"If we came out now, we wouldn’t have a chance in hell": Shirley Manson looks back at 20 years of Garbage

The Garbage frontwoman looks back at the leap of faith that took her to the U.S. to play with guys she'd never met

Published October 8, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (BB Gun Press)
(BB Gun Press)

When Garbage’s “Vow” hit the airwaves in early 1995, the dizzying, electronic- and distortion-warped single sounded like nothing else out there at the time. Lyrically, its complexity was an especially refreshing change of pace: “Vow” explored the dichotomy between a burning desire to exact revenge on a spurned lover—while still trying to shake remnants of intense physical and emotional attraction.

As it turns out, unorthodoxy and complexity were also intrinsic to Garbage’s genesis. The Madison, Wisconsin-based group featured Butch Vig, who was then fresh off producing seminal albums by Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth; Vig’s Smart Studios co-founder, Steve Marker; and Vig’s former bandmate, Duke Erikson. At the forefront was a fiery Scotswoman, Shirley Manson, who was most recently in the band Angelfish. Incredibly, Manson actually agreed to join Garbage before she had even collaborated with the other band members.

That leap of faith paid off in a big way, however. The group’s 1995 self-titled debut album—an aggressive, riotous amalgamation of hip-hop, electronic music, dance music and guitar-based rock & roll—catapulted Garbage into alt-rock’s upper echelons almost immediately. Not only did “Vow” become a hit, but so did the slinky “Queer,” a contradiction-celebrating “Only Happy When It Rains” and the glassy, dance-oriented “Stupid Girl.” A remastered version of the album, released October 2, only highlights how futuristic “Garbage,” sounded, especially in how tenaciously it tackled feminism, sexuality, self-perception and self-empowerment.

Manson checked in from Edinburgh, Scotland, just before midnight her time, a week before rehearsals kicked off for the band’s “20 Years Queer Tour,” which starts Tuesday in San Diego. She reminisced about her fateful decision to join Garbage and about recording the album, what made the unexpected band gel, and the impact the group’s had on her life and popular culture—both then and now.

I saw in another interview that you guys were looking for archival material for this release, and were having trouble trying to find it.

Oh yeah, just our record labels over the years have basically lost all our content, and nobody really knows where anything is. We did full-camera shoots of gigs and radio performances and TV shows and so on and so forth. It’s just been all lost to the ages, for the most part, along with, artwork, raw materials—you name it. We were originally having a flip out because we couldn’t even find the analog tapes of the first record, and nobody really knew where they were either. [Laughs.] So, you know, welcome to the music industry: They demand that they own all your material and then they just shove it in a cupboard somewhere and forget all about it. It’s frustrating.

You finally did discover the tapes. Where did you end up finding them?

We did. We found them in a mixture of places. Some of them were in London; some of them were at Smart [Studios] in Madison; and some of them were in Los Angeles. Eventually, after a lot of work on our management’s part and my husband’s, our studio engineer, we tracked everything down. But it took months and months and months of detective work, and it was very frustrating and not for the faint of heart [Laughs.]

I was going to say, that’s like the worst scavenger hunt ever.

It’s really maddening, though, you know, when you… I mean, I have enough problems with the way the music industry is run at the best times, but when you realize that a business is being run basically by [people] that squander all their investments, it’s bemusing, you know? It’s just ridiculous.

Considering that what you guys are making is art, basically, and it’s treated so carelessly, it’s a very odd juxtaposition.

It’s treated with contempt, yeah. So, you know, we all got over that that, but it does make me want to send a red alert to all bands, and say, “Be careful with your content.” But then my husband rushed to remind me that that’s not such an issue for people anymore, because it’s all digitally in a library now, whereas back then it was all physical content. So, you know, now everything’s on a computer database somewhere, but our stuff, our shit, is everywhere. [Laughs.]

So when you finally did get everything back, what were your takeaways hearing the songs again fresh 20 years later?

I was really pleasantly surprised at how I think it still sounds pretty contemporary. You know, I think you could play it on modern radio, and it would still stand out, so I was really proud of that fact. I’m heartened by it. I’m proud of the record; I think it’s an interesting debut.

Back then, the music sounded very futuristic to me. Listening to it now, it still feels like that—like it’s a far-off, light years away-type thing.

I do think, looking back— and I cannot take any credit for this, because really this came from the band and specifically Butch—I feel like they had a grasp on [where music] was gonna go. They understood that to make a record that could stand up on its own legs, and compete with the kind of records that Butch had been making, they had to make a record that was very different from the records Butch was famous for producing. And in doing so, I think they created kind of a modern archetype almost for contemporary music.

You know, music changed then— like, all of a sudden it was fine to steal from all different types of genres and marriage them all together in a melting pot. I think that’s what you mean by futurism, you know. It was a very forward-thinking record. I think you could listen to it today and not necessarily think it sounds that edgy, because we’re all used to hearing records now that are a melting pot like that one was. But at the time, that had not really been done before, you know? I think people forget that. It’s like that was unacceptable. [Laughs.]

I think people were very suspicious of us when we first came out with that record, because we were breaking rules that people just did not approve of; they didn’t approve of alt-rock taking elements of pop music and hip-hop and industrial and merging them all together. That was considered really uncool. But we felt that’s what made it unique and exciting, because it hadn’t been done before.

People forget just how dominant guitars were in alternative rock in 1995. Like, keyboards were totally out of fashion. In the late ‘90s, there were people like The Chemical Brothers and, you know, even David Bowie—his stuff did get a lot more electronic and merged genres a lot more. But it wasn’t very common when Garbage started.

No, no, it wasn’t. And it was also frowned upon. You know, people were expected to stay inside their little boxes. People—particularly music journalists— were very keen on having labels, and God forbid that you break out of your box, you know. I think it made people quite uncomfortable. We definitely encountered a lot of cynicism and suspicions… A lot of people accused us of being fake and not real—not for real. It was interesting how we were treated at first, obviously by our detractors.

When you first met everyone in the band, it wasn’t necessarily an instant creative connection. What made you keep plugging away and making things work? Was it kind of the sense that you guys were onto something different? What spurred you on?

We got a kick out of one another. We really liked one another, and we laughed a lot, and we had fun making music together. And I think that’s what made us keep coming back to try and make it work. In the process of doing that, we just, by default, became a band. You know, we started to think the same way we started to just find a rhythm together. We were very fortunate. We really did find a chemistry together. [And] for all our foibles and all our little arguments and squabbles, we still have this strange chemistry when we’re all together that really has endured and works for us. It’s special. I wouldn’t recommend anybody else to try and, you know, form a band across the Atlantic with people you’ve never met before, but in our case we really were fortunate.

Yeah, I mean, you think about that, that’s such a leap of faith. It’s weird! It’s like preposterous.

It is preposterous, that’s such a great word. It was an act of great stupidity, actually. [Laughs.]

It paid off! [Laughs.]

Yeah, it paid off but, you know, on paper it just looks— like you said— preposterous. You have all three older men living in the Midwest, in Wisconsin, and a girl, a strange creature, from Edinburgh, Scotland— we couldn’t have been more different. I mean, we still are very different human beings, but somehow we enjoy each other. It’s cool.

What do you recall most now about making the record? You were in kind of the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin. I imagine it was a little bit of fish out of water.

I was such a freak. I mean, I really was. I didn’t fit in at all. I couldn’t drive, which you being American will understand how difficult that is when you’re living in a Midwestern town that doesn’t have any real significant form of public transport. I had zero money— I mean, I really had zero money, so I couldn’t afford cabs, I had to walk everywhere, and it was either, you know, 100 degrees or it was -20 degrees. And so I really suffered making that record on a physical level. [Laughs.] I associate that first record with gross discomfort physically and, you know, mentally, because I felt very uncomfortable and I didn’t know the band. I mean, I got along with them, but I didn’t know them. I had no friends, no finances, no transport, and I was really very cut off from home because I couldn’t afford to call home, and I barely ate unless I was in the studio with the band. [Laughs.]

I associate it with great discomfort but, you know, it was all part of the crazy ride of it. And I’m so happy that I suffered, because it makes it so much more rewarding when things start going right.

To me, I’ve always thought the album drew its power from espousing the idea that nonconformity was empowering. So when you say these things, it makes sense, then, why a lot of the themes evolved the way they did.

[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, I guess. [reflective pause] It was just the best we could do at the time, and now, looking back, it was enough. And when you’re an unproven artist, you don’t know if what you’re doing is going to have any value whatsoever. You can just follow your own muse, and hope that other people might be as interested in it as you are. [Laughs.]

That’s true. It seems like there might not be as much pressure then, too, because there was no real precedent as a band. I mean, obviously people knew Butch’s work as a producer, but as a band, it was an unproven quantity.

Yeah. I mean, I felt no pressure whatsoever that first record. That was all on Butch, you know? And I know for a fact he was stressed, like, beyond my wildest imaginings, you know, because he had a lot to lose. He had a reputation at stake, so I think he took that first record to heart and worked really hard on it and drove himself into the ground. He hardly ever slept; he was constantly at the studio. It was pretty intense.

How did kind of the making the album really stretch you as a musician and a person?

Well, you know, I was writing for the first time in my life. When they invited me to join the band they said, “You know, we expect you to be a full quarter member of this band. You write, don’t you?” And I instinctively knew that somehow they needed and wanted me to write, so I said, “Yeah, I write! Of course I do!” [Laughs loudly.] And I had never written a word in my life or really ever had the confidence to contribute musically to any recordings I’ve ever been involved in. You know, at the time I could play piano, and I had been a singer in a band and I’d sung with choirs, and I’d played in orchestras, but I had never, ever contributed an idea in any sense whatsoever beyond some backing vocals. I was thrown into a creative melting pot, and I just had to fucking get it together. I just had to; I had no other choice. So I was lucky in that regard: I was just sort of forced into it without having to think about it too much.

Sometimes, though, that’s good, because if you overthink things — I mean, as a writer I know I have this problem. I’ll be staring at a blank document overthinking everything, and nothing will happen. You just let yourself go, and that’s when creativity can actually flow.

Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. If things had turned out any other way, I probably would never, ever be a writer, never ever write a song in my life. By default I’ve been forced into the role, and as such, I was smart enough to understand that this is an incredible opportunity in my life, and I better get my shit together, and I tried, you know? I wanted to try. I was hungry, I wanted a future; I needed a job. I literally had no future when they approached me at all.

Well, and then the record took off. I mean, I remember seeing the video for “Vow,” and it was one of those things that was just really aggressive, and it just really grabbed your attention right away. It seemed like that was the start of everything. So what was that like for you, then, I guess, the rocket ship of attention and everything right away?

I mean, it was thrilling at first, and then it became incredibly intense and mind-blowing. But you’re right—I mean, “Vow” was the first track that blew up for us, and it created and garnered speed so fast it was shocking. I mean, even our record label was caught off guard. We hadn’t even finished the album by the time there was a little sort of storm about us in the U.K., and garnering force in Australia and in North America all at once. So it was crazy and exciting and exhilarating.

Had you guys made this record as a new band in 2015, do you think that it would’ve been received as warmly or would you guys have been able to release it with so little interference?

I mean, as a band, if we came out now, we wouldn’t have a chance in hell. We’d been saying this for the last, God, ten years. There’s no way we would’ve been able to enjoy that level of mainstream exposure for an alternative band. It hadn’t happened before—alternative music had never been in the mainstream up until that point of our first record, not really. I mean, there were other bands that enjoyed that explosion with us, but we were all part of a wave of alt-rock being the mainstream musical choice of radio, TV, media. And it hasn’t really been like that since. Yes, there’s successful alternative bands, but they’re not managing to just completely overtake mainstream media.

That is true. I mean, it seems like because perhaps there are so many bands, it’s hard to get to the same level of success, because there’s so many other people competing for that same level of success.

Yeah, where there’s so much noise and so much access and a different idea every day, and so to maintain any kind of momentum is really difficult for any band. And there’s this obsession by the public to be on top of the brightest, newest, shiniest penny—and, of course, there’s brand new shiny pennies every 30 seconds on the internet. So it’s very hard to garner a lot of following beyond your first record. I mean, there’s always that explosion of a new artist, and they’ll enjoy that crazy run, but then to try and follow that up with a second or a third record is practically unheard of at this point, particularly in alternative rock.

As a fan, it’s really fatiguing because it’s hard to keep up with bands you like and that there just is so much to follow. It’s physically difficult.

It is, it’s truly exhausting. I mean, I used to really know so much about contemporary music, because I was an avid reader of the music press and I really knew my shit. And now it’s too much. I’m just overwhelmed by it. I don’t even see a jumping in point without spending hours and hours and hours of my day trying to figure it all out and give everything a listen. It’s just impossible. I don’t have the time anymore, so it’s just overwhelming.

I feel the same way. It’s kind of like it’s paralysis. I don’t even know where to begin. [Laughs.]

I mean, obviously you ask people that you meet. I’m always asking everybody, “What are you listening to? What excites you?” It’s not that I don’t discover new music, but I certainly don’t have that feeling that I used to have of really knowing what is going on in general, you know. It’s just everything is so heavy with noise. Saturated, you know. Saturation point.

And it’s more of a surface relationship to music, I guess at least personally. I feel like you used to have a lot more of a personal relationship to an artist or a band and their music. I find that’s harder to cultivate now, which is disappointing to me.

Well, it’s interesting— yeah, I think you’re right. We all made deep connections. We were all looking for contact and connections in music, I think, and now it’s become a strange sort of way to define our lifestyles, and I’m not sure people even have the time to make a connection in the same way as we did.

You know, everything moves so fast right now. And I’m sure that will change and this is just how things are right now, but everybody’s moving so fast and ripping through information on their phones and watching movies on their telephones on their way to work and reading books and, you know, between working out and going to work and feeding the children or going on a date or, you know, blah blah blah. It’s just everyone’s doing so much all the time. It’s getting manic! [Laughs.]

It is. For me, I feel like someone’s grabbing my arms and legs and pulling in different directions, if that makes any sense.

Yeah, I mean it’s super intense, isn’t it? And well, I certainly was created pre-internet so, of course, it’s gonna be more peculiar, more intense for someone like myself, because that’s just— the speed at which everything moves now is still quite foreign to me. But I think it’s intense for— you know, I’ve watched some of my friends’ kids and they seem super stressed, too. [Laughs.] I don’t know why I laugh; it’s not funny.

But there’s also great things that come from it, too. I mean, I love the internet, too. There’s so many things I love about it, so… I think it’s just like anything. There’s great things that come from it, and there’s some horror as well, and that’s evolution. That’s how things change and move forward, and we all have to adapt or die.

To wrap up then: Twenty years out, where do you see Garbage’s legacy in popular culture, in music or really anywhere?

You know, I don’t really think too much in terms of legacy, per se. I mean, there’s so many other artists out there who are genius musicians and incredible singers. None of us in Garbage are particularly amazing at what we do, but we’ve managed to garner our forces to make interesting, eclectic-sounding records that are very unique. You know, you hear one of our records— we don’t sound like anybody else out there. And that, I think, is an achievement—to sound different from literally of millions of bands that the world has been exposed to, I think that’s kind of crazy and cool. [Laughs.]

But I do feel in some ways there is a legacy connected to our first record, this debut record, and I wish I could take credit for it, but I really can’t. I had a role in it, a small part in it, I definitely think it would’ve turned out very different had I not been involved, but what I think is our first record’s greatest achievement is it broke down a lot of barriers. And I think that has to be laid at Butch’s feet. He really did create an archetype for a contemporary record and showed the world that you can break down all the boxes, all the cliques and all the genres, and we can make interesting, fresh-sounding music by breaking down the walls.

Butch is a very modest man and he never really talks about himself in any grandiose terms. He’s very humble. But I do think he did something quite extraordinary, as it turns out. I’ve been lucky enough to be along on that ride with him and the rest of the band, too.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Alternative Music Garbage Music Shirley Manson