-rock aesthetic in a funny way. That’s why I think Philipp Stölzl came up with that storyboard. I think he knew I’d make a good terminator.

And it is ironic that later on in life I was given the role of another robot figure. But that whole universe fits into my universe perfectly. I’ve always had a fascination with sci-fi. I’ve always had a fascination with non-human figures. And I’ve always loved the way women are often portrayed in sci-fi. They’re not femme fatales. They’re not male pleasing pinups. They’re dangerous. They’re not always the most beautiful. They’re often odd. They’re often outliers. They’re often freaks. That speaks to me and always has. And I’m sure always will.

What sort of sci-fi have you gotten into over the years?

MANSON: Well, I mean, obviously my first love was Star Trek growing up as a kid. I grew up watching that religiously, watching Doctor Who religiously. Those two shows were really big in the game. And then I think for me the biggest game changer was the original Blade Runner. Ex Machina. I loved that movie.

Oh yeah, that was a great movie.

MANSON: Yeah. I just love that, I love those worlds. I feel like it presents different possibilities for any sort of woman or non-binary person to expand in.

Starring In An Oliver Peoples Ad Campaign (2010)

I didn’t realize that you at one point had done an Oliver Peoples ad campaign opposite Elijah Wood. You’re both wearing some excellent eyewear, hanging out in a pool, you guys trade a couple of kisses. It looks like it must have been a nice day.

MANSON: Yeah, it was amazing. First of all, Elijah Wood is such a dream, just a dreamboat person. He’s charming and funny and smart and kind and he was an absolute joy. But the biggest thrill for me was working with [director] Autumn de Wilde, who had cast me in this campaign. She just called me up one day and she said, “Do you want to be a model in an Oliver Peoples campaign?” And I was like, “Yeah, okay.” And she said, “But you’re going to have to do some dancing. We’re going to choreograph a couple of pieces.” And I’m like, “Oh, shit, okay.” “And you’re going to have to be in a pool. And you’re going to have to snog Elijah Wood.” I’m like, “Okay. Game on.”

And the incredible Shirley Kurata, who’s Autumn’s stylist that she’s worked with for years, worked on the piece with us. Just watching them be creative together was really inspiring. They had an amazing approach to how they would work, and they were very hands-on. They hand-made things. I don’t know, I find the whole thing really inspiring.

Starring In Alice Bag’s “77” Video (2018)

Recently, you guest starred in Alice Bag’s video for “77” alongside Kathleen Hanna, Allison Wolfe, and Seth Bogart, where you play a boss figure in a punk-rock parody of 9 To 5. What an amazing group of people. How did you become involved?

MANSON: Oh, I was just really, really chuffed that Alice even asked me, because those girls come from a hardcore punk background. They’re super cool and what I always think of as hipsters. There’s this sort of hipster scene of which I have never been part. I’m like a perennial outlier. I’m not cool enough to be a hipster and I’ve sold far too many records but not enough to be a pop star. I just sort of sit there in the middle of nowhere.

Alice and Kathleen, both these women are just women that I really admire and have been pioneers and been incredibly brave and courageous. They have incredible rock and roll stories. To be in that room with them felt so … I don’t know what the word would be. Just, it was magical.

By the way, something I wanted to fact-check. Did you know that IMDB credits you as voicing a cartoon bird who is also a pilot in a Nick Jr. show called Top Wing? Is that real?

MANSON: What? I didn’t have any idea of this either.

Yeah, apparently you voice two baby chicks, Chirp and Cheep. It’s even written up in a few places.

MANSON: That’s one of the weirdest things I’ve heard in a long time. No. That’s not me.

OK, glad we cleared that up.

Performing With Fiona Apple (2018)

There’s a fantastic video of you performing with Fiona Apple, who’s wearing a “Kneel, Portnow” T-shirt. I assume Apple was responding to former Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow’s badly received 2018 comments about how women need to “step up” if they ever hope to be better recognized by the Grammys. As a Grammy-nominated performer, have you been following the Recording Academy’s ongoing efforts to diversify?

MANSON: [The Grammys] only became relevant to me when Garbage were nominated for a bunch of them. I don’t take the Grammys seriously, I think the performances by all these recent artists who complain about not being nominated for a Grammy, it’s unbelievably peculiar. And I find that really an interesting shift in the music business when artists are publicly lodging complaints about their work not being acknowledged by the Grammys. I think artists take the whole thing far too seriously. It’s beautiful if you get nominated, it’s beautiful if you win. It doesn’t really mean a thing if you don’t. So I think everyone needs to relax about the fucking Grammys.

Yes, they get things wrong. All award shows surrounding art are somewhat futile. It’s just fun. It’s a flexing of industry muscle. But it doesn’t really mean that you didn’t make a good record if you don’t get nominated and vice versa. You can get nominated and you’ve made a shitty piece of work. I think everybody needs to relax.

With the comings and going of Neil Portnow, I think he deserved to have been shoved out of that job the second he opened his mouth and said what he said about female artists having to step up. The ignorance of it and the immense old white patriarchal privileged fucking nonsense was an outrage and he should have been kicked out of his job and he was allowed instead to elegantly leave and that will fucking rankle me forever.

What do you recall about getting onstage with Fiona Apple?

MANSON: When I got the opportunity to sing with Fiona was one of the most spectacular experiences of my life. And to just go to rehearsal and watch her walk in the door, step to the mic, open her mouth and without any effect, without any great mic, without any trickery, the sound of that voice coming out of that tiny little body with no stress, no strain, was just spectacular.

I have talked about her from the moment she emerged, I have followed her career with great ardor. And I couldn’t admire her more. And I feel like her last record [Fetch The Bolt Cutters] was — I think it was like a piece of jazz, a jazz record. It was stuffed full of unique sounds and really innovative rhythms and just absolutely wickedly sharp lyrics. She’s a once-in-a-lifetime artist with the voice of God.

Releasing No Gods No Masters (2021)

No Gods No Masters is easily Garbage’s most overtly cause-driven album, touching on a number of prescient issues facing the country and the world. Can you talk to me about these themes, and do you think the US has turned a positive corner, especially with Trump leaving office?

MANSON: If anything, I feel like the prescience of this record is becoming more and more intense. And I feel like a lot of the themes that we touch on on this record are things that still have to be attended to. Most importantly, systemic racism. Most importantly, sexism, misogyny. The unbelievable statistics surrounding sexual and domestic assaults. And an enormous concern for the environment.

I don’t feel like in any way much has changed with the changing of the guard. I am grateful because I feel like Biden is a bit more of a sane individual than his predecessor, but I am not aligned to anyone in any political party. I want politicians to fucking get their heads out their arse and actually fucking do some proper governance and due diligence ASAP. And really attend to some of these outrageous problems that we face as, not just as an American society, but as a global society.

The record that we’re about to release portends to some of that. It’s more a public lodging of complaints for the record rather than any massive declaration. It’s really just my opinion and my observations and my concerns and my hopes for the future.

Yeah, what keeps me up at night is the long-term. If the right wing continues to embody Trumpist ideology, what does our future look like if and when another Republican wins the presidency?

MANSON: Yeah, I cling onto the notion of evolution though. That’s the one thing that keeps me going is that evolution continues. And my life is so much better than that of my predecessors. And I’m sure those who follow in our footsteps will have a better life than we did. The ideal of that I have to cling to. Otherwise I would lose my mind.

What else gives you hope?

MANSON: I feel like the whole new generation of musicians, for a random example, are much more attuned to what’s going on. They’re much more educated about global politics and the environment and the real problems we face. I feel like women are much more empowered than we ever were. I feel like the breakdown of the binary gender nonsense is exciting and freeing for all people everywhere. And as devastating as the uncovering of systemic racism all around the globe is, I think there can be no change without these conversations being had. Without this unveiling of this disease of racist thinking that exists.

We’ll never, ever eradicate it. So, I feel heartened, even though it’s disturbing and upsetting and gut-wrenching, I feel at least that’s a shift in that there are starting to be some serious discussions about race in this country, about the inequality that exists. Mainstream TV presenters and radio presenters are starting to use the parlance that, up until this point, only Black activists were using. People are beginning to get schooled in the language of reparations and reformation and reform and so on and so forth. To me that’s an encouraging sign.

It’s not enough, and it’s not happening quick enough, but at least it’s the beginning.

Maria Jose Govea

No Gods No Masters is out 6/11. Pre-order it here.

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